Excerpt: Seclusion

She jolts awake. The nightmare, again. It haunts her, as it has every night for…how long has it been? Time has gotten away from her.

She rolls over on her back, staring at the root-canopy that forms this sizeable, yet well-concealed, den. It had been inhabited by a troll until recently; she had seen to its unceremonious eviction. Its pelt makes up the rough bed in which she was sleeping, while its decaying head rests on a boulder about five feet from the front entryway to the den. The presence and stench of it keeps away all intruders, including the nearby band of giants. They are only eight in number, so tending to their small herd of mammoths is of more importance than a dead troll. It is one less troll that will attempt to prey on the calves, and the smoke from their massive communal fire eliminates the stink of decaying flesh on days when the wind changes.

The nightmare is fading, but she can recall every detail. The dream is a memory of a real event, the details of which hammer at her brain like the siege machines hammer the walls of a fortress. She fully understands, now, why her father would sometimes wander the manor halls at night, long after the family had taken to bed. Two major events of his life still haunt him, many years later, although far less than they used to. She idly wonders how long the scene she witnessed would remain in her memory. She gags helplessly as those memories rush back, and claws her way out of the troll-skin bedroll towards the back of the den and the entryway to a short, rear tunnel. This tunnel is too small for the troll to have used; it had probably been created by the original resident of the den, as it leads to a small cave which opens on a ledge in a hillside. She staggers to a corner of the cave and doubles over, retching, but nothing comes up. Her stomach is empty. She hasn’t had any substantial meal for some time. The food-basket, tumbling from numb fingers…sweet cakes crumbling in the dirt…a carafe of wine shattering on stone…

She can’t stand her own cooking now, as the smell of food makes her nauseous beyond reason. Raw flesh is all that she can eat and hold down. What she craves and wants to consume sickens her. Stabling Sylph had become a necessity; even her own faithful steed was in danger from her appetites. She had to get away from the town and the people in it, for their protection as well as hers. Skulking through the woods…a campfire glinting between the trees…a young couple with their child, taking shelter for the night as they travel…their friendly invitation to join them for a meal…her maddening hunger at the scent of their vitality…the wife screaming as her husband was pinned to the ground, slavering teeth inches from his throat…rushing headlong through the forest, blinded by tears and tree-branches, frightened at the near-massacre…

“What’s happened to me?” she whispers to herself, doubled up in agony on the cave floor. The nausea passes. She gets to her feet, stumbles a bit, then steadies herself, swaying slightly. She needs to feed. The urge isn’t as strong this night as it has been, but it is always there, along with the distant siren song. It is very faint out here, making it easy to resist. She knows that her very being depends on resisting that call. If she succumbs to it…she shakes her head, negating the thought. That can’t happen. I won’t let it. I refuse! I shall resist…

She reels to the cave entrance and looks out, blinking in the bright moonlight. The giants are slumbering a fair distance away, with one standing watch, guarding the clan and the mammoth herd. She picks her way down from the ledge, making her way to the tree-line. The scent of a nearby herd of antelope makes her stomach knot with sudden hunger. She is torn by the desire to feed; the desire to answer that distant, deadly call, and the need to get a message to her family. Confusion roils in her mind…why is it so hard to think? The wild scent of the herd fills her nostrils. She surrenders to her hunger and crouches in the shadows, creeping as close as she dares.

A large buck, standing sentinel, whips his head around, startled by the distant howl of a wolf. The night had been almost eerily quiet, but now an answering howl, and then a third, floats on the air. The nervous herd mills about, then moves off towards the giant-camp. They have learned that relative shelter can be found amidst the mammoths; only the boldest and hungriest predators dare to attack the shaggy beasts.

She freezes amongst the shadows, not daring to follow the antelope herd. The giants will have heard the wolves as well, and might be more than ready to defend their camp. Her stomach knots with another sharp pang of hunger; her fevered brain reaches for a solution, and then it hits her: follow the pack. She had been successful with a past hunt when she had tracked a foraging band of goblins, following the wild boars for a full day after the goblins had captured three and returned to their rough camp. Following wolves would be fairly easy. Turning in the direction of their howling, she slips off into the night. She must feed…

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