The following is about half of the prologue to Smye, the sixth in the Rankin Flats supernatural thrillers. It is unedited and therefore full of errors, so be gentle. That said, welcome back to Rankin Flats… er… eastern Europe, sometime in the early medieval ages.
As the last of the daylight flittered through the edges of an ancient, silent forest, young Radomil chased his sister around a tree. Her giggles were sweet music, always just out of reach, though he wasn’t trying too hard to catch her. It was an idle game, born of a need to ignore the gnawing in their stomachs. No meat had graced their cooking fire for days, and their last meal was little more than a few grubs and roots boiled in a pot to make a watery soup that did little to actually fill their bellies.
Fear had not yet invaded their hearts. After all, the children spent most their lives in hunger. Hunting in the forest hadn’t provided much their entire lives apart from gamey birds, deer starved from a lack of undergrowth and population explosions, and the very rarest of boars. Instead, most of their diet came from their mother’s garden. Tended to with grave, superstitious care, if the children set so much as a foot within its rough-hewn fence, their bottoms would be red and sore for days on end. One time, when Radomil dared pluck a thick, fat greenish-yellow carrot without permission – and they never had permission – his mother beat him until he blacked out from the pain.
Too tired for much more play, Radomil eventually stopped, coming to a panting halt as he leaned against the tree for balance. The trunk was massive, easily as wide around as their house. A species already nearly extinct even in those times, it wouldn’t last when the Romans chewed through the forest nearly a century and a half later. But in that moment, it guarded its little playthings with the same silent stoicism as it had mustered every day of their existence.
Yaro circled the tree one last time, and whapped her brother on the back of his leg with the butt of her spear. He grumbled at her, but it was good-natured. Together they rested under the tree for a while, her head leaning against his shoulder. There were no words. Very seldom were there any between them. Everything that needed to be said could be expressed in a few looks or gestures that the two of them knew like another language.
She fell asleep like that, and though Radomil knew he would catch a beating for their laziness, he was content to let her doze. The love he held for Yaroslava was almost worshipful. She was the lone kindness in his little universe. Every night, when his dreams weren’t haunted with dark and secret things he didn’t understand or want to comprehend, it was her he dreamed about, just the two of them, forever and ever.
Eventually, the itch of the forest under his bare thighs – he’d grown out of his hide leggings and usually just wore one of his father’s lengthier tunics to cover himself properly in the warmer months – grew too annoying to ignore and he woke her up with a shimmy of his shoulder. She snorted one last gob of drool onto him, herked, and came awake, blinking away the aftershocks of a deep dream.
Spears in hand, they walked together back to their cottage a few miles towards the nearly-extinguished sun. She sang for him, not with words, but with sounds imitated from the birds among the trees. His Yaro-bird, Radomil called her, and though he first meant it teasingly, she’d liked the nickname and it stuck. She would have never opened her mouth once if she knew the cost of her song to her brother that evening.
Their mother, her back humped from a lifetime of digging in the dirt and nearly non-existent straw bedding upon a simple wooden frame. Scabs and sores dotted her wiry frame, and two gaps in her front teeth gave her the appearance of a brawler. There was muscle hidden under her thick tunic, nearly surpassing those of the children’s father, who was scrappy and gaunt even by the standards of the time.
Radomil faltered when he saw the bitter, ugly smile upon Bilyana’s face. Stoic blandness or a frown were her usual looks. A smile only ever meant one thing – she was excited to tear into her children. Instinctively, Radomil moved in front of Yaro, shielding her from a danger that hadn’t even presented itself, but Yaro shoved right past him, not one to be protected by anyone.
Without so much as a word, Bilyana snatched at their ears, an old favorite. Neither of them were stupid enough to fight back, knowing the beating would only get far more severe if they did. She jerked them back to the sparse little cottage, neither of them crying, neither daring to say anything.
The cottage lacked any sort of niceties. A scarred table was flanked by a pair of rickety chairs and two thick logs the children sat on, the wood too green to be used for firewood. From a pit central to the single room drifted tendrils of smoke up through holes in two corners of the house. The victim of a lifelong disease leaving her eternally chilled, Bilyana liked to keep the cottage as warm as possible, and rarely was the fire ever truly out.
Their beds, such as they were, rimmed the fire roughly in a circle, with Bilyana and Dimo’s at the point furthest from the door – and thus the warmest – while the children slept with their toes and feet pointed towards the exterior. Apart from some rough tools for hunting, skinning, and tanning, there wasn’t much else in the house of note.
Bilyana selected her favorite whipping instrument, a slender rod carved from a fallen branch. Radomil begged to know what they’d done wrong so they could do better, and she told them if they ever wanted to taste meat again, there would be no singing or noise whatsoever while they were out in the woods. Because Yaro had been doing the singing, she begged for her mother to punish her, not Radomil, but to drive home her point, that was precisely why Bilyana didn’t stop whipping Radomil until his back, butt, and hips were covered in angry black and purple welts.
Their father Dimo came in as Yaro was just about to receive her own punishment, three lashings because there was still no food on the table. Three became ten when Yaro questioned if her mother shouldn’t be getting lashed too for not being able to grow any vegetables. Dimo didn’t question his wife. She had driven the spirit out of him long ago, even before they had children, and he succumbed to her every demand with meek nods and grunts. Even now, with his boy lying on his straw bed, weeping silently so he wouldn’t get beat again, Dimo found no spine as his wife drew up his daughter’s jerkin.
The man tried to hide the hunger his daughter’s naked flesh brought out in him, but Bilyana knew. Bilyana knew everything. She used his lust for the child like a knife, goading him with it, taunting him. Dimo knew he deserved it. His daughter hadn’t even yet bled, and still he lusted.
He watched his wife beat Yaro, and did nothing to hide his hardness.
* * *
Another day passed without so much as a hint of a hare, deer, or even a bird. Something had spooked the animals away from the cottage, far, far away. Bilyana hissed that it was Dimo’s debaucherous mind. In one of those bizarre universal coincidences that have turned many of history’s mud puddles into roaring rivers of change, a rabbit shot out of the undergrowth, almost barreling straight for Dimo.
The superstition took root, and he began to believe it too.
* * *
The rabbit was only enough to stave off their hunger for a day, and none of them were satisfied.
As the children headed for the woods to hunt again, Dimo fitted his bow with a new hemp string. Down to his last few – and yet another thing to worry about. The only other tool he took with him was an ancestor’s knife. His father had regaled him with the story time after time – the blade had belonged to Dimo’s grandfather’s grandfather, a marker of his service as a tracker for the Roman Empire, where he served long and honorably before retreating to the wildlands. It was utter horseshit – their ancestor was an opportunistic bastard who found the knife in a field of the dead after a battle and forgot to sell it with the rest of what he stole away with. Both men believed the legend fervently, though now the knife was badly rusted and could barely hold an edge.
As Dimo ran a smooth stone over the knife’s edge, bemoaning the need for a new one when they could afford the trade, Bilyana made her move. She told him quietly, insistently, that the children were their curse. They were purposefully driving away the animals near the cabin, they frolicked when they should be working, and, almost as an afterthought, Bilyana pointed out the effect little Yaro was having on Dimo. Guiltily, Dimo tried to protest, but Bilyana, in a fit of uncharacteristic sweetness, told him it wasn’t his fault, but that the children were likely consumed by bogeys or dark spirits.
If they didn’t do something soon, Bilyana warned, they would both suffer the consequences. Quietly, Dimo asked what his wife thought needed to be done.
Kill them, she told her husband. Before they all starved. If he couldn’t do it, she would – and since she didn’t know as much about killing as her husband did, she would make it slow and agonizing for them. Knowing the hatred boiling just under her skin, her husband finally agreed.
Bring their bodies back, Bilyana told Dimo.
For what, he didn’t ask. He didn’t need to. There was one last source of meat that could feed Dimo and Bilyana for weeks.
* * *
The next morning, mad with hunger, Dimo told his children they would hunt together that day. Yaro and Radomil were ecstatic. They hadn’t hunted with their father since they were old enough to heft spears for themselves and hunt down a deer or smaller prey.
Dimo brought with him only the knife, and told the children they wouldn’t need their spears. Instead, they were going to check snares. His children, still too young to ever doubt their father, thought this sounded like great fun.
The game trail he led them down was as old as the cottage itself, and nearly overgrown with shrubbery and tall, reedy grass. At several points, if they looked back, the trail was hardly visible. Deeper and deeper still Dimo led them. The thought of killing them close to home made him nauseous. Every day, he would have to walk by the site where he murdered his own son and daughter. No, best to do it far, far away. Both the children were so light he could throw them over his shoulders and walk back easily once the deed was done. In his fractured, hunger-mad mind, this was somehow less horrifying than cutting their throats.
When they came to a clearing miles from home, he finally stopped them. Radomil glanced around in the trees excitedly, and Yaro watched her father, excited, nervous, wanting to study his every move so she could emulate him in their own hunts. So young, he thought to himself. She would be so beautiful. Was already.
Panting and not even aware he was doing it, Dimo told Radomil to head on another mile and look for a three-branched tree with a black ichor on both sides. There was no such tree, but the hunt would keep his son occupied for at least an hour. Radomil obeyed, and with a dawning sense of wrongness, Yaro looked away from her father and asked if she couldn’t go with him.
Dimo didn’t answer. He barely waited long enough for Radomil to make the edge of the clearing before he snatched her up, ripping at her jerkin, her leggings, and not knowing why exactly, Yaro started screaming.
Her father dropped her to the ground, and she tried to scramble away from him. He pinned her in place with one foot, fumbling at the string holding his leggings up. Yaro stared up at him, her throat burning as she shrieked and shrieked.
Radomil hurtled out of the trees, racing for their father. He was shouting her name, understanding on some vague level that what he was seeing was not right. Dimo let off Yaro’s chest and turned, grinning like some feral beast just before his son hit him at speed, throwing all his scrawniness behind the tackle and managing nothing except a distraction.
Yaro scrambled to her feet as Radomil bounced off their father, landing on a zit-like anthill. He rolled and jumped upright, but Dimo was already turning, his blade in hand. He didn’t think of his daughter once as a threat, not once. All his anger had focused on Radomil, and he swiped at the boy, snarling something unintelligible. Radomil didn’t think to move away. He just raised his arm to deflect the blow, and the blade scraped along his skin, drawing a fat line of crimson.
As Dimo raised the knife again, Yaro jerked forward and sank her teeth into his exposed hip, coming away with a mouth full of flesh as he screamed and dropped the knife out of reflex. Quick as she could, Yaro dove on top of the knife, protecting it with her scrawny body and rolling, coming up with it between her palms. Beside her, Dimo rolled around on the ground, clutching his arm and moaning. She glanced down at him once, saw the trickle of blood spattering the ground under Radomil, and snarled as she advanced on her father.
In the last moments before his daughter plunged the blade into his gut the first time, Dimo’s fury and madness fell away just long enough to have a chance to be grateful it was them that lived, not him.
Yaro stabbed him, drew back the blade with all the might in her frail body, stabbed him again, and again, and again. When it was done, she didn’t drop the knife. She simply wiped it off in the high grass like she’d been taught, and tended to her brother as in the sky, a pair of sparrowhawks called to one another with their rapid-fire chirping.
* * *
On the surface, Radomil’s cut didn’t look bad, but it wouldn’t stop dripping blood. Without her mother’s knowledge of herbs, Yaro was at a loss as to how to treat it, and ended up chewing blades of grass into a fine pulp to pack the cut. That helped, at least a little, though as they started away from the clearing, their progress was marked by a fine trail of red droplets.
For the first hour, they ran. They were both familiar enough with the sun’s position in the sky and how to orient themselves that they knew they were running away from the direction of their home, but neither Radomil or Yaro could have said where exactly they were going or how far they made it before they both finally collapsed, sobbing and finding no solace in clinging to each other. Yaro’s tears fell away faster than her brother’s. On some level, she’d known her mother’s violence was leading to something. She just hadn’t expected it to poison her father so completely. She wept for the man that used to pluck her up and let her ride on his shoulders as he stalked deer. She wept for the man who once would sneak her and Radomil away to the lake to splash away a lazy afternoon. But when she thought of the naked madman who had tried to force himself on her, she stopped weeping, because that hadn’t been a madman at all. She’d seen the looks. She’d known what they meant, no stranger to the grunting lovemaking of their parents in the settling light of the evening. For that man, eventually, she would discover there was nothing but contempt in her heart. Dimo was a footnote in her soon-to-come centuries of suffering.
* * *
That night, they tried to sleep in the hollowed nook of a long-dead pine, but Radomil’s whimpering and eventual rapid panting kept Yaro awake. She tried to comfort her brother the best she could, but there was nothing she could do for his pain. Sometime in the night, a branch cracked somewhere nearby and he yowled as if he’d been struck again.
That was the only sign any animals were around or near them. The still forest seemed to be waiting to swallow them both up. Another couple of nights like that one and either the hunger would kill them or the cold. Yaro found herself wandering further and further from the idea of caring about her own mortality. Still, though, she had Radomil to look after, and in the morning, when the sun trailed streamers through the trees, she unpacked his wound and stared in horror.
Lines of deep, angry purple and red stretched from the gaping cavity of the wound. Though the bleeding had stopped, the flesh around the cut was not normal. Even with her child’s mind, Yaro understood that. Radomil’s skin was hot to the touch, and twice he moaned her name questioningly, looking around slowly as if she wasn’t right there in front of him.
They had to move, she realized. Even as sick as her brother was, there was nothing she knew how to do that could save him. They had to find a village, or her brother would die.
Their pace through the woods was gratingly sluggish. Yaro had to lead Radomil by the hand, or else he’d fall and trip over anything and everything. When she told him to lift his feet up and over something, he did so with mute obedience. When she told him to stop and drink from a stream, he dropped like a stone and drank and drank until he was vomiting it all back up again, grinning up at her like he’d performed some great trick and she should be proud of him.
He’s dying, he’s dying, he’s dying, her mind chanted over and over again.
In a strange way, her brother’s plight helped to keep her mind off the other horrors. Her father, trying to rape her. Her young mind didn’t quite comprehend the full magnitude of her father’s intent on dragging them to the clearing, but she was not a stupid child and knew at least beneath the surface that her father had meant to kill them and their mother must have known about it.
Those were thoughts she would have plenty of time to address later, locked away in her cage for months and months.
* * *
Radomil could barely stand anymore as the gloom of the second day settled in. Yaro walked with his arm over her shoulder, propping him up as they crept along a deer trail. “Just a little further,” she gasped. Her own energy, brought on by fear and necessity, was waxing fast. There had been a handful of mushrooms that morning, but that had been all she could find to eat. The bulk of those she had pressed upon Radomil, who had to be coaxed both to chew and swallow. If they didn’t find something to eat before dark, there would be no getting up in the morning for either of them. She was done. Instinctually she knew that.
His head jostling and bobbing against his chest, Radomil mumbled that he smelled pheasant. It was the most he’d said all day, and at first, Yaro thought he was hallucinating at the edge of death, like the elder of the village closest to their home when her father had insisted they go and pay their respects to him in his last few weeks. That elder spoke of little that made sense, and she just assumed Radomil was doing the same.
Except… he wasn’t. She could smell food now too. Boar fat crackling. A sweet roll. They had only eaten those twice, both times in the village and snuck to her and Radomil by the lord’s cook. And something light and earthy, almost like her mother’s herbs when she stewed them for poultices. To her in that moment, it smelled like a feast, and she wept as she and her brother staggered towards the scent, pulled in by its tendrils.
In a cottage just a quarter of a mile away, the man who would come to be known a millennium and a half later as Mr. Smyle woke from his slumber.