Chapter 9

When the rain first started, he cursed it.  Clouds blotted out the moon, making it impossible to see anything, despite his eyes being accustomed to the dark.  The gentle, steady fall made the grass slick and churned the dirt into mud.  Both difficult to walk in.  Both sure to leave evident tracks.  For a while, he stopped, hunkering down and trying to wait it out.  He weighed the desperate urge to get further and further away against the need to avoid detection.  Muddy footprints or trampled grass were like homing beacons and would negate any distance he gained by walking.  He waited.  The steady rate of fall couldn’t last forever, surely.  It didn’t.  Within an hour or so, it picked up.  The rain came down in sheets, wind whipping it about in gusts hard enough to knock him off balance.   The drops stung, an endless barrage of pellets kneading at his skin and muscles.  Like a massage gone horribly wrong.  He reevaluated his situation.  Decided things had changed for the better.  With the now-torrential nature of the rain, any trail he left would be immediately washed away.  He thought.  He hoped.  He tested it out with his limited vision and watched his footprints swirl away into a muddy stream.  At least, he thought they did.   Blast the dark and blast the rain.  He was going.  He prayed to whatever gods or saints may or may not exist and care enough to listen that it was the right choice.

By the time dawn changed the sky from a murky black to a murky dark gray, he had quit cursing the rain.  In part because he was shivering too much to do much cursing and in part because he realized what an advantage it offered.  Not only was it effectively eliminating his tracks, but no one would be fool enough to come looking for him in this weather.   Still, he didn’t think he should push his luck, and when the murky dark gray changed to a murky light gray, he was looking for a place to spend the day.  He had resigned himself to the inevitability of it being a miserable day, but the gods and saints who may or may not have existed must have been listening.   For the first time since he had left the Drove, he saw signs humanity had once existed outside the war.  He had begun to think it had all been an illusion.  He wondered if the ramshackle house and barn he saw now were also illusions.  If so, he would take the illusion of shelter over the reality of rain.  He started towards the buildings.  They were clearly abandoned, but he couldn’t convince himself it was alright to stay in the house.  He veered towards the barn, towards the roof and the walls, and whatever small comforts he might find inside them.  But he stopped.  Something wasn’t right.  Deep in the pit of his stomach, something seemed wrong.   He stood there, mud sucking at his boots and water pooling in the dents around them, and argued with his gut feeling.  Logic indicated it was a perfectly safe and intelligent place to go.  Instinct threw up all kinds of red flags.  Slowly he took a step.  Back.  Away from the shelter.  Away from the promised dryness and small comforts.  Following his instincts, his gut, and cursing them, he continued to back away until he was almost to the road.  He stood there, looking at the barn, the house.  Then, he swiveled his gaze to the left.  And saw it.  At first, he didn’t know what it was.  Just some strange undulation in the ground, a small break in the pattern of flatness.  He went to it.  The door was mostly covered in moss and grass, hiding it from casual observers.  A large chunk was broken out of it, though, and through it, Ry could peer down into open darkness.  A hole.  Some kind of storm cellar, he thought.  He didn’t care.  His gut was giving no objections to this hole in the ground, so he half pried the rotting door opened and squeezed inside, feet first.  The tunnel was small, like it had partially collapsed, and he had to wriggle backwards on his stomach.  It opened up a little as he reached the bottom.  He looked up.  He could still see light through the crack in the door.  Roots brushed his face and arms, dirt crumbled down into his eyes.  He scooted around until he found a comfortable position.  His fingers touched something and he tugged at it.  It was material.  Old, rough.  A burlap sack maybe?  Probably molding.  He didn’t care.  He spread it over his body and settled, the shivering easing off by degrees.  He dozed off, face pressed against the dirt, the deep, rich smell of soil soothing.  For the first time in a long time, he felt almost safe.

*************

He knew he wasn’t safe.  And not just for that moment.  As he looked at the man standing before him, he realized he would find no safety in the Drove.  Ever.   Not even from those in charge.  The man was called Jude.   Ota had chosen him to be Ry’s partner in hand to hand combat training.  Jude was the biggest man Ry had ever seen.   Ry was average in height, nearly six feet.  His head came somewhere to the middle of Jude’s chest.   The man was broad and solid, his muscles lean and stringy.  They weren’t just for show.  They well developed by frequent use.  The muscles of a soldier.   Ry didn’t want to tip his head back to look at Jude; he felt small enough already.  He took a couple step backs and was better able to look him in the face.  Jude refused to meet his gaze.  He didn’t look happy about the situation.  Ry wondered about that.  Everyone else had been vying for the chance to “help” him, to get their opportunity to pound him.  Jude hadn’t spoken up, and, though he hadn’t argued with Ota when he was selected, he didn’t seem overanxious.  Ry didn’t know if that was good for him or not.   Was the man truly against fighting someone so much smaller and more inexperienced, or just annoyed he wouldn’t have any real competition?  Jude’s eyes darted around all the others, who had formed a half-circle, smiling and laughing and calling out encouragements to him, and sighed in seeming resignation.  Ry squinted at him.  Or, was it just possible, he thought this situation was wrong?

A second later, Ry realized it didn’t matter.  Because Ota was giving the command to start, and regardless of his feelings on the issue, Jude was rushing towards him, every inch of his training in full view.   It was an odd trick of nature that seemed to freeze time for half a heartbeat and allow Ry to consider his options.  He could crumple to the ground, fetal position, hands over head and take the beating.  It was what they would all expect of him.  Or he could fight.  There was no way in this life or any other he could win, or really even hold his own.  But maybe it would give them all something to think about.  Before he had a chance to decide, Jude was on top of him, fist flying towards his face, and Ry was diving for the ground.  Not in a fetal position, though.  Through Jude’s legs.   The toe of the other man’s boot caught him in the ribs, and spun him.  Ry used the momentum to roll.  He didn’t know where he was rolling, just away.  It wasn’t fast enough, though.  Jude grabbed one of his legs, jerking him to a stop.  Ry kicked out, blindly, with his free foot.   It connected with something, something hard.  He hoped it was a knee or a face.   Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to slow the big man down.  Jude fell on top of him, his knees on either side of Ry’s middle, the bulk of his weight pinning Ry’s legs to the ground.  One of Jude’s massive hands was around Ry’s throat, cutting off his air, holding him still, while the other wound back in preparation to smash his face.  Ry could feel the lack of air, struggled to breathe, but couldn’t.  The edges of unconsciousness were creeping in and he was only hoping he blacked out before Jude completed his punch, when he realized both of Jude’s hands were occupied, and neither of them were restraining Ry’s own.  His fingers had been subconsciously clutching at the hand on his throat, as though they were their own being.  Now, he concentrated the little mind-power he had left to make them move.  Clenching them into a fist, he punched, as hard as he could, burying his fist in Jude’s throat.  The punch Jude had been bringing towards his own face faltered a little.  It still hit, and hard.  Pain exploded in the side of Ry’s head, crashing it to the side, bright lights bursting across his vision.  The world spun, everything went silent except a high pitched whine, and blackness threatened to take him again.  But he could breathe.  Jude’s hand was still on his neck, but no longer pushing.  He had rocked back a little, his other hand going to his own throat.  Ry used his momentary distraction.  He wriggled back, pulling with his elbows, pushing with his heels and pulled one foot out from under Jude.  He kicked with it, hard as he could, landing it as close to the man’s crotch as possible.  He could hear again, now, shouts from the others.  They weren’t encouraging anymore.  They sounded angry, livid.  He pushed his foot against Jude, tugging his other leg free and aimed a kick at the man’s face.  It never landed.  He wasn’t sure what happened, how, or why.  But suddenly, other hands were there punching him, other feet kicking his face and ribs, other bodies pinning him to the ground.  Colors and faces swirled around him.  Pain shot through him, tearing at his limbs and flesh.  He tried to fight back, but in seconds, his body quit responding.  Blackness tunneled in from the edges of his vision, sounds blended together into a muffled roar.

“Stop!” Above it all, he heard one voice.  Calling, almost clear, above the other sounds.

“Stop it!”  He thought it was a girl’s voice.

~ S.D. Bullard

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

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~ by sdbullard on July 30, 2013.

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