The Secret Wilderness – Chapter One

[Author’s Note – This is the first chapter of my first self-published novel. I’ve included it to give you a taste of the tone and nature of my fiction writing, as it’s more formal than the ramblings on my blog. I hope you enjoy it! Please feel free to leave comments or constructive criticism below!]

Chapter One

<Daughter.>

She shifted, her eyelids fluttering.  She snorted and licked her lips.

<Daughter, wake up.>

She twisted away from her father’s voice, willing herself back to sleep.

Something jabbed her ribs, hard.

<Wake up. There’s something you must see.>

Yawning, she opened her eyes on a world painted in shades of gray.

Her father sat before her, outlined in soft blues and yellows.

Vast, empty space surrounded them, but it was no natural cave; its edges and corners were cut in man-made lines and angles. Twisting roots and vines wrapped around four columns that held up the roof. The white tile floor was covered by centuries of dirt, clumps of ferns, and colonies of mushrooms. High in the corner, a colony of bats chattered and rustled, their heartbeats an ever-present hum. A thin spill of light from a hole overhead fell onto circling moths, their wings flashing and glinting.

<Are you at last ready to get up?>

Her father –a wolf the size of a horse, with silver-gray fur and a black ruff across his shoulders– sat before her.

Once I would have been terrified to find him staring down at me; now he’s just father.

<I’m awake. What is it?> She pushed herself up and shook her head, big ears flapping against her eyes, and let out a squealing yawn.

His voice echoed in her head like faraway thunder. <We are not alone.>

Sounds floated down from overhead.

Humans? Here? 

Men, women, and children moved about, their feet pattering as their voices twisted together in a babble at once familiar and frightening. Mules brayed, wagon wheels creaked, wooden doors opened, and someone was singing a song.

She bolted upright.

He inclined his head. <Be calm. We will see what they are about, and then decide what to do. Come.>

 

Neville knelt by the stream, wincing as his knees popped.

He examined the banks around him and across the shimmering water. Prints scattered both banks–mostly hoofprints or the sketch-like marks of birds.

Pigs, deer or elk, no big moose or any predators… doesn’t mean they aren’t around, though.

A tall, dark-haired and dark-eyed man, he wore brown pants with faded knees, an ancient linen shirt, and cracked leather vest. He carried a leather duster that he’d shed because of the day’s heat.

“What’re you looking at?” his younger comrade asked. Samuel had a bright knot of curly blond hair and hazel eyes. He stood at the clearing’s edge examining plants, a notebook tucked into the back of his pants.

“The tracks of man-eating bears,” Neville said. “You can tell by the claw length.”

“Really?” Samuel abandoned the plants and rushed to the water’s edge, his face inches from the wet sand. “Where? Which ones?”

Gods, it’s too easy… “I’m kidding. No bears, no wolves, not even a big fox.”

Samuel snorted. “I should have known. It’s the fairy rings all over again, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know you’d be willing to dig through three feet of snow for signs of fairies.”

Samuel tutted. “You’ve never met a scholar, then.”

Neville grinned and tipped the boy a wink as he slipped a leather flask out of his shirt pocket. He had a sip, cleared his throat, and returned the whiskey to its place. He cupped a hand to sip water from the stream.

Samuel looked on in interest. “Any good?”

Neville stood. “It doesn’t have that nasty taste fresh snowmelt has. Hopefully nothing’s died in it upstream; if I drop dead or start puking, we’ll know.”

“Ever the cheerful one, you are.”

Neville shrugged. “You’re paying me for twenty years’ trail experience. Jokes and good cheer cost extra.”

Samuel breathed in the crisp smell of the water and looked around, his eyes alight. Across the chattering water was a thick tangle of trees and shrubs. Branches overhead moved in a cool breeze. “It’s beautiful here.”

Neville nodded. If I described a perfect summer day to an artist, it’d be this. We need this. We need time to rest and clear our heads– especially after the last six months.

It was a bad crossing, one of the worst of his life.

I told them we were starting too late, over and over I told them. Then we got held up again when– when Hannah passed away, as much as I hate to admit it. Ah well, it’s all behind us now. Gods willing, we’ll have smooth travels the rest of the way.

Neville gestured to their left. “Let’s head downstream; I want to look at the banks for more prints. I didn’t see anything here to worry about, but that doesn’t mean much.”

Samuel nodded, hefting the little axe he’d brought for protection. He chuckled. “Two drinks says they’re already making camp.”

Neville shrugged as he pushed past branches. He turned aside a branch and tested the leafy ground before stepping on it.

Samuel held his hands out as he balanced on a stone at the stream’s edge. “I hope it’s safe and we can stay. This place seems too good to be true!”

Neville’s dark eyes flicked toward the shadows under the trees. A stone man, broken off at the ankles, brandished a sword from the ground.

That’s what I’m afraid of.

 

The ruins lay scattered across the valley floor for almost a square mile, like a gigantic skeleton pulled apart by scavengers. For hundreds of years, vines tightened patient grips and pulled down columns and statues; roots rumpled the earth like legs kicked under a blanket, pushing up paved roads and courtyard flagstones; statues fell in storms to sleep under drifts of wildflowers; and trees nudged their way through empty doorways and windows, the buildings leaning away as if scandalized.

Water trickled through the ruins, splitting into silvery fingers that picked their way through the ruined streets and houses.

There were signs of animals and birds aplenty, and even stands of fruit orchards that had long since run wild.

But no predators, Neville thought as he and Samuel walked. No signs at all.

 

 

Twenty minutes later, Neville and Samuel emerged from the green shade of the forest into a grassy clearing.

Twenty-one people, seventeen mules, and seven wagons waited.

The wagons were second-hand and looked it; their bright paint—reds, blues, greens, yellows, and purples–was faded and peeled and the wood cracked or swollen. A few were so leaky and drafty they offered less protection from the elements than a thick shirt. Latches were broken, hinges squealed, and most of the interiors had a distinct smell from years of other peoples’ use.

An old man stood up at Neville and Samuel’s approach. “Well?” Thomas asked, his blue eyes anxious. He offered Neville a water skin, leaning on his cane with the other hand.

Neville felt the eyes of the rest of the group settle on him as he drank.

I know what’s going to happen: I’m going to tell you we ought to stay here, and you’re probably going to argue with me at first. Then Jacob will suggest the exact same thing I just did, and you’ll agree. 

Neville lowered the skin. “I saw hoof tracks, like deer, elk, hogs; no hunters though, no wolves or bears. No signs of anyone living here, either. A lot of game, if we want to make the effort. Also, pears, blackberries, blueberries, and a lot of nuts and seeds. And they aren’t in season yet, but apple trees, too.”

Thomas, leaned forward, his fluffy white hair blowing in the wind.

Neville glanced around again; the clearing was about thirty yards across– more than enough room for the wagons to circle with a good-sized fire in the middle, and plenty of clearance from the brooding trees.

As he pretended to look at their surroundings, he eyed the travelers: their eyes were hollow, their cheeks thin, clothing ragged and dirty.

They need a rest, more than anything. They want the trip to be over and done with, and I don’t blame them; but right now, they need to mend their clothes, sleep past the dawn, and just sit and tell stories and sing songs around the fire. And it’d be better to do all that here than Norrich.

A rough trading post lay about eighty miles along the road, and was his usual place of rest. The last time he’d been through Norrich there’d been trouble: two stabbings, and more barfights than he cared to count.

Better to have peace and quiet, and to avoid any… complications.

His eye slid to a woman with a thick mop of curly hair standing by another wagon. She saw him looking and grinned, running the tip of her tongue along her lips.

He glanced away from her.

“It’ll do,” he said.

Thomas breathed a sigh of relief and turned to the others. “Not a better place we’ll find, I guess.” A breeze bore the scent of apple blossoms to the group. “Amazing, eh? D’you think many know it’s here?”

Neville shook his head. “I’ve been traveling the Kobaska Road almost twenty years and never heard of it. I’ll keep it in mind for the journey back, though. No sign of bandits, or any people at all. It’s strange; it was definitely a big city. But who ever heard of a city out here in the Wilder Lands? It must have been before the Empire.”

Samuel, who’d been standing with his back to them, looking up at the mountain peaks, whirled back. “It’s Averras!” he declared, his eyes shining.

The revelation was met with polite interest.

“You mean you don’t know?”

Jacob, Thomas’s eldest son, wandered over. Jacob had Thomas’s bright blue eyes and his mother’s sandy blond hair. “Know what?”

“Look, look at the mountains,” Samuel said, pointing up at the peaks. “Those are the northern border, the Yellowcrest Mountains. Beyond them lies the High Country and more mountains. We’ve crossed the plains, to the southeast. The sea is west–”

Jacob rolled his eyes. “Oh, that’s cleared it up. Now I know right where we are.”

Samuel waved this off. “No, it’s Averras, the lost city! My master studied it at the Academy. It was her life’s work.”

At mention of the Academy, a collective, good-natured groan rose into the air.

“There he goes,” Jacob said, grinning. “How long’s it been, ten minutes? Holt, you owe me another beer.”

“I owe you half a tavern by now,” another man replied, shaking his head.

“No, no, listen!” Samuel beamed at the stones scattered about the edges of the clearing. “It was once a center of learning and culture—people from all over the world visited it, and it had libraries and museums, and art, science, astronomy, engineering schools, and foods. . . but the people just disappeared. Ancient texts from Wuoros, Ymity, and Braedocia mention Averras but then they just stop, about a thousand years ago. No one knows what happened.”

He was met with sighs and shrugs.

“But… but it’s important…”

Neville raised a hand. “Speaking of food, the sooner we get camp made the sooner we can all eat and put our feet up. Let’s get the wagons circled.”

“Amen to that,” Jacob said. He lifted his littlest daughter onto his shoulders.

Undaunted, Samuel turned back to a few pieces of stonework lying around them. “I can’t wait to get to Yew, I’ll have so much to tell them. Once we get the wagons sorted, we ought to explore a little. No one has walked in these ruins for centuries. . .” He wiped his forehead. “I’ll make sketches and notes, try to get the layout down.”

Aldo, dark-haired and a little older than Samuel, glared at him. “Why do you care about all that, anyway?”

Samuel cocked his head. “It’s interesting. How can anyone know where they’re going, if they don’t know where they’ve been?”

The dark-haired man rolled his eyes. “Pff, I know where I’m going. I’m going to Yew, where I’m going to find work as a butcher. And the first night we hit town, I’m going to get laid. That’s where I’m going.”

Samuel sniffed. “Ignoramus. Don’t come crying to me when I rediscover a long-forgotten method of. . . of wood turning, or ale-brewing, or something.”

“Aye, wood turning. That what they’re calling it these days?” Aldo made a masturbatory gesture with his hand, grinning at the young scholar.

Samuel curled his lip in disdain. “I really can’t wait to get to Yew.”

“There’s a wonder,” said Jacob. “I can’t wait for you to get to Yew either.”

 

Twenty yards away from the clearing, behind a crumbling, vine-covered wall, the giant black wolf hid.

She watched as the humans dug a latrine ditch at the southwestern corner of the clearing, downwind from the rest of the campsite. They sang and chatted, performing tasks with well-practiced ease. Although they shot curious glances at the trees, did not seem frightened.

<Are you still watching them?>

She started, her claws scrabbling on the leaves. Her eyes were dry from staring so long.

Her father sat behind her, his bestial face disapproving.

She lowered her muzzle, embarrassed and unsure why.  <I can’t help it, Father. They. . . they’re something new to look at. They interest me.>

He snorted, and shook his great shaggy head. <You shouldn’t spend so much time here. They’re just travelers, working people on their way to somewhere else. Nothing more.>

She looked back at the group. <I’m just watching them. There’s no harm in that.>

A woman lifted a giggling little girl into the air.

<I’m going hunting in the hills, while they’re here. I may spend a few nights there. I suggest you do the same.>

<I’ll watch them for a little while longer. Then I’ll stop.>

She resettled herself before the wall.

He looked as if he would say more, then left. His footfalls were masked by the soft grass.

 

 

It had been nearly two years since she heard a human voice, and remembering speech came back quickly to her. As she observed, she began to learn their names.

Thomas and his wife Ella were the oldest.  Their four sons, Jacob, Hans, Horace, and Holt, traveled with their respective wives and children. This large, sprawling clan of parents, children, and grandchildren, and numbering seventeen altogether, were called the Fosters. In addition to the trail master, four young men traveled with them, one of them the young scholar.

The seven wagons were circled, and in the center a firepit dug and a crude kitchen set up. The mules were led away and tethered in a grassy area with stone walls, where a man and his daughter watched over them.

At first, the mules stamped their hooves, their ears swiveling and nostrils flaring. Then they began to settle to the business of cropping grass, their bodies relaxed.

They smell us. They smell something, but they aren’t sure what. I suppose we don’t smell enough like wolves to alarm them but they still don’t like it.

She noticed the trail master watching the mules, a muscle working in his jaw. But when the animals relaxed, he did as well.

Clothes, blankets, and bed linens were piled in baskets for washing; floors were swept and shuttered windows opened to air out the smells of old meals and unwashed bodies; broken belongings were assessed, and either thrown into a trash pile or put aside to be fixed.

For starting new lives, they certainly have a lot of things, she observed as a woman sorted through a crate of crockery.

Two adults and some older children gathered firewood and scavenged for edible roots, berries, and nuts. A woman and man went to the table next to the campfire and began to sharpen knives. Several women headed to the nearby stream with buckets for fresh water. One young man began to cut saplings to make hunting snares.

The women who went for water stood in the stream, filling water skins and buckets. As they worked, they chatted.

Hannah. They keep talking about Hannah, and how she died. And Jacob. Thomas’s eldest son was named Jacob.

The names echoed. She blinked and gave a little shake of her head, as if trying to dislodge dust.

Wasn’t there another Hannah, and another Jacob?

In her mind’s eye, a little girl and a little boy appeared. Their faces were white and their lips split into grins as they played together in ragged, filthy clothing. They looked alike, their eyes dark brown, their hair mousy and lank.

Hannah and Jacob. Children I knew, once. Did they belong to someone I knew? Were they mine?

She snorted at the thought.

Of course not. I would remember if I ever had any children.

The black ears twitched.

Wouldn’t I?

 

For a day, she watched the group.

Six of the wagons bustled with life, as busy as a small town. The people washed, cleaned, cooked, sang, and joked.

The seventh wagon belonged to the trail master, and was set up away from the others. It had its own campfire and a small anvil, which poured showers of sparks when he worked it. Most of the time, he worked on the wagons or helped the others cook or fix broken possessions. At night he sat by his fire, sometimes visited by the others, but mostly alone.

He reminds me of someone…

Small, darting movements caught her eye. Her attention shifted to the children.

The children produced their daily pile of firewood, roots, and other edibles, and were dismissed from work. They retired to their respective parents, and two children broke away from the others. The girl and boy stretched out their arms and ran about the clearing, pretending to be birds.

She sat back, her brow furrowed.

Games. They’re playing games.

Unbidden, a man’s voice rose to mind, angry and weary at the same time: Now Addy, you know we’ve no time for foolishness. With winter coming on there’s no time for games and such. You find you got nothing to do, then you find something, hear? 

Then came the bite of the switch, woven of grasses and weeds, as it snapped across her back.

Amos. My stepfather Amos. I… I had forgotten about him…

Amos caught her drawing pictures in the dirt. He whipped her, his thin, rangy arm snapping back and forth, his eyes dull with weariness and toil. She had cried, but she had also learned: there was no such thing as having nothing to do. She was four.

Mother…my mother. I had forgotten her, too.

Her mother Agatha–a wilted bloom of a woman with gray-blonde hair and faded blue eyes. Having planted their tiny field, fed the animals, and rebuilt the poor shack that was their barn, Agatha fell into exhausted sleep by the hearth. As she was tending the cook pot, the hem of her ragged shift caught fire.

We all laughed. The whole family had a laugh at that. And Mother just beat out the flames and smiled, and said we ruined the surprise dessert: cooked dress. Even Amos laughed at that.

Leaves and branches rustled.

Male voices drifted to her through the trees.

A thrill ran through her at the smell of their skin, their clothes, even the bits of food that stained their simple clothing. Her mouth watered at the smell of their hot blood.

But…what are they saying?

She moved to follow them.

Four men made their way through the forest with darting eyes and wary steps.

Not used to the forest, and afraid of it. She smiled to herself. Why, anything could be lurking in here.

The men paused in front of a stone wall.

Jacob slung the axe down from his shoulder and tested the wall before leaning on it. “Gods, it’s hot,” he said. “Anyone got any smoke?”

Another man his age shook his head, frowning. His dark, curly hair was moist from the heat. “If I did I’d be smoking it.”

“Aye,” Aldo agreed.

“This is just amazing,” Samuel observed as he examined a fallen statue of a horse. He tossed his head. “Can you believe that we’re really standing here? Come on, Aldo, you said yourself you thought the statues were interesting.”

The golden curls shook dust from another memory–a boy with blond hair and a hopeful face, holding out a bunch of wilted flowers. His face started an ache in her heart.

What was his name? Who was he?

“Did I?” asked Aldo. He had dark, wavy hair and a thin face, with a gap between his front teeth. “Looks like a huge mess to me.”

Leaves fell down around the four in green-gold cascades, catching in the collars of their tunics, in their hair, in the gaping mouths of the boots flapping around their calves.

“It was a huge city, with hundreds of thousands of people in it,” Samuel replied. A moth, disturbed from its sleep under a fallen leaf, fluttered around his face. “Madame Yurevny told me all about it. She said the Academy had documents and artifacts from it stored in the basement. And there were books in the library that talked about it, and if you asked the scholars, they’d tell you.”

Holt grunted a derisive laugh as he waved away the same moth that had pestered Samuel. “If it was so great, where’s everyone now?”

Samuel scratched behind his ear. “Yurevny thought it had something to do with a change in the weather, or the year without winter. Nobody really knows for sure.”

Aldo grinned at Holt. “What about that, Holt? The fount of wisdom has dried up at last.”

Holt scratched his nose and lifted the heavy, wet mat of his hair off his sweating neck. “Shame. We might’ve sailed to Yew on all that knowledge.” He pinched at his nostrils, fighting a sneeze.

Aldo snorted. “Or grown a field of beans from all that bullshit.”

Samuel made to reply but Jacob shushed them. He pointed to a tree on the other side of the leaning wall. “There’s one. It might do.”

“Think this’ll work?” asked Holt, shaking the trunk. Leaves fell around them in a gold-green drift. “It looks thin.”

Jacob reached into his pocket and brought out a ball of red string. “We’ll mark it, and have Neville come look at it. He said to find at least ten before we think about cutting.”

Aldo sniffed, brushing leaves from his clothes and hair. “Pff, Neville.”

Samuel picked at the seam of his tunic’s sleeve. “He knows his business. And it wasn’t his fault we got caught in the snows.”

Holt scoffed. “He’s all right when he’s not chasing farmers’ wives… Or passed out drunk.”

Aldo laughed. “Have you seen some of the women coming out of his wagon? Fah!”

Samuel waved these comments away. “He’s a decent sort. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”

Aldo cast a suspicious glance around at the silent, overgrown ruins. “I hope you brought something to mark our way back. I can’t imagine getting lost in here.”

Samuel laughed. “Pff, you’d get lost in your own pants. We’re barely fifty feet from the camp.” He turned and stretched his arms out at his sides. “A walk in the forest beats plodding along or riding in the wagon, any day. It’s good to have a rest.”

Jacob clucked his tongue. “This isn’t a rest. We stopped because Horace drove his wagon into the same hole everyone else avoided and broke his axle.” He glanced into the trees, the remaining strands of string fluttering from his hands. “Come on, there’s still plenty of light left.”

She watched them head away through the forest. She moved as if to follow them, but her stomach growled.

It’s probably been three days since my last meal.

She moved through the ruins, brushing aside vines and bright flowers. Glints of golden light flickered off leaves as they fluttered to the ground.

I should be careful not to leave too many footprints; it wouldn’t do for the people to find any signs of us. And what would they say, finding giant wolf prints? They’d be packed and away in no time. She snorted. Two days ago I was wishing them gone. Now I hope they stay.

She reached a courtyard, the walls overgrown with vines and the ground covered by thick, springy turf. At the far corner stood a stone archway, the door having long ago rotted away. A set of wide, well-worn stone steps led down.

As she descended, the scents of forest greenery faded into heavier, earthier odors of moist dirt, roots, mushrooms, and lichen.

Fifty feet below the surface, she reached a hall. Twelve feet wide and ten high, the hallway was swathed in darkness. Roots as thick as a human leg poked through the stone walls, turning the ground into a humped obstacle course covered with ferns. She made her way though the darkness with ease.

The ferns brushing against her face were refreshing, like cool kisses welcoming her home. High in their corner, the bats’ heartbeats sped up as she entered the cavern, then calmed in recognition.

<Hello to you, too. Huh… I wonder if they can hear me, like this? I never even thought about it.>

Directly beneath the hole in the ceiling and dominating the room was a rectangular pool, twenty feet long and ten wide. Three steps led down to the bottom. Leaves and twigs floated on its surface, and dark patches on the bottom indicated rotting vegetation. Still, there must have been some kind of crack or unseen hole that allowed fresh water to flow in as the water never went bad.

She padded to a half-skeletonized boar carcass in the corner of the room. A frightened rat investigating the carcass scampered away. She bent her head and began eating. Soon, the only sounds over the faraway noises of the humans were the ripping, tearing and chewing sounds as she fed.

Sated, she leaned back from the boar and ran her tongue around her lips. She sighed and lay down, her belly swollen from the feed.

I want to go back. I want to go back and watch them until they’re gone.

She started to climb to her feet, and sank back down.

I’m exhausted. And they aren’t going anywhere before the morning, anyway. Nothing much happens at night for humans.

Faces and names from her past drifted through her head, like smoke from a slow-burning fire.

Adelaide. That was my name, before I came here.

Her eyelids slid down, and she dozed.

[Thanks for reading! If you’d like to read the rest you can buy it in print or on Kindle from Amazon, or you can request a copy for me for free!]

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