This one’s a little special as, unlike many of the other stories on this website, it actually takes place on Eormen. Hope you enjoy it. If you don’t, you can leave me a nasty comment below.
The boy was tall for his age, not yet as tall as his older brother, but as tall as one can reasonably expect to be who is only eight years old. As a rule, he followed his brother like a shadow, but today Raan was elusive. At fourteen, Raan was practically a man; next year their father would present him with his own kolt, and that would be that. Coep feared losing his brother to adulthood but, being a child, found the thought easy to push from his mind.
He stood with one foot on the wooden fence, watching the sun go down. The desert sun was a punishing thing; it waged a war of attrition with the land, looking down with scorn on the people, the animals, the plants who toiled beneath it. It sapped the energy from everything it touched, and sooner or later even the strongest man gave up trying to fight it, and his family placed him deep into the earth, where it was cool, and the sun could no longer reach him, and only then could he rest.
Coep, however, was still only a boy, and filled with the wild spirit that went with it. His chores for the day were finished and now he had plenty of time to impersonate his brother while Raan was busy with whatever it was older brothers did. He placed one hand on his hip and scratched at his temple, as Raan always did when he was thinking. He supposed Raan was probably with their father, as both were nowhere to be seen.
Only about five hundred yards away, a light appeared on the cooling sands, the source impossible to make out in the gathering dusk. It danced in the distance, flickering and waving like a drunk, but Coep knew better than to leave the safety of the ranch; out in the desert were monsters. Nobody had yet identified how many kinds there were, but there was a complex food chain out there in the desert, and humans were always at the bottom.
The light had grown closer.
A good man with a well-made kolt could kill one monster, and a really good man might kill four, but a kolt must eventually be reloaded, and before you’ve done that, your belly is open to the wind and your guts are coiling up on the sand. “A kolt is a formidable weapon,” Coep’s father would say, “but when it is empty, all that is left is the man.” Sometimes, he would talk of the monsters he had seen and killed in the desert. Some walked on two legs, some on four, some on many more, or none at all. But the ones that Coep feared the most were the ones that lured their prey with a familiar shape.
“Like a hermit sleeping under rags,” their father had said, “and the desert is no place for a hermit, especially at night. I approached that hermit and lost two toes.” He had lifted his right foot and wiggled his remaining toes and his sons had listened, encased in the warmth of the fire and safe from the outside. “Maybe I should have seen that it wasn’t human, maybe I could have seen the claws if I had tried, but I didn’t, and I lost two toes.” He had gathered his sons up in his arms, softening his next words with the embrace.
“My sons: you will never – EVER – set foot outside the boundaries I have set up. Within sight of the house I can protect you. Outside the fence…” His eyes had grown cold and hard. “Outside the fence, the desert will chew you and swallow you.”
Naturally, Raan and Coep had begun their tests of manliness only a few days later. When their father was busy, they were able to sit on the fence and touch the outside with their toes. Raan had even stood outside the fence, but Coep had not dared. Later, without him, he had managed it, but Raan had not seen it and had accused him of lying.
The light had grown closer now, and Coep could see that it truly was a drunk out in the desert. The light was a lantern strung on a pole, which the figure carried braced against his shoulder as he weaved across the cooling sands. “Hey!” Coep shouted, but the drunk did not hear. In the dark, he might miss the ranch altogether, and then it would surely be death for him. Coep repeated his cry but it was swallowed by the night. He would have to get closer.
Coep lowered himself until his feet were touching the sand and took a few tentative steps towards the light. “Hey!” he cried again. Nothing. Coep jogged a few paces toward him and shouted. Nothing. Coep decided to fetch him; if he couldn’t hear at this distance, perhaps he was deaf. Perhaps he was ill. The light winked out and Coep’s insides went cold.
Too far behind him, the lanterns of the ranch burned. In front of him, there was nothing. Night had fallen and he might as well have been blind. Something approached him at speed, with a clicking as of many legs, and Coep lost all pretence of bravery. Screaming, he sprinted for the lights, watching as the figures of Raan and their father stepped out of the barn. The sight brought little relief; they were so far away. By the time they reached him, the desert would have chewed and swallowed.
A blinding pain in his shin felled him. Coep screamed at himself to stand but his energy was spent, sucked away by fear and by pain. A loud crack sounded above him and a skittering sound receded a short distance. Coep probed his leg and found it still where it should be. The fence! Coep had struck the fence, and the monster had crashed through it. He stood, but his leg could not support him and he fell once more. He heard the monster approach again and the light he had seen in the desert appeared, this time much closer.
Coep could see the beast’s every scale as it reared up and waved scythe-like appendages. It no longer looked like a drunk. The light it carried at the end of a long and flexible proboscis waved about, throwing crazy shadows over itself and the prone figure on the ground. Loose skin flapped about it like a cloak while too many legs to count continued to weave their insane dance. Coep screwed his eyes tight shut. Never – EVER – leave the boundaries…There was scuffling, and a scream, and then splatch.
Coep’s face was covered in salty blood. Splatch. Splatch. He opened his eyes as the monster stumbled and fell. From the flat of his back, he watched as his father stalked toward the prostrate monster, his kolt aimed squarely at the head, watching for the minutest movement. Apparently satisfied, he moved away, towards a second heap on the ground.
On shaky legs, Coep approached where his father crouched, every step forcing the dread up from his guts until he thought he would vomit. The iron smell of blood was in his nostrils and he could hear his father tearing his clothes into bandages. Raan lay on the floor, a deep gash in his leg and his blood draining into the thirsty sands. The face Coep’s father turned to him was one of pure disappointment; there was no love in that look, only a weary determination. His voice was stone.
“Pack your things and pack your brother’s things. At first light, we return to the city.”