Sneak preview chapter

For those who have been asking, here is a chapter from the fantasy novel I am writing.

There are many story lines, this is the beginning of one of them.

I have to confess I have been totally distracted by my new job of editing the AARE blog for the past month. But back into the writing again.

For fellow writers out there, I have discovered scrivener. What a wonderful word processor for authors! I love it.

I will post another of my true short stories soon.

Enjoy.

CHAPTER EIGHT

The Screaming Men

Leelin squatted beside her younger and much smaller sister, Ceeta, in the night shadow of a low bush and studied the woods around her. It was a noisy evening. The warm air and soft breeze had lured many creatures from their dens and holes and nests. Their calls, hisses, grunts and distant squabbles played a hunter’s symphony in the moonlit air. Leelin could match the noises to the animals perfectly, but there was only one kind she was interested in tonight.

With Leelin leading, the two girls crept quietly to the next dark shadow. Ceeta held the cold spotlight lamp tightly to her chest. The bulb in the lamp was old and the battery even older. Charging it was getting more and more difficult. Those damned weeds seem to clog the generator more quickly these days and the charge in the battery was much weaker. Nevertheless, it still worked, most times anyway. It was precious cargo. The weight of the lantern, considerable as it was, was not nearly as heavy as the responsibility Ceeta felt to ensure no knock or bump compromised the success of their sisterly expedition. A spotlight that didn’t turn on in an instant was useless to night hunters.

The signal came suddenly. Leelin brushed Ceeta’s cheek to show her the right direction and without hesitation the younger girl aimed the light and switched it on.

Nothing happened.

Night noises played on in the darkness. The thumpity thump was Ceeta’s own heart. She felt Leelin tense and expectant beside her.  Their prey stopped ahead of them, perhaps to the click of the switch. There was only one more chance. Switch quickly off and on again. Flick, flick.

A bright light pierced a perfect circle into the night forest to catch the large longcat in the moment. The sudden light did exactly as they expected it to do. The longcat froze, its yellow eyes open wide as it stared into the light, instantly mesmerized.

It was easy hunting for Leelin. With her long legs and strong shoulders she filled the round light and hardly seemed to move as she cracked the longcat’s skull with her axe. This was her third kill for the night and would be the last. Ceeta was only capable of  carrying one small carcass and the lantern,  Leelin’s limit was two, and this longcat was quite a large one. They now had more than enough meat for their mother and sisters, with a good amount left over to salt and to barter with at the markets.

The spotlight stayed on for a few more precious minutes as Leelin gutted the cat. Had it been daylight she would have guided Ceeta to do the work. Ceeta was still quite small but surprisingly clever. Leelin knew she still had much to teach her and little time left to do it. Leelin was quick and deft. Soon the spotlight was off and cooling, ready to be carried home.

As they backtracked through the woods, guided only by the moonlight and their deep knowledge of the landscape they traversed, they heard a distant human scream. It was brief and far away, on the very edge of their hearing. Both girls immediately stopped moving and listened. The country around them was rugged, border country, true hunting land where the human population was sparse. There were a few permanent and secure cabins, deliberately built to spread across the clan boundaries, like their own, but sometimes transient hunters came into the area, setting up makeshift camps that they would dismantle or abandon when they had enough kill or were done with hunting. Leelin and Ceeta had learned long ago to avoid any encounter with the transients if possible, and where that was not possible to make any connection brief and guarded.

They listened.  Above the familiar sounds of the night came another human scream. It was still far away but clear enough for them to recognize it was a man screaming. On top of his came another scream, another man. The men were not screaming in terror. There was no surprise or anger in their screams. These men were screaming with some sort of pleasure and triumph. They were celebrating. If they were hunters they surely had caught or cornered a prized creature. Gutteral and short, the screams could be words from a southern language not well known to Leelin and Ceeta. They slung their catch and hurried on. These transients were definitely to be avoided. Neither girl needed to tell the other.

As the girls travelled on their homeward trek the screaming men remained a distance off, but seemed to get no further away.  Obviously and inexplicably the men were travelling in the same direction. It was not the usual way to travel this country, which was via ridge or valley. They were going west, which meant going up and down steep slopes towards the Edge. Whatever it was the men were celebrating did not leave them however. Although their exuberance waned a little, they whooped and screamed with unnatural stamina. That was not the worst part. Leelin knew if the screaming men kept moving in the same direction it would not be long before they came across a discernible track and all tracks in this craggy part of the forest, every single one of them, led to their cabin.

The perimeter fence gate was open but there was no warm and welcoming glow coming from their cabin to greet the two girls as they arrived back from their hunting trip. Instead, their mother ushered them through the gate with great urgency. She also had long heard the screaming men. She bolted and locked the gate as her eldest daughters stashed their catch in the outhouse. Skinning needed to be done while the carcasses were fresh but tonight the mother would not be demanding her eldest daughters do such work. In the darkened cabin her two younger daughters cuddled and shooshed each other.  They had played this game before. Everyone knew exactly what to do.

For a short time it seemed as though the men would skirt their area but there was no mistaking the moment they found a track and began to follow it. The screaming gave way to loud and excited exchanges. In the dim moonlight Leelin held three fingers up to her mother. At least three drunken men were on their way to their cabin. The least that could happen now was the men would see the loudone bear fence and the cabin, realise it was a boundary outpost and move on.

Two lanterns wobbled their way to the fence and around to the gate. From her position near the front window Leelin could clearly see five men in the twin pools of light. The men were carrying packs and assorted hunting weapons. If they had guns she could not see them.  The men she could see were young and very drunk. Two swayed so badly as they looked up at the overhung top of the bear fence that surrounded the cabin, it seemed they might fall over then and there. The family inside the cabin waited, silent and still.

The men rattled the gate and called out. They spoke loudly in a southern clan language that no-one inside the cabin could properly understand. Then they told each other to get fucked. Everyone understood that. They set the lanterns down and gathered around to argue. Leelin noticed a sixth figure, an older man. He didn’t seem drunk at all.

The older man took one of the lanterns and held it high against the fence, trying to see inside the cabin windows.

“Helloooo,” he called out. The other men joined in.  Their calls, a discordant ragged chorus, lifted into the night sky. A cloud momentarily hid the moon and the lantern held by the older man ringed his face with an unworldly halo. He had widely spaced eyes and thick red lips. His long beard was oddly black nearest his skin and grey on its tips.

One of the younger men pulled an axe from his pack and swaggered purposefully towards the gate.  He swung the back of the axe at the lock on the gate. The clang of metal on metal sliced down the hillside silencing every creature that heard it. The lock held but was clearly damaged. The other young men loudly cheered his attempt and encouraged him to have another go, yelping and hooting like animals.

Leelin, Ceeta and their mother quietly but swiftly took their positions inside the cabin. The older man at the fence kept his lantern high towards the window but looked back at the gate to watch the axe-wielder take aim again.

Leelin flung the cabin door open and immediately her mother and Ceeta stepped outside. At the same time Ceeta flicked the spotlight on. The intense circle of light caught the young man at the top of his swing. He was tall and muscular, his bare biceps glistened with the mud and sweat of his journey but the sudden sting of the light made him drop his axe in fright. If it had fallen a smidgen closer to his foot it would have taken off the tops of his toes. The calling and whooping of his companions gurgled into exclamations of surprise. The older man whispered “Fuck,” as all the men stared into the spotlight.

Leelin’s mother spoke carefully, saying each word clearly and slowly, “Travellers, this is a Ralian Clan outpost, as surely you must see. Do no further damage to our bear fence. Please be on your way.”

The older man promptly doused his lantern, but he was the one who answered, he spoke in perfect Ralian, “Outposter you must forgive these rowdy young men. They have had a good winning season in your Ralian fight pits. They celebrate too freely I fear.”

Ceeta hissed softly, “Pit fighters.”

“I am glad for their successes,” Leelin’s mother replied. “I hope the Ralian hospitality of our Valley City was memorable. But I am sorry there is nothing in this outpost that I could offer to add to your celebrations.”

The older man spoke again, but his voice came from a position closer to the spot-lit gate and its tone had changed, “Well you might think that Outposter, but your lovely voice makes me think that your company alone could add to our pleasures.” The lilt to his words was mocking. Some of the men began sniggering.

“Then you would be very wrong, traveller,” the woman said.

The second lamp was doused. Silence followed. No-one moved. The man in the spotlight swayed a little, his large hands hung empty at his sides. “You may also be off course on your journey,” Leelin’s mother added, “This is far from the usual trekking routes out of our Clandom. There is only the Edge further west.”

“Is that so,” the older man replied. “Dammit, do you hear that? We are headed towards the Edge. The goddam Edge!” The joke was so good the men laughed raucously. The man in the spotlight put his hands to his mouth and hooted and shook his backside. The actor on a stage.

“In that case, Outposter, I think we need to stop right here. Yessiree, yes I do. Right here,” he spoke with a sigh and a hiss, as though he had just taken a big sip of some firey rotgut.

The spotlit man suddenly stooped to retrieve his axe.  As he moved so did the other men.  The clang and scrape of weapons being retrieved was unmistakable.

Leelin signaled Ceeta with a brush to the cheek. In an instant Ceeta changed position behind the spotlight and then swept the light once along the bear fence in front of the cabin. The men were all caught in the arc, some were pulling their weapons from their packs, others already had theirs drawn. Six of them in all.  There were no stragglers it seemed. Still no guns to be seen. One of the men was already at the fence with a slingshot. He was aiming it through the wire. The flick of light was there and gone.  Ceeta moved silently and carefully with the spotlight.

The men who had been watching the light blinked at the pitch blackness that replaced it. A ghost hole seared their sight where its round eye had been.

With a scattering thump, a large stone hit the porch and shattered against the wall of the cabin, but Ceeta and her lamp had long gone.

Leelin’s mother spoke again, her voice came from much nearer the gate, “Travellers I ask you again, and for the last time, be on your way.”

“The last time?” the older man sneered, “Don’t we get three chances?”

That was an even better joke. The screaming men became the laughing men, their loud guffaws were full of drunken bravado. The sounds of each other laughing fed their enjoyment to an hysterical pitch. In the darkness they were stumbling, but unmistakably headed towards the gate.

Ceeta was past the end of the cabin now. She flicked the spotlight on and off, catching the young man at the gate again. His swing did not falter this time. The axe fell on the lock. They all heard the thunk as it popped. The gate swung open on its well-oiled hinges and banged loudly against the inside of the bear fence. The ripple from its impact rattled along the thick wires to either side and out into the dark forest.

Ceeta moved. A stone landed exactly where she had been. The slingshot bastard can’t be too drunk. His aim was sure. Too sure. She knew it all depended on her now and her spotlight. Get it right. Get it right.

“Now”, her mother called. Ceeta flicked the spotlight switch. Instantly, perfectly, the gate was lit again. The older man was pushing past the axe wielder to enter first. He had one arm extended behind him to make sure none of his drunken younger companions beat him in. In his other hand was a nasty looking dagger, clean and shiny. His eyes were gleaming and full of intent, his red lips were curled into a self-satisfied smile.

From as close as few strides away to his left, Leelin’s mother calmly aimed her shotgun and with one barrel, blew his head off.

The laughing shrieked into cries of terror and pain. Pellets from the blast also found their mark in the flesh of those close behind the now headless man, along with bits of black and grey beard and fresh brain.

From further along the fence came another scream, sharp and short. Ceeta grinned. Leelin’s axe had found her mark with the slingshot man.

Climbing in to an area with a bear fence was impossible for bears and almost impossible for humans, but climbing out was easy enough if you knew how, especially so for Leelin.

The screaming men were screaming again. This time in fear as they ran from the spotlight and the shotgun. They all knew there was second barrel and next could be their head. Ceeta chased them away with sweeps of her spotlight.

The girls gathered in the packs that had been abandoned and collected a good range of new weapons. There were no guns.

They pulled the headless body away from their gate, but left the body of the other screaming man where it had fallen.

Their mother fetched a long heavy chain and wrapped it around and around to hold the gate to the fence where the lock had been broken. It would be enough to hinder a bear and no human could remove it without making a noise.

If the two bodies were still there at dawn the family would think about where they would bury them.  Past experience told them there would probably not be much left to have to worry about anyway.

Fixing the lock on the bear fence, however, especially this time of the year with the wet  coming in from the Edge, might not be so easy.  Not so easy at all.

© Maralyn Parker 2015


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