Novashanktisk lay before them as they came down the hill and into the city streets; Anna, her looming captor and the twelve or so other blokes trailing behind.
From the top of the hill, she had seen small fires in the distance. The chilly night air reminded her that it must be getting close to September. Not many days left before the cold of winter would once again take the tribe south from here on their annual pilgrimage to warmer lands. If she could delay this group for a few days, the tribe might be gone by the time they reached the tents.
“Get moving!” he snapped and kicked her hard in the leg. She winced in pain as the man behind her yanked the rope attached to the leather collar around her neck to keep her from falling; “and keep real quiet or you might not wake up next time I have to slug ya!”
“It doesn’t have to be like this. Just tell me what you’re after!” she said, spitting on the ground and wiping her mouth with her arm - “We live in peace here..”
“Righht!” the man said. “Peaceful mutants eh! You know what we want little girl! We want you to take us to where you camp!”, as Anna lurched forward again.
Anna thought back a fortnight. The last thing she remembered was foraging with Kesha. There were loads of berry bushes up on the bluffs overlooking Novashanktisk. Not only were the berries large and plentiful, but this time of year there were loads of rabbits up on the ridges and they were hoping to get a couple for a hot meal.
Always heavily armed, and dressed particularly heavy for today’s work; they’d spent the morning following rabbit tracks, berry picking and avoiding being pricked by the thorns. One had to be very careful when picking berries. Since the tribulation the bushes had become killing traps. The large blue-black “puss-berries”, as big as the flat of your hand were truly delicious; and would draw people to them. From time to time, they’d find strangers who were unaware of the danger and had gotten caught in the bushes.
First, they were immobilized by being stabbed or scraped by one or more of the thorns that oozed a pungent acidic paralytic. Once exposed to the sticky green puss-like substance, they’d become woozy and fall directly into the bush. When that happened, they’d be stabbed many hundreds, if not thousands of times and then, there was no saving them. After just a few minutes their breathing would stop; and their life would end; but that wasn’t the end for the bushes anyway. No, these bushes would then slowly excrete and completely cover the body in that sticky slime. Over a period of about three days, whatever remained would be dissolved. Sometimes they’d find them, eyes staring upward and dead. Other times, they’d already be covered in slime or partially dissolved. One would always know when there was a dead stranger in the bush because of the putrid smell emanating from that section. The berries near a “puss-bag” as they called it would never be picked and eaten. Those who did ended up with sever fever, sweats and nightmares; prior to their death; for few survived eating berries picked from closer than six feet beside a puss-bag.
The tribe had long ago learned the awful truth of the bushes and had devised methods to avoid the thorns and harvest the berries. Just three or four of them would feed many at the meal and today was a good day. Anna and Kesha had not only avoided being pricked, but were able to harvest four berries each for the tribe. There would be smiles at tonight’s meal!
After filling their berry bags with the large blue-black delicacies of the morning, they’d come across a small pond. Being overheated in their heavy puss-berry clothing; Kesha and Anna drew lots for who would get to cool down first. Kesha won the draw and immediately put Anna on watch while she stripped out of some of her clothing for a cooling drizzle in the shallow end of the pond. As was the custom before entering water, Kesha had thrown dirt, rocks and sand in anywhere she was not able to clearly see the bottom of the pond from where she intended to stand; ankle deep. This was to keep the water creatures in the deep end of the pond from creeping toward her as she bathed. One had to be cautious of water as there were many stories and examples told at mealtime of sorry people who had creeping water things crawl into them as they swam. No swimming in any water one could not see the bottom in. That was the rule of the tribe and it was a good one. Anna’s own father had been taken that way. He had fought hard against whatever had entered him; turning and then coming back to stasis over and over again until he finally was consumed by whatever was in his body. She never went into water from that time forward because of it; but had dealt with her fear and was able to bath from shore, not standing directly in it!
While Kesha covered herself in cooling water from cupped hands; Anna watched everything and listened intently. Like Kesha and her tribe; she was a part of the forest and knew it well. Her mother and father had seen to it that she learned; even when she was stubborn and refused to turn. She was a good watcher, even in her normal state of being and Kesha trusted her completely - so completely in fact that neither of them had seen or heard the ones on the other side of the pond; those who had crept up slowly and imperceptibly while Anna and Kesha were absorbed with the berries. Those who even now, were silently watching…
Anna sat on a rock near the water’s edge, her living staff at her side. This was a wooden staff on which both she and members of the tribe carved the memories of her existence. This was her staff, which she carried everywhere and which would be passed to the tribe after she died. On it was carved the day of her birth, her life thus far, her kills and wonders.
She kept an eye on the bottom and listened to every sound around them. She sensed something…but wasn’t able to find a sight, scent or sound to match her sense of caution. For some reason, her inner soul was churning some, and while she wasn’t uncomfortable, she didn’t like that little something nagging at her.
“I think we should go up that last ridge over there to see if we can run down some rabbits before we go back to camp.”, said Kesha, pointing to the right and up the ridge.
“Okay. Am I hot!” Anna shrugged removing one of her outer garments. “Hurry up Kesh! I’d like to get turned, get those rabbits and then back to camp before it’s time for the meal. That’s why we came up here in the first place.”
Kesha put her hand over her eyes to shade them. She looked across the valley toward their camp. “Look there Anna. I think I see smoke from fires being lit already. Seems kinda early in the day for that, don’t you think? You don’t think Tioy is back already with a catch do you?”
“Naw! Tioy is always the last to come back. He’s come back so many times after mealtime has started and empty handed as well! He’s not as good a hunter as we are Kesh,” Anna said, pouring a little water from the pond onto her living staff to remove some mud. “Why would this day be any different?”
“I think I must be seeing things!” Kesha laughed, splashing a little water at Anna as she stepped out of the pond. “This was good. Let’s be turned and up the ridge my little Anna. I’ll race you to the top!”
Anna leapt from where she’d been sitting and moved to a point about six feet from Kesha; who was just finishing up replacing her previously shed clothing. Kesha smiled and faced Anna, first lifting high and then driving her living staff an inch or so into the ground. She held it tightly with both hands. She was standing erect; her head back, staring up at the sky. Her tanned face began growing dark, teeth elongating, eyes becoming large and black as night. She was a perfect specimen of a muscled huntress of the tribe; now lost in her turning.
Wanting to beat her sister up the ridge, Anna drove her own staff downward and held on tight. Electricity shot through her. With every beat of her heart a pulse and a fury. She felt herself riveted to the ground and at the same time being torn from it. The turning had come.
Just as her muscles began to grow and with her senses not yet completely overwhelmed by her transition; from somewhere to her left flew a shaft. She followed its path from the corner of her eye. As fast as light it flew and embedded itself in Kesha’s chest with a sickening squioosh sound. One fatal ummphfph came from her sister before she collapsed to the ground.
The beginning of a shriek began to explode from Anna, but it was ended prematurely as something in her brain detonated and she was hit hard on her head. Everything went dark...
“What was that Sammy!”, he said slapping the other man on the back. “It looked like they was doin some kind of dance with them poles! I think it must-a been a victory dance or somethun like that.”
“Here, put this one over your back Heath!” Sammy said, heaving Anna up and over the fat one’s back. “We’ll carry her in shifts till we get back and then figure out what to do with her.”
Sammy went over and pulled his spear out of Kesha’s lifeless body. “Wow! This one is pretty big and hey wait.. Well I’ll be! Look at those eyes and teeth Heath. Why this one is sort-a animal-like or somethin! They must be some kinda mutants like the ones we killed down south! Remember?”
“Yep. Looks like we’re gonna need to take out the whole lotta them in that camp down there. Otherwise, they could come and git us and kill us.” Heath said. “Let’s git rid of this one for now and git-ta going home Sammy.”
Sammy groaned, “She’s too heavy for me to pick up Heath! Dang! She didn’t look that big to me. Oh well..I guess I can just roll her down this way!” With that, Sammy rolled Kesha’s body down the hill and into a huge mass of puss-berry bushes standing at the bottom.
Stumbing a little, a tear ran down Anna’s face as she remembered her sister. Kesha was a fine warrior, a fine person. Anna vowed in that moment to not only avenge her death; but to find Kesha’s living staff and record her final moments for her tribe. “Oh Kesha, why you and not me!” she said under her breath.
Sammy jerked on the leather rope attached to Anna’s neck collar again. “Be quiet and keep walkin. If you so much as make one more sound and let anyone know we’re here, I’m going to have to smack you but good girl!” Anna staggered on; racking her brain for any sort of escape plan……. She wasn’t able to turn with the tight collar on her neck. Otherwise, she would have gladly turned and dealt death to them all!