Realisation trailed a thorny chill across his neck. Precisely where the lies had begun was still a mystery, but it was clear he had been exploited and exposed as a gullible fool.
“Oh, my dear boy, you aren’t coming back in here,” the guard slurred with a smirk, folding his arms and leaning against the boundary wall.
Jack balled up the anger that had been brewing his entire lonely, rejected, subordinate life and hurled it.
“Why?!” he screamed. “I have been nothing but obedient. Always the skivvy; the one to go without when there’s not enough food to go round; the one minding the stables whilst the families trot off to the fete.” He jabbed at the wall, behind which sat the village where his whole existence had played out, up to this day. “They can’t cope without me!”
Ever since he was found as an abandoned baby by the wall, he had been passed between households like a burden with benefits. For him, the place was full of ungratefulness and misery. But it was all he knew.
The guard snorted and continued to inspect his sword, rubbing every smidgeon of a smudge off his greatest source of pride.
“Was it all a lie?” Jack demanded, though the bile swimming in his stomach surged at the thought of his dread being confirmed. “Was there truly an emergency with Mrs. Whittle’s baby?” A fresh pang of incredulity flickered through his mind. “Is she even pregnant at all?!”
The past twenty-four hours unfolded like a storybook in his mind.
It was coordinated deception beyond comprehension; a corrupt trap to discard of him. The community had clearly decided his unfaltering servitude had reached its expiration date. Or, perhaps, the growing food crisis following a summer drought had reached such levels that the help he could provide was outstripped by the fact that he also required feeding. Whatever their motives, they were certainly not letting him back in.
He cursed his naivety as he looked down at the specialist labour contraption in his hands, which he had successfully acquired from the nearest settlement during a panicked plea. A few hours previous, despite his terror as the light had dimmed and the unforgiving November air had thickened with fog, he had pushed on and risen to his calling as a hero in peasant’s clothing. To spur him on, he had replayed the image of apparent gratitude expressed by the crowd of people who had flocked around Mrs. Whittle as she writhed and moaned in the dusty dirt. Everyone seemed so grateful to be assigning Jack his ultimate duty. He thought it was going to make him; to finally earn him the respect he had chased for eternity.
His silent spiral into despair was interrupted by another voice purring through the frosty air, as the outline of a stooped figure gained clarity through the mist.
“They may need you, but you don’t need them,” it spoke.
“Oh, back in your box, Philpott,” snarled the guard.
Mr. Philpott, the only person to have shown Jack any care and respect, ignored him and addressed Jack.
“You’re ready, Jack. Everything we’ve worked on means you’re better equipped to survive out there than anyone behind these walls. Most of all, the spirit inside of you will see you through.”
Jack stared into the wise eyes that had inspired and grounded him, during candle-lit evenings after he had completed domestic duties then slipped out unnoticed. Mr. Philpott had taught him to read, conspiratorially opening his eyes to a world outside the village by guiding him through manuscripts and tomes. The concepts portrayed through the words were often so abstract that Jack could not decide whether the world really did exist beyond the farmlands and pastures of this seemingly endless landscape, or whether it was all a fantastical fabrication.
Their latest reading during the twilight hours had been of works entitled On the Origin of Species. It outlined an astounding, comprehensive theory of how life worked, countering the belief brandished by many villagers that a God had created everything, moulding the people, livestock and land into perfect complementary entities. Instead, this theory suggested that the natural world today had been formed slowly over many ages. Jack was sure he felt his brain expand with the powerful idea that there was no omnipresent ruler controlling the reins; instead, a series of chance changes in living creatures had caused differences in form. Those forms with less favourable assets succumbed to peril, whilst the strongest survived and produced offspring with the same beneficial features.
“Remember – the world works on chance”, Mr. Philpott spoke again, his pale blue eyes glittering like a glacier.
Despite everything, the mischievous kindness radiating from his mentor and only friend pushed Jack’s face into a lopsided smile. He turned to look at the lane, which ran alongside the entrance to the village and curved out of sight, disappearing into the hedgerows and trees littering the hillside. Beyond the glowing fires of the settlement on the horizon, which had been the destination of his earlier quest, he had no idea what the world had in store. Beasts, beauty, grief, joy…it all lay ahead, if he was brave enough. And if the wisest man for miles around believed in him, then who was he to question?
Locking eyes with Mr. Philpott to convey a thousand silent thanks, Jack rolled back his shoulders and stood tall.
“Then I shall take my chance,” he said with a nod. He swept round, his shabby coat swirling, and began striding slowly.
Through the whipping of the wind and the clumping of his heavy boots, he heard both a snort of disapproval and a cheeky whoop of joy. He decided to listen to only one of them.