Entangled: Chapter One
Northern Spain 24,000 years ago, late summer
Ria was stalking a plump rabbit halfway up the side of a winding valley bright with pink saxifrage and thyme, coarse grasses and patches of yellow gorse. She kept low, crawling on her belly as she got closer, until she was in range. Then, stone in hand, her right arm already drawn back, she rose to a crouch and let fly – only to see her target bolt, startled by the sounds of shouts and loud whoops.
Who the fuck had spoiled her shot? She whirled in the direction of the noise, shading her eyes against the morning sun, and spotted a young Ugly male with a gimpy leg hopping and stumbling in terror along the valley floor a few hundred paces below and behind her. He was pursued by Grigo, Duma and Vik, youths of her Clan. Bellowing at the tops of their voices, waving stout wooden clubs, their bloodlust was up and Ria saw they meant to kill the helpless subhuman. On a whim, mainly because she disliked Grigo so much, she decided to stop them.
The winter before, Grigo’s overbearing father Murgh had approached her brothers Hond and Rill and proposed she should marry his son. She would rather marry a head louse so she had refused. Hond and Rill, who loved and adored their younger sister, had supported her decision. But there had been bad feeling between the two families ever since and Grigo had found countless ways to annoy and offend her.
Now it was payback time.
The valley side was steep and strewn with boulders, but Ria ran down it with sure feet and soon the distance closed to two hundred and then just a hundred paces. Although they were charging straight towards her, neither the fugitive – intent on avoiding pitfalls at his feet – nor any of his pursuers – intent on murder – seemed to have seen her yet.
Grigo, tall and raw-boned, his lumpy features contorted with malice, was leading the pack. At seventeen he was a year older than Ria, but age-mates with Duma and Vik who looked up to him with such subservience it made her want to vomit. Vik was the fat boy of the gang. His body juddered like a big slab of seal blubber as he pounded along twenty paces behind Grigo. Then came Duma, last as ever, his spindly legs pumping under his scrawny buttocks, his flat unpleasant face covered in ripe pustules, and a look of fanatical stupidity in his eyes.
Ria scooped up a fist-sized rock without breaking her stride and, at thirty paces, flung it with a fluid overarm motion. Just as he was about to bring his club down from behind on the Ugly’s head, the projectile struck Grigo in the mouth and knocked him sprawling. In the same instant, evidently overcome by exhaustion and fear, the Ugly collapsed and lay helpless with his two remaining pursuers bearing down on him fast.
But Ria was faster. She sprinted forward, jumped over the Ugly’s body and confronted Duma and Vik with such ferocity they skidded to a halt: “Leave him alone,” she panted. “Shame on you, picking on a crippled kid like this.”
“None of your business, Ria,” responded Duma, his face seething. “Just fuck off now, or ...”
“Or what?” she taunted. “Or you’ll beat me up? Oooh. I’m afraid. I’m very, very afraid. Really I am.”
Out of the corner of her eye Ria saw that Grigo was no longer on the ground where she’d knocked him down. Then, without warning, he threw himself on her from behind. Somehow she’d failed to anticipate this even though she’d known from the beginning he was much more of a threat than his two spineless slaves. She felt his thick muscular right arm circle her neck, pressing on her throat, saw his chunky big- jawed face looming over hers, and smelled his foul breath as he forced her head back and hissed in her ear: “You think you can mess with us because of your brothers but your brothers aren’t here to protect you now.” He spat a gob of blood into her hair and added: “We have to kill the Ugly first. We’re going to torture him to death; you can watch if you like. After that ...” He giggled – “Hey, Duma. Hey, Vik. Why don’t we all take turns to enjoy Ria and then kill her too?”
Grigo said it in such a casual way that at first she didn’t get the seriousness of the threat. Enjoy? What could he mean? Then his stranglehold tightened and she struggled, scratched and bit but couldn’t break free. She felt her eyes begin to glaze over, gasped for breath and tried to reason with him – but no words came out through the tight grip on her vocal cords. As she choked and coughed she heard him persuading Duma and Vik to join him in raping her, murdering her, and dumping her body where it would never be found.
Vik sounded doubtful: “Sulpa might not like it. He told us to kill Uglies. He didn’t say anything about Clan.”
“Are you kidding?” Grigo laughed. “You don’t know him as well as I do. He’s gonna love it.”
Ria had no idea what they were talking about. She’d never heard of this Sulpa guy.
Then Duma asked: “What about Hond and Rill? If they find out they’ll kill us ...”
“They won’t find out,” said Grigo with flat confidence. He shoved his left hand down the back of Ria’s deerskin leggings and began to explore her ass and crotch. As he groped her he shifted his grip on her neck, allowing her just enough slack to reach the big sinew in the crook of his elbow and attack it with her teeth.
Grigo screamed, spraying blood and bad breath into her ear, and tried to jerk his arm free. But she clung on, biting hard, grabbed a handful of his face and tore at his flesh with her nails, seeking an eye to gouge. More oaths and bad breath. Then Grigo started punching her as well as strangling her. Her vision began to dim for a second time, but she kept on struggling until Duma and Vik pinned her legs and arms, dragging her to the ground. Finally Grigo lost his balance, all three of the hefty teenagers tumbled on top of her, and Ria thought, Shit, I’m going to die.
She felt as though she’d been crushed beneath an avalanche and blacked out for a moment. But as consciousness seeped back she found things were changing for the better. For a start, the weight on her chest was much less now. Duma and Vik had been lifted off her by someone and hurled in opposite directions. Then it was Grigo’s turn. Descending from what seemed like a great height, she saw one of a pair of huge hairy hands seize his crotch; the other gripped his neck, and he was hoisted into the air and shaken so hard his teeth rattled.
Still on her back on the ground, Ria discovered with mixed feelings of alarm and satisfaction that what was holding Grigo aloft was a truly immense Ugly male with gigantic brow ridges – and massive yellow teeth bared in a terrifying snarl. The creature seemed poised to break Grigo’s back across his knee, but for some reason he relented, tossed the teenager away and stepped over Ria to attend to the crippled Ugly youth whose rescue had got her into this mess in the first place.
Ria was calming down, taking in more and more of the scene unfolding around her. It wasn’t just the big guy with the teeth. He’d brought along about sixty of his friends – Where did they come from? – males and females dressed in stinking, badly cured animal skins. Some of them carried clunky wooden spears like small tree trunks hafted to huge, crudely knapped stone blades. Others were armed with clubs and axes. Several had decorated their bodies with stripes of red and white paint. One of the females wore a necklace of bat skulls.
Moans and groans from Duma, Grigo and Vik told Ria they were still alive. She would be having words about them with her brothers very soon, she thought. Or she would be if they all survived. The Uglies looked furious, which was understandable not only because they’d caught three humans hunting one of their kids but also because of all the other shitty things the Clan had done to them recently. They had a thousand reasons for a revenge attack and this was a perfect opportunity. So the only question that really mattered to Ria was ... had they seen her heroic and selfless rescue attempt?
But the Uglies didn’t seem interested in revenge on Duma, Grigo and Vik, or in showing any special favors to Ria for putting her life on the line for one of them. They stepped past her and gathered round the cripple in a circle, arm in arm, emitting low hooting sighs. Very soon he shook himself like a wet dog and stood up.
They made him better, thought Ria, amazed by the kid’s quick recovery. But then she corrected herself: Of course they didn’t.
Like all his kind this youth looked strong. He could probably have outrun Grigo and his posse if he hadn’t been hobbled by a deformed foot, turned inwards and downwards at an unnatural angle. He was about Ria’s age, perhaps a little older, and what was weird – even disturbing – was that he wasn’t bad-looking. His brow ridges weren’t fully formed yet and the brown eyes beneath them gazed at her with unexpected warmth and intelligence.
The Uglies were supposed to be mindless animals, like aurochs or rhinos, lacking in smarts and incapable of any of the finer emotions. But the eyes of this youth, staring at her with such urgency, were entirely human and filled with sensibilities she had no difficulty recognizing. The Clan had always believed the Uglies were too stupid to talk but with a flash of insight she understood this one was already communicating with her – somehow. She knew he was grateful to her for helping him out, for taking his side without thought of herself, and the moment she grasped this she heard a voice – not out loud but inside her head – that spoke her language and said, simply, “Thank you.”
This was absolutely astonishing and strange but Ria was already convincing herself she must have imagined it when the Uglies began to move away, taking the club-footed youth with them. He shuffled along with his elders, shoulders hunched, head down, and she saw she would soon be left alone with Duma, Grigo and Vik. They were certainly going to finish what they had started with her.
She jumped up. “Hey, Uglies!” she shouted. “Take me with you.”
Teaser image by freakland, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet