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The Feral Sentence (Book 1, Part 2)

The Feral Sentence – Book One, Part Two

 

By G. C. Julien

 

www.gcjulien.com

 

© Copyright 2015 G. C. Julien

Shakespir Edition

Edited by Nikki Busch
[www.nikkibuschediting.com
++]

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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PROLOGUE

Its thick black head blocked out all surrounding light. It stared down at me as would a cat at a quivering mouse, tilting its head from side to side, analyzing me entirely. I wanted to scream, but nothing came out.

The skin around its jaw hung loose, dangling as the creature moved in closer. I couldn’t see its eyes—I saw only a shadowed face; curved horns atop its head pointed toward the sky.

I moved back, but no distance came between us. I wanted to disappear, to die, but not at the hands of this beast.

There were voices throughout the trees, and suddenly, the creature was gone. There was blood smeared everywhere: on my skin, across the jungle’s soil, and on my clothes, yet I couldn’t remember what had happened. All I saw was this beast’s face, and all I felt was its thirst for blood.

The voices drew closer, and distorted figures began to surround me. I couldn’t make sense of anything. But these figures soon became hazy, and their voices were replaced by a rhythmic drumming in the distance.

CHAPTER 1

I cracked open my tired eyes, and reality set in.

I lay on a bed of dirt with cruddy hair stuck to the side of my neck and my skin covered in uneven goose bumps. I heard women gathering in the Village, surely making their way to the feeding area.

The breakfast drums sounded in the distance. I was back on Kormace Island—the island of killers.

I couldn’t get her out of my head—Sunny. I remembered seeing her blurred silhouette being dragged into the trees.

“That wasn’t a Norther,” I heard beside me.

But no one was there. I saw Rocket’s face as clear as it had been the day before, her brows close together and her nostrils flared. She’d been the only one to see the beast—the only one who knew what had taken Sunny.

  • * *

Savages, uncivilized, violent… Ogres, as Rocket has called them. They were known for surviving the island without the comfort of civilization or sympathy for human life.

“We’ve always been told that Ogres were nothing more than a myth, a fictitious tale to keep women from straying too far from the Village,” Trim said. I could tell that she too had blindly believed this.

And who could blame her? Ogres? It sounded like something you’d hear in a children’s story—a one-eyed monster vengefully seeking out human flesh.

“They’re the most ruthless and barbaric women you could ever imagine,” Rocket said, brushing her dreadlocked hair against her head. I’d once thought her to be barbaric; I couldn’t even begin to imagine how terrible Ogres were.

“What makes you think they’re women?” Fisher asked.

Rocket smirked knowingly. “It’s an island for female felons only. They’ve never dropped a man.”

Fisher snorted. “Yet.”

Trim eyed everyone curiously. “What makes you so sure they’re even felons?”

And everyone fell silent.

  • * *

“Brone?”

It was Ellie.

She stood in the entryway of my tent, her wavy brown hair over one shoulder, a patient smile on her lips.

“Didn’t you hear the drums?”

Exhausted, I rubbed my eyes and nodded. I wondered if I’d even slept.

“Well?” she said. “What’re you waiting for?”

I eyed my pouch of pearls lying in the dirt, and I hesitated, suddenly feeling guilt ridden because of Sunny’s abduction. Only yesterday, she’d given me three pearls—the island’s currency—to buy myself something from the market tents. And today, she was gone—dead, most likely.

I reached for the pouch, knowing all too well that I’d have to spend its contents eventually. I still needed an eating dish, utensils, bathing products, and possibly materials to build myself a bed.

A bed… God, I missed my bed. I missed sliding on a fresh pair of pajamas after a hot bath. A bath… I sighed. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much filth covered my body, every inch of skin, every crevasse, every fingernail…

But I didn’t linger on this thought, because I knew that my old life was nothing more than a distant fantasy, and the more I reminisced, the shittier I felt about myself and my present life. I’d just witnessed more horror in two days than anyone should be forced to see in a lifetime. I didn’t have the energy to dwell on materialistic desires or on the luxury of cleanliness and comfort.

For all I knew, I could be dead tomorrow.

I followed Ellie toward the center of the Village, where women had begun gathering around a large fire. I could see Sumi, the Village’s cook, moving around so quickly I wondered how she kept track of what she was cooking.

I heard the name Sunny several times, and I knew that word had made its way to all the women of the Village. Information on the island was like malaria—it spread quickly, leaving nothing but pain and misery in its wake.

“Here,” Ellie said, handing me a dish made of bone. “Got you one.”

“Thanks,” I said.

I grabbed the bowl and waited in line to be served by one of Sumi’s helpers. When it was my turn to receive a hot spoonful of wild turkey eggs, Sumi suddenly appeared, eyeing me from head to toe.

“She gets half,” she said.

I fumed inside. I was starving. What did Sumi have against me? What had I ever done to her? Ever since landing on Kormace, she’d given me a hard time.

“Brone’s a Hunter,” Ellie intervened. “She gets whatever she wants.”

She tore the spoon right out of Sumi’s hands and filled my bowl to the brim. I glanced at Sumi, who stared right at me, but what I received was not a hateful glare. Instead, she smiled, as if she knew something I didn’t or as if she were contemplating a gruesome revenge.

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said quickly.

Ellie glanced sideways at me. “Why can’t you just be thankful you have someone looking out for you?”

“Because you’re making me enemies!”

She led us to a thick tree log away from the center fire. She sat down and began shoveling egg into her mouth.

“Br… Brone,” she said, still chewing on gooey yellow bits and pieces, “you’re too soft.”

I stared at her.

“You’re a Hunter now.” She swallowed the last piece. “People should respect you and fear you.”

“I’m not a Hunter. I’m nothing like Eagle.”

I hadn’t meant to sound mopey, but the title I’d been given was beyond my physical capabilities. I felt hopeless. I stared at the grass beneath my feet, where a blue-shelled beetle hopped from blade to blade. Even he had more stealth than I did.

I couldn’t help but wonder how Eagle—our finest Archer—was doing ever since she had been wounded when the Northers attacked the Village. No one had mentioned her name since. Had she died? Why hadn’t we heard about it? Would I be quickly forgotten if injured? Was I just a number?

“Eagle was—is,” Ellie corrected, “a great Hunter. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be. It takes time to shoot an arrow the way she does.”

I stood silent. Was she trying to make me feel better? It wasn’t working. I was useless to the women of the Village. I couldn’t protect them… or feed them for that matter. Holding a bow and arrow felt so unnatural to me, so foreign.

Ellie sighed. “This isn’t about being good at what you do. It’s about knowing your worth on this island.” She leaned forward, her shoulders rounded and her fists clenched. “Or at least… pretending to know it. You have to be assertive, Brone. Weakness won’t get you anywhere.”

“You calling me weak?”

Her lips curved upward. “Well, yes,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“You’re not a citizen anymore, Brone. You’re in the wild. Learn to act like it. If someone gives you a hard time, challenge her. You’re a Hunter now, for God’s sake.” She threw her arms up and laughed. “That’s one of the most respected positions on this island. You could cut everyone’s food supply. You have leverage.”

I scoffed. “No, I couldn’t. I’m not the leader of the Hunters. I just do what I’m told.”

“You don’t have to be the one who runs shit,” she said. “You just have to make people believe that with a few spoken words, you could turn Trim against them.”

I was finally beginning to understand what she was getting at. Everything was a game. Although we functioned well together as a society, we were still human beings. We were still women who felt the need to prove our worth to be greater than another’s.

“It’s all about survival,” Ellie added, “and I won’t always be around to defend you.” I finally sat down beside her and scooped a spoonful of cold egg into my mouth.

“So what leverage do you have?” I glanced sideways at her. “No offense, but you don’t seem like the fighting type. I can’t picture you beating your way up to the top.”

She raised her chin proudly toward the sky. “Pearls.”

“Pearls?” I repeated.

But she didn’t answer me. Instead, she eyed the pouch of pearls on my waist and raised both eyebrows.

The island’s currency? Did she own it?

“You could call me the bank,” she finally said.

My jaw dropped.

“You’re the one who pays all of us for doing our jobs?” I asked.

She placed her empty bowl into the grass by her feet and nodded proudly. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“That explains a lot,” I said, remembering the defeated look on Hammer’s face in the Tools tent when Ellie had caught her in a scam and the way Sumi had remained silent when Ellie filled my bowl with food.

“Which means you have even more leverage,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Not only are you a Hunter, but you’re also friends with the Village’s bank.”

I smiled—not because of the power I suddenly realized I had over other women but because she’d called me a friend. All I wanted on this island was a friend. She placed a hand over mine and squeezed it, and I felt comforted for the first time in a very long time.

CHAPTER 2

“This is soap?” I asked, rubbing the edge of my fingernail against the waxy surface.

“The finest in all of Kormace,” she said slowly. She walked around the wooden table, her slender figure swaying from side to side as she moved. She picked up the unevenly chopped brick of soap and smirked all-knowingly.

“Coconut oil, seaweed… and a few other ingredients.” She rubbed the soap’s surface with the side of her thumb. “The rest is a secret. Keeps me valuable.”

There was a certain elusive quality about her. Her pale, crooked smile made her appear all knowing, almost to the point of arrogant, yet her plant-constructed jewelry and messily braided hair gave her the appearance of simplicity and authenticity.

She dropped the soap into my hands and I pressed it underneath my nose. It smelled fresh but also earthy and somewhat salty—if salt had a smell. I’d take anything at this point. I just wanted to rid my body of its filth. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d showered.

“How much?” I asked.

“Three,” she said quickly.

I knew she was referring to pearls, the Village’s currency. I couldn’t understand how she was charging three pearls for this little bar of soap. I remembered Hammer, the butch woman from the Tools tent, and how she’d tried to scam me into spending all my pearls on a flimsy little leather pouch.

“Weakness won’t get you anywhere,” I remembered Ellie telling me.

Although it wasn’t in my nature to be assertive or confrontational, I reached into my pouch and extracted one shiny pearl.

“One,” I said, holding the single pearl out in front of me.

She eyed me carefully from top to bottom, and I became uncomfortable. I stood there, with my arm stiff out in front of me, refusing to back down.

“You’re the new girl, aren’t you? The one Murk’s assigned as an Archer among the Hunters?” She rubbed her chin with her thumb and index finger.

I nodded.

She stared at the bar of soap for a moment.

“Consider it a welcome gift,” she said.

I hesitated. Was this a game? A test? Why would someone hand over free merchandise? This had never happened to me before. I’d never had anything handed to me for free.

“Don’t overthink it, sweetheart,” she said. “I happen to have a working relationship with you Hunters… I’d like to keep it that way.”

And there it was—leverage.

She smiled. “Maybe one of these days, I’ll be in need of ingredients farther out on the island, and you’ll be the one to help me.”

“Sounds fair,” I said, realizing that our exchange was mutually beneficial.

“I’m Tegan,” she said.

“Brone.”

“You need anything else, you know where to find me.” She walked to the back of the tent and sat on a thick piece of log. Beside her were coconut shells, plants of different lengths and colors, powders, feathers, skins, and many other ingredients thrown into a pile for future creations.

I was about to leave Tegan’s tent when I realized something.

“Tegan?” I asked.

“Yes, doll?”

“Where do I clean myself?”

She smiled at me the way a teacher would her student—with patience and kindness.

“Anything on this island look like a shower to you?”

Had this been a joke? Of course not. Had I seen some magical shower, I’d have… “The waterfall?” I suddenly realized.

She nodded. “Word of advice, though… Don’t stand directly underneath it. It’ll knock you right off your feet. Most women stand at the edges or use the pool of water underneath it to bathe in.”

I thanked her and left.

When I stepped out into the Village, the first thing I noticed was the silence. There were no women arguing about fighting the Northers; there were no footsteps nearby; there was no fire at the center of the Village.

Had we been attacked? There was no sign of struggle or damage.

I rushed out through the Village’s entrance, where trees were slanted to form an arch. How could so many women disappear so quickly? I could feel my legs trembling, but I had to keep moving. Although I’d never gone to the Working Grounds alone, I knew which direction to go.

I ran over the path that had been gradually constructed through usage over the last few decades: broken branches, flattened leaves, and hardened mud. I knew this path quite well now, having travelled it several times to train as an Archer near the Working Grounds’ waterfall.

I’d been running so fast—so blindly, being led by fear and adrenaline—that I’d failed to see her running in my direction. I felt the impact of our bodies before I heard my name, “Brone!”

It was Rocket. She had both hands gripped around my arms, and she was breathing heavily, although not quite as heavily as I was. She was a runner—a true hunter. I had a lot of catching up to do, physically speaking.

“Where were you?” she asked.

My heart regained its natural pace, and I slowed my breathing.

“I… I was just buying something.” I raised the seaweed and coconut soap for her to see, only to realize my fingers’ tight grip had melted holes into it. I sighed.

“Nice.” She laughed at me, and I couldn’t help but smile.

“You’re supposed to keep products like that in your tent and on the ground, where it’s coolest,” she said.

I stared at her as if to say, ‘How was I supposed to know that?’

“Anyways,” she said, “you can’t clean yourself now. You’re a Hunter, Brone, which means you report to Trim every day after breakfast. We train or work until suppertime. Then you get clean if you want.”

She reached for my deformed soap and placed it at the base of the nearest tree. She then covered it with several leaves and branches.

“There,” she said.

“And how am I supposed to remember where that is?” I asked.

“Monkey Brush,” she said.

“Monkey what?” I asked, shifting my attention to the trees overhead.

“Right there.” She pointed at a strangely shaped plant that resembled a snow brush, only it was vibrant red and orange.

“Did you just make up that name?” I asked.

Rocket chuckled. “No, it’s the actual name. I did a project on it in high school before I dropped out.

Always stuck with me.”

I’d been about to ask her how she’d landed herself on Kormace Island, but even I knew that interrogating a felon about their life in the real world was a faux pas. It didn’t matter what she’d done— who she’d killed—because life on Kormace wasn’t the same as life in the real world.

“Come on.” She turned around. “Trim’s waiting on you. No one makes Trim wait.”

I followed her into the Working Grounds, where I received several impatient glares from the new Battle Women who’d been forced to wait for me before beginning their training.

“You’re late,” Trim said. She threw me my bow, but I wasn’t ready for the catch and it landed in the sand.

Laughter erupted around me, and I felt like a complete klutz. How would I ever hunt an animal if I couldn’t even catch my own bow? I’d never hit my target. I suddenly remembered the blurry sight of Sunny being dragged away by the dark figure in the mask, and I couldn’t help but feel responsible. If only I’d known how to shoot… if only I’d been as good as Eagle, I might have been able to save her.

I picked up my bow, its smooth wood feeling even softer than usual against my now calloused palm. I was turning into a true Islander, with my rough skin and dirty fingernails. It disgusted me.

Women fought around me with sticks, rope, and their bare hands while Trim led me closer to the waterfall to continue practicing target shooting with two other Archers, Pin and Hamu—two Asian twin sisters who’d been selected for their perfect vision and small builds, which, as Trim had mentioned, was advantageous for the purpose of stealth.

For the last few days, Pin and Hamu had managed to shoot their arrows several feet away from the target, which was far better than anything I’d managed to do. If the arrow didn’t fall out of my hands, it landed mere feet away from me; it was both embarrassing and frustrating. I began to wonder if Murk had made a mistake in assigning me the task of Archer.

But today was different. Their movements were sloppy and their aim was terrible. It made me feel better.

“You’re supposed to get better, not worse.” Trim moved in, eying them both curiously.

“Sorry, Trim,” Pin said. She was the more vocal of the two, and unlike Hamu who hid her face behind her hair, Pin appeared to be quite confident. Hamu barely spoke, and she followed her sister like a puppy on a leash. “We’re just really tired.”

“I don’t care if you’re tired,” Trim said. “We’re all tired. We’re all tossing and turning in our sleep, afraid that there might be an attack in the middle of the night.”

She tore the bow out of Pin’s hand and picked up an arrow from the pile beside us. Without hesitating, she raised the bow, positioned her arrow, and pulled the bowstring. There was a snap, and her arrow penetrated the middle of the blood-drawn target.

“Tired or not, we still have enemies,” she said, before turning away and toward the Battle Women.

“You young people are too impulsive…” I recognized Flander’s old voice. She was leaning up against a large flat rock at the base of the waterfall’s cliff, observing the new Battle Women spar.

“You old people are too slow,” Rocket said. She swung her fighting stick at the shins of the woman she was battling before tackling her to the ground.

Flander smirked, unoffended by Rocket’s words. It was as if she were proud of her overly freckled, leather-like skin and colorless hair—as if it represented wisdom.

“Always keep your guard up,” Rocket said, extending an open palm to the young Battle Woman lying in the sand.

The girl smiled and grabbed Rocket’s hand. I could tell she was soaking all of this in. She was eager to fight, and she was willing to take a few punches to become as good as Trim’s crew.

The clicking of sticks and fighting cries continued, and I was suddenly thankful to have been given the title of Archer. I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes in a fight with a wooden stick. At least, as an Archer, I could shoot from a distance. The only thing I had to worry about was not getting shot by one of the enemy’s Archers.

“Always stay hidden,” Trim had told us Archers on our first day when Sunny had been by my side. “The enemy always tries to take out Archers first, so they can attack on foot.”

I remembered Sunny’s dandelion-yellow eyes and the way she’d nodded at Trim’s every word. She too had been eager to fight alongside the Hunters. I wondered why I lacked such eagerness. Maybe I was still too fresh. I still possessed this notion that we, as human beings, should be able to cohabitate without wanting to slit each other’s throats. What was the purpose of this war? Why did the Northers want our heads? What had we ever done to them?

I knew there was a lot I didn’t know and a lot I had to learn.

I was still shooting arrows into the sand when I noticed Fisher move in slowly. I’d been intimated by her since the first day I’d seen her. She had such a badass look with her long dark hair pulled back into a tight ponytail and protruding cheekbones—the type of girl you didn’t want to make eye contact with.

“It took her a while too, you know,” she said, a crooked smile on her lips.

I eyed her curiously. I couldn’t tell whether she was being nice to me or blatantly degrading me.

“Eagle,” she clarified.

I lowered my bow. There were dozens of arrows sticking out of the sand several feet away from the wooden target, which was completely undamaged.

“It takes time, kid,” she said. “Here.” She moved in closer and signaled me to get into position.

I placed an arrow into the bowstring and pulled my shoulders back.

“Knees bent a bit,” she said.

Pin and Hamu were now standing still, trying to absorb any bit of advice Fisher had to offer.

“Don’t hold your elbow straight like that.”

I did as I was told and sighed, not quite understanding how my stance would change the direction of my arrow.

“It’s an art, really,” she said. “There. Now pull back, up to your lips, and keep your eyes on the target.”

I followed her instructions and kept my gaze on the target’s bloody circle, but it was hard to concentrate with her practically pressed up against me and her breath warming the back of my shoulder.

“Visualize the arrow hitting your target, and when you’re ready… let go.”

I held onto the idea of a Norther standing in front of me—the very same Norther who’d maimed Eagle. I didn’t know what she looked like, but I’d drawn myself an image for the purpose of directing my hatred: torn garments, arms full of faded ink, facial piercings, and yellow plaque-coated teeth.

I released the arrow.

There was a loud crack, and the hanging target swayed gently from side to side upon impact. To my surprise, I’d managed to strike just above the bullseye. I couldn’t believe it. I glanced back at Fisher, but she’d already walked away.

Pin and Hamu hopped into position, prepared to follow Fisher’s advice. The practicing continued, and although I didn’t hit the bullseye, I managed to hit my target more than once. I’d been so caught up in the moment that for the first time in several days, the cacophonous bickering of female felons became nonexistent to me. I couldn’t hear women swearing or yelling at each other, fighting sticks being knocked against one another, the waterfall’s static noise, the inconsistent chirping and whistling of insects, or the faraway screams and calls being emitted by the jungle’s wildlife.

The only thing I knew in that moment was the feeling of the bow’s wood against the skin of my calloused palm. The target ahead seemed to blur out all surrounding objects. It felt instinctual.

I’d been about to grab another arrow when Biggie came by, almost waddling due to her size. A beam of sunlight landed across her face, and she glared at us through the bright light. I couldn’t help but wonder why Fisher was Trim’s right hand, when Biggie was the size of a full-grown man—six feet tall, at a minimum, and definitely weighing more than two hundred pounds. I could only imagine the kind of damage she was capable of causing.

“We’re going on a hunt,” she said. “Trim’s orders.”

CHAPTER 3

To my surprise, Pin and Hamu had been told to stay behind and continue practicing along with several other Battle Women.

“The fewer women, the better,” Biggie said, looking down at me.

She led me to Trim and the usual crew, and I suddenly felt nauseous at the realization that I was the only Archer. Were they really going to entrust me with the responsibility of capturing food to feed the entire Village? I’d managed to hit my target today—big whoop. How was I supposed to hit a moving target?

The sound of women sparring grew distant as did the waterfall’s powerful roar. Trim led us into the jungle, and I felt a lump swell at the base of my throat. The anxiety was not the result of my having to prove my worth as a Hunter, but rather, the result of one horrifying memory: Sunny. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind nor the idea of Ogres lurking nearby, women who’d turned away from civilization and succumbed to living like animals.

I couldn’t imagine what these women would do—if they hadn’t done it already—to Sunny. Rocket had let it slip that cannibalism was one of the many myths associated with the concept of Ogres, along with sacrificial rituals and baiting.

I’d feared the Northers ever since being dropped onto Kormace Island, but if there was one thing far worse than Northers, it was Ogres.

I followed Trim and the others into the jungle, my heart racing every time I heard a noise in the distance. The farther away we were led from the waterfall, the more anxious I felt. I gripped and regripped my bow, afraid that it might slip out of my sweaty palm.

“This way,” Trim whispered.

She led us through a narrow path fabricated of moist verdure and along the current of a crystal-clear stream that originated from the Working Grounds. I ducked just in time to avoid an oversized spider web—an intricate pattern fabricated at the tips of two tree branches.

The further we ventured, the more uncomfortable I became.

“Brone,” I heard.

My name had come from the front of the line led by Trim.

“At the front,” Trim ordered.

I wasn’t accustomed to being at the front of the line. The front of the line had always been reserved for

Trim and Fisher, and oftentimes Eagle during a hunt. I remembered Eagle’s short, messy blonde hair and the way she’d stared down at me the first time we’d met. I didn’t know her, but I knew she was still a human being, and for the sake of the Hunters and all other women on the island, I truly hoped she’d be okay.

I walked by Trim’s side, shifting my eyes toward every sound I heard to the point of paranoia.

“Relax,” Trim said, glancing sideways at me.

I parted my lips to speak, even though I had nothing to say, but Trim raised a hand and everyone stopped moving. How was I supposed to relax when even Trim knew danger lurked nearby?

“Tracks,” she said.

Fisher moved in closer. She crouched beside us and analyzed the print that had been left in a patch of mud. The print was sloppy, and a good part of it was missing, but it didn’t take a genius to see that this print didn’t belong to a human being.

Fisher gently touched the inside of the print with her index and middle finger then glanced up at Trim and said, “Leopard.”

A leopard? This was the kind of jungle I’d been dropped on? The kind that had wildcats? I suddenly felt lightheaded. How was anyone supposed to survive this island without facing a painful, gruesome death? If it wasn’t a Norther, it was an Ogre—and if it wasn’t either one of those, it was some predatory animal in search of its next meal.

Trim turned around. “Keep your eyes open for spots or silky black.”

“Silky black?” I asked.

“Black panthers. They tend to hide in trees,” she said.

“Yeah and drag their carcasses up there,” Rocket added.

Fisher suddenly lunged forward and stood face-to-face with Rocket; both her fists were clenched on either side of her body. I could see Fisher’s shoulders rising up and down to the rhythm of her rapid breathing.

“Fisher, I… I wasn’t trying to bring up Emilia,” Rocket said. “I just meant in general.”

“I know what you fucking meant, and no one needed to be reminded,” Fisher said.

“That’s enough,” Trim said.

But Fisher didn’t move. It was apparent that the thought of tearing Rocket’s face off was running through her mind.

“Bring her up one more time,” Fisher said.

“I said enough!” Trim grabbed Fisher by the arm and pulled her back.

I could tell the confrontation had shaken Rocket up a bit by the way she nervously tugged on her fingers and bit down on her lip, and I didn’t blame her. Fisher was a fighter, a born killer while Rocket was fast but small and frail in comparison. Rocket wouldn’t have stood a chance.

“Let’s keep moving,” Trim ordered. “We go west, away from the prints.”

Fisher and Trim moved forward quickly, leaving me behind with the other Hunters.

“Who’s Emilia?” I asked.

Flander glanced toward Fisher and Trim, ensuring safe distance, and said, “Fisher’s girlfriend. She was killed by a panther.”

“And dragged into a tree,” Rocket added.

Flander shook her head. “It was awful. She was screamin’, but we couldn’t stop the attack. When it finally killed her, it dragged her up above us, and we just stood there, listen’ to the crunchin’ and tearin’ sounds of the cat eatin’ through her bones and muscles.”

“Shut up,” Biggie interjected, “all of you. You know better than to talk about Emilia. Ever.”

She brushed passed us, nearly knocking Flander over in the process, and followed Trim through an array of multicolored flowers.

“You’d better get up there too, kid,” Flander said. “Archers always stay at the front.”

I did as instructed and caught up with Trim and Fisher. I only prayed they weren’t relying on me to save them from a wild panther with my mediocre archery skills.

The sound of water suddenly caught my attention, and I licked my dry, chapped lips. Trim led us to an opening filled with moss-covered trees and smooth stones scattered across a shallow bed of water. There was a small waterfall at the far back, although one could barely call it a waterfall. It was a flow of water that poured down from one rock to another.

“Rest,” Trim said.

Rocket was the first to remove a dark brown leather water bladder from her belt. She rushed to the clear water spilling over the sharp-edged rocks and filled it to the brim. The others followed, and I realized I had more purchases to make from the merchant tents.

“It’s fresh?” I asked.

Although my mouth was pasty and my lips felt as though they’d shriveled up like raisins, the last thing I wanted to do was drink salt water.

“Sure is,” Biggie said. She’d sat down at the edge of the pool, and she began splashing water on her face, her neck, and throughout her short woolly hair.

I wanted to jump into the water, but instead, I placed my bow against the nearest tree and crept up to the waterfall, then formed a cup underneath with the palms of my hands. The water was cool and hard—a texture dissimilar to the large green bed of salt water found on the Working Grounds, which was warm and silky. I pressed my lips against the edge of my palm and slowly tilted back, allowing the fluid to pour past my lips and into my parched mouth.

The taste was beyond satisfaction. I was given filtered water on the Working Grounds in a stone-carved cup during training, but it was always warm. This water was fresh and crisp, and it slid so effortlessly into the bottom of my stomach, cooling my insides in the process.

I drank some more until I felt my stomach might explode. I could feel the water splashing around inside, and it felt as though I’d just eaten an entire meal.

The other women had already filled their water bladders by the time I was finished loading up on a day’s worth of water, and they’d all sat down to rest around the small pond, their bare feet dipped into the water. I knew I’d have to stop our hunt on several occasions to pee. I could live with that—I only hoped Trim and the others would be so patient.

I slid off my sneakers—which were now entirely brown and ripping at the soles—and sat down between Flander and Biggie. Flander was playing with her water bladder—rubbing the thick stitching with her index finger and brushing her hand over the smooth exterior.

“Three pearls,” she said, glancing sideways at me.

“Oh,” I said, “I don’t want to take—”

She chortled as if I were dumber than a dead battery. “I ain’t selling you mine.” I stared at her.

“When you go see Hammer,” she said, “don’t let her charge you more than three pearls.”

Trim laughed. I’d never heard her laugh before. She was much nicer to look at with a smile on her face. It seemed to take away from the ugliness she’d been cursed with at birth.

“You got gypped,” she told Flander.

“Whad’ya mean?” Flander furrowed her eyebrows and grimaced.

“You’re a Hunter,” Trim said nonchalantly. “All necessities are free.”

“And water’s a necessity when hunting,” Fisher chimed in, raising her water bladder.

Flander grunted. “Well ain’t nobody told me.” “We just did,” Trim said.

Flander rolled her eyes toward me. “What’re you here for? How long’s your sentence?”

I shot several glances at the rest of the Hunters, feeling both violated and tricked. I’d been told that our past lives were irrelevant on Kormace Island.

“What’s said here, stays here,” Biggie said, towering over me. “I killed a boy in high school during a fight. Dey waited for me after school, to prove that I wasn’t too big to take down. Two of ’em ran, but when I caught the leader, I couldn’t stop myself. Just kept beatin’ down on his face over and over ’gain.” She sighed. “Got sentenced to three years here.”

“How long do you have left?” I asked.

She quickly looked up at Trim. “Don’t matter.”

I didn’t have the time to question her any further.

“I shot someone, got seven years,” Fisher said, glaring at the water around her feet.

“That’s it?” Biggie said. I just gave my life story and dat’s all you gon’ say?”

Fisher grimaced then rolled her eyes. “I was involved in some illegal shit—you know, gangs.” She widened her eyes at me as if I was too stupid to understand the concept of street gangs. “Anyways… I had to shoot some guy who’d been selling on our corner. Turns out he was a cop’s kid.”

I wasn’t sure whether to feel sorry for her or frightened by her. Was this sharing of information supposed to make me feel closer to these women?

“Got three years too,” Rocket said, throwing her chin up toward Biggie. “Seems to be the popular sentence.” She shook her head, as if this would break apart any emotion she felt toward her past. “His name was Ben…” She clasped her hands together. “We’d been dating for a while, and I was heavy into heroin at the time. I wanted him to try it—just try it, you know?” She glanced up at me, and I could tell the memory still haunted her. “I had some, so I convinced him to try it. He was a good kid… Never skipped class, never talked back to his mom. But he didn’t tell me he had a heart condition. I wouldn’t have given it to him. I wouldn’t have… After my high, he was just lying there, pale as a ghost, and…

Well, you know…”

Flander got up and crossed through the shallow water. She sat beside Rocket and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay, kid. We know.”

Rocket pressed her head against Flander’s shoulder. Despite their criminal backgrounds, I could tell these women had grown to be a family. They cared about each other even when their twisted faces or snarky comments suggested otherwise.

“I got three years, too,” Flander said. She swirled her hand through the water by her feet and glanced up at me. “I’d been out all night at the bar, drinking my sorrows away, and when I left, I climbed into my car—just like that. I don’t remember anything… I just remember waking up in the hospital and being told I’d killed two little girls and their mother.”

I swallowed hard. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the guilt she felt. I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of killing Gary when he’d attacked my mother, and he’d deserved it. But an innocent family? I was nauseated.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Don’t be,” Flander said. “We all make mistakes, and we pay for them. I’ve spent enough years here to forgive myself. What happened was horrible, but it can’t be undone, and hatin’ myself for it ain’t gonna make it better.”

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Almost done my three years now,” Flander said, forcing a crooked smile.

“Like Fisher here,” Trim said, “I got seven years.” She leaned forward and placed her elbows on her knees as though she were a summer camp leader about to tell ghost stories around a campfire. “I was a dealer… One night, I got a call from one of my boys asking me to deliver. I trusted the guy, so I showed up at his place. There were other guys there, though, fucked out of their minds. Long story short, they tried to pin me down and have their way with me. I always carried a pocket knife in my boot, and that night, it saved me.” She zoned out, most likely reliving that awful night. “They forced my face against the dining room table and ripped my pants down to my knees, and I remember thinking… I’d rather die than get raped. So I pulled out my knife and swung back as hard I could. Next thing I knew, I was covered in red, and there was a guy lying on the floor, gargling his own blood.”

I just stared at her.

“System’s fucking corrupted,” she added. “It was self-defense.”

“My lawyer was going for manslaughter,” I finally said. Everyone fell silent, waiting to hear my story. “My mom’s boyfriend… He was a drunk. He attacked her one night, with both hands around her throat. He would’ve killed her… So I found a frying pan in the kitchen, and I swung it at the back of his head to knock him out.”

“A cast iron pan?” Biggie asked.

I nodded.

She laughed. “Damn, girl. Everyone knows those things are deadly.”

“It all happened so fast,” I said quickly. “I wasn’t trying to… Anyways, I got three years.”

“Don’t sweat it, kid,” Flander said. “We’re not judging you.”

I forced a smile.

Trim suddenly slapped her knees, breaking the silence. “Enough rest, let’s keep moving.”

CHAPTER 4

“You got this,” Trim whispered.

I wasn’t sure what I struggled with most—feeling pressured to feed a village of hungry women or taking the life of an innocent animal. I’d never hunted before, yet there I was, gazing down the length of my arrow, aiming its pointed head at a wild boar. Its tusks were barely visible, and I knew it wasn’t very old.

Aside from fish, wild boar was the preferred meat among the women, Trim had explained. It tasted like pork—the best pork I’d ever tasted—and it fed many. The Hunters would walk for miles in search of boar. Male turkey was also hunted on occasion, with females captured for egg production.

“Chin up, now pull back,” Trim said.

I kept my eye on the boar’s chest to aim for the heart as I’d been taught.

“Release,” Trim hissed.

I let go of the bowstring, and with a snap-like sound, fired my arrow directly at the boar. It squealed, before quickly darting in the opposite direction. Trim quickly tore the bow out of my hand, and without warning, jolted forward to catch the wounded boar.

By the time we caught up, Trim had stopped running. She handed me my bow, and said, “Almost.” The boar was lying in the dirt several feet away with an arrow protruding from its hairy neck.

“Biggie,” Trim said, and at the sound of her name, Biggie moved in. Just as Eagle had done, Biggie reached down and pulled on the boar’s tusk, exposing its neck. She pulled a sharp blade from her belt and began sawing through the animal’s thick muscle, tendons, and bones.

I turned away at the sound of its head being torn from its body.

“Why do you do that?” I asked.

“It’s respectful,” Flander said.

“Cutting off its head is supposed to be respectful?” I asked.

“There’s always a chance that the animal might still be alive. We take off the head to make sure it bleeds out—to make sure it’s dead and not sufferin’.”

I noticed my arrow sticking out of the creature’s leg. I’d missed my target.

“Let’s head back before sundown,” Trim ordered. She led the way, with Biggie dragging the boar by its hind legs across the jungle’s uneven soil.

We were almost at the Working Grounds—I knew, because I’d recognized the stream we’d followed at the beginning of our hunt—when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Everyone had stopped moving, and Trim was pointing across the flow of water.

It was just sitting there, at the base of a broken tree log, chewing on plants as if nothing else in the world mattered. It was bigger than any gorilla I’d ever seen at the zoo, with its thick, short-haired chest resembling that of an armored knight. Its black eyes were glued to us, and for a moment, it stopped chewing and just stared.

I swallowed hard. Why were we just standing there? I’d heard of gorillas attacking humans, and who knew where this one had come from? Maybe it was a mother. I noticed that the Hunters were all smiling—something I didn’t see very often.

“Beautiful, ain’t it?” Flander whispered.

It really was, but the fear I felt toward the animal eliminated any excitement within me.

“Let’s keep moving,” Trim said quietly, and she turned the other way.

I couldn’t believe I’d just seen a wild gorilla dozens of feet away from me.

Flander was still smiling ear to ear by the time we reached the Working Grounds. She must have caught me staring at her because she laughed and said, “In all my years.”

I cocked an eyebrow. Had she never seen one before?

“I seen a black panther—just once, mind you—chimpanzees, cougars, wild turkey, and birds of all sorts, but never once have I seen a gorilla,” she said.

“Me neither,” Rocket said. “What a beauty!”

“Are there many around here?” I asked.

“Probably,” Flander said. “Kormace is huge. There’s still tons we haven’t seen. We like to stay close to the Village.”

I was beginning to understand why criminal sentences on Kormace Island were so short in comparison to the duration of actual prison sentences—survival was a daily struggle. In prison, all basic necessities were provided and overall safety was guaranteed—somewhat.

The moment we entered the Working Grounds, everyone fell silent. But this silence was not brought forth by our presence, but rather, by someone else’s. She’d just entered the Working Grounds from the Village path with Ellie underneath one arm and a long wooden staff underneath the other.

She struggled to move forward, her face contorting with every step taken.

“Eagle!” Rocket shouted.

Eagle glanced up, her blue eyes resembling glass marbles underneath the sunlight’s intrusive rays. Her lips curved upward at the sight of Rocket running her way.

Trim and the others were quick to follow, leaving the dead boar on the ground. Even though I felt out of place, I followed too.

Rocket threw her arms around Eagle, and although Eagle’s arms were busy maintaining balance, she reached around Rocket’s shoulders with her staff and held her tight.

“You okay?” Trim asked.

Several other women had circled around us, curious to hear about Eagle’s recovery since the attack.

“I’m okay,” Eagle said, shrugging, but the way she struggled to stand upright proved otherwise.

“Medics never tell us anything,” Fisher said. “Everything’s always a big secret.”

Eagle laughed, her blonde hair dancing atop her head. It had grown a bit over the last few weeks. I couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been sitting in a cabin, secluded from everyone.

“Just how Navi is,” she said. “She says the more people talk about something, the more power they give it. Guess she didn’t want anyone talking about my injuries.”

“Who’s Navi?” I asked, turning to Flander.

“Our Medic—and before y’ask,” Flander said, “she named ’erself after a video-game character—some fairy. ’Course the geek would turn out to be the Medic.”

I smiled, even though I didn’t really care where her name had come from.

“Did Navi tell you when it’s safe to start hunting again?” Trim asked.

Eagle regripped her staff and hopped sideways to straighten her stance. “I won’t be hunting anymore.”

“What?”

“What?”

“How’s…”

“What about…”

Eagle waved a hand to quiet everyone.

“I’m just grateful to be alive… Got hit here,” she said, pointing at her inner thigh, “and here.” She pulled the leather of her shirt over her right shoulder, revealing a pink circular-shaped scar surrounded by blue and yellow bruising. She made a fist with her hand then stretched all her fingers into an open palm.

“Can’t really feel them,” she said.

“There was nerve damage,” Ellie said, her eyes lowering to the ground. “Doesn’t look good.”

There was a moment of silence, which was uncomfortable but required for the absorption of Ellie’s news.

“Does Murk know about this?” Trim asked.

Eagle nodded, defeated.

“Murk’s reassigned her to be a Night Watcher,” Ellie said.

“A Night Watcher?” I asked.

Everyone turned to face me. It was as if they’d forgotten I was standing behind them.

“It’s basically a glorified Battle Woman,” Rocket said, seemingly disgusted. “They stay up during night hours and keep watch over the Village while the other women sleep. There’s no fighting involved. If there’re any intruders, they sound the alarm—well the horn.”

Eagle scoffed. “There’s fighting, all right. Fighting to stay awake.”

But no one laughed. It was evident that being a Night Watcher was a task assigned to those incapable of working any other job due to physical limitations—like having the fat kid in a group of friends “stand watch” while the other kids sneak into the teacher’s desk drawers to steal candy.

Rocket moved in again, leaning her head on Eagle’s shoulder.

“I’m so sorry, Eag,” she said.

Eagle shrugged. “It is what it is.” She shook her head and laughed. “I just feel sorry for you guys. You’re gonna starve without me.”

“I’ll do my best to make sure everyone keeps eating,” I said, although I suddenly wished I’d kept my mouth shut.

Everyone’s eyes turned to me.

Eagle raised an eyebrow and eyed me from head to toe. “She’s my replacement?”

“No one could ever replace you, Eagle,” Biggie said, casting a shadow over all of us as she moved in closer. “But we did need an Archer, and she was one of the chosen ones, along with Sun—and Pin and Hamu.”

I knew she’d held back from mentioning Sunny, and I felt a knot form in the pit of my stomach.

“Trim can shoot.” Eagle crossed her arms over her chest.

It was apparent that my being an Archer was the last thing Eagle would have agreed to. I wasn’t sure whether it was because I was new to Kormace Island or because I somehow rubbed her the wrong way. But I’d never done anything to offend her—at least not intentionally.

She was still staring right at me, her eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared. I’d always been taught to steer away from confrontation—to make friends rather than enemies. Even though I boiled inside, wanting nothing more than to ask, “What’s your problem with me, anyways?” I was unable to. I just didn’t have it in me, which I knew would be my downfall on this island.

“Cheer up, Eag. We’re having a celebration in your name tonight.” Rocket nudged her.

“Tegan always makes the best brew during celebrations.” Flander licked her lips and rubbed her palms together. I remembered Tegan. I’d purchased soap from her in one of the merchant tents. She had a way of mixing ingredients to create new items and potions. I wasn’t quite sure, but I could only assume Flander was referring to alcohol when she said brew.

“A celebration?” Eagle scoffed. “It may as well be a memorial… or a funeral. I know how these things work. I defended the Village, and now I’m a cripple.”

“No one’s celebrating your injuries,” Trim said sharply. “We’re celebrating your bravery. You took out most, if not all of the attackers that day.”

Eagle shrugged. “Look, I’ll catch you guys later.”

Ellie shot a glance at me before ducking underneath Eagle’s arm and moving forward with her.

“Don’t pay any attention to her,” Flander said, leaning in toward me. “She’s just hurtin’.”

“With good reason.” Fisher was quick to come to Eagle’s defense. “It’s like being a gold medal Olympian and losing a leg. Eagle’s always been our number one Hunter, and now she’s nothing.”

“She’s not nothing!” Rocket said.

Fisher rolled her eyes. “In the eyes of the Village—yeah, she is. If you can’t contribute, you’re basically a waste of space.”

Rocket lunged forward and shoved Fisher back as hard as she could. Fisher tripped backward several steps, but she somehow managed to stay on her feet. She had a cryptic smile on her face as if amused by Rocket’s lack of strength.

“Enough!” Trim grabbed Rocket by the leather of her shirt and extended an open palm at Fisher.

“She started it,” Fisher said, smirking at Rocket.

Rocket pulled out of Trim’s grip and stormed off in the opposite direction toward the Village’s path.

“Why do you do that?” Trim asked, turning her attention to Fisher.

Fisher laughed. “Come on, Trim. I was being realistic. You know better than anyone that emotions don’t belong on Kormace, and emotions aside, Eagle’s useless now.”

Trim clenched her jaw, mulling over Fisher’s words. It was clear that she found truth in them.

“You’re right,” Trim said coldly. “But Eagle still deserves recognition for all she’s done, so I expect you all to be at the celebration.”

Everyone nodded and made their way toward the Village. I was about to follow when I felt someone tap my shoulder.

“You should be proud,” Rocket said, her gaze fixed on the waterfall.

I didn’t know what she was referring to until I followed her eyes. Several women had dragged the bloody boar across the sand to the side of the waterfall where a bountiful garden filled with fruits and vegetables was located. Beside this garden was a cage constructed of branches filled with wild turkeys.

I remembered Murk mentioning Farmers as one of the divisions of the Village, and I realized that these women were responsible for our food and water consumption. There were two women kneeling in front of the garden, reaching into it and pulling out bits and pieces of either weed or actual fruit—I couldn’t quite tell which.

There was a water filtration system located beside the turkey cage—it was a massive hole dug into the ground with some meshing or skin stretched out above it. I had no idea how the contraption worked, but I’d seen Trim approach it to fill her water bladder.

I looked away when one of the women raised a carved blade and began tearing into the boar’s flesh. “You shouldn’t watch that,” Rocket said. “The last thing you want on this island is to be grossed out by meat. It’s all we eat.”

“I thought you left,” I said.

“I did.” She smirked then opened her hand and revealed the piece of seaweed soap I’d purchased from Tegan’s tent. “I knew you’d forget where it was, so I grabbed it for you. Come on, I’ll show you where to get cleaned up.”

I followed her toward the waterfall on the opposite side of the bloody scene. There was a gentle flow of water spilling out over several flat rocks high above. Underneath this natural shower was a young woman lathered in a silky substance, with her eyes closed, her wet hair pulled back, her bare skin and small pointed breasts glistening underneath the water.

“This is it,” Rocket said. She leaned in close then whispered, “Some women still try to shave—others don’t even bother. Not like there are any men to impress. Mind you, most women on the island learn to play for the other team, if ya catch my drift.”

“What?” I asked.

Rocket ignored me, and instead, offered me a flat. pointed rock, which had been sharpened along one of its edges. “Nothing like a razor, but it manages to get some of the hair. Just be careful.”

She raised an arm above her head and revealed an evenly trimmed, short-haired armpit. “Personally, I don’t like the long pit hair.” She glanced at the woman who was now rinsing the top of her head, revealing thick black patches underneath the pits of her arms. “Some people don’t seem to care.”

I grabbed the rock and thanked her.

“When you’re done,” she said, “just sit in the sun for a while. It’ll dry you off.”

A little farther away, lying in a bed of grass alongside the Working Grounds’ pool of water were three naked women sunbathing.

“Like that,” Rocket said, following my gaze.

How was I supposed to be naked around complete strangers? I’d never been the type to shamelessly remove my top at the gym or change in front of my friends. I’d always been self-conscious of my petite body. I suddenly felt the urge to return to the Village, unclean but with my pride intact.

“I’ll catch you later.” Rocket winked at me and turned the other way.

I moved farther down the side of the waterfall, away from the naked women, and I slid off my top. I held both breasts in my hands, feeling entirely vulnerable and exposed. With one hand, I awkwardly began pulling at the rope of my pants, when a familiar voice startled me.

“You must be happy,” Ellie said.

I turned around so fast that I nearly slipped on the cold stone ground underneath me.

“Got something to hide?” She raised an eyebrow.

I realized I was hunched forward, holding onto myself as if afraid my breasts might fall off.

“I… um,” I tried.

“I’m not judging,” She slowly slid her leather top above her shoulders and over her head, revealing large round breasts and a softly defined stomach.

I hadn’t meant to stare, and I immediately felt my cheeks warm to what must have been an uncomfortable shade of red the moment she caught me looking. But this didn’t seem to affect her. She simply smirked then went on to removing her bottoms.

“These are washable too, you know,” she said, dangling the sun-dried skin between her fingers.

I nodded quickly, avoiding eye contact.

“I usually go for a soak at the base of the waterfall. It’s deep enough to walk all the way into,” she said.

“To wash your clothes?” I asked.

“To wash everything.”

I peered toward the waterfall—or at least what I could see of it from this angle—and I noticed that the number of women who had been sunbathing naked had doubled in number.

“Murk doesn’t want anyone using soaps in the Working Grounds’ pool,” she said, “but salt water still cleanses, so most women opt for a quick bath. The showers lead out into a stream, so it doesn’t affect the pool.” With her big toe, she pointed below, where flat rocks made a stair-like descent, with translucent water trickling out into the jungle.

I much preferred the idea of using soap. I hadn’t showered in over a week.

“Are you showering, or what?” She turned away from me to rinse her hair, her hourglass figure shifting from side to side as she moved to catch the falling water.

I realized I was still holding my chest. I stepped toward the water with my bottoms still in place. I wasn’t ready to expose my nudity like the rest of these women. I flinched at the water’s impact—not because it was heavy in any way, but because it was cold in comparison to the jungle’s hot sticky air.

“I’d use that up fast, if I were you,” Ellie said.

I turned toward her, crossing both arms over my chest.

“The soap,” she said. “This isn’t some cheap-brand pharmacy soap. It’s all natural, and in this heat, it doesn’t last.”

I opened my right palm, only to find a thick glob remaining; an oily substance leaked through the cracks between my fingers. I understood why most women preferred to use the Working Grounds’ bed of water for bathing—it was essentially free, while showering alongside the waterfall was costly in the sense that each shower required one piece of soap. I couldn’t believe that I’d be spending three years of my life bathing in salt water and only occasionally treating myself to an actual shower, which I’d come to realize was a privileged luxury among the Islanders.

I rubbed the gooey soap all over my body, feeling as though I were taking a shower for the first time in my life. It wasn’t like spreading commercial body wash on your body. The texture was balmy and sleek and smelled of coconut, but it didn’t lather. I could tell Tegan’s concoction was oil-based.

“See you tonight,” I heard Ellie say.

My eyes were sealed tight, with soap layering over my entire face, so I waved awkwardly in her direction. The cool water from above rinsed through my sand-infested hair and across my skin, making me feel whole again. I gently rubbed the water out of my eyes, feeling the smooth skin of my face underneath my fingertips, when suddenly, an overwhelming sadness came over me. The celebration had made me realize that caring for one’s physical appearance was no longer feasible.

And I didn’t mind—I mean, I didn’t really care that I wouldn’t be able to straighten my hair; I didn’t care that my hair on my legs would be prickly, if not long and hairy; I didn’t care that my eyebrows wouldn’t be plucked or that I wouldn’t be wearing any makeup; I didn’t care about my personal appearance at all.

What bothered me the most was that for the next three years, I wouldn’t even be able to see my own face.

CHAPTER 5

I wouldn’t have expected to see Murk sitting among her villagers, laughing with her head thrown back, and sipping liquid from a sliced coconut. She’d always been so secretive—so mysteriously hidden in the depth of the Working Grounds’ waterfall or hidden behind the closed door of her cabin at the far end of the Village.

Seeing her this way opened my eyes to the overlooked reality that she was just like the rest of us: a human being who’d been sentenced to spend years of her life on a remote island, fighting every day to survive among lawless women and predatory animals.

Being leader didn’t make her immune to emotion or pleasure. I watched as she laughed with Trim, telling stories while pointing out past the Village walls, and for the first time since I’d been dropped onto Kormace Island, I realized how fortunate I was to have been found by Trim and to have been brought into a village led by such an admirable and worthy leader, someone capable of maintaining order while also ensuring comfort and overall happiness.

“This seat taken?”

I glanced up. It was Biggie. She was holding a half skull in one hand and a half melon in the other. “Here,” she said, handing me the melon. She sat beside me atop a thick wooden log that had stabilized itself into the ground over the course of several years, I presumed.

“What is this?” I asked. I leaned over the melon bowl and inhaled. The stench made my nostrils flare even wider, and I immediately turned away.

“Oh come on, it ain’t that bad,” she said. She tilted her skull bowl toward her lips with both hands and sipped on the liquid. “Tegan makes it. It’s home brewed.”

“Alcohol?” I asked.

She smiled sideways before drinking some more.

“It smells rotten,” I admitted.

“Kinda is,” she said. “Won’t hurt you, though. Ain’t you ever done a tequila shot or a vodka shot? That shit don’t taste like chocolate, but it sure feels good.” My mouth watered at the thought of chocolate.

I reluctantly tilted the melon toward my lips, allowing the warm fluid to enter past my bottom teeth and over the top of my tongue. The taste was overpowering—it tasted like rubbing alcohol with the subtlety of tropical fruit. I immediately spat it back into the melon bowl, only to then realize that everyone’s eyes had turned my way.

“What’s the matter, Archer? Can’t handle Tegan’s brew?” Eagle said.

Everyone burst out laughing. I stared at her for a moment even though all I wanted to do was glare or tell her to go fuck herself. I wasn’t the one who’d severed her nerves or the reason she’d landed herself on Kormace Island to begin with. She was acting like a child.

As the fire crackled, I noticed a crooked smile take shape on her shadowed face. I wasn’t sure whether I had remained quiet simply because confrontation wasn’t in my nature or because Eagle was sitting directly beside Murk.

“Give her a break, Eag. Everyone has a hard time drinking the stuff at first.” Rocket sat down by Eagle’s side and nudged her on the arm.

Eagle scoffed, still eyeing me. “Not like that.”

“Don’t worry, I did the same thing,” I heard.

There was a middle-aged woman standing behind me with both arms crossed over her chest and an overall careless way about her.

“Shit’s not for everyone,” she added.

I tried to smile at her, being that she’d come to my defense, but she walked away to join a group of women gathered on the other side of the fire. Eagle went on to mutter something to Rocket, but I wasn’t able to hear. There were too many voices being thrown in all directions.

I looked around in search of Flander and Fisher, but it was too dark beyond the fire to see anyone’s face. There were dozens of women gathered in honor of Eagle’s bravery the day of the attack.

“You gonna drink that?” Biggie asked, leaning over me.

I looked down at my melon bowl, which was almost entirely full, and I shook my head. I couldn’t see myself ever acquiring a taste for such a vile concoction.

“No use wasting.” She reached over and pulled the drink out of my hands.

I leaned forward with both elbows on my knees, staring into the fire. I imagined myself suddenly waking up from an induced coma, only to be told by hospital staff that I’d suffered a severe head injury the night Gary attacked my mother. Maybe this was all just a dream—Kormace Island, the Hunters, the Northers, the Ogres—maybe none of them were real. Maybe, just maybe… they were all fictional characters from a television series that I’d somehow managed to incorporate into my vivid dreams.

  • * *

“Can you believe that?” Melody asked. She was pointing at the daily newspaper, just below a title that read, “New Economical Prison.”

She’d brought in the paper as she did every morning at St. Mariana’s Thrift Store, and we were both leaning over the counter killing time on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

“I thought that was just a rumor,” I said.

“Me too. Listen.” She picked up the paper and pulled it closer to her black-rimmed glasses. “A new plan is currently in place to begin replacing maximum security prisons with government-owned islands for economic purposes and for civilian safety. According to our source, this plan is targeting only the most dangerous of criminals—those convicted of first-degree murder.

“‘The plan is to replace certain concrete institutions with Mother Nature herself,’ Mr. Milas, Minister of the Justice Department, stated during a conference held at the Goliath Centre last week. ‘This is the most economical way to proceed.’

“The length of sentencing remains unclear, and Mr. Milas has yet to provide any clear details as to when this plan is to be implemented.”

Melody glanced up at me. “I’ve been hearing about this for years. I’m surprised they’re actually going through with it.”

I scoffed. “Or someone caught them sending prisoners away and now it’s being leaked publicly.”

She smirked. “Look at you… Conspiracy nut.” She placed the newspaper back on the counter. “Either way, I think it’s brilliant.”

I laughed. “Why’s that?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Do you really want to let our tax money feed murderers in prison? I completely agree with the guy. Drop ’em off on an island and let them fend for themselves.”

  • * *

“Fruit?”

I glanced up to find an older, orange-haired and freckle-faced woman standing directly in front of me, carrying kabobs of multicolored fruit in both hands.

I hesitated. I’d never been offered fruit on a stick before.

“There’s mango, guava, banana, papaya, and acai berries,” she said, eying the kabob as if trying to point at each individual fruit with her eyes.

“It’s free?” I asked.

I remembered being brought to a hockey game by my mother when I was young, where men and women strolled through the aisles with bags of popcorn and cans of beer. I must have been six, maybe seven years old, and I remembered reaching for a bag of popcorn thinking it was free.

“Nothing’s ever free,” my mother had told me, “even if it’s offered to you.”

“Course it’s free,” the woman said. She plucked one of the kabobs like a rose from a bouquet and handed it to me.

I hadn’t had the time to thank her, before Biggie’s thick arm brushed past my face in reach of a skewer. She took it right out of the woman’s hand, thanked her, and pulled off the first piece of fruit with her teeth.

“Thanks, Fran,” Biggie said.

The woman, Fran, rolled her eyes and made her way around the fire, bending over gently and offering her handmade creations.

“That’s Fran,” Biggie said through a mouthful of chewed-up mango. “She’s one of the Farmers. Likes to be creative when it comes to food.”

“It’s pretty,” I said, poking at a piece of sliced guava. It had a beautiful green exterior, and its insides were a vibrant pinkish red—like the inside of a juicy watermelon. It wasn’t what you’d find at the local grocery store or at the market. It was evident that this fruit hadn’t been subjected to any chemicals or long-distance transportation.

I pulled it off of its finely carved branch and bit into it, careful not to crunch down on its seeds.

“Oh my God,” was all I managed to say.

“Ain’t nothing like Kormace fruit,” Biggie said, finishing her last piece of banana. “You gonna eat that?” She pointed at my mango.

I instinctively pulled away like a rabid dog protecting a piece of broken bone, and Biggie burst out laughing.

“You’re a true Islander now,” she said, throwing an arm around my shoulders so hard I nearly dropped my fruit.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, suddenly feeling as though my bladder might explode.

The funny thing about many apocalyptic movies and TV shows is that they don’t really incorporate the dirty details of basic comfort—which is something I had to learn the hard way on Kormace Island. Believe it or not, Murk had established rules when it came to releasing. Urination was to be done outside the Village walls and away from the Working Grounds.

  • * *

“Just keep the Village in sight and do your thing,” Rocket told me one of my first few days on Kormace Island. She then plucked an oversized leaf from the base of a tree. “These are probably your best bet for wiping. I wouldn’t be too adventurous with the type of plant you grab, either… Might break out in a rash.”

She then led me around the Village walls to where greenery turned into rock and flat surfaces became rough and slanted. At the edge of these rocks was a sudden drop.

“We call this the Cliff,” she said.

I peered down into the abyss. I could see the tops of trees and I could hear the soothing sound of flowing water, but nothing more.

“Think of it as a natural garbage disposal pit,” she said. “Bones, feces, fruit peel, bodies, you know… And you don’t hover over it to take a shit, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

I hesitated. “Bodies?”

Rocket shrugged almost nonchalantly, although I could tell she’d lost people she loved by the way she

avoided my eyes. “People die, Brone. It’s not like we have shovels to dig graves for every single one of them.”

“What about funerals? A ceremony?” I asked, suddenly feeling like nothing more than a disposable object constructed of flesh and bone.

She shrugged again. “If they die in battle or on our territory, then of course we celebrate them. If they go missing, well, that’s kind of hush-hush around here. Murk doesn’t like rumors floating around, ya know? So if someone disappears, no one talks about them.”

“And no one goes looking for them?”

She shook her head. “Not everyone who disappears gets killed. Some of them are used to lure us in by the Northers, which isn’t worth the risk. Some women decide to live on their own—or, at least, try to—and others, well… They seem to think that Rainer has more to offer.”

“That’s the Norther’s leader, right?” I asked.

Rocket smirked. “One and only. I hope she burns in hell.”

  • * *

I hated leaving the Village walls past sunset. I caught the Night Watcher’s eyes as I made my way through the Village’s entrance, and I knew that despite her standing there to keep watch over the Village, her presence did not guarantee my safety. She stood tall and stiff, carrying a beige tusk in her right hand, which I knew was the only weapon she had—a means of alerting everyone of oncoming danger.

A horn wouldn’t save me from an attack or a kidnapping. I clenched my teeth as I rushed through a narrow path, guided only by old tracks dimly illuminated by the moon. I reached out, gently gliding my fingertips along the coarse, massive tree trunks as I moved forward.

“When you go, just move away from the Village. No one likes the smell of piss when they eat breakfast,” Rocket had told me the day she brought me to the Cliff.

I glanced back. I could see an orange glow hovering above the Village walls, and I could hear women talking among themselves. I shot several glances in every direction, only to be reunited with darkness and wildlife noises—cracking of tree branches, rustling of leaves, insect cries, and the faraway sound of running water.

I lowered my pants and squatted by the base of a tree, emptying my bladder as quickly as possible. I managed to find a leaf and to refasten my pants around my waist, but the moment I moved toward the Village, I heard something…

My eyes widened into the blackness, as if opening them to their fullest would somehow allow me to see beyond human capability. I couldn’t see anything, but there was movement nearby, and I feared that the sound of my own heart pounding would give away my location.

I fell into a crouched position and waited. I considered running back to the Village, but for all I knew, I’d be running away from a wild cat. It was better to stay still.

Silence returned. Maybe I was overreacting… Maybe it was nothing more than a rabbit or a wild turkey lurking nearby. I’d been so paranoid ever since Sunny’s abduction that I imagined the slightest of sounds to be some horrid predatory beast.

But the sound that followed next proved to me that I wasn’t overreacting… I was being followed. The noise had been faint but distinguishable nonetheless—heavy breathing.

CHAPTER 6

“You so much as breathe too loud, and I’ll slit your fucking throat,” she said, a filthy hand held tightly over my lips and the sharp point of a blade pressing into the base of my throat.

I lay on my back, my elbows digging into the jungle’s moist earth; she sat on me with both legs on either side of my body. I couldn’t see her face—not because of the darkness but because of the yellow serpentine mask covering her nose, her eyes, and the majority of her forehead. It almost looked as though she’d collected snake molt and glued it to a plain wooden mask.

Behind her stood another woman who wore a similar mask, only it appeared brown and much too large for her face. She fidgeted, constantly shifting her gaze toward the Village as if at any moment, the Night Watcher would blow the horn, warning everyone of the nearby threat.

The woman in the yellow mask leaned in closer, her raunchy breath warming the lower half my face.

“Every time you get paid, we’ll expect a cut.”

The woman behind her shuffled around. “Hurry up, H—Panther, I think someone’s comin’.”

Panther—I assumed it was her code name—turned around and waved a careless hand before returning her focus onto me. “Three pearls, weekly.”

Three pearls? I only earned five pearls per week. And this woman expected me to hand over more than half of my earnings?

“That gonna be a problem?” Panther asked.

I quickly shook my head, feeling as though my heart might explode. I didn’t have much of a choice.

The weight of her body began to take its toll, and all I wanted was to run away, but I couldn’t move.

“You know where the Cliff is?” she asked.

I nodded, feeling the sharp point of her blade dig deeper into my neck.

“There’s a boulder farther down with a palm tree beside it. Dig the pearls behind the boulder, got it?” I nodded.

“Panther, come on…” the other woman said.

“I know you get paid every seven days. In fact, pay day’s coming up, so I’ll expect to fine me some treasure by the Cliff soon,” Panther said. She shoved me into the dirt and climbed off of me. But she didn’t walk away. Instead, she just stood there, hovering over me as would a predator over its tortured prey.

She pointed her blade at me, and I realized it was actually a shiv made of bone. “You mention this to anyone, and waste won’t be the only thing thrown over the Cliff.”

And with that, she disappeared into the jungle. I wished I’d caught a glimpse of her eye color, her hair color, tattoos—anything. But it had been too dark. All I could see in my mind was the cracked snakeskin floating above my face.

I hurried back to the Village, both terrified and vulnerable. What was I supposed to do? Run to Trim? Tell her what happened? I didn’t know who this woman was. For all I knew, she was Trim’s friend. I thought of finding Ellie, but the last thing I wanted to do was put her at risk. This woman—Panther—was unidentifiable. Was she a Norther? An Ogre? Was she one of us? My heart pounded, and my legs trembled so bad I had to walk slowly to avoid collapsing to the ground.

I could hear Murk’s voice in the distance, but it sounded so faint, so surreal as if being emitted through a large construction pipe, or a never-ending tunnel. She was praising Eagle, from what I could gather—recognizing her bravery, her selflessness, and so on. But the last thing I cared about was Eagle.

The only thing racing through my mind was the serpentine masks and the idea of being thrown to my death from atop the Cliff. How had this happened? The Village was supposed to be safe. Murk prided herself on keeping her women safe. Why was there no security outside the Village walls?

“Whoa, Brone, where’re you going?” I heard.

I glanced up, suddenly realizing nothing had changed inside the Village’s walls. Everyone was still celebrating—women were beating down on drums and dancing to the rhythm, drinking from their cups, smiling and laughing, and eating freshly cut fruit from wooden sticks.

“Hello?”

It was Fisher. She was standing in front of me with both hands on her waist and her head tilted to one side.

“I’m just tired. I need sleep,” I said.

“You okay?” she asked.

I nodded and quickly moved past her, but her hand suddenly caught my arm.

“What happened?” she asked.

Fisher wasn’t the empathetic type. She looked at me through narrowed eyes—not those of worry, but rather, concern.

“I… I,” I stammered.

Was my demeanor so different that she had picked up on my fear? Fisher never seemed to worry about others’ emotions. So what did she care, anyway?

She scratched the front of her throat and raised both eyebrows. “You’re bleeding.”

I mirrored her movement and gently pressed my finger against the base of my neck, feeling warmth and irritation; then I pulled my hand away. Blotches of dark red covered my fingertips.

“Well?” she pressed.

“Oh, this,” I said. “I, um… I had to go… You know. And, well,” I said and tried to create a false reality in which I slipped trying to get back up and caught a sharp rock.

“I don’t need to know,” she quickly interrupted. “Just clean it out. The last thing you want is an infection. We don’t have antibiotics here. If Trim sees you with that, you’re in for a speech. Find some lemon, salt, whatever. Go see Tegan, and get that taken care of.”

I nodded and continued toward my tent. The last thing I wanted was to go talk to anyone else. The cut could wait. I’d clean it out in the morning.

I distanced myself from the Village’s celebration and hurried into the comfort of my tent. It wasn’t much, with its dirt flooring, torn ceiling, and a stack of giant leaves I’d found while venturing to the Cliff several days after my arrival on Kormace Island—but it was where I felt comfortable.

“I hope you plan on checking those every night,” Rocket had said, eying me curiously as I dragged a handful of leaves at a time into the Village. “Bugs like leaves. Just sayin’.”

But that night, after having been ambushed by the women in masks, the last thing I wanted to do was rummage through piles of leaves in search of a critter. I hadn’t spotted one in days, and I was willing to take my chances. I dropped heavily onto my side, appreciating the cool beneath me.

For the first time since I’d been dropped onto the island, I felt a hopelessness overshadow my state of surrealism—my need to believe that Kormace Island was nothing more than a nightmare.

The reality of my situation had somehow been triggered, if not amplified, by my attack. I thought of my mother, and I could only pray she was okay. She’d endured so much. Would she try anything stupid? Would I return from Kormace only to find her name listed in the obituaries?

I thought of my body and how filthy and rugged it had become. I wondered if I would return home damaged and scarred, both physically and psychologically. Would I even survive my sentence? It was apparent that war was unfolding, and for all I knew, I could go to sleep one night and wake up to my throat being slit by a Norther.

Then, I thought of the life of comfort I’d once had—sleeping on a pillow-top bed and my down-filled pillows; sitting on our ancient, yet comfortable fabric sofa with a bowl of hot buttery popcorn; having the option to either warm or cool the apartment at any given moment; making a warm cup of coffee in the morning; wearing clean clothes every day; being smoothly shaven. My throat swelled, and I felt something I hadn’t felt since being sentenced to Kormace Island—tears. At first, the warm droplets trickled down the sides of my cheeks, but this sadness was quickly overpowered by grief, and with grief came uncontrollable sobbing.

The feeling was so intense that I felt my heart clench every surrounding muscle and my throat swell to the point of causing labored breathing. The crying resulted in a migraine, which brought forth yet another realization—my inability to obtain medication. This would also prove to be a challenge on this island. I couldn’t just pop a few Tylenol to ease the pain or swallow some antacid liquid when I felt nauseated. And then I realized… As a woman, I had monthly visits. How were the Islanders dealing with this? Had they found a way to make tampons?

How was anyone supposed to be prepared for this? I would have rather gone to prison.

Why couldn’t I stop thinking? I pulled one of my giant leaves closer to my chest, holding onto it as I’d once done every night with my fluffy pillow. The effect wasn’t quite the same—the leaf was cool and thin—but it was better than nothing.

All I could do was hope for a better tomorrow.

CHAPTER 7

I didn’t need a mirror to know my eyes were all pink and puffy when I woke up the next morning. I’d cried myself to sleep, which, ever since I was a little girl, had always resulted in my eyes swelling to an embarrassing grapefruit pink.

I avoided eye contact with as many women as possible on my way to breakfast, not wanting to be ridiculed or viewed at as weak. I followed the line to the fire pit with my head low. When it was my turn to be served, I extended my bowl, careful not to glance up.

“One scoop, or two?” Sumi asked.

I glanced up. She’d never cared about me or about what I wanted to eat. Why the change of heart? I Hesitated.

“Two.”

“You get one.” She scooped a spoonful of slimy egg into my bowl then turned to her followers and said, “Told ya she was hiding somethin’. Looks like the city girl finally broke.” Laughter erupted all around me, and I felt everyone’s eyes on me.

“Lookin’ a little pink there, Brone.”

“Stace owes me three pearls. I bet two weeks, she bet one.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, kid.”

“I’ll take care o’ ya, babe.”

“Fuck off, Nym. The girl’s mine.”

Why was everyone talking to me? I tried to move past them, but I was trapped. There were distorted faces all around me—some smiling, others grimacing. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I was pulled out of the crowd.

“Don’t mind them,” Flander said, flicking her wrist, “ain’t like they got nothin’ better to do.”

“Did I miss something?” I asked. “My eyes are swollen… So what?”

“Just a game the women play,” she said. “Every time there’s a new drop, everyone bets on how long it’ll take before the girl finally realizes how shitty her life is and finally breaks down for the first time. Don’t always come quick, ya know. Took me four weeks when I first got ’ere. Think it’s the shock… Nothing feels real at first, ya know?”

I nodded slowly. I definitely knew. I couldn’t understand how these women purposely went out of their way to find amusement in someone else’s misery. I couldn’t imagine myself betting on a drop.

“Case you’re wonderin’,” Flander said, “the average is two weeks.”

I smirked, even though I didn’t find this funny. “So, I’m the average, then.”

She smacked me on the shoulder and laughed. “Eat up, buttercup. We’re goin’ fishing today.”

  • * *

“I feel sorry for you,” Rocket said, leaning in.

We were exiting the Working Grounds, with bows and spears in hand, on our way to the Western shoreline.

I turned around to catch dozens of women with their eyes glued to me. They were smiling at me, but not in a genuine way. There was a thirst in their eyes—a sexual, predatory lust. I swallowed hard.

Rocket shook her head. “You’re fair game now, Brone.”

“Because I cried?” I asked, even though all I’d wanted to do was scream. Was I not allowed to cry? How juvenile were these women?

“Just the way things work around here,” Rocket said. “You’re not available until you break, ’cause once you break, it means you’re one of us. Those are the rules. So most women won’t even look at you until that happens. But now, in their eyes, you’re fresh meat.”

“But I’m not a lesbian…” I whispered.

Trim and Fisher, who must have been listening in on our entire conversation, burst out laughing up ahead of us.

“You are now,” Fisher said, glancing back at me.

What was that supposed to mean?

Rocket must have noticed the look of disgust on my face because she nudged me in the shoulder and said, “Happens to guys too, you know… in prison. I miss a good fuck like any other woman here, but all we got’s each other. You learn to like it”—she winked at me—“sometimes more than you thought you did.”

I felt my face warm. I’d only ever had sex a handful of times at the age of sixteen with my boyfriend, and to be quite frank, it was everything my mother had told me it would be—painful and awkward. The last thing on my mind on Kormace Island was sex.

“This way,” Trim ordered.

I saw a break of white in between the trees up ahead, and as we moved closer, I realized that the light was in fact not light at all—it was sand. We stepped out into the opening, and I was nearly blinded by how bright everything was. The sand was white as snow, and I could see it even through the ocean water.

“Welcome to the Western shoreline,” Biggie said, tapping me on the back so hard I nearly fell forward.

“Why couldn’t they have dropped me off here?” I asked, but all I received in return was laughter.

I’d never travelled before, but the scenery before me could have been mistaken for a picture found on the cover of a travel magazine. A true paradise. A cool mist floated over the beach, sprinkling onto my chest and face. I listened to the sound of waves crashing on the tide and the sound of birds chirping as they flew in circular motions above the water.

It was a bit overwhelming, if not frightening, to gaze out into open water. The horizon was flat with not one hint of land in sight. I couldn’t imagine how far we were from civilization. Were there other islands like Kormace? Other felons sentenced to the same fate?

“Brone, come on,” I heard.

I glanced up to spot Trim walking into the ocean completely naked. Fisher quickly pulled off her top, revealing small but rounded breasts and a set of abs you’d expect to see on a man. The others quickly followed, tossing their leather garments onto the bed of sand and running wildly into the foamy water.

“Come on, Brone!”

I stared into the open water—at Trim, whose head was visible, but nothing else; at Biggie, who stomped her way into the water, her body jiggling at every step; at Fisher, who dove headfirst into the deep; at Rocket, who playfully lunged toward Flander; and finally, at Flander, who cursed as she fell backward, submerging herself entirely into the water.

Did they really expect me to join them? Naked? I awkwardly tugged at the bottom corner of my hand-sewn leather top.

“It’s just skin!”

“No one here but us, Brone!”

I’d always been the type of girl to shy away in one of the enclosed changing rooms after gym class while all the other girls dressed and undressed around one another, gossiping about boys or about the newest sugar-free salad dressing available at the store. I’d always been so self-conscious of my body, even though I weighed a measly one hundred and fifteen pounds and I’d been gifted with a naturally muscular build.

It’s just skin, I repeated in my head. I knew I had to get over myself. Life just wasn’t the same anymore, and it wouldn’t be for a very long time. I’d be hairy and filthy, and I’d smell of sour sweat and salt for the next few years. There was no use trying to maintain appearances or impress anyone for that matter. We were all living life on Kormace Island for the sole purpose of existing, of surviving—not for pleasantries.

With this new outlook in mind, I slid my top over my head, slipped out of my bottoms, and removed my brown cruddy sneakers, before running full force into the open water.

Although captive on a remote island, I felt liberated for the first time in my life.

“Wooooo!” Rocket slapped a handful of water at my face.

I splashed back, forgetting the island’s brutality and the savagery just long enough to relish something I hadn’t experienced for quite some time—fun.

But it wasn’t long before Trim stepped out of the water and ordered us to do the same. I slid my clothes back on, covering my skin in a grainy layer of wet sand and fastened my quiver and bow onto my back.

“Here,” Trim said, tossing a fishing spear to me.

To my surprise, I actually caught it.

“Time to fish,” she said.

The others were handed their spears, and together, we moved along the shoreline toward what appeared to be a small bay bordered by heavy rocks and darkened sand.

Trim was the first to step up onto one of the rocks and stab her spear into the water. She pulled back, revealing a large blue-tailed fish that flapped from side to side.

“And that’s how it’s done.” She smirked, pulled the fish off the sharpened point of her spear, and tossed it into the sand beside my feet.

“Show off,” Rocket muttered.

We circled the bay, stepping up onto the stones, and I couldn’t help but gaze into the water, admiring the multitude of shapes and colors moving swiftly below us. Spears started piercing the water, and the fish moved about frantically. I just stood there with my spear gripped in both hands.

“Come on, Brone, help us out,” Biggie said, wiping sweat from the tops of her eyebrows.

“Ain’t rocket science,” Flander said.

“I don’t see you catching anything, Flander.” Fisher laughed then swung down hard and tore a silver, yellow-backed fish from the water. “My favorite.”

I pointed the sharp end of my spear toward the water. I’d been about to jab downward when I heard it—a high-pitched whistling that skimmed the lobe of my ear. I quickly glanced back to find a broken arrow lying at the base of a massive boulder.

“Retreat!” Trim shouted.

Another arrow came flying out from distant trees, followed by another and another. Trim ran in the opposite direction toward the jungle, lunging over fallen tree trunks and fish carcasses. I kept up, fueled by adrenaline and survival instincts.

Everything was happening so fast, I didn’t know what was going on.

We ran into the thick of the jungle, plowing our way through heavy verdure.

Trim led us south, away from the shoreline and away from our attackers.

“Trim!” Fisher hissed.

Trim turned around.

“I think we lost them.” Fisher bent over, hands on her knees, fighting to catch her breath.

There was a moment of silence, before Trim’s eyes met all of ours. “Stay on guard.” Her eyes quickly shot down at my neck. “They got you.”

Confused, I reached up, and with the tips of my fingers, grazed over the skin of my neck, only to feel the lumpiness of the cut I’d been given the night before—the one I’d forgotten to clean.

“Oh,” I said. “Barely.”

I wasn’t prepared to tell any of them the truth. I couldn’t trust anyone.

“Anyone else?” Trim asked.

“We’re okay,” Fisher said. Everyone nodded in unison.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“Fucking Northers,” Rocket growled. She pressed the skin of her thumb into the point of her spear, and I could tell all she wanted to do was kill someone.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“The arrows. That’s their specialty. And, well, they came from the North,” Rocket said.

“Did anyone see anything?” Trim asked.

Everyone shook their heads.

“Didn’t ’ave time,” Flander said, scratching the top of her gray-haired head.

“Guys…”

“The fuck are they doing on the Western shoreline?” Fisher asked.

“Guys…”

Trim sighed and shook her head. “I don’t fucking know. This is the second attack in broad daylight.”

“Yeah, and they’re trying to start a full-blown war. They won’t stop until they kill us all.” Fisher clenched both fists and turned in circles like a shark in water.

“Can’t we go after them?” I asked even though violence was the last thing I wanted. “I mean… hit them before they hit us again.”

“Guys…”

“Murk won’t allow it,” Trim said. “She doesn’t want war, and she can’t risk losing us or any of her people.”

“We’re already at war!” Rocket said.

“Guys!”

In unison, everyone turned toward Biggie, who’d been attempting to capture our attention. “Stop talking.” Her eyes were as round as golf balls, and her lips were curved downward as if she’d seen a ghost.

And in that moment, it was as if our surroundings suddenly came into focus—as if a veil had been lifted, revealing a gruesome reality. There were strings of teeth dangling from tree branches all around us, some of which were large canines, but most of which were flat and obviously human.

There were fragmented pieces of skull and bone scattered across the earth beneath our feet, around which tall wooden torches were stabbed into the ground. The candles had melted entirely, and their leftover wax formed crooked, drooping lips.

There was something eerie about this place; it was as if life itself did not exist. For a moment, all sound from the jungle’s wildlife faded, and the only thing I could hear was the shallow breathing of everyone around me.

“What is that?” Biggie moved toward the center, her eyes glued to the ground.

Beneath our feet was a circular drawing carved in mud, part of which had been smudged due to our footprints. It was a perfect circle with three gashes drawn evenly across its center. But what caught my attention was not the shape or its location, but rather, its color. It was stained in a deep red, which almost resembled black earth.

Trim’s knuckles whitened around her fishing spear. “We’re on Ogre territory.” I noticed Biggie’s face contort and her nostrils flare.

“Do you smell that?” she asked.

I inhaled a deep breath through my nostrils, although I suddenly wished I hadn’t. I couldn’t understand how I’d failed to notice such a foul stench. It was like nothing I’d ever smelled before, and the more I breathed, the more nauseous I became. It smelled of decay, something far worse than sour milk, and moldy cheese combined.

A drop of red suddenly fell from above and onto Biggie’s shoulder. She slowly tilted her head back, and I followed her eyes.

I wished I hadn’t.

What I saw was beyond anything I’d ever imagined to find in the jungle. It was a naked female body tied by the ankles, dangling upside down from a massive branch overhead. Her throat had been slit straight across, and there were symbols carved into her chest and shoulders. Her skin was completely blanched and her face and neck swollen to the point of being unrecognizable. But her lifeless, dandelion eyes remained wide open.

I knew exactly who we were looking at—Sunny.

CHAPTER 8

 

“We continue to train our people.” Murk lit the tip of a green cigar and leaned back in her chair.

Trim clenched both fists and stepped forward. “Did you not hear anything I just told you? They’ll attack us again. We need to make a move.”

“I did hear you, and my decision remains,” Murk said.

I couldn’t understand how she was being so calm about our attack and about our being ambushed and forced to retreat into enemy territory. I also couldn’t understand how we’d manage to survive Ogre territory without an encounter.

Fisher stepped forward and knelt on one knee. “With all due respect, Chief, if we do nothing, we’re sitting ducks just waiting to die.”

Murk exhaled a cloud of white smoke, ashed her cigar onto the stone floor, then eyed us carefully. “You all know how this works. You Hunters are the only ones with enough experience to take on an attack against the Northers. If we lose our Hunters, we lose our food supply, and we destroy ourselves from the inside out.”

“Our food supply is already being cut,” Trim said. “We’re already going to destroy ourselves from the inside out if we keep being intercepted during our hunts.”

“Is this the first attack during a hunt?” Murk asked.

Trim nodded.

“Then we can’t assume they’ll attack at every hunt. Stay away from the Western shoreline until further notice. There’s fish in some of the fresh water around here.”

No one countered her argument, and all that could be heard was the waterfall’s heavy drop at the entrance of the cavern.

Murk slowly stood and met Trim’s side. “How many Battle Women do we have?”

Trim stiffened up with both hands on either side of her body. “Twenty, at most.”

Murk scratched her chin. “And how many Archers?”

“Two. Three, if you include Brone,” Trim said.

“I want six Archers at all times on our territory,” Murk ordered.

“And where do you propose we find these Archers?” Trim asked.

“I’ll let you handle that,” Murk said. “No need for another Assessment. It’ll only worry the women.” Trim responded with a quick nod.

“From now on,” Murk announced, her voice suddenly loudening, “no hunt is to be executed without proper caution, and no hunt is to be mentioned to anyone other than myself.” She crossed both arms over her chest and parted her legs at shoulder’s width. “If we’re strategic about this, we’ll never have to attack the Northers on their turf. Let them come to us… We’ll be ready for them.”

“And when they attack?” Trim asked.

Murk formed a slow-crushing fist below her chin. “Destroy them.”

  • * *

“How many Northers you think they got?” Biggie asked, rushing to Trim’s side.

Trim walked briskly away from the waterfall with dozens of eyes following her. It was apparent trouble was lurking by the way Trim moved, and the women of the Village could sense it.

“I don’t know…” she said. Rainer took half our village when she left, and who knows how many drops she’s taken from us.”

“So equal or greater than our population,” Fisher said matter-of-factly.

Trim didn’t respond.

“Yeah,” Flander added, “but what you’re all forgettin’ is that Rainer don’t do civilization. She never believed in it. Which means all of ’er people are trained in battle. That’s what she recruits ’em for.”

Rocket hopped sideways, keeping up with Trim’s pace. “This would be so much easier if we could burn their fucking homes to the ground.”

“Agreed,” Biggie said.

“Enough,” Trim said. “You’re all dismissed.” Everyone stopped following her.

“Give ’er time,” Flander said. “She needs ’er space.”

Fisher’s eyebrows came together as she watched her leader exit the Working Grounds. “The last thing any of us needs right now is fucking space. We need to stick together.”

“Yeah, well, that ship’s sailed,” Biggie said. She used her forearm to wipe sweat away from her chin then turned around and made her way toward the water.

“I’m with Biggie,” Rocket said. “Need me some water time.”

Fisher released a sigh—a growl, almost—and walked in the opposite direction. I stood awkwardly by Flander’s side, pondering whether or not to also walk away.

“Looks like ya got the day off, kid.” Flander stretched her back, cracked her fingers, then said, “I’m goin’ to take a nap.”

I suddenly caught Savia’s eyes—the woman who’d been supposed to train me as Needle Woman. She was sitting underneath the shadow of a tree with a dry piece of leather in one hand and carved wood in the other. A pile of arrows lay beside her, and I could tell by the solemn look in her eyes that she knew exactly what was coming. I tried to smile, but my lips didn’t move. So instead, I left the Working Grounds and made my way toward the Village.

I’d been about to enter my tent, when I heard Ellie’s voice, “Hey, right on time.”

I glanced back.

“I’m doing my rounds,” she said. “Here.” She offered a closed fist, so I placed an open palm underneath it and caught five pearls.

“Payday,” she said.

“Oh, um… thanks,” I said.

She stared at me for a moment, her almond eyes narrowing. “You okay? Looks like you’ve had a long day.”

A long day was an understatement. I’d nearly been killed out on the Western shoreline, and although grateful that I’d survived the attack, there was a part of me that wished the Norther who’d fired the arrow hadn’t missed. I couldn’t get Sunny’s swollen, lifeless face out of my mind or the way she’d just dangled above us, poisoning the air with the rancid smell of decay. How was anyone supposed to live with such a memory? The image of Sunny being dragged away by a masked Ogre still haunted me, and now, I’d have a new memory to accompany it.

I felt queasy.

“Brone?”

I shook my head and forced a smile. “I’m okay.”

“Come here,” she said, pulling me in close.

I stiffened, feeling entirely ill-prepared for affection.

“Relax,” she said. “You looked like you needed a hug.”

Although uncomfortable, I enjoyed the sensation of her warm body against mine. It soothed me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been touched, with the exclusion of Rocket, Biggie, or Flander slapping me across the shoulder or on the back.

She slowly pulled away and smiled, her plush pink lips curving on either side. “Better?” I nodded.

“Now use those pearls wisely,” she said.

I opened my hand and stared down at the silky, multicolored pearls, suddenly remembering that only two of these actually belonged to me. I remembered the yellow serpentine mask hovering inches away from my face, and the last thing I wanted was to see that mask again. I’d do as instructed and drop three pearls near the Cliff.

Ellie reached up and stroked my cheek. “You’ll be all right.”

I didn’t understand how she saw right through me, being that I’d always been the type to hide my emotions from the outside world, but she did. And I wished this were true—that everything would be all right. I wished that I could rewind my sentence and steer clear of Trim and her crew. I didn’t want to be an Archer. I wasn’t prepared to go to war. I wasn’t prepared for any of this.

Maybe—just maybe—this inevitable war could be delayed just long enough for me to finish out my sentence. Attacks were unavoidable, but it wasn’t unrealistic of me to hope for long gaps in between each attack. I didn’t want to be a part of the merciless bloodshed. I just wanted to go home.

“Ellie?” I asked.

Her eyes lit up, and she waited in silence.

“How long do you have left to serve?”

I suddenly felt as though I’d offended her. The happy-go-lucky way about her faded, and what remained was unease and masked depression.

“Why’re you asking me that?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I just… I’m just wondering… How do you know when your time is up? I mean, do you count the days? Does the government keep track of it? Where do you get picked up? When will I know when my sentence is up?”

And she just stared at me as would a child being explained the actual meaning of death for the first time. She parted her lips to speak, but nothing came out. I’d been about to ask her to answer me, but something told me I already knew the answer.

I felt a sickening nausea overwhelm me. No one was coming back for me—not in three years, not ever.

Visit www.gcjulien.com for Part 3 and more.


The Feral Sentence (Book 1, Part 2)

As Brone struggles to cope with the abduction of her friend in the second installment of The Feral Sentence series, she begins to realize that enemies exist not only beyond the Village’s walls. Fueled by a pressing need to uncover the truth about Kormace Island, Brone begins to question the government’s true intentions behind felon incarceration, only to discover something far more terrifying than what she could have ever imagined.

  • Author: G. C. Julien
  • Published: 2016-09-13 00:50:18
  • Words: 17967
The Feral Sentence (Book 1, Part 2) The Feral Sentence (Book 1, Part 2)