PART ONE - THE FOREST

CHAPTER 1

The last shreds of storm cloud had disappeared beyond the mountains and spring, the bringer of hope and renewed life, commanded the sky.

On this first calm day, amid the lush wet grass, two girls made their way to a stand of trees that edged the meadow. The shadows amid the boughs contrasted with the bright sky and happy smiles of the sisters.

"Right here's fine, Miranda," the elder girl indicated a patch of flower spangled grass dried by the hot morning sun. Fog still lingered lower down near the river but up here all was dry and pleasant.

Daisy Sal was a tall athletic sixteen year old with long dark hair tied in coils usually, to avoid snags when hunting in the Forest. Her whole demeanour bespoke an outdoor life from the way she carried her weapons to the ease with which she moved. Her younger sister by three years was a miniature version of her. No one could mistake them for anything but close siblings.

As instructed Miranda cast the picnic sack upon the sward and let the food and drink it contained tumble out. She laughed at the chaos of tasty snacks before her and grabbed a lemon pie.

Daisy thrust her hunting spear in the turfy ground and surveyed the scenery.

Dark bushes down below marked the course of the river which separated this hilly meadow from her village, hidden beyond another rolling hillock dotted with Willowesques.

The Ice Mountains were invisible this close to the great tree line that defined the eastern boundary of the Forest. It was a remarkably distinct boundary, as if the trees were afraid to step out of line.

Daisy sniffed the prevailing winds.

"There's Fawnspot deer just to the north west, distant about half a league," she said thoughtfully.

"And pork slices, peach puffs and lemon pies right at your feet Daisy," Miranda reminded her. "You won't need to hunt them."

Daisy smiled and squat on her haunches before the food covered cloth.

"Just saying, they don't usually come this close to the edge. Something's spooked the local herd."

"Perhaps it's the Beast," Miranda articulated with half a peach puff in her mouth.

"No, all the stories I've ever heard Old Danitty tell about that creature say it's strictly nocturnal. Evil doesn't like direct sunlight, so the sages say."

"Is that why we only go in the Forest during the day?"

"There are other reasons, like not being able to see to harvest wheat fungus," and Daisy laughed. This was the main crop of Cascade Village along with the abundant fruits and wild pigs.

"You've hunted in twilight though, haven't you? I mean some of the game birds like the early hours don't they? Aren't you scared the Beast might catch you?"

"You know I can run faster than any Forest creature," Daisy countered proudly, reminding herself that the Tri-village Games were due to begin in four weeks. She had entered the spear throwing contest of course, but it was the foot race she relished most for she was competing against both men and boys. She was determined to beat them all.

"Besides," she continued, "you've seen the tracks the Beast left that one time. Short, dragging marks from a heavy footfall. Like a man but larger, ungainly. No balance."

Miranda remembered all too well. It was last autumn when game was scarce and they speculated on why the Beast had come so close to the village. It was the most terrifying experience in Miranda's young life up to then.

The eerily silent Forest partly clothed in flaming autumn leaves. The cold winds drifting down from the distant Ice Mountains, bringing fog and sometimes freezing rain. And there amid the fallen leaves, the remains of some animal, too few fragments to identify it. Cracked bones, shredded flesh and blood scattered high up among tree boughs for thirty yards around.

The smell had been appalling but it was the blood trails that fascinated and horrified Miranda the most. While her sister pointed out the ground tracks with an experienced eye, she could not help following the aerial trail. Dark spots and smears carried her gaze high up into the mazy leaf shadows overhead.

She squinted, trying to pierce the gloom, and felt as if someone or something was watching her from among the branches. A shadowy movement and then a single drop of blood fell at her feet.

All the while Daisy had been using her short spear to trace the actions of the hunter and prey, oblivious of her sister's own findings. Then their discoveries met.

"And here's where the clumsy Beast finally managed to haul its victim up into the foliage above," Daisy indicated. Her long arm swept towards the sinister shadows.

"I know," Miranda mouthed quietly. She wanted to say she thought it was still up there, feasting, but instead turned around and plodded stiff-limbed through the carpet of moist leaves in silent terror. Every moment she expected something to land heavily on her back and tear the life out of her.

Daisy, on the other hand, pleased with her discoveries, whistled gaily and they resumed their journey.

Miranda examined the light and shadow patterns of the Forest's edge as her sister tucked into the morning repast. They were about to enter that strange world of giant growing things where orange butterflies would follow and watch their every movement and intelligent spiders would politely ravel their webs to let them pass and then reset them again for the intended prey.

It was a mid-morning gathering of succulents today for the spring freshets had brought them to full ripeness with astonishing rapidity. With equal swiftness they would go bad so it was important to harvest them while in their prime. Daisy had brought both knife and spear for an opportunity to gather fresh meat too could present itself at any time.

Miranda's own knife was seldom used except for skinning and digging but she was still learning the hunting skills that would bring valuable protein to the Cascade Village market.

"Ready?" Daisy said, polishing off the last of the berry juice and grabbing her grounded spear to haul herself up on.

Miranda sprang up, brushed crumbs off her trousered legs and adjusted her hair as wispy dark strands had got loose.

"Ready," she said, thinking of all the fun to be had hunting down and cornering defenceless root vegetables. Bizarrely she often wondered if they felt any pain but dared not mention this to her sister for fear of ridicule.

Daisy gazed lovingly at her a moment, not having an inkling of what was going on in her young mind, only proud to be a mentor to this beautiful and talented young creature who would be an asset to the village. For she was the beauty of the family. While Daisy expected to hunt till she dropped or became a fireside storyteller like Old Danitty, her graceful sister would undoubtedly marry well, a carpenter perhaps, have children and a long and happy life.

That was when the horn sounded. A drawn out agonising note, pitched to the very limit of human lungs.

The colour drained from Daisy's face and her deep blue eyes widened in anxious sorrow.

"That's not the noon signal," Miranda said, marking the position of the sun with a frown.

Daisy had taken two steps away from the Forest.

"We've got to get back to the village, quickly," she said. "Something's wrong. Leave that," she added impatiently when she saw her sister start to gather the picnic stuff.

Sensing the danger, Miranda drew her knife. It was a pitifully small blade but she knew it might save her life some day. She silently followed her sister, unquestioningly giving her the lead. The latter had her spear poised in one hand, with her large knife in a tight fist ready to strike.

Before they had descended ten yards through the still drying grass there burst from the riverside bushes a number of huge black clad men armed with swords and throwing clubs. Some had nets over their shoulders and they all moved with organised purpose as one unit.

A gesture from the nearest indicated they had seen the two girls. A shouted command, signals, and the men broke into determined flight up the grassy hill.

"Nappers!" Daisy gasped. "This side of the mountain, why?"

"You mean, from the City?" Miranda whimpered as she back-tracked towards the Forest.

For answer Daisy nodded briskly and broke into a run, her sister close at her heels. They plunged into the Forest undergrowth like gazelles escaping a carnivorous prey, leaping fallen logs and cutting a swathe through clinging shrubs and spider webs.

Keeping a low stance Daisy filled her lungs with the moist dusty air as she pursued a trackless path to lose any would be hunters. She was the prey now and had to think of tricks and strategies to stay out of the hands of the black-garbed predators.

A cry from her sister brought her up short. Miranda could not move as fast as she and they had been separated by a thick cluster of Gold Oak boughs soon after entering the Forest. Orange butterflies gathered to watch what she might do.

"Miranda!" she screamed and heard her sister's choked response. She was in trouble. Straight as an arrow Daisy cut through the trees with spear poised for attack.

One prodigious leap and she was among them. Five armoured assailants in shiny black leather, armed to the teeth, and cowering beneath their heavy boots the slight figure of Miranda Sal, tangled in a net. How had they cornered her so quickly?

One of the men was in the process of gathering the ends of the net to create a carrying sack for the victim. Daisy targeted him first with a slash of her knife, severing tendons in the back of his hand.

The move left her exposed and a heavy blow on her shoulder from a club numbed her knife hand and sent her staggering against a tree. The rough bark grazed her face and she tasted blood.

With her spear she fended off another blow but there were too many assailants and they were trained for combat. As soon as she thrust forward against one man another with a sword almost as long as her spear found an opening. Daisy felt the cold sharp steel slide effortless between her ribs. A spasm of pain coursed through her entire frame and emptied her lungs. She curled up at the foot of the tree, defenceless. Her misty vision fixed on the terrified face of her younger sister trapped in an unbreakable spider's web of human manufacture.

"This one's too old," she heard a harsh voice declare, not understanding the significance of the words in her agony.

"Dying anyway. Just kill her and we can get out of this cursed woodland."

There was a pause while someone was being assigned the job of despatching the victim. Daisy took in little of this for she remained fixated by the white face of her sister as she was dragged away from the clearing and into captivity in a distant land, over the mountains, to the City of Develgarth, of evil legend.

She mouthed her name silently, blood bubbling in her throat, knowing she had failed to protect that beautiful young life. The sound of a sword being unsheathed brought her to herself at the same moment Miranda's image was lost in the dusky undergrowth. Orange butterflies settled near, spectators of a tragedy, and Daisy gazed up at the leather clad Napper as he raised his weapon prior to striking the fatal blow.

The butterflies scattered and the looming figure seemed to collapse in on itself. There was a short grunt of subdued pain and surprise. A shard of light which might have been a sword spiralled away out of sight with a ringing song that halted against an unyielding Birchlock trunk. A splash of red fountained before Daisy's blurry vision and the Napper was gone.

In his place was a monster. Huge shambling limbs surrounded the shrivelled girl and an overwhelming smell of rotting flesh made her vomit up more blood.

The last thing she remembered before welcome blackness relieved her of all feeling was the sensation of being lifted up high like a rag doll and dragged into the nearest tree. Like food for the Beast.

To be continued...