(1st chapter peek at my as yet unpublished book)
Chapter 1. Discovery.
Trees hung in festooned splendor, the air thick with the heady smell of earth. A mouse scurried through the undergrowth. Nature ran wild. It was an ancient and forbidden place. Ash crouched down examining, his eye taking in every sign.There they were again, this time more defined, imprints of a foot, small, feminine? …definitely feminine. The light was dimming, soon the dogs would come. Best get after them.
“But a woman, here in the forest? It had always been men, always!”
Resolute, he shouldered his bow “better an arrow,” he told himself. “Better an arrow than the dogs!” He had seen what the dogs could do, razored teeth and claws slashing, tearing… bred for the task… they could… His belly churned at the memory. No, an arrow was a better way to go. He always told himself so, but for all that he had no stomach for this quarry.
He stalked panther like, through the trees deep set eyes seeking his prey. The tracks were fresh, she couldn’t be far, if “she” it was. He became aware of a slight rustling up ahead, a glimpse of white among the trees.
“It was a woman, and a young one at that.”
Fitting a silent arrow he crept forward. Trees and bracken obscured the shot. He wanted to make this clean, painless if possible.
“No hurry,” he told himself, “she could not out run him. In all his years as a tracker he had never lost a quarry.” He crept closer.
“She’s staggering,” he thought, “near exhaustion.” For a moment pity touched his heart; then it hardened again. “Why did they keep coming? What was it that drew them on?”
He could see her no more. Suspecting a trap of some sort he edged forward. There was no trap. She lay a breathless, crumpled heap, tangled locks strewn beside her, limp arms protruding from ruffled fabric, face tense and pale, yet she was beautiful… Exhausted eyes opened in horror and a stifled scream caught upon her lips.
He stood frozen, eye meeting eye. She did not, could not, move.
“Why didn’t she run? Running made it easier!” She lay looking at him her gaze wide and fearful. How could he kill her, how…?
“Better than the dogs. Better that than the dogs,” he told himself. Bracing he raised the bow, pulled back the string… the eyes closed.
“Why doesn’t he fire?” She just wanted it to end… Seconds turned to minutes, dragging past like lifetimes…
Rough hands seized her. She waited for the stab of a dagger, a grip at her throat, but there was neither, just the swift patter of doeskin boots on the leaves. Opening her eyes she saw the masked helmet of the trackers, harsh engraved patterns like a beast of prey leading up to horned crests. Half man, half beast, so they said. She had heard stories of the trackers, of what they did to Urkisht women! She struggled finding her voice only to be drowned by a giant hand stifling her breath, arms like bands of steel around her. Her wits shattered by fear and exhaustion she passed into oblivion…
The cold eddy of water revived her senses. She kept still biding her time; she must catch him off guard. He was wading across a stretch of water toward an island of some kind. The sun was low in the sky but not yet set, they couldn’t have come far. The padding had given way to a peaceful swishing sound that belied the terror of her situation. Even if she might get free how could she escape? This was his territory, not hers. He was a tracker and soon the dogs would come! She had spent the last two nights sleeping far above the forest floor but tonight she had no strength to climb…
Gaining the bank he set her down motioning her to be quiet. Reaching up he pulled off the helm that obscured his features shaking out a mane of thick, black hair that curled down past his shoulders. Green flecked eyes met her own, augmented by strong regular features and a mouth that slowly creased to a smile as if somehow it had forgotten such things and now remembered. This was no monster!
“What is your name?” The resonate voice broke the silence.
“Why did you come here?”
“I seek the portal. The voices told me I would find it here.”
“It is forbidden!” The voice was stern, commanding. “You must go back, I will take you to the forest’s edge then you must return home. Tell no one! Do you understand! To stay here is death! The dogs will find you and tear you to pieces – don’t you understand!?”
“I know for I have seen it, but I must go.”
“Why? Why would you die?”
“To save my people, but I do not believe I will die.”
“None of them did! But they are all dead. No one has ever made it through the forest alive.”
Ellese stopped for a moment. “Why didn’t you kill me? You had the chance, but instead you brought me here.”
“I couldn’t bear the dogs to get you. They…”
“But you could have killed me. Have you killed others?”
“Better that, than the dogs!” Ash’s defence system kicked in.
She’d seen visions of the dogs, unnatural beasts, elongated fangs protruding from grotesquely dappled mouths, eyes red and all devouring, like no dog she had ever seen. A shudder shook her body.
“Yes, better than the dogs,” she said, “but why did you not kill me?”
“I … I couldn’t. You were too … I don’t know… perhaps the look in your eyes. I never looked in their eyes, they just ran.”
She remembered the voices, “don’t run… they’ll shoot you.” She looked up into the clear jade speckled eyes. “Thank you. I could not have gone on; I had no strength left to climb. I have not eaten in days”.
A look of concern passed over Ash’s face. He paused a moment.
“Wait. Wait here,” he said. “Look for dry wood and I shall bring food. I’ll not be long. Don’t leave the island. The dogs don’t come to this place, they hate the water!” With that he strode off back through the river his bow strung across his back.
Ellese watched him go, the soft swish the only sound in the stillness. She was alone, alone and safe, for the time being at least. He wouldn’t harm her it seemed, but what could she do? She couldn’t go back…
Perhaps he would help her? Help her! What was she thinking? He was a tracker, a tracker with a conscience perhaps, but a tracker none the less. Tomorrow he would escort her out of the forest. He might save her life but he would not aid her.
“He is a tracker! A tracker!” she repeated to herself, but somehow the knowledge could not erase the feeling of that silent gaze. There was something more to him… She picked up a branch then discarded it… too wet. Seizing another she began to rapidly gather the needed wood. Her strength, having recovered somewhat, would not last.
True to his word he was not long in coming. He set out at once to skin the rabbit he’d shot and start a fire from the gathered wood. She watched as he worked, her strength depleted, observing the quick, skilful fingers, his concentration as he kindled a spark, the slow smile as the blaze began. He turned to look at her. She turned away embarrassed. She hadn’t meant to stare but he was not as she had imagined a tracker. There was a softness to the eyes… The build was there, the broad shoulders, the height – they were chosen for their skill and strength.
“But trackers were hard, ruthless killers, despoilers of women, servants of the Ispen…” She watched as his hair, no longer constrained by the headpiece, fell forward in soft waves. There was a strange, contradictory mixture of power and gentleness about him. She observed the hands as they deftly speared the rabbit onto a whittled spit. She imagined what it would be like to be touched by such hands, would they be tender, sensitive like the eyes or would they be harsh, unfeeling? Something within her stirred. Uncomfortable, she repressed it.
“He was a trapper, remember! Trappers took the Urkisht women from the villages, they were like animals they…” her senses reeled in apprehension…
He looked up catching the glint of fear in her eye. Putting down the spit he came towards her. She recoiled in dread.
“It’s alright,” he said holding out his hand as to a startled animal, “I’m not going to hurt you…” There was a slight choke to the voice, a hidden pain. He stroked a strand of hair from her face. “Don’t worry I’m not that way, at least not with you…” the pain was back. Ellese noticed it, like a great beast with a thorn. Impulsively she reached up to grab his hand pressing it to her lips, in silent thanks. The smile glimpsed forth again for a moment.
He returned to the fire positioning the improvised rod between two split branches. The smell of meat soon fragranced the air, as smoke rose in wispy tendrils.
“I’ll see you safe to the edge of the forest,” he said, his eyes trained on the task. “First eat and recover your strength. The dogs are out by now; we must wait here till morning.”
“But, I can’t go back. I have to find it… the whispers they…”
Ash looked up, one eyebrow raised in question. “Whispers? You hear voices? Is that why they come?”
“Yes…” Ellese looked down, hesitating, then continued in a hushed whisper. “I’ve heard them since I was a child.”
“What of your parents. Did they know about this?”
Ellese was evasive. “They knew a little. They said I must stop, but I would hear them all the time. I’d see things too, in my dreams, a place full of light and colours…”
“And they let you go?!”
“No, they tried to stop me, especially my father. He would rant and rave telling me none survived, that hundreds had tried and failed down through the years their bodies dragged back to the villages,.”
“Why didn’t you listen?”
“I did at first, but when they took my brother to get his mark… something happened. We had always been close, I knew him like the back of my hand.” Her fingers fluttered expressively in the evening air. “He changed. It was as if something died in him that day.” Tears gleamed unshed in her eyes. “I knew I had to do something. It would be me next. I don’t know why they didn’t take me already.”
“I know,” Ash looked wretchedly down at the ground. Picking up a stick he traced a pattern in the soil. Ellese waited.
“They had you marked out…”
“Just look at you. The trackers and their subordinates keep an eye out for likely women for their “entertainment”.”
“You mean I would have been taken!”
“Yes. They don’t mark the women they want. It’s a badge of serfdom you see…” his words faded.
“I’m sorry!” He flashed her an intense look as he blurted out the words. “I’m sorry it’s that way!” There was silence for a few minutes, as Ellese digested what he said. She put her hand on his arm.
“But you are not like that.”
“You’re mistaken, I am. I’m like all the rest.”
“No, I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true, if you only knew …” His voice trailed off once more. Ellese rested her head on his arm.
“Perhaps you did these things, but it does not sit easy on your heart,” she whispered.
He turned to look at her as she raised her eyes towards him, his face streaked with pain and remorse.
“I could have killed you today.” He said fixing her gaze. “I almost did.”
“But you didn’t do it.”
“No I didn’t… I don’t like what I have become.”
“You could change! You could come with me.” There was only a scowl in reply as Ash moved to adjust the spit avoiding the conversation. He fussed around the fire for a while adding fresh sticks and branches before finally returning to sit beside her.
“You don’t understand!” He spat out. “A man’s conscience is not his own to keep. The Ispen dictate all things. Even were you to reach this … whatever it is, what then? They’d just send the dogs after us and that would be the end of it … or perhaps worse…” he muttered under his breath.
“But the portal, it’s a gateway to the other world! If one of us could get there things would change. They have power to fight the Ispen!”
“How? You have no idea! The Ispen are not men as we are, they have powers you never dreamt of. They can go inside a man’s mind and make him mad!”
“As they did you?”
“No, I did that to myself.”
“I don’t believe you!” Ellese retorted grabbing his arm and forcing him to look into her eyes. “You are not evil like the Ispen. Your heart is good!”
“No you’re wrong! I am evil! You don’t know the things I’ve done… to your people too!”
“Whatever you did your heart cries out against it!” She could glimpse tears wallowing in his eyes reflecting the gleam of the fire. It was as if he were burning inwardly.
“You can be free! You can pay back my people for the wrong you did by helping me get to the portal…”
“And then what? I cannot follow you into this world you talk about. I’d be left behind for the Ispen to vent their anger on.”
“Never!” Ellese shouted, her strength almost exhausted by her fervour. “You don’t know me! It’s true only those called can enter in, but I would come back and the worlds would be united. Then we would be free, your people and my people.”
“I don’t know. There is something they want to give us, some power, power to defeat the Ispen and reunite the worlds.”
Exhausted by her tirade Ellese slumped against his arm, her strength expired, her head spinning. Ash looked down in concern.
“You are exhausted. You must rest.” Silencing her protests he took off his cloak and, wrapping it around her, laid her down beside the fire.
“You need to eat, you’ll feel better then.” Weak and dizzy Ellese had no choice but to comply. She lay limp and shattered, watching deft hands ease the spit around as juice seeped down sizzling on the hot embers. Her eyelids grew heavy as sleep fell like a comforting blanket and in her dreams voices came, soothing, cajoling, bringing relief…
Ash’s eyes swept over her as she slept. Like most Urkisht women she was small and delicate. Small but robust, he told himself, else how could she have made it this far? She was daring for one so young and frail; even now she wanted to go on. Braver than him perhaps he thought grimly, daring enough to try to change things… but then she didn’t know all that was at stake…
Bored with his cooking he picked up a stick aimlessly whittling one end. His eyes kept straying back to her taking in the white skin and soft pale hair with its autumn tints. It must be beautiful when it was combed he thought. At present it was soiled with the debris of the forest, adorned with russet leaves and twigs. He pictured her bathed and groomed, clad in robes the women wore in Anlar, though the picture was beguiling it troubled him.
The Urkisht women kept for their pleasure were little more than slaves, slaves reduced to whores. She was not one of them, would never be one of them!” Then it dawned on him… “Yes, she would.” If he took her back that’s exactly what she would be one day, a trackers whore! He kicked out in anger at a nearby stone sending it flying. She stirred a little at the noise. Damn them! Damn the Ispen and damn the captains too, they were the ones that had brought him to this.
But suppose she were right, suppose there was another way. It would be worth fighting for, worth dying for…
“There are far worse things than dying,” he reminded himself. He dug the dagger into the soil tossing away the half whittled stick. Listless, he pulled it forth and again plunged it in the earth. His gaze returned to her, her innocence, her goodness, should it be destroyed? Should he let her go forth again on her own to die a fearful death when it was in his power to help her? Forces strove fierce within him.
Ellese was awoken by a gentle shaking. A fragrant smell filled the air, and her stomach growled in anticipation. Ash smiled thrusting a portion of meat into her hands.
Ravenously she fell upon the rabbit, juice escaping down the corners of her mouth. He grinned, his own repast gone in seconds, he enjoyed the spectacle.
“I’d best prepare a place for us to sleep,” He said rising up. “It gets cold at night and that cloak of yours doesn’t look much use. Best lie together and keep warm…” he hesitated a moment. “If you … don’t mind…?” he finished awkwardly. Ellese paused for a moment from her feast. To sleep curled up with a tracker?! Yet had he wanted he could have forced himself upon her at any time, she reasoned. Better trust to fate, what choice was there, to say she’d rather sleep alone, and reinforce his conception of himself? She was already trusting him with her life!
“It has been terribly cold the last two nights.” It was true, it had. She shot him a hesitant smile as she continued surveying a bone for tasty morsels. Ash gathered leaves and bracken using his dagger to cut soft grass, thankfully it was mostly dry.
Her meal over Ellese washed her hands at the water’s edge. He passed the flask he carried at his belt. She raised it to her lips and he could not help but notice the soft lines of her throat as she drank. He turned his head away. He didn’t want to indulge such thoughts.
Soon they were bunched up together, Ash’s cloak tucked around them. It was awkward. Ellese had never slept so close to a man, not even her brothers, crowded as it had been in their little croft. She took in the smell of leather, the scent of the woods that hung about him. He felt warm after the chill evening air, inviting… After her trauma she craved to be close to him, to be enveloped in sturdy arms, to feel protected… but he was a tracker. Emotions stirred within her.
“Ash,” she whispered, “did you ever have Urkisht women?” she felt him tense.
“Yes,” he admitted. “Yes. I told you I…” There was a catch in his voice again. She paused sorry she’d asked. Raising her hand to touch his cheek she was surprised to feel a tiny trickle cross her finger, a tear she had seen withheld must have spilled over in the darkness.
“I am a monster… I’ve killed, I’ve injured, and yes, I’ve had my share of Urkisht women also…”
“But you hurt because of it.” Tears welled over; she could feel their touches in the darkness as they sped like tiny vessels of pain down her fingertips. She drew him closer sheltering his head on her shoulder. A cracked sob burst forth all the more poignant for its solitude as if deep inside a dam had broken and the water seeped forth in a silent stream of hurt and regret. She could do nothing, nothing but hold him. Darkness surrounded them in its shroud of silence. There were no more sobs, just a feeling of intense intimacy as he strove for control his body trembling with the effort.
“I forgive you,” she whispered. “For my people, I forgive you.”
He raised his head looking into her face, the dying lights of the fire painting flickering pictures on her nose and cheeks. There was nothing deceptive, just a pure childlike innocence. She meant what she said.
For a moment they gazed half hidden in the prevailing darkness, locked in a strange empathy, then he distanced himself. He could not take advantage, not now. Gently he tucked the cloak around her, his arm a protective shield across her shoulder. Exhausted she was asleep in moments.
Ash could find no such release. Thoughts tumbled about him in alarming clarity. He saw himself for what he was, a coward, a dissembler. The excuses were many, he had memorised them all. Why revolt against the Ispen was impossible, why he must continue as their agent, why it had to be that way, but Ellese with her simple faith had blown them all away like thistledown in the wind. A girl would do what he feared to do, dare to oppose the evil. Could he in all conscience call himself a man leaving her to go alone where he dared not go? As the dim light of dawn filtered through the trees his striving ceased. He knew what he must do no matter the cost.
(I’ve now put all my posts of this together to make it easy to read for anyone that’s interested. All comments and suggestions welcome.)