Chapter 1

Her feet were raw, the flesh scraped down to nerves and red muscle. She swore she heard the clack of bones as her heels struck the gravelled path. She swore, each glance back over her shoulder was filled with the polka-dot trail of her footprints, trimmed in crimson. She swore her lungs were falling to pieces, chugging and screaming at her to stop.

The trees were gnarled, little more than the reach of ghastly hands, wreathed in dangling autumn moss, crumbling in the winds that swept through the surrounding countryside. Grass, the colour of anvils and sprouting apples, stretched out all around her. Between the sparse tree trunks, it flowed, crafting gentle slopes and hills, that seemed almost peaceful under the night and stars. The yawn of the moon was a covert thing against the cloud banks threatening rain.

The trees also served to chew and gnaw on any sound further than ten paces, which is why her shrieks had been muted and unappealed the entire way.

Three leagues between the lower wall and the manor house. Three leagues of wilderness that the other Lords had not bothered to carve up for industry’s sake, least they seem cruel in their ignorance of Natural Law. It had been a ruling she had been adamant about protecting and one of her few victories that she held onto with pride.

Running now, she felt a pang of bitter irony creep through her flailing thoughts.

She stumbled, legs tangling with the ribbons of her dress, the shred and further tear exposing the flesh of her thighs to the wind and she felt the chill quicken the sudden blush of anger that rose in her throat, quelling the scream of frustration.

She planted her hands, wincing as the scrap of her knee sent flickers of pain up through her bones. She felt pebbles dig into her palms and fingers when her hands balled into fists. She used her knuckles to thrust back onto her feet.

The trees swayed anew, a crisp wind climbing up her shoulders and spine and she stiffened as it brought the charnel stink she had tasted before, with it.

“Just in sight, little hare.”

His voice was harsh, as if found at the bottom of a river, with nothing but gravel and old bones in the muck for company. She resisted another scream, forcing the sound into the muscles of her legs, the surge sending her tumbling forward again, skirting the path’s edge in a wild snap of limbs meant to keep her on balance. The wind seemed to snicker and she felt her breath come up, half-formed into a curse that was more exhale then voice.

“Politics have made you suited to cowardice, your grace!”

She had thought his voice something horrific, but the laughter made her wish for deafness. The blisters between her toes had burst some time ago and the raw pink skin beneath was already crippling her movements. She stepped off the path, painted fingers curling around the folds of her garment’s remains and hiked them up, feeling the cold taint of dew off the grass, ease the pain. Her strides lengthened and the dancer in her, lithe and aging, found a reserve that turned the trees around her into little but passing phantoms. The dark of the wood, captured her peripherals and she found the hill of the pathway leading to the manor house, withering under her gait.

A scant few seconds more and she was over the hill, staring down at the burning orange of the entry braziers lighting the brownstone court-yard. They flooded her vision and system with a hint of desperate relief. The bridge, a well arched thing, long in stride and breadth, ate the air above the river which segregated the Manor grounds from the remainder of the wild meadows. The gatehouse, a squat thing, attached to this side of the bridge, was dark, it’s arched windows fathomless in the night.

She screamed anyway.

The sound reached out of her, surprisingly strong, bending her near double in the process. No sooner had it escaped, then it cut off abruptly as her spine wrenched and the air rushed out of her, driven by a strike that felt like a swinging cauldron or some blacksmith’s repetition. She sprawled forward, hands struggling for a brief, futile moment, to capture her momentum before she pitched into a harsh roll down the hill of grass, that lined the roadside. A reverberating snap of bone accompanied her downhill slide, as she careened into the woodland off the mason-road, a muffled heave of pain spat from her lips as she slid to a close against the base of a tree, the ashen trunk shivering slightly with the impact.

“So close, little hare.”

She leaned back,felt the tickle of grass blades clinging to her neck, the sopping ribbons of her dress curled possessively about her thighs and calves while she struggled to bring up the awkward ruin of her broken arm, cradling the shattered ruin of it against her stomach. Tears streamed past her pale cheeks and she looked up through the dark and limbs, toward the hilltop where the owner of that river-muck voice, crouched..

She wanted her voice and breath back just then, if only to chew the air with expletives, hexes and curses.

The shape on the hill, a hunched thing, powerfully thick and indistinct, shifted slightly, a few inches to one side, the squatting outline grunting with the effort. One long limb, separated itself from the indistinction to paw in the grass before it, the snuffling sound of an animal’s nose and clopping jaws, erupting as the hand found whatever it was looking for and raised it towards the outlined head. A slurping noise struck the air and she felt her gorge rise in place of her struggling breath.

“Mmmm, I found your stench, three nights ago. In his bed and sheets. Under his tables like some bar-whore. He said you were eager. Fresh and desperate-”

“Shut up!”

Her breath returned in another shriek. His answering laughter, brought another, turned toward the gatehouse, out of sight. Still, the trees grasped at her voice and pulled it apart before it got too far. No voice or answer came, except for that river-bottom laugh.

“The guard?” he seemed to anticipate her wondering, the harsh roll of his voice, shifting vowels around like food morsels, yet to be swallowed. Saliva and an overworked jaw gargled each word, some dropping free and spilling away unintelligibly. One meaty limb rose, the sharp, wet crack of displacing bone erupting around a grunt of exertion.

“I found him too, much earlier. He slithered and twitched on the way down.”

“They will know-”

“That you are missing. Nothing more.”

“They will search-”

“A cursory thing. You would pay the same meagre sympathy if only for decorum’s sake.”

She found her jaws clenching, around pain, around misery and did her best not to pour it out into her lap as her stomach churned, conflict rabbiting her senses around, hounded by pain until it felt as if all she was inside were about to bubble out into the grass. There was a caustic taste at the back of her throat and she did her best not to double forward, least the awkward and unbelievable angle of her arm stab fresh agony into her.

"You were careless. That much is to be expected of you. Ever politic. Ever self-contained. Your opinions drive those around you and yet for all your importance, you grasp far beyond your understanding."

He mocked her and she seethed in place, spittle collecting at the corners of her mouth when her lips peeled back from grit teeth. She felt the saliva drip past her lips and sniffed loudly, loud enough to quell and still his next litany leaving silence for a brief instant. Then, she spat into the grass. It dribbled past her lips, sprayed down her chin, ruining the gesture’s effect, but the meaning rose to her eyes. She held them on that outline of a monster squatting the hill for as long as she could. A few seconds only, before they fluttered and closed again.

No, no, don't you dare. Don't you dare fall apart. Not now, not this close. Scream. Scream. Be heard. Be loud. Be fierce because you've been before. Do not let him win. Do not let them have this

"Or maybe you simply reached without looking. Without ever knowing."

She inhaled, a sob cresting her lips, eyes closed as if in erasing all other functions of sense she could magnify the strength of her voice for just a few moments longer. She inhaled again, a ragged thing, that choked the insides of her throat, seized her chest and made her limbs shake with the power of it. She squeezed her eyes tight, turning everything dark.

"Denial is not a weapon, Gaudra."

She inhaled again and opened her mouth to scream. Only for her tongue to be caught on the rough bark of crude, slick flesh, as an impossibly large hand wrapped around her jawline, fingertips curling at the top of her spine, thumb digging into the alcove behind her ear. The sound she had been saving for this moment, died, buried somewhere ambiguously among her insides. Her eyes opened and she stared out across the ridge of space between his thumb and index finger. The silhouette was still a darkened thing, yet the stench dug out all chance of another breath taken and her body shook limply, dangling from that grip as it struggled through suffocation.

"Hope, on the other hand. Properly weaponized, is a scalpel."

She felt a sudden disconnection, her body twisting viciously under his briefest of gestures. A sudden dislocation spread through the spasms of her limbs, until she could not feel anything below her neck. There was a listless sort of weight, that felt as if something clung to her then and in a brief moment of fear drenched clarity she realized that it was her own body and kicking legs, something she had been intimately aware of in design and movement since the first of her teachers showed her the arch of a quick-step or a bow. She sensed the looseness as vague aches in the remnants of feeling, raggedly sawing through her jaw and neck; a disjointed grasp at the alien. She felt her eyes flutter open again, realization of having closed them only now dawning. The hand removed itself and her head lolled to one side, rag-doll limp and helpless as she stared down at the grassy turf, vision blurring through tears that fell to join the dew. Her mouth worked in chewing motions, spittle freely running through the crease of one corner of her lips, eyes a rolling expression of animal fright.

Her last images were the dewy grass, the shattered remains of yawning teeth to either side of her head, descending and the entirely new but instinctively understood sensation of being gnawed on.