At last! A new, original post! No more of this lazy reblogging!
Although, having said that, I got the most followers and likes during my reblogging phase… After extensive re-organising of my site, and a fair few weeks of having zero time and even less motivation, I have finally seen fit to upload a real treat for you. Perhaps you remember ‘Raiders’, a pet-in-progress that I tentatively put forward a month or two ago? Well, fine. I didn’t expect you to, anyway.
In any case, here is a completely re-written first part, as well as the second part to the tale. It ain’t over yet, though, folks, so stay tuned, like/follow/subscribe/carve my name in your forehead with a compass.
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. The trees grew thickly. Although many 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 ragged clothing 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, and this was not his forest. He needed help.
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 at night.
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. There was no time even to curse. 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. Evasir suppressed an urge to gag. The low ceiling and moist forest air provided the perfect environment for the bodies to moulder away, and the black 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. He learned little. 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 anyway – the horde that hunted him was also armed – 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. He nudged the rubble with his foot. 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.
Evasir calculated his chances of survival. The 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 I am not alone. He factored the woman into his calculations. A cold feeling developed in the pit of his stomach. So, Evasir, will you now leave her and save yourself? Evasir was under no pretences; he had never been the least bit heroic. Do you really think that if they find her, they’ll stop looking for you? The cold dropped out of his belly into his legs. Damn. He retrieved his burden from the earthen floor.
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.
Evasir 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 was pale as frost. He had picked her up, 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. It began to drizzle.
The sounds of snarling increased, mingled with the more disturbing sound of cruel laughter. The raiders growled constantly, everyone knew that, 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 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. Everyone knew that.
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 given 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, he did not need a broadsword: 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.
* * *
Instantly, he dropped to his belly. The woman lay close by him. With luck, the horde would recognise a place they had already raided and would pass it by. If his luck was bad, they would use the lower floors as shelter for the night, and would move on in the morning. In that case, he would be forced to stay silent and motionless until they had gone, but at least they would not climb the dirt slope, which the drizzle was turning into a muddy river. If the Gods truly despised him, then the plague already knew he was there and would find a way to winkle him out and kill him.
As for the woman…they would surely kill her, but the when and the how of it would bring the blackhearts no end of amusement.
An arrow sailed over the wooden ramparts and fell, quivering, into the floor, accompanied by raucous laughter. He stared at the arrow, his eyes wide. The Gods, it seemed, hated him more than he knew: fire arrows. The raiders could use fire arrows. Not much was known about the raiders – not where they came from, not what they wanted – but most stories seemed to agree: they were no strategists, and they were certainly not innovators in the field of warfare. And yet here they were, suddenly using fire arrows.
Embers rained from the sky. The wood was wet and the fires did not catch at first, but he knew that the guttering flames would soon become a blaze if the raiders continued their sport. Either that, or one of the arrows would poke a neat hole in him, and that would be the end of that. Evasir crawled to the woman and held her close, then pulled one of the dead soldiers over the top of both of them. He stank. He had obviously been dead for two or three days but, while his armour had not protected him in life, in death his body provide Evasir’s armour.
The rain beat a tinny rhythm on the dead man’s steel plate, a rhythm which picked up as the drizzle became a downpour. Gods, you spit on me, Evasir thought, but you also spit on the raiders, and on their fires. So spit yourselves dry! As the deluge extinguished the last of the fires and washed the corpse’s grime into Evasir’s face and eyes, he heard a scrabbling sound over by the slope. Damn.
A raider appeared at the opening in the wattle and daub near where the stairs used to be. As Evasir had suspected, he had not been able to climb the slope, but it seemed that climbing a wall was easier. It was over. They had found a way up. The raider did not see them at first; evidently he was looking for living beings and not drowned rats hiding under a body. The man stalked cautiously, the floor creaking under his boots as he first approached their hiding place, and then went past it.
The sound of the body shifting drew the raider’s attention, but he wasn’t quick enough. Evasir’s dagger slipped soundlessly up into the soft flesh between the legs, where the blood flowed strongly, and an enemy’s life could be drained in seconds. He slashed weakly at Evasir once or twice, but the smaller man simply stepped out of the way, and with the raider’s first step he fell, and did not get up again.
The rain dripped from Evasir’s stubble. He picked up the pale, beautiful woman and took her out of the way of the red river that crept over the wooden floor toward her; he picked her up as if she were made of silk that his rough hands might destroy, and carried her far away from the opening from which the raider had appeared.
As gently as he could, he lay her down. She was so beautiful. He lay his head on her chest, but over the drumming of the rain and the shouts of the raiders to their missing comrade, he could hear nothing. There was a way to feel the beating of the heart, in the neck or the hand, but he did not know the secret. Her eyes were closed, as if sleeping. Did she breathe? He reached out his hand to feel the breath from her nose, but his hands were soaking with rain and with blood, and the sound of laughing made him turn.
Two more had somehow made the ascent, and as they approached they split up, skirting the edge of the building and forcing him to look at either one or the other, but never both. They laughed at their dead warrior and they laughed at the man, and they laughed at the woman. In that moment he realised that he could never have saved her; when the raiders come, there are those that flee, and those that die, and she had not been quick enough.
The raiders drew closer, clever enough to be wary, for the man who stood before them had already dispatched one of their number, but they never stopped laughing. The rain soaked them all to the skin. Evasir raised his hands, pushing long, black hair out of his eyes. He drew his dagger, and the raiders laughed at that too, and then, in one quick motion, he laid the woman’s throat open to the rain and sprang from the ramparts.