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.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce