The Secret Wilderness – Prologue

[Author’s Note – This is the prologue of my first self-published novel. I’ve edited it since the first time it appeared, based on constructive criticism from readers and a creative writing workshop I attended. I hope you enjoy it! Please feel free to leave comments or constructive criticism below!]

Prologue

<Daughter.>

She shifted, struggling to hang on to sleep. Her eyelids fluttered, allowing in darts of light.

<Daughter, wake up.>

A grumble escaped her throat and she twisted away from her father’s voice.

Something jabbed her ribs, hard.

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

Resigned to waking, she opened her eyes on a twilit world painted in shades of gray.

The cave surrounded them. Fifty feet overhead, a thin spill of light fell from a hole in the ceiling. Moths circled just under it, their wings flashing and glinting. Roots and vines reached for the light, twisting around columns and along the floor. Clumps of ferns and colonies of mushrooms humped the floor. High in the corner, a cluster of bats chattered and rustled, their heartbeats an ever-present hum.

A careful observation of the cave would reveal its true nature; beneath the humped earth and mushrooms, and behind the nets of roots, the cave’s shape fell in neat, man-made lines and corners. If one dug beneath the ferns, a floor of glossy, red and white tile was revealed. The same pattern of tiles lined the bottom of a pool in the middle of the floor, just underneath the hole in the ceiling. Likewise, carefully mortared stone columns were hidden under woody bundles of vines and roots.

She pushed herself upright and shook.

The two horse-sized wolves regarded each other.

Her father, with silver-gray fur and a black ruff across his shoulders, cocked his head.

<Are you at last ready to get up?> His voice echoed in her head like faraway thunder. Father and daughter had never spoken aloud, but for a few grunts and howls.

Leaning to the side, she gave herself a good scratch.

<I’m awake. What is it?>

Before he could answer, sounds floated down from the hole in the ceiling.

Men, women, and children were above. Their voices twisted together in a babble at once familiar and frightening as their feet pattered about on the grass. Mules brayed, wagon wheels creaked, wooden doors banged open and shut. Someone sang.

Humans? Here? 

She tensed, her claws digging into the soil.

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

He eyed the banks around him, and those across the shimmering water. Prints scattered the gray sand–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.

“What’re you looking at?” Samuel asked. Neville’s younger comrade had a bright knot of curly blond hair and hazel eyes. The young scholar stood at the clearing’s edge, examining plants. A notebook was 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. He bent, his face hanging 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 and straightened. “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 rose. “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. Gods willing, we’ll have smooth travels the rest of the way to Yew.

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

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

Neville shrugged as he pushed past bushes. 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 at 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.

For almost a square mile, the ruins lay scattered across the valley floor 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 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 broken streets and houses.

There were signs of game and birds aplenty. A few fruit orchards that had long since run wild were scattered about, along with edible berries.

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

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 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. Thomas, the group’s other leader, offered Neville a water skin. The rest of the group clustered behind the old man. Many of them bore the stamp of his features.

“Well?” Thomas asked, his blue eyes anxious.

Neville felt the group’s gaze 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 fruiting 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, thinking. Their eyes were hollow, their cheeks thin, their 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; everything that could’ve gone wrong did. And some of them are still mourning Hannah. They want to get on to Yew and get their new lives started. 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 for a few days. And it’d be better to do all that here than Norrich.

A rough trading post lay about eighty miles along the road. On normal crossings, the ones that went right and that Neville made twice a year, he stopped his caravans there for a rest, but nothing about this year had been normal. The last time he’d been through Norrich there’d been trouble: two stabbings, and more barfights than he cared to count. Going there under the cloud of this trip seemed like asking for trouble.

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

His eye slid to a woman with a thick mop of curly hair. She grinned, running the tip of her tongue along her lips. He glanced away.

“It’ll do.”

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. “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 looking up at the mountain peaks, whirled.

“It’s Averras!” he exclaimed.

Polite interest met this revelation.

“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 of the Wilder Lands, 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.”

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,” 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 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.”

A dark-haired man 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 amiably as he balanced his daughter on his shoulders. “I can’t wait for you to get there, 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.

She observed the glances they shot at the treeline now and then.

They seem more curious than frightened.

Six wagons were circled. A firepit was dug and a crude kitchen set up in the empty space in the middle.

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 were uneasy, stamping their hooves, swiveling their ears and flaring their great, hairy nostrils.

The trailmaster watched the mules, a muscle working in his jaw.

They smell us. They smell something, but they aren’t sure what. I suppose we don’t smell enough like real wolves to alarm them, but they still don’t like it. She realized she was afraid the people would leave.

Eventually the animals relaxed, and he did as well.

The people settled in to work. 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 thought 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 to fetch fresh water. One young man began cutting saplings for hunting snares. Except for the stream and the treeline, they seemed to have no interest in entering the forest.

The women who went for water stood in the stream, filling water skins and buckets. As they worked, they chatted. A few of their words caught her attention.

Hannah. They keep talking about Hannah… She died not long ago. Another name sprang out at her. 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?

 

By day’s end, she moved through the ruins, brushing aside vines and bright flowers. Glints of golden light flickered off leaves as they fluttered to the ground. She went to a kill she’d made two days before, and when she stepped from the trees a flock of ravens took raucous flight.

After feeding, she turned her steps for the den. Her forefoot sank into soft mud. Without a second thought, she raised her paw and patted the ground smooth, then hopped over the mud and onto firmer ground scattered with twigs and leaves.

I must be more careful than usual about not leaving footprints; father has said it over and over again, we must leave no traces.  And what would they do, finding giant wolf prints? She snorted. They’d be packed and away in no time.

She reached a courtyard, the walls overgrown with vines and the ground covered by thick, springy turf. At the far corner stood a stone arch, 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 through 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. A crack or unseen hole allowed in fresh water from an underground stream.

She reached her spot—a circle of earth clear of ferns and mushrooms– and lay down.

I wonder what the people are doing?  

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.

…but they all called me Addy.

[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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