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Copyright © 1998 by Clocktower Fiction. All Rights Reserved.
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They advanced and receded like the eternal tides, Turk and Cossack, Hun and Mongolian. Wave after wave, they starved and shivered and struggled with their crude weapons, until their blood soaked this ground between so many hungry empires. Sons dropped where fathers had fallen, where grandfathers had squirmed their last. Through generations, they burned and slaughtered across the frozen earth until the terrain became a bleak and twisted wasteland.
Yet things inhabited this landscape, things suited to it. Armies of rodents sometimes carpeted the low hills; hordes of crows could settle like oily smoke.
And other things scavenged here as well.
"Hurry now." A cramp clawed at Mara's side, and only fear kept her numbed feet moving over the frozen ground.
They could make little speed across this field of bones, but her oldest daughter scampered to stay close behind her, the simple dress and the scarf around her head making her look like some slim doppelganger of her mother. The infant in the girl's arms never cried, might have been a mere bundle of cloth. Usually, the rats scurried at their approach, though sometimes they clapped their hands to drive away the boldest, those that rose on gray haunches and bared filth-smeared fangs. Only rarely did they have to throw stones or bits of bone."Hurry, child. It's getting closer." Her breath misted before her. "Is the baby too heavy?" Her gaze strayed from her daughter to scan the landscape in nervous swoops.
Winter sunlight fell bleakly, providing neither warmth nor comfort. In places the earth retained a ruddy stain, and corrupt flesh squelched underfoot. Always, the time just after a battle offered the best yield, and today's had proved a successful foray. They were laden with booty now, making it hard to move quickly.
This latest battle had been fought on the scene of an earlier fray, and while many of the bodies had already moldered into mere heaps, the fresher ones retained agonized contortions. As always, stripping the clothes from the corpses had proved arduous. Often the bodies came apart along with the garments, and seldom was any of this cloth usable. Even in this chill, the corpses exuded a fetid stench that seemed to hover about them. Maritsa had long ago learned to mimic her mother by wrapping her scarf about her lower face when they stooped to probe recesses. (Valuables might be secreted anywhere, though usually the corpses had already been plundered by surviving comrades.) They'd been lucky recently. Just the previous week, they'd retrieved a relatively undamaged sword from the gut of a fresh kill, and only that dawn, there'd been a rare find on a body whose ruined armor seemed better than the others, an officer perhaps: a few copper coins, stamped with some imperial visage. The sword alone might bring enough to buy milk and bread when they took it to town for market day.
But now-disaster. The creature had scented them hours ago, and they could not shake it. Again, Mara's gaze raked the horizon. Even without such a beast invading the area, things had been bad this season, food scarce, the nights frigid. Slowly, her children starved, and true winter drew ever closer. She hurried, the cold seeping into her bones, her throat raw.
They were still so far from home.
If they broke into a run, the thing would only charge and catch them in the open. No, they had but one chance-to convince it they were not worth the effort of stalking, that they were too vigorous, could offer too much of a struggle, and since first they'd glimpsed it, they'd marched as energetically as possible, swinging their arms and stomping their feet, Mara calling encouragement to her daughter all the while. But the creature would not be dissuaded. Possibly, it too starved.
The world grayed further, the pallid sun melting toward the horizon.
Mara chewed her lower lip. Under no circumstances could she allow the thing to overtake them after dark; under no circumstances must it follow them back to the hut where the other children waited.
"Momma, I think I saw it coming over that last hill." Maritsa held the baby tightly. "It lay flat to the ground like a stoat."
"Hush." Mara nodded. "I saw it too, child." She'd spotted the creature as it scuttled over the rise, a pile of rags somehow animate. This was what she'd always feared, that such a monster should come upon them when she had one or more of the children with her. By herself, she might outrun it, even Maritsa with her long legs might make it as far as the ridge. But with the infant...
Maritsa clutched at her skirt. "Mama, the hut is near-"
"Patience. Keep moving."
"The water is gone, Mama. We'll be thirsty soon."
"Our thirst is nothing." All her life, Mara had heard tales of such things. In her childhood, the people of the village had spoken of how these creatures could transform themselves into swarms of insects or fetid mists, but even then she'd been skeptical, and her own mother-a highly sensible woman-had answered all her questions. No, they did not shift their forms, she'd told her. How could they? And although they, like most beasts of prey, preferred the dark, daylight held no magic powers to destroy them. Once Mara had actually glimpsed several of them, sliding like shadows through a dusky field, before her mother had pulled her in and bolted the door. Not long afterwards, soldiers had descended upon the villagers, desperate for their meager supplies, and Mara had hidden herself in the fields. When she'd dared to venture back, driven more by hunger than hope, she'd found her village had ceased to exist. And she'd begun to scavenge.
She dared another look behind them. Nothing seemed to move in all the dismal expanse. Or did the cluster of reeds atop the far incline rustle slightly? She turned away. The thing must not know they guessed its presence. So long as it stalked them slowly, some chance remained.
This far from the battleground lay only a few carcasses, some of the wounded having staggered an impressive distance. Many of these already appeared to have been tugged apart by beasts. Gradually, the flat terrain gave way to rockier earth, mottled boulders jutting like knobs of bone.
"Momma, this passage through the rocks-no place to dodge. If it catches us here..."
Lines of stone ribbed the broken ground, until some of the larger rocks loomed above their heads.
"Hush, child, do as I say. Just nod to show you're listening."
The girl's mouth quivered, but she lifted her chin bravely.
"When I tell you, I want you to take the baby and run as fast as you can. Straight through the pass. Don't look left or right, and don't stop. No matter what you hear. No matter how tired you become. Do you understand?"
Again, the child nodded solemnly, but this time her eyes glistened. A wisp of hair had worked loose from the babushka-fair like her father's had been.
Mara almost smiled. He'd been a handsome man, Maritsa's father, and the girl had inherited his Prussian features. An officer, he'd kept the other men away from Mara, and she still felt a certain gratitude. She touched the child lightly, tucking the wisp of hair away. Her daughter would reach home safely. Mara would see to it.
She scanned the horizon. The creature must lurk behind the nearest hillock-there was no other cover.
"Go now. Quickly!"
Without hesitation, Maritsa obeyed her, dashing through the pass with the infant, though Mara could tell from the set of the child's shoulders how much she ached to look back. "She is a good girl," she whispered to herself. She waited until her daughter rounded the first turn of the passage, until the first outcroppings of boulders all but obscured her from sight, then her fingers strayed to the short dagger beneath her cloak. The cold had deepened, and clouds roiled across the murky sky.
She moaned softly; loud enough, she hoped, for the thing in the reeds. Slowly, she limped away from the mouth of the passage. After a few yards, she groaned again, louder. Stiffening her left leg, she dragged it, leaving a wide mark in the loose soil, and she hunched her shoulders like a crippled hag and sobbed to herself. Twenty paces later, she peered back.
No weeds rustled. If she moved any further from the path-and the thing should charge after the children-she'd have no chance to throw herself between them. It must follow her.
Drawing the dagger, she drew it sharply across the flesh of her forearm. Instantly, the blood sprang, dappling the ground, and she moaned loudly now.
The fringe of grass vibrated.
Dead reeds parted.
As it crawled across the ground, she actually glimpsed it.
Gray. Soiled. Drooling.
Turning quickly, she limped toward the large boulders just ahead. The hissing wind carried a dry slither to her ears, but she dared not look. Just a little further, she told herself, then she could run. She clutched the dagger more tightly, holding it out of sight.
Though she knew it couldn't really be that near, she imagined she heard the rattle of its breath. An outcrop of boulders blocked the path, and the instant she edged behind it, she dashed a dozen paces, then slowed to a limp again, flailing her arms with each step.
Would it take the bait? She glanced back toward the rocks.
The thing stood almost upright, staring.[an error occurred while processing this directive]