(A new book – rough draft of the first chapter – feed back welcome!)
THE CHILD. (An apocalyptic tale.)
Light spring rain drummed its rhythm on the forest leaves. It was oddly silent, both felt it. The camp lay ahead swallowed in the camouflage of its protective gully. Their eyes met.
“I…” her voice was stifled by a sturdy hand as he pushed her against the trunk, long finger on taunt lips – warning! Eyes wide with fear she watched as he shrank beneath the ferns. She stood pressed hard against the concealing bark as if drawing strength from the forest giant. Had they come!
With urgent motions he beckoned her to follow. Rustling through unfurling stems they crawled their way back. She was shaking, hands trembling as they sought perchance, her enlarging belly catching on the stems. Sinking into the shadows they gained their feet.
“Can you run?” he hissed, eyes flaring.
“The others,” she whispered.
“Too late! Can you run!”
“Yes.” Grasping hands they careened through the trees, whispering branches concealing their passage. On and on they ran till she began to stumble. With laboured breath they paused against the gnarled side of an oak.
“The children,” she gasped.
“I could only save ours,” he ran a hand protectively over the curve of her belly. “The woods are full of men, hundreds of them. They won’t stand a chance.” Tears coursed down her face. “We need to move,” he urged, “after they’re finished they’ll come looking.”
As if in confirmation the sound of guns rent the stillness, screams echoed through the silent groves. He wiped a soiled sleeve across his eyes.
“We have to go…”
She nodded. Stumbling on over roots and shrubs, pursued by screams and gunfire echoes they melted into the ancient refuge of man. Tall sentinels guarded their way; ferns muffled their footsteps as gentle rain washed away all traces of their path.
“Did they have dogs?”
“Didn’t see any… Hope not. The stream at least should delay them even if they pick up our scent.”
“Sleep now. I’ll keep watch.”
Bathed in tears she surrendered to exhaustion. He looked out over the forest. He’d chosen high ground. He’d see them coming. The bush and scrub concealed them well enough. The forest was their home, their refuge, and had been for the past two years. The forest where he’d met her, where they’d managed to survive all this time, hidden away from prying eyes. Till, now… now it was all over, his friends, companions, closer than brothers, even their families, all dead… He brushed the tears away, but they kept coming, here in the darkness of the forest with none to see but the trees. Why could they not let them be, what harm had they been to anyone, simple folk most of them, farmers, travellers, working with their hands, living off the land. There was nowhere to go, no place was safe, only in the forests, in the wilderness of the mountains could they hide, for how long he didn’t know. There was no real escape only the constant game of cat and mouse he’d been playing for the last five years, the five years since he’d left it all behind to flee into the wilderness. It had just been internment camps back then, people disappearing silently, one day there, the next gone, never to return. Now they had no need of subterfuge, they killed openly, the last voices of protest silenced in those last Easter raids. He’d not been near civilisation since; some did, bartering for food, for the necessities of life, but he’d not. He’d grown hard, his frame lean, but strong, nourished on roots and herbs, fish, and meat from the traps. The wilderness had sustained him. He was thankful now for his grandfather’s obsession with the “outdoor life”. He’d groaned at the time, but some of those things had saved his life. Gramp’s rifle lay still looped across his back, loaded, the few remaining bullets carried in his backpack. There’d be no more, the camp munitions such as they’d been, (a couple more hunting rifles and two or three boxes of amo.) were gone now. He pulled out the wrapper – four, plus the three in the rifle. What good would that be if they found them? How would he get meat for the winter if he used them? Head bent in his hands, his lips murmured restlessly… “God, don’t let them find us, don’t let them find us!” Empty words…
He had to pull himself together, be strong for her and the child. There had to be an end to this… pictures flashed before his eyes, blood mottled skin, life draining, how could it end any other way?
Morning broke clear and sunny, birdsong celebrating the dawn, in denial of atrocities beneath the unfurling fern stems – nature reclaiming her own. He’d fallen asleep she noticed, his back to the tree, rifle across his lap. She watched as dappled sunlight traced patterns on his skin catching the chestnut fire in his hair. How she loved him. She remembered the first she saw him when they brought her to the camp bedraggled and malnourished, a haggard shadow of her former self. She’d wanted him even then, the smile, the bright eyes, the life in him…
He stirred. There was no food she realised, nothing… only what he carried in his pack. She’d teased him for taking it along, but now she saw the wisdom. He was never parted from the pack, now she knew why…
His eyes opened, a smile glimpsed, then faded. “We’ll need food and water,” he muttered glancing round. Young nettles swarmed in abundance, but they couldn’t risk a fire…
“We’ll head towards the river,” he announced, water was the most urgent need and fish could be eaten raw if you had to…
The ground became marshy as they trudged along, fallen saplings, resigned to fate, crisscrossed their path. Easy foraging here, frogs, fish and all manner of plants, fresh water and timber, hopefully far enough away from the assault force for safety…
Days turned to weeks, new blooms decked the river bank and raised their heads where sunlight traced the forest floor, the vast swathes of bluebells had relinquished their office to myriad hued cousins. Summer was on its way bringing plenty in its wake. He was a good provider yet it had been hard, enough to survive, but not enough to fill the belly.
He’d that morning set off to the old camp in hopes of gleaning all they’d need for her delivery and for the child. It should be safe enough now, he’d said, the soldiers would not stay that long, they had other things to do, other “nests of traitors” to destroy. He’d left the pack with her taking only his rifle and pocket knife. He said he didn’t want to be loaded down, but he couldn’t fool her…
Crawling face down among the forest’s carpet he edged towards the gully. All seemed quiet, the right kind of quiet. Birds flew hither and yon in their perpetual search to placate their growing young, insects hummed. The forest had resumed its quiet cacophony of sound, proclaiming the departure of the hunters. Relieved but still cautious he edged forward. The smell became intense. They could have at least buried the bodies… they were unrecognizable now, gnawed by forest inhabitants, decaying back from whence they came, nature reclaimed its own. He tried not to look.
He was surprised they’d not torched the huts, they usually did. Perhaps they were in a hurry. No matter. Their old lean to still stood only a few beams fallen. He ran his hands over the bullet holes that riddled the frame. If they’d not gone foraging, if he’d not taken her along…
Pull yourself together man, get what you need and get out of here. Rummaging through the debris he found what he was looking for, the big pot, the blankets. They’d need washing again now… Thread, he must have thread, to tie the cord. Thank God he knew the basics; there were no doctors in the forest. Glancing around he grabbed their tumbled winter coats, stuffing them into one of the blankets and tying it. That was all he could carry. It would have to do for now, he’d get more later, he told himself, but in his heart he knew he’d never venture back.
His hands full, view obscured, he never noticed the wire his foot nudged as he strode out of the hut.
(It is a deliberate ploy that no names are used – I have a reason lol!)