In the second of two free extracts posted on our blog this week, children's author Ruth Eastham shares a sneak peak from her brand-new children's book, The Warrior in the Mist, which is set for release on 7 September. Enjoy!
‘Come on, Centurion!’ Aidan tugged at the rope, leading the horse across the meadow. ‘You need to get to your paddock!’
Aidan looked towards Carrus Woods, at the drilling tower beyond the trees. He felt the morning sun on his face. He should have been at the big anti-fracking demonstration ages ago. His mates Emmi and Jon would already be there, Dad too.
Fracking. Aidan remembered what he’d felt when he’d first read about it. Drilling long shafts deep underground. Blasting water into the shale rock to get the gas out.
He pulled the halter, harder than he’d meant to, and Centurion let out a rumbling snort. ‘Sorry, boy.’ Aidan gave him a hurried pat. ‘Easy.’
Horses whinnied loudly to them from the fence at the far side of the wide meadow. Firefly and Fenland Queen, two of the other horses on the Berryman estate where Aidan’s dad worked.
He felt a pang in his chest. Mum was gone, and soon the horses would be too.
Aidan’s eyes travelled over the brownish grass of the meadow. Light sparked off the water of its shrunken lake. A couple of magpies pecked the drought-cracked ground between gorse bushes. A hare ran across the space.
His mobile phone blared out from his pocket.
‘Where are you, Aidan?’ There were loud noises in the background, as if she was in the middle of a battlefield or something. ‘You need to get here fast. The trucks will be arriving any minute!’
‘You’re missing the action, Aide!’ Jon must have grabbed the phone off her. ‘It’s all turning nasty!’ he said enthusiastically.
‘Some important guy from Enershale is trying to talk to the crowds, but they keep shouting him down. And the press have just rolled up. You’re gonna lose your chance to be on the telly!’
Enershale. That was the big company with plans to do the fracking; what the protest was all about.
And the reason Dad was about to lose his job looking after the horses.
‘Just got to get Centurion in his paddock,’ Aidan told him.
‘He knocked over his food bucket and I had to spend ages … ’
Aidan’s low-battery warning gave a beep.
‘We need you!’ Emmi was back on the line. ‘We’ve got your protest placard here ready and … ’ A harsh honking drowned out her voice, one of those hooter things. The same sound, fainter, came at Aidan from across the woods. He thought about the slogan on his placard as he clicked off his phone:
DON’T TAKE OUR LAND!
‘Let’s go, Centurion!’ It was going to take forever to get all the way across the meadow at this rate. Centurion stamped a front hoof on the ground, looking across at the other horses, impatient to be with them.
Aidan fidgeted with the rope.
There was a faster way.
His heart beat hard. The last time Dad caught him riding Centurion, he’d not been happy. Given him a massive lecture about the horse being too big and headstrong and powerful for him. He’d been so overprotective and stuff since Mum … Aidan swallowed. Since Mum died.
And his dad’s boss, the landowner, Lord James Berryman, wouldn’t take kindly to anyone breaking the rules about riding.
Aidan pulled at his bottom lip. But what did he care about following Berryman’s rules? He was kicking Aidan and his dad off the estate as soon as the fracking started.
My business interests with Enershale have to be my focus from now on. Lord Berryman’s voice spooled through Aidan’s head. And the horse paddocks will be needed for the next phase of operations.
Aidan tried to push away his worries about leaving. He reached up to stroke the horse’s silky nose and felt a rush of hot breath on his fingers. He could control Centurion. He had before, plenty of times, when Dad was off working round the estate. There was no saddle, only the halter, and rope looped into makeshift reins; but still.
He slowly rubbed Centurion’s mahogany neck, talking quietly. The horse’s nostrils flared; his huge dark brown eyes glittered.
Aidan gripped a handful of black mane and vaulted on to his back. He pressed the horse’s flanks lightly with his heels and the animal gave an approving snort and immediately broke into a trot.
The hooter sounded again. Faint shouts could be heard from across the woodland. The waiting horses neighed. Centurion’s ears were laid back flat against his head and Aidan felt the pace increase a touch. He smiled at the feeling of movement rippling under him. Centurion might be past his prime, but he was far from past it!
Seconds passed. Shapes darted overhead; some kind of hawk, hunting down a smaller bird. The other horses were ahead of them, pressed together and skittish.
‘Steady!’ They were cantering now. Aidan leant back on the rope to ease Centurion up a bit, but the horse gave a stubborn toss of the head.
The sun was hot on the back of Aidan’s neck as he crouched forward, gripping tight with his knees. He glanced at the other horses, side by side watching.
Aidan pulled on the rope, trying to regain control. There was the noise of a helicopter approaching – a news team, maybe, heading for the protest – and Centurion’s body tensed. Aidan wrapped the cord around his fist. He pulled harder, the fibres digging into his hands, burning them.
The chopper skimmed overhead; the whirling blades blasting through the air, and Centurion shuddered with a wild energy. The horse put on a surge of speed.
‘Stop!’ Aidan’s heart pounded. Clumps of dry grass were torn up from the ground. The magpies rose into the air, cawing raucously.
The muscles along the horse’s neck quivered. Their merged shadows stretched ahead of them as Centurion raced forward. ‘Stop!’
They approached the lake in the middle of the meadow, hooves slamming against the ground. A line of cloud moved over the sun. Aidan heard Centurion’s sharp breaths; manic whinnying from the horses up ahead.
And then, in mid-gallop, without warning, fire flared up from the surface of the lake.
What the … ?
Two pale blue flames.
Centurion reared with a cry. The rope was wrenched from Aidan’s hands. He clung to the mane as the animal stumbled and swayed. ‘Centurion!’
Aidan lost his grip and was thrown. He slammed on to a gorse bush and rolled, one arm twisting; blurred twigs and thorns scratched his skin. He heard the thud of Centurion hitting the ground; a high-pitched neigh.
Aidan lay face down, chest heaving. The dry grass spiked his face, and he smelt the earthy tang of baked soil. He dragged himself up into a sitting position, then stumbled over to where Centurion was lying and knelt by his head. The horse’s dark eyes were wide, his mouth gnashing hard.
Aidan was vaguely aware of a pain in his arm; the other horses’ alarmed neighs. He saw a front leg, bent awkwardly; a smear of blood.
Centurion was trying to get up.
‘Keep still.’ Aidan stroked the horse’s clammy neck. ‘Don’t move.’ He felt a queasy panic as he thought about what a bad leg injury could mean. If a bone was broken. If the owner, Berryman, found out … What if he had Centurion put down; like Velvet Dancer had been that time?
Aidan stared at the lake. Fire on water? How could that have happened? He scrutinised the surface, but saw nothing more than grey-green wind ripples.
Aidan fumbled to pull his phone from his jeans pocket. His hands were shaking so much it was hard to swipe the screen. It seemed to ring for an age before it was answered.
‘Dad! It’s Centurion!’ The words came out in a garbled rush. ‘He’s hurt!’
‘Didn’t catch that, son.’ Dad sounded distant and there was shouting in the background. ‘Where … you?’ His voice was breaking up and there was a splutter of static. ‘Say … again.’
‘You have to come!’
‘What? … say – ’
The battery cut out.
Aidan turned back to Centurion, smoothing tangles from his mane. For a moment he was torn between going for help and staying to look after the horse.
‘It’ll be OK,’ he whispered. ‘It’ll all be … ’ His voice trailed off.
Those were the same words.
The exact same words Dad had told him, when Mum had first got ill.
And then he was on his feet and running – across the meadow. Sprinting over the parched grass towards Carrus Woods.