The 8th Annual Short Story Challenge is a creative writing competition open to writers around the world. There are 3 rounds of competition. In the 1st Round (February 7-15, 2014), writers are placed randomly in heats and are assigned a genre, subject, and character assignment. Writers have 8 days to write an original story no longer than 2,500 words. The judges choose a top 5 in each heat to advance to the 2nd Round (March 27-30, 2014) where writers receive new assignments, only this time they have just 3 days to write a 2,000 word (maximum) short story. Judges choose finalists from the 2nd Round to advance to the 3rd and final round of the competition where writers are challenged to write a 1,500 word(maximum) story in just 24 hours (May 2-3, 2014). A panel of judges review the final round stories and overall winners are selected.
I was put into Heat 6 where the genre was fairy tale and the character of a hunter had to be incorporated. I wrote my story the first day (which speed of writing I hope I can emulate if I get into the next round). Here is my story…
In Full Pursuit
This is a story set in a world where only one child is allowed per family; any other children are considered illegals and are hunted down and killed. The title is taken from Oscar Wilde’s quote on fox hunting: ‘The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’.
He pushed open the door and entered the warm room. The gas lights were dim and the fire smoked, but it was better than the storm outside. Peter shook his furs and stamped his feet; snow littered the ground around him. The barman looked up and gave him a neutral smile. Peter knew from experience that while he was never welcome, he was never turned away.
‘What will you have?’
‘A beer,’ said Peter looking around. ‘Have you any food left?’ It was late and the other patrons were talking into their drinks, a low rumble of chatter that clearly focused on his arrival.
‘Stew,’ said the barman pouring a beer. Peter nodded, accepting the beer and downing half it in one gulp. It was thirsty work and lonely. Most other hunters that he knew were more than fond of their beer. Peter steered on the side of caution, on the side of angels, reserving beer for the night and eschewing spirits altogether. He had shared huts with hunters who rose to beer or spirits and it wasn’t a pretty sight. It also made them uncertain stalkers; innocents were often caught in the cross hairs fuelled by a liquid breakfast. To be a hunter was to be a nomad and it was the loneliness that often led them to find solace in the bottle. Peter thanked his lucky stars for Maura, as he did often on a daily basis. Two kindred spirits, one ostracised for her healing, the other for his killing. Opposite sides of a single coin that spun through the air and had never yet found its landing place, its safe haven.
The stew was produced and Peter ate it hungrily without speaking. The barman polished a glass and watched him closely. Peter could sense he was curious and with good reason for Peter rarely travelled this far north. There was nothing or no one to hunt in these parts. When he finished, he burped loudly in compliment, pushed his bowl back and indicated he wanted another beer. The barman filled his glass and removed the empty bowl.
‘That did the trick,’ the barman said. ‘So, what brings you to our mountains?’
Peter could sense the interest across the bar; all ears were turned towards him. He could feel the curiosity quivering in the air. He burped again into silence and said: ‘That was a fine stew, thank you.’ Peter wondered if he should tell him or not. Sometimes he could get good intelligence from the locals. By the question, he presumed that he was the first hunter in the area, good if his instincts were right, bad if he was off course. He took another gulp of his beer. ‘Illegal child,’ he said. ‘From the Runoffs.’
The barman’s eyes narrowed. He spat onto the floor in disgust. ‘Dirty, nasty things,’ he said. ‘We don’t want them around here. No, we don’t.’
Peter nodded: ‘Any sightings then?’
‘No, we’d have called the Constabulary if we’d suspected anything. From the Runoffs you say? They are a bad lot there. Always flaunting the rules. Just one will do, don’t they get that message. Illegal children cause hardship always. Can’t be trusted. They don’t go to the Institution to be learned right,’ and he paused to check Peter’s reaction. Peter just nodded. ‘Dirty, nasty things,’ the barman repeated, polishing the glass vigorously.
Peter finished his beer. ‘Is there a room free?’ he asked.
‘Just in the shed,’ the barman replied. ‘But, it’s clean and there is fresh straw.’
Peter nodded. He was used to outside accommodation. His furs were old and hummed; strange smells of blood-iron, smoke from open fires and sweat from chasing prey. A heady cocktail, it wasn’t pleasant. When he moved to his shed, he knew the patrons would flap the air to try and get rid of his scent. They would not be so rude, or foolish, to do it while he was still there. Peter agreed a fee and paid the man. He would be long gone before anyone woke in this hamlet.
Morning came early, mists clinging to the side of the mountain, and the fresh tang of snow in the wind. It was bitterly cold and Peter wondered about his prey. Ten years of age, a female and no doubt scrawny. Illegal children were always thin and hard to stomach. The first one had been seven years ago, a young boy with burns on his face and legs where he had hidden in a chimney of all places; with a fire at the bottom. He had escaped so maybe he wasn’t that foolish, but it only gained him six more months of life. Peter wondered if the scars had had time to heal before he slit his throat. All that pain for six months of life; Peter wondered if it had been worth it. The boy had taken a solid week to track and in the end it was tiredness not lack of guile that let him down. Peter dispatched him quickly, a mercy killing he called it, but his face continued to haunt his sleep. When tracking children the memories surfaced again and Peter preferred not to sleep, not to chance to dream.
Peter left the shed, which had been warm, and strode off in the still air. He moved noiselessly for a man so large. He was so far north he wondered about detouring to see Maura afterwards. It had been almost eight months since he had been here last, that time chasing a convict; a weaselly, skunk of a man. He had been sentenced to death for murder, an eye for an eye, but escaped before the gallows could claim him. It was Peter who found him and returned him to the platform. The City wanted to see convicts hanged but preferred to have children executed in the field. No one wanted to know about the illegal children, and even less to see them. It was an intermittent problem, usually flushed out by inspections and areas like the Runoffs gave consistent trouble.
At the thought of Maura, Peter’s mood brightened. When he visited she made him strip before he was allowed enter her cabin. ‘Leaving the blood outside,’ she said. She would boil water and fill a bath for him. He stomped around outside waiting for her tiny kettles to boil enough water. When she opened the door, he would bellow and strip in a single gesture, before running into the house and climbing into the hot bath. Maura cleaned him with aromatic soaps and oils, anointing him for her pleasure. It was the one time his scent was submerged to hers. Sometimes she would join him in the bath, naked but for her amulet; an amber stone shaped like a cat’s claw. She had been found with it as a baby; an illegal child, but found by a childless couple and so given a stay of execution. She attended the Institution with all the legal children but she never fitted in. Now, as a healer she lived a hermit-like existence. Without words, Peter knew he was the only man who visited her, but she never asked him to stay. It was just the way things were.
Peter walked on through the morning. Why had he come to this area? Some instinct told him the illegal had come this way. He had tracked her directly for some twenty miles before losing the scent. He had a choice; to continue on the seaward direction or move inland. He had chosen inland and upmountain. All he knew about the illegal was she was light on her feet and good at climbing. He looked seaward and at the mountains. A climber would choose the mountains he reasoned and so he turned uphill. This was his second day without any tracks. He was not worried. He had more furs and flesh on him, than she had on her skinny body. Either he or nature would have its way. He walked all day without hesitation; it was as if the wind carried an invisible code and he sniffed each time he stopped for new directions. At dusk, he paused at the edge of a wooded area and looked around. Something caught his eye. It was a lone deer, grazing at the edge of the wood. He drew his bow carefully and took aim. The arrow pierced her eye and she fell quietly. Then he saw she had a fawn standing closer into the woods, he drew his bow again but the young animal slipped back into the shadow of the trees and was gone. Peter cursed. He would have liked to have brought both as a gift to Maura. Still, a deer was a mighty present and this was a plump creature. He swiftly gralloched the deer, tied up its hooves and strung the body up in a hammock over a tree. He would collect it later and this way it should be safe from scavengers.
When night fell, Peter curled up in his furs and slept. He wondered if he was close to the illegal and if she had managed to find any food or shelter. No one in these parts would harbour her; the penalties were too high and illegals generally despised. ‘Nasty, dirty things’ the barman had called them and he was not alone. Peter’s dreams were vivid again and he cursed when he woke. Then he stopped. He heard something: a tiny noise of a branch not snapping but being bent to its limit, a tiny creak. Peter silently moved to the edge of the woods. He was hidden behind a tree when he saw her; pale and thin against the dark trees. She stepped gingerly along the wooded path, for there were many twigs capable of yielding their noises. She had no furs as he suspected but dirty rags of clothes. He watched as she picked her way in the early morning light. She was actually moving in his direction. He must be upwind for surely she would have smelt him by now. He stood rigid as a statue hardly breathing. He didn’t dare draw his bow for fear of giving his presence away. Slowly, inch by terrible inch, she moved closer to him. He could smell her in the wind, tangy and light. He waited until she was mere feet away from him before he unleashed his bellow and ran at her. The sudden noise and movement surprised her. She did not run. She blinked instead and in that moment, he had his hands around her neck. He was choking her and she made not a sound. Her eyes rounded and a single tear fell down her cheek. He closed his hands tighter and shook her frame as if she was a doll. Her hands rose then fell. At that instance, a chain fell forward from around the neck; a chain with a bright amber pendent. It was Peter’s turn to blink but he loosened his hands. He had been about to break the fragile neck but the chain banged against his wrists. He removed one hand and looked at the pendent. It was of a cat’s claw.
‘Who are you?’ he hissed angrily. Her face remained the same; impassive but her lips moved though no sound came out. Peter released her neck. He placed both hands on her shoulders and he could feel her body shaking. ‘Who are you?’ he repeated but she gave no answer. For the first time in his life, Peter could feel an indecision rising in him like a volcano. He cursed again loudly. This death was worth more than 500 coins to him. He could live a year on that kind of money. The illegal looked at him. Her lips had stopped moving. Had she been trying to explain who she was or to ask for mercy? It was obvious, even to an illegal or rather especially to an illegal, that he was a hunter and no quarter would be given.
Maura did not run the bath for Peter. He handed over the illegal and the deer, but not before cutting its throat and blooding the illegal’s clothes with it. He watched the woman and the child stand in the doorway. As he watched, Maura closed the door and put on the bath instead for the child. Peter would not visit her again. He carried the illegal’s life in his hands. Returning to the City he presented the torn and bloodied clothes and collected his payment. He did not visit the North again. He found solace instead in the contents of a bottle. His drunken dreams were filled with the images of the boy but he never remembered them when he woke. That was the one gift the bottle could give him.