To celebrate the release of Weeping Season under the new Uafás Press imprint, I've uploaded an excerpt / sample chapter for all to consume... Enjoy and Happy New Year!
A man awoke to hysterical screams. Cold dirt pressed against his cheek as he blinked to clear his vision. When he lifted his head and looked up, an awning of pine branches swayed overhead. He grappled to catch his bearings as he pushed up to sit, stiff all over, hard shivers running through him. Then it dawned on him that he was naked and covered in muck, his body as cold as the freezing surface he sat on. When he went to move, pain shot up his left leg, bringing his attention to a manacle around his ankle, a solid-looking chain running from it to a thick pine tree that soared up to the heavens.
A short distance away, a young girl howled and battled against the heavy steel that secured her to another tree. Her cries echoed through his head as he tried to focus, continuing to blink away the blurred edges of his vision. What was going on? Where the hell were they? Acknowledging her distress, he went to stand but couldn’t find the strength to complete the action, collapsing to the ground, drained of energy, with every part of him in pain.
Water, he needed water. His tongue and throat were parched. He licked his lips, or tried to, wincing at the resulting sting. Both were chapped and bone dry. Black clay was embedded beneath his fingernails, which came as no surprise considering the dirt that covered him. He tried to call to the girl, but no words came, just a racking cough that tore through his chest and head. The chill from the frozen ground was too much and he pressed his fists into the dirt and forced himself up – his weak arms barely carrying his bodyweight.
“Hey,” he called to her, glad to be able to vocalise.
She didn’t seem to hear him, continuing with her struggle.
“Hey, what’s going on?” he shouted, looking around, his voice hollow across the forest floor.
This time she stopped and turned to him.
“I thought you were…dead.” Her voiced sounded as dry and tortured as his. “I was calling to you for ages.”
He took another look around. “Where are we?”
She didn’t answer, returning to her efforts to break loose from her bonds.
He watched her struggle. She was so petite, he supposed she couldn’t have been much older than her mid-twenties, but to his eyes she was like a girl of fifteen or sixteen, which made his looking at her naked body feel somewhat inappropriate. He figured he was old enough to be her father. Before he looked away, he noticed her head had been shaved and she had the figure eight tattooed in black just above the hairline at the back. From where he stood, it looked fresh, with dried blood on and around it.
What was going on? This was such a crazy situation. The chain that held him to the tree was thick and made of heavy steel. His legs trembled, barely able to hold him, but the ground was too cold to sit or lie on. Dense forest lay in every direction, with weak light filtering through tiny gaps in the canopy. No sun to melt the frost. How had they got here? The girl started crying again as she pulled at her chain.
“Hey now. Calm down for a second.”
She ignored him, struggling on until she ran out of energy and slumped against the tree in defeat. While wiping tears from her filthy face, she kept muttering the same words to herself: “Why is this happening to me?”
“What’s your name?” he asked. “Come on, talk to me here.”
“I don’t know my name,” she barked back. “I don’t know anything.”
It was at that point it dawned on him that he didn’t know his own name, either. He searched, scanning every thought or visual that came to him, realising with a growing horror that he didn’t know anything from before wakening to her screams.
Everything before was blank. But how? What could have happened? There had to be a rational explanation. They couldn’t have just appeared here out of nowhere. It wasn’t possible. Was it?
“What can you remember?” he asked her, making a conscious effort to keep the panic out of his voice. “Come on, think about it. You have to remember something.”
“Nothing.” She slapped her bald head with both hands, growling out her frustration. “Fucking nothing! Do you hear me? Nothing!”
“Ok, ok, I hear you. I’m the same.” He tensed his legs against the continuous shaking, rubbing his upper arms in an effort to heat himself up. No joy – no heat and no memory. He rubbed his head. “What the…?” His was shaved, too – prickly against his palms. Was that how he always had it? The back of his head was different, though, the skin stiff. Scabbed?
“I see they shaved your head, too,” the girl said, watching him.
“Oh, I dunno, let me see… How about the people who locked us to these trees?”
“Yeah, ok.” He ran his fingers over the back of his head again. “Yes, I guess you’re right.”
“I thought you were dead when you wouldn’t wake up.”
He shook his head. “No, Number Eight, I’m very much alive. I do, however, appreciate your concern. Thank you very much.”
Ignoring his sarcasm, she snapped to life, her blue eyes glaring at him. “Why’d you call me that?”
“Well, since you can’t remember your name, I figured I’d address you by your tattoo.”
She dragged herself to her feet and stared at him, her brows furrowed, then embarked on a rapid search of her body, “What? What tattoo?” Even through the dirt, it was clear to see that her arms and legs were free of any ink.
“Here.” He swivelled and revealed the back of his head to her. When he turned back, she was running both hands over her scalp, her eyes widening as realisation dawned.
“What number am I?” he asked.
“What the fuck! I mean, why would anyone do that?”
All he could do was shrug. “Hey, please… My number?”
“Seven. You’re Number Seven.”
He didn’t reply. Someone did this to them – placed them here, naked, chained, and tattooed. He checked his bound ankle. Unless they figured out a way of unlocking the bonds, they’d freeze to death before night came. They agreed they must at least work together to release themselves. But their options were slim, with nothing around heavy enough to break the lock. Any physical attempt would be in vain, as was obvious from the girl’s wasted efforts.
“There must be a way out. A key or something?” He looked around. “It’s either, get out of here or wait for someone to come along.” An exchanged glance confirmed they didn’t want to wait around for that.
Each moved about within their range in the cold dirt, searching around their respective tree, stopping every few minutes to rub arms and legs to fend off the chill.
“It’s fucking useless,” she shouted, giving up and sitting with her back against the tree. “There’s nothing here.” She sobbed into the nook of her arm.
The man kept looking. If he didn’t, he feared his growing desperation would overwhelm him. How in the hell were they to get out of this? The girl wasn’t much help, looking even more physically and mentally drained than him. He continued with his deliberations, but caught movement in the corner of his eye and looked to see her getting to her feet. Was she going to start searching again?
“Hey!” she shouted, nearly dancing on the spot as she looked over to his tree, “Up there. Look!”
“Huh?” He looked up, catching the smell of something fowl on the slight breeze.
“There!” She jabbed a finger. “I think it’s a key.”
“Right there,” She jabbed again, “I think… Yes, it’s tied to that branch.”
Then he saw it. His stomach lurched as his gaze locked on the silvery key, tied to a branch with a black string. He looked at the girl, her eyes gleaming with excitement, then back at the key. How the fuck am I supposed to get up there?
“Climb up and get it,” she said, as if reading his thoughts.
“Are you for real?” He held out his hands. “Look at me, I’m doing well to be able to stand.”
“Don’t be stupid, Mister Seven, there’s no other option. We’ll fucking freeze to death if we don’t get out of here.”
She was right, of course. Someone had carved the number seven into his head and left him here to die. He sat back on the dirt to regain some much-needed strength. Number Eight encouraged him over the next while, and they discussed how to actually get up the tree. Well, there wasn’t much to discuss, with his only option being to physically climb the thing.
His first attempt ended in failure and he fell back to the ground in frustration. Number Eight rallied him on. He had to establish a technique to get his weak body up the damn thing. On the second attempt, he did better, but the bark bit into his skin, chaffing his arms and legs, forcing him to abandon and regroup. His third attempt went better – he managed to figure out a method by wrapping his arms and legs right round the trunk. Inch by inch he thrust his way upward, with every point of contact aching from the sharp bark digging into his flesh.
Number Eight shouted encouragement from below.
The chain hung like a dead weight from his ankle, but he had no choice except to keep going. With every painful shift up, he closed the distance to the first branch, giving the chain a flick to gain slack as he progressed. He almost punched the air when he reached it, but thought better. No way would he be able to do all this again if he fell. The climb had exhausted him. He grabbed hold of the branch with one hand and took a long moment to catch his breath, shaking stinging sweat from his eyes.
“Come on, you’re nearly there.”
“Hey, I’m up here, aren’t I? Just…give me a minute.”
He took a few deep breaths and got his second hand onto the branch, then pulled himself up with all his might. Number Eight whooped and clapped, but he thought better of joining in. Still a bit to go, and the effort had drained him again. He needed water, and food. The girl signalled a thumbs-up – a job well done, so far. Panting, and a little lightheaded, he returned the gesture and prepared to move again, his arms quivering as he lay outstretched along the tree’s limb. The branch bent when he moved but it held his weight. It didn’t help that the chain dragged at him from below. He inched forward, but the branch bowed some more and he wrapped his arms and legs tighter – the fear of falling holding him in place. So close. The key was just out of reach. If only…
“Pull the chain up,” the girl shouted.
He did as she advised, swinging it closer with his leg until he caught hold of it. The clunky chunk of steel caught in the bark every step of the way. However, his efforts paid off when he hauled up enough to take most of the slack off. He balanced himself, like a snake, and snatched at the key, this time managing to knock it loose. The valuable piece of silver plummeted to the forest floor.
This time he joined in with the celebratory whoops from below, even punching the air, but it was short-lived – something rattled behind him, and it was too late by the time he realised he’d let go of the chain. The weight of it dragged him from the branch, and he barely had time to cry out before crashing to the frozen ground below.
The impact knocked the wind from his lungs, and he didn’t have time to register the pain as he gagged for breath, coughing and retching, his parched tongue out in his desperation to take some air in.
“Are you all right, Mister?” the girl shouted through his fog. “Number Seven!”
Her voice pulled him out of his panic and anchored him to the moment, the transition settling enough to enable him to draw in life-enhancing breaths.
“Yeah…ok,” he choked out. “I… I’m…” He took a few moments to gather himself and shake off the dizziness. “I’m ok.” But even with his lungs back in working order, his body burned from exhaustion – the impact had knocked every ounce of energy out of him.
“Control your breathing. Count to ten.”
He shook his head, almost smiling. If I count to one hundred, I’ll still be fucked. When he’d caught his breath and checked that his limbs were in relatively good working order, he tried the key in the lock. It went in but wouldn’t turn. “Fuck! It’s the wrong key.”
“What? But…” She frowned, her gaze darting from left to right, obviously working it through her head. “Give it here. Let me try it in mine.”
He looked at the key, then at her, then back at the key. No, there had to be a way. He tried the lock again, even angling the key, but it didn’t work. Fuck!
“Come on, Seven, throw it to me.”
He rubbed at the pain in his back. “And what if it works for you? How do I know you’ll stay?”
“Are you serious, Mister? What am I gonna do, run through the fucking forest on my own?”
“Hey, I didn’t—”
“Give me the key and I can help find yours.”
He sighed and tossed the key over. The sound of her manacle unlocking was unmistakable and ground into his head. What if she takes off? What the hell am I going to do here on my own?
The girl removed the manacle and scrambled up with a yelp of joy, wiggling her foot with a childish delight, as if she’d never moved it before.
Then she stopped, like she realised she shouldn’t be celebrating in front of him. She was right – he was happy for her, but where did it leave him? Why should she be free and not him? And why had his key released her lock and not his? She walked over to him and looked around, scanning the ground and the branches. He’d already done so, and knew that without another key, it was useless – he wasn’t going anywhere.
“Please don’t leave me,” he said, averting his gaze from her nakedness. “There has to be another key around here somewhere. That one was clearly a test for us – some sort of task to complete.”
She looked around. “Maybe I should go get help?”
“Don’t be…naive. Whoever went to this much effort isn’t going to let us get up and walk out of here that easily. Take a look around, there has to be another key.”
She shrugged and scrambled around the nearby trees. All that surrounded them seemed to be untouched nature, with nothing out of place. He caught her glancing his way, her bottom lip turning white between her teeth. It didn’t look good. What was she thinking? Was she going to head off to look for help? Or maybe just run, and keep running until she found someone. What about him? Then she shook her head, as if forcing something out of it, and turned back to him.
“Listen, Seven, if you were supposed to get my key, then it seems logical that I’m supposed to find yours.”
His silent relief that she’d stayed was palpable. Best not to show it. Vulnerable enough being naked in front of each other. Naked and filthy, and starving. Damn, what he wouldn’t do to eat right now.
“Are you listening to me?” she snapped.
“Yes, of course. All we can do is search. You continue with the outer reaches and I’ll work around my tree.”
“But we’ve already searched. I mean, where else can it be?”
He was just about to answer along the lines of not knowing, when he noticed a patch of dirt near her tree – a different colour to the surface around it. “Over there, look.” He pointed. “There’s a bit of a mound there, different to the rest.”
She looked along his arm and finger and ran over. Using her fingers, she clawed away at the clay and dug into the earth, then squealed with delight when she retrieved a silver key.
“Yes!” he roared, tears of relief brimming in his eyes. “Quick, Eight, quick, bring it over.”
She sprinted over and unlocked the manacle around his ankle. He groaned when it fell off, grimacing at the sting from the flayed flesh where the steel had cut in.
However, he didn’t care. They were free from their shackles, and that’s what counted. Time to get out of this nightmare.
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