Part Three of my Latest Free Serial
Breaking Ground is a Darkeningstone novella – it's a standalone book: a bonus story. I'm presenting it here in weekly parts. Each part on this site is tagged ‘breaking ground' so you can find all the published episodes easily. I'll add a link at the end of this episode. I hope you enjoy it.
Slowly, Burlic crept forward. He lifted his foot to take another careful step, glancing at the ground for anything that might make a sound beneath his feet. But he raised his eyes and looked from side to side as he placed his foot silently onto the soft forest soil. You didn’t hunt by staring at the ground. And you didn’t stay alive unless you stayed alert. He turned his head and looked deep into the early morning shadows among the trees. And froze. What was that? He’d seen something. A movement, a shape. Something…something that could be a man, a threat. He gripped his spear tightly. His other hand went to the knife at his belt.
A sudden breeze whispered through the forest. Ferns stirred and shushed. Branches swayed and shook their leaves. Burlic felt the breeze on his face and narrowed his eyes. He watched as shadows shifted and dissolved. And then, all was still. Burlic waited. Was that all it was? Just a gust of wind stirring the shadows?
Burlic moved his hand away from his knife and took a deep breath. He savoured the forest’s heady scent of fresh green growth and damp decay; the smell of new life and of deaths long past. All was well. He looked ahead. Through the trees, he spotted a grassy clearing. A perfect place for deer to feed, he thought, and the perfect place to lie in wait. It was almost too good to be true. He stepped forward to the edge of the clearing and leaned against the peeling trunk of a silver birch. He cocked his head to one side, listening, listening. There. The tell-tale rustle in the undergrowth. Prey.
Just beyond the clearing, a tall fern swayed, then shook. And there it was again – the faint whisper of dry leaves, too insistent to be the wind. A glimpse of grey fur, and the rabbit loped onto the grass and bent its head to feed. Burlic smiled. The rabbit was a good size and plump. His wife, Scymrian, would be pleased. I was right, he thought. Right to try a new hunting ground, right to venture out by myself. He’d show them. He’d prove he was as stealthy as the best of them.
Keeping his eyes on his target, he raised his slender spear to shoulder height. He squared his shoulders, narrowed his eyes and drew back his spear. He took a breath and held it. Ready.
The arrow missed his face by a hair’s breadth. The sharp flint smacked into the silver birch’s trunk and shattered with a sharp crack, the point embedded in the tree. Burlic whirled around, his knees bent, his spear at the ready. A second arrow sliced through the air. The fierce heat of a body blow seared through his right thigh, biting deep into his flesh like a savage kick. He looked down, stunned to see the arrow sticking out from his thigh. He dropped his spear and grabbed the arrow’s shaft, roaring as he ripped it from his leg. Hot blood coursed across his skin. For a heartbeat, he stared at the arrow head, watching in disbelief as his blood dripped from the jagged flint.
A rush of sound, of men running through the undergrowth. Burlic looked up, trying to ready himself, but it was too late. Too late even to draw his knife. The men were on him. Two men. One man readied another arrow as he ran toward the clearing. The other man hurtled forward, crashing through the undergrowth, snarling, swinging his axe as he charged at Burlic.
In the blink of an eye, Burlic took in the axeman’s huge frame, his speed. And at the last possible moment, he sidestepped, twisting his body away. Like a cold breath on his cheek, he felt the axe carve through the air in front of his face. Burlic watched the axeman’s eyes, caught a glimpse of his startled confusion. The man had missed his target but could not stop his headlong charge. And then he was past Burlic, carried forward by his deadly momentum. Burlic turned to face him. But as he shifted his weight, his wounded leg buckled beneath him, and he cried out, dropping to one knee. Burlic hung his head, and as he ground his teeth in pain, a third arrow thudded into the ground beside him.
The axeman wheeled around in time to see Burlic collapse, bloodied and beaten. He grunted in satisfaction then paused to take a breath, baring his teeth. He shifted his grip on the axe, holding it with both hands. He smiled and stepped closer to Burlic, raising his axe to shoulder height, making ready to split Burlic’s skull in two. And in that moment, Burlic struck. Powering himself upwards with his good leg, he lashed out, his arm curving up in an arc toward his attacker. And in his hand, gripped tight in his fist, was the arrow he had torn from his leg. The sharp edge sliced across the axeman’s face, tearing open his cheek, slicing through his nose and gouging out his right eye. The man’s screams were barely human.
Across the clearing, the bowman faltered, gawping in horror as his companion dropped his axe and held his hands to his face. The stricken man’s body jerked in spasms of pain as blood seeped between his fingers. Burlic turned to face the bowman, and growled. For a moment, the men looked each other in the eye, then Burlic lowered his head, and he charged, blind rage blanking out the pain in his leg.
The bowman looked down, trying to load an arrow to his bow. But his fingers fumbled, and the bowstring slipped from the shaft. And then Burlic collided with him, pushing him off his feet, forcing him backward. A point of pure pain erupted in his gut, searing through his whole body. Burlic drove his fist into the man’s belly, still holding the arrow, twisting its jagged head back and forth, and forcing it relentlessly through skin and flesh. Burlic charged on, not seeing the tree that barred his path until he crashed the bowman’s back against it. The sudden halt drove his hand deeper into the man’s gut, the hot, slippery entrails seething against his fingers. With a shout, Burlic withdrew his hand, leaving the arrow embedded in the bowman’s body. The man gasped for air, his eyes staring into nothingness, and then, as his breath left him in a long, rattling sigh, he slid slowly down the tree trunk to the ground and toppled over onto his side. The bowman’s hands twitched feebly for a moment and then were still.
Burlic dropped his hands to his knees, bending to catch his breath, his mind a whirl of blood and rage. A sound behind him. Spinning on his heel, Burlic saw the axe rushing toward him and turned his head just in time. The sharp stone caught him a glancing blow on the side of his skull. Burlic staggered, his ears ringing, his eyes dazzled by a flash of white light. Warm blood trickled through his hair and ran onto his neck, but he didn’t have time to wipe it away. The axe drove toward his head once more, and he stumbled backward as the deadly axehead whirled past his eyes. Burlic shook his head and gasped as he saw the blood-red demon that faced him.
The axeman bellowed, a roar that gurgled from the mass of blood and dangling flesh that had been his face. His right eye hung below its ruined socket, his left cheek was a ragged gash, open to the glistening, white bone. And still, the blood poured from his wounds. He raised the axe once more, gripping it with both blood-slippery hands. Burlic stepped back. He was still dizzy from the blow to his head, his ears still hissing. He needed time to think. Should he run? But his leg was wounded. And as he watched the axeman striding toward him, he knew he could not outrun him and must not turn his back on him. He’d made that mistake once already. He must stand and fight. It was too late for anything else.
As the axeman closed in for the kill, Burlic dropped into a half crouch, every muscle tense. He focussed on his enemy, judging his speed, weighing up his weaknesses. The man’s two-handed swing was lethal, but it was slow and clumsy. He’ll have to be close, Burlic thought. Very close. The axeman turned his good eye to Burlic and growled. He held the axe at waist height and drew it to one side, preparing a body blow that would send Burlic sprawling to the ground.
Burlic forced himself to wait. The axeman stepped forward. Despite his injuries, he swung his axe with a frenzied speed and strength. From the corner of his eye, Burlic followed the arc of the axe, waiting until it was almost too late. He leapt back, just enough to escape the vicious blade. The axeman followed through, his axe meeting only thin air, and he turned too far, over-balancing and exposing his side and back. Without hesitation, Burlic launched himself at the man’s back, toppling him to the ground, landing on top of him with his full weight. The axeman screamed as his ravaged face was driven into the dirt. Burlic recovered quickly, sitting up and astride the man, pinning him down. With both hands, Burlic gripped the man’s neck, forcing his fingers around his throat, squeezing, crushing.
The axeman tried to twist away, his arms flailing, one hand still waving the useless axe in the air. He choked, vile, guttural noises hissing from his throat. And then it was over. The axeman’s body slumped, and Burlic felt the life of his enemy slip away. He waited a moment and then released the man’s throat, watching him carefully – just to be certain.
Burlic stood and took a deep breath. He looked from the dead axeman to the body of the bowman. This was their hunting ground, and they’d fought to protect it. Burlic sniffed, taking in the tang of fresh blood. I’d have done the same, he thought. He walked over to the bowman’s body, pushed him onto his back with his foot. A talisman dangled from a braided-leather strap around the dead man’s neck. As the body rolled, the talisman swung across his bloodied chest, and Burlic bent over to look more closely. The talisman was a smooth, flat disc, carved with an intricate design of curling lines. Carefully, Burlic picked it up. “Beautiful,” he whispered. How could a man make such a thing?
He put his hand to the flint knife at his belt and hesitated, struck by a sudden thought: He’d killed two men, and he hadn’t even drawn his knife. This was a strange day, and it would make a good tale. But that was for later. Now he must make sure the men’s Shades could leave their bodies. He took out his knife and, clutching the talisman firmly in his hand, he cut the leather strap. He stood and returned to the axeman’s body. This man’s talisman was covered in blood. Burlic wiped his thumb across its surface. The carved design was similar to his companion’s. He dragged his knife across the strap, the fine flint edge slicing easily through the blood-soaked leather. Burlic held both talismans together in his palm and took a deep breath.
He looked up and checked the height of the sun. There would be plenty of time. And he knew what he had to do.
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Neolithic man image source: Clare Kendall/swns.com