Excerpt: Ella, The Slayer

Excerpt: Ella, The Slayer

Book 1: Serenity House

Somerset, England. Summer, 1919.

I dream of a time when there was only one type of death.

Mother died when I was ten years old. We buried her and packed away her clothing. Father and I mourned the empty space in our souls and at our table. Back then death only had one meaning: your life snuffed out, never to rekindle.

After the Great War, we learned of a new type of death in the form of returned soldiers with fragmented minds. Doctors call it shell shock. Unable to grasp the horrors they saw or the deprivations they suffered, their chests rise and fall, but they have blank eyes—the windows to their souls have shattered, leaving thousands of shards that cannot be pieced together again. They follow the routine of their pre-war lives, but there is no spark within them.

Then there are those who hover even closer to death—like father. Doctors removed the shrapnel in his head, but it left him with an irrecoverable brain injury. He sits in his chair by the window and drools out one side of his mouth. Some say he would have been better off dead, and in my heart, I wish he had joined mother. Every night, my last wish before sleep claims me is that father either return to us or finds eternal peace.

Just as the nation planned armistice celebrations after the war came the most devastating attack. The flu pandemic of 1918 struck and in just a few short weeks from September to December, millions of people died. We all pulled together to nurse the sick and bury the fallen.

Except it wasn’t the flu.

And they didn’t stay dead.

* * *

The table bounced under my cheek and jarred me back to full awareness. I opened my eyes to confront a full coal scuttle resting on the table next to me.

“She’s at it again,” Alice, the upstairs maid, said. She rolled her amber eyes upward to the parlour above our heads, and then wiped her hands on the starched apron around her neck. Her white mobcap kept her dark curls under control, and a frown marred her pale brow.

“What is it this time?” I tucked away dreams of golden days and returned to cold reality. My cap pitched to an angle and I righted it, shoving stray blonde hair back underneath. No doubt the she in question was Step-mother: Elizabeth, Lady Jeffrey and wife of Sir Jeffrey. My step-sisters, Louise and Charlotte, were referred to collectively as them. And I had to stop referring to them as my step-relations; the lady of the house would flog the skin from my hide if she caught that familiarity passing my lips. She might have been married to my father, but she was quick to point out my status as the daughter of a servant.

Alice poured herself a glass of water and took a quick drink. Only eight in the morning and we had both been working for over two hours already. We had cleaned the house from top to bottom and laid fires that should sit unused in the middle of summer. The lady thought it kept us from being idle if she lit one throughout the year. With the warmer weather we laboured in a hothouse and sweat made our uniforms stick to our backs. Thank goodness father’s home had only eight fireplaces. Imagine if we possessed a grander home with thirty or more!

Alice put her hands on her hips. “The coal is dirty and apparently it’s throwing dust on her clothes.”

“And what are we do to about dirty coal?” I dreaded asking the question, any answer would mean more work.

“She wants it cleaned.”

I sighed and scrubbed my hands over my face. At just seventeen, I was responsible for holding the estate together. England lost the flower of her youth on the battlefields of Europe. Their jobs were either left vacant or women stepped in. We were fortunate in that the small house and plot of land need only a skeleton staff to operate. And that is what we were becoming—skeletons. The life and flesh plucked from our limbs by her constant irrational demands. We had to maintain the perimeter defences to ensure the vermin didn’t turn our slumber into something more permanent, but she wanted to waste my time polishing the coal.

“I’ll deal with it.” I stood from the table and brushed my hands down my apron. “Let’s just dump the coal in the old bath by the stables and sluice it through the water. Then tip it out and let it dry in the sun.”

Alice beamed. “You are so clever. Not like them.”

“Come on, may as well get started before she screams for something else.” I picked up the heavy bucket. “I still need to find time to ride the fences.”

It didn’t take long for us to wash the coal and scatter it on the cobbles to dry. Step-mother’s task was a fool’s errand when there were so many actual jobs to accomplish during the day.

Henry appeared in the barn doorway and led my mare across the cobbles. He rarely spoke, but his sorrowful eyes saw everything. Once, he was my boisterous friend and co-conspirator in childhood escapades. He dreamed of being a footman in a grand house. I still remember his excitement when he hit five foot seven, the minimum height for work upstairs. He had turned cartwheels in the yard and startled all the chickens. Back then, he always had a quick joke or smile for me. But part of him died in Europe and his laughter fell silent. At night, he cried out in his room above the stables. Sometimes he screamed; that sound was worse than the silence.

He went about his tasks quietly, checking the girth with a gentle hand, instinctively knowing what needed to be done. I wished we could reach him, but he remained locked deep inside his exterior shell.

What I would give to see Henry smile, or to hear father’s voice again.

I took the reins and laid one hand on his arm. “Thank you, Henry.”

He was so lost. Alice and I tried to touch him often, to remind him he stood amongst the living in Somerset, and not on some desolate killing field surrounded by the bodies of his fellow soldiers. I kept my gaze on his face until he lifted his head and returned my stare. The tiny crinkle of his lips signalled he saw me and not whatever horror he relived in his mind.

Too few men had made it home. Those who returned from war faced a new battle in the grounds of their homes from the shambling dead created by the flu pandemic. Except it wasn’t influenza. Doctors and scientists still can’t agree what it was or where it came from. Some called it Spanish flu, but it didn’t originate there. The War Office suppressed word of the initial outbreak so as not to dampen morale—arrogant fools. We were ignorant when it hit, and completely unprepared.

We mourned like so many villages and buried our dead—except they came back.

It took weeks to realise the new danger. Grieving people embraced the returned souls. We were horrified to think that the living had been confined to the earth still breathing. We thought they did not speak because of the horrors they had suffered, like the soldiers with shell shock. Imagine being buried alive, the dead and earth pressing on you. Except they came back for a reason: us.

Those attacked were infected and over a period of days, they sickened and died. Only to turn and suffer the same horrible fate. There were those who couldn’t bear to exterminate the flu victims, who couldn’t comprehend they were no longer living. They hid them in their homes, certain that with time they could be cured. Until they too were bitten and became the same mindless, violent shells. It was a horrible cycle that needed to be broken.

The mare bumped against my arm, breaking my train of thought, and I reached out to scratch her neck. I leaned into her for a moment, inhaling the unique scent of horse that meant both companionship and freedom.

Alice emerged from the kitchen with my katana in hand. Father had brought the sword back from Japan as a curiosity, an object to hang on the wall. Now it was a part of me. I seldom ventured forth without its protection. I may have been born a girl, but father raised me as well as any son. Fencing and shooting were part of my daily lessons, and I thanked him for it because post-pandemic, they became valuable survival skills.

Foot in the stirrup, I swung myself into the saddle and settled the sword against my back.

“I don’t know how you can do it. So many used to be our friends. Do you remember Mrs. Bridges who lived down the lane and always had a smile and ginger cookies for us?” A shudder ran over Alice and she rubbed her hands over her arms to dispel it.

“I don’t think of them like that. It’s too painful,” I whispered. We call them vermin because it helps to forget what they once were. Vermin spread disease, like the rats who carried Black Death into every village. Technically it was the fleas on the rats, but the analogy suits my mind. The virus burned around the globe in a matter of weeks and then disappeared, thank God. But it lingers in the vermin who continue to transmit the disease through their bite.

“Please be careful. You know I will worry until you return,” she said.

“I promise.” A tap of my heel against her side and the mare trotted off, leading us out over the paddock.

A line of barbed wire marched into the distance and enclosed our fifty acres. Not much land, but enough to maintain the sheep and cattle to keep us fed. The rest of the estate was leased out to other farmers. I wondered how long before Step-mother carved it up and sold it off. Their expensive dresses from Paris didn’t materialise on their own; she needed the ready cash to pay for them.

We passed a copse of beech when a sway on the wire made me sit up straight. It had the pull and tug of something bigger than a line blowing in the wind. The mare whinnied and tossed her head. I scratched her wither as I scanned up ahead.

“It’s all right girl, I won’t let it get you.” We dropped to a walk and followed the fence, dodging stray trees and clumps of spent daffodils.

At first glance it looked like someone had dumped a pile of laundry. The shape clung low to the ground. This one had tried to go under. Thankfully, Henry had suggested bottom wires. A few hastily drawn pictures on a sheet of paper had saved us in our sleep.

The mare halted and stood her ground, so I took the hint and dismounted. “Easy girl.” I gave her a scratch and looped the reins over her head to let her graze. We learned together, the horse and I, and over the months we came to an agreement. She was a solid wee thing and wouldn’t spook or run away, as long as I let her keep her distance from the creatures that smelt bad.

I pulled the red-spotted handkerchief around my neck up and covered my mouth and nose. The linen over my face would stop any stray droplets or splatter finding its way into my stomach or lungs. While a bite from a vermin would infect you within a matter of days, it didn’t pay to breathe in their blood either. Ingesting their poisoned fluids made you sick enough to wish you could die. I had no proof, but I didn’t want to find out if inhaling could turn a person. Vermin tended not to say if they became that way by bite or breath.

This one had once been male and looked as though it had died in the first pandemic wave nine months ago. A few drops of lavender oil on the cloth around my face helped hold back the stench. I lost count of how many times I had vomited in those first few days, but I couldn’t afford the distraction of those precious minutes spent staring at the ground while my breakfast came back up. Looking away gave them an opportunity to attack while you were weak, so I schooled my stomach to obey. Vermin hunted us, but time ate at them. Without the spark of life to animate their bodies, they rotted on their feet. When the initial air-borne pandemic burned out, the turned now needed to bite and tear at our living forms to continue the spread of the disease.

Maggots burrowed through this one’s dead flesh; their tiny, writhing, white bodies filled a hollow in his leg. The hair had peeled away from the scalp, and the bone was coated in dirt and mud as though he had tried to disguise his baldness by painting on hair. Very little flesh clung to his form and the white showed through where skin and bone had parted company. Tendons moved as he flexed and struggled against the barbwire digging into his back. A loop had caught around exposed vertebra and pulled him to a stop. The more he struggled, the more entangled in the fence he became.

I took a moment to examine his build and clothing for anything that might identify him. What was left of his face triggered no recognition, so I would need to record his physical description in my notebook—my heavy record of vermin and the people they had once been. I had learned to look past the rotting flaps of skin hanging from exposed bone. My eyes took in face shape; the curve of a jaw and the arch of a brow could reconstruct an image in my mind.

He stilled as my feet appeared in his vision. How did they even see without a functioning brain? Another question for the scientists to answer. I heard they held vermin captive in laboratories, trying to discern their secrets. Perhaps they thought the dead would make better soldiers; they would keep moving forward no matter how many bullets they took.

My blade sang on the morning air as I pulled the katana free. The creature panicked, thrashing and struggling to pull away from the wire. A high-pitched moan came from his damaged throat and startled the mare. Fortunately, she just moved farther away. Chunks of flesh flew as he flailed his arms. Blank eyes fixed on my face. I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t recognise this one, so at least I didn’t have to dispatch one of our own. How far the vermin travelled would worry me later, when I had time to ponder their actions as I waited for sleep to claim me.

I held my ground and waited until the head turned away from me. One blow severed tendons and bones. The head rolled a short distance and came to a stop. Like chickens, the bodies took some time to realise the head was gone. He continued his efforts to struggle free. Fingers clawed at the ground as though he sought something. Perhaps his head?

I watched the second hand on my watch. This one took two minutes to still while I filled out an entry in my notebook. Then I tucked it back in the saddlebag while I performed the rest of my vermin disposal ritual. First I cleaned my blade with a lightly oiled cloth, a rule father drilled into me from early on: care for your blade. I took the small bottle of petrol and doused the body, then struck a match and tossed it on. The fuel ignited with a soft whump, and I turned my face from the wave of heat. Once the body was well ablaze, I kicked the head over to re-join it. I always waited in case they could reattach their heads. Just because we hadn’t seen it yet didn’t mean it was impossible.

I kept the scented handkerchief over my mouth and nose. I had no desire to inhale the sickly sweet odour of skin and hair succumbing to flames. The fire would burn out and die down quickly. The surrounding green grass would ensure it didn’t spread, and the posts were far enough apart we didn’t have to worry about compromising the fence. Still, once it cooled off I would send Henry back out to remove anything that remained and check the integrity of the wires. I hated sending him, sure that it must revive the horrors of the trench for him. If time allowed, I would finish the gruesome task myself, but I never knew what Step-mother would decide needed my attention. The fence needed to be checked before night fell, but she might demand I crimp her hair instead. Henry would undertake the job and never complain, but he would cry again that night.

I walked back to the mare, picked up the reins, and swung up into the saddle. “Come on, girl, nothing more to see here.”