The Chronicles of Jarren the Bone-Dancer
by Christopher Coyle
Title: You Can Never Go Back
Series: The Chronicles of Jarren the Bone-Dancer
Chapter: One Chapter
Date Posted: Oct. 2003
Author: Christopher Coyle
Author Website: http://www.ccoyle.com
I fled. I had no choice. My skin felt too tight for my body, a fire burned in my stomach and my head pounded with a violence threatening to send me spiraling into oblivion at any moment. I turned from the terrible tableau unfolding before me and pushed my way through the teeming mass of bodies, uncaring of who saw my face or who I had to push aside. The stench of their enjoyment mingled with the sickly-sweet scent of viscera and squeezed its way past my clenched fingers to fill my nostrils with its cloying perfume.
The heavy door to the room was only a temporary impediment. A jerk of my wrist, the application of my shoulder against the door, and I was outside. The cold, moist air hit me like a fist, but it was a welcome relief from the oppressive heat in the examination room. I inhaled deeply, my hand falling from my face so that I could breathe in the night air. But, even outside, I could not escape what I had seen. Even as the door slammed shut behind me, I could still hear them talking excitedly about the body they were examining.
The stranger had stumbled into our village shortly after midday. He mumbled something before he collapsed, but his words quickly suffered as all such does from the wagging tongues. He lay there, untouched, for almost an hour after he fell, for my people were too afraid of approaching, mistrusting that the demon had truly fallen. Then they descended upon him like vultures, swiftly carrying his body to my father’s house. Besides being the village’s leader, my father also tended to the physical woes of the villagers. That was when I first caught sight of the demon, when they carried his limp, unresisting body through the door and laid him down upon the table.
My curiosity drew me over after the others had left to find my father. At first glance, the stranger looked dead, except for the occasional, shallow rise and fall of his bare chest. Only a pair of tattered, ripped pants covered his lower body, showing a map of burns and bruises crisscrossing his torso. It looked like he had been struck repeatedly with a burning brand.
It seemed impossible to me that a demon could be burned, much less be as badly wounded as the stranger had been. Once, he must have been truly beautiful, for behind the bruises and scorched flesh of his face, you could still see the ghost of his former grandeur. His hair had escaped the plaits it had been braided in, tangled with twigs and leaves and hanging wildly about his injured features. Immediately, it was apparent that he was one of them. One of the demons from the south.
Hesitantly, I reached out a trembling hand to touch him, to see if he was flesh and blood. Before I could touch him, however, the door burst open and my father stood there.
“Get away from him, Jarren,” he barked in a tone that brooked no disobedience. Pulling my hand back so quickly caused me to stumble backwards, leaving room for my father and the men who had carried the stranger to crowd in around the table.
My back against the wall, I watched with morbid fascination as my father began to work upon the stranger. The stranger’s pants had to be soaked in water before they could be cut off of him, for they become crusted with blood and ichor from wounds that had not been apparent before. The moment that my father had removed the stranger’s pants completely, it became immediately apparent to them that the stranger was truly different when my father stumbled back with a startled exclamation and one of the others yelled out in disgust. Apparently, I had realized far more swiftly what the stranger was before they had.
The demons are built differently than people. Their bodies are different, somehow combining aspects of male and female anatomy to create a set of genitalia that was fascinating, at least to my gaze. It was obvious the others in the room did not share my fascination, except my father.
He took the other three men off to the side, gathering them together as he whispered something urgently in a low voice. I probably could have listened in, and looking back, I wish that I had, but I could not tear my attention away from the fallen demon before me. No, he wasn’t a demon. If anything, I thought of him as an angel who had been through hell.
“Jarren, stay here,” my father’s voice broke the glamour I had been caught in. As I looked over at him, his face was serious, but there burned a strange, curious light in his eyes.
“Watch the demon until we get back,” my father continued as he and the others left, leaving me alone once again.
Bemused by my father’s rather abrupt disappearance, I stood there against the wall, unsure of what to do. I probably would have stayed there until my father returned if the demon hadn’t groaned out loud, his eyes fluttering open as he looked around in confusion.
“Where am I?” he mumbled softly as his pale, pale eyes finally settled upon me. I felt trapped by those eyes. They were a translucent jade and surprisingly sharp for someone who had been unconscious moments before.
“You…you’re in Kreslow,” I stuttered, unable to look away from the stranger’s eyes.
His brow furrowed in confusion, but the stress upon the burns on his face caused him to grimace in pain instead. He tried to push himself up, but even before he raised his torso, he groaned in pain and slumped back against the hard wood of the table he was laying on.
I reached forward, pressing my hands lightly against his chest, trying not to cause any more pain than he must already be in. “Please, rest. My father will be back soon. He can help you.”
The stranger shook his head, “No, he cannot…” Suddenly, the stranger’s voice broke off as he was caught by a fit of choking. The blood flecking his whitened lips frightened me, but I tried to smile reassuringly as I brushed his hair out of his face.
“You’ll be fine,” I tried to reassure him, but I don’t think that he heard me before he slipped back into unconsciousness.
I tried to make the demon, the angel, more comfortable, using a cool cloth to cleanse some of the crusted gore from his flesh. Before too long, my father returned. I heard him at the door and I dropped the cloth guiltily, backing away from the table as he came through the door. Whatever I was about to say, the excuses that were ready to spill from my mouth, was silenced by the crowd following my father. On all of their faces, I could see a grim determination fixing their faces into rictus masks.
They ignored me as they pushed into the room, my father leading the way to the body upon the table. He was dressed in all black, the clothing that he wore only when he was about to use his knives to bleed someone of the sickness within their body. My suspicions were confirmed when he pulled out the black leather bag that was his most valued possession. The black bag that held his knives, his needles, and the other tools he used for physicking.
What happened next will haunt me for the rest of my life, a nightmare I shall never be able to free myself from. Using an extract from a rare weed that rendered those who breathed its fumes in a sleep that bordered upon death, my father ensured his “patient” would not awaken. Rolling up his sleeves, he opened his black bag and pulled out one of his knives and began his grisly examination upon the demon.
The rational part of my mind realized that my father and the people of the village were terrified of the demons that had been increasing in numbers over the last decade. Where we lived, far in the north, we only heard occasional rumors from the southern cities and the news was frightening. My father and the other village leaders must have determined that this was the best way to find out about the demons, to learn what makes their bodies work and perhaps to find a way to fight them. To them, the stranger on the table was a monster that had to be studied and analyzed. To me, it was something surreal, a scene that one would expect to see only in Hell.
I had witnessed my father work before. I had even assisted him on occasion, but this time, I could not detach myself from what was happening. This time, something was different. It bordered on sacrilege and my heart cried out at the injustice unfolding around me. I looked around, desperate to see if there was anyone else there who I could turn to for help, who might understand. In each face, I saw something that scared me almost as much as the sight of my father elbow-deep in viscera and blood. Eagerness, anticipation, and an almost sadistic satisfaction at seeing a demon brought low gleamed from every face. That was when I knew that I had to escape. I had to get out of there. Let them believe that I was a coward, that the sight of so much blood had sickened me.
After I left the room, I wandered aimlessly along the street, not truly caring where I was going, just eager to put as much distance between myself and the others as possible. I had always felt like an outsider in the village, but no more so than at that moment. Right then, I just wanted to get away from everything and everyone.
I don’t know how long I walked. I know I had left the boundaries of the village some time ago and I hadn’t bothered grabbing my coat. The chill night air was sharp, even with the moisture of the coming snows, but the fire still burning within me was still hot enough that I did not feel the cold, at least not consciously. I wrapped my arms over my chest not so much as to try and ward off the cold as to try and keep my heart from bursting from my breast.
I suddenly felt a harsh hand upon my shoulder, my already pounding heart leapt to my throat as I was spun around to face two alien figures. They were tall, taller than anyone in the village, but possessed of a slenderness that bordered on gauntness. Yet, there was a certain lushness about them, a sensuality that transcended human definitions of masculinity or beauty. It did not take me but a few moments to realize that they were demons, like the one in town.
The taller of the two, whose hair was intricately plaited with ivory tubes and beads, leaned down until his face was close to mine. In a low voice that sent a shiver along my spine, he growled out, “Where is har? Where is Mendal?”
I knew he meant the other demon, the one currently lying helpless on my father’s table, beneath my father’s blade. When he shook me, I shattered. It must have shocked him to suddenly find the young boy in his grasp shaking like a leaf as he sobbed everything out. The demon’s dark eyes, so different yet so alike those of the jade-eyed demon back in the village, were wide in disbelief as the words spilled from my throat in a relentless torrent that unburdened everything knotted up inside of me.
“Stay here with the boy,” the demon holding me demanded of the other silent shadow before he released me and faded into the darkness. I was suddenly enfolded in a surprisingly strong pair of arms and wrapped in a heavy cloak of dark leather as I was pulled back against the demon’s chest. I felt his breath warming the cusp of my ear as he suddenly chuckled, “Do not be afraid, little one. We are not demons, not all the time. We just take care of our own.”
I didn’t understand what he meant then. I almost wish that I didn’t understand when he meant now. But at that moment, I felt warm and safe. When the other demon returned a few minutes later, his face was grim, but he offered me a slight smile before he looked at his companion, “Come, it is time for us to go. We must return to the others and tell them that Mandal has passed to the next life.”
I felt the demon holding me begin to shake, as I had shook earlier, but it passed quickly. My chin was grabbed in a hand and I was forced to look up into the piercing, dark eyes of the demon. “First, child, as Kalen told you, we are not demons. We are Wraeththu. Second, you are coming with us. We have lost Mendal tonight, but I believe we have found a new spirit to join us. Third, I am Halcoln and we’ve a long journey ahead of us. We must go. Now.”
I didn’t question Halcoln’s words as he and Kalen led me away from the village. My mind was muddied, my senses confused. I never saw the plumes of smoke twisting up into the night behind us, as I never looked back. It was many years before I found out what Halcoln had done while he was in the village. He told me that the remains of Mendal’s body had to be purified by fire for his spirit to be freed. When I eventually returned to Kreslow, all I found was the ruined remains of a village that had been burned to the ground decades ago.
It’s true what they say. You can never go back.
Chapter 2: A Bone Deep Chill
I didn’t look back as Halcoln and Kalen led me away from the village that had been my home for as long as I can remember, practically for my entire sixteen years of life. Kalen kept me close to his side, offering me the protection of his leather cloak against the chill of the northern autumn night. Winter was rapidly approaching, you could feel it in the dampness of the air, smell it in the crispness of the winds howling from the north. Even now, when more decades have passed than I care to admit, I can still remember every moment of that night with crystalline clarity.
The warmth of Kalen’s sinewy body seared into my side as he almost carried me along, away from the village of Kreslow. Halcoln was slightly ahead of us, moving through the darkness with a sinuous, boneless grace that left me feeling oddly awkward, as if I were a clumsy, plodding cow walking amongst the wolves. Of course, that feeling only manifested itself by making my clumsiness all the more pronounced. It was as if my feet had to find every root to trip over, every stone to send clattering loudly across the ground. Finally, after what must have been the hundredth branch my step caused to crack like a gunshot, Halcoln gave a disgusted sigh and turned to face me.
In the darkness, his dark amber eyes glinting in the dim moonlight, Halcoln gave me a disgusted look. I could feel Kalen tighten his arm around my side, almost as if he were trying to shelter me against the crook of his body from Halcoln’s wrath. I am sure my face must have been a sight – a pale moon with trembling lips and eyes wide enough to surely show the fear and confusion bubbling inside of me.
“Halcoln, go easy on the poor lad,” Kalen murmured in his soothing voice. His teeth flashed whitely as his tone became light, almost teasing, “Remember, once we were as he is…unaware of the truth of the world around us.”
Halcoln released a bark of laughter, a harsh sound that reverberated like a crash of thunder. “Kalen, m’dear,” Halcoln replied softly, “I wasn’t going to bite his head off. I was just going to ask him…”
“I know what you were going to ask him,” Kalen broke in, once more tightening his arm around me, “And you know the answer as well as I do.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything, but like any teenaged boy whose elders are talking about him as if he was not present, my ego was bruised and thus prompted me to pipe in, “Look, I’m sorry. I can be quieter. I just don’t understand why I hafta. We’re already far enough from the village that ain’t no one gonna be following us. No one comes this far out at night any more.”
I cringe now to remember how I spoke back then. I remember cringing at hearing the harsh cadence of my voice so soon after the lilting tones of the Wraeththu. Whether it was the tone of my voice, the way that I attempted to draw myself up to my full, rather unimpressive height, or the words I said, both the Wraeththu were suddenly convulsed with fits of silent laughter.
Feeling my cheeks growing warm, believing them to be mocking me, I pulled away from Kalen and stomped away from the laughing Wraeththu. I hadn’t taken more than three or four steps before I felt myself once more enfolded in a warm embrace and wrapped in a leather cloak. Instead of the soft, almost soothing scent of mint mingled with old leather I had begun to associate with Kalen, the scent that assaulted my nose with this embrace was sharper, wilder – spice and musk, leather and flesh. I am ashamed to admit I almost swooned at that moment, as that scent wrapped itself around me as surely as Halcoln’s strong arms.
Every inch of my back was pressed against the line of Halcoln’s chest as he about wrapped himself around me from behind. One arm about my narrow waist, the other was across my slender chest, pulling me back until I was molded against him. The feel of his breath against my neck, against my earlobe, send a shiver down my spine as he placed his narrow chin upon my shoulder, holding me as easily as a mother might hold her babe. When I felt his body rumble, heard the sound of a chuckle in my ear, I stiffened and tried to pull away, but this only caused him to mold himself even more closely against me.
“Stop struggling, little one,” Halcoln’s voice was still rich with his recent laughter and it flowed through me like a cooling rain. As I ceased my attempt to pull away, he laughed softly once more and turned me around to face him, staring down into my eyes with his bright, dancing gaze and smiling at me with a startling fondness.
“It is I who should apologize. You are alone, with strangers, going away from your home, heading for a future you know little about. Kalen is right and I apologize for that.”
“HEY!” Kalen raised his voice in protest, “Are you apologizing for me being right?”
Halcoln’s faint smile widened at Kalen’s wounded protest, “Well, it happens so infrequently that it is almost like an accident, Kalen.”
As the two Wreaththu began to trade insults, my feelings of being too different from these two began to fade. Their open fondness for one another, their open laughter and teasing made me feel accepted. And they did accept me, although the true depths of their acceptance would not become clear to me for quite some time yet.
We set up a small camp amongst a tangle of trees. Halcoln said that we dare not start a fire, but since I was wearing but a sweater and thin trousers, he and Kalen curled themselves to either side of me, both of them sharing their cloaks until I was cradled in a cocoon of warmth that left me feeling drowsy. Before I realized it, I was opening my eyes and squinting against a shaft of sunlight slicing through the branches overhead. Morning had come quickly, yet I felt completely revitalized as if I had slept for hours.
I didn’t want to move at first, afraid of disturbing my cocoon and awaking the Wraeththu to either side of me. I lay there for an indefinite amount of time, listening to the steady, even breathing of Halcoln and Kalen and savoring the warmth. I remember feeling safe. I remember the rhythmic beating of Wraeththu heartbeats to either side of me attempting to lull me to sleep. I wish I did not remember the next few minutes, however, although they will remain forever burned into my memory.
I had just laid my head back upon the pillow of Halcoln’s arm when I suddenly realized I did not hear the sound of any birds. There was an ominous silence outside the nest of bodies huddled together amongst the underbrush of the trees. As this registered in my mind, I felt a shiver of apprehension crawl tauntingly up my spine, a shiver that exploded into fear as I heard the all-too-familiar cock of a gun echo in my ears.
Almost instantly, Halcoln and Kalen came awake, but before they could do more than tense their bodies in preparation of standing up, a loud voice boomed out.
“Let the boy go, demons. Or else we’ll be finding out which is faster – our bullets or–”
There was laughter then, but unlike the laughter of the two Wraeththu the night before, this laughter was dark, menacing. Lifting my head up from Halcoln’s arm, I looked around, trying to find the source of the laughter. When I found it, my heart turned to ice and a coldness began to seep through my body.
About fifty feet away, half-concealed behind the thick trunks of pine, a figured dressed in camouflaged clothing was staring through the scope of a hunting rifle, the black barrel of which was pointing directly towards us. About thirty yards away, another similarly dressed figure had also sighted the Wraeththu with his rifle. But, it was the large man whose combat fatigues were gray instead of green, whose mirror-tinted sunglasses gave an alien look to his craggy face who frightened me more than the others.
“Get up boy,” the dark figure growled, the gun in his hand waving towards me, “We’ve got ya. You don’t hafta worry ’bout these demons no more.”
I wanted to cry out that Halcoln and Kalen weren’t demons; that the demons lived in my village, but a look from Halcoln’s amber eyes silenced me. Barely moving his lips, Halcoln murmured, “Get up, little one…get to safety…don’t worry about us.”
As I looked into Halcoln’s eyes, I noticed a strange feralness, not unlike the look in his eyes when I had told him what my father had done to his friend, Mendal. Slowly, I extricated myself from the tangle of Wraeththu, rising to my feet unsteadily. I’m sure there was a terrified look upon my face, although the hunters misinterpreted it as fear of the Wraeththu, instead of true fear I felt towards them.
“Come on boy,” the gray-clad man called out, “Don’t worry, ol’Jake and his pals are here. We’ve been hunting demons like this for years. We know what we’re doing.”
I’m sure his words were meant to comfort me, but they only caused the coldness within me to deepen until I felt it in the marrow of my bones. Slowly, hesitantly, I stumbled towards the man, my mind trying to come up with some explanation, anything that would save my newfound friends from being shot.
I had taken maybe twenty steps away from Halcoln and Kalen before “ol’Jake” had grabbed a hold of my arm and drew me behind him, his gun never wavering from its helpless targets on the ground. I’m ashamed to admit I huddled against the man’s broad back, burying my face in the sweat-damp folds of his fatigue shirt as he continued to hold his gun steady on Halcoln and Kalen.
“See boy, that wasn’t too hard, was it?” Jake laughed once again, that deep, disturbing rumble that set my teeth on edge. “We’ve been huntin’ these two for weeks. We did catch us another demon a few days ago, but he managed to get away. These two won’t be so lucky, right boys?”
The other two hunters merely laughed, although I sensed more than heard the low, angry growl from both Halcoln and Kalen at the mention of the Wraeththu that “got away.” It apparently did not take any of us long to realize it was Mendal they must have run across; Mendal who they had beaten almost to death. In my mind, I came to the conclusion that if these ‘Wraeththu hunters’ had not come across Mendal, then Mendal would never have been too weak to protect himself, nor would Mendal have ever come into my village. In my mind, these hunters were as much to blame for Mendal’s suffering and death as my father and the villagers had been.
By now, the coldness within me had spread until it filled every corner of my being. No longer did the coldness outside seem to matter. As my hands tightened into fists and I trembled against the hunter’s back, my arm grazed the handle of a large knife sheathed at the hunter’s back. Before I could stop myself, before I realized what I was doing, the knife was in my hands and I was using every ounce of strength in my slender body to shove the knife deep into the hunter’s back.
Jake’s scream of shock and pain must have distracted his friends, because as the force of my blow and the sudden weakness of Jake’s legs caused him to topple forward, Halcoln and Kalen were already moving.
As I stood there, Jake’s knife heavy in my hands, his blood covering my arms and my chest, the air in the clearing erupted with sounds of gunfire. Bullets madly careened about, slamming into the ground, digging into the hard wood of the pines, but never once did they find flesh. Halcoln and Kalen moved in unison in a deadly dance, each one heading towards a different hunter, moving with the swift sureness of natural born predators. Before either hunter could do more than squeeze off a few rounds, they were set upon by the Wraeththu, who proved quickly why many called them demons when they were angered.
The dying screams of the hunters sounded strangely distant to my ears, as if it was happening somewhere else, somewhere far from where I stood. I looked down at the knife in my hands in shock, trying to remember how I had come to hold it. Yet, no matter how much I wanted to drop it, I could not force my hands to open.
Suddenly, Halcoln and Kalen were standing on either side of me. As Kalen wrapped one arm about my shoulder, his right hand came to rest upon mine. He turned me to look into his dark green eyes, eyes so like those of Mendal’s that I couldn’t stop a gasp from escaping me, subconsciously wondering if I was seeing a ghost. It would be days before I learned that Kalen and Mendal had been brothers, twins who had become Wraeththu together. This was the first time I gazed upon Kalen’s face fully, without the shadows of the night obscuring his features. I like to think that I wouldn’t have been the only one to think he was seeing a ghost at that moment.
Gently, Kalen unwrapped my fingers from around the handle of the knife, passing the blood-soaked blade to Halcoln. Placing his forehead against mine, he made soft, soothing sounds as his hands gently rubbed my back. Kalen didn’t use any words, yet somehow he managed to shake me from the frozen fugue that had settled upon me. As I broke down, as tears streamed from my face and violent sobs shook my body, he just held me and let it all flow out of me and into the air.
As the last of my tears escaped, Kalen cradled me against his chest, my cheek against his breast and my face turned away from the body on the ground. Even though I could not see the hunter I had stabbed, I could still hear his ragged breathing and the sound of his heavy body squirming against the ground.
I heard Halcoln lower himself to his knees next to the hunter, I could hear him murmuring something low enough that the hunter could hear him but I could not. Kalen’s arms tightened around me as he started to lead me away, but I resisted. Something within me would not allow me to leave.
Pulling away from Kalen, I turned to look at Halcoln kneeling next to the hunter, the bloody knife held gently in the Wraeththu’s hand as he traced the tip of the blade along the back of the hunter’s neck. Straining, I could just make out what Halcoln was murmuring to the prone man.
“You call us demons. You hunt us like diseased dogs. Well, human, it is time you realize that your days have passed. Humanity had a chance, but Mother Nature has decided a new breed must arise to replace the old and repair the damage you have wrought. As your life blood spills out and feeds the earth, think on that – just as your life is fading, humanity will fade until only we Wraeththu remain!”
Halcoln cleaned the bloody blade by wiping it across the hunter’s back. Picking up the hunter’s gun and rising to his feet, Halcoln tucked the weapons into his belt and walked towards us.
“Come, we must go. We have far to travel before nightfall if we want to reach home before the first snows.” He didn’t look at either Kalen or myself as he walked by us.
Kalen sighed softly, placing his hand upon my shoulder as he turned me towards him, “Come, little one, Halcoln’s right. We should head off.” Wrapping his arm around my shoulder, his cloak once more tucked around me, Kalen led me after Halcoln.
I could hear the muffled sound of the wounded hunter behind us as we headed off. It was then I began to notice the ones I used to call ‘demons’ were now faces and names to me, but the ones that were ‘human,’ the ones that were ‘my kind’ were slowly merely becoming things to me. The man I had stabbed, his name was Jake, but to me, he was merely a hunter who had chosen to hunt the wrong prey.
To Be Continued…