As in life, there are some things you just can’t seem to fix the way you want them. You change a little here, now that seems wrong. You change a little there, and all the things you liked before don’t fit the scene any more.
Ok, maybe it’s not that much like life. In any case, this story has potential, I’m sure, if only I could just get it to read right – that’s where you come in.
- Do you like the main guy?
- Are the bad guys that scary?
- Does the world seem real?
- Do you care to read more?
If you can answer me those questions, I would be rather glad.
The dying woman was light on Evasir’s arm as he scrambled through the pine. Needles lay thick on the ground, deadening his footsteps and leaving no prints, and for that he was glad; the raiders were not far behind. Any aid at all from this strange forest was worth more to him than gold. Although many trees had dropped their dead needles to the ground, others were still a verdant green, full enough to block the weakening rays of sun that trickled through to the forest floor.
The woman’s dress was roughly spun, her fingers hard from work He could not pause even a moment to look at her, but he knew already that she was beautiful. She wore no jewellery, she wore no perfume. The only scent in the air was that of the forest itself. It was a scent of sharp greens and soft purples. It sometimes stung the nostrils like glass, it sometimes thrummed a subtle orange, but always it saturated the senses. When the sun goes down, the forest wakes up; the leaves open their pores and the monsters start to hunt.
The raiders always came at night, with their white eyes and their foul smell. The torches they carried would soon begin to snake through the trees, illuminating their rags and glinting on the edges of their steel. He would have to take cover, and soon. For one man, alone in a familiar place, there was a chance. But Evasir was not alone. He needed help, urgently.
Something loomed in the twilight and he made for it, lungs burning. A giant structure, obviously made by men. Thin but sturdy posts cut from the living trees supported wattle-and-daub walls. There were, he guessed, two levels, judging from the crenellations on top. It did not need a closer inspection. It was the only place in which he could spend the night; even assuming his pursuers missed him in the darkness, he still needed to be high up or walled off. The raiders were not the only predators that prowled the forest.
A snag almost made him fall, and at that same moment he heard sounds in the distance; the snarling and growling of the raiders could not be mistaken. Hurriedly but gently, he extricated the woman’s toe from the root and dragged her into the structure.
Dead men lay all around. They were strewn across the bare dirt floor, whole or in parts, while flies provided a droning accompaniment. Some still stood, slumped, at the arrow slits, but their bows and their quivers were long since gone. The low ceiling and moist forest air provided the perfect environment for the bodies to moulder away, and the stench of it was thick in the air, thick enough that walking felt like wading.
He lay the woman gently down, away from any of the dead men, and searched the room. It was fifteen paces wide and around thirty long, it contained eighteen dead men, and there was not one weapon to be found anywhere inside it. Not that weapons were much use to the man anyway against the horde that hunted him, but the weight of steel at his side would have been reassuring. He explored further.
Through a doorway in the short side, an outside courtyard housed what was left of the stairs. They had been constructed of wood and dirt but, he assumed, had been built with a mechanism that could easily collapse them, which would explain why the individual stairs were still whole amongst the ruined earth, earth that was already slick from the moisture of the approaching night.
The result was a very steep and treacherous slope that lay hard against the courtyard wall. This courtyard was the strongest point of the entire structure, being enclosed entirely with pointed wooden posts, unlike the wattle-and-daub walls of the building. He looked once more at the muddy mess that had been the point of access to the upper floors. Alone, he could have probably made it up. But he was not alone.
The first steps were easy, but as he got further he found that the slope became more slippery, and the weight on his arm did not help. Muttering an apology, he slung her over his shoulder; she didn’t complain. She hadn’t said a word since he had picked her up in that village by the sea. The bodies had lain thick on the floor, much like they were in the hall he had just left. Some of them had been keeled over, their feet inches from the ground and their dead lips kissing the wooden hulls of their boats, boats that had supported them in life, and now supported them still in death.
The man had come after the raid, a miracle he hadn’t been seen, a miracle he had survived his night adrift at sea, a miracle he had heard her whisper. One word, but he had heard it. “Help,” she had said, and nothing else. Her body pale as frost, he had picked her up and determined to save her if he could. On the flat she was light as ducksdown, but she had grown heavy on his flight through the woods, and on the crumbling dirt she was made of iron. His left foot slipped and his right hand flailed at the air: there was nothing to grab. He landed heavily on his face and lay there as it began to drizzle.
The sounds of snarling increased, mingled with the more disturbing sound of cruel laughter. The raiders growled constantly, but only laughed when prey was near. He scrambled to his feet and once more threw the dying woman over his shoulder. Fighting against panic, he made the ascent again, reaching the point at which he had fallen down before. Kicking hard at the wet earth, he punched enough toeholds to allow him to climb a few steps farther. The woman on his shoulder slipped and, suddenly off balance, he again flailed for support. This time he found just enough purchase on the rough wooden posts to regain his footing, but only by digging his fingernails into the soft wood hard enough to tear one of them out. Blood flowed from his lip and tears came to his eyes, but he would not help the raiders by screaming.
Finally, he reached the top of the slope. He was confident that his pursuers wouldn’t be able to follow him. Whereas he was light on his feet, and climbed with care, they were heavy, aggressive and impatient. Would they erect ladders and come up to get him, or would they simply wait until he died of hunger, while they feasted on the bodies of the slain? He did not know. He had heard stories of the raiders simply hacking corpses to pieces when they found nothing living, or hanging them by their feet or their necks and pounding them into wet pieces of meat with hammers or their own fists. But where could such stories come from? There was no such thing as a veteran of a battle against the raiders. There were those who fled, and those who died.
On the upper level, the situation was the same as below. Men lay dead all across the plank floor, but this time there were also a few dead raiders, and no-one had robbed the corpses. He poked around amongst the dead. He was not large, and he had never learned to use a sword, but eventually he found what he was searching for. Even by the reckoning of his people, he was barely even a man, but where the Gods had gifted his boyhood rivals with barrel chests and skulls thick enough to use as an anvil, they had gifted him with a lithe and balanced body that needed little sleep or nourishment. He knew that, weighed down with weapons and armour, he would have no chance to outdo the people that were hunting him – however, just visible over the top of a dead man’s boot was the handle of a long dagger, and this he placed into the empty scabbard at his own hip. He heard a sound; too close. The raiders had arrived.