After The Fall
JOHN PHILLIP BACKUS
© 2017 by John Phillip Backus – All rights reserved.
Keep running! The terrified girl silently commanded her faltering legs as she fled across the open field in the darkness. With her adrenaline beginning to peak, she sped as fast as she could in the moonlight, barely eluding the relentless men tracking her on horseback who were not far behind. Their excited voices grew louder, leaving no doubt in her panicked mind that they were gaining on her. Too afraid to look back, she dared not consider the chilling outcome should she lose her desperate race and fall into their hands.
Suddenly, a large barn loomed out of the shadows ahead and she ran straight for it as the hoofbeats grew louder, filling her ears with impending doom. Dashing around the corner of the two-story structure, she made it halfway down the side when a dark horse and its rider bearing a torch appeared around the opposite end. Spinning back, the second stalker emerged from the corner behind her, urging his horse forward to trap her between the two.
In the dim light of the pale moon, the frantic girl let out a futile cry for help, protesting to the universe-at-large the unjust brutality of her fate, but the rough men just laughed at their prey’s predicament, her fear heightening their excitement as they pressed in to take her by force. Making a final attempt at escape, she tried to slip between them, but both charged forward, horses snorting and stomping their hooves, their large heads switching this way and that to effectively cut off her last ditch effort at freedom.
“Looks like we caught ourselves a tender little night blooming flower, brother James—a real looker, too!” He held his torch aloft to see the trembling girl better.
Conley smiled and shot a glance at his older sibling who sat gloating over the evening’s good fortune. There weren’t many available females of breeding age in the surrounding territory, so opportunities for sexual adventures were extremely few and far between. He’d only been with two women in his entire life; the first, old enough to be his mother and the last, barely old enough to have fun with. Both had been short-lived encounters. Usually his older brother, James, took first dibs on them, but this time he’d promised Conley that he could have his way with her first, and the younger brother had been going crazy just thinking about what it was going to be like to be the one in charge for a change.
“Yep, Con, she’s a ripe one alright,” James spat, wiping the dribble from his scraggly beard with his shirtsleeve and coveting her youth and beauty—long, dark braids soft against the hint of developing young breasts beneath her sweater.
“Looks like she’s gonna have some real grown-up fun tonight—aren’t ya, cutie?” A strange light shone from his eyes and he could feel his manly parts twitch in eager anticipation.
As the sobbing girl collapsed into a fetal position against the rough wooden siding of the barn, Conley slipped from his saddle and took a single step toward her, braided length of rope in one hand, upheld torch in the other. Blinded by his lust, he failed to notice the barn door slide noiselessly open beside her. Without warning, something large rushed out with a deep, guttural snarl, flashing past the cringing girl and colliding head-on with the surprised Conley. Clamping down hard on the human’s throat with fang-lined jaws, the beast ripped out his larynx with a single violent toss of its shaggy head.
Looking on in stunned disbelief, James witnessed the three-second attack, unable to react in defense of his younger brother who already lay sprawled out on the ground, bleeding out. Behind and above him, the hayloft door swung out silently on newly oiled hinges and a dark silhouette leapt through the air onto the back of James’ horse. With a dagger instantly to his throat, the attacker sliced clean through both windpipe and jugular before back-flipping off the startled animal, slapping it hard on the rump with the flat side of the dripping blade in one fluid motion.
Wide-eyed in horror, James gasped for breath, clutching his badly hemorrhaging neck, simultaneously dropping the torch which bounced beneath his mount to collide with the horse’s legs. The spooked animal jumped sideways to avoid the flames and tore off into the night, toppling James from the saddle in the process. As he fell, his right boot became caught in the stirrup and the would be rapist disappeared into the night, dragged face down behind his galloping horse across the darkened field.
“Are you okay?” the phantom silhouette asked, kneeling beside the breathless girl, a gloved hand resting gently on her shoulder. Daring to look up, she was surprised to discover that her rescuer was a woman.
“Yes, I think so,” she exhaled slowly, trying to calm her rapid breathing, “just exhausted from running so hard,” she managed a fleeting smile, “so scared.”
“You’re lucky I was here—you’re safe now.”
The dark-garbed warrior rose and went over to her black wolf-dog companion named Soot, gently tugging his ears and pressing her face into his. From a leather bag at her side she produced a jerky treat and Soot sat on his haunches munching contentedly, glancing over at the savaged corpse from time-to-time to emit a low growl that rumbled way down in the back of his throat.
Returning to the traumatized girl, the mysterious woman introduced herself, offering two crossed hands in formal greeting, “I am the one they call Arbor, from the Empire of the Redwoods on the Pacific coast where the indigo sea caresses the rocky shore, and you are?”
“I’m Kristen from Minnetonka, Minnesota, beyond the Great Desert and the snow-capped mountains, across the Great River on the far side of the world.”
The twelve-year-old clasped hands with Arbor and began to relax, feeling safe for the first time in weeks. Her parents had fallen ill on the Overland Road and died from the bad fever, leaving her alone in the world with no one to help guide her through the labyrinth of this life. She briefly shared her story with Arbor and the Sisterhood warrior adopted her on the spot, offering to take her back to Wolfhaven where she would be safe from the depredations of the male-dominated Afterworld. Having no better plan in place, Kristen readily accepted Arbor’s offer, extremely grateful for her amazing rescue and certain that their meeting was a providential answer to her desperate predicament.
Retrieving her horse and other belongings from inside the barn, Arbor offered a famished Kristen some dried fruit and nut mix along with a generous chunk of the venison jerky. Welcoming her first real meal in several days, Kristen soon felt her strength returning and the dreaded fear of the unknown lift from her shoulders like mist dissolving in the morning sun.
Leaving the dead man’s body where it fell, Arbor left her calling card—a white triangular ceramic tile with the Warrior’s Mark on it in red. She placed it carefully on his still-warm forehead as a warning to anyone who would presume to violate the human and civil rights of any woman or child. As the Sisterhood were not thieves, the man’s person and belongings—except for his horse which was now orphaned and in need of a caring guardian—remained undisturbed, and as the rose-streaked sky quietly announced the coming dawn, the two newly acquainted travelers made a swift departure from the barn, heading west.
Kristen rode the dead man’s five-year-old with ease—a well-mannered chestnut mare she promptly named Cinnamon. The horse was initially uncomfortable and suspicious of her new rider, but settled down after realizing that the girl did not use a switch, nor was she rough with the reins like her former master had been. As they moved through the gentle countryside, she noted with some degree of surprise and curiosity that Soot remained mostly out of sight on the fringe as they traveled, keeping to cover and scouting the trail. The large, dusky Canid with perceptive, intelligent eyes maintained an effortless fluid lope, appearing briefly out front, or to one side or another. His movements were apparently in response to silent hand signals from Arbor who allowed her horse its head, maintaining an easy, rhythmic pace at a canter—neither too fast, nor too slow.
Arbor rode effortlessly in perfect form, her demeanor one of guarded confidence, passing through the land as someone with a purpose and a destination in mind. She led them along a winding dirt track flowing easily over grassy hills and through scattered groves of eucalyptus and madrone. The air was pleasant and warm, and alive with hummingbirds, bees, and colorful butterflies, all sipping nectar in fields choked with multicolored wildflowers gracing the surrounding landscape. During their feeding, these winged benefactors simultaneously cross-pollinated the flowers in an ingeniously choreographed intimacy designed to ensure the continuity of the native floral species.
IN THE GATHERING DUSK, Arbor and Kristen made camp beneath the stars among some jumbled boulders with a rock ledge blocking the stiff onshore breeze blowing in from the ocean now just a few miles to the west. As they sat around the crackling fire eating a hastily prepared meal of roast rabbit and fresh wild onions and garlic, Kristen wondered about Arbor’s large, quiet companion she called Soot.
The lean, muscular animal had positioned himself on the ground behind Arbor with his back nearly against hers. Almost invisible in the dark, he rested there, just outside the throw of light, relaxed, but poised—his sharp senses probing the surrounding darkness. From time-to-time he would quietly melt into the blackness and then, just as silently, reappear a few minutes later, as if he’d never left. When Arbor moved around the modest camp, his long ears tracked her like radar dishes, eyes aiming away from the fire to protect his extraordinary night vision.
“What about your friend?” Kristen asked, certain that the animal was more than a pet, or guard dog, “what exactly is he?”
The large canine was unlike any dog she had ever seen. He was physically very powerful, almost frighteningly so, and his personality aloof, yet he was very much in communication with, and affectionate towards Arbor, but on some deeper, mysterious level than the usual master-dog plane. It was almost as if they could communicate through thought, without the need for clumsy, inadequate words.
“Soot? Yes, amazing, isn’t he?” She smiled and reached back to stroke his long, luxurious tail. “We’ve been together since he was born—four years ago now. His father, an alpha wolf whom we call Thor, came down out of the wilderness to mate with one of the Sisterhood’s breeders, a black german shepherd female named Akela. Soot was the only black pup in their litter, and the only male.”
“How did you train him to fight like that?” Kristen shuddered involuntarily, wanting to understand how Soot knew to go after the bad man and not herself.
Arbor laughed. “It’s not really so much a matter of training him, as it is a matter of pure cognizant intuition for Wolven—the name our founder, Star, gave to the Sisterhood’s unique breed of wolf-dogs.”
She added a log to the fire and continued. “Wolven behavior stems from genetically handed down pack principles, along with some specific learned behaviors assimilated through living exclusively with human females.” She reached back and gave Soot a big hug.
“I guess it’s a new twist on a much older relationship, not unlike the earliest interactions between wolves and humans, with archeological evidence demonstrating the start of the human-canine bond as far back as 30,000 years.”
Taking it all in, Kristen thought it amazing to have wolven as companions and hoped that someday she might be granted the honor of sharing her life with such an awesome friend. Later on, with her tummy full and her heart warmed by the fire and the grace of her new found benefactors, the young girl from Minnetonka drifted off into a deep and restful sleep. For the first time in weeks, she slept through the night without waking up once in fear, knowing deep in her subconscious that the formidable Soot and his capable warrior-companion were on guard, protecting the camp from danger.