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 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 all 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, and I need to know, so just... show me how to do it." 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. Go 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.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
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