For the third and final excerpt from The Water Road, we return to Antrey. In this scene, she’s escaped Tolenor and made her way into the mountains south of the Water Road itself. For the first time since she was a child, she encounters Neldathi in the flesh.
She jumped across the stream and made her way to the rocks, which clustered near the upstream corner. She sat down, slipped the bottle from her satchel, and took a long drink. What was once snow was now ice-cold water. She gulped it eagerly, knowing that the pool would provide a means to refill it.
Just as she took the last drink of water, Antrey heard a noise behind her, downstream, that sounded like a violent displacement of limbs and leaves. She turned and saw an elk dive out of the trees on the other side of the stream. Its great antlers were a tangled mess of underbrush ripped from the forest as it ran. Her eyes met those of the elk, which had stopped at the edge of the stream, gasping hard, its breath frosting in the chilled air. After a moment’s pause, it dropped its head and began to lap water from the stream.
Antrey closed her eyes for just a moment and heard the elk make a terrible screaming sound, like it was crying out in pain. It made her shudder and sent a bolt of pain shooting down her own spine. She opened her eyes and saw the elk, reared up on its hind legs, thrashing its head back and forth. There was an arrow in its neck, just above the shoulder. Antrey had not heard anything to indicate that anyone was around.
A salvo of three more arrows thwacked into the elk’s flank. It screamed again and tried to move away, upstream back to the trees, but it took only a few faltering steps before it collapsed in the snow. As it gasped for air, the white ground turned red with blood. The beast was trying desperately to live or calling out to die. Antrey wasn’t sure which.
Antrey was so transfixed by the elk’s plight that she forgot for a moment that the arrows meant that, after all this time, she was no longer alone. She did not hear the further rustling of the trees, but did see first one, then two, then half a dozen Neldathi emerge from the forest and approach the elk.
They were tall, with just the faintest tint of blue in their white skin. Were they naked, they would nearly blend in with the snowy ground. Each wore multiple layers of animal skins that obscured, but could not hide, that they were strong, powerful men. All had long black hair, which grew from a fringe of scalp at the back of their heads. It twisted in braids that ran halfway down their backs. About halfway down, the black color gave way to a pattern of red, black, and white strips. Three of them carried ornately carved bows, while two others had similar devices slung over their backs. They either had not noticed her or ignored her and approached the elk.
The other Neldathi, Antrey had thought initially, was unarmed. The tallest of the group, he strode towards the elk, reached inside the layers of his clothing, and pulled out a knife, bigger than anything Antrey had ever seen that was not called a sword. In a maneuver that showed years of practice and an abundance of skill, he knelt beside the elk, placed the great blade to its throat, and drew the knife across, ending the beast’s misery. All the while, he said something quickly under his breath.
Antrey had never seen anything like it in her life. When she was young she had never experienced a hunt or a kill, only the end result. The sight of such a brutally efficient killing shook her to the core. The bottle slipped from her hands and splashed into the pool underneath her. At the noise, the hunters turned and saw her.
The one that had killed the elk crouched motionless next to it, knife still in hand. The others moved away from the kill and sprang across the stream swiftly, switching their focus. They began to converge on her slowly, two from upstream in the direction of the elk, two others having circled around to come at her from the other direction. She lost sight of the fifth, but within moments she knew she was surrounded. Before it ever occurred to her to try and get away, five well-armed and curious Neldathi had blocked any means of escape.
She ignored the ones on her side of the stream and tried to make eye contact with the one by the elk. He appeared to be the leader of this hunting party or its senior member. Regardless, he was someone who commanded respect. Maybe by making contact directly with him she might open some line of communication, although she had no idea how to do that. At the very least, maybe he would put the knife away. The way he crouched there, casually displaying the bloody blade, made her think he meant to tell her that it might be her neck that was sliced open next.
As the others inched slowly closer to her, Antrey could feel their eyes on her, covering every inch of her with their eyes. One of them was close enough that Antrey thought he might have sniffed her, but she quickly dismissed that as a work of her imagination. That was something the barbarian Neldathi of the Altrerian culture would do, but made little sense upon rational examination. They would use every sense available to them, just as she would.
With each footstep that brought them closer, the snow crunched underfoot. Antrey’s heart raced the closer they came. It was calmed only somewhat when the one across the stream stood up, wiped the bloody blade of his knife on the elk’s carcass, and returned it to its sheath. When she heard a voice behind her, she nearly exploded.
As I said, that’s it for the excerpts from The Water Road. That’s because it finally comes out next Wednesday! After all these weeks of reading about it, isn’t it time you just read it for yourself? Head over to Amazon and pre-order your copy today (only 99 cents until the end of the month!).