Last month we published Gallow: The Crimson Shield, and have been sharing some of Nathan Hawke’s short stories with you. Here we have an extract from Gallow: Cold Redemption, the second in the series which is out next week, and if you’ve missed the other brilliant short stories so far you can catch up here. Enjoy!
8 – The Crackmarsh
Location – The Crackmarsh
Reddic ran fast through the cold muddy water-meadows of the Crackmarsh. The sunlight was fading. His lungs burned, and his legs too, but he ran anyway, because no amount of pain was worse than stopping, not with what was following him. He’d come into the swamp with an axe on his hip and a shield on his arm and two other men he barely knew. All those were gone now. The ghuldogs were all that was left.
He reached a small island, a low hump of sodden earth rising out of the shallow water, a few sickly old trees clutching it tight among a withered web of roots. He stopped for a moment, had no choice any more, just couldn’t go on without a moment to rest, leaning against hard wet bark before his legs gave way beneath him, gasping. Back through the haze of rain he couldn’t see anything except dull grey water and the scattered ghost-shapes of other tree-crowned hummocks like watching sentinels. The ghuldogs were there, though, not far. Following him, steady and patient. Waiting for the dark. Waiting for his strength to fail. Waiting with their cold clammy limbs and their heartless rending claws and biting fangs.
A splash whipped his head round, desperate eyes searching for the source of the sound and finding nothing. He whimpered and pushed away from the trees, back into the water where he could run again. The clouds grew darker. The sun behind them sank further. The rain grew heavier. He was soaked. Freezing water ran against his skin and down into his sodden boots.
“Modris!” The wail burst out of him as his legs failed. He stumbled and slip-sprawled into the water. They were behind him, close, and they’d eat him if they caught him, and so he forced himself onto his hands and knees and looked up. Somewhere there had to be strength left in him.
Shapes moved through the haze. Bent and hunched. Two, then three, then half a dozen. They came slowly, sniffing him out. They fanned around him and he knew this was the end. He had nothing left. When he tried to stand, he couldn’t. On his hands and knees he watched them and wept his misery out. The ghuldogs sniffed closer. Cautious now that he wished they’d simply take him and be done with it. The closest of them stopped a stone’s throw away, near enough that he could see it clearly through the rain. The relic of a man, sallow and gaunt, but with the head of a savage wolf, patches of mangy fur clinging to its skull, eyes burning red, fangs bared, saliva dripping from its jaws into the swamp. It took a pace closer and then another, each step slow and delicate and precise. Stalking him, though the time for stalking was long past.
Reddic closed his eyes. He fingered the sign of Modris the Protector hung on a loop of leather around his neck. Begging the god of the Marroc to save him, though there was clearly no salvation to be had. A haunting hooting cry rang through the wind and the rain. Something between the howl of a wolf and an anguished cry of despair. He waited for the end.
A hand took his shoulder. He flinched and whimpered and screwed up his eyes, but the hand was just a hand, no talons, no fangs, and when he opened his eyes and looked up it was a man standing over him. A hard-faced Marroc man with mail and a spear and when Reddic rose shaking to his feet, he saw that the man wasn’t alone, that there were a dozen more all in a cautious circle together. The ghuldogs were still there as well, shapes in the rain-haze, watching.
The soldier helped him to his feet.
“I was looking to find Valaric’s men.” Reddic couldn’t keep the quaver out of his voice. “I want to fight.”
There and then he didn’t sound much like the man who’d picked up his axe and left his home to join the last free Marroc in their stand against the forkbeards, but the soldier only nodded. There might even have been a hint of a grim smile. “Well, you found us. Welcome to the Crackmarsh, Marroc.”