Exopod - Chapter 1
There was a damp coldness in the air. Grey water lapped between the marsh reeds. In the middle distance, a halo of mist blended the small lake and sky into one. A lifeless tree trunk left the water, twisted round and joined it again, like some great arched serpent frozen in eternity.
Not far from the muddy shore, a procession of drab brown water fowl left an undulating pattern of vees on the surface as they sped by on a very deliberate path to nowhere in particular.
An occasional bird's cry or beating of wings in the shrouded sky is all that disturbed the calm.
Somewhere in the long reeds, a shadow moved. Slowly, silently, rugged arms parted the thick vegetation. A rough, bearded face rose briefly from the rushes and disappeared again.
The air was heavy with moisture and the dank smell of waterlogged earth. A trio of web-footed birds changed direction and glided towards the shore, occasionally pecking just under the surface of the water and throwing silver pearls of water across their backs.
The world stopped.
And while it waited, a long, dark outstretched shape curved through the air without a sound. From amidst a mighty splash, a flurry of brown feathers lifted from the water.
One shape slapped the surface hard with its wings before rising and disappearing into the grey mist with a loud quack. Two others hung struggling, gripped by their necks in powerful hands.
A broken-toothed smile spread across the hunter's face as the birds' last twitches subsided. Clad only in mud, he waded back to firmer ground and proudly laid his prey beside a dry bundle and flint-tipped weapon.
The man shivered. He wiped the cold wet mud from his body and unwrapped the bundle of furs on the ground.
In turn, he took the pelts and attached them to his body with thick twine. Feeling a lot more comfortable, he lifted the two limp birds with one hand, his spear with the other, and set out across the lonely fenland towards higher ground.
As grass gave way to bracken, and bracken to bramble, his spear and muscular legs took him along a barely discernible path. In his mind, images of little smiling faces and a warm fire gave purpose to his every step.
The path was clearer now. Small trees formed a canopy on each side and the carpet of soft moss and pine needle gave a spring to his step.
A faint rustle in the thicket brought him to a sudden halt. He crouched and drew a long, slow breath. Laying the two birds at his feet, he moved his hand along the spear to find its balance point and gripped it tightly.
Another movement in the undergrowth betrayed the presence of a small horned creature grazing on some sweet roots. The hunter held his breath and waited for it to come closer.
It nibbled at the ground, lifting its head and chewing from side to side.
The hunter could see no reason why it suddenly startled. It was no fault of his. He could hear nothing else. The goat rushed towards him. As he stood up sharply and raised his spear, it skidded and made an acute turn. He charged after it. Branches brushed hard against his face and thorns tore his skin. This prize was his, he was not going to be cheated.
Finding its path blocked by denser undergrowth, the animal paused for a second and turned to face him again. Its eyes held terror like he had never seen in an animal. He launched his spear. The smooth shaft cut through the dry forest air and buried itself deep into the soft earth. He straightened up. Not only had he missed his target, the goat was nowhere to be seen. He crouched down and listened.
He raised himself slowly and stepped forward. Feeble rays of yellow sunlight illuminated the small clearing. He pulled his spear from the ground and looked around. Something was strange, unfamiliar. He did not know what was wrong.
He wiped the cold sweat on his forehead and blinked twice. A vertical wall of air in front of him rippled like a pool.
He could not understand what he was looking at. How could there be water here? How could it hang in mid-air - sideways? It was not a waterfall; it was not flowing. He looked past it. Trees, only trees. How?
From the centres of two concentric rings of ripples, two twig-like objects were suspended in mid-air wavering slightly. Had they been bull-rushes poking from the surface of a lake, the vision would have made more sense, but this pool was standing upright where a pool shouldn't be.
He edged closer to the apparition. As he stared, his mind wrestled with the incredulity of the paradox. For the first time, in his dry mouth, he tasted fear.
Raising his spear, he prodded and poked at the bulbous protrusions.
Now there were more of them. Five, six, seven ... reaching straight out from the ripples towards him, a blue light dancing on their surfaces.
Suddenly, the illusion before him exploded in a thrashing mass. Twisting and coiling around his body, he coughed blood as the agglomeration tightened about his body and lifted him from the ground. He ripped at the whipping black thongs feebly as they wrapped round his arms and legs. As they touched his bare skin, they stung like fire and his flesh swelled and suppurated. The grip tightened about his neck. His body spasmed.
Limp and still, he was lifted back into the vortex and was swallowed by nothingness.
The ripples in the air closed around him, diminished and disappeared.
The forest slept.
Exopod by Joe Gillespie
Available in Spring 2017 from Amazon and good book shops everywhere.