The Secret Sellers

Once upon a time an old woman foretold a world where monsters ruled. And they did. The fairy tales from history seemed to foretell the mutations of the future. Forests grew large and dark and within them, creatures thrived. Avis Eldred is one of the few surviving humans; she should be grateful for that. But she's not grateful for killing in order to survive. Now she faces a choice - take a leap of faith and defy everything she ever knew, or keep being a murderer and a coward.

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5. The Couriers and the Wolf

 

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The Couriers and the Wolf

Being a Courier was the most dangerous job that you could have in the dome. There were hundreds of towns just like hers. Protected by mountains or man-made barriers. Some domes were home to about five thousand people and they were protected because they built barricades and stood watch. They were warned against living in the wildlands. Most who left with the intention of homesteading, were never heard from again. The stories of beasts shaped like humans, changelings and shifters were gruesome.  There were stories of humans living in the wild who hunted the monsters but they were clans that stuck to their own, if they saw a fellow human in trouble they would not help and they would walk or run away. The Couriers had never seen anything on the trails that matched the tales told though. So those tales were just tales. Neveah suspected the tellers of trying to keep the farmers inside the domes; not tempted by the almost magically fertile soil outside the walls.

The Couriers were among those who were the very few humans that ventured outside the compounds, running a route between towns and trade posts, delivering messages, medicines and small packages. Doing this was a dangerous job but the Couriers were fast, skilled and independent. They did a job that was well deserved and vital to their community. Being a Courier was similar to being blessed but being cursed at the same time. Their mother had been a Courier before her accident and then she had sworn never to step foot outside the walls again.

The Couriers told Avis to be careful, she replied with a quiet nod and an odd gesture that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. That day she was told that she would make the trip with Neveah, after all she was a respected member of the community and was trusted to look after her sister without betraying the compound.

One the day that they would make their way through their chosen route, Neveah picked up a man that was strangely called Dr. Lovelace. The Doctor looked normal to Avis yet his calm yet sometimes wavering demeanor was different to those who were going to go out into the wild. He had paid a handsome sum of money in order to be taken out of the dome after five years of remaining in its protective walls. Despite this, he had the face of knowing that he would survive, as if was walking into a museum then a life threatening forest. He looked too curious, and not for his own life but for seeing the creatures.

Avis thought him to be weird.

Neveah told her to calm her senses.

Her sister also kitted her out with Courier equipment and told her that if someone ran at her just to strike at it until it kneeled over and died.

Neveah was rather blunt like that.  

And so they set out on their route. It was on this route that Avis screwed her courage into cement and tried to become like her sister, made of steel and indestructible. And not like a coward who couldn’t and wouldn’t kill.

This was one of the most dangerous routes that their community knew. The Couriers had only been through it once and not all of them had come back from that trip.  The reimagined Pony Express sans actual horses were amazing but if they couldn’t survive it how did they think that she would. Avis thought that the point of this adventure was not for her live but for her to die. Death was her punishment, just like Casimir, yet hers would be a lot more subtle.  The mountains there were steep and nothing from that particular trade post had seemed worth the effort. Dr. Lovelace was paying twice the normal rate and provided maps and charts for the journey. What an excuse for the team to send her to her death.

It was several hours into the trip and they were behind already. Their client was sickly and slow, for being a Doctor he was awfully contradictory. Neveah fumed as she stomped along the path. Every minute longer in the wildland was another minute to attract unwelcome attention.

“Avis” Neveah whispered from the trees. She froze in place and held her breath.

Avis had heard the rustling too. “On your left.” She stood with her back to her and watched as Dr. Lovelace took several steps backwards toward the siblings. “Bear?” He flicked a glance to the pair with his question.

“If we’re lucky.” Avis answered.

Lovelace raised an eyebrow. “Bears are lucky?”

“They’re usually alone.” Neveah slid a large machete from its sheath. “If it’s a wolf or lycan, there won’t be just one, they come in packs.” She listened again and sighed “One, bear, 15 yards, coming in from the left. Rampage.”

“How do you know this?” Avis whispered to her sister.

“I pay attention to father and most of my friends have parents in the Couriers expeditions.”

Neveah then snapped her fingers. She pointed at Avis and indicated that she run ahead up the hill. She pointed to the outcropping of rocks. She waved back and forth between herself and the stranger, then indicated that they would kill the bear.

Avis waved off the signal and indicated that the stranger should be the one to run.

Neveah shook his head. “You’re faster, plus the mission is to transport him not to kill him.” She whispered. Avis rolled her eyes, it was to put her into the path of danger. Neveah held out her hunting knife and waved for her sister to hand over her larger blade. She scowled. She huffed and Neveah relented. Avis would have a greater chance of survival with the larger knife.

She grumbled at her sister “I hate being prey. You know that!”

“Would you rather being doing the killing?” Neveah asked knowing the answer before her sister could reply, Avis would take being prey over killing any day.

Her sister and the doctor fell back to the tree line and Avis stood alone in the path. She could run away from all of this, she could get away and escape her punishment. But if she did that she would be thought of as more a traitor and exiled from the dome. She rustled her pack a bit and kicked the dirt. She huffed a few breaths and then when she could see the rustling of the brush she turned and ran for the ridgeline drawing the bear into the path and between the others. Her heart was pounding and her feet scrambled up the grassy hillside and she heard the bear bellow then a responding growl. Had there been another animal following the bear? She had to stop at the ridge where she could protect herself.

Neveah lunged at the bear as soon as it cleared the tree line. She launched himself at the side as it was running after Avis. She caught a good slice at the shoulder but missed the neck by inches.

“Lovelace!” Neveah called out as the older man skidded to a stop in full view of the bear. Instead of cowering, he crouched and then growled. Why had he growled?

The bear returned a bellow of his own. Neveah launched again at the side of the bear aiming to imbed the machete in the thick of the neck. The Machete was angled just enough that it deflected and bounced free of his grasp. The bear then pawed at this annoyance and Neveah crumpled to the dirt.

There was more than one animal cry. Just her luck it was a wolf. Avis heard it. She dropped her backpack at the ridge and scrambled up the rocks to get some view of the chaos below. She watched as the bear backhanded Neveah. She had to help.

Lovelace was now launching repeated frontal attacks at the bear. He was swiping at the belly and dodging around his back. He scooped up the machete and paused as another howl echoed across the valley. The bear turned and launched again. It turned out that even though the doctor was human he had turned into an animal underneath his skin.

Avis leapt down the ridge sliding across the slippery ground. She held her knife at the ready and slid into the clearing just as Lovelace disappeared into the forest with Neveah over his shoulder. Avis realized her mistake immediately as the bear, injured and not dead, turned his angry attention at her.

“Oh, no!” Play dead? Is that really what you do? She couldn’t seem to remember. She was frozen and alone. She decided that cowering was maybe an option. She dropped and curled herself into the tightest ball she could.

The beast took a good hard swipe across her shoulder, gouging several long lines across her. She screamed. He pushed her over with his snout and huffed a large smelly breath into ear. She had one arm protecting her neck and the other cocked to her side with the knife in hand. Waiting. She couldn’t see anything but teeth and fur as he mouthed at her, he bit down on her head and she felt his teeth slide across the back of her skull. She kicked up at his belly. He dropped her head from his grip and she rolled. She punched out with the knife in her hand. She caught the bear along the lower jaw and pushed. Her head swam with pain and she was choking on blood. She punched again. The drag on the knife was less this time. The bear heaved and took its final breath.

She was badly hurt but she had to move.

She ran.

At some point she stopped running. She knew that it was an unsafe decision. The hair on her forearms raised, her skin prickled and she got slightly more alert than she had been when she first escaped the dome. So long as she didn’t draw attention to herself, she should be safe enough. Although the creatures out here were far more interested in tearing up each other these days than terrorizing the random human.

That is what she thought before she saw another human running through the undergrowth eyes only for what lay behind them. She watched as the other human snatched up a weapon, that looked like a handful of knives, and caught the wolf in its hindquarters and the humans both heard a whine. The other human struck it again before it could call for its pack.

There was no way that it was hunting on its own but she knew how thin they had spread themselves out, or they might have been hunting the same prey though Avis didn’t know for sure. Humans were rare commodities so it was likely that the other human was the only one around for miles, excluding her sister and the doctor. And the other human may have already been hurt, already may be dying. Avis didn’t know.

Avis should’ve ran, left the other human to deal with it their self but she rubbed shaky fingers over her forehead and brought a callused palm up to brush over the shaggy hair. She had just made a stupid, stupid decision to stay frozen. She made her way over to where the dead body of the wolf lay. It made her neck go cold and her teeth set on edge. The other human had gone, disappeared entirely but now she wasn’t so sure that it was human. Some monsters could disguise themselves efficiently if they had to.

It turned out that maybe the human hadn’t disappeared.

A growl echoed from the undergrowth just left of her position. The human had returned yet it hadn’t been human after all. Their face was half wolf and half human. It hadn’t held a handful of knives but a handful of claws protruding from their fingertips.

“You’re hurt,” It growled over a mouth full of teeth.

“I’m fine really, I can walk…” Even as the words left her lips she didn’t believe it her clothes were stained with not only her own blood but with the bear’s – she tried not to think about it too hard less she would vomit her horror up – she had multiple scrapes and cuts all over, and of course there was her nasty head wound, she felt the blood matting her hair.

The lycan raised an eyebrow as its face went back to human, wolf features melting into human. He didn’t look so scary anymore, but Avis knew that he was dangerous to the very core.

“You’re too hurt to walk back, to navigate.” The wolf stepped closer and her eyes wrenched open wide. He smirked, eyes tracking every movement that she made, “Unfocussed,” he noted and maybe she was. Avis would deny it till she was blue in the face, if it meant trying to get back home or finding her sister. “You would veer off of the trails before you could get anywhere on your own.” He remarked while Avis blinked hard. She couldn’t argue that she was not all quite there, a little woozier than she would have liked. The wolf didn’t know anything about her and she was sure as hell that she didn’t need him. She huffed out a little laugh into her chest as she leant backwards, head lolling slightly. Her eyelids were heavier than expected.

“What gives you the impression that I wouldn’t use this golden opportunity to gut you where you stand?”

A human fingertip tilted her chin up and it took Avis’ eyes a second to bring the face in front of her into stark relief. “You can barely keep your eyes open,” the wolf said slowly, “I don’t think you have the upper hand now, human.”

The world narrowed to a pinpoint of palest green and then faded into nothing.

She hoped to god that in her unconsciousness the wolf caught her.

He carried her into his home and laid her safely down. He left her there and locked himself in his den. Once he was sure that he was well separated from her he checked his hands to be sure that he was human. He had been in his den alone for so long. He could maintain his human form without effort until now. She needed help. He would focus on that. But for that bliss moment isolation was the best solution.

 The table under her was stone. Not like the few marble deposits that were sometimes found in the dome but stone. Dark and smooth. She noticed how there was a nice pool of her spit next to her face. She didn’t care. The cool stone was the only thing that mattered. It was so nice and solid under her swirling head. There was a voice. It was like a radio turned down too low to understand.  She hummed softly.  

There was now a blanket over her and her legs raised on a cushion. Someone was petting her hair. “You’re wrong. The pillow is for the head.” There was something close to a huff next to her ear. She still couldn’t open her eyes; her hearing came and went.

“...Shock... Head wound... You need to hold still.”

She grumbled again and sighed.

There was water being poured against her mouth. She grimaced and spit. It tasted like blood.

“You need to drink this.”

She opened and let him pour more into her mouth. She gulped several times before coughing and retching.

“I need to see your arm. I’m going to take your shirt off."

“Tis but a scratch.” She laughed to herself as he tried to push the collar of her shirt off the curve of her shoulder.

“Mother…” She was awake now. Eyes wide. She gripped the shirt tight. “No, stop. Wait.” She scrambled back on the table. “Who are you?”

He sighed in frustration. “I’m not going to hurt you.” He reached out again.

She slapped his hand away. “You just did. Liar.”

He frowned. “I’m helping.”

She kicked out in his direction. “I don’t know you.”

He walked away from the table and wet a cloth with water. “If you’d like, I can carry you back down the mountain and wedge you under the carcass of that bear, so you can be eaten by various scavengers.”  

She glowered at him. “No thanks.” she whispered.

He was maybe a couple of years older than she, maybe twenty one or two. His hair was short and dark. He was broad and muscled. He might be taller than her father by an inch or two. His eyes were strikingly light. Like some sled dogs but more green than blue. It was disconcerting. She couldn’t look at them for long. He had a short fuzz of stubble on his chin and his lips were pulled into a thin line. Handsome in a way that scared her. He had a menacing presence and looked like he was accustomed to getting what he wanted.  

He handed the cloth to her “You have blood...” He waved at her whole face.

The cloth was warm and smelled slightly of something floral and maybe medicinal. She wiped at her face gently working from her eyes to her hairline then down her neck.  She handed back the now filthy cloth.

“I can do the shirt.” She unbuttoned the front and pulled the sticky cloth away from her skin. It caught on the drying blood and flesh on her shoulder and she took a deep breath and pulled harder. Fresh blood poured from the wound. She keened and panted and pulled again until the shoulder was exposed. She wrenched her elbow out of the sleeve and let the shirt hang. It stuck to the blood on the back of her shoulder blade.

“May I?” He gripped the shirt.

“Do it.” She held her breath. He pulled and her shirt released its last hold.

She slid her other arm from the sleeve and held up the shredded shirt. She sat on the edge of the table. Her chest was wrapped in what looked like grimy strips of cotton.

“Is that for your ribs?”

She scowled at him. “No, I don’t know if you are aware, but clothing manufacturing died along with most of the population plus they told me that this was better than a bra when going out of the walls.” She pulled her arms across her chest and looked down in shame. Killing was serious business, to the Couriers it meant that they survived to live another day. Yet she had never wanted to kill. She would never brag about her most recent and her only proper kill. She wasn’t vain and shouldn’t have cared about her shabby excuse for underclothes.  She wasn’t proud of herself.

He went to the sink and returned with his stoic expression and another clean cloth. This one smelled only of medicine.

“Hold that there for a bit.” He pressed it to her shoulder and she held it in place. He sorted through a box containing medical supplies.

“Don’t waste a sterile kit on me. I can take it. Plus, I can’t pay.” He set the sutures next to the box.

She continued talking. “That box must have cost you a month’s food. I can’t see anyone giving up their ‘life and deaths’ for less than that.”

He didn’t answer. Maybe he killed for it. People do desperate things for med kits. They were a rare luxury after all.

He handed her a glass bottle full of amber liquid. She sniffed at it. “Do you need a torch? Going to cauterize?”

Although she hadn’t killed like the others she knew how to heal she had done it for her father enough times to count, even Neveah sometimes when she came back from a fight with another female.

He looked hard at her. “You want to start drinking that.”

She laughed her reply. “Waste it on pain relief? You live in luxury.”

She took a big swig. Held it in her mouth until it burned the last of the taste of blood away, then swallowed. Avis coughed and shuddered then laughed out a breath. “Not the worst.” Her stomach burned. She took another long pull. Shuddered again. “Wait...it is the worst.” She dry heaved “yep”, she burped. “Worst.”

She watched him move around the room. He was precise in every action. Guarded and careful. He hadn’t flinched at her kicking or cursing. He was investing in her wellbeing. Was he expecting repayment? Everyone expected something. She had heard of women being rented out and sold in some of the other colonies. Is that what he planned? Most of the men that tried to use women in such a way wouldn’t wait for her to be conscious. He could have, hours ago, but he didn’t. Maybe the fact that she was covered in bear blood was an issue. He did look very clean. Maybe he was phobic. He might be a very methodical sadistic man with clean hands who took his time with abuse.  He had care in his eyes but his jaw was stern and set.  She watched as he cleaned dirt from her wound and wiped at the blood with feather light touches. It could be that he preferred men. She thought about it. She had seen lust flash through his face before. He confused her.

The liquor was making her head heavy and her chest ached. Why had Neveah left her? She shouldn’t have trusted that Lovelace guy, she should’ve trusted her instincts when she first saw his face. She was now afraid for herself and for Neveah. She hoped that her sister was alright, that she had got back home safe and sound. She wanted someone she knew to take care of her. She couldn’t trust strangers. She knew better than that.

 The wolf watched her with a starved curiosity. Like most monsters of the wild it was born out of isolation since anyone out here in the wild was short on company. “You got quiet.” He said as he watched her sort through collections of memories and thoughts.

The girl blinked out of her thoughts. “I was just wondering if compassion was burned out of the world when the fires passed through. I haven’t seen much of it outside of my family.”

He paused and looked out the windows at the horizon. He remembered the fires. It was a tactic from the scared humans, who risked their lives and set fires outside of the domes to clean out the surrounding monsters. Avis remembered it because it was just after her failed initiation when she was a teenager. She remembered how she pleaded with her family to convince the Council to divert their tactics into something else, yet her pleads went unheard and her father had called her his sensitive girl again. But this time, he had sat her down and told her that if she wanted to survive, that if she wanted her family to survive, she would stop the talk of trying to stop the methods. 

“Lost faith in your fellow man?” He asked.

She scoffed. “I’ve lost a lot of things to my fellow man. My faith was fleeting and gone before my baby teeth.” That was half a lie and half a truth, when she was little she looked up to her brave family and what they had accomplished by killing. But when she was growing she slowly lost faith when she saw them behead monsters for simply seeking refuge from others who tore them apart and left them alive.

The wolf growled a curse. It was more of a rumbling than actual words.

She shouldn’t let her guard down. Her gut was arguing with her brain. The ache in her shoulder and head pulled at her fortitude. Maybe she could drink more. If he was going to do anything worse than the stitching he was preparing for, she preferred to be unconscious. She took another drink. It still remained like fire slowly trickling down her throat.

“This doesn’t burn less the more if it you drink.”

He laid her back on the table, and rolled her onto her side. She looked back over her shoulder. “I hope this thing doesn’t blind me. I like looking at you.” She blinked. Shocked at her sudden forwardness and the drowsy husk in her voice. “I mean, being able to see you. To keep my eye on you, I like to always have my eyes open.” She slurred. “For safety.” She closed her eyes and tried to compose herself. “Who am I kidding?” she mumbled.  She looked back over her shoulder. Tears clinging to her eyelashes. “Whatever you’re going to do, let-me sleep through it.” She then passed out.

The wolf lifted her head and wedged a cushion under it. He could tell she was young even when he saw first saw her covered in blood. Her resilience shown through even the fog of shock and drink. She looked tragically young now. Her eyes closed and lips parted. Her skin was pale and freckled. She never seemed to stop talking. Even now she breathed words that had no voice behind them. He could also tell that she was not a murderer, a human who was would have already struck at him by now. Even if he was trying to save their life, it had happened before to him and his selflessness was thrown back at him with injuries. Humans were incredibly stubborn. But this human girl was brave and fierce in her own right.

He knew plenty of fierce women. Women hard in the eyes and ruthless. She was a contradiction.  She looked guilty for killing a bear in self-defense and yet had the strength to do it. She was guarded and still friendly. There was something about the fragility and ferocity in her that woke need in him. He was uncomfortable with it. He pulled back on his want and focused on the tasks at hand.

She had been fitful before. The pain had kept her edgy. She was now breathing softly and hardly moved when he swabbed and pulled at her skin. It was going to take all the thread in the kit for this. Three long cuts. The wounds on her head were smaller. Her hair would hide the scars. They needed cleaning more than stitching. He worked quickly and systematically. He couldn’t know how long she would be out.

He patted her cheeks. “Stitched up.”

Her eyes fluttered open then rolled closed again.

“You are still covered in blood. I need to fix it.” He held her face and forced some eye contact.

“So fix it.” She drawled and closed her eyes again.

He huffed in frustration. He touched at her face again. “I’m going to find you clothes. These will need to be burned.”

Her eyes barely moved, “Go ahead,” the words were a slight snarl, after all she didn’t want to have a relic of killing a bear. She wasn’t like that.

He sighed “I’m going to bathe you.”

She rolled her eyes and grumbled. “I already said.” She fought the fog of drunkenness and met his eyes.  “If you let me sleep.”

 

He had to walk away and calm himself. The gist of what she was saying was that she fully expected him to take advantage of her state and use her to his pleasure. The fact that she was not so much willing as resigned said more about the men in her life than about her. He fought his animal side hard from the moment he saw her. He wanted to hold her and breathe the air around her and let her sleep against him. He also wanted to chase and catch her. It was a confusing mix of emotions to say the least. The wolf didn’t like emotions – they were an unnecessary conflict. The beast in him wanted to haul her into a quiet little den and lick the wounds on her. Take her. Protect her. He panted out several breaths just reigning in. He was a man. He could be a man. He could be a good man. He would not let primal spirit take him completely. He was not feral.

The shelter that he built on the mouth of the cave looked like the buildings he had seen in his travels. He even found books that showed how they use to build houses. He matched a lot of them. Found windows and doors. He hauled most of it to the top of the mountain. The wooden structure ended at the mouth of a cave. He carried the sleeping woman through the cavern and laid her on the smooth rock next to the hot spring.

He took time and care to remove the blood soaked clothes from her before trying to comb his fingers through her hair. He brought a basin and rinsed most of the blood from her before carrying her into the pool. He waded in and used a knee to keep her head and shoulder above the surface. His body seemed to think that this task required a rigidity in his libido. It was distracting and unwelcome. But then again it was simply biological chemistry. God he hated biological chemistry and its distracting ways.

He started with her hair which resisted combing with almost willful intensity. It took several minutes to get all of the tangles free. He was finally able to part it and see the puncture wounds from the bear’s teeth. He caught her on the curve of her head and had most likely gotten a mouth full of hair. A few inches further and she would have been instantly killed. He shook at the prospect.

Her face was scrunched in a painful grimace.

“Neveah,” she mumbled, “Don’t strike it, talk to it.” The words sounded ridiculous and they were sleep drunk as he had hoped. He would feel better if she didn’t wake up at that specific moment.

He scooped water around her face and rinsed the soap. Her hair was a warm brown. It might shine red in the sun.

He was careful not to wrench her arm or soak the new stitches and washed her as best he could. She was fighting the soapy wool when it came too close to sensitive areas.

“Please...” she mumbled. She flailed. “jss...kill me..r....lemme...die, not him.”

He hated to think what she had been through that would prompt such a statement. There was a reason he lived alone. It was too easy to justify cutting down ruthless thugs.  He knew well what animal instincts were. Most of them are to care and protect. Animals didn’t usually behave as badly as humans. He pulled her from the water and carried her to the house.

 

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