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The Woods-3.jpg“What is that?” Jesse looks around, alarmed.

Kevin is busy inspecting the object in his hand.  It is rounded with the mud and rotting leaves stuck to it.  He can’t tell what it is.

“Probably a squirrel.”

“I don’t think so.”  Jesse can’t stop looking around.  He feels off.  Something is wrong.

“Kevin,” he hesitates.

“What?”

“It doesn’t look right.”

“What doesn’t look right?”

“Everything.  It’s… off.  The color is off.”

Kevin looks at him.  “You are a goof.”

Jesse’s wide frightened eyes make him pause.  He looks around them.  Jesse is right.  His heart beats faster and his chest feels tight.  Everything looks a little off.  The color.  The light.  But it’s more than that.  Something he doesn’t know how to describe.  It’s just … off.

Slowly, he bends down and puts the unknown object back down, wanting to free his hands.

He stands up and looks around again.

“Now he’s got my mind playing tricks,” he thinks.  There is nothing strange at all about anything.  Everything looks exactly like it should.  Exactly like before.

“It’s nothing,” Kevin says. “You really are a goof.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Everything’s normal to me.”

Jesse looks like he’s ready to bolt.

“Go run home scaredie-pants,” Kevin sneers.  He turns his attention back to the strange item at the base of the stump.

Jesse backs away, moving back towards their yard.

Kevin bends over and picks it up.  He stands up and looks around.  He feels off.

Jesse is moving away and Kevin doesn’t want to admit he’s afraid to be alone in the woods.  He pockets his treasure and chases after Jesse.

They reach the yard and stop.  They both look around.

It all looks a bit … odd.

The color is off just a bit.  It all feels a bit odd.  Out of sync maybe.

The house is not large, a lower middle-income home, all but the windowsills and doors was repainted last year.  The paint of the windowsills is cracking and starting to peel.  A job their father has not yet gotten to.

The lawn, mowed only three days prior, is only just starting to show the sprout of faster growing grass blades reaching over the others, although the dandelions have already popped their heads up, flashing their yellow flowers to the sky like round smiles.  A bicycle lays discarded on the lawn and a swing set stands on one side of the yard waiting to be used.

It all seems a bit dulled, muted, a bit off color.  Like a television set that someone has buggered with the color settings on.

Jesse broke first, running for the house.

He falters, not watching and almost tripping on the bike laying discarded on the grass. Recovering, he keeps going.

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For your amusement and mine, here is a sneak peek – chapter one of my NaNoWriMo 2010 novel.

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One

 

      The woods behind my house are disappearing.

     All those beautifully twisted old oak trees that fill our little suburb with their mangled skeletal fingers, clacking in the winds of the dark winter nights.

     We live in one of those cozy little bedroom communities only a short drive outside the city, the communities that city people love to hate; one of those communities that continue to grow and multiply because city people, like me, grow up and move out to those cozy safe little communities.  Somehow they feel more friendly and safer than identical communities in the suburbs within the city do.

     The evil of crime and overcrowding is confined within the city limits.  Or is it?

     Sometimes, in those sleepy little communities, evil just sleeps a little deeper.

     “Beep Beep Beep.”

     The incessant beeping and growling of construction equipment relentlessly permeates the air, driving all the sleep deprived stay at home moms to distraction.  And there are few things that are scarier than a marauding pack of grumpy housewives.

     Last night was Halloween, the kids are all over-tired and cranky, and so are the mom’s, many of which were up dealing with sick achy stomachs from kids scarfing down piles of sweet candy bliss.

     Deer jog across the road in single file.  First one, who looks back to show its safe, then another, and finally after a pause in the road the last one brings up the rear.

     They are unusually alert.

     The chill frost in the air seems to be making them uneasy.

     Their usual winter trail has been irrevocably changed and the crispness in the air has urged them to turn to their winter habits despite the lack of snow on the ground.

     Trees have been ripped ruthlessly from the ground, the topsoil scraped away and carted off to be sold back to the homeowners, and roads for new houses are being roughed in by the hulking metal monsters that roam back and forth growling and beeping.

     Canada geese fly overhead, their flight patterns seeming to make no sense while they make their practice runs in preparation for the great migration.

     They seem confused, or perhaps they are just agitated.

     Somewhere, in the blinding morning light of a kitchen, a group of mothers hunch over their hot coffees after sending their kids off on the school bus, plotting how they can shut up those infernal construction tractors that are taking away the woods, desecrating the adjoining farm fields, and have destroyed the tranquility of the quiet community to build a new housing development.

     On the edge of an untouched part of the woods a lone figure stands silently, hunched against the cold in a thin worn jacket, watching the construction.

     The old man shakes his head sadly; his leathery face is scarred with the lines of spending many years in the sun working the land.  He turns and slowly shambles away on arthritic knees, muttering to himself.

     The hulking front end loader chugged weakly, coughed, and let out a final death rattle before lapsing into silence.

     With a tired grunt, the driver climbed down out of the machine to the man waiting below, the foreman Stanley Rutthers.

     “The old bitch is dead again,” the driver mumbled.

     “Vandals again?” Stan asked.

     “Pretty sure.”

     “Damn, that’s the third one this week.”

     “She’s going to be out for a while this time to get fixed.”

     “Hmph,” Stan grunted.  “This job is getting expensive.”

     He took off his hard hat, ran a stressed hand through his hair, realized and put the hat back on his head, giving it a meaty slap with his palm.

     “I gotta go check out the rest of the site, see what else the vandals have been up to.”

     Stan stalked away in a foul mood.

     A group of men in rough dirty clothes, heavy gloves, and hard hats stood milling around, staring at a rocky pile of mud half spilled out of a large Cat front loader.

     Stanley Rutthers approached the group, stopping to stand beside one of his most seasoned workers, Dave McCormack.  The weather-lined look of their faces and over-worn clothes made them look almost like brothers.

     “You check the plans?” Dave asked without turning to look at the foreman.

     “Yeah,” Stan said.  “They don’t match up.  Somehow our plans are different from what’s at the office.”

     Dave looked at him in surprise.  He wasn’t really surprised, but you’re supposed to look like it when these things happen.  This whole job has been a bigger carnival of mistakes and screw-ups than usual.

     He dutifully made shocked noises.

     “Which one was altered?” Dave asked.  “No surprise they forgot to send the changes somewhere again.”

     “That’s what’s weird,” Stanley said.  “None of the copies look revised.  It’s like the engineers drew up new plans, each one a little different, instead of just making copies of the new revised plans.”

     “I don’t think anyone’s finding that joke funny.”

     “No joke.  They all insist they only drew up one new version and made copies of it.  The chief engineer is right pissed about it.”

     “I bet he is,” Dave said, almost amused.

     “The inspector is coming down on our asses because the work doesn’t match the plans that he has too, threatening to shut down the whole job site.”

     That changed Dave’s expression.  He needed that money.  Shutting down the jobsite means sending all the guys home, and sitting on your butt in front of the television with a beer doesn’t earn a pay check in this line of work.

     “They’re trying to figure out how this could have happened and which set of plans are the right ones,” Stan said.  “The boss is threatening to fire whoever’s behind the prank.”

     If it was a prank, it was pretty well played out.  The engineers seemed genuinely confused how this could have happened, and no one else had the skills to forge the blueprints.

     “So, what’s with the bucket?” Stan asked; referring to why everyone was standing around staring at the Cat’s bucket.

     “Some old bones turned up,” Dave said.

     “Damn.”

     Finding bones was dreaded by anyone running a job site, and all the workers too.  They were almost always just some kind of animal, usually cow, but every once in a while they turned out to be human.  When that happened they all prayed to the construction gods that they were fresh.  The remains of a murder or accident victim could shut down the job site for weeks, but old bones possibly from some ancient native ancestor could shut down the site for months, or even indefinitely.

     Usually they just covered up the bones, crushing them beneath the huge tires of the Cat without reporting them.  But boys will be boys and they usually all wanted to take a look with eager morbid fascination.

     And every now and then they’d get a green guy on the crew with too many morals who thought they should report the find just in case.  This was one of those times.

     “It’s just some animal,” one of the workers argued.

     “I dunno,” the young worker with a higher sense of morals hesitated.  “Seems kind of big for an animal.”

     “It’s a farmer’s field.  We’re going to find cow bones.  This is the eighth cow bone we’ve found so far.  They’re scattered all over the place.”

     “Hey, we could make soup!” a jester from the crowd tossed in.

     The young worker looked around.

     “Looks like a wheat field to me.”

     “Barley actually,” one of the men said.

     “Whatever.”  One of the men was getting annoyed.  “There used to be more dairy and beef farms around here.  It’s just a cow leg bone.”

     “We probably still should-,” the young worker was interrupted.

     A Cat some distance off lurched to a stop, the driver jumping out and running around to dig in the mud turned over by the bucket.

     He whistled shrilly to get the groups attention, proudly holding up his prize with a big grin.

     “Looks like we’ve got more’n cows!” he yelled to the crew.

     Like a bunch of school boys trying to look too cool to be overly eager over someone else’s gruesome find, the men shuffled and ambled their way over to check out the new treasure.

     Stan didn’t have to see what it was; he had a pretty good hunch.

     “Damn,” he muttered.

     The worker beamed as he showed off the yellowed scarred skull, a human skull.  He hadn’t decided yet if he would add it to his trophies of weird construction discoveries or crush and bury it like the usual bones.

     He was genuinely dismayed and disappointed when that decision was taken out of his hands.

     The young worker with a perhaps overactive sense of morals was determined this bone had to be reported.

     A few hours later the bulldozers and Cats slumbered, the workers stood around sipping old thermos coffee and complaining about lost wages, and the job site was closed.

     Yellow police tape fluttered in the wind, police cars sitting idly by while a few uniformed men wandered around the job site.  The rest stood around in clumps talking amongst themselves.

     The crews coming to investigate the scene and excavate in search of more human remains should be arriving soon.

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Excerpt from The Men of Twelve

Chapter 3, scene 1

By L. V. Gaudet

© January 2007

Started writing Jan 16/07

 

 

“These are no ordinary woods gents!” cried Lord Aelric as his horse surged towards the trees.  “Hold tight to your saddles and your swords and don’t believe everything you see!”

 

As the men drew closer, the trees waved and thrashed their branches more wildly, leaves hissing louder, like thousands of angry snakes.  A couple of horses faltered, dancing sideways, their riders having to kick them hard to keep them going, eyes rolling wildly as the animals tossed their heads and reared at the woods that seemed alive and menacing.  The men were as afraid as their mounts, and it showed on their faces in that brief hesitation before their features set with determination and they kicked their horses forward.  King Ranald, with Lord Aelric at his side, didn’t pause for even a heartbeat in his charge.

 

Little whirlwinds of dust appeared and vanished, rising up from the ground in mini storms, abrading and attacking the surging horses and their riders before dissipating as suddenly as they appeared, confusing and startling men and beasts.  Sometimes they seemed to just begin to form, only to be swept away and evaporated by the winds making the wildflowers dance.  It was impossible to tell if the winds were intent on creating the dust whirlwinds, or obliterating them.  The waving flowers themselves pulverized forming whirlwinds of dust as they collided with them in their wild swinging at the end of their stalks.

 

It seemed impossible for any to enter those wildly thrashing branches without injury.  Yngling, a young black haired and bearded dwarf riding a smaller grey pony, closed his eyes tightly as he urged his frightened horse towards the woods.

 

Duberrol pulled his horse up short and watched in amazement and fear as the rest of the riders, well ahead of him, rode strait for the thrashing woods, whirlwinds of dust attacking and in close pursuit, vanishing before his very eyes as they galloped across the border that is the edge where the woods abruptly meet fields.

 

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Excerpt from The Men of Twelve

Chapter 3, scene 10

By L. V. Gaudet

© January 2007

Started writing Jan 16/07

 

 

Without warning, one swirling tornado cloud swooped in with incredible speed, freezing in place half a foot from Stewart’s face, stopping motionlessly even as its swirling mass of dust continued to churn, mesmerizing.  Startled, he froze, blinking, staring at it, eyes wide and mouth open.  From its depths a darker form seemed to materialize, drawing forth from the swirling mini-tornado of dust particles, with a speed that would shame a poisonous viper, the form lunged forward from the cloud of swirling dust; stopping bare inches from his nose.  It was a human form; its head and face very clear, arms, hands ending in sharp claws rather than human-like fingernails.  It had a heart-shaped face, wider at the eyes, narrowing towards its sharp jutting chin, and framed with dark hair that seemed to rustle in the non-existent wind fueling the cloud of dust.  Little pointy ears peaked out from the hair at the sides of its head.  It was very solid, yet at the same time its entire being in perpetual motion as the dust that made it up continued to churn and move.  Its body seemed to become less solid as it disappeared into the churning cloud of dust, leaving the disembodied head staring at the man from the roiling mass of dust.  The creature had seemed to be dressed much as any mortal man would dress.  It certainly was not dressed as a man would for battle.

 

Off in the clearing, a large Draephid standing still as it surveyed the edge of the forest line surrounding the clearing suddenly sprung into a clumsy charge, it’s ‘legs’ pumping furiously as it ran awkwardly  with tremendous speed.

 

The dust creature stared at him, unblinking.  It studied him as though simply curious about him.  It was not an unpleasant looking creature.  Then, with a wry smile, it stretched out its arms, palms up, slightly bent at the elbows.  With a shrug as if to say, “what else can I do,” it cracked it’s mouth open wide, baring impossibly sharp pointed teeth, it’s face twisting into a gruesome mask of malevolence, and it exhaled a shriek like the gale of hurricane winds whistling as they tore the world apart, right into his face.  The force of the shriek blew against his face and hair like gale force winds.  The young horse he still held onto balked and pulled at the end of its reins, whinnying shrilling and biting fearfully at its bit, eyes rolling wildly until almost nothing but the whites showed.  He didn’t even notice the panicked animal pulling on the lead clutched tightly in his hand.

 

Stunned, Stewart turned his head towards Aiken, who still stood not far away swiping at swirling clouds of dust that swarmed around him.  Stewart opened his mouth to call out a warning and vanished in a violent concussion of impact.  Where he stood a heartbeat before was … nothing.  A thunderous crack echoed across the sky, like the sharp crack of thunder exploding only inches away.  The dust devil still hovered where it was before.  Next to where the man had stood on seconds before, a tree stood, fractured and splintered.  Its bark sprayed out on the ground like a fan, shattered and exploded out from the great impact.  The raw wood of the tree pulverized, thick viscous sap slowly oozing from its shattered raw wounds.  It had but a few branches and no leaves.  It’s crown broken off before where it would have sprouted.  It stood pressed against a much taller tree.  It was the very same Draephid that earlier had met the men in the woods, greeting them in a friendly and thoughtful manner.  Slowly, it tipped away, peeling away from the taller tree with a wet sucking sound.  Stiff and unmoving, it toppled and fell with a dull thud.  Its eyes, the color of raw wood, were open, staring, glazed.  Its mouth gaped like a crooked gash in a tree.  Its form mostly pulverized and shattered, covered in a sticky wet red jam-like substance.  The tree that still stood dripped with the same red jam-like ooze, its trunk cracked down the center from the tremendous impact, its branches broken and twisted.  The ground, the trees, the leaves, all was sprayed with fresh wet droplets of red.  It was as if the sky itself had opened up and rained down large crimson droplets on that small area.  The droplets were larger, more numerous around the standing tree, pooling red puddles slowly being sucked up by the thirsty ground.  The droplets fanned out, becoming smaller and more distanced as they went.  Droplets dripped from nearby leaves and tree bark.  Behind the standing tree was a straight line of clean earth where it’s mass blocked the spray of blood.   There was nothing left that could be identified as human, just a wet jam-like smear dripping down the tree’s broken trunk.  Stewart’s horse still stood where it was before, eyes wider than you can imagine, silent now and motionless, scant inches from where the Draephid impacted against the tree with explosive percussion.  The animal trembled violently, head held high and nostrils expanding and retracting, breathing heavily, eyes rolled back until almost nothing but white was visible. The horse’s lead hung limply now, the end disappearing into the thick red muck oozing down the tree, where a heartbeat before it was clutched tightly in Stewart’s fist.  Red jam-like ooze covered the animal, slowly dripping down it to fall casually to the earth with ever so soft plopping sounds as of fat lazy water droplets.  Shattered fragments of bark and fresh pulverized wood hung caught in the animal’s mane.

 

The hovering dust devil laughed hysterically.

 

The woods groaned, a low deep sound like the wood of a hundred trees being bent in unison.

 

Aiken turned just in time to witness the other Stewart, staring at him with wide eyes and mouth, suddenly vanish as though he were never there with a sudden violent crash in a blur of movement.  One heartbeat he was there, the next a blur of motion and the air he occupied was empty.  It was empty but for a laughing hideous human-like creature that seemed to be part real and part cloud of violently swirling dust.  Red wetness oozed and dripped from everything.  Most strange seeming of all, was the motionless horse dripping crimson ooze, standing statue-still as though caught in a picture despite the sudden violence a second before.

 

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Excerpt from The Men of Twelve

Chapter 5, scene 2

By L. V. Gaudet

© January 2007

Started writing Jan 16/07

 

 

Aelric pointed towards the rough line of the stream cut through the trees.  A thick oak tree stood beside the opening of the gash in the woods created by the stream; its twisted naked branches looking old and wrinkled, branches reaching out with clawed spindly twigs like hundreds of twisted fingers forever trying to grasp something.  The tree was leaf-less and dead looking, but having not yet lost the small spindly leaf twigs the absence of which is distinctive of a dead tree.  Its dark brown, almost black looking bark was the typical deep wrinkled crevices of an oak tree.  Green moss stained yellow-brown where most of the afternoon sun hit it to dry it out clung to the rough bark.  The tree looked like it belonged in the dark corners of night within a twisted horror story.

 

The horses shifted and nickered uneasily.

 

The two dwarves exchanged glances, discretely making ancient runic signs with their hands.

 

“That’s it,” said Ranald, “let’s go.”  He turned his horse from the road, riding across the short grassy expanse towards the crack in the woods and the dark spindly leafless oak.  The rest of the men followed, their horses giving a little nervous dance as they approached and passed by the old bare tree.  The troupe disappeared into the trail sliced through the woods made by the shallow stream bed.

 

Still in a lifeless daze and riding double behind Duberrol, Aiken showed his first sign of awareness of his surroundings, turning his head to stare with his strangely changed and vacant eyes at the ugly leafless old oak tree as the horse he sat upon slowly walked past it.  He continued to stare until the tree passed out of his line of sight, disappearing behind the trees.  Then he slowly turned his head back to return his vacant stare straight ahead.

 

The dead looking bald tree standing guard over the entrance watched the riders retreating backs as they disappeared down the watery path into the woods.

 

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Excerpt from The Men of Twelve

Chapter 5, scene 4

By L. V. Gaudet

© January 2007

Started writing Jan 16/07

 

 

A tall slender figure enshrouded within a long dark cloak riding an unnaturally tall looking white horse with grey at the roots of its mane and tale rode down the road as though on a casual jaunt through the countryside.  To the east of the road lay an expanse of forest which wrapped around in the distance ahead to appear to be blocking the road.  Beyond the start of the trees ahead to the north rose tall treed hills that were not quite mountains.  As the rider drew closer it became apparent that the road continued on, curving before the trees ahead to cut across the land to the west.

 

The horse came to a stop in the road seemingly of its own accord.  The rider’s cloaked head turned, surveying the land around.  From the northwest ahead a stream ribboned out of the trees towards the road, then cut around and across to the east, re-emerging into the woods like a deep watery slash through the trees.  Alongside the streams entrance back within the woods stood a thick leafless oak tree, it’s twisted naked branches looking old and wrinkled, branches reaching like hundreds of twisted clawed fingers forever trying to grasp something.  The tree’s dark deep creviced bark was covered with green moss stained brown and yellow by the drying sun.  It was an ugly frightful looking tree.

 

The horse carefully picked its way off the road and across the narrow grassy field towards the old oak tree and the stream bed opening of the woods, pausing a good safe distance before the bald oak tree.  The rider looked up at the tree, dark hood of the cloak falling back just enough to barely catch a glimpse of a displeased curve to the rider’s lips and nothing more.  The horse shook its head, mane tossing back and forth, and snorted loudly.

 

The riders covered head lowered to look at the horse.  The horse turned its head to stare back, shaking its head again and snorting a second time.  The rider nodded towards the slash in the woods that is the waterway, flowing past the ugly old oak tree.  The horse stood motionlessly, staring straight ahead at the tree.  The rider urged the horse on, only to be ignored by the animal.  The rider cursed softly, almost inaudibly, in a very foreign sounding language and urged the horse forward again, harder.  Reluctantly the animal took a step forward, then another.  Head lowered and ears back, the horse bared its teeth at the old oak tree, hissing through its teeth a threatened horse whinny.  The rider urged the animal forward again and it took a third step.

 

The oak’s branches hung much lower now, its trunk even more bent and twisted, partially blocking the narrow creek bed’s entrance into the woods.

 

The horse reared on its hind legs, whinnying shrilly and tossing its head.  With an indiscernible sound welling up from the rider’s throat, the rider kicked the animal forward savagely.  The horse leaped forward.  The tree’s roots seemed to lose their grip on the soil, the great behemoth teetering and falling, seeming to come crashing down upon the lurching animal.  The horse panicked and twisted, kicking and biting at the hard twisted branches, tangling even more in them, neighing shrill and loud, thrashing and rolling, tossing the rider off its back.  The rider went flying, cloak floating weightlessly in the air, rolling in mid air, landing heavily with a thump and whoosh or expelled air and rolling on the ground.

 

Stunned from the hard landing, the rider slowly sat up, reaching one slender long fingered feminine hand to pull at and straiten the deep hood of the cloak that almost fell away to reveal the rider’s identity.  Hooves pounded the ground nearby.  The rider looked up to see the horse struggling and rolling and twisting as though in a death struggle with something wrapped around it.  Nothing was there.  The rider turned to look at the old bare oak tree guarding the streams entrance to the woods, head cocking to one side quizzically.

 

The tree stood motionless, unmoved from where it stood before. 

 

The dark cloaked rider carefully got up, obviously feeling bruised and battered, and cautiously approached the thrashing beast, whispering so softly it was impossible to make out the words, a slim boned hand reaching out to gently touch the panicked beast.

 

The horse stopped thrashing, standing still, the energy of the fear and fight shivering down through the animal until at last it stood calm and quiet.  The cloaked rider gave the animal a couple of gentle pats then slowly walked around the horse towards the fat old oak tree, stopping a height-span away from the tree.

 

Reaching one slender hand into a deep pocket within the folds of the dark cloak, the rider pulled out a small hide pouch bound with a woven cord.  Carefully untying the pouch, the rider carefully poured some of the black powdery contents into an open palm.

 

The tree made a clacking sound as of naked branches hitting each other in a wind, only there wasn’t even the slightest of breezes.  The rider took a cautious step forward, eyes on the tree, palm held before the cloaked face like an offering.  The tree’s clacking sound intensified.  Quickly the cloaked rider took three more steps forward, leaned in toward the tree, raising the open palm bearing the black powder, and blew hard on the open palm.  The black powder billowed into the air weightlessly, creating a soft cloud of black powder with hints of a very dark purple.  The powder cloud seemed to sparkle as it embraced the old oak tree.  The tree’s rattling sound became very loud then suddenly stopped.  The powder seemed to shimmer like it was made of something with one shiny side as it slowly drifted down towards the ground, dissolving and disappearing before it touched the grass beneath the old oak.  The moss clinging to the tree withered and shrank, drying and turning brown and brittle.  The dark brown deeply crevassed bark of the tree turned even darker, black.

 

With a single nod, the cloaked figure turned and walked back to the horse, mounting effortlessly.  The horse moved forward, lowering its head with ears laid back, teeth bared, and eyes rolling nervously as it passed by the blackened dead tree.  With a soft splash, the horse carefully picked its way into the stream bed and disappeared down the wet path into the woods.  The trees to either side of the stream loomed, crowding against the narrow creek bed as they did for the group of riders that came before.

 

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Excerpt from The Men of Twelve

Chapter 5, scene 9

By L. V. Gaudet

© January 2007

Started writing Jan 16/07

 

 

Riding beside him, Sir Erskine was about to say something when he was abruptly cut off by a shrill cry similar to the one they had heard before. He spun in his saddle looking around for the source of the cry, but it was impossible to see anything in the impenetrable darkness.

 

Sounds of a scuffle came to them from the front of the line; splashing, a horse neighing, a muffled shout.

 

“We’re under atta-,” someone shouted and was cut off abruptly with a dull thud as of a large heavy body hitting another.

 

Another shrill cry pierced the night air.

 

Eyvindr and Erskine pulled their swords from their scabbards as Yngling and Ceadda splashed up behind them on their horse and pony.  The four of them looked about with swords drawn, looking for an enemy to fight.

 

Picking up the men’s excitement, the horses pricked their ears, looking about warily, dancing with their own anticipation of action to come.

 

At the front of the line, Ranald and Aelric rode side by side, eyes scanning the darkness warily.  Behind them Findlay and Griogair rode in silence, Griogair nodding off with the rocking motion of his horse.  His head snapped up with the first shrieking cry that pierced the night, looking around startled.  His horse bobbed its head nervously, making throat clearing noises deep in its chest.

 

From out of the darkness came a noise as of feet running on the soft boggy ground.  It grew louder, closer, and suddenly looming from out of the darkness was a great beast rearing up on hind legs, charging, launching itself through the air as it leapt to tackle Aelric astride his horse.  It looked like a great slender cat, a cross between a jaguar and a cheetah, yet at the same time strangely human-like.  The creatures mouth was yawned wide open in a snarling grimace like a big cat, showing off long sharp pointed teeth with even longer canines.  A shriek pierced the air, coming from high in the creature’s throat just before it collided with Aelric, knocking him off his horse to wrestle in the stream bed.

 

Aelric’s horse shied from the attack, dancing back in time to lessen the blow of the flying tackle.  When Aelric splashed into the water of the stream, he’d had the wind knocked from him and was red-faced gasping for air, but he wasn’t dazed.  He grappled the creature in a great bear hug, holding it tight against him to prevent it from biting and clawing him.  The creature’s large paws had great sharp claws that could tear a man apart with a single swipe.  Aelric let out a muffled shout as he rolled and wrestled with the creature.  When the creature collided with the man and horse, the horse spun at it, trying to bite the creature with sharp teeth, just catching one heel with sharp teeth as the creature and rider tumbled down the other side of the horse.  The creature didn’t seem to notice the bloody injury.  Aelric’s grey horse danced sideways away from the two rolling and wrestling in the water of the stream.

 

At the moment the creature appeared in the darkness, Ranald turned in surprise, reaching for his sword in its scabbard.  Just as it was launching through the air at Aelric, Ranald spun in his saddle, sword in hand, ready.

 

“We’re under atta-,” Aelfred started to shout, only to be suddenly cut off when a large solid body materialized from nowhere, colliding very solidly with him and his horse.  The impact knocked the horse sideways, its hooves scrabbling for purchase before it fell heavily to the water of the stream.  Aelfred fell from the horse and rolled, coming up empty handed and crouching, looking around warily.  From behind another creature appeared sprinting from the darkness, tackling him to the ground, tearing at him with sharp pointed teeth and claws.  He struggled vainly to reach for the sword that was too far away in its scabbard lashed to the fallen horse’s saddle.  The horse kicked and squirmed, rolling itself over, kicking and biting at the creature attacking it with sharp teeth and hooves.

 

Before the creature could dismember Aelfred, it suddenly stiffened with a pained look in its eyes.  It dropped limply to the ground to reveal a grinning Sioltach, bloodied sword in hand.

 

“You might need one of these,” Sioltach grinned, gesturing with his sword.

 

Sore but otherwise uninjured, Aelfred got to his feet and limped over to his horse now standing not far away, and pulled his sword a little belatedly from its scabbard.

 

The moon slipped out from behind the clouds again, straining to wash the land in its pale cold light.

 

Jaws dropped.  The men looked about them, eyes wide with shock.  The narrow strip of land between the trees was teeming with these creatures.  Most of them stayed back somewhat from the ribboning streams.  Some of them watched the men and horses in the stream with bland curiosity, others approached warily.  Most ignored the men and horses completely, as if they were beneath their notice.

 

It was apparent these creatures walked on two legs like men, not on all fours as the great cats they so closely resemble do.  They were larger than the men.

 

One creature ran up in a half crouch, stopping to stare down at the fallen creature that had been impaled from behind.  It sniffed the air, cocking its head.  Its eyes blazed with anger.  Slowly looking up, the creature opened its mouth wide, baring its sharp pointed teeth in a grimace, and slowly turning its head it let loose an ear piercing high shriek.

 

Heads popped up in the teeming mass of creatures, turning to look.

 

The creature turned its head to stare at Sioltach, hissing terribly at him.

 

Another creature shrieked, then another, then another.  Before long the air was shattered with a tumultuous song of high angry shrieks.

 

“Run!” Ranald roared.

 

They ran, mounted or not.

 

The creatures sprinted after them en-masse.

 

The moon slipped behind the clouds again, dropping the curtain of blackness on the scene once again.

 

Little could be seen in the dark of night, glimpses of thrashing fighting bodies, swinging swords, snarling lips drawn past sharp teeth.  It soon became apparent that these creatures were not so cat-like.  But rather, their faces were deformed with formed dried mud and grass.  Their bodies covered with the skins of slain large predatory cats, the sharp clawed paws worn like gloves by those that travelled on the outer edges of the mob, ready to fight to protect their clan.  The teeth, however, were very real.  It would be a miracle indeed if the king and his men would all survive this terrible onslaught.

 

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