Extract: The Orphanage of Gods
By Helena Coggan
Posted on December 12, 2018 in Extract, Fantasy, Young Adult with tags
We can’t wait to get our hands on the incredibly imaginative and thrilling new fantasy novel by Helena Coggan, The Orphanage of Gods.
Set in a world where humans have almost wiped out the gods in a bloody revolution, children are imprisoned in an orphanage, tested and watched by ruthless Guards to see if they show any signs of divine power. Any children that do seem to vanish from their beds, all knowledge of their existence denied. No one has ever escaped the orphanage . . . until now.
This is a brilliant, fast-paced adventure that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Read an extract from the first chapter here:
Chapter One: Lightning
It’s raining. We’re sitting in an empty tavern by the side of the road. The windows are dark, the torches snuffed out. Joshua looks very tense. He’s tapping the wooden table, duh-dum, duh-dum over the thrum of the rain on the corrugated roof. He’s staring out of the window, his eyes glazed.
‘Calm down,’ I tell him.
He nods jerkily. His hands are clenched into fists, knuckles pale against the polished wood. They keep tapping, like they’re not a part of him. Duh-dum, duh-dum.
He saw this coming an hour ago. I don’t know what else he saw with it. He never talks much about the premonitions. We were walking beside the road, silent in the thinning dark, and suddenly he stopped dead, the colour draining from his face as his eyes glazed over. I stood and watched him in the rain until it was done.
He swallowed and looked up at me. He tried to hide the terror on his face, but I could see it.
‘Patrol car,’ was all he said, just that, though I knew by his face he must have seen more.
So we came in here and sat down and waited.
I don’t want to ask him for details, but still I burn with anxiety, sitting in the darkened tavern. Was it only a patrol car he saw? A flash of sirens and tyres, a sense of dangerous proximity? Or was it something else, something darker? Us standing handcuffed against a car window in the darkened rain, pistols pressed to our heads, the Guard yelling into our faces? Silver blood dripping into the mud? Would he tell me if he’d seen that? Would I want him to?
I close my eyes and lean back in the hard wooden chair. I can feel myself tensing up again and I try to make myself relax. If I can’t do it, he won’t be able to either.
We’ve never been found by a patrol car before, but I know it only takes once. It’s Joshua who’s the problem. He just looks more like a god than I do. It’s not just his blood – we can hide that easily enough. It’s his height, his beauty, his nervousness. His general aura of awkwardness, of always being in the wrong place. The way lights seem to brighten ever so slightly when he walks into a room. Any one of those things might not be enough to give him away. All of them together, that starts to set off alarms.
It used to be Kestrel’s job to shut them off. To hide him, to keep him safe. But now she’s gone, and I’m not as good at it as she was. She’d never have let—
Joshua stops tapping suddenly and stares out of the darkened window. Then I hear it. Over the drilling of the wind and rain. Tyres.
He turns and looks at me.
‘Now,’ I tell him, and he nods. The last dregs of light in the room gather on his fingertips, bright as candlelight, and I have a last vision of his face in the chalky glow, drawn and frightened. I ache to go to him, comfort him, but I can’t, we’re not children anymore. He has to do what must be done, and he can’t with my voice in his ear, telling him it’s all going to be all right. It won’t be. He has to understand that.
The light goes out, and then there’s only darkness, thick and black and breathless. I can’t even see his hands on the table.
He whispers, ‘What now?’
‘If I need to, I can—’
‘I know what you can do.’ My mind is thrumming, strung taut like violin wire, the cold metal press of a knife against my throat. ‘Don’t. Not yet.’
He doesn’t say anything.
I just hear his hoarse breathing through the blackness.
The tyres come closer. Screeching through the dark towards us. The road is deserted; it’s the middle of the night. I can feel Joshua beside me, itching to take the glow from their headlights and send them careening into the brush. But then more of them will come, and they can drive here faster than we can get away on foot. We have to stay.
We wait. The tyres slow down and then stop. Right outside the tavern, by the sound of it. They know, they know there’s someone in here. I hear Joshua realise it a second after I do, his breath hitching in his throat.
We stay very still, listening, like rabbits crouched in the dark. Outside the wind pushes the hammering rain harder against the windows. We hear the slams of car doors. Voices, harsh and unintelligible.
Then someone shouts, clearly over the rain, ‘Come out with your hands up!’
We are completely motionless. I can’t breathe.
‘Come out! Come out with your hands—’
Joshua makes a sudden movement like he’s about to get up.
‘Don’t.’ The sharpness in my voice surprises me, the sudden authority.
I hear him stop. Very still in the blackness. I wonder what he’s seeing through the dark. Can he see my face?
‘We have a plan.’ ‘It’s a stupid plan.’
‘No it isn’t. Calm down.’
‘Come out with your hands up!’ shouts the voice. A man’s, deep and rough. The rain is driving harder now. There’s a bang on the door. ‘Come out or I’ll break this thing down!’
‘I have to go out there.’
It’s Joshua who says it, not me. I get to my feet, steadying myself against the table. Everything is dark. I can’t see him.
‘Don’t. We planned for this.’ ‘If I go—’
‘Then you die.’
There’s a note of petulance in his voice, beneath the hard ferocity. ‘I don’t care. I’ll kill them too.’
Another bang on the door. ‘Come out!’ He howls it over the wind. ‘Come out or I’ll drag you out!’
Joshua makes a sudden movement again, and I say, ‘She’d kill you for doing something this stupid.’
I hear him turn towards me, on the other side of the table.
Feel his eyes on me. He knows I mean Kestrel.
I take a step forward, and he doesn’t move to stop me. I have hit the right nerve. I don’t let my relief show in my jagged breathing.
I walk towards the outline of faint light that marks the tavern door, trying not to trip over chair legs or loose floorboards in the dark. I will do this with dignity.
Another bang on the door. ‘Come out!’
I take a deep breath.
‘I’m coming, I’m coming!’
The banging stops. They’re waiting for me. I can feel a light behind me, soft and white and low, and I turn to see Joshua’s face, cowled by the darkness, ghostly in the light from his fingertips. He writes in the air with his finger, leaving a scorched glow that lasts only for a moment before fading, long enough for me to read it.
It says, If they hurt you, I’ll kill them.
I hold his eyes and nod. What I’m thinking is: if they hurt me, they will kill me. The Guard don’t do things by halves. And after that it doesn’t matter what happens, really, because once I’m dead so is Joshua. He can’t survive for long without me there. Sooner or later he’ll snap and do something stupid and then he’ll get caught and he’ll die.
I turn away from him, back to the door. Behind me, the light goes out. I hear him sink to the floor, under the table. I take another breath, gathering all my courage in a closed fist. I open the door.
For a moment I don’t recognise them. Six figures standing in the mud, their grey shirts black with rain. Their battered metal car, smoke still rising from the exhaust. The gas lamps in their hands. The letters engraved on the side in fading paint. I can’t make out what it says, but I don’t need to, I already know. Guardsmen.
I thought we’d escaped them when we escaped the orphanage. But no, of course, here they are again. How could I have been so naive? You can never escape the Guard. Panic rises in my throat.
The one who was knocking on the door is pointing a rifle into my face. He lowers it when he sees me. The road behind them is deserted and beyond that the cloudy sky stretches over the black hills to nothing.
‘Who are you?’ says the one with the rifle, the one who shouted.
We prepared this. I feel their eyes on me like the burn of cigarettes on my skin. I know they have more guns than I can see.
‘Jessica,’ I say. ‘Jessica Markham.’
‘What are you doing out here in the middle of the night, Jessica Markham?’
I can feel my heart struggling against my ribs. I try to make my voice break, to sound as scared as I feel. ‘I’m running away.’
I feel their gazes sharpen. ‘From what?’
‘Oh yes? And what have they done to you?’
‘I want out.’ My voice trembles. ‘I’m sick of their crap, I’m an adult, I’m leaving—’
‘Who are your parents, Jessica?’
A dark-eyed man near the back says it. He watches me, his face impassive. I know he’s trying to read me, and I show him only angst and fear and resentment. But as I open my mouth to speak, the names Joshua and I prepared all those weeks ago vanish from my mind. Who are your parents, Jessica? Who are—
Panic beats in me again, under my heart. A too-long silence. I can feel them watching me.
‘Let’s get on with it,’ says the older Guardsman near the front, roughly. ‘Hold out your arm, girl.’
I hesitate. This time he puts his hand on his gun quite deliberately, making sure I see.
‘Hold out your arm, I said.’
I let the silence stretch for just a moment, and then hold out my arm. The Guardsman takes a knife from his pocket and advances towards me, his eyes glinting.
And suddenly I feel my heart jolt, the dregs of my panic swirling sickeningly in my stomach. The plan Joshua and I devised only worked if we were captured in the dark. If it were daylight, if I were standing in the headlights, if they had starlight, we’d be in trouble. But it’s two o’clock in the morning, pitch black, there’s no reason our plan shouldn’t work. My heart is too fast.
The Guardsman pushes my sleeve up to my elbow and tightens his grip on his knife. I wonder if he can hear my thundering pulse, feel it under his palm. I expect to see some glint of sadistic pleasure, a shine of bared teeth, but there’s nothing.
He does it quite matter-of-factly. He turns my arm over and makes a single sharp cut across the skin of the back of my wrist. The cut is shallow and stings, but the pain seems far away in my head, across a flat moonlit lake.
I feel the others move closer, watching my blood. I’m watching it too. I can’t breathe again. I feel the Guardsman’s grip on my wrist tighten, squeezing, and then blood fills the cut like water, and gathers, and then a bead of it overflows and hangs, trembling, on my skin, until at last it drips towards the mud.
The Guardsman catches it. I see him raise his fingers to his face, staring at the bead of blood. I keep hoping the rain will wash it away, second to second, but it doesn’t.
‘Anything?’ one of the others calls.
The Guardsman doesn’t say anything. He’s still examining my blood, watching for the glint of silver. With every moment that passes in silence, I grow more certain his next move will be to pull out handcuffs to clamp across my blood-stained wrists, or to wrench his rifle from his belt and shoot me. I can see it happening very clearly, inside my head, with dizzying clarity. He’s going to kill me, right here.
Then he does something I’ve never seen before. He raises his hand to his mouth and licks my blood off his fingers, staring at me.
I feel sick. He’s still gripping my wrist with his other hand.
I want to run, to get away from here, away from him.
There’s a long moment where his eyes don’t leave my face. ‘Doesn’t taste like it,’ he says, quietly.
Behind him, a shard of lightning appears in the sky. There’s a rumble of thunder, deep and dark.
‘You don’t think she’s one of them?’ says another Guardsman.
The Guardsman who tasted my blood shakes his head slowly, still staring at me.
And then suddenly there’s a clap of thunder so deep I feel my bones tremble. I see them start to turn, slow, dreamlike. I know what’s going to happen, but I can’t move.
The bolt of lightning strikes the field ten yards behind them.
The world goes suddenly white. I close my eyes against the blinding heat. The Guardsman slackens his grip on my wrist and I pull free instinctively, clutching my bleeding arm.
The grass in the lightning-struck field is smouldering, blackened. I can smell smoke in the rain.
‘Let’s go,’ says one of them, at the back. He looks the most nervous. ‘She’s not one of them, there’s no point—’
The Guardsman nods, and the men behind him all start filing into the patrol car. But he doesn’t move. He doesn’t take his eyes off me. The rain is soaking into his hair. I stand perfectly still, not wanting to provoke him into anything. Then, finally, he says softly, ‘Be careful, girl.’
I just look at him, not moving. Then after more seconds than I dare to count he turns and walks back to the car. I watch the door close. The rain pounds on the car’s metal roof. It doesn’t move for a moment and I know they’re all watching me from inside. I stay still.
Then I hear the engine rev, and the car moves slowly away. A hundred yards from the tavern it speeds up, so that I can hear the hiss of the tyres against the flooded road. I watch until it’s out of sight and then for another few minutes, the rain soaking into my skin, until I’m as sure as I can be that they’re not going to double back.
The lightning doesn’t strike again. I pass my hand over the cut on my wrist and when I look down at it the skin is smooth and pale, healed. I sway slightly where I stand. I hear the door of the tavern open behind me.
Joshua behind me, running towards me. He looks pale and terrified.
‘It’s okay,’ I say, and as I say it I realise how soft my voice is, how drained. ‘I’m okay.’
‘Oh, Hero . . .’
He gathers me in his arms. I let myself collapse into him. He is warm and soft, even against the soaking cold of the rain. I am very tired.
‘I’m sorry, I should have gone with you—’
‘You called the lightning, didn’t you? To scare them away.’
He doesn’t say anything for a moment, just holds me, swaying slightly. Then he says, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘We had a plan.’
‘I know. I’m sorry. I panicked.’
‘You can’t, Joshua. Not anymore. They could have got suspicious, they could have looked closer—’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘I won’t do it again.’
‘Okay.’ And I believe him.
Raindrops thick and cold in my hair. A mutter of thunder.
Copyright © Helena Coggan 2019
The Orphanage of Gods will be published on February 21st 2019 and is available to pre-order now.