I run, but not because I am being chased. I run because I want to. My legs are powerful and ache to be put to the test, so I test them. My clothes—olive fatigues patched with stressed leather—make the running easy. I slip through the forest, quiet as a cat. Not that I would know a cat if I heard one. The cats are all dead, either from plague or from being hunted for food during the famines. They’ve been extinct further back than I can remember. But I know they were quiet.
Rafe thinks he will catch me, but he’s been wrong about that too many times to count. It’s not that Rafe is slow or that he’s not capable. It’s that he is arrogant and thinks he deserves to be captain, and he assumes that’s all it takes to earn it. And maybe he would be captain were it not for me. But I am better than him—I have always been better than him, and he knows it. As long as I am alive and able, I will be captain, so it isn’t paranoia when I say that Rafe would like to see me injured or dead.
I hear movement in the forest behind me. The ground is dry, the way it gets before the winter, thirsty for the snow. The snap of brittle pine branches makes for a noisy pursuit. Any root that could trip me, any slick rock I could slip on, I avoid. I even try not to step on the crunchy needle beds, for our ears are attuned to the sound. But Rafe isn’t thinking about these things. He’s thinking he has to be fast if he’s to catch me, and catching me is all he will need to win. That’s Rafe’s fatal flaw—everything is a contest to him; it’s not about survival. To me it’s not a contest. To me it’s life and death.
I come to a clearing and stop. There are trees here with low-hanging branches that look alive and sturdy. Easy to climb. I could keep running, for several klicks at least, but this place is perfect. Sooner or later the chase has to end, and I’d rather it be on my terms, not Rafe’s. So I go to the nearest tree, which happens to be the sturdiest. I only need to test the branch for a millisecond before I can tell it will handle my weight. Then I grab hold and swing my legs up, scissoring the branch to leverage myself into the tree. Beyond that the branches are closer together and the climbing is easy. I climb as quiet as I run.
By the time Rafe enters the clearing, I am at least seven meters above him. Directly above him at a dead drop, by my assessment.
I can tell by the way Rafe freezes that he senses I am near. But he doesn’t look up. Rafe has what my father calls “tunnel vision” in that he gets so focused on what he is after that he doesn’t look for clues, doesn’t read the signs. Not that I left any signs.
I stand stock-still on the branch, Rafe’s head no bigger than a doll’s beneath the toe of my laced leather boot. If I spit, it would land in the part of his oily black hair, which he wears tight and spiky because he thinks it makes him look like a badass. My hair is lighter, “sandy blond” my mother calls it, and I wear it shaggy and loose. I guess it doesn’t make me look like as much of a military badass as Rafe, but the girls like it, and besides, I have not lost a single exercise yet because of my hair. And I don’t intend to start losing today.
Rafe continues to stand alert and unmoving, and I begin to fear that he may break from his usual pattern and look up. If he looks up, I will be trapped in the tree, and he can claim victory. To lose in such a humiliating fashion will result in endless ridicule—not just from the cadets but from the Old Guard as well and even Papa Byrne. Rafe will certainly never shut up about it. That’s just one of the many ways he and I differ. He likes to brag endlessly, and I don’t. It’s not that I don’t think highly of myself. I do. I just don’t run off at the mouth about it every chance I get. My father taught me that. My father and I don’t agree on everything—in fact, we don’t agree on a lot of things—but we agree on that. We let our actions speak for themselves.
But none of this matters because I am not going to let Rafe win.
I reach down to my thigh for a special leather sheath that has been stitched into my well-worn fatigues. I don’t need to look, because I know it’s there, and sure enough I feel the cool, smooth kiss of the wood. I can’t help but smile. I slip the boomerang out of the sheath, feeling the weight of it in my hand. A gift from Papa Byrne. He’s not my actual father, but I often wish that he was. He is the man I want to become, a good soldier and great leader. Papa Byrne sees himself in me and believes that I will one day take his place at the head of our militia. I want nothing more than to prove him right.
He told me the boomerang is a weapon from Australia. I do not think Australia exists anymore, at least not as a nation, and even if it did, I would not go there. I don’t intend to go anywhere outside of Deacon’s Bluff. The bluff is my home, and I will fight for it and maybe even die for it one day. Papa Byrne says it’s only a matter of time. That is why I train, every day, preparing for the inevitable war to come.
If Rafe were more vigilant, he might recognize the sharp, whipping sound of my weapon as I throw it. It spirals in a lazy dance, clipping the low canopy of branches, creating a distraction before returning to my hand with a slap. Rafe tenses and goes for his pistol, which, considering the circumstance, is a cowardly move. I keep this in mind as I drop from the tree, landing directly behind him.
In one move I have Rafe’s throat hooked in the curve of the boomerang. The curve is deadly sharp—I know because I sharpened it. I bet Rafe didn’t know that a boomerang could double as a blade. He knows now.
“You fight like a hostile,” he hisses through gritted teeth.
I pull the boomerang tighter. “You went for your gun,” I say.
“I thought I saw a zombie.”
That’s a lie. Rafe didn’t see a zombie. No one on Deacon’s Bluff has seen a zombie in nearly twenty years. None of us who are under eighteen have ever seen one. Rafe’s lying makes me angry, angrier than I’d be if he just copped to pulling his gun for no good reason. But I rein it in because that’s what a leader does.
“Blow,” I say. Then I push him away before I’m tempted to cut him.
Rafe shoots me a hateful look, practically begging for a scrap. But he knows that I’m not going to give him the satisfaction. The exercise is over, and anything he tries to pull now will be reported as insubordination. He may have the stones to draw his gun when I’m not looking him in the face, but he sure as hell doesn’t have the stones to draw on me now. My eyes tell him in no uncertain terms that I am done messing around. Rafe wises up, puts two fingers in his mouth, and whistles.
We stand there, and he spits on the ground between us, as if the terrain is to blame for his failure. I don’t spit. I don’t waste saliva. There is a rustle of brush as Gunnar steps out into the clearing. Gunnar is big and tall and blonder than me. When he smiles, his teeth are so large they remind me of the clay tiles we keep in the storage bins.
“Neville for the hat trick,” Gunnar says.
I don’t smile. Not yet. Not until it’s official. “Call it,” I say.
Gunnar pulls a stopwatch from his pocket. It’s the old-fashioned kind with a clockface, not the digital kind. Digital is what people were using when the world all went wrong, which is why we don’t trust it. Not that it matters much—most of the digital stopped working years ago. Gunnar clicks the button on the watch, stopping the timer.
“Called! Eight forty-eight! Neville!”
Gunnar’s voice booms through the forest like a cannon. The first cadet to answer the call is Jessup. He skulks into the clearing, a scowl plastered on his rat-like features. I saw a rat when I was very young, so I know what they look like, but they seem to be all gone now too. It’s too bad. Jessup could be their king.
“Seriously?” he whines. Jessup is on Rafe’s team because he and Rafe are best friends, thick as thieves. You’d think he’d get tired of being on the losing team by now, but I guess even rats have their loyalties.
“Like you were some big help!” Rafe is clearly in no mood for Jessup’s crap. The smaller boy wisely keeps his mouth shut, but behind Jessup’s eyes I can see that he is looking for an angle he can work in this losing scenario. I don’t trust Jessup entirely and sometimes wonder if he is secretly the most dangerous of the group. Rafe is the aggressor, but Jessup is the one who has the most to prove, and those are ones you really need to watch out for.
We find the others half a klick away, gathered in the ravine. We hear them before we see them because Devon is yelling. I’d recognize the shrill sound of that voice anywhere.
The yelling is directed at Seth, a boy all skin and bones who has the misfortune of being Devon’s younger brother. The poor kid is stranded atop a high boulder, one of many that make up this vast and treacherous artery of stone. How he got there, I do not know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his fatass of a brother was the one to put him up there in the first place. And now the fatass is pissed because Seth is afraid to jump down and possibly break his ankle.
“Hurry up,” Devon shouts. “They blew the signal five minutes ago!”
“I can’t! It’s too high!”
Immediately my blood begins to boil. Seth is the youngest of us and so far has proven no great shakes as a cadet, but Devon just enjoys bullying him. Devon is the kind of boy that you don’t make a leader, because you know he’s going to be cruel to his subordinates. There are men back at the Fort like Devon, men like Marcus Nagel, but Papa Byrne is too smart to make those men leaders. Papa Byrne is a kind man, but he’s stern and forceful when he needs to be. That’s the sort of leader I aspire to be. I don’t suffer squabbling among my soldiers, and I certainly don’t suffer brother-on-brother cruelty. Which is why I get even angrier when Devon picks up a rock.
His chubby arm is just drawing back when I catch him by the wrist.
“What the hell are you doing?” I shout at him. But I know damn well what he was doing. He was intending to bean his brother with that rock.
“He’s my family; I’m entitled!” Devon’s voice cracks, the child peeking through the bluster. I squeeze his arm, making him whimper. I’ve got a strong grip. He drops the rock.
“On patrol we’re all family,” I say, even but stern, like Papa Byrne would, “and out in the field family don’t squabble. We clear?”
Devon looks in my eyes like he wants to protest further, but then he looks to Rafe and Jessup, his cronies, for support. Their faces give him nothing. Devon is mean, but he’s not an idiot, so he drops the rock.
I go to the foot of the boulder and look up at Seth. He smiles down at me, face spattered with freckles. He’s missing a front tooth—he should have lost the last of his baby teeth years ago. I suspect Devon had something to do with that.
“All right, Seth, it’s not that high,” I call up. “Jump down. If it goes bad, I got you.”
The boy thinks it over for a second, then nods. He takes a breath and steps off of the rock.
He makes the jump just fine.
We take the path back, coming along the shoulder of the southern river. The water is running low now, lower than it was last winter at this time. My father expects the river to dry up altogether eventually, but Papa Byrne thinks he’s just being paranoid. “Paranoid” is a word that gets thrown around the Fort a lot, usually when two parties have cause to argue. But mostly our people wear the word like a badge of honor. Better to be a little paranoid, they say.
I’m pretty paranoid these days, but I’ve got good reason to be. I’m the best cadet on Deacon’s Bluff, and you don’t get to be the best without making a few enemies.
Excerpted from "The Stronghold" by Sebastian Bendix. Copyright © 2017 by Sebastian Bendix. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.