The Master of Heathcrest Hall
By Galen Beckett
Spectra Copyright © 2012 Galen Beckett
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780553807608
The people huddled in the cave as the wind shook the branches of the trees outside.
The cave was damp and musty from disuse, for it had been a long while since they had last journeyed to it. In years past, they would dwell here during the darkest winter months, when the thick stone offered protection from the winds that swept out of the north—and from the wolves that prowled the frozen land, their fur ragged, desperate enough to brave fire and arrow in search of something to fill their shrunken bellies.
For most of the year, the people lived five days’ walk to the south of this place, in a camp by the blue sea. There they would spend the long days as they had for time out of mind, prying mussels from the rocks and spearing fish and cormorants, until they became as sleek as the otters that basked on the shore in the sun.
At least, that was how things used to be. Layka still remembered what it had been like when she was smaller. She would spend the warm evenings walking along the beach, clad only in a supple doeskin, choosing shells that might be strung on a piece of leather—saving them for the day when she was old enough to begin making herself beautiful for the young men who visited on occasion from the other camps down the shore.
But that was before everything changed.
It began one day with a violent shuddering of the ground. An awful groaning noise filled the air, and the sea pulled away from the shore. All knew this was a sign to flee to a higher place, but even as they did so a sudden night fell over the world. It was as if a fist had closed around the burning ember of the sun, snuffing it out. The people looked up and, for the first time, saw an unfamiliar red spark smoldering among the stars. What this new object in the night sky was, no one knew—not even Nesharu, who of all the people was the oldest and wisest.
At last the trembling of the ground ceased, and the ocean roared back upon the beach. Dawn came, and the day seemed to pass as usual. But when it ended, the red spark again shone in the sky, a little brighter than before. The night that followed lasted too long. The world grew cold, and though it was yet early summer, stars that should only have risen in autumn spun into the sky. By morning, when Layka walked along the shore, she found it rimed with frost. She shivered despite the aurochs hide she had thrown over her shoulders, and had to use her nails to pry up shells from the sand.
After that, the days no longer continued their gradual and steady lengthening toward midsummer. Instead, one night might flit by, swift as a bat, followed by a day during which the sun seemed to hang motionless overhead, blazing so fiercely that the otters were forced to slip into the sea to escape its heat. Then, without warning, the heat would give way to bitter cold after the sun failed to show itself for what felt like days.
A fear came over the people. Plants wilted and shriveled in alternation. Animals grew torpid and confused, wandering across the land as if they did not know which direction to go. Many dead fish washed up on the shore, carried by currents that had gone too hot or cold to sustain them. Sometimes other things washed up on the beach as well: gelatinous remnants of unknown creatures that smelled so foul even the dogs would not touch them. And all the while the red spark grew larger in the sky, glaring like the eye of some angry beast.
That had been three years ago. Or at least so they guessed, for they could no longer count the years by the passage of the seasons. Winter no longer gave way to spring; bright summer never dulled to autumn. Instead, the sequence of days was as patternless as a handful of fish bones thrown on the midden heap. Yet it must have been three years since everything changed, or close to it, for Layka had been just past her thirteenth winter then, and now she was nearly a woman.
Not that it mattered. Young men never came from the other camps anymore. Nobody did, not since the red eye had shown itself. The pretty shells Layka had gathered remained unstrung, piled in a corner of the hut she shared with her parents and her brother. Anyway, there was no time to think about making herself beautiful. It was all she and the others could do to survive. Those first months had been especially awful. Game perished. Springs and rivulets went dry, and the sea grew barren of fish. The people froze and sweltered in alternation, and many succumbed to hunger or fever.
That any of them managed to live was due to Nesharu. For hours she would stand watching the sky, observing the movements of birds or listening to the wind. Then she would tell the people where to look for water or animals to hunt. At first they found little to sustain them. Yet over time some plants began to sprout again, spindly but green. A few animals returned, as did the fish in the sea. And though these were not nearly so plentiful as before, they were enough. The days and nights came and went, sometimes short, sometimes long. For three years the people struggled and endured.
Then a young man came to the camp.
It was one of those endless afternoons when the sunlight went flat and turned everything to white. The people looked up to see a hunter they did not know just beyond the huts. At once the men rushed toward him, spears at the ready, but it was soon obvious that he posed no threat. He was thin, his beard crusted with salt, and despite the heat of the day he was shivering. The people gathered around him and saw that the man bore deep gashes on his arm and side. The flesh around the wounds had turned the color of ash and gave off a rank odor.
The hunter fell to the ground and started to mutter, but it was difficult to understand him. By the ochre that stained the hides he wore, he came from one of the camps around the great curve in the shoreline many days’ walk to the south, and the language spoken there was not entirely like that of the people. However, they gave him water, and after a time Nesharu made out some of his speech.
They came during a long night, the hunter told them. Shadows that stalked, shadows with pointed teeth. They ate men from the inside out and put on their skins, so you could not tell what they were. Then, when darkness fell, they cast off the skins to feed, and no arrow could pierce them.
The people were frightened by these words. Layka looked at his wounds, counting the parallel lines in his flesh, and wondered what kind of animal had seven talons upon each of its paws.
“If an arrow will not pierce them, how can these shadows be hunted?” Nesharu asked as she knelt beside the man, a listless wind stirring her hair like the white tendrils of an anemone in the shallows.
“Take their heads,” the hunter croaked through cracked lips. “While they still wear a man’s skin, take their heads.”
Nesharu sat with the hunter for many more hours, her weathered face grim as she leaned close, trying to make out more of the man’s words. But the hunter’s voice grew fainter, until his lips moved without making any sound, and his eyes stared blindly. Then, as the sun at last dipped below the edge of the sea, his spirit left him.
The people gathered wood, and upon Nesharu’s direction they burned the body far away from the huts as the red eye looked down from above. It was a circle nearly as large as the moon now, its light staining the ground like blood after a hunt.
That night was short, but by the time a swift dawn swept across the land, three men were already heading out from the camp. They were the fastest runners among the people. Since the red eye appeared in the sky, no one had gone more than a long day’s walk away from the camp. Now the men intended to go all the way around the great bend of the shore, to the southern camps, to see if they could learn more about the things the hunter had spoken of—and what danger they might pose to the people. The runners quickly became small specks on the horizon, then were lost from view.
For five alternations of light and dark, the people waited. Then, just as the sun heaved into the sky at the start of the sixth day, a single runner stumbled into the camp. It was Layka’s brother, Tennek.
“You are a good runner,” Nesharu said as the people gathered around Tennek, “but it is still much too soon for you to have gone all the way past the great bend and back. And where are the others?”
Tennek shook his head, unable to speak. His breaths came rapidly, and his eyes were wide, as if one of the long-fanged cats pursued him. Layka came forward bearing a shell filled with water and gave it to her elder brother. He drank it, and at last his breathing eased so that he could speak.
The others gathered close. Despite the rising sun, a coldness crept over them as Tennek described how, on the second day out, the runners came to a camp along the shore just where it began to bend to the east.
Who dwelled there, they did not know, for the small lodges made of sticks and mud were all empty. There was wood in the fire pits and a rack of drying fish, as well as a large chunk of flint set out on a flat stone, ready to be struck and knapped into points. It looked as if the people who had made this camp planned to return at any moment.
By then a sudden twilight was descending, and as there was no other shelter, the three runners retreated into one of the empty lodges. They took turns keeping watch, only at some point during the night Tennek and Haleth both woke to discover that Davu was gone. They called out to him from the entrance of the lodge, but there was no answer. When dawn broke, they went out to look for him.
They spent the whole day searching, but there was no sign of Davu in the camp or anywhere around it. Still they kept looking until night fell, when again they had no choice but to retreat into one of the lodges in the camp. This time, neither of them slept, and when morning at last came they agreed they must continue their journey south and hope that Davu would either find them or return to the people. They took some of the dried fish and the flint core, then left the camp.
As they did, they saw Davu walking toward them along the shore. Surprised and happy, they hurried to him and asked him where he had been.
He did not answer. His eyes were hard and dull as pebbles, and there were strange marks on his hand, like a tattoo made with charcoal and a bone needle, only sharper and darker. Haleth asked Davu to hold out his hand so he might look at the tattoo more closely. Davu did not respond, so Haleth reached out to take his hand.
And Davu lunged forward to clamp his teeth upon Haleth’s throat.
So astonished were both Tennek and Haleth that for a moment neither of them moved. Only then came a great gush of blood, and Haleth cried out. He pulled away from Davu’s grasp, his hands fluttering to his neck, but they could not stanch the flow. As Tennek watched, Haleth sank to his knees, then collapsed into the sand.
Tennek tried to run, but his feet would not move, and then Davu was before him, his eyes as dark and empty as a shark’s, his mouth wet with red. He reached out a hand, the one marked with black lines, and wrapped its fingers around Tennek’s throat.
Pain at last freed Tennek from his torpor. He tightened his grip around the flint core in his hand, then swung his arm around and brought the heavy chunk of stone crashing against the side of Davu’s face. There was a crunching noise as Davu’s head turned halfway around on his shoulders.
Yet despite this, Davu’s hands continued to grope blindly. Tennek shoved him backward, so that he fell to the sand, then knelt and brought the sharp end of the flint core down upon Davu’s spine, again and again, until at last it was done and Davu’s head rolled free. No blood came from the stump of his neck, and Tennek did not see muscle or tendon or bone. There was only a gray substance, thick as sea kelp, oozing from both body and head. For a minute Tennek stared at the two corpses on the beach.
Then he threw down the flint and ran, hardly stopping for breath or water, until he returned to the camp.
Many of the people cried out as Tennek finished describing what had befallen him, but Layka could think only that her brother was weary, and that he needed more water. Before she could bring it to him, Nesharu took up a small flint knife and flicked it against Tennek’s arm. Tennek let out a cry. All gazed expectantly at the cut on his arm.
A stream of bright red welled forth.
Nesharu nodded, then let Layka bring another shell of water to her brother.
“It is no longer safe here,” Nesharu said then. “We must leave this place. We will make for our winter-home.” And before the sun had reached its highest point, the people were marching away from the shore, their few belongings on their backs.
That had been seven sunrises ago. It had taken them longer to reach the cave than they expected, for a number of the days passed swiftly, while one of the nights went on so long that snow began to drift down before the sun rose again. Several times they saw plumes of smoke rising in the distance, and they gave these a wide berth. And once, as they huddled together in darkness, they heard distant screams borne on the night wind—though whether they were the sounds of humans or some animal, they could not be certain.
Their trek was nearing its end when they encountered a band much like their own: a collection of some thirty women, children, infants, and men. By their shell necklaces and wristbands, and by their speech, they were from one of the other camps along the western shore. This was one of the bands that the people sometimes traded with, and from whose young men Layka might possibly choose a mate.
On this occasion their meeting was not so friendly as it would have been for trading goods or seeking partners in years past, and the two bands approached one another slowly, spears at the ready. However, their wise one was with them: a woman who, like Nesharu, had seen at least forty winters. She and Nesharu came together and spoke for a time, their heads bowed together. Then the other band turned and continued northward.
Nesharu said the others knew of the shadows. The band had come upon a camp that had been empty save for scraps of skin. Their own band had been attacked two nights before, and they had lost four to swirls of darkness that lunged and bit, dragging them into the night.
“Where do they go now?” Tennek asked, looking after the others.
“They go to find shelter, as we do,” Nesharu said, taking up her walking stick. “Come, Layka, walk with me for a while. There are plants here that do not grow by the shore that I want to show you.”
Layka hurried after the older woman. She always liked it when Nesharu singled her out. The older woman would tell her what things were good to eat, and which would make a man go numb and stop his heart, and whether the patterns of kelp and shells on the shore meant there would be good fishing or a storm was coming.
Usually Layka was quick to remember these sorts of things. Only now she seemed to forget the names of the plants as soon as Nesharu told them to her. She kept thinking of the band of people marching to the north, seeking shelter. Only what place could provide shelter from the dark? When night fell, did not even the brightest of fires cast shadows? Layka wanted to ask Nesharu these things, but instead she chewed a piece of dried fish as she walked and listened to the older woman speak. Continues...
Excerpted from The Master of Heathcrest Hall by Galen Beckett Copyright © 2012 by Galen Beckett. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc.
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