á K A T A M E H T R A
Someone had long ago dumped white paint over the boulder marking the end of the airstrip in one of the few measures ever taken to improve its safety, the great stone having rolled down from the steep, spruce-clothed hill behind it of its own accord. A dozen winters had diminished that limited utility and the Ilyushin aircraft jogged to a halt with a few short metres to spare, its vodka-numbed pilots throwing off the freight webbing that secured them and lurching down the cluttered aisle in their determination to precede their passengers from the vehicle. Susan leant back in her seat and clutched her bag to her stomach in her relief, despite the crowd of migrant workers and furloughed mercenaries that jostled her, the former encumbered with tightly-strapped shopping bags full of children’s gifts, cartons of cigarettes and other dutiful remittance, the latter entirely unconcerned with her opinion of their spatial entitlement, stinking of Black Sea devushkas and counterfeit cologne. She waited for them to struggle to their feet while two youths in oversized fatigues pushed a painting ladder wired to a mechanic’s dolly from the shipping container that served as both cargo bay and terminal. They begged cigarettes from the pilots; when the plane had emptied, she dragged her pack from the floor and braved the ladder on her own, tossing her bags down onto the dirt and refusing the boys who offered themselves as bearers. Her voice attracted the frowning notice of the contractors still within earshot, and they questioned each other tersely in regard to her as they walked away.
Beyond the shipping container sat a group of small lorries and utilities daubed with house paint, waiting in phlegmatic silence for the inbound men, representing the human presence absent from the view through her dirty window during their descent. She discerned at a glance that none of the vehicles were intended for her; several of her fellow passengers looked back at her solitary presence on the runway, even more suspicious of her in retrospect. Susan turned from their scowls and sat down on her pack, contenting herself with a view of the hills.
The wind in her ears began to replace the ghosting sound of the propellors that had laboured alongside her, sweeping the smell of mist and unfamiliar trees along the ground, the two elements crowding the walls of the valley around her and the sky overhead. Her water bottle tasted stale and clunked as she squeezed it idly, loathe to empty it onto the gravel for fear of the local alternative. A glance toward the mare-grey sun informed her that it was already midway through the afternoon. From her mirrored tote she took some care to extract a fresh fig, angelica-green and rose-blushed, still immured in its fluted skirt of cellophane; it had suffered a degree of lateral compression but remained the voluptuous Parisian speciality that had attracted her forty eight hours before. The smell of Gideon’s laundry puffed up from her collar as she zipped her parka closed, the austere, masculine elements of lavendin evoking a regret that surprised her. By the time her gaze had wandered back toward the container, the trucks had pulled away and disappeared into the trees that seemed bent on reclaiming the airstrip, rendering her its sole occupant. Though she could not have imagined William standing patiently amid the rustic vehicles, his absence was difficult to rationalize, given the painstaking detail of her itinerary. She tapped her toes inside her boots and leant over, scuffing a hole into the quartzite gravel until her shadow stretched out along the ground at some exotic behest, replacing her shape with another. Its owner looked down on her with a smile.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked.
“Twelve.” Susan replied, her own smile opening into an astonished peal of laughter as William walked around her. He stood in a narrow, long-sleeved shirt of stiff, featureless khaki, buttoned to the throat and tucked into the high waist of his army-issue trousers, hair reduced to a neat black crop by a recent and complete depilation; he took a plastic comb from his pocket, smoothed it conscientiously and performed a short robot break. The sight of him so dismayed her for a moment that she could frame no meaningful response as she accepted his embrace. “My god, what do you look like?” she exclaimed. Half-forgotten in her grasp, the gift she had so carefully husbanded crinkled in its wrapping beneath his ear, and she slid down with it, shaking her head.
“Christabel... you give a fig.” he laughed.
“That’s all the way from Paris on flying shitboxes, so don’t... eat it all at once...” she sighed, to no effect. He stuffed the cellophane into his pocket.
"Sorry about the ride... now you can say you survived not just any dodgy old Crate, but one that should have been parted out ten years ago... come on, that’s rock and roll.”
“It was five hours of sausage-breath and wet farts. What happened to you?”
“I’m in disguise. This is eastern Europe, baby...” he said, patting his waist. “Belts aren’t just for knocking the attitude out of your childbride, and midnite madder is for ladies."
“Undo the top button before I fucking choke to death.” Susan complained. He exhaled heavily, sagging from his affected posture and dragging his shirt from the waist of his pants, forcing them down on his hips and stooping to pick up her backpack. “Those horrible XYY dicks on the plane have been looking at me the wrong way since Odessa. I nearly had a bloody heart attack when we landed there... I could have come straight from Frankfurt, you know.” They walked together past the container and into a dirt-paved clearing that served as a car park amid the scuffed trunks. “Is this really Romania?”
“This bit still is. Think those army guys were onto you?”
“I wouldn't really know.” They stood enjoying the sight of each other, his smile reinstating her own and she seized him again, grasping his rump and sighing against his chest. "My god I missed you. You have no idea."
"I've got plenty fucking idea. If I could have made Kala'amātya put on a dress and nag me at gunpoint, I would have." A filthy green dirt bike stood against a tree in the dead grass at the edge of the clearing and he led her to it, her pack dangling from his arm. “We’re going through town, so you should probably change, and keep that on...” he advised, nodding at the helmet on the back of the bike. She stared, lips moving slowly as they formed unspoken words, her gaze making several involved passes over his person, at which William smiled again, half-uncertainly, and set down her bag.
“I'd almost forgotten." Susan admitted, addressing her own preoccupation obliquely. "I should... have a wee.” She carried her distraction into the trees while he sat down on the bike.
“How was Gideon?”
“Fantastic. Great cook... knows the filthiest jokes... taught me how to bone a pheasant...”
“You’re lucky. All I got at Chateau Aubergine was alcoholic poisoning. And a few pearl necklaces.”
"Thanks for that." she groaned. "To tell you the truth I was quite surprised by his gigantic penis, but then you never really know what you’re going to get, do you? And Étienne... I think I could watch somebody spraying him with a hose all day.” she confessed as she emerged.
“So that was an I fucked a French guy fig...”
“He only asked three times, and he was just being polite." The breeze swept the sweetly green scent of his skin back to her beneath the powdery smell of his virgin army surplus, making her reluctant to pull the helmet over her head. Climbing onto the seat behind him she shuffled forward, setting her bag in her lap and granting her hands the freedom they so desired, reaching up to stroke his head with both. His shoulders flexed in appreciation of the gesture, and she spoke softly. "Now I can see your neck... I’ll be at you all the time.”
"And all I had to do was go away and get a haircut."
"Why did you take so long to send for me?”
“I wanted to give you a chance to go home... then I was too scared to find out if you had." William stood up to kick start the bike and she passed her arms under his own.
The tree-lined trail had been so deeply rutted by trucks that he was forced to pilot them along its narrow verge, the shadows flicking past her eyes while she held on to his belt. The view through the shade of her helmet scarcely exaggerated the tea-stained patina of the trees crowding tightly around the hovels set back from their route, half of them derelict, looking like the basis for some baleful nursery tale with their steep roofs and tiny, heavy-browed windows, stacked to their chins with stove wood. Christmas red and green had curled and flaked from their weathered flourishes; women bowed by age and heavy labour sat on the steps of their porches slicing the product of their gardens into bowls of cold well water, slim wheaten dogs lying beside them in a shared appreciation of what little warmth the afternoon could spare. They came to a lean vein of village, the houses butting the stricken tarmac like boats about a wharf. Two bunker-like concrete structures formed depressing nuclei, one selling the various staples of rural life alongside bales of smuggled and traded luxuries, the other staffed by the region’s disgraced daughters, making desultory offer of the local liquors and their indifferent persons. Masculine idlers clustered outside, the gazes shaded by felt hats following the bike as it wove between sluggish clots of local vehicles. The faces blurred as their figures receded; William slowed as they cleared the edge of the town and she pushed back her visor, raising her voice over his shoulder.
“Everyone looks pissed off.”
“Communism, now capitalism, run by cannibals." he called.
“Where are we going?” He nodded toward the forest that rose over the northern edge of the village on the shoulder of a foothill, its conifers enlivened by the rusted and golden heads of beech and alder.
At the end of the bike’s ability to negotiate the goat tracks winding up into the wood, William killed the motor and put out both feet to steady them on the uncomfortable slope. She slid down into a fern-swathed hollow and stood watching while he lifted the machine from the track and dumped it against the hillside, climbing a little way then returning with a rifle on his shoulder and a shopping bag, from which he shook out a square of green tarpaulin.
“It’ll grow back.” he promised, conscious of her attention to his head. She watched him cover the bike with the plastic and set dead branches over its narrow shape, looking as though he had absconded from the ranks of some eldritch militia. William held up two flat packets bearing pictures of slightly differing single-berth tents, one camouflage print, the other plain green. “Ladies’ choice.”
“I hate those things. They’re like sitting in a bloody jiffy bag.” Susan complained. “Camo, I suppose, and do not joke about pitching one in any way.” Disappointed, he hid the rejected item beneath the tarpaulin, handing her the firearm. Taking the slope at a run, he swung up into one of the alders and climbed to a vantage that offered a view of the valley below toward the distant airstrip.
“It’s loaded and I took the safety out so don’t... you know... floss with it.” he told her in regard to the weapon, swinging down when he was satisfied they were not followed.
“How far are we going?” The sight of his gaze wending away prompted her to shake her head. “Don’t give me a gun and then decide to be vague. Where's your brother?”
“Around here somewhere...” William sat down in the bracken and unlaced his boots, blessing their removal before hoisting her pack once more on his shoulders. “Today there’s just this hill to get over, and maybe an hour up another valley. We won’t see anyone so it should be cool. What?” She said nothing; he lit a cigarette and threw the packet back to her, shrugging. “Three weeks with werewolves would make me cranky too.” he conceded.
"Ferme ta... C'est des... was it... conneries?" Susan sighed. "Merde. I learnt so much swearing and now it's gone." She swung the rifle around toward him and lowered her eye to its sight. "Never mind."
The cool gloom against her face was damp and clean and perfumed by both the brand new fabric of her tent and the spruce needles pressed flat beneath her sleeping bag. Her breathing sounded loudly in the close confines; Susan yawned and crawled through the narrow flap to stand on the gentle slope amid the trees, gazing down upon a deer trail barely wider than her hand. One of its creators had lain down and died in the hollow and left an elegant skull to the elements, its antlers pitched sideways, pearled tines half-buried in the clay, and she was more than pleased to share its pellucid grave in the bell-like silence. William had left no sign of himself nor indication of his intentions and she looked both ways along the curving track. The sun might have climbed over the horizon behind the modest stand of intervening mountains, but the sky lay dormant behind drifts of cloud.
White feet descended from the branch overhead, their long toes venturing into her tangled hair, and she hunched and grimaced as they found the warm edges of her ears. A bar of Swiss chocolate wrapped in gilded paper fell from the tree and bounced at her feet.
“If this was Gévaudan, that would be a full English, with chorizos and mushrooms and fried tomatoes and basil and relish, and amazing coffee. And croissants.” Susan remarked, turning to see him sitting on a narrow limb with his rifle beside him. "Aren't you going to say anything about sausages? Sausages in the morning?" The black hood of his sweatshirt framed his smile but he demurred. She sat on a thick mat of needles and bit a corner from the chocolate while he slid down to stand with his back to the sky; a pale volley of bleating fowl beat heavily out of the north and passed behind his look of dubious inquiry.
“So... how much do you hate this already?”
“I don’t hate it. It’s nice and quiet.”
“This is peaceful quiet. At Gideon's there were more looks and unexplained black eyes than on the bloody bus at four in the morning." She wrapped up the chocolate and threw it back to him. “Hide that or I'll eat it all. If I didn’t want to be here I wouldn’t have gotten on that vintage death bucket in the first place, but I've found out that I will travel for cock, alright? Now I even sound like you.” Susan walked with him to the tent and watched him let down its spidery framework. “I was wrong about that thing... it’s not like sleeping in a jiffy bag, it’s like sleeping between two picnic plates taped together.”
“Sexy.” he laughed.
“Claustrophobic.” she assured him, stooping to gather her sleeping bag. “And there’d better be water around here somewhere because I feel like... god, like a sweaty bumcrack.”
A careful hour negotiating the side of the scarp brought them to the valley floor, home to the stony course of a quiescent stream, seasonal fluctuations marked in greenish algal dust upon its boulders. The sheltered aspect harboured summer’s moribund remains, holding enough heat to raise a sweat under her fisherman’s hat. Stands of giant, aromatic herbs spread their starry seed heads two feet over Susan’s own on fluted stems streaked with crimson and purple. The oily scent of aniseed arose from the monstrous plants like a spoken protest as she walked through them, the boulders rocking and cracking together under her boots. Dragonflies and ragged-looking moths, their wings like slubbed linen, fled the umbels swaying in her wake. William's shirt hung from her pack, its green cloth trailing him faithfully, collecting burs and thistledown while the polished brightness of his shoulders prompted her to again consider his body in the light that had coloured so much since her arrival. As he walked his fingers wandered through a private scale, the rhythm running from the smallest digit inward and taken up by the opposing thumb. The urge to seize his hands and push them under her clothing threatened to articulate itself, and she blew a hot breath, attempting to dispel the compulsion. He paused, turned back and pushed aside the herbage between them.
“Smell.” he advised suddenly, and she did so, frowning. “Dirt, wet leaves... still water. Don't waste time looking for this if you're thirsty... you want something moving. It smells of stone and air, or ice... like clouds and broken rocks."
Susan took off her hat, pressing it to her shiny forehead.
"Hate to think what I smell like at the moment."
He closed his eyes.
“Girl... summer girl, rosemary leaves, new clothes, tent, salt, lavender... and rahat loukoum.” he decided, frowning slightly. “You’re sweating Turkish delight.”
She bared her small teeth in a grin while a moth circled her face.
“I ate a whole box in Frankfurt. I'm surprised you can smell anything over the five tonnes of garlic I downed in the last three weeks... that must be fantastic.” They began to walk on through the towering weeds.
“I’ll take you however I can get you, avai’sahdi.”
Susan clucked at the endearment, waving the breeze toward herself.
“Think Lilian’s alright?"
“I don't know, and there's nothing we can do if she isn't. I've lost count of the times I’ve tried to kick sense into someone who’s sat down and stuck their fingers in their ears... sai a' sai'inae ith'ya simayun... she is her own creature."
The stream bed led them in a leisurely undulation, past the face of the forest stretching back over the tall ridge to the east, inset at intervals with secreted, umbrageous couloir that opened out like overgrown gates before walled gardens. Where the river had, at its spring peak, bitten a low curve into the hem of the hill, William turned and offered his hand to her, pointing out a rill spilling over the edge of the bank onto the stones. He pulled her up the grade alongside it.
“That's a bit mad.” Susan observed, standing before a row of flat river cobbles that appeared to have been matched and leveled in the ground, their deliberate line washed over by the stream, though still alluding directly to the cleft-like valley from which it issued. He devoted a moment to the strange construct, his gaze rising from the antique path to consider the oaks beyond, before glancing down at the plain silver ring on her hand, unshouldering her pack and carrying it toward the trees.
A flash of white was whispered to her by the chuckling water when she bent low beneath a sweep of fleur-de-lys leaves at the edge of the grove, dumping her tote and sinking to one knee in order to reach the strange foiled shape, the water breaking around her fingers. Their immersion was arrested by her companion's grasp; he lifted her hand slowly and retrieved the shining object himself. It proved a thin strip of beaten silver the size of her finger, pounded flat and still wearing the curving shapes struck by the mallet. He shook his head.
“Don’t pick them up.” he confided to her surprise. “It could be taken the wrong way.”
Her questing gaze followed the shaded stream and picked out more of the eccentric treasure in the water, banked in silver shoals around the stones and half-buried in the doe-brown silt. William ducked under the recumbent boughs that formed the skirts of a giant doyenne oak, its half-barked bole twisted down into a knotted, pachydermic mass under the vast weight of its canopy, roots arching from the mounds of bloomy moss like vast protean arms. It had sprouted immemorially from a fissure in the hillside, sharing this obscure nascence with the stream, the water sliding, glasslike, between its buttresses in making its way from the glade. The silver tokens gleamed untarnished on the lowest branches, some half-eaten by the swelling bark since their dedication, others having fallen, or been thrown, into the spring, where they lay undisturbed as though coalesced from the water’s own silky, argent qualities. Daylight filtered through the weary leaves; she closed her eyes against its random fulmination, too conscious of the volume of her voice beneath the branches to question him. He had sat down in the leaves and pushed an arm into her pack, producing a little bar of hotel soap and flipping it toward her.
“I can’t.” Susan whispered. “I feel... like someone’s watching.”
"We are." he sighed, lying down with an arm beneath his head. When she stood unmoving, he sighed again and rose, kicking off his trousers and walking past her into the waist-deep spring at the foot of the tree. She began to unlace her boots.
“When do you think people stopped coming here?”
“Can't tell... old ways die hard.”
"Trees don’t like gold.”
She pulled her T-shirt over her head and gazed down at the pendant that lay almost forgotten around her neck, holding it up to him with a smile that he returned, laying his head on a stone at the edge of the pool and regarding her from under somnolent lids, eyes borrowing the colours of the fallen leaves beside him.
"What would happen if we didn't have any silver?"
"Something terrible." he replied. His attention slowed her hands on her underwear, the warm thoughts it confided conspiring with those that were already so insistent, the subtle, thaumaturgical persuasion recalling the earth against her back and his tireless flesh inside her own.
"Has no one ever tried to burn you at the stake?” she chuckled, the pool swaying as he made room for her. She dropped into the water like a stone; its cold knocked the breath from her lungs, chasing her out, and she stood, clutching arms to her chest while it ran from her into the moss underfoot. His gaze stroked her like the back of a hand and she looked down over her shoulder at him, hair dripping as she lowered herself onto her hands and knees at the edge of the spring. She found the winter-blue flavour of the water in the cool depths of his mouth, leaning over the pool in an invitation that drew him from it, then throwing him onto the ground, smoothing her face over his skin in an avid and ravenous transport. On her back, the sinuous weight of his body devolved to her own and spread through her bones like sunlight soaking into stone. At first his ardour required nothing more from her than the perfect abandon of receipt, and she lay with her arms thrown to the ground in wordless, irradiant delight, while he spoke in the floating words of his own tongue and sucked pink circles to the damp skin of her neck and breasts. She closed an arm around him and pushed him onto his side, where he drew her thigh over himself, slowing in accordance with the indolent details of her kiss. She spoke in the small, rose-red space between them, her eyes closed.
“Getting off the plane I thought... I’m in this strange place, with no money, nothing... but all I could think about was dragging you into the bushes and fucking you stupidly. I’m turning into a knickerless sex addict.”
"Admitting you have a problem is the first step."
She laughed, her hand sliding over his eyes so that he could not see where she employed the other; he consented in deference to her relict modesty, though all such reticence proved temporary and he moved to satisfy her whispered urging, turning onto his back and exclaiming at the slow roll of her hips. Their soft, cushioned width welcomed his hands and he rose with their slide from her waist to her breasts, their velvet skin scattered with tea-coloured freckles where the sun had strayed through the fabric of her summer dresses. She closed an arm around him, legs shuddering beneath her as she dropped into silent freefall, her breath as warm as afternoon upon his neck as her chin settled on his shoulder.
He lay back with her amid the roots of the oak, her slow return immeasurably sweetened by the hand he stroked over her spine, sensation looping outward through her buried, glowing courses and circling inside her chest. When he moved again in her the pleasure had suffused and shifted deeper, like imbued opiates, his love of her flesh recounted on his face like an offering in kind.
The tiny loaf of honeysuckle soap was such a rude intruder into the harmonies of scent and hue beneath the trees that Susan almost returned it to her pack, reluctant to apply its bland, industrialized smell to her skin. William caught her hand at the edge of the spring and sucked the ring from her finger, flipping it into the water on her behalf before climbing into his trousers.
“Am I the only one who has to tip?” she complained, eyeing him suspiciously. “Because there’s something about this place that makes me feel as though you know the manager.”
"I'm a hillbilly, not a treehumper."
“Well, they’ve gotten their money’s worth.” While she spoke the youngest branches overhead began to move as though with a shift in the breeze, the disturbance expressed in the shimmer of their ornamenting silver. Looking up at them, she shook her head and began a cursory ablution while he backed out of the grove and studied the open sky. “How many girls in three weeks?" she called. "And don't say none.”
“There’s not a Susan Christabel in Baku who can walk straight.”
"Gideon said you were a crap liar."
"Slut kryptonite, poupée. I couldn't pass it around now, even if I wanted to. How many times did you think about Heathrow?”
“Never.” she laughed. "I told you, I've got cock on the brain. Aren't we supposed to be meeting your brother somewhere?"
He grimaced and clapped his teeth together as he stepped back under the tree.
“Alas, the er, booty call of the wild seems to have erm... taken precedence..."
“How far uphill is this place, because at the moment I just want a cup of tea and a lie down.”
“Christabel... you’re practically jailbait. Where’s your l'exubérance de la jeunesse?" She draped the length of her lime-green tramping towel over her head and lit the cigarette dangling from her lip as she scowled at him, squinting with one eye.
“I have an old soul. It's dragging its arse on the ground."
Two hours after nightfall, Susan called a halt to their progress along the game tracks that followed the spine of the ridge, the baffling darkness reducing her pace to a crawl amid the rocks and rain-worn hollows despite William’s guidance. Blood dried black between her shins and the fabric of her jeans; when she sat down on a stone he was relieved she had conceded where his own objections could not prevail.
“This alright?” she murmured as he set their gear down, refusing the chocolate that he slid from his pocket. “God no, I can’t face anything.”
“If you don’t eat and drink you’ll feel like hell tomorrow, and if you think Ed’s going to stop to rub the cramps out of your legs every two clicks, I have bad news.” he replied. “Eat it. Eat it... eat, you little baggage.” She turned her smirk from the foil he pressed to the corner of her mouth, relenting and biting small pieces from the block.
The prevailing wind had blown thick drifts of dead leaves and needles into the aeolian curves of the stone underfoot; he kicked a mound of them into one of the sculpted shelters and Susan drew the sleeping bag up over her legs and dropped onto his lap, sliding her hands down into the quilted cover while she leant into the curve of his arm. She looked out for the first time from their hard-won elevation; the valley below lay as a dim, distant impression, a deepening of the darkness to her weary gaze, its bounding hills at one with the trees standing about them, their black shapes masking the hushed violet and blue of the stars thrown over their heads by the turn of the earth.
“One day and I’m shattered. I've got to give up smoking.”
“You’re not tapped out, you’re just uncomfortable.” he replied. Her weary dubiety prompted him to elaborate. “When you’re at the last water before the Taklimakan, you have to be able to look over two hundred people and three hundred pack animals and know who's tapped out. If you can’t, you get to explain to Kala'amātya why half the slaves he paid good fucking money for are feeding crows instead of tricking out his bottom line.” He lit two cigarettes and handed her one.
The orange flame atop his lighter illumed a low recess beside them, waist high and hollowed into the rock as though by the tireless working of some animal. Susan bent down to peer into its depths, which had been scoured for a surprising distance into the the cliff; something gleamed against the low curvature of its furthest wall and she frowned, leaning on her hands to make it out. It was an Orthodox crucifix, crudely fashioned in silver or plate, the colour flashing fitfully through the tarnish where it had been affixed to the rock.
“A cross, in a hole, in the middle of nowhere.”
"Atáthik... for vampyres, when they’re caught out on the road.” he said quietly. “Church used to bless them, hoping it would keep the bloodsuckers out, but Jesus isn’t their guy.”
“I cannot think where they come from.” Susan admitted, watching him ponder the query while he flipped the lighter through his fingers.
“It’s like trying to find out who started herpes. If you’re in Ulan Bator, vampyres come from Shanghai... Paris, and it was those Italian bastards. It’s the oldest bargain, to be ridden by something that needs flesh... to strike that kind of deal and get the shit end of the stick. It could have happened anywhere."
"It felt so disgusting, to be bitten. Sort of..." She felt his arms and legs tighten beneath her and smiled to herself faintly. "There’s nothing strange about it in a spooky way... it's just... not being able to stop it, I think. That's the worst part... that and the teeth." Susan curtailed the account in deference to his empathic discomfort, glancing up at him. "When did you first see one?”
“Not for a long time. There’s nothing for them in the mountains... they're city slickers. Kala'amātya was set up in town a long time before I was... he had a place in Samarkand, when it was still Paršvãb, which is a fuck of a long time ago. He was dealing with vampyres before I even knew how to eat off a plate.”
Like the dust that blew in from the neighbouring wastes, the presence of a significant stranger in the most affluent quarter of Paršvãb was a taste in the mouth of the vampyre, a colour other than those of parched summer stone and cracked mud. That the house beyond the gate across the empty way was the town's most luxurious private residence was universally acknowledged; that a foreigner had purchased it was also widely bruited, given the train of slaves and beasts and retainers that had filed in through the north gates like an oasis town afoot. So populous and laden had it been that some thought it a harbinger of catastrophe and taken fright.
There was no sign of this mighty entourage as the vampyre brushed the dust of diurnal repose from his best robe, heavy velvet arbr stained with jade and pomegranate dyes. Splendid though it was, the garment, like his fortunes, had suffered the indignities of the grave, the creature exhorting himself with his old assurance before striding on across the road, passing between the untended gate posts, each thicker than four men stood back to back, their pargeting deeply carved with lion masks.
He found a walled garden planted with arching apricots and roses, beneath which lay benches of skin-smooth marble, their pallor undimmed by the hour. A red horse, bell stilled by its suspicious stance, regarded the intruder from beneath one of the fruit trees while their carefully-tended branches were barked by a pair of desert goats. The vampyre frowned and entered the house, blown sand grating underfoot upon the turquoise tiles.
Grandeur surpassing his most hopeful estimation awaited in the first hall. He smiled at the frescos executed by Hellenic and Egyptian artists, their staring nymphs and rigid bestiaries forming the last word in taste and luxury. The great anteroom lay bare of furnishing but this did not perturb him as much as the flickering of a naked flame, reflected dimly down a passage lined with gleaming green stone. It opened to the star-littered sky beyond the pillars of a peristyle; they were coloured drowsy gold and roseate by a small fire, as might have warmed a desert camp, two figures seated at the blaze. Beside an empty water skin sat a male figure dressed in sombre homespun, black hair tied in a tail, contrasting both his austere features and his wide-set stare. In antithesis, a smoke-skinned crone in a chapan of thick blue felt sat on the far side of the hearth, her white hair knotted in a high wisp. The pendant sleeves of her coat almost concealed the wrinkled stump of her right wrist. The vampyre could discern her origin amongst the clans of the eastern steppe but it was by her great age, tattooed chin and infamous manual deficit that he recognized her personally. She seemed no less appraised, clucking harshly as she lifted a branch from the flames and waved it in the intruder's direction with a scowl that bared her blackened teeth. She railed at length to her companion before dashing her glowing wand back into the fire. With that, the sagacious crone returned to stripping dried meat from a length of antelope bone, gumming it with one slitted eye still on the vampyre.
“I am come to meet the master of this house. Where might he be?” the visitor inquired loudly, using the few words of bandit dialect he had acquired. The pair tried his patience further with their silence until he prepared another botched address.
“I speak the Sogdian tongue.” the male figure muttered, demonstrably.
“Then permit me to remind you that this house is the foremost in Paršvãb, and you are boiling soup bones on its floor like karavansarai rats.” His execration seemed to puzzle them, and the vampyre drew on the dignity he had worn in life as a well-born son of the city. “I am Arimnat, of Paršvãb, its oldest citizen and most learned advisor...”
“I am Kala'amātya, of nowhere, and this woman is I’Tiang-na, of...” Kala'amātya glanced at the crone’s interruption, and amended his remarks. “I’Tiang-na, lately of Paršvãb.”
Arimnat's distaste revealed his knowledge of the ancient reaver’s reputation, lapsing somewhat with the passing of her ruthless crew of feminine fugitives, which she had survived in defiance of those dispatched to subdue her inveterate rapine.
“Another, lately of Paršvãb, is the great man who has brought, to the edification of this fine city, his entire household to dwell with us, having made purchase of this very house... if you are among his retainers, be good enough to tell him that Arimnat has come to make offer of himself for the position of Master of the Gate.”
The nomad pair entered into conference halfway through his declaration, Kala'amātya standing suddenly and advancing on the visitant, seizing his arm and stripping off his mantle in the first act of a thorough and determined physical exam. With his hands he satisfied himself of the creature's inelastic skin, of the sluggish plasticity of his flesh, grasping his head and peeling back his lips to view the remaining teeth and sniffing at them unwillingly. Content with his conclusions, he walked back to the fire, speaking over his shoulder.
“It was I who took this house for I’Tiang-na, who could not contract for it on account of her sex. She will die before the end of winter, and it is a small thing for me to aid her in this. She says that you are a revenant abomination, and I myself can see that you are no living thing. What business can we have with one another?”
“Well said by the worst of all the Tiger Women. You have killed more men between you than I could ever hope.” Arimnat assured them, the pitch of the response conforming to the trajectory of his pique.
“Perhaps, but I am not a man, and do not prey upon my own kind, and as a woman, I’Tiang-na has far more cause than you.”
“It was you, who came with as many slaves as a town could feed?”
“I came thus, but I have sold them. There is nowhere for them in this little place.” said Kala'amātya, glancing around at their confines.
“This is the largest house in Paršvãb, and you might have procured all the stabling and barracks you needed if you had not robbed yourself of half their price in Kokand.”
“You would have lost half your slaves in a week, with this devil’s help.” remarked the crone.
“For once in her evil life, she is correct.” Arimnat announced. “The governor would have taken your finest women for himself, because you did not know he had come for his bribe, and that he must be paid in silver, and not the local gold, which is so poor as to be worthless outside the desert... I could have argued down his price for you. If you had sold your train in Merv, your black camels and your Khotan girls would have made twice what they did in Kokand, where they prefer the toothless brats from the Korezhem... all of which I might have arranged. And living here with my aid, you will know which of the cartmen relieves himself in the water he delivers, which oven girls steal dough, which whores are worth paying and which tax collectors are not, where to buy clothes fit for yourself and your house, so that you will not be laughed at as either savage or simpleton. You m…”
Kala'amātya drew a hand across his forehead in a gesture of impatience. I'Tiang-na expressed a curse and heaved herself from the camel-hair mat, pausing to straighten up before shuffling off along the hall on her saddle-bowed legs.
“Your price?” sighed Kala'amātya. The vampyre began a hedging preamble. “She has gone for her bow... speak frankly before she returns.”
“For my service I require nothing but the dignity and protection of this house, from which the governor may not expel me merely for the habits of my nature.”
"Perhaps a small libation, on festive days... nothing to trouble you. But, I must ask… how does a woman with only one hand wield a bow?” the vampyre inquired. Kala'amātya pushed a slide of embers back into the flames.
“It is better seen than described.” he said.
“I’Tiang-na retired his first vampyre concierge three weeks into the arrangement, and he’s had a strictly no domestic bloodsack policy ever since. I never met I’Tiang-na, and part of me is thankful for that, but I do owe her a toot, since ten solid years of nagging by an octogenarian Qing battle axe was the only thing that could have strong-armed Kala'amātya into property.” William admitted. "Bloodsucker mascots were a thing for a long time... it’s like having your own cat. Less trouble to feed one than put up with all the others.”
“What is this place we’re going to?” she yawned.
“A monastery... an er, ex-monastery”
“All the way out here?”
“Yeah, well... the further away from temptation, the holier you get.”
“God it sounds boring.”
“Ask Pet. She was their surioarã, little sister... whenever she ran out of money or things got too hairy on the outside, she’d come back and sit it out, eat their bedwetters, troublemakers, anything embarrassing dropped off at the door in the middle of the night…"
"Ask Pet? This isn't her place, is it?"
"Er... yeah." His whisper was uniquely insubstantial, shorn cleanly from the grounded, masculine elements of his voice and decaying swiftly.
"She's not there now, though, is she?" He scratched at the side of his neck and murmured some half-comprehensible prevarication. “Oh god... as long as it’s not made of polyester, I’m past caring at this point."
"Well... if you were hoping for heated towel rails, just be thankful there's nowhere to have a bath anyway."
"Where's your brother?" she muttered, closing her eyes.
“Sitting in the middle of fucking nowhere, realizing he should have gone after Frost instead of haterating all the way to eastern fucking Europe and hissing at daylight and whatnot.”
“He's bad, isn't he?”
"Uh huh. Beaucoup horreur.”
"On a scale of one to ten?"
William blew a rueful sigh.
"Eight point five... no, nine. He's down to one language, looks like he has acid for blood... I wouldn't tell any blonde jokes or make too many sudden movements. I’ll say one thing for Frost... she knew how to keep a bad trick in a pretty fucking tidy endorphin haze, and that’s something you don’t miss till it’s gone." He gazed down into the slope below them. “He’s idrana á kata mehtra, Christabel, walking the black mile. Respect the cordon." She twisted, shaking out a stiffening leg. “If it comes down to it and you really are that tired, I ca…”
“As long as I’m conscious I will never let you carry me anywhere for longer than sixty seconds. I mean it.”
“That’s the most evil thing about Ed.” he observed. “He can freezer burn you, be a toxic premium bastard but it doesn’t matter... you still care what he thinks of you.”
“I don’t care what he thinks of me.”
"I care what he thinks, and he’s spent the last two thousand years alienating me like it’s a fucking olympic event.” Her annoyance slowly gave way to toleration of the concept, her breathing slowing into a steady, somnolent rhythm.
“I can’t let you help me.” she murmured. “What if he sees that I can’t do this on my own?” Closing her eyes, she settled her weight and tucked her feet behind his own, too tired to insist on any amendment.
The violence of the sound that hacked into her placid dream accompanied a pair of hands that tore the zip down beneath her chin. Susan choked, struggling inside the sleeping bag until a blank set of features swung into focus, glowing as coldly as the constellations in the blackness overhead. One of the hands sealed her mouth, forcing her to expend her cry against its palm; that it was Edward who accosted her was a notion barren of relief as he hoisted her out of the enfolding quilt with the kind of impatience that she might have reserved for a toppled piece of furniture. The sky was still wholly innocent of diurnal influence as she stood blinking at her assailant, who glanced back at her as though she were proof of something bitterly suspected. He snatched up her tote bag and tipped its contents onto the ground, sorting them with so unfailing a sense of purpose that she could think of no coherent rebuke. William hissed at him as he leapt down from the slope overhead, pulling her back from the edge of the adjacent incline in her witless disorientation. Edward threw her soap, cigarettes, sunscreen and caramel toffee down the hillside before applying the same unbidden scrutiny to her pack, prompting her to snatch it from his grasp.
“Will you stop doing that?” she cried. He wrenched it back from her hand, turning his yellow stare on his brother as the latter yanked the pack away from him.
"Thi'ii sai'inae ra'ana." the intruder sneered with scathing emphasis, lifting the hood of his sweatshirt. “Nai’il a’ si hahdri. Ae ishah esai sai’inae il’avani sha siith la’anith’le si alujha liis’ala nya.” He strode away into the darkness from which he had arrived.
Still mazed, Susan stooped to gather up what she could find of her scattered belongings.
"Fucking hell... what was that?"
"You can smell that stuff a long way out..." William admitted reluctantly, holding out her bag as she replaced its inventory.
"Mardy bastard. He didn't think I'd show up, did he?" she insisted, glancing at him, and then in the direction the offender had taken. He shook his head while she straightened out and huffed a weary sigh.
At the bottom of the ridge another rise marked an abrupt shift in vegetation, leaving behind the gentler deciduous character of the lower hills. A nameless conifer stood in infinite swathes of barely-varied repetition, its thin craquelure bark rendered in bruised cyan by both the hour and the vapor laced about them, lower limbs atrophied by shade into barbed and naked quills. She followed William carefully, ducking the jutting tinder while he turned from a game trail to cut across the slope.
“How do you know where we’re going?” She projected the whisper over the sound of her own shuffling footfalls.
"We're following two hundred and seventy-five pounds of bad attitude and it’s not exactly hiding its light under a schnitzel.” he advised. Narrowing her eyes, she stared hard over the incline in a vain attempt to mark the evidence to which he referred. William nodded down at the ground beside his bare feet; she took out her torch, passing it over the dead needles, a series of faint, slurred scuffs in the litter coming together in almost magical association at his suggestion.
The hill rose to the north in a lopsided fashion, exposing a cliff like a diadem of rifted black stone that stared away over their heads toward the south. A tangle of fingerling rivulets rushed down through fissures underfoot, the clay refusing the trees' questing roots and forcing them on broad, veining forays. Their branches gathered the mist and released it as fickle precipitation, dropping on her head and into the collar of her parka and she put the pen light between her teeth, freeing her hands to negotiate the treacherous going. In William's silence she became aware of her own toiling progress and halted, embarrassed, only to shriek aloud at the whooshing shape of a bird, its undercarriage ghosting suddenly from the darkness as it grasped a neighbouring branch. Its pupils shrank in their gilded orange grounds when her light struck its face.
“Eye od, iss ah ow.” she cried, torch still clutched between her teeth. The great bird clapped its beak and regarded them with skepticism beneath two wildly-feathered tufts, like the upswept, autonomous brows of some aged academic. William uttered a clicking, onomatopoeic version of its remarks and was rewarded with a flare of densely-barred wings, their intricate, striated beauty couched in bisque and dusty brown. Susan's smile was answered by his own, his eyes closing against the light she swung into his face. She chuckled, though her grin fell to a frown as the beam pushed past him through mist that had drawn back in floating shreds from the way ahead; she set off after the glimpsed impression, catching each trunk in turn to keep her footing.
The feeble beam jumped over the deer trail, then a pair of filthy, mud-streaked jeans and she started backward, slowing her scrambling retreat when the figure remained in its curious association with the trunk of a wayside pine. With the torch aimed at the ground she discovered army boots pasted with clay where their toes had been dragged, the ploughing trail concluding behind them and confused by a scurried blurring of the mud to either side. Susan drew a girding breath and passed light over the shape cosseted inside a makeshift suite of winter garments. Alive, the stranger had been dark-haired and strongly-built; an army-issue anorak swathed the body beneath the point where it hung from the stump of a branch, unseen face crushed against the trunk. The splintered wood thrust through the left eye protruded wetly from the rear of the skull, parting hair like some inverted facial feature. She looked away, and then leant over, awaiting any reaction her stomach might have reserved.
“Kala'amātya's not that fancy.” William promised. Though her eyes would have seemed black to her own gaze, he could find no shelter from their stern indigo detail, and leant back on a tree, the pack squeaking against the bark. “It’s... old school.” he offered.
“I can see that.”
“Have a gun...” He handed her the pistol from the back of his trousers.
"I don't think it helped him." Susan murmured, staring with a new intent through the transient brume, the naked boles surrounding them like the pillars of some endless concourse. The ground was clammy and unwelcome underneath her as she sat down in a hunch. "You said there wouldn't be anyone out here."
"There wasn't, last time." he sighed. In studying the lifeless figure she found little to deter her from the details of its misfortune despite the chill settling around them, soaked through with the lean grey smell of ashes in the encircling darkness, as though the trees dreamed of their own deaths. She held up a hand, William helping her to her feet and following the lead that she assumed.
A half-mile through the pines brought them to the end of their unnerving exclusivity, at a place where the cliff allowed room for another of the broad, sloughed hollows where a huge scale of clay had once slid clear. At its far corner stood a structure hewn out of raw wood, its sagging silvered walls and low, round beams studded with branch stubs so that it seemed some sinister contrivance by the trees themselves. Water struck its bark and sod roof from the limbs overhead. William handed her the pack, knowing its weight would slow her and used the delay to inspect the hovel on his own.
Another male corpse lay crumpled in camouflage drab beneath the dripping eaves. The figure's symmetry had been ruined by a beating that had snapped its longest bones and caved the ribs on either side of its spine, leaving the bloodsoaked parka to settle in the novel hollows. The stranger's looped and serpentine innards had been ripped through a wound in his left flank; by the debris that they had gathered in their glistening swags, William guessed the man had trailed them for some time over rough ground. He shook his head gravely at Susan's approach, nodding toward the corner of the hut as an alternative.
To her surprise a tiny fire, little more than a half-dozen burning cones, hissed against a ring of damp stones in the lee of the hovel, a can of red beans simmering on the flames, its sooted label emblazoned with cyrillic characters. In her intent upon the hearth she was startled again by a broken moan from the foot of the wall, where another stranger sat before the stones, blond and many days unshaven, wearing the lower half of his army fatigues beneath a plagiarized football shirt of bloodstained red and dirty white. A golden saint gleamed on a chain around his neck, over blurry tattoos of mingled sharks and pudgy birds. The dry timber used to batter his companion had been split and driven through his thighs into the ground beneath, pinning him irrevocably. Very little blood had issued from the pinched and bulging wounds, packed so tightly with torn fabric and intruding wood that they offered no hope of palliative haemorrhage, though the smell leaking into the underlying clay answered streaks of septic colour inside his trousers. She walked to the furthest edge of the firelight while William questioned him in careful Russian, at which the man spat, replying in his own tongue.
“He's Ukranian, the others were locals... running deserter candy down from Lviv.” he told Susan, lifting the beans off the fire and setting them down beside her. She squatted with her back to the smuggler, too oppressed to pertain much more to his condition. Hunger overcame disgust and dug the spoon from her pack, the beans warm and saline in her mouth as she shoveled them in.
“Is that old school?” she muttered.
"It's dujju nahat... the coward’s death. He must have tried to run.”
"From who?" William looked out into the trees; the silence confirmed her worst suspicions, stilling her spoon in the can.
Her stare flew to Edward as the latter walked into the feeble glow, a box of ammunition beneath his arm. He set his burden down, took the can from her hands and walked around the hearth toward the smuggler, stooping to wave the smell toward the hungry man; the prospect roused him and he reached for them, careless of the pain incurred. Edward questioned him bluntly and repaid his grunting denial by removing the beans and dropping them once more beside Susan, where they tipped sideways.
"If this is alujha, can you not... talk to them or something?" she proposed. William shook his head, gazing around them.
"They're not like Caleb and Annick... they're jihādī crews, from all over. If you're not on a lunar cycle, siith el'la ai'ev si se'lae." He brought his hands together then waved them apart in an expression of the fatal, absolutist sentiment he described. "Alujha live and breathe their hahdris, their naján... if they lose them, they're fucked, and that's what's happening. Everyone's losing their land. The cartels won't help them, so... they either end up eating a ten gauge in a squat somewhere or fighting for whatever's left... places like this. Only the psychos survive."
Susan spoke despairingly to herself, letting her head fall into her arms.
“Who gets the branch through the face and who gets the sticks through the legs?”
"I can take you back into town..."
“You saw those oiks on the plane... that place is as bad as out here.” The sun had begun to thin the failing mist and granted sequined lustre to every drop of water gathered by the trees, though its doubtful beauty did not engage her.
"What is he doing?" she demanded, of Edward's silence. William glanced at him.
"Running the numbers. A dozen of them, two of us, one of you... three days before the full...”
Susan studied their subject in the light of the unwelcome logistics, the shift in his aspect impressing her deeply. The fire had eaten away the twigs and cones and had settled into a pile of pulsing red brands, the colour painted on the surface of his gaze, and she scoured his heedless countenance while the brutal mechanics of expediency absorbed him. He had shed the skin she barely knew, emerging raw and altered from the violence of that secret process, his scattered landmarks, mapped at such great cost, riven and abolished. He startled her again by skirting the fire and stooping to haul the smuggler upright by his collar, opening with an oblique motion of his left hand the man’s unguarded throat, cutting easily through the soft complex of veins and tendons. Blood fled the cursive wound in a silky-looking mass as his victim pitched sideways, eyes dimmed, waxy scalp glowing through his dirty hair. She tucked her head against her shoulder, drawing up her knees.
"Shoot him or something...”
“It’s too loud.” William assured her. “And you never have to do that twice.”
Edward exchanged his rifle for the dead man's superior Russian model and threw the latter’s side arms away into the trees where he had hidden the scrambled elements of the other smuggled ordinance. Susan glowered up at him as he stood examining the action of his stolen weapon.
"You might as well have stayed in Commoriom Drive and gotten paid to fucking murder people." she told him. His eyes pulled focus at her remark; he reached over the fire to seize her, dragging her though her boots ploughed through the sparking hearth, sweeping coals onto the foot of her pack. He marched her swiftly past the shack to the body of the beaten smuggler despite the ferocity of her objections and bent down to tear the coat from the corpse, substantially uncovering its stiffly mottled form. With his fist grasping her collar he made sure she had gained her fill of all that it had suffered before and after death, that the invidious details had found a home behind the gaze she shuttered tightly.
"You are female... you can only dream of ending up like this if these alujha find you." he told her, disuse lending his voice the clarity of new glass. Susan shoved back at him, pulling free and almost tripping over the body's broken legs as William came at his brother, having beaten the embers from her pack. Edward took an uncontested blow, shouldered him aside and quit them, pausing to reclaim the few items he had left by the fire on his way east.
The thin warmth of the morning’s first unimpeded rays struck her face as they emerged from the edge of the pines and climbed downward over ground sloping steeply and unevenly. Thistles pricked through the legs of her jeans as she made her own way to the narrow, sunken curvature of another river, walled on its far side by a towering scarp of forest. The water was an explicit demarcation between the cline behind them, long accustomed to incursion, and primal, unchallenged arborea; its stalwarts crowded right to the edge of the far bank, too starkly massive for the axe, the proud volunteers on the clearing beyond scions of a puissant archetype, its league-long shadow creeping backward with the sun's ascent. Where the ground rose from the root-sewn cut two sauropodian spruce stood abreast of one another, long, pale staffs of light dropping through their heads into the depths of the water beneath. Branches sawn from their pointed crowns had left vacancies exposing the thickly-crusted trunks where the bark had been adzed from two great discs of naked, whey-pale wood, forming totem eyes that glared across the river. Their scale and foreboding import served its hostile edict well. Monstrous plumes of fern, twining bindweed and other supple subordinates choked their feet as though in worshipful rapture, trailing their roots and whiplike greenwood in the river.
Edward stood at its edge. She turned from staring up at the íve to study him in the same mercenary earnest, sitting down on a stone to do so.
"So through all this, there's a pile of rocks crawling with rats with our name on it?" Susan inquired, her appraisal concluded.
"I don't think too many rats would bother with it." William admitted.
"If we weren't staring down the barrel of a full moon, I'd say... five easy days, but we are, so you'll have to do it in three.” The wind came up around the river bend and swept a pall of corrugation across its surface, moving the dry grass against their legs.
“What if we don’t get there in time?"
"Sai ilsii nais ii'syln si sa'ilya." Edward observed unexpectedly, prompting her to look back to his brother.
"He said you won't survive the night."
Brushing the dust from her water bottle, she lifted what remained in it to her lips.
"Anything else I should know?"
William edged a pile of little stones into a berm with his bare toes.
“Just the usual rural bullshit... if the weather turns, we could be forced to sit out a month, and you’ve got food for maybe two weeks. That's not a dealbreaker... you can eat flesh and there's plenty around. But if something happens to you, there's no opiates, no antibiotics.” he explained. "Sorry, cloudcheeks..."
"It's not your fault." Susan sighed. "I should have brought some."
“If I have to make a run for pharms with these alujha arsehats in the way, it’d be forty eight hours, minimum, and you’ll be left chewing wood with that there tap dancing on your fucking morale.” he added, nodding at his brother.
"He doesn't speak English any more." she reminded him. They shared a brief and private smile.
"It's the distance, more than anything. Three days... it's not enough time.”
Her dark, dry eyes caught Edward’s gaze.
“There you go... it might not be a dead loss. I might not make it, and I'll probably break something trying. I could be begging you to shoot me in twenty four hours, so don't bother looking like I'm the one who'll get you fucking killed." She turned back to William. "Do you think he ever wonders why he's out here on his own?"
Dissent lapsing, he waited while she hauled herself to her feet and walked with him to the water’s edge. She knelt to fill their bottles and slake her thirst; to her surprise, her two companions began to shed their packs and weapons, then their uppermost items of clothing, descending to their knees beside the river. From its shallows they each lifted a dripping hand and touched it to their heads, murmuring a private orison, abashing her own thoughtless entitlement. William glanced at her silent inquiry.
“Puja... thanking you, Great Mother, for not smiting us in advance, and for the use of your gracious amenities, sincerely, your loyal servant Sachiin, PS, please don’t smite my godless bitch either, I’m not done with her arse, thanks again, yours truly amen etc.”
“She’ll smite you for calling me your godless bitch.”
“She knows I mean well.” They watched Edward assume his burden of ordinance and pick up half the water she had collected, wading out into the river alone. William waited until he had disappeared between the two gigantic spruce before granting her a look of secretive admiration. “Nice burn back there, but I’d wait til he gets off his rag before tweaking him again.”
“Yes, well now he’s got my fucking drinking water, hasn’t he?” she whispered.
“If you think about his romantic orientation Christabel, the kick he gets from yanking your chain is probably semi-erotic, so er, yeah... keep that in mind.” With her boots tied across her shoulders, Susan climbed awkwardly onto William's own as he knelt for her; he secured her legs and rose so quickly to his full height that she cried out and clutched his chin with both hands, urging him to stand still. “I am standing still.” he replied. She gazed around them with his rifle balanced across her thighs, directing him via her grasp on his ears.
"How can you stand being so far off the ground? Be careful..." she added, sucking in a breath when he stepped down into the water. It rose to lap the bare soles of her feet while he paused in the midst of the stream to negotiate a sunken snag; she bent low and pressed her face into his hair. "I think I would have flown all this way just to smell you."
"And that's perfectly healthy and normal. But we have to get to Pet’s without giving Chucky an excuse to take a run at the gristle-munchers." he advised discreetly. "He’d chew through fucking lead to start shit with someone. If we do bump into dog, we front for our sweet fucking lives... if they poke us with their sweaty trouser wood, we let them, sha bai?"
"I can't wait. Oh fuck...” she cried as his last packet of cigarettes floated free of his inundated breast pocket. He lurched sideways, threatening to tip her into the river and caught them, setting them on his head for the remainder of their crossing.
In its cryptic, pristine harmonies of form and saturated colour the forest might have seemed to Susan a sympathetic refuge, at least to that part of her most weary of her own shape. Its disregard was perfect but its anamorphic scale, crowded so unremittingly over watershed ridges and stream-hewn valleys, resisted idle appreciation and began by late afternoon to inspire sentiments that shared their hue with its sombre, tannic shade. Dryad saddles, iron-grey and corpuscle-red, flourished in tiers upon parasitized boles footed with golden hordes of leather shanks. Sullen, bronze-eyed vipers basked on moss mounded like velveteen malachite, their muted livery overlaid with glossy opaline under scattered scales of sunlight, unseen as she followed William beneath the canopy. Its deciduous component was bleached tired lime and livid golds by the late season, borne on stout, diverging rafters that sheltered both their callow saplings and perishing progenitors. The latter were pressed deeply into the earth under their own ponderous weight, taller supine than Susan stood on both feet, shorn roots and broken crowns draped in moss and absinthe-coloured lichen, indistinguishable from each other in decay. Fallen boughs were lesser shapes amongst the dead leviathans and lay both arched and lax like old mens’ arms in infinite variation.
Her tread had long ceased to remind her of the burn in both legs; stripes of smudged mold on her forearms were tokens of missteps arrested by the flashbulb timing of her companion’s hooked grasp on her clothing, the ease afforded by his profound physical advantage throwing her own breathless efforts once more into unflattering contrast. William walked with his head slightly inclined, draped by a lace-like line of sunlight where the leaves were cast in ornamenting shadow over his back and down the length of his arms. Appetence pursued her, the rhythm of her stride and breathing speaking to inclinations gratified but not assuaged by the taste she had enjoyed under the votive oak. She felt herself naked and sunlit, and the gorgeous, transportive pleasures of his mouth and hands, enjoying them privately while he braced himself against a nest of bramble canes and pinned it back for her. Turning sideways, she shuffled past, halting with her back to him; his free hand slid into the warmth between her thighs as he leant down and licked the nape of her neck.
"How do you know?" she smiled.
"It's my job."
"Don't... I'll be picking out thorns for a year." she murmured, the slow stroke of his hand staying her almost to the point of disregard for her own caution. She sighed and ducked out of the brambles, waiting while he extricated himself and allowing him ahead of her again. He helped her over a steep case of rock onto the apex of the hill, a long plateau shouldered by two greater masses. Susan wished heartily for some view of their wider surrounds but the rise afforded no particular outlook, waist-high grass crowding the level ground between the trees. “At least look knackered.” she grinned, drinking from her bottle and wiping at her chin. William lapsed back slackly, flattening the grass beneath him and lying with his arms upturned beside his head. “I said knackered.” she complained. He encircled her calves with his legs then rose on his knees to hook his fingers into the back of her jeans, biting softly at the flesh on her hip. She whispered over the chiming sounds of his teeth on the button of her fly and the zip descending, her mouth falling open as he used his own to its greatest effect. A small stone sailed across the clearing and struck the trunk of the tree overhead, then his skull, prompting him to curse and rise; he held up a hand to her inquiry while she closed her jeans. Twenty metres distant through the overgrown glade the manual elements of Edward's silent communique earned a reply in kind.
“House, half a click north, empty... stay behind me, I run, you run.” William related.
Susan mouthed the first word back to him as he picked up her pack, but swallowed her frowning incredulity, crossing the grass behind him and keeping her head down as they discovered the narrow suggestion of a path. It led into the trees, the intensity of the gloom beneath compelling her to close and accustom her eyes while he stood and scanned it for himself. William crooked a finger to her, picking up a stick to trace the spoor that deer had trundled by a large stone in the midst of the way, directing her attention to a small russet shape amongst the leaves banked behind it. When she shrugged, he stroked back the litter to reveal another brown point, then two more, until she recognized them as the rusted teeth in a pair of grinning iron jaws lying armed beneath the featherweight debris. She whispered expletives; he used the twig to indicate again the discursive tracks of the other creatures and Susan nodded at the exemplar, appalled by the size of the gaping snare as they stepped around it.
The structure to which Edward had referred loomed in beech shadow, the netted branches squeaking and groaning against each other in a stir from the east. Seeming a simple black shape from its south end, it extended itself as she approached into a windowless longhouse under a single hooded gable, standing on shoulder-high piles of oak and walled with pit-sawn slabs greened with moss. The roof and beaten paths on either side were masked from any aerial view by the limbs interlaced along its length. Edward returned from his reconnoiter and made one more sweep of the space between the piles.
“What is this?” she asked, unscrewing her bottle.
"An eidiré." William exchanged more densely-phrased gestures with his brother. "Alujha summer house."
He nodded. A line of steps had been hacked into a trunk set against the north corner; he made a silent offer of the interior, to which she shook her head emphatically. Edward had already set off on a more intimate examination of their surrounds, and William climbed into the longhouse on his own. Fatigue settled on her unexpectedly as she sat down at the edge of the dirt path, inducing her to lay her head upon her knees though she regretted the shade immediately, its stagnant pall thick with floating spores sifted from the timbers overhead. The ground between the piles was rank and bald of vegetation. Toward its midst she found a strange coherence amid the stale, paddled mud and drew out her torch, playing it over two coiled chains, their fat links crudely-fashioned and corroded, extended from a collar of iron encircling the foot of a pillar. Another shape lying between them, half-swallowed by the mud, prompted her to reach into the darkness with a stick to pry it loose. Its slack curve refused her at first, then pulled free. It was a woman's shoe, its scuffed red patent heavy with engulfing soil, the diamantés on its narrow ankle strap stained grey and lustreless. Susan reversed out of the shadow and dropped the stick from her grasp, taking herself swiftly to the steps in William's wake.
The eidiré’s lateral scale was far more impressive from within, daylight falling through the eaves and slatted walls to lie in stripes upon the floor, its jet-like timbers polished by bare feet and bedding to an ambiguous lustre, on which the soles of her boots squeaked loudly, keeping her still. A flat stone slab formed an open hearth beneath a cooking frame, the iron tripod rubbed with fat. The thatch and timber were soaked with the dirty ghost of smoke and the rude bass notes of barbarous masculinity, full of a low and shuffling fougére green and animalic elements that touched her like unbidden hands in a darkness already congested with the black taint of proscription. Her companion's glance at her discomfort was overlaid by the silvered green of its internal structures.
“Tastes evil.” she murmured.
"Nāmeré.” he replied, miming a pair of breasts against his chest and crossing them out emphatically. “Heavy duty no-skirt beef."
"There were women on Caleb’s hahdri... what about Gévaudan?"
"It's loose in the New World, and Auberjonois is a geris alujh, a bear wolf... méchant loup... he can do what the fuck he likes." William scowled at the smell of the hearth. "These dickheads are sausage party fundamentalists."
"What would happen if they caught me in here?"
"Their balls would crawl up into their arseholes."
“They would chain you to a tree and use you like a midden until the next moon.” said Edward, his shape filling the doorway in silhouette. He reached up into the rafters with one hand, sliding fingers along the central beam in a swift, purposeful sweep, his gaze briefly challenging her own until she turned from him. Eager for the distraction, she counted off the number of berths on the floor, their presence worn into the timbers like the dim, inscrutable casts impressed by medieval saints in the course of their austerities. The restless sounds of her clothing as she moved began to trouble her and she dropped both hands to her sides, shrugging back her shoulders uncomfortably.
“There could be thirty people sleeping here." she asserted, looking to William. "Where are they all?”
“This is laid up... they're on their way to winter quarters.”
Outside the longhouse the afternoon seemed blinding despite the ponderous clouds that had begun to catch on the hills and gather thickly overhead. She watched her companions step down onto the path with the same strange, remote expression, as though some fraction of their attention had departed to course their surroundings independent of conscious instruction. Her ruminations tangled in the chains beneath the eidiré and payed their spectre out behind her, the other filthy, despairing artifact adding its weight to the drag. A train of wind pushed through the trees and blew the moldering litter past her boots as the first cold splashes of rain dropped through the branches, striking her cheeks. Edward glanced at the sky while William took her arm and directed her around another trap set into the final stretch of visible path. The sight of another deliberate mass through the saplings and brambles of a second clearing stopped her in her tracks, the great black walls of an even larger alujha barracks standing not ten minute's walk from the first. Edward walked on alone to satisfy himself of its desertion and she leant heavily against the tree behind her, sheltering from the rain beneath her parka hood; the forest shifted again, tilting southwards as the incoming front blew a sudden clout across the rise.
"Sachiin... if something happens, if we get split up... I don't want to end up chained to one of those things." she said quietly, nodding toward the longhouse. William did not reply, but set down her pack and crouched beside it, delving blindly amid its contents. Sliding the handgun he had pressed on her from the pocket of her parka, she held it out to him, wiping at her nose. "I know you know the best way to do it, and I need to know, so just... show me how." she urged. "Please." He shook his head and whispered in his own tongue, and she glanced toward Edward's return from the eidiré; he took the weapon from her and replaced it, upside down, in her grasp.
"Put it in your mouth. Angle up an inch from the base of your skull and keep that line." he advised over his shoulder on his way to resuming point.
Her breath threw plumes of thick white vapour as she stood staring dumbly at William, rain dripping from her chin onto her boots. They marched on inside her skull as she held the end of the tent with hands that glowed, crimson and freezing, inside her wet gloves. The wind had stripped the leaves from the tallest beeches, leaving a short black-stone bluff and its footing of bracken to offer a brake from the rain that had already worked beneath her parka and soaked her jeans, nightfall chilling it down to wet specks of slush that pressed a cold burn to her face.
They crowded the wedge of level ground, William stamping down the ferns to cushion the tent from the earth. When she did not avail herself of it immediately he reached out and helped her from her parka, its padded folds clinging like a hundred years of dead, wet skin. Even within the thickness of her sleeping bag she took a long time to recover while he sat crossed-legged beside her like a placid giant beneath the mottled fabric, as undiminished by the day’s travails as she was beaten by them. Leaning over his lap, he unzipped the bottom of the bag and eased her feet onto his legs; she groaned, protesting the removal of her socks. Her heels wept thickly, having been rubbed raw by her boots and he muttered to himself as he examined the damage, licking each short length of birch bark he had taken from his pocket and pressing them to her blisters. Satisfied, William split a packet of soba and foisted the contents upon her. She lay with the stiff noodles between her teeth, eyes closed, prompting him to take two cigarettes between his lips and shake his head at her pleading look, pointing sternly to the packaged meal. The taste of cold miso was strangely appalling, thick and gamey as she chewed the gelid mass, glancing at him reproachfully. With it swallowed down, she lay back while William tucked the cigarettes into the box. The bag's hood puffed slowly around her ears. He smiled sideways at her.
"How long do I get?"
"Four hours." He saw that it taxed her to question him and reassured her preemptively. "I don't actually have to sleep, poupée, it's just pure fucking laziness on my part."
"How can you... not sleep... your brain must be.... it..." Her breathing devolved into a snore before she could complete the sentence, and he listened with a frown to the slight catch in her chest until she rolled over. Outside, the rain subsided into a cold, expended calm.
He changed places with his brother when Edward’s watch came to an end, the latter so silent that it was a cramp in Susan’s back that opened her eyes, his seated vigil concerned solely with the ground beyond the tent. In his right hand he held not the gun that she had expected, but a long, inornate knife, its edge turned out in an avid white plane, the black stock folded in his fingers. Closing her eyes again, she dredged both the empirical and apocryphal for something equal to the task of getting past him, drawing a wide and satisfying blank. How often he had been weighed thus by fraught companions, valued by the lethal ounce like some fabled poison, was likewise beyond her. When she looked at him again, his gaze had descended through the floor of the tent, past the life secreted in the darkness of the soil and deep into the stone beneath, lending him an attitude of sorrowful reclusion so plain that she was reminded once more of its cause. Susan wondered if that distant protagonist shivered with the same untended wound.
Josephine’s white blouse came away from her body as though it had never consented to the association, leaving no impression on her tanned skin even where it had been tucked into the waist of her skirt. The plain fabric of her underwear agreed wholly with the lean asexuality implied by the rest of her clothing; she wore it across the glassy floor of the testing lab toward the chair allocated by her technician, a south-east Asian woman of avian proportions. She seemed almost a facet of the room’s modular inventory of drawers and stainless, swipe-card shelves in her pale blue scrubs. The polished glazing behind her reflected both women; the technician consulted the inoculation program specified on the screen beside her and sat down on her own wheeled chair, arranging the hygienic appurtenances on the trolley before her. Refrigeration units lining the walls filled the dead air with their cyclic hum and sighing respiration.
Before the woman had finished laying out her tube racks the light beside the sliding door summoned her to a cosseted exchange behind it, and O’Connor returned to Josephine in her stead, turning back the white cuffs from the end of his shirt sleeves. She looked from him toward the instruments on the trolley between them, skeptical at first that he intended anything more than to disturb her. For a moment he appeared to consider the box of latex gloves, but passed them over, tearing a white swab from its wrapper. Taking up her arm, he inflated the cuff about her bicep and awaited the streaks of venous blue that rose in answer to constriction, his grip warmer than her own skin, his narrow thumb raising her vein and holding it proud. The cold swab struck like a snake bite against the inside of her elbow.
He chose a syringe and slid its point into her skin. It blurred against the wall of the vessel and rolled off to one side.
“Let’s just go with the butterfly." O'Connor suggested, holding her arm against any instinctive contraction. "It’s a nice gauge.”
“I want to know where we’re going.”
"Where're any of us going? Where’s Trent going, now that he’s at one with all that aluminum siding?” No flicker afflicted her gaze, even when he stubbed the lip of a tube against the buried needle. His smile loosened up as her blood raced through the canula and flooded the glossy vacuum, hot between his fingers. “Honestly, I opposed your transfer... I didn’t want another token floater reaming me with her gender card... but you held your fire, and I told myself you were too fragged to come at me that way.” He shook his head. “But you were just wearing that skin to get by me.” She lifted her shoulders, caught between objection and restraint, one barely constraining the other. A third recourse presented slowly as though with the colour that streamed from her arm into the glass, standing in the rack before her eyes like strikes against her. Josephine lay back in the chair in perfunctory invitation. “And there it is. Relax. I don't put my dick in my mistakes. But while we're being candid, can I just ask... was carbonizing Mr Trent business or recreation?” When she declined to respond O'Connor chuckled, capping the canula. “Guess I just volunteered for a mystery vehicle fire.”
Boxes full of vaccine ampules tinkled against each other as he eased open the refrigerator door, making his selection with a smile, perusing labels and collecting dilutant. The oily suspension in the first vial shimmered, shaken quickly in his fist then drawn up by the hypodermic.
“Terminal cams in Frankfurt picked up the British girl on her own, heading east, then we were blessed by a local snitch, diming foreign nationals around US interests. Let’s see... what else can I tell you in good conscience? You’ll head out in two teams... attached to a four-man hub… small arms, unsupported...”
"Interlaken knows you're sending us on deuce gear?"
O'Connor frowned at her, closing his hand around the syringe.
“What kind of obsessive, homicidal narcissist needs to ask if she’s on a doomed bag run with every other walking liability I could muster?” He stabbed the vaccine down into her thigh. “Happy trails.” he added, leaving it standing in her flesh.
Susan awoke to the same darkness in which she had fallen asleep, a damp cold as featureless as she remembered. Her right arm refused her, weak with pins and needles as she stirred, having been jammed between her body and the underlying contours of the earth. She rolled onto her knees and sat up, rubbing her shoulder then patting around for her torch, squinting away from its yellow beam.
"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.
The colour that had opened her eyes rose from the wrinkled floor of her tent, a nebulous Pleiadian blue glowing on the back of her hands and what she could see of her own face in the darkness. Beside the foot of her sleeping bag, as though surprised in the act of encroachment, a string of lights lay crowded on a knotted black cord, emitting the powdery glow that had roused her. With her eyes narrowed she saw that it passed through a gap at the base of the zippered door, and slid out of her sleeping bag, crawling with them into the quiet night.
The bulbs ran tendril-like along the ground between trees heavy with a felted nocturnal blackness; through them she could feel the sound of water scouring stones, its lapping babel translated into pulses expressed by the globes in a strange, staccato transcription. The venous cord diverged like some engulfing tropical vine, climbing and hanging in snarled loops from the branches, dry violet dust spilling from their frayed ends as she passed beneath them. A scent fell with it and lit upon her, of mingled, pungent lilies and a sliced and sappy green, strangely unrelated to the glow that deepened to the flickering hue of holographic shade on her arms and in passive trees fruited with bulbs blooming almost as round as her head. The cable had begun to express the same cyanic hue, lighting the undergrowth until the leaves gave way to round grey stones where the lights climbed down and ran between her ankles into sable water. It swallowed and slowly dimmed them; she stared into the depths while they spiraled around the cord, its luminescence pulsing slowly, the water rising in slippery black fingers, tendrils swaying before her like a hundred eyeless serpents.
No birds chimed the hour as cold soaked through Susan's socks and lapped her feet. Dawn pierced the dilettante mist over the river of her luring dream and cast its spiritous gold through her lids while she stood, shivering fitfully, no glowing vines slithering between her ankles when she looked down. Her teeth clattered together in her head; the forest ran up a slope behind her that she did not remember, though the mud streaking her knees and forearms recounted her descent of it. She waded back toward the shore over clinking river cobbles blue with cold. Her own weight brought her down on a boulder while cloud shouldered out the sun, its condensing mass once more portending rain. In their shadow she felt her eyes well, bled by a despondency that pushed up through her throat, and she leant over to weep into her lap.
William wiped at his own face when it began to stream in sympathy with hers, sitting amid grass-green aigrettes of ferns at the edge of the trees. She heaved a broken sigh at the sight of him, shifting to make room on the stone and nodding slowly to the sleeping bag he lay over her shoulders. They sat while she pondered his unquestioning constancy.
"Something blue was glowing... I think it wanted to talk to me." she murmured.
"The river... they do that sometimes. What did it say?"
Shrugging, Susan shook her head and gazed down at her arms amid the quilting.
"Yesterday, when I was by myself... I found out why your brother wears suits."
"Long sleeves." he admitted, surprising her with his grasp of the allusion. "If I had told you, would you have believed me?" She shook her head. "He stopped doing it for a while, I think, with Helaine, but..." He suffered a moment of conflicted silence. "Is it better to know?"
She shrugged again, unable to assort the wreckage of her own sentiments.
"I don't know... but I don't think I can call you William any more."
He leant over to puff the dew from the length of their last cigarette.
"Ala'il sha bai. I don't think I ever was one."
Her feet forced her to a halt at noon when she was tripped by a web of buried branches into a crackling mass of bramble canes. Sachiin lifted her out of them and set her down, plucking the broken lengths free of her parka and leggings. The birch bark dressings dropped off in heavy rose-pink wads as she peeled away her socks.
"Fuck!" she shouted, enraged, lying back in the ferns with her eyes closed while he swore softly to himself at the sight of the damage. As quickly as her heels mended the new skin was soaked and bitten away, leaving wet pits of angry scarlet flesh to reproach him. The sight of him poring over her extremities as though they were dying animals proved briefly, obtusely amusing, though she screamed when he ripped open a stretch of dead skin crammed with debris. They both looked up at the sight of his brother emerging from the slope before them, rifle in his hand, exclusively intent upon their captive.
He shoved the youth onto his knees and tore a sleeve from the latter's wet pullover, stuffing half into his mouth and knotting the remainder around his head as an emphatic gag. Frowning, he kicked the scout hard, satisfying himself that he was unable to emit any significant vocal response.
"How many?" Sachiin sighed, getting up.
"Twenty five, thirty."
Susan pulled on the heavy khaki anorak she had abjured thus far when it was handed to her, keeping a close watch on the far more subtle visual elements of the brothers' exchange.
"Alujha." Sachiin admitted. "Have a look for my balls in your bag... I'm going to need them back for a bit."
"Could we not just... go round them?"
"They know we're here and they're sitting on the only way through this shit in any case. If we front them they might jump us but if we don't, they definitely will." He began to look over his weapons; Susan gazed around herself, expressing dismayed expletives, rolling onto her feet and sucking an agonized breath through teeth clenched against any further exclamation. On his knees beside Edward, the scout smirked around the fabric in his mouth, shoulders shuddering in a gloating chuckle as he watched her deplore her own failing flesh. She grew still, staring back at him, then took up her boots, sitting down to stuff her bleeding feet into their sodden confines.
Edward's fist drove their captive down the steep, greasy descent, through a last stand of jostling saplings and onto the floor of a valley crowded with great skeletal copses of black-fruited bramble, shaded even from the glimpse of sunlight allowed by a rift in the clouds. Walking behind him, Susan found in the hard-blown sound of her own breathing and Sachiin's murmured appeal to those antediluvian objectives still enjoying his regard an almost somnambulistic state; it drew from her companions and even from their captive, his hatred permuting into a fuel that set her bitten feet down and picked them back up again. The smell of smoke through the trees troubled the chains that circled the eidiré's black piles and conjured the sudden, airless notion that she might find their wretched inmates amongst the party they approached. It crashed into her obliquely, opening her eyes wide, grinding against the impetus that pushed her onward, every step she stamped down in the alujha's muddy wake threatening to crack her bones.
A clearing, like the hollow of a bird's nest, had been fashioned using dead limbs to pin back the thorns, rendering it almost invisible from without. A creek wound, a flat, sluggish shade of bronze, past the salix that overhung the bivouac, the camp divided by a narrow course of smoking, half-green logs. On it lay the remains of a doe, the foul smell of its scorched hide rising from the pyre. The blackened corpse lay torn in two, innards raveled over spitting branches, and strung along this focus were the alujha themselves, squatting beneath dappled cowls like the members of some barbaric mendicant order. Their faces were pasted with soot so that the whites of their eyes glared in glassy contrast, the variances parceled out by nationality and fortune as shallow as the pigment smeared over their skin as they ate from their hands, chewing blue flesh and sucking dripping marrow from fractured bones. The nearest rose at the sight of their youngest member staggering before the strangers as the scout was thrown down on his face at the end of the blaze, discarded as soon as the gesture he embodied was perceived. He sprang to his feet and wiped off his gag, scowl contracted around a furious denouncement that brought the rest of his tribe off their haunches as Susan stepped down between their mirrored ranks. Their blackened faces crowded out the sky, the youth's rage left behind in slurring pantomime.
He was the smallest of them. The remainder were limned in unwonted clarity by her survivor's gaze; the colour drained from their eyes at the sight of her, hands knuckling up and curling under, their breath and bodies stinking of spilt seed and offal and oily, unheeded sweat. She saw the clear ground at the distant end of the hearth disappear behind their heavy shapes and almost faltered, forced to step into the embers by a shoulder that struck her own. Though her hood secluded her face, the milk-white smell of her body lofted from her clothing with the heat of the coals, lapped and swallowed by those crowded on either side. The brothers' great forms framed her own; their strange affinity and the crystalline animus foiling their gazes prompted the older alujha to make protective gestures, passing the peril of their stare over their shoulders.
"Yásta utut na ábita... jáma wel hasitt sha sittra náfan." one of them advised his fellows, displaying more complacency than the rest, his silvering hair and short, striated beard an obvious device of seniority. To their astonishment one of the intruders replied in passing, his grasp of their secretive tongue like a blow to their faces.
"Kút ifa ján, in sejju na mujjin sootcha hastná vech wel ídv." Edward warned them. "Na nachát isin na najún if íyet hahdra, jáma sin itujrr lá Belyaev na vampyr."
"Ídv tuj vech plajúr kuchani na Lúnar." the alpha replied, containing himself.
"Shata kushir ján mitha nán vech." promised the stranger, something more personal confided by his eyes and the teeth that had shaped the acuate contention. The hood flapped back from Susan's head with the wind that broached the trees, her damp hair, woad-blue, pressed to her neck. A guttural response passed about her as the creatures seized upon the glimpse, tongues creeping from their mouths, hands glowing hotly through her clothes as they snatched at her, eyes crawling over her skin and dragging her stolen shape behind their faces. Thick fingers rose at her face, groping for her mouth, but she punched them away and Sachiin shoved the offender back. Another caught her trailing hood; she threw herself forward, wrenching free of the last of them and ploughing into the mud and rushes at the edge of the stream.
Susan thrashed her way over the slimy rocks and dragged herself out on the far side of the water, terror marching her on up the face of the abutting hillside like some sadistic numen. With both hands she hauled herself over the slick, latticed roots and twining creepers, tearing her bleeding feet free and snapping what remained of her nails against the buried rock.
"Christabel, slow down or you'll blow something..." Sachiin called, catching her leg. She jerked it free and pushed on, scrambling up onto a game trail that cut across the slope between the narrow tiers of trees.
"What did they say?" she urged.
"Nothing you want to hear."
"What did he say?"
He thought over Edward's address, climbing alongside her.
"Fuck with us and it'll be the last dumb shit you do... this woman is my brother's wife, we're guests of Belyaev."
"He flipped them off with something. Christabel..." In the light of her comprehensive disregard he watched her pull up before a fallen trunk, then squeeze under it where the roots had propped the bole clear of the ground.
Midnight passed before a moon yawning almost to the full began to set, remaining all the while in an ironic, starless purdah, leaving them only with the promise of her next appearance. In the ensuing darkness Susan conceded to his demand for surcease, crushing whorls of bracken as she keeled onto her side. He spoke her name and waited for any sign of comprehension before collecting her bag and summoning his brother.
Standing in the almost alien brilliance of a clear mid-morning, Susan's companions reserved the content of their discussion via the interfluent galop of their hands, arguing silently at the edge of an incline. She turned in her sleeping bag, wincing as the flesh that had stuck to the inside of her boots tore free.
"I told you not to fucking carry me..." she called, climbing out and rolling up the bag.
"I didn't." Sachiin sighed. Her gaze flew to Edward, who looked back at her wordlessly. “Pet’s place is up that gully and halfway down the other side.” the former advised, pointing out the neighbouring ridge while she waded toward them through matted, rotting fronds. Her expression brightened to an uncertain smile until he drew her attention to the ground at their feet. It dropped away in a deep concave, then a monstrous swathe of tumbled, bramble-choked tumulus where the hillside had lapsed wholesale into a gorge a century earlier, undermined by a spring buried in its shoulder. Cottage-sized blocks of rock studded the jagged, compacted chaos, some still garnished with randomized fragments of the original forest. The gradient alone rendered it impassable except to the slowest and most conservative descent, a prospect further complicated by the maze of nightmare boscage. Far below, like some dreary and imperfect déjà vu lay another river partitioned from contiguous view by the ridges running down to it, appearing dully petrochemical in its sunken course. The plateau on which they stood had been carved in half by the water's taste for its pervious stone, the distant eastern face of the cloven formation still rendered in the colours of night. "It used to be straight down to a ford from here."
"This is why they let us through." Susan concluded. "Now they can really have some fun with us." Neither of them contradicted her, watching her struggle back toward her pack.
"There's no way we can make it before dark." Sachiin called. She ignored him. "Christabel... it's too far and too fucked up. You'll go two clicks and fall on your face... we need a def pos." He peered at his brother through the hand he had pressed to his eyes. "Just say we have phosphorous... I just want to hear the words. I don't fucking care if it's true."
"Seven six two, some hollow point." Edward replied, laconic.
"He's an artist so he can disappear up his own arsehole, but I don't think there's enough room for three of us!" she laughed bitterly.
"Listen to me." Sachiin told her, tugging on his own ears. "You can not make that distance in the time we have. Not if you ran all the fucking way, and you're not running anywhere on those." He nodded down at her feet. She dragged on the rest of her clothes, bent to haul her pack onto her shoulders and walked past him, bowed under its weight. They watched her set off along the hill top alone, looking to each other until Sachiin hurried after her, bringing her back.
"I can't sit here and wait for forty fucking... for them to find me. I want to make them put some effort into it." She stared at him while he walked away from her to stand at the edge of the drop with his hands clasped on his head. Susan sighed again. “Sachiin…” she murmured, letting the pack fall. “Don’t get into a flap... think. What would you do if I wasn’t here?” He took out his lighter and began flicking its wheel, throwing it at the ground when it provided no relief.
“You are here, and if the wind blows the wrong way once the moon's up, sai'ith ah'na essir. Bon fucking nuit.” Edward reached into the pocket of his own trousers and drew out a coin, to which his brother raised a hand in sarcastic appreciation. “Hey, why the fuck not? Nothing says backwoods clusterfuck like a fucking rouble toss. Kiss it with your dick first.” Sachiin agreed despairingly, the thought of the coin’s impartial decree making him curse again under his breath. “She can't make it... they'll fucking run us down." His gaze fell to Susan. The brass case of his lighter lay by the toe of her boot, golden and impervious, a gleaming sigil to her irresolution. She nodded at Edward.
"Prends ton courage á deux mains. That's what Gideon told me. He said to never run."
“That’s because his fucking knees are shot.” Sachiin complained. She looked up at him and took his hand.
"Be quiet. It's up to me."
The weight of Susan's body conspired with the impetus arrested by the noose of bindweed on her ankle to pitch her violently forward; her hands closed on vegetation that slid wetly through her fingers until her face struck stone. She lay still. Blood ran from the tear her teeth had cut into the soft flank of her cheek, and from a stabbing pain alongside it. She spat a fragment of enamel onto her palm and shook rosy saliva from her fingers, rolling over beneath the arching canes and dripping hellbine, its glabrous filaments draped in tentacles of septic pink and slippery amphibious green. The vast pallium of coldly-glowing shadow thrown down by the retreating sun was like a hand upon her shoulder that could no longer be ignored, the river seeming no closer than two hours before. She spat blood again, head pounding and hands full of fended thorns, blinking eyes red with dust shaken from the brambles.
As her breathing slowed it let her listen to the tiny sounds around her, of the miniature animals moving stealthily beneath the briars as they recovered from the fright of her crashing descent, birds flitting overhead, darts against the dim sky, the small creaks and rustles in her clothing. The pistol kneed the small of her back and she drew it from her belt, setting it on her stomach and noting for the first time how little of its dull stamped shape seemed devoted to the workings of its purpose. She could find no real aversion to lying lifeless where she had fallen, solitude attending her as faithfully as ever. In its quietus, she overlooked her scattered bones as they lay, streaked soft matte grey amid the briars, their enduring forms dusted slowly into obscurity, her flesh flowering once more in the blossoms proffered by the thorns. Tiny insects couched in points of emerald green and ebony hove into the vacancy created by her passage, swept away when Sachiin leapt down from the boulders behind her; she sighed as he hauled her up, blood spilling down her chin.
"I was wrong and you were completely right. Not about everything... just this. I thought I'd force myself to say that." she admitted, smiling. He took the gun from her and checked its load before slapping it back into her grasp. Edward ducked beneath the veil of vines, climbing back toward them as a flash of fluted rays farewelled the day, the sun sliding behind trees silhouetted on the ridge above. She opened her mouth to query their unbidden confluence but Sachiin urged silence with a hand and they crouched together, listening intently.
High on the ridge a pair of widely-separated birds exchanged a mournful cry, repeated twice, almost in unison with the white crown of the lunar disc surmounting the eastern scarp, staining the shadows on her hands a deep, transparent amethyst. She expelled another mouthful of blood; Sachiin caught it in his palm before it could hit the ground, wiping it onto his clothing, then slid the pack from his shoulders and launched its awkward weight into the brambles beside them. He caught the two magazines Edward threw to him, stepping aside to let her down the tumbled rocks.
"Where are they?" she whispered, to which he divided his fingers and used them to point over his shoulder in two directions; the ache in her face was replaced by a sudden burn in her back and shoulders as though someone had seized them, fear wiping her mouth dry. She turned to scrabble onward through canes that opened to an uncertain drop, forcing her to let herself down onto bare stone, cracking her tooth along another axis as she landed badly. Stumbling over her own momentum, Susan dragged it up through her legs and used it to plough along a boar-track, regardless of the tendrils that whipped and tore at her hair and face and outstretched hands. With eyes screwed closed against them she stumbled out onto a sudden plane of flat ground peopled with the standing hulks of deracinated elms; as she skidded to a standstill a sound ripped free and rolled down through the living trees behind her, a hoarse, bloated, saw-like roar flushed from deep in something terrible and newborn, taken up by others until the gorge thrummed, charged with its nauseous harmonic. Sachiin seized and turned her around, drawing down the zip of her parka.
"They won't come all at once." he shouted over another burst of the sound as he wound the garment around her neck, knotting it thickly. "When they hit us, go down, keep your arms in, in, like this..." He tucked his hands under in demonstration, forced to lift his voice again over the roaring that rattled through the fluids in her throat and eyes, so close that she heard the raw breath dragged in before it. "They'll flank us... watch our backs and don't run, no matter what. Do not run." Edward dumped the ammunition from his bag and swung his rifle from his shoulder while Sachiin pushed her into the enormous tree, ripping out dead wood and honeycomb from the empty bole and showering her with black debris. They took up a guard before it, exchanging brief advice while Susan stood in the dead air of her hide, clasping the pistol in both sweating hands. He glanced back at her once, though anything he might have said was obliterated by the hellish chorus that hit them on the full, filling the tree and the caves in her head until she screamed with it, toppled backward through the rotten wood, and ran.
She was struck almost deaf as she fled by a high, tuneless tone in her ears. It drowned the roaring and smoothed her blind, scurrying flight into something she almost observed from without, wiping all notion of her companions until they caught her up and she glimpsed them as lateral blurs, sliding on her hip down another drop and crashing into cracking green and purple. Behind them alujha poured through the thickets like huge beads of mercury, fanning out to run them down from either side. The moon had breathed upon their skin, charring and dragging it taut over a frame that answered four feet as well as any biped could; they lurched horse-like but for their graceless weight and tailless quarters, long, ponderous heads hanging low and flat and earless, black holes gaping behind their blank white eyes, devouring sound. They pounded the ground as their voices had throttled the air. She felt a grasp on her clothes, Sachiin catching her and fending the dark shape that leapt at his shoulder, fist twisting in her sleeve. The ground failed under them both, falling away, and they plunged with the undercut earth and disarticulated litter into a torpid vacancy.
The tone in her head let her watch her two companions straighten out and meet the water with their hands, a moment before she smacked on her side into its black face, arms out against the bucking shapes hurled down on her, their braying cut short as the freezing darkness burst and swallowed them impartially. The surface soared away overhead, lost to her as she fought to disengage from her pursuers; her clothes flooded, plumes of silvered, beaded air crawling over her while cobblestone knuckles pounded and raked at her face and chest. She twisted and tore free of them, kicking desperately against the boots that dragged on her legs like sacks of stone. The night above proved a fouled and battering hell of choking spray and scourging limbs and she was trodden under again, gasping a throat full of water. Clutching the creature floundering beside her, she saw its great head swing back over its shoulder at her, jaws slamming with the sound of snapped bones; she braced her boots against its flank and dived back under.
Within the river's echoing bourne the blackness was a backcloth against which all pale shapes were rendered in plastic, bloodless white, her hands corpse-like before her. The water had carved itself a depth too great to reckon by the moon; she lost her bearings and pulled around toward the crack and rumble of submerged violence, using all four limbs and brushing back her snaking tendril hair. From her remove she watched Edward ascend from the obscurity beneath one of the struggling beasts and stroke his arm across its belly, drawing a wound that birthed a gravid flush of serpentine entrails and stained him marbled shades of cold, sweet pink. With no need of the surface he read the rhythms in the champing jaws and toiling limbs, moving to their dictates, becoming one more of the water's horrors with a knife that opened their assailants as though their bloody contents longed for the release; he joined his brother as the latter drowned the last uninjured beast, dragging it beneath the surface with his arms locked around a head that spun slowly in a grinding circuit. Hooked claws in his feet tore its taut skin as he punched his knife into the silver-flashing eyes and the gleaming, knotted flesh behind its skull. Turning away, Susan caught a draught of air and sounded again. Through the gloom the far bank loomed as ashen and uncertain as a distant sea mount, rising steeply beneath an unseen shore.
The shelved stone offered little purchase to boots that skidded hopelessly against it, forcing her further along the ledge. She kicked herself onto a stretch of silt, humping over mud until her knees found solid ground. One and then another of her companions hauled up on either side of her, Sachiin grasping her with a torn hand while the last beasts pawed at the far wall of the gorge, vainly seeking egress. Overhead and clearly limned for the first time, their remaining fellows loomed atop a cliff no longer entailed by shadow. Where she thought of the wolf, they scarcely obliged her, both canine and hominid subsumed by a churning fusion that confounded the sum of its parts; they crouched, held down by the weight of their saurian heads, funeral hues caping their minotaur shoulders before flanks stratified with heaving musculature. They sucked the breath from her mouth with their argentine stares, maws lolling open and thickly spiked with fat, flared tusks.
Sachiin boosted her over rocks she could not negotiate in her mud-greased state toward Edward, and they climbed into the trees where she sat down, the river pouring from her bagging garments and the mirror bag still hanging round her neck. Her arms and shoulders shook, but he lifted her back onto her feet.
"Thi'i sai'inae." Sachiin told his brother, wiping his face on the torn sleeve of his shirt. She watched dumbly as he headed back down to the river, Edward catching hold of her arm.
"He's going for your pack." he advised, anticipating her demand as she gasped its first syllables. Taking the rifle from his shoulder he chose a clear line through the trees and targeted the beasts still leering on the cliff top, scattering them back into the scrub while she closed her eyes against the muzzle flash.
On the far side of the ridge top Edward let her lie against a tree and catch her breath, though she continued the broken song that she had droned during their march uphill, her damp clothes still sucking at her skin. The moon's shadow leant out across the tiers of broad, sedate nocturne beneath them; the river, having curled south and looped behind the ridge, passed eastward, seated deeply in the basement stone of the wider valley. Conifers once more usurped the broadleaves of the hills behind them, clothing the windward mountains with their dour, balsam-scented recurrence, thin arms held out as though in an expression of dread. When he glanced at her again she was staring back at him, unblinking, and he replied with a look that should have discouraged her, though it did not. He took up his rifle and moved off and she fell in, catching and pushing past him on the narrow way and trundling down into the swept and dusty vacancy beneath the pines. As if something had tripped her Susan went over on her face and lay flat out on the ground; he stooped to catch her parka, standing her back upon her feet and watching her continue on without a word like a toy he had set back onto its tracks.
A thick pelt of dead needles had blown across a narrow way before them, its regularity evolving into a crooked line of hand-cut steps pouring like a frozen cataract from a crevice in the stone. Their cracked, decrepit increments could not have been more welcome if they had been clad with carpet and lined with rails; she leant over to inspect them minutely, first scowling suspiciously, then laughing to herself in macabre delight, the sound tumbling away into the valley. Blood ran from her mouth and spotted the stone, her cackles giving way abruptly to gurgling expectoration. She followed them to a divergence where one flight headed down into the gorge, the other cutting across a cirque toward the north and its termination in a basaltic redoubt, the formation standing like the lonely corpse of some slab-sided pachyderm. A shallow curve of hollowed shapes crowned it in the waning moonlight, a plain, perfunctory colonnade staring through arches toward sister peaks on the far side of the gorge; Susan trudged the path across the slope to its agreement with the flank of rain-streaked stone, where it barely allowed the width of her companion's shoulders. The steps ended in a mound of alluvium washed from the cracks in the rock overhead and the studded ruin of a postern door, its black timbers fretted with finger-deep cracks. Leaning against the abutting stone, Edward spoke in Russian, as though to someone standing on the other side.
Ten minutes passed before he was answered by the tapping of miniature feet. The door was hauled back off its giant latch and Petrouchka retreated with it in the folds of a black fur, murmuring a greeting to him while Susan stood humming tunelessly, her own blood dried around her mouth and chin, hair and clothing hanging like a drowned pelt.
"You are very, very strange girl." the vampyre remarked as the latter shuffled past her.
* Read the next chapter *