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Thrash

Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon hightailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two young children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog: deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.com. Her stories have appeared in Nature's Futures, Cosmos and Daily Science Fiction and The Year's Best SF 18.
That demi winter night, Thrash stood on the passage stone, a hundred meters from the village walls. During the long hours his eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, and when he glanced at the sky the stars were brighter than he'd ever imagined: dazzling, mocking.
The wind's knife cut at his bare chest, flensing flesh to bone. Thrash longed for the warmth of his wool-lined leather coat. But that was a boy's thought. Men did not wear such things.
Hours he'd stood on the passage stone, a lonely figure moonlit against the gleaming tundra. He guessed it was near the chiming hour. Thrash glanced at the village. Every hut had extinguished their home lights. But the soul fires burned on the village walls, as they always did, the light against the Eaters.
The Eaters would come soon.
And he would not run. Even though no heart light offered him protection. He would stay and bargain with the Eaters. He would return to the village as a man. Then he would venture out with the warriors to the Melting Ruins, to fight in the broken places, the creatures that men seldom spoke of.
Thrash would not run when the Eaters came. He was not like his father.
In living memory, Thrash's father was the only boy to fail the test. Afterwards, shamed by his cowardice, his father had left the village. He'd returned years later, bearing Thrash as a babe in his arms. His only other possession was a small, locked wooden box.
So while the men of the village had gathered the Melting Ruins' treasure and glory, or found their place in the honorable after-world, his father had only a locked box and strange stories to mark his years.
Thrash's father had been a coward. A man who'd been mocked, until his death, last year.
Thrash was not his father. He would be strong. He would not run when the Eaters came. He would make the bargain.
He was not his father.
A wolf called, distant in the night. Thrash did not move.
The thought of his father kept him rooted to the passage stone. A box for a life's span. A locked box with a hexagonal keyhole. After Father's death, Thrash had been tempted to smash that box with his mallet. But he had not. After this night, he would put the memory of his father behind him.
And when it seemed that the Eaters would not come. That he was destined to repeat his father's failure, Thrash heard a buzzing sound, wavering through the night. The air throbbed. Then they came, the Eaters.
Thrash had seen pictures on the dark temple walls of the Eaters lit by the flickering, eternal flame. He hadn't realized that was their true shape, wavering in and out of the night air, at times half-immersed in the ground, at times hovering above it. Round as handballs and massive. Green, smooth skinned, a hundred tiny arms running the length of their bodies. And hinged flapping mouths lined with a thousand needle teeth.
"A boy is here," said Ta'kan the Eater.
"A child who would be a man," said Min'kan, his sister.
"I am Thrash, son of Hurt. The men of my village have a pact with you."
"Son of Hurt? But Hurt is a boy's name. Are you the son of a coward?" said Ta'kan.
"I hold you to the pact," shouted Thrash. "I'm here to make the bargain."
"I care not for pacts," said Ta'kan. He rose high into the sky, and then rematerialized very close to the passage stone.
"The fear is strong in you," said Min'kan.
"Yes," said Thrash. "But I will still make the bargain. I would be a man."
"He wants to be a man," said Min'kan. And when she laughed, the sound elicited not fear but disgust in Thrash's heart. The Eaters were not what he expected.
"If he wants to be a man, then I suppose we can eat his fear," said Ta'kan.
"Eat my fear?" asked Thrash.
"Yes," said Min'kan. "That is our bargain. Then you will be strong as the men in the village are strong. And strong like you father was not. Oh, yes. I remember him. He was a coward."
Except, thought Thrash. There is no real courage without fear. Courage is the act despite the fear. The Eaters wanted to take. But was he willing to give? If this was what it was to be a man of the village; he wasn't sure that he wanted part of it.
"Come now," said Min'kan. "We hunger."
His mind racing, his heart beating with fear and with disgust, Thrash's mind's eye opened into true sight. On that demi winter night, Thrash saw a strange thing, a tower, an enormous spire radiating heat and light and magic. And he saw his father walking towards it, with great courage.
Perhaps the men of the village mocked Father, not because they despised him, but because they envied him. Perhaps Father had made the right choice after all.
"Begone, demons," shouted Thrash. "I will not take your bargain." Thrash jumped off the passage stone. In a maelstrom of screams and rage, the Eaters disappeared.
And a small sliver of the tower's magic materialized, because on the night's air Thrash heard his father's voice, a low sound as if coming over distant waters. He heard Father say, "Light Riders."
Light Riders? Thrash had never heard that name before, but it spoke to him.
He ran to the sound of the voice. But Father was not there, only a hexagonal key on a silver chain, lying on the ground that Thrash picked up and tied around his neck where it rested against his fearful, pounding heart.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 24th, 2014


Most of the time, writing for me is a slow business. But just once in a while you get a little beauty like this one, done and dusted in a day. How I wish they were all as easy as "Thrash."

A fair few of my stories explore rites of passage: birth, marriage, approaching death. In Thrash's case the story explores his coming of age ritual. And it's not unheard of for something unexpected to happen to my characters during these life events.

- Deborah Walker

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