Click here to continue on and read Part 2 of Nicole Tanquary’s novella Rabbitheart
“Come ON!” came a shout. Gut’s voice, deep and growly. Wait, what? Was it morning already?
Gut banged a sheet of dented metal with a mallet, filling our heads with dull ringing sounds. “Come on, get up, the vie are asleep, its almost dawn out there! We’re behind in our quota!”
Gut said that every morning. No one ever told us what our quota was; no matter how much Ventine we mined from the blue hills, we would always be behind. Damn sorcerers couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
“Move it, Rabbitheart!” I had been slow to get out of bed, and now Gut’s mallet was by my ear, going BANG! BANG! BANG! like a hammer against a steel wall. I floundered, almost falling off of the mattress before I could catch myself.
“Yessir!” I squeaked, making a mad dash for the closet where the rest of my thirty-or-so roommates were swarming. You had to get there fast, or you’d end up with ratty old pants and a shirt with holes, both of which probably hadn’t been washed in months.
Back at home, my little brother had problems believing that girls ever did things like sweat and fart and go to the bathroom. If I could have found my way back there, I would have brought along one of our uniforms and thrust it under his nose for evidence. You could smell the girls before me that had worked inside the suits. The stench was soaked so deep into the denim that one whiff would be all it would take to change his mind.
If I could have gone home, I would have, but I couldn’t. I had been working around the Ventine too long. I couldn’t remember the way back.
You know how Mothers always tell their children to stay close, and never go wandering around in the woods? Well, this was why. You would have gotten snapped up by Madame Salinium and her blue-hills mining operation. Wish I had listened.
We workers called the boss Mama Salli behind her back, since ‘Madame Salinium’ was kind of a mouthful. She was a short, straight woman with a yellowish face that was sharp, especially in the nose. The thing you noticed most about her, though, were her fingernails. They were very long, and very clean. She had never worked in her own mines a day in her life. Then again, she didn’t need to. She’d gotten all the miners and smiths and market caravans she needed to make a nice little profit for herself.
Back at home, I used to be a lot more … I’ll say ‘brash’, though that’s a soft way of putting it. I would laugh at my Mother’s warnings about the bad things that lived in the woods. I thought that she was being superstitious, and stupid. To prove it, I went on a walk one day when the sun was low in the sky, and found this stream that I had never seen before. I remember that it had this blue color, deep beneath the water. It was like the color of a summer sky had been rubbed into there, even though that day the sky was cloudy, no blue to be seen. It was so beautiful. I followed the stream until my shoes were muddy and brown, but I didn’t even notice.
I DID notice when the stone turned a blue-gray color beneath my feet. A bluish dust had been left there, in little, silty piles. Entranced, I left the stream and went into the deep woods, following the trail of dust. I didn’t even think about it. I couldn’t feel my feet moving.
Until, of course, one of the workers gave a shout. I had wandered right into Mama Salli’s miners’ camp, see. I know now that Mama Salli had some of her people sprinkle trails of Ventine into the streams that led to villages and things, to draw people into the camps. Ventine, it kind of hypnotizes you, makes you easy to catch. Then she makes you work your hands raw in the mines. A vicious woman, Mama Salli.
I was maybe ten years old when I got caught. I was scared. I wanted to go back home, back to where I knew Mother would be waiting with her wooden spoon, ready to give me a whack on the head. But I didn’t care. I wanted that whack. Because then, at least I was safe in the house.
One of Mama Salli’s supervisors came for me, grabbing my wrist and pulling me into Mama Salli’s office, in her house at the edge of the miner’s barracks. At three stories tall, it towers over our little shacks. The supervisor, and the house, both of them scared me right out of my skin.
I screamed and I tried to get away. But the supervisors Mama Salli made didn’t take no for an answer, and he just wouldn’t let go. His claws cut into my skin to hold me to him; I have the scars on my wrist to prove it.
Then Mama Salli got me into a suit and a roommate group, full of girls and women at least six years older than me. She told some of her supervisors to watch me, to make sure that I worked and didn’t try to get away. The supervisors stayed close to me for about a month. After that, the Ventine exposure dissolved my memory enough that I forgot the way home, and couldn’t leave anymore.
Even so, I never made any trouble, or tried to get away. I was terrified of the supervisors, their fierce eyes and their sharp teeth and their hunted, wolf-like faces. They were too big, too quick. And there had been rumors in my group that they would eat miners who tried make a run for it. Worse, they’d make a game of it; they’d group together into a pack and then hunt the miner down.
In the early days in the camps, my dreams would chew over the rumors and make all kinds of horrible nightmares out of them. Like getting my limbs pulled apart and the blood spattering everywhere, and the supervisors all howling and laughing at me.
I didn’t want to take that kind of chance. Not even freedom was worth that.
All kinds of thoughts played through my head that day as I wriggled through the other girls and snatched a uniform that was my size from the top of a pile. I pulled it on with a grimace. It was cold with old, sour sweat. But at least it wasn’t as dirty as some of the others.
We got into line, and Gut marched us out of the room, into a pale, gray-lit morning. I watched as supervisors emptied out the other rooms and started handing out the workers’ breakfasts of bread and stale cheese, with a sliver of apple on top. But Gut liked to do role-call before giving us our food. I squirmed in my spot, throwing looks over my shoulder. I could see that Spiderhands had gotten his food already. His room was next to mine, and I watched him stand with the other boys, munching on his breakfast.
He saw me looking, and grinned, giving me a nice view of his chewed-up food.
“Rabbitheart?” called Gut, his piggy eyes searching the women for my face.
“Here,” I said. I wanted to spit at him. I hated that name, my work name, the one that Mama Salli had given me to use with my fellow miners. Mama Salli thought of me as a scared little girl; apparently, none of my other features were impressive enough to make a name out of. So Rabbitheart I was – Rab to my friends. I couldn’t remember my old name anymore. Working with the Ventine, you lose anything that you don’t use daily.
At last, role call was over, and our food was passed out. We were allowed twenty minutes to eat, drink from the communal fountain at the center of camp, and go to the bathroom in one of the seven outhouses that lay downwind from the shacks before we had to hurry off to the blue hills and begin our day’s work. Spiderhands trotted over, sucking his long, callused fingers. “Mm mm mhm! Wasn’t that delicious, Rab? It’s nice how they give us enough time to enjoy our meals, isn’t it?”
“Shut up,” I muttered, eating the bread as fast as I could shove it down my throat. I had to pee, and you needed to get to the outhouses early, or you’d still be waiting in line when it was time to go.
Spiderhands laughed. Then he held out a hand. A little apple slice was curled against the inside of his palm. “Saved this for you,” he said. I hesitated before taking it. I had gotten a cold last week, and Spiderhands was certain that it had been because I had given him my apple piece a few times in the past month, and I hadn’t gotten enough vitamins. He was trying to make up for it, I guess.
Throughout the camp center, miners were mingling with one another, although no one was saying much. Most of us were too tired to make conversation. I could see one or two laying down in the dirt, catching a ten-minute nap before we headed out. You needed every minute of sleep you could get, see. If you missed a Ventine gem while on the job, the supervisors would chew you out … literally. I saw Gut bite through a woman’s hand once because she hadn’t spotted signs that indicated a Ventine vein a few feet from where she had been working. ‘Sides that, they don’t like slackers.
I was eating the apple slowly, trying to pick out the dusty sweetness from the sawdust-taste of my bread, when she came out. One. The star of our camp, and my personal enemy.
One was walking with Mama Salli, of course, laughing a little at some joke that had passed between them. Mama Salli’s face always softened over when she looked at One. So did the boy miners’ faces, for that matter. I stole a secret, hateful look at her; like the rest of us girls, One’s hair was pulled back in a ponytail tight to her scalp. Her hands were long, her stature short, her gait easy and rolling. Like us, she wore no shoes. Her nails were cracked and dirty. But as a stab of sunshine fell across the camp, One lit up like a glittering rainbow star.
We sometimes found other kinds of gemstones in the blue hill mines, sitting in little piles on top of the Ventine, like offerings from the earth. Mama Salli considered them worthless. We were allowed to keep them, if we wanted. We could have probably sold them for a profit, if we had been allowed to leave the camp and talk with the merchants that took the Ventine products far away from here, but Mama Salli left us no time to do that kind of thing.
One liked to make jewelry out of the gems she found. She must have had connections in the smiths’ camp, where they polished up the Ventine and put it in amulets and things. Her jewelry added a lot to her beauty – she knew how to place the jewels just-so to make her blue eye pop out, and make her skin look soft and lovely. So when she wore her quartz, amethysts, or whatever, she drew in all the most handsome miner boys. When Mama Salli was not around, they followed her in gaggles, hooting and fighting each other to get her attention. It was disgusting.
One got her name from being Madame Salinium’s favorite, her number-one girl. Also, because she only had one eye. It scared me the first time I saw her; there was nothing but a sewed-up line where her right eye was supposed to be. Usually she covered it with a bandage, a pretty, decorated one with sequins and scarlet thread. But that first day, she hadn’t been wearing it. Funny, I could never remember the way home, but I could remember the nightmares she gave me in the early days …
Some of the girls in my group whispered that when One was a baby, a vie cut out her eye and ate it, and gave her a finding-spell in return for the meal. It explained why One had such a knack for getting her Ventine finds; I heard her say once that she could smell it. “It has a smell like rotten cherries,” she told Mama Salli. “It’s very noticeable. I can’t believe that the other miners don’t pick it out!”
Yeah, she loves to make us look bad compared to her. And Mama Salli just laps it all up.
That day, One had pink and green stones dangling from her ears, pierced through her nose, decorating her toes and fingers in rings of brilliance. What conversations had been taking place slowed to a stop. Everyone’s eyes followed One’s and Mama Salli’s progress through the center of the camp. Supervisors were trailing behind them, their wolf-eyes darting to anything that moved. Mama Salli was never really alone, see. She was of the ‘better safe than sorry’ philosophy.
Spiderhands noticed my angry glaring, then followed my gaze to where One was strolling with Mama Salli. He rolled his eyes. “Oh, Rab, not this again. When are you going to learn? Some people are just luckier than others.”
“I bet she cheats,” I hissed. “I bet she goes to the mines at night, when she’s not supposed to. How else does she find so many?” I tore into the last of my bread with my teeth, though looking at One made me feel sick.
Spiderhands stared at me. Then he said, incredulously, “You think she cheats? Rab, listen to yourself. You sound as if you and One are in a fight to the death or something.”
“Yeah, well, maybe we are.” Finishing the last of my bread, I started marching towards the fountain where we got our drinking water from. Then I paused. An idea had just popped into my head. “Hey … what if we caught her in the act?” Spiderhands let out a groan, but I plowed on ahead with my idea. “What if we caught her breaking the rules, and going at night to look for Ventine stones? Mama Salli would be furious at her. She’d take away all her special privileges. Plus, she’d probably give us a whole month off from work! Maybe she could even let us go home! Maybe-”
We were almost to the fountain, a stone-lined pool with a spurt of water shooting up in the center. Other miners were squatting down beside it for their morning drink.
Spiderhands grabbed my shoulder and whipped me around. I sucked in a breath through my teeth. I never saw him look so mad.
“Are you insane? We would get caught by the vie! Night time is when they wake up and go hunting, remember? Plus, if you’re wrong – and I know you’re wrong – and Mama Salli catches us, we’re dead. Worse than dead. We’ll be tied to a tree and left for the vie to find. Either way, we die.” I pushed his hand away. He was making me angry. Didn’t he know that this wasn’t about One, so much as it was about proving to myself that I was no Rabbitheart, but something better? Something braver?
No. Of course he didn’t realize. He was a boy … boys don’t realize those kinds of things.
“If you’re chicken, you don’t have to come. I’ll go on my own and have the pleasure of catching One all by myself.” I bent over the fountain, cupping my hands underwater until they were filled, then raised the water to my lips. The fountain water was pleasantly cold, from a mountain stream somewhere. It washed away the bad taste that lingered on the back of my tongue.
I could feel Spiderhands’s eyes on my back, watching me drink. Then I heard him moan. “You’re crazy, Rab. You really are.”
I unbent myself, smiling at him. For a moment I imagined leaning forward and giving him a little kiss on the cheek. I didn’t, of course. That sort of thing wasn’t allowed among the miners. “Thanks. You’re a good friend, you know that?”
Spiderhands didn’t answer. Instead, he closed his eyes and shook his head, rubbing his right temple. He was already regretting his decision. Too bad, I thought. I wasn’t going to let him back out on this one.
“See you at the mine,” I said, then left for the outhouses. There was only a little time left before a supervisor started ringing the bells. And I still had to pee.
Once we got to the mines, deep in vie territory, the day passed even more slowly than usual. I started digging just as a globby orange sun separated itself from the tree line. It was a pretty place, when you weren’t thinking about the manual labor part. There were seven hills altogether, round, thick mounds with trees knotted to their sides. The soil in them was this blue-black color, a rich kind of earth. Beneath that, when you started digging into the rock layers that made up the hill’s bones, the rock turned a dull, very subtle cobalt. Then it became the special Ventine color, if you were lucky.
Hills number five, six and seven remained largely untouched. However, Mama Salli’s operation had been chewing up the base of four, and had completely demolished all but the deepest parts of one, two and three. Basically, you picked a spot, dug down with your shovel, placing any loose gems in the burlap sack the supervisors handed you at the start of the work day. If you didn’t find anything promising, you moved on. If you found the beginnings of a vein, you called other miners over and started working at it.
Much of the hills were honeycombed with tunnels, where people had dug around in the rock layers. Some of the tunnels weren’t so great. Me and Spiderhands got trapped in a cave-in, once. But Jabber – one of the nicer supervisors, though, come to think of it, none of them were really nice – had pressed his ear to the rock, and heard us shouting and banging away down there, and had been able to get us out in time. Supervisors were like that. Half of their actions came directly from their instinct.
That morning, I hacked away at a somewhat-private spot, digging out spadeful after spadeful of rich blue-hills earth. Sometimes I would crouch down and rummage through the wreckage for Ventine shards. Ventine is this shade of blue, smooth as glass, somewhat soapy in texture, and very, very bright. Or, at least, it would be very bright … what with the coloring in the soil, it’s harder to spot than other kinds of crystals, because everything is so blue.
That morning I was lucky. I found three gems before noon, huddled together like the survivors of a natural disaster. I stowed them in the burlap sack and felt myself smiling. Those three little shards counted for a lot. See, Ventine is the chosen stone magic-makers use in their staffs, or amulets, or whatever. All the rich old sorcerers in the cities pay a lot for it.
We had to watch out for the vie, though. To them, the blue hills was a special place. Sacred.
They probably would have attacked us by then, but the sunlight burned their skin. And we never stuck around after dark.
Spiderhands found me a few hours after noon, and we continued digging together at the spot where I had found the shards, though the texture was a little too spongy and the color not right for veins. “Meet me at the fountain, after everyone in your room is asleep,” I told him. I couldn’t tell if he had heard me or not, so I just kept on working. My hands were slippery on the shovel handle. My knees, palms and face were blackened with dirt. But I had gotten used to the lifestyle.
The trees trembled above us in a breath of wind, their leaves hissing and rattling like snakes.
At the noise, I glanced up, and saw a pair of eyes hidden in the shadowy shape of a bush. For a moment I saw them perfectly; they were narrowed, thoughtful, and had black centers. The irises were a deep blue color … the same color that was in Ventine.
I screamed and dropped my shovel. Spiderhands jumped and dropped his. A supervisor appeared beside me, so close that I could smell his stinking breath. “What’s wrong?” he asked. I pointed a shaking finger at the bush. The eyes were gone – but they had been there. I was sure of it.
“There were eyes in there,” I said, swallowing to clear a lump from my throat. Without another word, the supervisor pushed me aside and took off into the trees, snarling and clawing foliage apart with his long nails. Meanwhile, I picked up my shovel and turned it about in my hands, my eyes darting everywhere at once. Spiderhands just stood there staring at me.
The supervisor returned ten minutes later, looking frustrated. “I didn’t smell anything,” he snapped. “Next time, keep your hallucinations to yourself, okay? We don’t want to go scaring the other miners over nothing.”
“Yessir,” I said. I could hear him muttering as he stalked away.
“What happened? Anything serious?” said a voice from above, as soon as the supervisor was gone. I looked up at the hillside and saw One, poised lightly on the edge of an overhang, her pink-green stones alight against the blue. My face burned under her one blue eye.
“Oh, nothing, nothing. Rab here thought she saw something … probably just a squirrel, or a raccoon.” I turned a furious stare on Spiderhands, who stood there with his long hands folded behind his back and a grin plastered across his face.
One raised her eyebrows at him. “Oh. Okay. Just wondering.” Go away, go away, I chanted inside my head, but to my horror she jumped over the overhang and landed lightly beside us, graceful as a mountain cat. “Nice find you got there,” she said, pointing with her chin at my burlap sack, with the three gems stashed inside.
“Thanks,” I muttered. I didn’t look at her as I spoke.
One walked a few paces away from where our shovels had broken the earth, inhaling a breath through her nose. Then she lifted her foot and marked an X with her toes. “There’s a nice vein of Ventine right under here,” she said. “If you dig a few feet away from where you are, you’ll find it.” She gave me a smile I did not return.
“Great, we’ll start working on that right away,” said Spiderhands, slinging his shovel over one shoulder and returning a smile strong enough for the two of us. One gave us a small salute with her hand as she walked away.
“Stop acting like an idiot,” I hissed at Spiderhands, as soon as One was out of earshot. He rolled his eyes, moving to the spot where One had traced the X.
“Will you quit acting so jealous? She seems pretty nice.”
“You’re just saying that because you think she’s pretty,” I said, my hands clenching on the shovel handle. “I bet you anything that she’ll leave long enough that we dig down to the vein, then come waltzing up and start claiming all the Ventine for herself. Or, if we don’t get it all done today, she’ll come in the night and clean it out.” Spiderhands dug his shovel into the earth, ripping out a spadeful and tossing it away from the other holes where miners were working. His face was hard. “Oh, so now I get the silent treatment? And let me guess; you’re backing out of coming here tonight with me.”
“No,” he said. Dirt was smeared across his face, mixing with the sweat into muddy blue-black streaks. “I just think you’re making a mistake.”
I opened my mouth and closed it again. You’re probably right, I wanted to say. But I don’t care.
Instead of saying something, I kept silent and helped him tear up the hillside, shoveling out more and more pieces of earth until we began to see a bluish glow.
By the time we got back to the camp, my hands and feet were numb, and every inch of exposed skin on my body was caked in dirt. Outside, the late evening sky was beginning to take on a dusky tint. I followed my roommates over to where Gut was waiting, and we started with the evening routine; first we were paraded to the stream, where we stripped off our uniforms and washed off as much dirt from our arms and legs as we could in the five minutes we were allowed. Gut handed out our set of evening clothes, thin, flimsy shirts and pants that I half-suspected were infested with mites. Then we marched back to the camp, where we received our supper rations, and twenty minutes later, were bustled back into our shacks to rest up for the next day of work.
I moved automatically through it all, my thoughts heated with daydreams of catching One stealing extra Ventine. I couldn’t taste my food; I couldn’t feel the water as I washed; and finally, curled on top of my thin cotton mattress, I couldn’t sleep.
Most of the others, on the other hand, were asleep the moment their heads hit the pillow. Gut paced around our beds, muttering to himself as he did a roll call in his head, making sure that no one had tried to slip away while we were bathing. I shut my eyes and forced myself to take deep, even breaths. I could hear the snufflings of the women around me, and Gut’s heavy footfalls on the floor.
At last, satisfied that everything was in order, Gut left and closed the door behind him, shutting us in darkness. I felt my hands grab the blanket and begin to twist it. I heard a seam rip before I finally got control over myself.
Praying that the time was right, I pulled on a uniform that I had hidden under my pillow over my night clothes, got out of bed, and went to the door. I paused for a moment to see if anyone stirred; no one did. I let my breath out in a single whispery sigh. Then I opened the door and slipped into the night.
I froze, terrified for a moment. I hadn’t been out after the sun set since coming to Mama Salli’s camp … and who knew how long that had been, really? I heard that Ventine slows the aging process sometimes, so how I looked when I saw my reflection in water was no way to judge how many years it had been since I was stolen away. In any case, I had forgotten how thick, how cold the nighttime could be. The darkness circled around my throat, constricting it tighter and tighter until I could barely breathe. The shapes I knew so well in daylight were mutated by dancing blackness that seemed ready to reach out and grab me.
I pressed my back against the wall, shivering, my arms riddled with goosebumps. Gut had gone to give his evening report to Mama Salli, as had the other supervisors. I didn’t have long before they came back. Reminding myself of this, I forced myself to cross the camp to the fountain. I circled around its base, turning this way and that to search for a human-shaped shadow. He didn’t come, a voice in my head whispered. He chickened out, he didn’t come, he doesn’t care …
A hand settled on my shoulder. I let out a yip. I whirled around to find Spiderhands standing there, looking grim.
“You still want to do this?” he asked. My heart was going so fast that I couldn’t tell one beat from the next. My ears ached as blood pumped through them.
“Let’s go,” I said.
Shoulders hunched and feet soundless on the ground, we made our way through the camp to where the path to the blue hills opened up. The path itself wound through a stretch of forest. Passing through it, the shadows here seemed even thicker, almost alive with the movements of the trees.
I broke into a jog. Spiderhands kept pace with me, though I could only just see his faint, grayish outline against the dark. The grass had been worn away by thousands of miners’ footsteps over the years, but I knew from memory when to swerve and jump to avoid gnarled roots that had tripped me up many an early morning.
All the while, I kept my ears pricked for the sound of someone – anything from vie to supervisor – following us. The air was windy at first, and it was impossible to separate the sounds of forest life and the shaking of the branches from my own panting. But as we neared the blue hills, the wind died down, until even its faint whisper had gone silent. Nothing besides us seemed to move.
Reaching the foot of hill number one, we stopped and panted for a while, headaches pulsing in our temples from lack of food. The holes in the hillsides were like a thousand gaping wounds in the earth, a thousand mouths opened in a black scream. I had never seen this place at night; and, staring at the hills, I realized that I never wanted to again.
Lowering my eyes to the dirt beneath my feet, I led the way around hill number three, to the hole that Spiderhands and I had worked on that afternoon. It turned out that One had been right about the vein – we had gotten a good ten gems-worth of Ventine before it was time to pack up and head back. Peering in, I could see the remaining Ventine glowing still, filling the hole with deep azure light.
“If she comes to the hills at all, One is bound to come to this spot,” I whispered to Spiderhands. “It’s easy picking, since we did all the hard work during the day.”
Spiderhands closed his eyes, letting out a sigh. “Fine. Whatever. I just have one question for you; when One never shows up, will you finally admit that this was a stupid idea?”
I pursed my lips. Was Spiderhands going to whine about this the whole time we were out here? I was beginning to regret inviting him to come with me in the first place. Then again, I didn’t like the idea of being alone at night in the hills, when the vie were supposed to be up and about … I felt sweat beading on the back of my neck, beneath the collar of my uniform. “Fine, then. How about we hide in a bush or something?” I jerked my chin at a shadow in the darkness that was approximately the right size and shape to be a bush. It gave a leafy shiver in the last echoes of the wind.
Spiderhands glanced at the shadow, then started to laugh. “Hey. Isn’t that the same bush where you thought you saw those eyes?” I glared at him, and he nodded to himself, still laughing. “What was that, anyway? ‘Oh, Mr. Supervisor, come quick! I think I’m being watched!’” He imitated a girly shriek, then laughed harder than ever, until he had to clap one hand over his mouth to keep in the noise.
“Shut up, would you? Let’s find somewhere else to hide,” I snapped, turning away and blushing into the darkness.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bluish glimmer, and out of instinct turned back towards the bush.
The eyes were back. Except, in the absence of light, they were shining much brighter than any eyes had a right to shine.
For a moment I was frozen. Spiderhands quit laughing at the look on my face, easy to read even in the dark. “Rab? What’s wrong?”
The eyes seemed to have realized that I had spotted them. The shivering of the bush grew more pronounced, as the figure behind it unbent himself, standing like a vibrant pillar of light amid the trees. A belt that looked more like a vine encircled his waist, from which pants, stitched from animal skin, hung. His chest was bare, all muscle and lean strength. He had blue-black hair that hung past his shoulders, and a sharpness in his features that was vie-like, certainly; but I decided that he looked more human than I was comfortable with.
Spiderhands followed my gaze, then pressed against my shoulder, cold and still as stone. A part of me wanted to say, “Told you I wasn’t crazy,” but my throat had closed up, and I couldn’t get any air into my lungs.
A savage grin twisted the vie’s mouth. “Got you,” I heard him say. I watched him raise one finger in the air, and give it a twirling motion. I didn’t need to be vie to know what that meant; he was signaling to others to come forward and surround us.
A thousand nightmares passed through my inner eye … they would catch us, they would fry us, they would gnaw the meat from our bones and drink our blood like wine. I knew in that instant that I didn’t care what happened to me, I didn’t care how I died, as long as I wasn’t eaten by one of them.
“VIE!” I screeched, snatching Spiderhand’s hand and pulling him with me as I broke into a sprint. That one word was all I needed to say to get him moving. I squeezed his hand like a vice as we ran.
A dozen light footfalls came at us from all directions, and I released Spiderhands in order to push my way through tangles of branches and vine. We hurtled over trees, roots, and muddy stretches of grass faster than the eye could follow. Silhouettes passed in blurs of black. Birds hooted down at us as we darted past. My lungs pushed and pulled air through my mouth, but it seemed as I could never get enough.
A hand brushed my shoulder, but I twisted and spun away. Then I was running again, hardly aware of my feet hitting the ground. It felt almost like I was weightless, flying. The only solid thing I could see was Spiderhands, who on his long legs had pulled ahead of me. The back of his head and his shoulders slid in and out of my vision as we slipped between the trees.
“Cliff ahead!” he shouted. I faltered for a moment before getting a hold on myself. Splattering at the bottom of some cliff was better than being caught by the vie. Anything was better than that.
“Jump!” I shouted back.
Spiderhands must have agreed with my unspoken logic, because a moment later I saw him disappear, his clothes flapping as he fell.
“Woah!” one of the vie behind us shouted. The voice seemed so close that its speaker could have been shouting right into my ear. Panicking that I would not make it, I put on an extra burst of speed, my heart a living, liquid pain in my chest. At that moment I could not see, or hear, or feel. I smelled the forest, though; I smelled the damp, rotting things beneath the logs, and the green that clung to the sides of trees. It occurred to me that I was smelling the vie themselves. They smelled exactly like the forest. That must have been why the supervisor hadn’t sniffed out the one in the bush.
But why had that vie been out during the day? Wasn’t the sunlight supposed to burn them? Had they heard me talking to Spiderhands … had they known we were coming, then, and set a trap? The idea made me feel sick, and I pushed it away, letting it fall behind me as I sprinted on.
“Someone get her before she jumps!” a voice snapped. The trees thinned out all of a sudden, and my feet pounded on thin, rock-strewn grass.
I found the edge of the cliff, and leaped. I saw a ravine open below me. Trees whispered against the sides of the rock, and a stream cut through them in a ribbon of black, crystal-soft in the moonlight. I saw Spiderhands, too. Somehow he had gotten a hold on the cliff side, and was scrambling nimbly down the sheer rock. He was a good climber, I knew that from the days we had mined together. That was the real reason Mama Salli had given him that name – his long fingers could find purchase on anything, it seemed like.
I wasn’t so lucky with climbing ability. But at least Spiderhands would survive, right?
A pair of hands encircled my waist, then locked together above my stomach. I folded in two for a moment, the air whooshing out of me, as the one who had caught me cursed and struggled to keep the momentum from toppling us both over the edge.
For a moment I lost my mind. I screamed in fear – absolute, mindless terror, the kind that could make a mother tear her child in two – and tore at the vie’s face with my dirty miner-nails until I drew blood. He took a step back from the cliff, then another. “Would you calm down? We’re not going to hurt you!” he snapped. I felt some of his blue-black hair get caught between my fingers, and I gave them a yank, until the strands broke away in my hand. “OW!” he shouted.
I went for his bare shoulder next, digging my teeth past the skin and into muscle and sinew. The taste of his vie blood, somehow sweet, filled my mouth.
“All right, THAT’S IT!” he shouted. A moment passed and I found his arm around my neck, his grip tightening until I could not breathe. I drove my elbow into his stomach, but he did not budge. I could tell that this was a hold he had used countless times – one that no one had ever broken out of.
A pair of vie came running out of the darkness, screeching to a halt when they saw me, legs kicking and arms flailing, locked in the death-grip. “The other one went over the edge. Someone’s going to have to get his body,” said my captor.
White dots pulsed and danced in the corners of my eyes. My arms floundered weakly, pulling at the vie’s arm with hands that suddenly felt delicate as sticks. My throat and lungs were sour with emptiness. And still more vie came running out from under the trees. Their silhouettes were getting blurrier.
“Hey, Tan, don’t kill the girl,” one of them said. “The vie said they wanted the two thieves alive.”
The vie … then these people weren’t … ?
My head ached, and all of a sudden the lights went out.
Click here to continue on and read Part 2 of Nicole Tanquary’s novella Rabbitheart
Nicole Tanquary is a young writer who is in love with fiction, especially “speculative” fiction; science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the various shades in between. Her most recent sales include a fantasy novelette, “Chasm,” to small e-publisher Darwin’s Evolutions, and a science fiction/horror story about zombies to Something Wicked Magazine. She lives in Syracuse, NY, and spends her days eating too much, exercising it off, drawing, painting, and, of course, writing.
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