Woods Beyond the Walls

Misque Press included my story Woods beyond the Walls in a 2017 issue of Hero and Heroine, an anthology of paranormal, fantasy and science fiction stories. It’s about a boy celebrating his 13th birthday who discovers his ability to perform some tricks is just the beginning of his gaining powerful magical abilities that will make him feared by many. This story became the basis for my next novel Consciousness Rising, which should be published in 2021.

Woods Beyond the Walls

By Alex Binkley

Jake slipped a leg over the ledge of his bedroom window and eased his body outside once the pre-dawn light was bright enough to retrieve the rifle and backpack he had hidden the day before.

He wanted to celebrate his 13th birthday by finally seeing what lay beyond the 15-foot high stone wall that encircled his home and a workshop, barn and corral.

Being quiet was crucial. His room was in-between his parents’ and sisters’ bedrooms on the main floor of their home and their windows were likely open. Grandpa’s room was at the other end of the house while Aunt Gert and Uncle Jon lived in the attic.

Jake’s heart pounded like a drum as he stepped carefully to avoid making any noise. He headed for the workshop where he had spent many hours with his father and uncle. He glanced occasionally to his right at the barn, sending soothing thoughts to quiet the livestock. He wanted to be gone before anyone awoke.

When he neared the workshop, he visualized the pack and rifle where he had stored them behind the old barrels. They floated through the air to him.

Jake had not told anyone about his summoning ability or other tricks. He could start fires and open doors and windows with a simple thought. The sheep and cattle entered and left the barn at his unspoken commands. He especially enjoyed raising a pile of wood into the air and breaking it into stove-sized pieces before dropping it into an orderly stack.

He did not dare attempt any other tricks inside the wall out of fear of being discovered. In old books in Grandpa’s library, he had discovered drawings of people performing all sorts of feats like parting rivers and destroying tall buildings. If he could only read the twisting letters, he could learn how to do these tricks.

He sent the pack and rifle floating over the wall to settle on the ground. He had always wanted to climb it and had been scolded often enough when he had tried. He pressed his hands against the stones and glanced up. It looked one hundred feet tall. Could he actually make it?

He had chosen this spot because enough rock projected from the wall to give him hand and foot holds. He reached up to grip two stones, placed his right foot on another and pushed. Keep moving, he muttered.

The holds became smaller as he crept upwards. He stopped several times to wipe the sweat from his eyes on his sleeve. He told himself not to look down and did not dare glance any higher than the next chunk of stone.

His left hand reached up and felt a flat spot. His right hand joined it and his legs gave an extra push. At last, he shimmied onto the top of the wall. In the mist and dim light, the Torrance forest looked like a black smudge broken in places by the outline of tall trees. He inhaled deeply. To his surprise, the air smelled the same as inside the wall.

Cautiously he stood to gaze in every direction. There was enough sunlight to see that forest encircled his home. A wide strip of grassland separated the wall from the trees.

 Thoughts tumbled through Jake’s brain as he wondered in which direction to head. Would the rest of the outside world really resemble the forests, rivers, bridges, roads, cities, towns and people with different colored skin depicted in Grandpa’s books? How about the mechanical devices that rode on the rivers or flew like birds.

When Jake glanced down at his pack and rifle, he noticed the outer wall was smoother with few holds for his hands and feet. One slip and he would fall. He crept along the top until he found what looked like the best place to descend. He swung his legs over, placed one hand on a stone and lowered himself.

Just before his feet reached the ground, the left one snagged on a ledge. He moved the foot back and forth. While the ledge was wide enough for the toes of both boots to fit in, he could think of no reason for it to be there. He had never seen one on the inside of the wall.

After dropping to the ground, he straightened and snapped his fingers. A glowing ball of light appeared revealing a huge, jagged-edged gouge in the wall. It would take a lot of blows with a sledge hammer to dislodge so much mortar and stone. Jake felt about in the flattened grass until he found rocks from the wall. They had no traces of mortar on them.

He stared at the hole that should not be there and spotted several more gouges in either direction. He picked up his backpack and rifle and walked along the wall, surprised by the number of fresh mortar patches. A couple of spots awaited repair.

Even when Mum and Dad find I’m gone, they’ll check with Uncle Jon and Grandpa before they start looking for me so that’ll give me more time.

As he continued his inspection, Jake noticed the forest halted about one hundred yards from the wall. His father and uncle harvested the lush grass that grew in the meadow to feed the livestock during the winter.

Jake spotted an opening at the edge of the forest. Where does it lead?

Whenever he had asked about what lay beyond the wall, his parents and Grandpa said they would tell him when he was older. They had forbidden him from venturing outside the compound because the forest harbored too many dangerous creatures.

Jon would not tell him anything. Just mentioning the outside world made Aunt Gert sad.

Jake faced an immediate choice—keep checking the wall or head for the woods. He had come to explore. He extinguished the light and let his eyes adjust to the low light before walking across the grass to the opening. It was the start of a trail that meandered off among the trees. It was several strides wide, not the footpath he had imagined as he approached the forest.

He inhaled deeply and took his first step into the gloom created by the thick canopy of leaf-covered tree branches. He shuddered at the thought of how dark it would be in here on a moonless night.

Many different bird calls rang through the woods. He wondered if they were normal sounds or a warning about the presence of an intruder in the forest.

As his sight adjusted to the gloom, it came to him the forest would be a perfect place to attempt new tricks. What if I could see or hear better. With those thoughts, the forest became bright enough to distinguish individual trees and boulders. The bird calls were deafening.

Like the other tricks, he just had to think about what he wanted to do and it happened. He counted his steps so he knew how far he had traveled. He kept peering about utterly unsure of what to make of his surroundings. There were so many different kinds of trees; some were thick, others were thin and many were broken or bent.

He glanced at the surface of trail and was surprised by how marked up it was. He bent down for a closer look. Lines about a hand width across and marked with regular indentations stretched as far as he could see. He remembered pictures of vehicles in Grandpa’s books and the tires on them. Where could have one been headed for on this trail other than to his home? He had never heard one.

Just as puzzling were the different paw prints crossing the trail. He only recognized the marks of sheep, dogs and cats. He took several steps and spotted six that were new to him. A couple were large with pronounced toes. Then there were completely round ones set deeper in the dirt. Jake could not imagine what beast could be heavy enough to make such a depression.

His father and uncle’s warnings about the dangerous animals in the woods chewed at his confidence and he slipped off the safety on the rifle.

Birds flitted about and squirrels scampered up trees at his approach. Well past 200 steps, something stirred in the brush. He raised the rifle and stepped off the trail to hide behind a tree.

A light brown head peeked out from bushes. Jake was downwind from the animal and it eased from its coverage followed by two young. It had to be a doe with two fawns. He watched intently as he had never seen wild animals. The deer stepped onto the trail, her ears raised to catch any sounds.

Jake thought about the deer as he did the sheep and cattle. The doe stepped toward him, her head bobbing up and down as she looked at him. The fawns stood beside her. They no longer feared him. In time they would come up to him.

A loud screech caused the doe to flip up her tail and dash into the underbrush followed by her young. The screech rang through the forest again. As Jake thought about what could make such a racket, a large bird flew up the trail coming from deeper in the forest. The tips of its wing were almost brushing the foliage.

The bird, which Jake guessed was an eagle, landed just past him and pulled its wings against its sides. It walked back to where Jake stood ready to cover his ears against another screech. Instead the bird mewled and tilted its head from side to side while looking at him. The forest remained silent.

Jake stepped toward the eagle wondering if attracting wildlife was another of his tricks. If it was, there had to be a purpose to it. Up close, an eagle did not look like a good pet, especially with the long, pointed talons.

 A branch snapped. A snout with two nasty-looking tusks appeared. The eagle screeched a warning and spread its wings. A black boar grunted and charged at Jake. The eagle flapped into the air with a deafening screech before landing on the boar’s back. It tried to dig its talons into the beast and chop at it with its pointed beak. The boar took no notice as it focused on Jake.

He aimed the rifle at the animal’s head and gently squeezed the trigger as Jon had shown him. The discharge boomed through the forest punctuated by the whine of the bullet ricocheting off the boar and several trees. It shouldn’t have bounced like that.

The boar fell over, twitched for a couple of minutes and stilled. The eagle continued to hack at it. Jake stepped toward the beast, his rifle pointed at. No blood pooled around it. What kind of animal doesn’t bleed? The eagle’s talons should have ripped it open.

The bullet had struck just above its eyes. Instead of puncturing the skin and creating a huge hole, it had crumpled the animal’s forehead. He stepped cautiously around the boar, rifle at the ready. He considered pulling out his knife to slice the animal open as Jon had shown him. However the blade was unlikely to have any more effect than the eagle’s talons.

The eagle mewled at him, and then looked down the trail in the direction of his home. Staring at the bird, Jake understood something was following him. Could it be another boar? He stepped back when the bird spread its wings and headed along the trail deeper into the forest. With a glance at the inert boar, Jake hurried after it.

The eagle was almost out of sight when a shimmering flame erupted, snapping and hissing. Reaching ten feet into the air, it created a barrier across the trail and into the forest as far as he could see in either direction.

When Jake’s heart stopped racing, he hoped the eagle was well clear of the flame. He picked up a large branch, moved as close to the light as he dared and pitched it with both arms. The branch flared and disappeared. He picked up a rock and hurled it as hard as he could. The rock, like the branch, didn’t burn or pass over the fire; it flashed out of existence. He would not be going any farther as long as the barrier was there unless he could find a way around it.

He headed to his left. With every step more of it came to life. It had to be reacting to his presence. The stone wall had fenced him in and now this barrier of flame did. Was there a connection between them?

“The barrier comes on if one of us approaches.” His father’s soft voice, coming from behind, startled Jake. “It’s meant to contain Grandpa. And you, it seems.” His father was breathing deeply as if he had run up the trail in pursuit. “Step back from it.”

As Jake stepped toward his father, the flame disappeared.

“Stay here.” His father walked along the trail to where the flame had been. Nothing happened. “It only reacts to the presence of magic. Grandpa wants to know how it senses magic.”

Jake shook his head. “How did you know I was here?”

“It wasn’t hard to follow your steps and I heard the gun discharge. Grandpa had tracked you since you summoned your pack and rifle. However, he didn’t tell us you’d gone over the wall until your mother asked.”

His father placed his hands on Jake’s shoulder. “Grandpa was exiled to our residence because he possesses great magic. He can do many of the feats you would have seen in his books.”

“Will I be able to do them?”

Jake’s father hummed and hawed. “You’ll come into powers far greater than his. Your tricks are an inkling of those abilities. It’s a big world out there and important people are frightened of magic, especially the kind of power you’ll possess. We didn’t let you outside the wall because the boars are programmed to attack any of us who enter the forest.”

The eagle’s screech as it flew up the trail drowned out his father’s words. Jake raised his gun, certain the giant bird was warning him more boars approached.

“Grandpa can’t attract wildlife,” his father said as the eagle landed on the trail. “You must convince the eagle to visit us at home. Let’s inspect your boar.”

Jake’s head swirled with ideas until they reached the still inert animal. “What should we do with it?”

“Although it’s an excellent copy of a boar, surely you’ve figured out by now it’s a machine.” His father laughed. He poked the tail with his rifle and it sprang back and forth. “This is the antenna. Jon thinks they eat the mortar in the wall because there’s something wrong with their energy source. We can take it apart and find out.”

His father put down his rifle and rolled the boar over to study the head. “Your shot must have collapsed its head enough to cause a short circuit in its operating system and it shut down.”

“What are antennas, short circuits and operating systems?”

His father raised his hand to forestall further questions while he pulled a small device from a pocket inside his jacket and held it up to his mouth. “Hey Jon. Jake has a trophy for you and Dad, but we need a vehicle to haul it into the compound. It’s totally shut down. We’ll wait for you.”

Animals that are machines. Boxes that talk over long distances. What else have they kept from me?

His father put his arm around Jake. “You’re a lot like Grandpa. He agreed to exile in the compound to protect Jon and me from being killed as we had no magic to defend ourselves. Your dear mother came with us. We knew a few months after your birth that you could eclipse Grandpa if we protected you until you’re ready. You’ve grown up faster than we wanted.”

“Where does Aunt Gert come from?”

“She had been sentenced to death because of her talents. Magic is a crime in the outside world. Grandpa gained clemency for her to marry Jon because we could control her.”

They sat listening to the truck’s approach. Jake stared at the boar.

“They didn’t appear until we moved here,” his father said. “Jon found a broken down one when you were a baby. That’s when we learned it was a machine.”

“What’s on the other side of the barrier?”

“More forest. It would take days, even with a motorized vehicle, to reach the nearest settlement. You wouldn’t be welcome if people knew what you are.”

“Do I look different?”

“Too often, Grandpa would become offended by conditions in the outside world and in his anger, lose control of his magic and cause all sorts of turmoil. If you can master yours, which he never has, no one could tell you’re a wizard.”

“If Grandpa couldn’t, how will I?”

“We’ll work on that.”

Jon waved a greeting and steered the truck beside the boar. “Would you load it, Jake?”

He stared at his uncle. “I can’t lift that by myself.”

“Didn’t mean the way your father and I would.”

Jake hesitated and then imagined the beast in the back of the truck.

“Easier than doing the firewood?” Jon laughed as the beast thumped down in the vehicle.

Jake imagined himself standing with one leg on the boar like the drawing of the knight that had slain the dragon. In a flash, he was there.

He glanced at a tree and flew to thick branch. As he sat there, the eagle landed and mewled at him.

Jake floated down from the tree to land beside his father and uncle.

“Happy birthday son.”

“It’s been pretty good so far.” Jake leaned into his father to deliver an unspoken thank you.

After a final one arm hug, his father removed his arm. “Grandpa and the rest of us will start answering your questions. You can disassemble the boar with Jon.”

Jake shook his head, thinking about all he had to learn.

“You need to spend the next few years learning about technology and people,” his Dad said. “The first part is really interesting. People are harder because you have to understand them for what they are and not just what they say and do.”

His father hesitated before nudging Jake toward the cab of the truck. “While we expected you would go exploring one day, we knew you couldn’t get past the barrier yet. The day will come when you can.

“I want to be there when you take it down.”