The October Special Guest Story is by Barry Hoffman
Please feel free to visit Barry at: http://shamrachronicles.com/author/
By Barry Hoffman
Melni hid behind a tree, her eyes on a small pond that she hoped would be her salvation. She had been on the run for six days with her three-week-old daughter. By the third day, she had drunk all the water given to her in a small leather pouch. The few pieces of dried beef she had been given hadn’t lasted much longer. Since then, she had lived off berries. Those she found she ate greedily, though she’d often be sick later. She had no other choice.
Her daughter had fed from the milk in Melni’s breast until she had gone dry the day before. Neely had first cried uncontrollably as hunger gnawed at her. Now she just lay in Melni’s arms, her breathing shallow.
Just one more day, Melni knew. Not even a full day. If she evaded her pursuers until two hours before nightfall, she would have nothing to fear . . . at least for another month. But Neely was so weak. Without water, Melni feared her daughter would die. Feared she, too, wouldn’t persevere.
She peeked out from behind a tree, then closed her eyes and wept, though she shed no tears. A single guard prevented her from acquiring the water she and Neely both so badly needed. She had no weapon other than a thick stick she could use as a spear. The guard was armed with a sword, knife, and brute strength she couldn’t match even if she wasn’t in a weakened state. She retreated further into the forest, found some berries, and sat against a tree trunk.
She had no idea how she had eluded her captors for so long. Most were caught within two days. Just two had survived the full seven in the eleven years she had been enslaved. Her feet were bleeding and felt like they were on fire. She had been given no shoes when she was set free. Her arms and legs were laced with scratches, welts, and bug bites. She knew she must remain awake. Six, seven, or eight hours—she didn’t know how long, but after all she had been through, she had to elude capture. She ate a handful of berries, and her stomach revolted. After she vomited, she closed her eyes. Just a moment. Just a . . . moment, she thought. Just a . . .
Eleven Years Earlier
Melni’s ninth birthday was a somber occasion. Her parents had made her favorite meal and offered presents. But there was none of the joy of her previous birthdays. No singing. No dancing. No friends or relatives invited over to take part in a joyous celebration.
At dusk, there was a knock on the door of their small shack. Two guards led Melni away, and she was placed in a cement hut. The moon would be full tonight. If she didn’t go through the change, she would be sent home until the next full moon. This could continue for a year. Only then, if she didn’t go through the change, would she be free to join her family and lead a normal life. If, however, she transformed, she would be sold to traders, and she would never see her homeland again. All females of child-bearing age—when they turned nine—had to live with the fear they were possessed by the Wolfen. One of a dozen of the females of her tribe went through the change.
Melni couldn’t sleep that first night. Bars made it impossible for her to escape through the one window in the dwelling. If she changed, she would become, for the night, more powerful and destructive than the strongest male. That first night had passed without incident. She fared equally as well the second and third month. Odds would soon be in her favor. Even her parents began to relax . . . to smile . . . to even talk of the future.
But Melni had no future. She woke up the morning of her fourth month in captivity to a foul stench. Her clothes were torn to shreds. The bloodied remains of the dog who had been her constant companion each month were in one corner of the hut. She wiped her lips and saw blood on her wrist. She tasted blood and knew it wasn’t hers. She had no memory of the previous night. Without being told, she knew the dog hadn’t merely been a companion. It was sustenance if she changed.
For the next two months, the hut was her home. Her parents didn’t come to visit. She wondered if they were prohibited from seeing her or if she had simply shamed her family due to no fault of her own. They had a future even if she didn’t. They would go on with their lives. Maybe to them, Melni no longer existed.
Several days after her third change, Melni and twelve other girls her age were brought to the town square. She recognized several; some had been classmates, and two, friends. Some . . . no, more than a few looked . . . odd, was the only word that came to mind. Melni saw their eyes stared into space. One talked to herself and another bit her lip, lapping her own blood and then spitting it out. Another swayed back and forth as if listening to a song that only she could hear.
They were told to take off their clothing. Those who refused—or didn’t seem to understand—the command had their clothes ripped from their bodies.
A male of a species similar to theirs, yet not quite the same, examined each of them. His skin was fair. Melni’s people had deep brown skin. He was also a good head taller than those of her species. Melni was poked and prodded. The inspector who spoke her language asked her name and several other questions. Melni responded. It didn’t dawn on her until later that she had to pass inspection or she wouldn’t be chosen. And she had no idea what would happen to those not chosen. Since those rejected were the ones Melni thought odd, she could only guess their fate would be worse than hers. She recalled that other girls a few years older had disappeared over the past few years. She didn’t dwell on the subject. She had herself to think about.
Six of the twelve were chosen, and half an hour later, she left her homeland for good. There would be no farewell, no last hug, no words of love or encouragement from any of their families.
A week later, the six chosen arrived at their destination. The girls were told to disrobe, and each was given a black robe. They were then ushered into a long, wooden shack that would be Melni’s home for the next eleven years.
Melni looked around and felt the urge to flee even if it cost her her life. Maybe, she thought, the girls who hadn’t been chosen were the truly fortunate ones. There were twenty girls and women, not counting the six who had just arrived. A few were not much older than she, and none appeared to be older than their mid-twenties. Each had a bare wooden bed, with no mattress, covered by a sheet. There were no blankets. All were dressed in the same type of robe she had been given. Nine of the women appeared pregnant—some very pregnant. The room reeked of body odor made worse by there not being a single window for ventilation. All the women were from her country. She even recognized a number of them. They all looked . . . beaten down, she thought. All were pale, as if they hadn’t been out of the shack in ages. All were terribly gaunt—even those who were pregnant. They were filthy, and Melni wondered when they had last bathed. Some had welts and bruises on their face and arms. Worse of all, their eyes were lifeless.
One of the girls Melni recognized came up to her. “Come, let me tell you about your new home,” she said with a tired smile.
“Your name is . . . Elle,” Melni said. “You were two grades ahead of me.”
Elle took Melni to an empty bed. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Melni saw she was tearing up.
“Sorry for what?”
“For what you are and what you’ll have to endure.”
“What do you mean by what I am?” Melni asked.
“You went through the change,” Elle said. “It’s why you are here.”
“And what will I have to endure?”
Melni was awakened by a bite on her leg. For a moment, she was disoriented. Why wasn’t she in the shack? Where was Elle? Then reality seeped in. I’m in the woods. Being hunted. Can’t be captured. She looked down at her leg and saw dozens of ants crawling on her. She beat them off with her hand, trying not to scream in panic. Then she looked to see if Neely was okay. She was tucked into a tiny blanket she had been given when she was born—more a scrap of cloth than a real blanket. But there were no ants crawling on her. Neely’s breathing was labored as it had been for more than a day. Somehow she had to get water for her child. She considered walking back to the pond and surrendering for the sake of her child. But doing so would condemn them both to a gruesome death. Melni froze. She heard voices. Had they found her? She shook her head. The voices were female, not those of her pursuers. She crept silently toward a dirt road to get a better look.
“That wasn’t your deer to shoot,” Janae said sullenly.
“You were taking so long, I thought it would bolt,” Elise said to her twin. “She
“Mother!” Janae said, her face turning red.
“That’s enough, Elise,” Dara said. She smiled to herself. Her five-year-old twins could be a handful, but she couldn’t imagine life without them. While twins, they weren’t quite identical either in looks or personality. Janae was ladylike, as were most Shamra females. Yet she was as fierce a warrior as those four or five times her age. She would have little compassion for a helpless deer if it meant food on the table. While lithe and angular, like all Shamra, Janae’s cheeks were full, though not chubby. Elise looked more like Dara. Both of Dara’s children had short, prickly white hair. Their hair wouldn’t begin to grow until they turned eight. Elise’s short hair, though, was streaked red with the blood of the deer she had killed, something Janae would never do. Janae reminded Dara of Pilla, Dara’s constant companion until the Trocs invaded and she died while imprisoned. Elise, on the other hand, was all Dara.
“Elise, you know Janae has never let prey escape. The next two kills are hers,” said Dara.
Janae stuck her tongue out at her sister.
“Still, Janae, you’re a marksman, so I, too, wondered why you took so long. Like Elise, I lack your patience,” said Dara.
“It was a deer, Mother, not a creature preparing to attack. There was no need—”
“Someone is watching us,” Elise cut in. “To the left, in the woods.”
“I know,” Dara said, proud of her daughter’s instincts. “Did you sense her, Janae?”
Janae said nothing.
“Never let your guard down, Janae. You could be the deer of a hunter. Both of you arm yourselves, but don’t make it obvious.”
A moment later, a girl Dara’s age rushed out of the forest, a handmade spear in her hand.
“I . . . I . . . don’t want to hurt you, but I need one of your horses,” she said. “And water. And food. And—”
Before the girl could finish, Janae had her bow trained on the girl. Elise had her slingshot aimed at the girl’s head. And Dara’s sword had appeared in her hand as if by magic.
“You were saying?” Dara said.
The girl slumped to the ground. Dara jumped off her horse. She saw neither Janae or Elise had put down their weapons. They had learned their lessons well. The girl could be faking. One wrong move, and the girl would be as dead as the deer Elise had killed earlier.
“My . . . baby,” the girl said, scarcely above a whisper. “In the forest . . . behind . . .” She coughed, unable to say more.
“Elise, go look for the baby,” Dara said. “It can’t be far.”
Dara was giving the woman water when Elise emerged from the forest with the baby. “It’s barely alive,” Elise said.
Janae was now off her horse. “Give it to me, Elise,” she said.
Elise gave Janae the baby without hesitation, then got her own bow from her horse and kept guard.
Dara was amazed how her two children could communicate without words. How, when necessary, they could act as one without arguing. Janae had a way with babies that Elise didn’t. And Elise instinctively knew that, with her mother and sister preoccupied, it was her responsibility to protect them. Words weren’t required.
Ten minutes later, Dara carried the woman off to the side of the road after giving her water. Janae was washing the baby with her bandana. Elise had gathered the horses and continued to stand guard.
“My baby,” the woman said in panic before she began coughing.
“We have her,” Dara said. “My daughter’s taking care of her.”
“I’m . . . I’m sorry—”
“You were protecting your child,” Dara said. “I’d have done the same in your place. Now, what are you doing out in the woods all alone?”
“Being hunted,” the girl said. “Hide from them . . . or we both die.”
“Start at the beginning,” Dara said. “What’s your name?”
“Melni. My daughter’s Neely. “We’re slaves . . . I guess you could call us.”
“Us?” Dara asked.
“At any given time, twenty or so of my countrymen. All females. Sold by our people to these . . . barbarians. The women of this country are barren. Some sort of illness. I really don’t know. We rarely have discussions with our captors. They use us for breeding . . . and sport.” She looked at Elise and Janae, then lowered her voice. “They . . . assault us . . . whenever they want . . . as often as they want. Even after we get pregnant, they do with us as they please until the last month before giving birth. After we give birth, they take the males away.”
“And leave you with the females,” Dara said, looking at Neely.
Melni shook her head. “Female children are executed.”
“And you escaped?” Dara asked, again looking at Neely.
Again Melni shook her head. “They let us go . . . so they could hunt us down.”
“And if they find you?”
“If they don’t?”
“Seven days. If they don’t capture us within seven days, we’re spared . . . for at least another month.”
“You return to them voluntarily to be spared for a month?” Dara asked incredulously. “Why not flee for good?”
Melni turned on her stomach and lifted her top, then felt around her back. “Here,” she said, pointing at what appeared to be an old puncture wound. “It’s a tracking device they implant in us when we first arrive. Their dogs can track us. There is no escape . . . just a reprieve.”
Elise whistled twice. Again, without words, Dara and Janae sprang into action. Janae gave the baby to Melni and retrieved her bow. Dara withdrew her sword. In her other hand, she held her knife made of shriek scales.
Out of the woods, four riders on horseback emerged. One, the youngest, made his way to Dara. Dara thought he looked nervous. He kept turning to look at the older riders, who made no move to assist their comrade.
“You . . . you gave us a good chase, Melni. You’re to be commended.” He then looked at Dara. “We’ll take her now,” he said, trying to sound threatening but failing.
“You don’t want to get in our way,” the youth said. “They have . . . escaped. They’re fugitives. They’re our—”
“Property,” Dara interrupted.
“They won’t be harmed . . . if they don’t resist.”
“You don’t sound very convincing, and you’re a poor liar,” Dara said. “We don’t recognize people as property.”
One of the older riders joined the youth. Dara had the feeling he had more authority than the others. If it came to a fight, Dara knew this was the adversary she would take out first.
“You have no right to meddle in our affairs,” he said. “We can easily take her from you,” he said, looking at Elise and Janae with disdain. “But in the spirit of goodwill, we will pay for your trouble.” He threw a leather sack on the ground. “Gold coins. Melt them down, and you can trade with just about anyone. Now—”
“She asked for sanctuary,” Dara said. “And we’ve granted it. We’re a people of our word, so I suggest you let us be.”
The man sighed and raised his fist, an obvious signal to the other two riders behind him.
Dara nodded, and Janae and Elise fired at the youth and the man in authority. Both fell to the ground. The other two seemed to want no part of the action. They turned and fled.
“Get the horses of the two you killed,” Melni said. “They use them in trade . . . for us.”
“Will they return with others?” Dara asked, as Elise led the two horses to a tree and tied their leashes to a stout branch.
“They don’t have an army. They’re not warriors. They have a small police force.” She paused a moment. “They’re also superstitious. Seven is a particularly lucky number to them. They’ll send seven out to hunt us down. They would feel foolish sending more to kill one female and two children.” She smiled tentatively, then looked at Elise and Janae. “They’ve never encountered children like you, though. Warrior children.”
“We’ll hide in the woods and set a trap for them,” Dara said.
“There’s something about me you must know,” Melni said.
“After we find a suitable place to defend ourselves,” Dara said. “Priorities, Melni. We’re too exposed now.”
Dara put Melni on her horse while Janae carried Neely. Elise led the two horses behind her.
For the first time in six days, Melni didn’t feel she had to remain alert. She had confidence in her protectors. She closed her eyes as Dara led them into the forest.
Eleven Years Earlier
“What will I have to endure?” Melni asked Elle. Until Elle had disappeared from
“The woman in this land are barren—have been for twenty years, I’m told,” Elle said in monotone. “A plague, a fever—all rumors. Regardless, their women can’t bear children. That’s why we’ve been brought here.”
“To marry their males?” Melni asked, confused.
Elle laughed, but it was joyless. “If only,” she said. “We give them babies. Other than that, they want nothing to do with us. Their males take us when they please—right here in front of the others. Sometimes we are attacked by two or three different men a day when they get the urge. If we resist, they laugh and slap us until there is no fight left in us. I sometimes think they want us to fight back. It provides a bit of a challenge. Anyway, it continues even when we are pregnant until a month before we give birth.”
“But I see no children,” Melni said.
“They are taken from us as soon as they are born. The males are given to families to rear. We feed them several times a day for a while, but under constant supervision. Talk to them, and we’re beaten and assaulted for our transgression. No one knows who the father of any child is, as so many different males have had their way with us.”
“And the females?” Melni asked, fearful she knew the answer.
“Executed on the spot.”
“You know why. At nine, they may go through the change. These people don’t want to become attached to children they would have to give up to join us or be killed when they are old enough to go through the change. Whenever they need more females for breeding, they simply return to our homeland. We’re traded for horses. The irony is, they only provide our people with male horses. Our people remain dependent on them. Male horses our people require for females these barbarians need for breeding.”
“Is this our prison?” Melni asked, looking around at the shack.
“We are allowed to bathe once a week in a creek while their males gawk at us. Those who are pregnant are allowed outside to get sunlight. They don’t want us to miscarry, after all. Those who are pregnant are given menial chores—washing clothes of the males, making pottery and jewelry. But at night, this remains our home.”
“And when we can no longer bear children?”
“You know the answer,” Elle said. “Still, it’s worse than you can imagine. There is something you’re forgetting.” Elle paused. “The change. What were you given in our homeland when you were taken to the cement hut?”
“And what happened to the dog when you went through the change?”
“When I awoke, it was torn to pieces.”
Melni began to tear up. “I killed it. I ate it. Tore it apart. I have no memory of doing so, but I’m no fool.”
“They don’t sacrifice dogs here during the change,” Elle said. “We feed on our own. Those who can no longer bear children are taken away. We find them back here after the change—devoured . . . by us. And, if you give birth to only females or too many females, we feed on those women during the change. We feed on our own, and we have to live with it month after month.” Elle sighed. “That’s enough for now. Get your rest. Tomorrow begins Bride’s Week. The males here get to know the new girls.”
Melni nodded. “I need to pee first. Where do I go?”
Elle pointed to what looked like a large kettle at one end of the shack. “It’s emptied every few days . . . sometimes just once a week if they forget. You’ll get used to the stench. A shame, isn’t it? You’ll get used to all of it.”
Melni began shivering. She shook her head. “No, no, no—”
Elle wrapped her arms around Melni. “You must endure. You will endure.”
Melni woke with a start. “I must endure. I will—” but she didn’t finish.
“You were sleeping,” Dara said. “We’ve found a suitable place to ambush anyone
Melni looked around. “I’m no warrior. No hunter. You . . . and your children are obviously both. What makes this place . . . defensible?” she asked with a shrug. “A clearing—”
“And not difficult to locate,” Dara interrupted. “But the path to get here is narrow. Only one of your pursuers at a time can get in. Trees and bushes surrounding us allow just one way to get to us. The two who escaped will report back that I am accompanied by two young children. Hardly a threat.”
“But they saw your daughters kill two of their own,” Melni said.
“What is your plan?”
“Elise and Janae were climbing trees when they were six-months old,” Dara said. She pointed toward two trees. “I’m the bait, warming myself near a fire. Your hunters enter, and they’re in a crossfire. There are other traps we’ll set for them.” She nodded, and Janae and Elise melted into the forest. “Can you make a fire?” Dara asked.
Melni shook her head. “There was no need when I was growing up. And for the past eleven years, I’ve been enslaved. There’s precious little I can do.”
“Yet you hid from your pursuers for six days,” Dara said. “You must have some natural instincts for survival.” Dara waved her hand dismissively. “Your daughter has a fever and is dehydrated. Janae found some herbs on our way to the clearing. We’ll cook them in water, and you feed your child. Help me gather wood. I’ll show you how to start a fire.”
An hour later, Melni was coaxing her daughter to drink a broth Dara had concocted.
“I won’t be defenseless tonight,” Melni told Dara, her eyes on her child. “But I don’t know if I’ll be of any help or will be an even worse enemy than those pursuing me.”
“You’re talking in riddles,” Dara said. “You wanted to tell me something before,” Dara said. “Out with it. Whatever it is, we’ve offered you sanctuary, and we won’t turn our back on you.”
“I . . . I was sold when I was nine because I’m a danger to our people,” Melni started. “One day a month, I go through a change. I . . . I turn into a creature. A Wolfen, my people call it. I wake up the next morning with no memory of what I have done. But I know I’ve . . . killed. I had to be captured by the hunters before nightfall today. Tonight, I go through the change. I could attack you or your children because it’s in my nature to kill. I don’t have any control over myself during the change.”
“Describe this creature,” Dara said.
“It’s like the name they’ve given us. Wolf-like. It has more fur than a wolf, which covers razor-sharp teeth and claws.”
Dara went to her horse and returned with a piece of parchment. “Something like this?” Dara asked, showing Melni a picture.
“Yes, but how—?”
“Some of my people have encountered them. We call then Fangalas. Only they don’t go through any change. They’re Fangalas day-in and day-out. And, yes, they’re deadly. The ones we’ve encountered hunt in packs. Their intelligence is uncanny. Sadly, some of my people have fallen prey to them.”
“What are you saying?”
“My plan once we escaped your pursuers was to bring you and your daughter to our homeland. You would have been welcomed. But the fact you turn into a Fangala even for just one night a month will cause dissension. As I said, some of my people have been killed by the creatures. They won’t be easy to persuade.”
“So you’ll turn my daughter and I over to—?”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” Dara interrupted. “I don’t go back on my word. I offered sanctuary, and it won’t be withdrawn. Together, we’ll figure out how to help you after we rid ourselves of those who’ve enslaved you.”
“But what happens when I go through the change tonight?” Melni asked. “I can’t promise I won’t pose a danger to you and your children. And I won’t have their deaths on my conscience.”
“We’ll tie you up,” Dara said. “You can’t help us, but neither can you harm us. We’ll care for Neely until you change back in the morning.”
By dusk, Janae and Elise had returned. They excitedly told Dara about the traps they had set.
“It’s time,” Melni said. “I can always sense when it approaches. It won’t be long now. Half an hour or so. Tie me to a tree now.”
As she tied the woman to a tree, Dara explained to her children how Melni would be transformed. She would be hidden from her pursuers so they couldn’t fire upon her while she was helpless.
Melni yawned. “I usually fall asleep just before the change. I don’t know why. Keep Neely safe.” She closed her eyes and slept.
Eleven Years Earlier
Melni had trouble sleeping her first night in the shack even though she was
Elle nudged her awake. Melni didn’t know if it was still night or dawn or even noon, for that matter, with no windows to see outside. She sat up and saw two males giving food to those who were pregnant.
“They’ll dump bread and dried beef on the floor before they leave,” Elle said. “Get your share, or go hungry for the day.”
No sooner had Elle finished speaking than the men scattered food on the floor of the shack. There was a mad scramble for the scraps. Melni was pushed and jostled, scratched and slapped. Someone even bit her arm. Still, she retreated to her bed with a piece of bread and a piece of dried beef. She saw two of the new girls hadn’t left their beds. They’d go without food for the day.
Then something remarkable took place. Two of the pregnant women gave the new girls some of their food. No words were exchanged.
Melni looked at Elle. “Why are they helping the new girls? Why are you helping me, for that matter? I mean, aren’t we competitors . . . especially for food?”
Elle sighed. “They haven’t completely broken all of us yet. Tomorrow I may be fighting you for food, but we haven’t become animals. Helping one another is our form of . . . rebellion, I guess you could say. We’re all hungry, but no matter how little food we have, some of us won’t let another go without. It won’t be too long before you’ll be taking a new girl under your wing. We’re not animals,” she repeated. “We can’t allow ourselves to become as callous as those who enslave us.”
“Is there any escape?” Melni asked.
Elle shrugged. “Death.”
Soon after, the assault of Bride’s Week began. As many as twenty men had their way with Melni that first day, and then for the next four. All of the new girls were brutalized as well.
When they finally left that first day, Melni lay on her bed curled in a fetal position. Elle came over and wiped blood off her forehead and face with a damp cloth.
“Why?” Melni asked. She found it difficult to talk.
“They’re trying to suck the fight out of you,” Elle said. “When the first man assaulted you, you kicked, scratched, even bit him. He hit you back. You did the same with the second and third man. At some point, you couldn’t take anymore. You gave in . . . gave up. You understood you were powerless. That was your lesson for today. It will be the lesson for another four days. Next week, you’ll be . . . visited by just two or three men a day. Some may even talk to you—get to know you, though they won’t divulge anything about themselves. It’s a small kindness. It will still be terrible, but so much better than today when they were forbidden to speak to you. I guess it’s a matter of degree. After what you go through this week, what happens after almost becomes acceptable.”
“Doesn’t it drive you insane?”
“There is a will to live you don’t know you possess,” Elle said. “I was no different than you my first week here. Now I endure.”
“But how do you deal with it? The constant degradation? The hopelessness?”
“You learn to cope. Me, I shut down while they attack me. I go away. I’m home with my parents, brothers, and sisters. I’m still assaulted by nightmares, but even those lessen with time. You’ll find your own way to cope. We have little, Melni, but we do have each other.”
Melni bolted awake, her face a mask of pain. Dara and Janae were watching her.
“She won’t hurt us,” Janae said. Janae held Neely out so the creature could see her, could smell her. “Trust me, Mother,” Janae said, and moved toward the Fangala.
Dara did trust her daughter. Still, if the creature attacked, she wouldn’t hesitate to fling her knife. And she knew Elise would rain arrows into its body until it was dead.
Janae held Neely out to the Fangala. The creature sniffed at the child, its eyes darting to Dara and Janae. “She can sense her flesh and blood,” Janae said, keeping her voice low.
“I hope you’re right,” Dara said.
The creature whined, digging its front paws at the ground. Dara could see its eyes were Melni’s, not that of a Fangala. Some inner conflict was taking place. Dara sensed the mother in Melni would prevail. Still, she grasped her knife tighter. She wouldn’t let the Fangala harm Janae.
The creature let out a howl, then bolted for the forest.
“Told you,” Janae said.
“There will be no living with Janae now,” Elise whispered from the tree. “Told you,” she mimicked her sister.
“Keep watch,” Dara called in a whisper.
The woods had grown quiet. Dara was certain it was Melni’s doing. A beast among them, animals, even insects, didn’t want to attract its attention.
Elise whistled, and Dara and Janae looked up at her. She held up seven fingers. Held up three and pointed to the path that would lead the three into the trap they had set. Held up four and pointed to the woods behind. Dara understood. Those coming from the woods would be on foot, sneaking through the forest to attack from the rear. Dara and her daughters had set traps for them as well. Their priority now was the three coming up the path.
Janae put Neely behind a tree, picked up her bow, and hid behind another. Dara sat by the campfire, her back to the path, a slingshot hidden in her lap. She also had her knife if hand-to-hand fighting was necessary. Elise remained in the tree, bow in hand.
The first rider came into view. Dara sat—her back to the rider. She knew her children would protect her. The other two riders followed. All three approached with swords in hand.
As Elise felled the first rider with an arrow to his neck, there was a harrowing scream from the forest. Janae fired at the second rider, ignoring a second scream of horror from the forest behind her. Dara turned and fired at the third rider with her slingshot. The rider fell off his horse, stunned but alive. He lay by his horse as two more ear-piercing screams tore through the forest. He seemed to regain his senses, stood, shook his head as if to rid himself of cobwebs, and approached Dara, his sword held with both hands over his head.
“He’s mine,” Dara called to her children, knowing that if she was in danger, they wouldn’t hesitate to fire. Before the man could reach Dara, a blur crashed through the forest into the clearing. “Melni,” Dara said. The Fangala jumped onto the man before he could swing his sword and tore into his neck with its teeth. With her front claws, she wrapped herself around him and ripped him apart. As he fell to the ground, she feasted on him.
Janae held Neely, though Dara could tell her daughter wasn’t certain if Melni had any control of the beast within her. Dara could also see Melni was injured. Two arrows protruded from her torso. She also couldn’t put weight on one of her back legs. After she had finished eating her kill, she turned to Janae and advanced toward her. From above, Elise held her bow, ready to fire. Dara lifted her hand. Elise nodded in understanding, but kept her bow pointed at the beast.
Janae put Neely on the ground. The child had awakened and was crying. Melni moved slowly toward her daughter, twice falling—the injuries catching up to her. She nudged the baby with her nose, then licked her face. Neely laughed. Whimpering, Melni lay down in front of her child.
Eleven years after Bride’s Week, Melni had endured. She’d learned to cope living a
After being held captive for six years, Melni’s heart was crushed when Elle gave birth to her third daughter. Her first years there, she told Melni, she produced males and continued to do so for several years after Melni arrived. Having given birth to a third daughter in a row, she was useless as a breeder. She and her daughter were taken from the shack. Four weeks later, after the change, what remained of her friend lay on the floor of the shack. Elle and her daughter had been fed to the Wolfen on the night of the change. As always, Melni had no recollection of what occurred during the night, but she despaired that she might have taken part in devouring the only person who had shown her any real kindness in her years of captivity.
A part of her wanted to die—for it all to be over—but each night Elle visited her in her dreams. “You know what you must do. For me. But more importantly, for yourself.”
To endure, Melni had to become like Elle. She became a mentor to newcomers, just as Elle had guided her through that first horrific week. She was a shoulder to cry on. A pillar of strength. A thorn in the sides of those who wanted to simply give up. The newcomers learned how one can get used to—even attached—to life no matter how hopeless it was. Just as Melni had. Life was too precious to toss away regardless how helpless you felt. Those Melni helped learned to cope—to endure.
When Melni gave birth to her third daughter in a row, she knew what lay in store for her. A male came into the shack while she held her child and without a word escorted her out. She was put in a cabin with a bed that had a mattress. She was allowed to keep her child—to nurse her just as she had nursed her sons for their first month of life. She was given better food than she’d had since she’d arrived. She was given clothing, rather than the robe that could be so easily removed by her male callers. And for three weeks, she wasn’t assaulted.
A male visited one week before the next change would occur. She didn’t know his name. She didn’t know the names of most of her captors. While pregnant, when she was allowed to get sun or while making pottery, sometimes a name would be dropped here and there—one male calling to another. But none of the males had ever befriended any of their captives. Now she was told her fate by yet another stranger.
“In an hour, you will take part in the hunt,” he told her. Melni had heard rumors. Women like her—like Elle—had been removed from the shack only to be fed to the Wolfen when the change occurred. Once in a while, one of them didn’t return until a second month passed. A few girls had been returned to the shack. They refused to divulge what had occurred while they were gone.
“You and your daughter will be set free,” he continued. “You will have a four-hour head start. One of our young males will lead a hunting party to capture you. You must stay within the forest, but within the woods, you have free rein.”
“What if I flee the woods?” Melni asked.
“The day you arrived, you may recall, we gave you an injection. You were told it was to prevent you from contracting diseases we might be immune to, but you had never been exposed to. In truth, you were implanted with a tracking device. After eleven years, any attempt to remove it would prove fatal. Try to escape the woods, and our dogs will hunt you down and feast on you for dinner.”
Melni shivered. “So I remain free until I’m captured. I might as well not flee at all.”
“If you elude our hunters for six days—until an hour before sunset—you win a reprieve,” he continued, ignoring Melni’s comment. “You can remain here for another three weeks and attempt to elude capture again. And on and on until you are captured. Or you can go back to the shack. Give birth to a male, and your life is spared. Another female, and it’s back to the hunt.”
“And my daughter?”
“Regardless, you know she can’t be allowed to live.”
“And if I’m caught?” Melni asked, though she knew the answer.
“Both you and your child will be fed to the others during the change.”
“But if I elude capture, who do you feed to the Wolfen?” Melni asked, confused.
“The young man who leads the hunt takes your place if he fails. It’s a test of manhood. Succeed, and he can begin fathering children. If he fails, he meets your kind on the one night he’ll derive no pleasure.”
Melni shrugged. The tedium of her eleven years of captivity made freedom—no matter how fleeting—appealing. She owed it to herself and to her daughter. She didn’t expect to elude the hunters for six days, but she was determined to make her capture as difficult as possible.
Near dawn, Melni began to stir. After their ambush of the patrol, Elise had gone to get the horses of those Melni had killed. She reported back that she had seen the four members of the patrol Melni had encountered.
“She tore them apart,” Elise told her mother and sister. “Their faces were torn off. Their bodies ripped to—”
“We get the picture,” Dara said. Elise had a morbid fascination with death. When she shot a deer or boar with her bow and arrow, if she didn’t kill it instantly, she would sit by it and watch its life dissipate. So no matter how horrific or futile a battle, Dara knew Elise wouldn’t shirk her responsibility out of fear. She’d be a great warrior. She was also often ruled by her emotions, which didn’t bode well for a superior leader. Now she wasn’t the least bit queasy by what she’d seen. She’d been fascinated and wanted to tell her mother and sister all the gory details.
Dara had a greater concern. “As you so colorfully pointed out, the Fangala are not to be taken lightly. While Melni surely surprised the first and possibly the second of those she killed, the other two had to be aware they were under attack. The arrows in Melni prove they weren’t taken completely by surprise. Still, they died, and Melni prevailed. It’s something we must consider if Melni survives.
At dawn, Melni transformed back to herself just as she had changed into a Fangala. It was swift. One moment she was a Fangala, the next, the young woman they’d aided the day before. But she was grievously injured. Dara covered her with a blanket and turned her on her side. One arrow was lodged in her back, a second under her ribs. Janae brought Neely to Melni before she had a chance to ask about her.
“The entire patrol has been killed,” Dara told Melni. “Will others follow?”
Melni shook her head. “They have . . . no army, just a police force . . . of a dozen or so to keep order . . . and . . . and to assist on the hunts,” she said softly, weakened by her wounds. “When the patrol doesn’t return . . . they won’t risk sending more.”
Dara explained to Melni that she had to remove the arrows and attend to her other injuries.
Melni shook her head. “I’m dying. I can feel my life slipping away. I’m . . . cold. I . . . I need you to be honest with me. Will you help the women who are enslaved?”
Dara knelt next to Melni. “There’s no time for a full explanation, but even if I could convince our people to aid in an attack, there are too many roadblocks. You killed four men while you were a Fangala and finished off a fifth who ambushed us—while you were seriously wounded. You say there are twenty or so others being held captive. Our people wouldn’t allow them to settle in our country. They would live in constant fear of what might happen during the change or that the change might occur more frequently under different conditions. And we can’t just free those enslaved to settle somewhere else on their own. Each month, the change would make them dangerous to any number of cultures. I’ve been trying to find a solution all night, and I have none.”
Melni forced a smile. “I respect your honesty. You could have easily lied. And . . . well, I can’t argue with your logic. Two favors . . .”
Dara nodded. “If I can.”
“Promise me you’ll remember us and do all you can to unearth a solution to end our enslavement.”
“Done,” Dara said.
“And take my daughter with you back to your country. Find her a good home. Do what you must when she turns nine if she goes through the change, but until then, let her experience life.”
“Done,” Dara said. “And even if she goes through the change, I give you my word she won’t be abandoned.”
“When I’m . . . gone . . . remove the tracking device in my back. Throw it . . . into the pond. They won’t know that I have perished. They’ll fear me in death more than while I was alive.” She coughed and then shivered. “Please let me hold Neely.”
Twenty minutes later, Melni was gone.
“You can’t be serious, Mother, about doing nothing for Melni’s people,” Elise said after they had taken out the tracking device and buried Melni. “You fought against the oppression of our people. Melni’s have it worse.”
“What would you have me do, Elise?” Dara asked. “I was honest with Melni. The Shamra won’t accept Fangala among them. And even if we helped those captured settle somewhere else, they pose a deadly threat. Do you have a suggestion? Or you?” she said, looking at Janae.
Elise looked at Janae. Both shook their heads. “It’s not fair,” Elise said.
“Then you’ve learned a lesson on this trip,” Dara said. “Life is making choices. Some are more difficult than others. And some problems have no acceptable solutions. Maybe one day Janae working with her potions will come up with something to stop the change. Or one day when you’re older, maybe you will be able to convince our people to give these women sanctuary regardless of the danger they pose,” she said, looking at Elise. “For now, all we can do is what I promised. We’ll find a suitable home for Neely. You both can tell Neely of her mother’s heroism and the suffering of her people.” She paused. “Not all of our encounters will have a happy ending. It’s one reason I wanted you on this journey. You learned more in one day than you would in a year in school.”
“It’s still not fair,” Elise and Janae said in unison, then looked at one another and shared a smile.
Dara smiled inwardly. So different, yet so much alike.
Janae picked up Neely and handed her to a surprised Elise. “Later, I’ll sing to her,” Janae told her sister. “First, you tell her about her mother’s heroics. She might not understand, but she’ll feel your passion.”
Dara sighed. Life goes on, she thought. With her children beside her, that was all that counted.
Barry Hoffman was born in New York. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin and Temple University. After college, he moved to Philadelphia to get into the Teacher Corps. He lived there from 1968 until 2004 when he moved to Colorado, but he still thinks of himself as a New Yorker at heart, returning whenever possible. He is also well-known as the publisher and editor of Gauntlet magazine, and his Gauntlet Press produces editions of classic books the way their authors intended them.
Visit Barry's official website HERE.
Barry Hoffman is the author of five adult published novels: Hungry Eyes, Eyes of Prey, Judas Eyes, Born Bad, and Blindsided. Hungry Eyes was the first book in Hoffman’s EYES series -- it received a nomination for Best First Novel (1999) by the HWA and the International Horror Guild. Eyes of Prey, Judas Eyes, and Blindsided are the second, third and fourth installments in the series. Two more books to be published in the next few years will round out the series.