Monday, 17 February 2014

FLASH FICTION AT FIVE: Excerpt from Breaking Ties, first book in the Lost Colony Series by Jo Grafford

July 26, 1587 - Roanoke Island
If it had not been for the barking of the dogs and chattering of the lads who scampered at my side, I might have heard the shot - the low vibration of the string as the thin, wooden shaft was released, the faint whistle of the arrow as it sliced its invisible yet deadly path through the air, the scattering of wildlife as the forest itself braced before the world’s most fearsome predator. Instead, all I felt was the gentle lifting of my late father’s top hat as the arrowhead sank into the aged leather and pinned it to the heart of the oak behind me.
The men assigned to guard me fired their muskets wildly into the perimeter of trees. For a moment, my ears rang with their gunfire and frenzied oaths. Then the slow burn of anger took over.
I pivoted to yank the arrow, top hat and all, from the trunk. Separating the two, I jammed the damaged hat back on my head and tapped the lone arrow against my gloved hand. The miss was deliberate, intended as a taunt. Had the shadowy creature intended to kill me, I would already be dead.
I glared over my shoulder as the gunfire ceased and shouted, “Show yourself, knave!”
He was still out there, I was certain. Watching. This was merely a reminder that he was the hunter. I was the hunted.
September 25, 1587
My whole arm was numb. I rolled onto my back and drew a sharp breath to discover my hands were tied. Distant whoops and yells peppered the air.
“Jane,” a man mumbled in a voice that shook. “Jane Mannering?”
I cracked my eyes open at the sound of my name. The sun blasted painfully across my face, bringing me to full consciousness.
A dry wind nipped at my brown workaday gown, playing across patches of bare skin. Ugh! I might as well be naked for the way the flayed pieces of my bodice flapped.The thin cotton provided blessed little cushion between my shoulder blades and the hard, smooth wood beneath me. By all that was holy, where was I?
The rushing of water filled my ears, along with the sound of oars dipping in rapid unison. The events leading up to my capture wafted hazily in and out of memory, but I recognized the walls of a hollowed out log rising on either side of me. I was trussed up like wild animal in the belly of a canoe, and we were traveling at the speed of ones being pursued.
The fading whoops and screams brought the events of last night skittering from the darkened recesses of my mind. The pictures flowed one over the other, ghostly and dreamlike. Ten hastily constructed rafts, heavily laden with travel bags and supplies. We’d traveled in a watery caravan over the Albemarle Sounds, anxious to leave behind the dreary, weather-beaten fort on Roanoke. Our exit had been further punctuated with the urgency of putting distances between us and the island’s inhabitants, the hostile Roanokes.
Flickering camp fires had beckoned us to the mainland, signaling the location of the first wave of English colonists who’d arrived before us. Or so we’d thought. Alas, a whole army of savages had erupted from the surrounding forests and overpowered us the moment we’d stepped onto the beach. Men who wore wicked tattoos and red paint all over their faces and bodies. Men who now held us captive.
Stifling a groan of pain, I focused on the figure hunched over me. A blonde version of Goliath, Ambrose Viccars served as the cooper for our colony. I tried to speak. Naught but a hoarse squeak fell from my lips. Even though he’d just uttered my name, no recognition dawned across his features. I coughed and gave his boot a light kick, but his brown gaze drifted beyond me, vacant and unfocused. By all that was holy, had the ambush turned the man daft?
He cradled one arm within the other. I neither cared for the lump rising on his wrist nor the pinkish cast to the swollen skin. Clearly, it was broken.
My own limbs felt like they’d been trampled by a herd of cattle, but I recalled no beasts of burden in our midst last night, only the red-painted warriors. They’d pulled me from my raft as I’d pushed away from the coast in a desperate bid to escape the massacre. No doubt my arms sported a rainbow of bruises. The ham-fisted brutes!
I wriggled my bone-weary frame inch by painful inch until I managed to prop myself up on my elbows. I peered over the side of the boat at the narrow river we sailed on. The banks rose on either side of us like a prison, unusually high. The prolonged drought had taken its toll. Jagged rocks jutted out where lush and flowering shrubs should have been. Thirsty trees stretched their gnarled roots toward the ever-retreating gush of life below.
I committed the shallow stream to memory, noting each bend and each pebbled sandbar that thrust itself through the plane of the water’s surface. A premature autumn settled over the surrounding forests, robbing them of their green. Short bursts of scorching wind did little more than kick up dust. I would remember this place, and my memories would help me retrace our path if the opportunity to escape presented itself. When not if.
Three canoes travelled in front of us. Other than the copper-skinned rowers, the occupants were bound like myself. Their garments stretched across too-thin frames, torn and blowing in the dry wind. Some of my fellow colonists wept, their tears streaking down dusty cheeks. Others fixed their gazes beyond me in varying shades of hopelessness and supplication. Although more than one set of eyes skittered fearfully over my features, none of the colonists acknowledged me with so much as a nod. Dread settled heavily over my chest.

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