Chapter 1 - Bran
By J S Boyd
The witch is still breathing as I clench her heart within my claws, savoring its perfumed scent against the putrid stench that exuded from the hag’s lair. I snarl down at her, letting pieces of her pulsing, maggot-ridden entrails drip from my fangs and slip back down into the gaping maw that was once her chest. I think about toying with her more, picking her up by her grime-covered hair and tearing her jaw apart. My smile grows as I imagine her blood pouring into me, and watching her eyes gradually dim till they become nothing more than two blank, soulless voids. The thought fills me with more pleasure than my human self would be willing to acknowledge.
For that is our weakness. Isn’t that what they said?
I pierce the beating heart gently with one glittering nail, and finally she lets out a shrill scream – that joyful, wonderful agony of a creature that truly feels the end approaching while they lie beneath their captor, blood pumping, pounding till they reach fever pitch, just before the slow descent into infinite nothing.
I allow myself one last smile before squeezing the heart and sinking my teeth into its juicy orifice. I take my time chewing, licking and swallowing, enjoying every inch of the meat. The apple of life.
And with each new bite, her screams fill the night sky.
They were sweeter even than the meal itself.
‘Sshssh, I’m here. Uncle Bran’s here.’
Amalia woke through tear-filled eyes to a world familiar to her: her room, small and simple, with only a tiny chest of drawers, bed, and bookcase filled with happy tomes to call her own. Instinctively her arms shot out to grasp at the air before her till they wrapped themselves around something strong and warm.
‘Oh, Uncle Bran,’ she sniveled. ‘Daddy…’
‘It’s ok, Amalia,’ Bran whispered back gruff and serene, like a vigilant hound given voice. ‘You dreamt about daddy again?’
She nodded silently.
Outside, rain battered against the feeble windows of the cottage. As her senses returned to her Amalia could hear thunder shatter the melodious din of the storm. The dreams always came on nights like this.
‘I’m sorry, Uncle Bran. I miss him so much. And I…I – wait – why are you so wet?’
She recoiled slightly in his arms, her eyes still red with dried tears. He wiped them gently with his finger as he spoke.
‘I was hunting, sweetheart. The Creator was kind tonight, and sent a big deer right in front of my bow. You can have as much as you want tomorrow.’
She sniffled in his arms. ‘Poor deer. Poor deer.’
‘I know, sweetheart. But remember we have to do what we can to survive. The Creator says that the deer lives in us once we eat it – it helps us get strong. We do not kill. We take the strength the Creator provides us.’
‘Yes,’ Amalia whispered, cuddling into her uncle’s long hair. ‘I’ll get stronger too. So one day I can help you find daddy. So one day I…I…’
Another flood of tears interrupted her resolve.
‘I’ve told you Amalia, its ok to cry, especially in your uncle’s arms.’
He held her closer and kissed her blonde crown. ‘We all have to cry sometimes.’
‘Can you promise to stay with me, Uncle Bran?’ she asked, in a voice almost inaudible against the pelting cacophony of the outside. ‘Promise not to leave like Daddy?’
‘I’ve told you I can’t make promises sweetheart,’ he replied. ‘But for tonight, I’ll stay with you as long as you like.’
And he held her till she fell back into slumber, her little chest rising and falling in harmony. He stayed there by her side till the storm passed, and sighed at his own inadequacy. He loved her, but he couldn’t give her what she needed.
Only free men could make such promises.
When he closed her bedroom door he knew someone else was in the front room. He ignored the presence and went about stoking up the fire with some spare logs he had chopped that morning. He prodded them absent-mindedly with the metal poker for a time, watching the embers spark and tiny flames slicker into life. Then he finally slumped into an armchair by the fireside, broad shoulders hunched, and cloak still dripping with rain. He stared into the fire for a minute before addressing the figure waiting patiently in the shadows.
‘Get on with it.’
The shadowy spectator emerged from the dark – a thin, robed figure with a pale silver mask reflecting the vibrant glow of the firelight. Two amber eyes peeked out from within the veil.
‘Is that really the warmest welcome your employer gets?’ the stranger said, in a voice little more than a hoarse whisper, but one which seemed to emanate from the room itself, from the burning fire, the old wooden clock, and the faintly glowing candle lights.
‘I treat intruders with far less courtesy,’ Bran replied.
The stranger gravitated forward. It showed no movement of limbs – only the trailing of its dark robe across the floor.
'Such beautiful lies you tell your daughter,' it said. ‘Lies of Old Gods and strength. Lies to stem the wails of the night and lies of accepting one’s weakness.’
The stranger bent itself low, like a snake clad in liquid onyx prospecting its prey.
‘Is that what you are doing here? Accepting your weakness? You know she is not your daughter. And you know that you cannot run from us.’
Bran met the being’s stare with cold disdain that barely concealed his hatred. Once, when he was a boy, beaten and bloody, fury had met those eyes. And he had watched those eyes as the infernal blood was pumped into his veins. He had looked into them when he made his first Shift.
He sighed. Deeply.
‘She has no value to you,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘Just tell me what the job is and leave.’
The serpent recoiled, and within its cloak a gloved hand emerged, holding a simple rectangular card. It placed it on the table before Bran.
He saw what he feared most: the card was silver.
‘No,’ he said, looking away from the object as though struck. ‘Not tonight. Something else – just give me a witch hunt.’
The silver mask within the cloak shook.
‘This is our offer of redemption, Bran,’ it said, in a tone devoid of mirth or anger. ‘Stray dogs must be put down, yes? Should you refuse, I am afraid we cannot guarantee the protection of this little sanctuary.’
Bran’s hand slowly clenched as he felt his tainted blood flow quicken. He contemplated it, then and there – Shifting, tearing this thing apart, leaving nothing but scraps for carrion birds. If they ever found what was left of him.
But his senses soon returned as the absurd futility of the idea struck him. No, he was theirs. He and his brothers had belonged to their Collective from the day they were sold to them by parents they’d never known or would ever know. And, like a petulant child he had run from them – the figures that haunted every waking moment of his mind.
But he had her. He had Amalia. For the first time he could remember he felt human again.
He would not let them take her from him. But neither could he fight them. Not here. Not now. He needed time.
‘Who is it?’ he asked with another sigh, wiping his perspiration-streaked brow and finally picking up the piece of silver.
‘Oswald,’ the voice replied.
Bran said nothing.
‘His last known location was the hamlet of Caerbourgh,’ the stranger continued. ‘North of the Vengel Border.’
Bran gave only the slightest inclination of his head by way of acknowledgement.
‘We thought you would prefer to handle this matter personally, yes? So, you shall go alone. We will speak again when the outcome is decided.’
Bran did not turn to watch the cloaked specter leave the cabin. He sat rigid, rooted to his chair and focused on the blazing embers of the fire. And only when those embers began to die did he spit one single word at their fading radiance.
I hope you enjoyed part one of 'The Line' - my first submission to Inkitt. I am showcasing this short story for anyone unfamiliar with my writing style and appreciate any and all comments/feedback. Feel free to follow me if you want weekly updates to Bran's story and others as I continue to flex my writing muscles. Thank you for reading.
- J S Boyd, aka. TraversingtheDark