"I'm going to the bog." she called softly, sitting back to push her cold feet into her boots. William replied from a small distance outside, advising her to head downhill.
Deer had worn a way down the flank of the gully, then turned it over a small dividing ridge in favour of its neighbour, her torch hunting out its lead amid the glistening litter and the thick, slippery green of fallen branches. Her thermals held the warmth of her sleeping bag against her skin; the fleet sound of water lead her on through frilled falls of milky lichen toward a dim lacuna in the trees. A stream poured from some hidden font in the head of the ravine dashed white beneath the waxing moon, whipped by the speed of its descent over weirs of tumbled wood and gurgling circuitously around small boulders. The icy light fell in a narrow aisle in both directions but she followed the descending grade, pushing her way through waist-high bracken, then pausing, rolling the elastic from her waist and sinking down amid the dripping plumes to relieve herself. The cigarette she sheltered with both hands had been flattened by its sequestration in her clothing, but still offered respite. Closing her eyes, she let the smoke curl before her, breathing it softly toward the stream.
Without the sound of her own movement to overwrite it, the spattering of falling water at some small distance turned her head and she ground the butt into the mold between her boots. The stream dropped, chute-like, over a tall face of glistening black stone, losing a portion of its volume in spray and plunging into a sunken pool overhung with weeping epiphytes and ferns. Susan stopped short when she found herself standing in tiny, snaking tributaries intent upon their own route over the drop, peering into what she could see of the dark little cirque below and pondering the likelihood of surviving any fall into its depths. The stream resumed at a cleft in the bowl, winding onward into trees and past a figure returning water to the rivulet from its dripping hair and features as they kneeled beside its broken edge. She might have hailed anyone else over the sound of the fall but Edward's solitude impressed her too darkly for any such mundane gesture. For a time he did not move, then sat back slowly, eyes still on the current rushing past his knees, the sight of her obscured as much by introversion as the slope and intervening forest. In rolling his left sleeve back he exposed skin that shared the colour caught by the broad blade of his knife. The weapon flashed as he put it to the inner face of his arm some careless distance from his naked wrist, the fluted edge catching, then biting deeply into his flesh through the length of the stroke that he drew toward his body.
She pressed a hand to her mouth, gaze full of the knife as it opened two more grinning wounds that tailed back toward his elbow. He swallowed pain like a purgative draught, containing and directing it, his blood assuming the subtle colours of the darkness crouched around him. The memory of his presence while the witches had roared over her reared up and forced Susan down onto her haunches, where she embraced herself against the grotesque and undisclosed despair, as though the greedy spirit cast from her had found ingress elsewhere. A low, bird-like whistle looped through the undergrowth toward her and William called her name; she sat still, beginning a desultory retreat on all fours when she could not trust her legs to bear her weight.
William held a stranger to the ground beside the tent, his foot on the back of the captive's shoulders while he hog-tied him with a black rope selected from the small, camouflaged pack the latter had carried. When the stranger looked up at her approach he seemed younger than Susan herself, though hard and tensely-fashioned; she had seen the cast of his features before amongst Gideon's tribe, their smooth width and cropped brown hair recalling junior Roman infantry. She passed her torch over him and looked to William for an explanation.
"Alujha scout... heard him creeping up the ridge, heading back to the houses for something." He glanced at her palpable distraction, his notice turning her gaze from him; she frowned down at the youth's preoccupation with her even as he was hauled to his knees and patted over roughly.
"What do we do with him?"
"We'll keep him, in case we run into his boys."
"Why is he looking at me like that?"
"He probably didn't know girls had legs." William muttered. Edward took a wordless measure of the lycanthrope as he returned and took charge of the rope lead while she collected her belongings.
Though they remained at a practical distance the scout glanced ceaselessly back toward Susan, earning a clout from his unsmiling warden that did little to quell his curiosity, his ruling body flashing coldly in his eyes. She did not seem to notice, stepping over fallen trees and wandering water in silence. They had descended the gully to a confluence with its riparian twin before the scout addressed some inquiry to Edward, Susan noting the exchange almost accidentally.
"He's bitching for water." her companion related. She sighed and took her bottle from her waist, and he passed it on, though the stranger rejected it in unequivocal terms, spitting over his shoulder. Snatching a length of dead wood from the ground William whipped it across the offender's head, causing him to grunt and stagger sideways. "He won't drink anything that's touched a woman's mouth." he told her. Little suggested itself in reply to so basic an objection and she digested it for the remainder of their descent. The rivulet flanking their passage into the sombre valley disturbed her with its ceaseless referral to the sight she struggled to forget, reciting tuneless songs and staring at the blank walls of the forest. She tasted nothing of the energy bars that she devoured from each hand, sitting with her eyes closed in a rift between two hillsides when they halted. The scout crouched before a fallen trunk, his hair pasted to his forehead in short spikes lending emphasis to the glare that watched her eat; it shifted from her lips to her breasts, feasting on shapes half-secluded by her clothing, moving downward over the damp cloth grasping her thighs. An erection stood in the crotch of his combat pants and he leant over it, letting the saliva pooled in the floor of his mouth spill from his lips onto the ground between them.
"Who's your boyfriend?" William smiled from his seat beside her, picking beneath his fingernail with the tip of his knife.
"Vech íthut an batcha yún In thichu... yet sika wel shumúcha lá ímr kitchu lanún." the prisoner complained, and he translated the remark for her.
"You feed this bitch while I starve. One day your cock will run off to find some balls."
"Tell him I keep your fucking balls in my handbag." Susan muttered. He chuckled to himself and replied on her behalf.
"Shata kitám íyet fíkka lanún lá sha hina-bati."
"In yet hadu lí sha ábita." the scout retorted.
"And my head is up in your ladyplace. Like it's a bad thing."
Her gaze narrowed.
"Tell him I've got a gun and I'll blow his fucking dick off if I can still see it in three seconds."
"Shata kitám at itát in shata wel ifféla yet sika utut."
"Sootcha ábita." spat the youth, referring another request to Edward. The latter lifted him to his feet and stood a foot on his tether; the scout pushed down his fly with his bound hands so that she might enjoy the spectacle of both his tumescence and the micturition he coaxed past it, turning to direct the splattering flow onto the cowl of her pack. Edward flicked up the lead and wrenched the offender sideways, though he rolled up from his fall and sprang at Susan, eyes burning white; checked hard, he hung from the rope knotted about his neck and slavered, mouth falling open to pour out his dripping tongue and a low, moaning snarl. Without looking from him she reached back into her belt for her hunting blade. William caught her wrist, arresting its trajectory.
"Christabel..." he confided. "We need him alive."
The miscreant's collar choked him tightly as Edward twisted it about his neck, dragging him through briars to a secluded remove.
Walking with William proved no preparation for trailing his brother, the latter’s obsessive desire for solitude diluting his custodial obligations and keeping him more out of sight than not. They had been compelled to take a steep line to avoid the tumbling spate that flushed the valleys after a solid night of rain, Edward demanding two-thirds of the tallest eminence from her in the second half of the day. Susan stumbled over debris that rolled and slid out underfoot, pitching her onto her face a dozen times and pasting a dirty taste to her lips and the roof of her mouth. Her legs shook beneath her when she halted amid crazed mounds of swamped leaves and sagging fern. Night fell like volcanic ash, sifting slowly downward and binding the trees and mountainside into a single complex, though darkness had long since descended in her estimation, the miles and trees and contours shuffling by unheeded. As she gained the first of a line of saddles leading up to the crest of the ridge, wind struck and slammed her onto her back, ripping the scant warmth from her clothes when she tried to rise, hollowing the breath from her open mouth and slapping her hair and lashes into her eyes. She turned her back to it and sank down. Nothing remained of Edward’s passage; the idea that she was still following him at all blew away through the trees while she groped on all fours into a half-naked grove. In the light of the torch tied to the side of her head a spotless cohort of destroying angel fungi stood like tokens carved from ivory where they had pushed up through the litter. The poison so strongly suggested by their pale, sardonic shapes seemed almost to rise around her and resorb into her lungs as she panted on her knees, their pallid forms distorting sideways then scurrying back to their original positions like facetious imps. She closed her mouth too late, all she had consumed that morning deserting her in a wave she expressed onto the mushrooms, bile dripping slowly from their velvet caps. The mouse-grey trunks blurred like the fungi while she struggled with the tab beneath her chin and shook off her parka.
On looking up she took too long to find Edward’s face. They stared at one another in an impasse he did not indulge, pressing a hand to the side of her neck then taking the torch from her head and turning it into her eyes, peering intently at the sluggish action of her pupils. Susan shrank from him, attempting to crawl away from his hands, her dread of the hidden wounds behind them prompting another nauseated emission that ran from her chin. He pulled her to her feet and watched her lurch toward the slope with the inebriate ease that confirmed all his suspicions.
"I will take you back and put you on a plane. You won’t have to tell him anything.” he assured her. At her refusal he looked away through the trees, then startled her by ripping the half-shed parka from her wrist and forcing her fists into the sleeves against her efforts to repulse him. He lost his temper, shaking her with a tight snap of the arm that so offended her, eyes waxing bright. "You are hypothermic." he hissed. "You are going to die." She froze stiffly, and he leant down to zip the parka before she could resist again. Susan watched him find her forgotten tote and throw a plastic bag of dried fruit into her lap. The refusal on her face pushed his fist into his trousers and he produced a handgun, directing its snout at her forehead. “Eat.” he commanded.
The pieces of apricot were so tough and sour in her mouth that she ejected them. He aimed an arid whistle into the trees, precipitating William from his rear guard to their position in double time, the scout hauled in his wake. They conducted an acrimonious exchange then set about dredging the sleeping bag from Susan's pack and incarcerating her in its depths. Tears rolled down her nose and tapped onto the quilting as she sat propped against a tree.
“Making you eat at gunpoint is his way of saying I care.” William told her, taking a sachet of fruit juice from her pack and holding the straw to her lips. The liquid slid down her throat, leaving its acidity on her tongue. “I can deal with you hating me cloudcheeks, but seeing you cry is stabbing my soul in the testicles, so be mad, not sad." he urged. "Think what an inconsiderate prick I am for getting you into this shit. I should have sent you back to Gévaudan with a smack on the arse for company.”
“I wouldn’t have gone.” Her whisper prompted him to glance up at his brother and communicate relief with a gesture. She leant her head against the trunk. “You smell like trees.” Her smile formed and faded in the space of a blink and she ejected the empty carton from the mouth of her sleeping bag. "Stay here... just for a minute... I think I have to stop."
“It’s always me me me with you, isn’t it?” William sighed, easing himself down onto the bracken beside her. "Fuck.” he exclaimed, flinching as the stone swung from his brother's hand struck the side of his head.
“His way of telling you he cares.” she murmured.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce