Blog Tour: THE FALL by Claire Merle – Chapter One

I’m delighted to be kicking off Claire Merle’s blog tour for THE FALL, which is the second and final book in THE GLIMPSE duet. Today I’m sharing the first chapter of the book, so here goes…

1
Inside the Wall

Ana crouched in a thicket near the Project’s ten-foot-high wall. Her head swam in the heat and pain shot through her bent legs, but she didn’t move. Beyond the bracken a path cut through the woods. Far on the other side of the paved track, a figure bellied through the undergrowth. For the last fifteen minutes she’d caught glimpses of him when his knife flashed in the sunlight.

She’d done it. She’d escaped Jasper’s home, run eight minutes through the Community without encountering a soul, climbed the metal spiked wall, and now, finally, she was inside the Project – a place, it was said, where those who entered were never seen again; home to the brain-washing sect Cole had joined when he was ten.

Cole.

His name fluttered deep in the pit of her stomach. She was breaking her promise to her father by looking for him. She was betraying her husband. It turned out she wasn’t as practical and level-headed as her father had trained her to be. Meeting Cole had made her yearn for the truth, for the feeling of life pumping through her veins.

Over on the path, a rabbit took an oblivious hop in her direction. It stopped, nose twitching as it caught a scent on the breeze: the smell of bluebells. Violet heads bobbed, deceptively welcoming.

Kneading her calf muscles, Ana knew she would have to make a decision. If the rabbit continued towards her, she wouldn’t remain invisible to the hunter for much longer. Soon his line of sight would be level with her and no matter how still she crouched in the bracken, he would notice the flecks of bright, unnatural whiteness glowing through the shield of leaves. The dressing gown she’d escaped in was a beacon in the forest.

She tossed a stone. It struck the ground between her hiding place and the rabbit. The creature jumped around and bounded away down the path. Perfect. She clenched her fists, pleased and tense. Now the hunter would lead her back to their camp and she could begin her search for Cole.

Branches crackled. A teenage boy emerged from the bushes, swatting dirt from green combat trousers and a dark T-shirt. His profile revealed a narrow face with scraggly hair down to his shoulders. The knife in his palm glinted as he swivelled it around and around.

‘What d’you do?’ he called out.

Fear stabbed Ana. The hunter was with someone. She scanned the thigh-high grass beyond the path. Directly in her line of sight, a shoulder poked out from behind a shrub and a second boy got to his knees. Sixteen, she guessed. Younger than the first. He stood, revealing arrows in a criss-cross sling on his back. He also wore a black T-shirt and combat trousers. A uniform? But if he’d been hunting the rabbit, why hadn’t he taken a shot?

‘I didn’t do anything,’ the younger boy said. ‘Something came flying out of nowhere.’

‘Nowhere,’ the hunter answered, ‘is a metaphysical improbability.’ He put the hilt of his knife between his teeth and unclipped a dark baton from his belt. As he strode up the slope towards his companion, he flicked his wrist and the metal pole extended on either end forming a weapon.

Ana glanced down at her swimsuit and the slip-on pumps she’d taken from Jasper’s mother. Her outfit had been chosen with two objectives: avoid arousing suspicion about where she was going; and avoid clothes which her father might have planted with tracers. She should have given more thought to what might happen during a half-naked encounter with the sect’s warped followers.

‘We should be getting back to our post,’ the younger boy said.

The hunter sheathed his knife. ‘Flying objects come from somewhere.’ He slunk towards the path, scanning the woods near the high brick wall. Any moment now he would see her.

Ana tugged the hem of her dressing gown from the brambles and stood with as much dignity as she could muster. Cole was proof that not all of the Project’s followers were depraved or dangerous. She couldn’t fear the sect, not if she wanted to be with him.

Straightening her shoulders, and swallowing hard, she stepped out from the bracken.

The hunter stopped at the edge of the path. His companion froze behind him.

‘I . . . I’m a . . . friend of . . . Cole Winter,’ she stuttered, her words barely audible above the blood hammering in her ears.

Neither of the boys moved. Their shock vibrated in the air. The astonishment on their faces turned the flutters in Ana’s stomach to nervous spasms. She took a step towards them.

‘Don’t move,’ the hunter said. Behind him, the second boy drew an arrow from the quiver on his back and slipped it into his bow.

‘I’m not armed.’ Her voice trembled. A drop of sweat seeped into the wisps of hair at the side of her face.

‘Show us.’

The hunter meant her to take off her dressing gown. She shuddered. Meeting Cole in the Project had been her idea. The night her father caught them stealing the minister’s disc there hadn’t been time to make proper plans. She’d told him she would find him. Perhaps if they weren’t being ripped away from each other, he would have warned her not to come.

‘Show us,’ the hunter repeated. He stared at her, the baton tight in his clenched fist.

She fumbled with the knot in the belt of her dressing gown.

The boy with the arrow shook his head. ‘Blaize—’ ‘Quiet!’

Her throat tightened and her cheeks burnt with humiliation. Raising her chin, she opened the dressing gown. It slipped down her shoulders.

The hunter stalked through the grass, closing the gap between them. The boy with the bow and arrow followed nervously.

Ana folded her arms over her swimsuit. Her legs trembled, but she refused to crumble under his intimidation. He was her age, skinny, and his friend wanted no part in this. Her odds were good. She met his gaze defiantly. ‘Satisfied?’

A smile slipped up the edge of his mouth. ‘Hardly.’ He bit his bottom lip and sucked in his breath. His eyes roamed her chest and down to her legs.

She yanked up her dressing gown.

The hunter turned to his companion. ‘I think she likes me.’

‘She looks like she’s gonna chuck-up.’

Ana’s eyes flicked across to the boy with the arrow aimed at her heart. She needed to keep him on side. ‘Do you know Cole Winter?’ she asked him.

‘Are you trying to tell us,’ the hunter cut in, ‘that you know where you are?’

She met his gaze. Did they think she’d lost her senses? That she’d arrived there accidentally from some mental rehab home?

‘I’m in the Enlightenment Project. I came over the wall.’

The boy with the arrow paled. His bow drooped like the wilting bluebells at his feet. Even the hunter looked surprised.

‘Blaize!’ the boy said.

‘What?’

‘Her necklace.’

Ana’s skin prickled at the awe in his voice. The necklace was a joining present from Jasper’s parents. A platinum moon with a diamond on the top corner. Along with her joining ring, it was the only personal item she had brought with her.

The hunter took a step closer. As he examined the moon, she saw a small scar lining the cheek beneath his left eye. His skin was ruddy from days spent outside. A strange expression fell across his face. He tucked back a strand of shaggy hair.

‘Call them,’ he said.

The boy with the bow fumbled to raise the whistle around his neck. He blew it hard. A high-pitched shriek filled the air.

‘Call who?’ she whispered, terror pooling in her chest. In the distance, a flock of birds shot up from the trees, followed by the sounds of feet running and branches snapping. Two men in green combat trousers and dark T-shirts appeared, leaping through the undergrowth, arrows strung in their bows. Seeing their group, they halted. The blonde one swivelled left and right, weapon raised as he scanned the forest. The dark-haired one moved forwards, bow raised, ready to shoot.

‘Is she alone?’ he shouted.

‘We haven’t seen anyone else,’ the hunter called back. ‘You all right Mikey?’ the advancing man asked.

‘Yeah,’ the younger boy said over his shoulder. As the man with the dark hair came closer, Ana saw he resembled the younger boy. They had the same large brown eyes and high forehead. But there could only be ten years between them. Brothers, she decided. ‘She came over the wall,’ Mikey said. ‘She’s wearing the necklace.’

‘And a swimsuit,’ the hunter added with a sneer.

Now only ten feet away, the dark-haired man looked at Ana properly for the first time. His eyes explored her face, dropping to her neck. Did he recognise her?

‘Go and make sure everyone on the watch knows,’ he said to the boy. ‘Tell them we’re on high alert.’

Mikey nodded. ‘Is it starting?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know.’ The dark-haired man placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. ‘I’ll see you back at the camp. Watch your back.’

As Mikey left, the hunter’s arm spun out and suddenly ripped away the belt tying Ana’s dressing gown. She jerked backwards. Her breathing grew shallow. No longer held with anything, her robe fell open.

The hunter laughed. ‘She came in a swimsuit!’

The dark-haired man’s gaze grew stony. ‘Do something useful, Blaize,’ he said. ‘Use the belt to blindfold her.’

*

With the dressing-gown belt covering her eyes and tied firmly around the back of her head, Ana stumbled across uneven woodland. One of the men held her by the elbow, catching her when she tripped. No one spoke as they descended a steep hill. The only sounds were bird song and the swish of grass against their legs. They moved swiftly.

She was dehydrated. Her head pounded with the heat and weeks of sleepless nights. She had to stay calm. Cole would explain everything to the guards. He would stop them from hurting her. But deep down another thought crept into her mind, stirring up doubt. On the eve of her joining to Jasper Taurell, when she’d broken into her father’s office searching for evidence against the Pure test, she’d discovered a secret recording made by the ex-Secretary of State for Health. She’d given the disc to Cole in a wooden star pendant. If Cole had made it back to the Project, if her father had kept his word and allowed him and his sister Lila to go free, what had happened to the minister’s recording? It should have made headline news weeks ago.

The air grew cooler and the light against her blindfold darkened. A smell of earth and leaves filled her nostrils. Ahead of her, one of the guards beat a path through the overgrowth. Thorns caught her robe as the man who’d been holding her elbow now pulled at her wrist. They stopped. The hand let go. Someone tugged at the knot against the back of her head and the tie came undone. Bursts of light popped in her eyes as her vision returned. They were standing at an intersection of two paths in the middle of a wood. Tall sycamore trees, holly bushes and an ancient oak surrounded them. The dark-haired man held out her dressing gown belt.

‘Thanks,’ she murmured, dropping her gaze to fasten the tie around her waist. He nodded.

They began walking again, following one of the paths. Ana became aware of other sounds creeping into the forest – scrubbing noises, water splashing, the clatter of people moving about. Beyond a sprawling hawthorn, she caught sight of a barn with wattled walls and a turf and straw roof. A large pen of wooden spikes enclosed the building and a noxious odour of animal dung clawed the air. She stared through the open barn doors. She’d seen hens and rabbits and cows before, but never a live sheep or pig.

As they continued, passing sheds of corrugated metal, long single-storey cabins with moss-covered roofs appeared between the gaps. Her stomach rolled, nerves and curiosity bubbling to the surface. She’d heard endless stories of abductions, brainwashing and mind-control supposedly taking place in the medieval-type settlement which lay just beyond her home – now she was about to enter the heart of it.

They reached a path that forked out towards the woods and in between the longhouses. Blaize sidled up close beside her. The dark-haired guard took up the other side, locking his arm through hers.

‘Keep your head down,’ he said, as the men began to pull her forwards.

Longhouses branched off on either side, like the nerves attached to a spine. Narrow passages lay between the buildings, covered with canvas canopies to protect from the sun and the rain. They reached a small square with picnic tables, an open-air kitchen and a brick bungalow at its centre. The smell of bonfire and burning spices wafted beneath awnings strung over metal frames above the tables. Half a dozen people worked around the kitchen fires: chopping, washing, mixing. The guards hurried Ana through a side door into the brick building.

‘Stay here,’ the dark-haired guard instructed.

She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dark interior. A moment later she was alone in the large assembly hall. Cool stone walls leaned in lopsidedly towards the roof. Thousands of neatly fitted stones pebbled the ground. At the far end, beneath a platform, stood a table hewn from a tree trunk. A dozen wooden chairs surrounded the table and on either side a tube of sunlight shafted down through the ceiling beams.

Her curiosity soured to dread. If Cole wasn’t here, what would they do to her?

A clunking sound came from the double doors in the centre of the hall. The doors scraped open and a well-built man of about forty entered. He wore the green combat trousers and black T-shirt of the guards. Behind him in the square, a crowd was gathering, their murmurs hushed as they peered into the hall.

The man closed the door and strode to the table. He poured two cups of water from a pitcher, then came back and stood before her, not five feet between them. A hard line creased his brow as he frowned. His head was shaved to conceal his widow’s peak.

Her hands began to shake.

‘I’m Tobias, Chief of Security,’ he said, holding out one of the cups to her. After a moment, she took the cup and clasped it without sipping. He gulped back his water. ‘I’ve been Chief of Security for twelve years,’ he said, ‘and in all that time no one’s ever come over the wall.’

Twelve years. He must know Cole. She looked down. Now she would find out whether Cole had made it there, or not. The fear raked deep inside her. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know how else I was supposed to get in.’

‘You weren’t,’ Tobias said. He stared at her. She struggled to meet his eyes.

Something thumped against the side entrance. Ana flinched. The door swung open and a six-foot figure stalked in.

‘Cole?’ she whispered.

‘Where is she?’ he demanded, sweeping across the dim interior.

Her mind was swimming. She could only see snatches of him. Dark stubble. Skin grey with exhaustion. Dazzling blue eyes. And then time jumped and he was pulling her towards him.

All at once the smell of summer and freshly-cut grass enveloped her. He was gravity and finally she could stop spinning. The relief was overwhelming. She sank into his arms. Three weeks of hoping he was safe and wondering if she would ever see him again had felt like months. Endless days of pretending she was happy at Jasper’s, of waking from nightmares and aching for his touch, were over. She breathed him in, wishing she could stay just like that forever.

PDF: The Fall, Chapter 1

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Claire Merle wrote her first paranormal screenplay at the age of thirteen and named it after a road sign. Danger Alive never made it to the big screen, but she continued to write and daydream her way through school and university. Claire graduated with a first BA (Hons) in Film Studies, and spent the next few years working in the BFI. She worked as a runner and camera assistant, and fantasised about creating her own films. In 2000, she wrote and directed the short film, Colours, which sold to Canal Plus. Today, Claire is concentrating on writing YA fiction. She spends her time between Paris and London, along with her French husband and two young sons. Find out more about Claire’s books or contact her at www.clairemerle.com.