Dark Houses – First Chapter

CHAPTER 1

The forest was noisy. Wind ruffled the leaves, birds sang, and something small and innocent scurried through the dry leaves. Caylen liked a noisy forest; it was when things got quiet that she started to worry.

She moved forward quickly but carefully, being sure not to add any sounds of her own to the din around her. A flash of motion off to the right barely caught her attention; small, moving parallel to her path—just a bird. She could make out a shape up ahead, though, something strange about it, almost blending in to the shadow of a large oak, but not quite… something just not right. She raised her left fist in the air, waited long enough to be sure that the signal had been seen by those traveling behind her, and then lowered herself closer to the ground and moved off the path into the undergrowth. It was tougher going, there; she could feel the forest start to notice her. Still not alarmed enough to be silent, but watching.

She crept on, and by about ten strides from the object her brain finally started to process the shape. She could make out a leg, covered in a dark fabric, stretched out from the larger bulk resting against the tree. There was a boot on the foot, nothing fancy. It looked much the same as the boots on Caylen’s own feet, although hers were more worn. She eased closer, looking for a trap, ears and eyes open for any changes or danger. Her bow was a nuisance, the only part of her that wouldn’t bend, wouldn’t mold itself to the forest floor, but she needed it; there was no point in getting somewhere quietly if she were unarmed when she arrived. A little nearer, and a little further around the side, and it became clear that the body slumped against the tree was no danger to her, and would never be a danger to anyone again. She had to be sure, though, so she found a fist-sized rock in the undergrowth and lifted herself up just long enough to throw it, hard, at the body.

The rock hit with a soft sound, tumbling to the ground rather than bouncing off the hard muscle of a living shoulder, and the body didn’t move. Caylen had her answer, even before she saw the dark putrescence spreading out from where her stone had broken the body’s swelling, rotting skin. She eased out toward the path, still cautious, but not alarmed, and when she got back into sight of those following her she raised her arm again, this time with a flat hand that she jerked forward. Come on.

She walked over to the body. It had been there at least a few days, from the look of it. No animals seemed to have found it yet, which was strange, but a careful sniff confirmed that the corpse was just starting to smell. The clothes were nothing special, but there could be something useful on the body. Caylen made sure she kept the smile from her face as she turned to greet Connell, the band’s second-in-command. “I’d check it out, but I’m on point.”

Connell peered down at the dead body. “Looks like one of us.” One of them. A Nomad, he meant. Connell crouched to get a better look at the face, then shook his head. “Hard to tell, now, but he doesn’t look familiar.” He glanced back at the group of nomads gathering behind him. “Romy, check him out.” He jerked his head down the path. “And you, Cay—if you’re on point, get your ass on point.”

Caylen moved forward quickly. Once she was a few strides away, she took a moment to re-center herself, getting back into the right mindset. Alert, but relaxed. Hearing and seeing everything, without letting herself be distracted by unimportant details. It had taken a long time to develop this skill, and she was proud that she was being given the responsibility of scouting ahead more and more often. Nora, the leader of their band, was a hard woman, and not easily impressed, or even satisfied. She expected discipline and skill from everyone on the team, and it made no difference to her that Caylen was young. Made no difference that she was Nora’s daughter.

Caylen didn’t think it would take long for Romy to search the body, so she didn’t bother slowing down to wait for him. She moved forward along the side of the path, not creeping, but not strutting along like she’d seen people doing in the cities. She was part of the forest, but she didn’t own it. She wasn’t arrogant enough to think that she was ever totally safe, or totally in control.

The next body was lying face down in the middle of the path. Caylen hadn’t stayed around long enough to see what had killed the last one, but this time it was pretty obvious; three arrows stuck out of the corpse’s back. Caylen didn’t bother creeping up on this one. She found another stone, made another hard throw, and was satisfied with another lifeless thud. She moved up to stand near the body, but stayed on alert, waiting for Connell to come for a closer look. Whoever had killed these men was likely long gone, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t other possible threats.

When Connell came to join her, Nora was with him, and Caylen fought to keep herself from tensing. She was doing everything right, following procedure exactly; there was no room for criticism. Nora just ignored her, crouching down next to the body, and Caylen relaxed. The absence of fault-finding was about as close to praise as Nora ever got.

“Soldier,” Nora grunted to Connell, and Caylen let herself take a quick glance down. She saw what looked like a blue uniform before snapping her eyes back up to continue scanning the forest.

“Where’s the rest of them, then?” Connell loved to think out loud, and it was always nice for Caylen to be able to listen to him. It was about the only way she had of finding out what was going on. “They don’t usually leave their dead. And they don’t travel alone.”

Nora nodded grimly. “Caylen, right point, take it slow and careful. I’ll take left. Connell, put the crew on full alert.” She glanced down. “Romy’s hands are already dirty. He might as well pick over this one, as well.”

“I’ll tell him. Better chance of finding something good on a soldier, at least.” Connell waited by the body for the rest of the band to catch up to him, while Nora and Caylen moved into position.

It was nerve-wracking to work with Nora, but a part of Caylen loved it. Nora was so perfect, so effortlessly alert, and Caylen didn’t think she was flattering herself to believe that the two of them worked well together. It felt good, knowing that she could absolutely trust the ability of her partner, and that Nora trusted her in return. And it was certainly easier to only keep track of half as much forest as usual.

She didn’t have long to enjoy the experience, though. They’d only been working their way forward for a few minutes when she spotted the next body. In her peripheral vision she could see Nora’s arm lift up at the exact same time that Caylen lifted her own, like the choreography of some macabre dance. It was more than one body, Caylen quickly realized, her eyes finding shape after shape, hunched over on the ground or sprawled in the edges of the forest, trying to get away, and two of them locked together, as if they had died simultaneously, mid-fight. There were probably twenty corpses, at least.

It wasn’t her job to investigate, though, just to watch for potential danger. She glanced over at Nora, looking for orders. The older woman was still surveying the scene, so Caylen resumed her own watchfulness. She stepped forward cautiously into the clearing where the battle had occurred, looking for anything moving in the tree line, anything threatening. She saw something flicker in the undergrowth on the far side of the open space, and crouched down, making a smaller target and trying to get a better view. Another flash of movement, and she saw that it was just a squirrel, hopping to a new branch.

She stayed crouched down, looking for a new perspective, her back to the undergrowth at the side of the clearing. She slowly scanned the scene, and saw nothing new, nothing moving. She began to straighten up, and it was only then that she noticed the faint trail on the ground. It was barely there, just a few twigs facing directions they shouldn’t be, a scuff of dirt exposed… and when she looked closer, a smear of dark brown, and then another. The trail came from near the center of the clearing. It could have been left by a scavenger, dragging a body away, or it could have been a body dragging itself away. She could see a few spots where the dark brown stain was more obvious, as if whoever was bleeding had rested there, while the blood kept flowing. The trail led into the undergrowth, a few strides from where Caylen was standing. She shifted a little, looking to see if she could spot anything, and moved closer. It was only because of years of discipline and training that she was able to keep herself from yelping when a hand shot out of the bushes and grabbed hold of her ankle.