“Next stop, Chapel Gardens!”
Listening to the constant hum of the beat-down bus’ engine, a short but thin girl shifted in her seat, trying – once more – to look out of the bordered up windows. A glimpse of home was all she wanted; after all, ten years was a long time. She wanted to see what had changed, but her restricted view just frustrated her, so she turned away, instead choosing to stare into the distance and mull over what she was going to do. Ten years. She had been gone for ten long years, but a heart-felt letter from her mother, begging her to come home for the Winter’s Eve feast, had plucked at her heartstrings like a professional harp-player, and she had relented. Sighing, she casually wondered if it was worth it, as she ran a blood-stained hand through her greasy mop of ebony hair. But her mother was a persistent woman, and she was sure that umpteen more letters would be thrown her way, if she had simply ignored the first, like she had been inclined to. The letter itself was tucked away in one of the many pockets of her rough, dark leather trench coat, but she’d also had to bring all of her belongings, just in case some spirited gang of hyenas, or a particularly daring bear (Or a sly human) managed to bypass the traps she had left behind and raided her little hunting hut. That would be a disaster.
So, she had her ammunition in one pocket of her beige camouflage trousers; a little bit of change in the other; a primitive first aid kit, a canteen half-filled with water and a bowie knife in her bleak backpack; her hunting rifle attached to a clever hook on her belt; and the carcass of a freshly killed boar on the seat next to her, which was gradually attracting flies. She waved them away, time and time again, but they always returned. Her deep amber eyes checked over the rest of the bus passengers, curious. Most were dishevelled farmers or city workers, returning home after a hard day’s work. None were hunters, or obvious hunters, in any case, and all turned up their noses at her hard-earned carcass, sniffing and walking on. It was probably the reason why she was alone at the back, but who cared? People were stupid.
“And we’ve arrived! Hunter girl, off my bus!”
She chuckled slightly at the bus driver’s abruptness, pulling herself to her feet and hoisting the boar carcass onto her back, walking down the aisle and stopping at the bus driver’s seat.
“I have a name, y’know.” She smiled, flashing her yellowed teeth a little.
“Chayse, I know. You told me ten years ago. Now go.” He motioned impatiently to the opened doors with one hand, while holding his nose with the other. “And take that smelly dead animal with you.”
“He doesn’t smell that bad.”
“Yes it does! Leave! Vanish! Vamoose!”
Still smiling, she raised her free hand in a mock wave, before turning and walking out into the blazing desert sunshine. Back in the Hunting Grounds, it would have been dark, and cold, but here? It was like eternal day, with a seldom few hours of cool darkness in between. Wiping the sweat off her weathered forehead, she was reluctantly forced to remember why she’d left. But, with no time to ponder over reasons for something that happened ten long years ago, she set off down the winding, dusty path to her childhood home. Or hut. Or maybe shack. She was never quite sure what to call the short but sprawling ‘villa’ (It was definitely not a villa, but her mother insisted on calling it that ever since she learnt what the word meant), since her home had been the tops of the skeleton trees and underneath each dried out shrub or bush, as she learnt to hunt and gather, ever since she could walk. But, for now, just to please her mother, ‘home’ would do.
However, most people didn’t knock on the door when they were entering their own home, she thought idly, as she stood outside in the ‘porch’ and waited impatiently for someone to answer the door. Her eyebrows shot up as she saw who answered it. Who? You may be asking. Only her older brother, who was presumed dead in more counties than she could count (Excuse the pun). Only Darren, who was wanted for murder and theft. Only him.
“Chayse. Haven’t seen you in ages.” He grunted, crossing his arms and looking her up and down. “You’ve got taller.”
“Ten years. And yes.” She smiled thinly. “Shouldn’t you be in prison, or a grave or something?”
“Maybe. Shouldn’t you be in a court, being tried for poaching?”
“Fair play. But I brought dinner.”
“Tea, then. Wild boar.”
“Who says it was stolen?”
“Most of the courthouses this side of the border.”
“Pff. No one listens to them. So, mother dragged you into this feast too?”
“Maybe.” Darren scuffed his feet on the earth floor, before nodding at the carcass. “You gonna take that inside or what? It’ll rot out here.”
Ignoring her elder brother’s blatant change of subject, Chayse walked past him and into the dingy labyrinth of the so-called villa. The kitchen was the second door on the left, or was it the third? She could never remember. None of the rooms were much more than cupboards, anyway. A small girl, maybe nine or ten years old, watched her, wide-eyed, from the doorway of one such room. Dressed in a rough spun beige cotton dress, she had sickly pale skin and muddy bare feet. Annoyed, Chayse turned on her and raised her eyebrows.
“You gonna stare at me all day? Or are you gonna show me where the kitchen is?”
“This way.” The girl suddenly became rather sullen, mystifying Chayse, who decided to follow her through a doorway.
It was the second door. She knew it! Heaving the carcass down onto the wooden table, Chayse set to using her bowie knife to butcher the animal. The girl held her nose, but Chayse just chuckled. Some people just couldn’t handle the smell of the dead. Half-way through her job, she turned back to the girl, stating that she could leave if she wanted to, and, she swore, she’d never seen a jack rabbit run that fast, let alone a nine-or-ten-year-old girl.
Once the butchery was completed, Chayse left the slices of wild boar on the table, and the bloody skeleton, head and trotters in the corner of the room. The girl had reappeared, peering curiously around the doorframe, her mane of dirty blond hair falling into her face. It was, Chayse thought, almost comical. Almost. This girl was getting annoying.
“Mum said you’d be here.” Her voice was quiet, innocent. Irritating.
“She invited me. Begged. Pleaded. Etc.” Chayse waved her hand, leaning on the table. “Are you going to introduce yourself, or what?”
“Well, that’s a bit rude. I’m Chayse.”
“I know.” She looked back into the corridor, then edged further into the room. “Mum wants you dead.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Chayse laughed, before walking past the girl, down the corridor and into the main room of the house, where she knew her mother would be waiting.
What she didn’t reckon on, however, was being grabbed instantly and held in a head lock, with the cool metal kiss of a shotgun pressing against her skull. Screaming out of anger and shock, she instinctively lashed out and ducked into a sofa, falling over and hearing the delayed shot ricochet around the small room. Scrambling to her feet, she didn’t waste any time, launching herself at her attacker, a lanky male figure who was trying to reload his shotgun. Did he shoot twice? Chayse couldn’t remember. Everything melted into one thought in her head: run. She didn’t care about her family betraying her, or her mother wanting her dead, or the fact that she could be shot at any moment. In a single, fleeting moment, she ripped a backpack off the figure and dashed out of the doorway, hearing a shot splinter through the flimsy wooden wall behind her, then a curse. The shots stopped.
Darren, appearing out of nowhere, grabbed her as she ran. Screaming again, she thrashed, trying to get out of his iron grip, but his face was serious, and his voice dark.
“Go to Tellar. Trust no one. And take these. Go!”
Shoving a flask at her, Darren pushed her in the direction of the door, satisfied. Chayse grabbed the flask instinctively, before hurrying out of the door and tearing down the road, the backpack slung hastily onto her shoulders and the flask still clasped tightly in her right hand. Only then did she remember her shotgun, but it was too risky to turn back, so she just kept running down the dirt road, ignoring the yells and occasional explosive shots that erupted behind her. Chasye was built for stamina; she knew she could keep this up for half the day, if she had to. Suddenly, she realised, with a slight smile, the hunter had become the hunted. And do you know what? It was turning out to be rather fun. A change of roles, a shift of power. Now she was free, and there were no more boundaries. She could go anywhere. But her first stop?
Tellar. Because why not?