It was darker in the forest; faint rays of sunlight filtered down through the trees and bathed the forest floor in gauzy twilight. Motes floated down through the canopy and swirled around the trunks of monstrous, ancient trees. The darkness deepened as they passed beyond the broken trees of the merc ship’s descent.
It was a different sort of quiet. Creatures could be heard in the underbrush and the calls of birds rang out, their haunting cries echoed down through the trees. Deeper they went with Riddick in point, Theo behind, the men kept Shazza always between them. Maybe in some other world, some other place, she would have been offended by it, but there was no question about it now.
Riddick crouched before a huge fallen log across their path, its mossy surface almost indecipherable from the rest of the forest floor. A large, furred shape that rose from the duff beneath them like a living thing. In the half dark, that’s just what it looked like.
Knife out, Riddick stabbed into the rotted wood, to find a solid heart beneath, and carefully pulled himself up higher, slowly. Shazza watched his silhouette flatten out along the top of the mammoth log, his belly pulled up, his spine slightly hunched, head lowered. Low to the surface, he scanned in all directions for any sign of danger like a wild animal, and only then did he help Shazza over. They moved on again, Riddick in point, Theo behind, Shazza between.
They slowed down, as night fell beyond the forest and the rays of light died away from the canopy above. The sound of birdsong stilled and the night creatures crept closer. It didn’t matter to Riddick who was often nothing more than a dark shadow among shadows. A glint of silver, his knife? His eyes? Only the height gave that away. Riddick alone could walk all night. Shazza fought to drive herself forward; she didn’t care that she fell or lost her footing. That she couldn’t see.
Riddick cared, and Theo knew. Both men had hunted others for a living. Shazza reacted purely from anger and that’s what drove her. She would drive herself until she dropped which is likely what would happen once they ran into the Company men. It wasn’t discussed, at least not by the men. They would rest. A quiet word between Theo and Riddick about who had already had the most sleep and who would take the first watch before they settled on a place to spend a few hours.
Beneath an overhang of stone Shazza sat back and tried to relax; she didn’t want to sleep, didn’t want to rest. She wanted to press on and couldn’t really understand why Theo and Riddick seemed so calm about it. They had said that the Company would have to rest as well. There would be wounded and they had run farther; they couldn’t run through the night either. No answer for that other than mere argument.
She couldn’t sleep and her heart raced, her thoughts were a jumble. It had all happened so quickly and her body wasn’t willing to slow down. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to in case it made her afraid.
Riddick’s hard body curled into the hollow space behind her. Shazza didn’t think there was any more room between her and the rock face but Riddick found it and pulled her to him. She resisted uselessly as though it were nothing. ‘Shhh, just sleep.’
It reminded her of their first night in the skiff; she couldn’t sleep then either, restless. Then, as now, Riddick had curled behind her, the solid, steel bar of his arm held her in place at first before it gentled, to just hold her. She lay awake, felt the rise and fall of his chest, even and sure; it didn’t race and flutter like hers. His breath evened against the skin of her nape, silent and warm, the quietest of purrs on the occasional exhale. Shazza wondered if he dreamed.
She looked across at Theo, crouched, ever watchful, against the heavy bole of a tree. From there he could see the area all around and also watch them as they slept. While Riddick slept anyway. She didn’t understand how he could sleep, but didn’t move, in case she woke him.
Riddick slept lightly in that half-alert rest state reserved for Slam. Always aware, always waiting for someone to kill him. He knew that Shazza was awake and could feel the tension ooze from her; it was hard for her to stay still. So he stayed still for her and let the rhythm of his breath seep into her. He doubted Shazza would have felt that moment when she fell asleep. She didn’t drift easily but curled tightly as though ready for a fight even as she slept. He looked down over her shoulder at the bone knife still clutched in her hand; she hadn’t let it go, not once.
He breathed deeply one last time before he eased away from her, his hand against her side to still her as she fidgeted against the warmth that should have been there. Like that first night in the skiff. Theo nodded and without a word the two men switched places. Theo sa at Shazza’s feet, and Riddick against the tree where he watched her sleep.
After a few hours Riddick closed his eyes and listened for the sound he had heard before. Birds. Not a lot of them, just one or two, but it was a consistent sound and it drew closer. Something out of place in the forest. They weren’t alone.
Shazza woke, cold and stiff against the mossy stone. Alone. She looked across at the crouched shape of Riddick against the bole of the tree. He looked at her once; pale morning light cast strange reflections off the mirrors of his eyes. She thought it was odd that he had his goggles off in the daylight until she realized that she had just gotten used to the dim light of the forest.
Theo stirred at her feet. Shazza opened her mouth to speak, she would have spoken quietly anyway, but at the nearly imperceptible shake of the head from Riddick, her mouth closed. Only when Theo was awake did Riddick cross the distance between them, his lips against her ear. A soft growl first, a deep inhale; from the corner of her eye she watched the dark reflection of his iris look deeply into her for the span of a heartbeat, the only intimacy they had time for. “We’re not alone, Shazza.”
She swallowed, fearful and excited all at once. “Company?”
Riddick smelled the excitement on her, smiled against the skin of her neck and whispered softly. “Don’t think so. Company men in a group aren’t that quiet.”
Theo came up on the other side of Shazza, not nearly as close as Riddick. “Villagers, I’d say.”
That caught Shazza’s attention. “With the Company? Or against them. Bloody hell, if they’ve got decent trackers…”
Riddick’s hand settled on her back, the murmured shush enough to remind her to keep her voice down. She never realized how well female voices carried and how quiet male voices could be. He nuzzled through her hair again as he spoke quietly. “They might have trackers with them but this is different. They’re in pursuit.”
“And they’re good.” This from Theo on the other side.
Shazza looked from one man to the other, at their sure, hard faces, and nodded absently to herself. “All right then, what do we do about them.”
Riddick looked up past Shazza’s mane of hair and grinned at Theo. Maybe they hadn’t made a definite plan but both knew right then that engagement was the only option on the table for them both. Riddick dropped first and the weight of his arm brought Shazza down with him. Theo followed of his own accord and waited until everyone was still and silent. “I took a look at some of those trees up ahead. I don’t know if they would follow any sort of a footpath but there’s a natural depression through the trees. Don’t know how much further it goes in.”
They had followed a rough-hewn trail once they were deep in the forest even though it had been hard to see it in the dark. Apparently this path, while not heavily trafficked, had been used before.
Riddick stood and pulled his goggles back down over his eyes as he peered over the top of the stone they had sheltered behind. He closed his eyes again, not that he had to, they were even closer now. His head moved from side to side as he sought the direction and turned fully towards it, his head tilted in his curiosity. He turned in place, a feline, graceful movement, and looked down at Shazza. “Stay with Theo.” Riddick nodded his head to Theo in the direction he wanted him to take and turned away from Shazza before she could protest.
Of course she would protest, or try to; her heart was in her throat as she watched Riddick disappear from view over the edge of the stone. She pursed her lips and dropped her head so that she wouldn’t say anything or call out to him. Theo’s hand rested on her shoulder and he looked at her intently when she finally raised her head again. His gaze was even, until she acknowledged him, silently.
They would move without a sound. Shazza followed Theo, hunched over, close to the earth. These two men, Riddick and Theo both, were the hunters here. Shazza would fight, no one had any doubt of that, but she was out of her element here.
The terrain changed slightly as they crept through the dense underbrush up one side of a cleft with the faint path not far below them. Shazza looked across at the other side of the path, at the boulders and outcroppings, and felt Riddick there. She couldn’t see him and knew that she wouldn’t until he wanted to be seen. Theo raised a hand to stop her, his palm dropped parallel to the ground; she was to stay here. Shazza pulled the slung weapon from her back, quietly cocking it. A quick look at Theo, his nod of consent, and then Theo disappeared a little further up into the brush.
Shazza’s heart raced as she hid in the brush and waited. She knew that Theo and Riddick were there but she couldn’t see them any longer. She couldn’t hear them either, they made no sound. All she could hear was her own frightened breath and she fought to control it. She wasn’t a hunter, wasn’t what either of these men were, but she would fight for what was hers, to get back to what was hers. It always came down to Jack.
Knuckles relaxed their fierce grip, the finger on the trigger eased as her head came down to view the path below through the cold, calculated sight of the weapon she carried. She had shot things before; it wasn’t possible to live a settler’s life without it. Settlements had to be defended. Against marauding animals. Angry, drunken or drug crazed settlers. Or worse. Not everyone out here on the back end of space was willing to build their own settlements with their own hands, sometimes they waited until someone had done the hard work and then they moved in. Sometimes it wasn’t just the homes they wanted. A deep breath and Shazza shut the fear out. She wasn’t Riddick or Theo but she would fight if she had to.
Time drew out and Shazza licked her bottom lip, nervous as the first villagers became visible. Dressed in brown clothes that made them vanish into the forest, two villagers stepped out, armed with modified crossbows. Silent, deadly and accurate, the perfect weapon for the woods. Her weapon was noisy and clumsy compared to them. She looked across the divide but knew that she would never see Riddick so she turned to look to her right, in the hopes that she could catch a signal from Theo. But he remained frozen, his weapon aimed not at the two villagers but somewhere further back.
Shazza bit her lip against the gasp as the first of the mounted villagers made their way into the pass. She had seen them from afar, from the deck of the Moorglade when the Company ship came down. It was another thing to see them up close.
They were larger than she had expected. Black as pitch and half again as large as a workhorse. Easily taller than a man, with a massive chest, powerfully built legs and imposing hooves, the beasts walked gracefully across the forest floor. Their heads were blocky and sat atop thick, powerful necks, but the most incredible element was the span of their antlers. They swept back from the creature’s head and their interlaced tines formed a sort of shield that protected their riders.
There were about twenty of the beasts from what she could see down the pass and not all of them had riders, some villagers walked behind the pack. They had dogs as well, the same, large dun colored animals that she had seen before. Other villagers, armed similarly to those at the very front, walked at the outside of the line as it filed into the narrow pass.
Riddick stood first, his aim clear and true on the villager in the lead. There was no intention to shoot, at least not yet anyway, but he did intend that the group stop. “That’s far enough!” Like a ghost, Riddick moved out from one boulder and vanished behind another; enough that he could be seen, not enough that he could be targeted.
Shazza looked over at Theo who, although he had stayed silent, had mirrored Riddick’s movements. Shazza stayed low and hidden, her aim trained on the lead villager astride his mount. The villagers were clearly not afraid. They halted and sat proudly, openly. Those in the front raised their crossbows towards the sides of the hills but only briefly, before they turned their gaze forward again, their intent was clearly ahead of them. The lead villager spoke in a clear, clipped, authoritarian voice, “You are not Company men.”
Said with the utmost of assurance, Shazza found that she was unnerved a little and wondered if it had the same effect on Theo and Riddick. Another look through the sight of her weapon and she knew that there was no doubt on the faces of the men below; the villagers did not see them as a threat.
Theo’s voice sounded from right beside her in answer to the men below and Shazza realized that Riddick and Theo did it on purpose to keep the men below off guard. “No? How can you be so sure?” Shazza watched from the corner of her eye as Theo moved to a different position once he had spoken to make it harder to target him just as Riddick had done.
As though he didn’t have weapons trained on his head the villager continued. “We had scouts move ahead in the night.” He didn’t mention what his scouts had discovered; it wasn’t necessary. Quiet for a moment further before he dropped the reins in his hand and adjusted slightly. Quieter when he spoke again. “You are the Rider. We were there when you brought the Company ship down. We followed them here and then we followed you. To end it.”
Riddick came out from behind the boulder, his weapon trained on the lead man. He didn’t look at Theo or Shazza; he wouldn’t give away their position. He stood in the open, his weapon trained still at the lead man. At that range, the antlers of the beast he rode wouldn’t help him any and still the man showed no fear. None of the other villagers raised their weapons either.
Shazza watched him from her place across the cleft. He stood high above the villagers, proud and defiant. She knew that if any of the villagers made a move that he would vanish like smoke but right at that moment he looked solid in a way that made everything else pale in comparison. ‘Like he belongs here.’
“Yeah, I’m the Rider. Got any idea where you’re going?” Shazza heard a muffled snort from Theo beside her but wouldn’t take her eyes or her gun-sight off the villagers below. She could picture him smirking though and it wasn’t hard to see why. She had seen that cocky arrogance from Riddick before. From Jack too for that matter.
“There’s only one place they can be headed, Sunhillow, Olias’s ruins. If they reach there they can defend themselves well, against many. Who knows what they could use there. They could even call down another Company ship.” Villagers turned and spoke rapidly to each other, and nodded, to affirm what their leader had said.
Riddick, Shazza and Theo said a silent thanks to Joanne who had told them first. Theo’s gun-sight dipped and he inhaled sharply at the mention of ‘Sunhillow’. It was another of those things that he was never quite sure would exist. Then again, he had thought that the Moorglade would just turn out to be a myth too. The sound of the words became a high-pitched whine in his ears.
Fate. Theo stood up, his own weapon aimed at those below with less conviction than Riddick. Shazza remained where she was, hidden in the brush in case anything went wrong. Theo shouted across to Riddick on the other side of the cleft. “It would be faster to travel with them than alone.” Theo avoided the use of Riddick’s name. If the villagers referred to him only as Rider it would be best to stay with it.
Riddick nodded his assent but said nothing, his expression impossible to read. The villager in the lead said something to another man on the ground and Riddick and Theo watched him run to the back of the line. He brought three of the beasts back with him. Clearly the villagers knew about Shazza as well. Shazza stayed where she was until Theo turned to her and nodded.
Riddick cast another look across at Theo and now Shazza; they stood close to cover and held their weapons on the villagers. Then he picked his way casually down towards the villagers. The man astride the lead beast swung his legs gracefully over the side and stood on the ground, his hand out as Riddick approached. “I was there when you met Mother; it’s an honor to meet you.”
Riddick was baffled by the show of respect but hid it well as he shook the other man’s hand. “Rider.”
The villager eyed Riddick carefully; he didn’t pull his hand away, just nodded. “David Underhill.”
It was a strange meeting broken up by the snorting of the black beasts as they approached. It was the only time that Riddick looked up towards Theo and Shazza. He would never display any outward sign of unease but the creatures made him uneasy. Not as a threat, as a predator to be fought and killed.
He wouldn’t show his nervousness. Hand out, he touched the animals flank and stayed still as its large head turned towards him, dropping to clear the distance. Its muzzle was softer than he had expected as it brushed across his hand and it snorted before it lifted its head again, high above him.
The Rangers. They had hunted with horses and dogs. Convicts last, and the convicts were definitely at the end of that list. Convicts couldn’t get anywhere near the horses. Except when they were chased and run to ground by them, often literally. The mark didn’t show anymore, too many years had passed, but he felt the mark of the horseman’s whip down his back. Shazza’s hand rested on the spot and broke the train of memory.
Shazza felt the tension that radiated from him and knew that it was more than just the villagers that had him feel that way. She looked around the thick neck of the beast at Theo who stood on the other side of the path, still armed. “This will be faster, Riddick.” She spoke in a whisper, one hand on Riddick’s back, the other on the thick, well-muscled front shoulder of the beast.
Shazza held her hand out to him as she placed one foot high up in the stirrup across the creatures’ withers. Riddick held his hand out to steady her as she swung gracefully up onto the back of the animal. She shifted her weight and readjusted her weapons to keep them in easy reach and he noticed that her bone blade was once again tucked against her wrist.
The reins in her hands, the beast snorted and dipped its head, to see how much play Shazza would give but was otherwise still. One last look up at Shazza’s face and Riddick walked past to the beast another villager held out for him. He cupped Shazza’s calf on his way past, a quick squeeze, a caress, and then he moved on. Riddick swung up onto the back of the animal; the beast shifted uneasily as it felt Riddick’s tension but moved no farther than a step. Theo was already astride an animal and had moved up to the front.
Riddick watched Shazza from the corner of his eye to follow her movements as the beasts set out once more.
Copyright © march 2007 xxxevilgrinxxx