Embers

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Ring of the Sun

Part I

1

Ring of the Sun

‘Just a bit further, please!’

Ellen wanted to yank her brother off his bike. They’d been cycling all day, darting up and down the roads, crisscrossing past museums, rivers and parks. Her top was plastered against her skin, and her legs ached from the exercise. The day was so bright it hurt her eyes merely looking straight ahead.

‘Ten minutes,’ she called. ‘Then we must go back.’

Simon nodded and turned off the main road, heading down the forest track. Ellen lingered by the turn-off, taking the chance to catch her breath. The path, a two-furrow track probably used by tractors, forged dead straight through the pines. She’d be able to keep an eye on her brother from here.

Exactly what it was about this place that excited him so much she struggled to see. The town was like the palm of one’s hand; after ten minutes you could navigate it with your eyes closed. It was a transit point, a place you passed through on the way to somewhere else.

There will be plenty to see there, Ellen! Mum had told her. The mining museum, the local history, the Sami…

So far, the mining museum was closed. The history museum showed the same kind of How-did-people-live-in-the-past exhibitions with model villages, hunters and stuffed animals that you could see in any town. The Sami, well they’d be with the reindeer in the forest and on the moors. Or did Mum really think they would stand by the station in their traditional clothes, waving at the tourists getting off the train?

She’d booked the siblings in for five nights. Five nights of counting trees and iron ore mines. Perhaps Simon was excited now, but once the novelty of this place wore off…

Ellen stopped her thoughts. Simon had got off his bike and was kneeling on the ground at the edge of the track.

Had he seen something? An animal, an insect?

‘Simon, your ten minutes are up!’

That wasn’t true. Looking at her watch, she guessed five or six minutes had gone, and if Simon had heard her, he would tell her so. But what she needed now was his attention and she did not care if her inaccuracy irked him.

‘Come on, we need to get back in time for the tour!’ She biked over to him and said his name again. Still, he didn’t react. She walked up and peered over his back.

There was a dark spot on the ground.

‘What is that?’ She bent down beside him. Up close, she saw the mark was reddish brown. When she sniffed it, it smelled metallic, like copper.

‘Blood?’ The word left her lips before she could rein it in. She looked around her. Did an animal get injured on the road? There were no other spots on the ground. The pine trees formed a thick wall on either side of the path and peering through them she saw only darkness.

‘A car has been here,’ Simon said. ‘The grass lining the track is flattened. The car must have reversed and headed back to the road.’

He pointed past her, further down the track. There was a puddle of shiny liquid beneath an overhanging spruce branch, rainbow colours dancing on its surface. Oil.

‘Why would anyone drive a car down here?’ Ellen said. ‘There’s loads of roots and stones and stuff.’

‘It must be a very old car to drip oil like that,’ Simon said. ‘And look here.’ He pointed at the blueberry bushes in front of them. ‘There’s blood drops on the leaves.’

There was a dark mark, like a squished berry, staining one of the leaves. Another one further along. And there, a strip of plastic.

‘Someone’s carried something into the forest, and the plastic bag ripped. Some of the sprigs are broken.’ Simon squinted. ‘I think I can see a clearing over there.’

‘Simon, this isn’t the time for playing detective…’

Simon didn’t listen. He stepped off the track into the underbrush.

‘Wait!’

Her brother stopped. He folded his arms.

Ellen licked her lips. A strange feeling grew inside her, a pulse within her neck, as if she had been stung. She brought a hand to the spot. ‘What if…’

What if what? Her brother’s eyes said. Hadn’t she been complaining about how dull Svartjokk was?

She looked back from where they’d come. The road was a silver lining between the trees.

It wasn’t more than twenty minutes back to the town.

‘Ok then,’ she said. ‘But just a quick look, all right?’

Simon nodded and continued. Ellen prodded her neck carefully. The skin was smooth. No tenderness, no swellings from a sting. Yet the pulse was still there, a heart-beat in her spinal cord.

She shook her head. It couldn’t mean anything. Perhaps it was just the heat. She stepped off the track and followed her brother, blueberry sprigs snapping under her feet.

It wasn’t long before the stench reached her nostrils. Rot. Decay.

She covered her nose and mouth. A fly buzzed by her ear and she hit at it with her free hand. The clearing was close. Light filtered through the trees, painting yellow tracks in the moss.

Simon was stepping into the opening. Didn’t he smell it?

She quickened her pace. When she reached the light, she froze.

Animal heads were lying in a circle in the glade. Reindeer heads.

They stared at Ellen with their glassy eyes. A fly wandered across a pink tongue hanging from a gaping mouth. She saw teeth, flat and broad, like grey stones protruding from the pale pink gum. Grinning at her.

The animals’ antlers had been cut off and laid in a cross. At the centre of the cross was a large, arrow-shaped rock.

Simon had stepped past the heads into the circle. He turned around, taking in the scene, muttering to himself.

Ellen blinked and rubbed her eyes. Scanned the trees and the shadows circling the glade.

What had happened to the bodies?

She stumbled forward, failed to spot a root lurking in the undergrowth and fell face forward. Pine needles and dirt in her mouth. She spat them out, wiped her mouth, stood up. Trees loomed around her. There was no bird song, no chirping or tapping. No wind.

Simon was still pacing inside the circle. He’d covered his nose and mouth with his shirt, but he showed no other sign of being affected by the smell. As she watched, he bent down and ran a hand along one of the antlers, fingers curling over the tip. He continued along the line, until he disappeared behind the stone.

‘Simon!’ She called through her fingers. ‘We have to call the police.’ She took a few steps forward, and then it hit her: the death, the stench, the heads. Her stomach heaved dangerously. ‘Simon!’ She fumbled for her phone.

Her brother appeared around the corner of the rock. He bent down by one of the heads, then picked something from the neck wound and crossed the glade towards her.

‘Look, Ellen,’ he said, holding out his hand.

In his palm was a fly.

‘Simon!’ She reeled back. ‘The bacteria!’

‘It’s strange,’ he said, voice level. ‘All of the flies inside the neck wounds are dead.’

She took a step back. ‘We need to call the police,’ she said again. ‘I’m not doing it here.’

‘But I need to investigate.’

‘You can investigate when the police come.’

She grabbed his hand, ignoring his protests, tugging harder when he struggled against her grip. He wasn’t getting out of her sight this time. Her stride broke into a jog, her jog into a run. When they reached the track, she collapsed by the bikes and her stomach emptied itself. She rolled over onto her back, the taste of bile in her mouth, legs limp as if they’d never be able to walk again, and stared at the distant strip of sky, a blue bridge through the sea of pines. From the road a car swished by.

That was all the sound there was.

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