The Daughters of the Darkness – a villain’s tale

With the release of The Daughters of the Darkness now only weeks away, it’s time to introduce you to one of the key new characters, Kanu Sultan.

~

Kanu Sultan stepped out into the courtyard of his compound. The sun was all but gone and he let the warmth of the last few rays linger on his skin as night crept slowly from the east. He had chosen his new home well; a dense marshland nestled between the three national parks of Tsavo East, Tsavo West and Chyulu Hills. Several other smaller wildlife conservancies were on his doorstep but like the one he now occupied, they had been abandoned following his arrival in the territory. It was a hunter’s paradise, benefiting from the movement of animals between the parks and being close to water. At thirteen miles to the nearest road, the remote location gave him privacy and security but was still central enough for him to have a wide influence over much of the area. Roughly equal distance from his native Mombasa to the east and the more tourist-friendly Nairobi to the west, much of southern Kenya was within his reach, as was the border of Tanzania.

Kanu walked past one of his men, a former Kenyan Army Paratrooper who remained statuesque at his post as he went by. Kanu hand-picked most of his men from either the paratroopers or the Presidential Escort Regiment, Kenya’s best. He also made up their number with some local Maasai, and he paid all of them well. Although relatively small, the force was elite enough to make his reputation formidable and kept his activities safe from government interference. Out here, he was the authority. And it was that authority he was about to exercise now.

At the far left corner of the courtyard he turned, making his way down a flight of stone steps that led to a makeshift prison block. Weeks before, it had held expensive wines and brandies for the paying guests of the game lodge, now serving as his personal quarters. He walked down the dimly lit corridor to the end cell, the only one occupied. He stared in, the flash of his white teeth against his dark face alerting the dishevelled man on the other side of the iron bars to his presence.

“I respect a man who takes risks in business,” said Kanu. “It’s why I asked you, with respect, to go elsewhere. Unfortunately, like most Afrikaans, your greed and disrespect have brought an end to your good fortune.”

“Stepped on your toes did I, kaffa?” the man leered, easing himself up onto his feet from the floor, using the wall to support his weight.

Kanu stiffened slightly at the insult, glancing down the corridor as he heard the hurried footsteps of one of his men. His eyes told the young Maasai to stop where he was, only momentarily glancing at the sack the warrior held out in front of him, its heavily twisted top held firmly between both hands.

“Racism is born of fear Mr. Van Zyl, and fear is natural when facing death. Did you know the kingdom of Kaffa was once a state of what is now Ethiopia? Its first capital was named Bonga, as was the district around it. It was one of the prime trade routes for slaves, which is why both Kaffa and the term Bonga Bonga land came to be used by the whites in such a derogatory way. It was where the slaves came from.”

“Getting back at the whites is it then?” Van Zyl sneered. “Bit late don’t you think?”

“Hardly. You are a dealer of drugs. Instead of plying your trade to wealthy visitors in Nairobi as I suggested, you targeted the poor and vulnerable on the streets of Mombasa. The same streets where I grew up and watched men like you destroy whole families and neighbourhoods. You did not do as I asked Mr. Van Zyl, and that situation demands nothing short of my full attention,” Kanu replied.

“You’re a fucking hypocrite Kanu. You’re a dealer too. Admit it, this is about shutting out the competition,” sneered Van Zyl.

Kanu stepped closer to the bars, his eyes fixed on his captive.

“I don’t mind you selling drugs Mr. Van Zyl,” he said in barely a whisper. “But I do mind who to. And you are wrong, I am not a dealer like you, I am a trafficker. I organise, sell and allow safe passage of product, be it arms or narcotics, through the territory. What I don’t allow is for those items to be used against my people. There are plenty of opportunities outside of Kenya, and even a few within its borders. You were urged to explore them. Now you must face the consequences of not doing so.”

Kanu carefully stepped back, taking a large iron key from his pocket. Van Zyl watched him as he slowly placed it in the lock of the door and turned it. As a heavy sounding clunk signalled the release of the door, Van Zyl shot forwards and pulled it open as he attempted to dart between the two men in his way. Kanu was ready for him, pouncing forward and punching him in the chest with both fists, his forearms straight as spears. Van Zyl was knocked head over heels backwards. He crumpled onto the floor by the back wall.

Before Van Zyl could get up, Kanu quickly took the sack from the Maasai. In one flowing movement, he took the corner in one hand and pinched the top open in the other as he upended it and flung it forward. Van Zyl screamed as an enraged snake leapt towards him, its open mouth and two inch long fangs all he saw before he instinctively raised his arms to shield his face. He was surprised at the heavy impact he felt as the snake hit him. He panicked and threw the snake aside, but not before its teeth sank into the bicep of his right arm. The snake hit the floor with a thud and immediately made for the darkness underneath the cot bed. Once there, it coiled and lay with its eyes fixed on Van Zyl. It made no noise, but its forked tongue tasted the air every few seconds.

“My apologies for the theatrics Mr. Van Zyl,” Kanu said. “The gaboon viper has to be somewhat provoked into delivering an envenomed bite. They’re actually quite docile. But I find them hard to resist being the largest of their kind. The fellow who just bit you weighs 20lbs.”

Van Zyl spat. His mouth tasted dry and his tongue felt heavy and swollen.

“Not exactly common in this part of Kenya, people might get suspicious don’t you think?” he said, beginning to feel slightly faint.

Kanu smiled. “Oh we’re not quite finished yet Mr. Van Zyl. When you’re found, I doubt they’ll think to check for a snake bite. I just needed to slow you down.”

Kanu nodded to the Maasai, who had been joined by another of his men. They both stepped into the cell and picked up Van Zyl, dragging him out and back along the hall towards the stairs. Kanu slipped into the empty room behind them and picked up the snake with ease by the tail. It sought out the open sack as soon as he offered it, and he knotted the top as he walked out. At the top of the stairs, he handed the Maasai the sack.

Van Zyl was thrown across the flatbed of a large green Toyota Land Cruiser truck. Kanu climbed into the open back with him. He looked the man over as the truck pulled off, passing quickly through a large archway made up of the black volcanic stone of the region. The truck ploughed forward into the African night.

Kanu smiled down at the pale sweat strewn face that looked back up at him from the bed of the truck, the eyes bulging and bloodshot.

“I would have allowed you a slightly more luxurious last ride Mr. Van Zyl. I personally would have preferred the air conditioning. But your body is no longer in control, and I couldn’t have you shitting and pissing yourself over my leather seats,” Kanu explained.

He brushed aside the dying man’s shirt. The welted, swollen purple flesh of his shoulder and neck were already beginning to blister. The man could no longer talk from his enlarged tongue. Soon his eyelids would also be too heavy to keep open. Kanu knew the man’s pulse would be racing and slowing with complete irregularity. If simply left, his death could still take up to an hour. He looked up and began to peer into the darkness.

After driving for nearly thirty minutes, Kanu finally thumped on the cabin roof of the old Land Cruiser, giving the signal to stop. The driver pulled over into the long tussock grass.

“My pets are close Mr. Van Zyl, you will not suffer much longer,” Kanu laughed, towering over him.

Van Zyl barely felt the rough grasp of the two men who picked him out of the flatbed and threw him to the ground. The impact of the dry, rock strewn earth on his blistered and swollen flesh sent a wave of agonising pain through his body. He continued to writhe and struggle as he heard the truck pull away, but he no longer had the strength to stand. The sound of the engine dulled, faded and then disappeared altogether.

He lay stricken. His arms and chest felt like they were on fire, and his skin felt tight, like it was too small for him. With great effort he opened his bruised and tumid eyelids and gazed at his hand. His arm had ballooned. Its purple and yellow colouring was punctured by burst cracks that streamed with thin, cherry red blood. He knew he would not stop bleeding now. He closed his eyes, knowing he would not be able to open them again. He gagged and choked on the froth filling his throat, turning his head to the side to try and vent it. His strength left him and he waited for death. Just as his thoughts threatened to fade, a sound piercing the night stabbed him with a momentary surge of adrenalin and renewed panic.

The diabolical laughter crept closer on swift, padded feet. It made the animal sound nervous, but it was a sign of pure confidence. Van Zyl convulsed involuntarily as the hyena sniffed at his head. The animal let out a yip of excitement, leaning in closer to lick the man’s forehead and scalp.

Another sound penetrated the night. A low, deep rumble of warning. The hyena gave a scream of fright, only pausing to snap off one of Van Zyl’s ears as it loped away. Blind and half deaf, his body shutting down in shock as his flesh was putrefied by the snake venom, Van Zyl still had time to sense the presence of the large heavy animal as it came closer. The press of its paw on his chest was the last thing he felt as he slipped into unconsciousness. Moments later, a pair of five and a half inch fangs smashed through his temples.

~

She dragged the body further into the grass, seeking the cover of scrub and thorn. Deep in a thicket, she lifted her head and let out a thunderous roar, calling in the rest of the pride. She listened to them slink closer as she began to feast on the body.

~

A breath of wind carried the whisper of the roar to Kanu’s ears as the truck rolled through the night back towards the compound. He smiled.

The Daughters of the Darkness – Prologue

As I edge past the 74,000 word mark on the upcoming sequel to Shadow Beast, it is becoming clear that unfortunately, despite my best efforts, The Daughters of the Darkness may well not hit the shelves before Christmas as planned. The one thing I definitely learnt though in launching Shadow Beast was not to rush. I will continue working away, editing, proofing and amending until things are ready to go. Please bear with me, it won’t be much longer I promise!

In the meantime, travel back with me seven years to Tsavo, Kenya, the historic home of the infamous man-eaters known as The Ghost and The Darkness.

If you haven’t read Shadow Beast, there are no real spoilers here apart from the historical event from Thomas Walker’s past it depicts, which I don’t think will upset the story for you a great deal. Hopefully it will leave you thirsty for more! But for now, in relatively raw form, may I present the prologue to The Daughters of the Darkness.

~

TSAVO, KENYA, EAST AFRICA – SEVEN YEARS AGO

Amanda Walker woke with a start, sitting up in her sleeping bag and instinctively reaching for the Gurkha Kukri blade she always kept under her pillow. For a few seconds she sat completely still, trying to ascertain what had woken her. Her first thought was that a snake had decided to curl up in or near the sleeping bag. It wouldn’t be the first time. When she couldn’t detect any movement, she relaxed a little and began to listen.

The door of the canvas tent was still tied shut. There was a soft breeze and she could hear the song of crickets carried on it. Then she heard it. Soft murmurs, coming from outside. She looked over at her husband Thomas. Even in his slumber he looked exhausted. She turned up the collar of his shirt to cover the insect bites on his neck. He had fallen asleep in his clothes almost as soon as he had returned from the day of tracking. She smiled to herself and affectionately ran her fingers through his hair. She decided to let him sleep. She could sense it was still dark outside and he had another long day ahead of him. They had heard the man-eaters calling close to the camp during the day.

She pulled the mosquito net up and crawled to the door flap of the tent. She undid the top tie whilst yawning silently and peered out. She could see the camp’s outbuildings across the way, but no lights were on in the windows. Nothing seemed to be stirring. Then she heard the murmur again. Standing on the veranda of one of the buildings was a little boy. His skin was incredibly dark, showing up the blue and mauve tones of the night sky above him. He was completely naked and held his hand over his mouth. He seemed to be crying.

As Amanda undid the tent flap completely, the boy immediately noticed her. As she watched him streak out of the camp, she realised straight away he wasn’t one of the children that lived with the hired help and staff. He moved with absolute silence, his feet hardly touching the bare earth as he ran. The moon was full and cast a bathing light onto the day scorched ground. Amanda couldn’t help her curiosity and stepped out of the tent, taking a few steps in the direction the boy was headed. She hesitated. She knew Thomas would be angry if he knew she had left the tent during the night. All the better reason to let him sleep she decided.

She had also fallen asleep in her clothes, sporting nothing more than a khaki vest top and a pair of bush shorts. She began to follow the little boy. The red dust began to stick to her bare feet and the ground was still warm from the baking heat of the day. She crossed the road that led into the camp and stood for a moment as she looked out over the long grass that stretched out in front of her. Thomas really would be angry at the thought of her going into the grass without a gun or an escort. But she could see the path the boy had taken and now she was growing concerned. She had already imagined the possibility the boy was from a local village, where maybe the man-eaters had attacked. What if he came for help? Amanda thought. She pushed on into the long grass.

She moved carefully and quietly, pushing the brush aside and listening intently with every step. She could barely see over the top, so instead she crouched and followed the path the boy had made, peering ahead.

“Kito,” she whispered softly, “kito?”

The Swahili word was often used affectionately by mothers to children. The literal translation meant ‘precious one’. Amanda had considered the boy was so young that he may never have met a white person, and her appearance may have startled him. If he heard her speaking softly and in Swahili, he might stop running.

The moon was directly above her, making her long blonde hair look silver in the strange light. Somehow it made her feel alone and exposed, and she shivered with the cold she suddenly felt. Instinct overrode her and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she reached the abrupt end of the trail. The boy had seemingly disappeared into thin air. The tall grass ahead of her swayed silently in the wind, moving back and forth as if caught in the breath of some invisible giant beast. She crouched, spinning on her heels to face the direction she had come from. She began to tremble as she closed her eyes and listened as the crickets stopped singing one by one until there was silence.

For a moment, she couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes. She gritted her teeth and blinked, peering out into the grass around her. At first, she didn’t see anything. Then a pair of amber eyes flashed somewhere in the black undergrowth, then another. More eyes, like burning coals in the darkness, appeared over to her left. Even in her fear, she was amazed at the pride’s ability to work together in silence and in the gloom. She could feel them closing in on her. She estimated them to be no more than twenty yards away and they were obviously hunting. She was in no doubt what, or rather who, the prey was.

She decided she had only one chance. The camp was three hundred yards ahead of her, beyond the long grass and across the road. She leapt upwards, her bare feet tearing into the ground violently as she sprinted through the grass. The greenery around her seemed to ripple with tawny coloured flashes of flesh. The lions began to call to each other quietly, emitting little coughs and grunts that came from both sides. She knew they were verging in on her, attracted by her flight and the noise she made as she ran. Her muscles burned as she willed herself faster.

She could now see the road and she felt a momentary swell of relief. She was going to make it. She knew the lions would at least hesitate before they broke cover, giving her the few seconds she needed to make it into the camp. She decided anyhow that she was close enough to start screaming and raise the alarm. She opened her mouth just as the silhouette passed in front of her. She found herself suddenly stunned and winded as she was knocked to the ground. A large, pale coloured paw pushed her face into the dust, stifling the scream that waited to burst from her lungs. It had been the perfect ambush. The big female had always been behind her, waiting for the rest of the pride to drive Amanda into her waiting jaws.

The animal snarled at the unwelcome human scent of the still squirming prey. It opened its mouth wide and bit deep into the back of Amanda’s neck. She kicked out a few times in her violent death throws as she asphyxiated, then her body went limp as her windpipe was crushed and the nerves at the top of the spinal cord were cut off. As the big female began to feed, the other members of the pride drew close, waiting their turn to feast.

~

Shadow Beast is out now in paperback and on Kindle.

Buy it here

Hunter vs. Hunted

Although I have shot for the pot and may have tickled the odd trout or two, I have never understood the barbaric practice of hunting for sport. With the tenth anniversary of the hunting ban currently in the news and even repeals and amendments being discussed, I thought I’d share the story of Archie Campbell from Shadow Beast. Just as Thomas Walker believes, I see no discernible difference between sport and trophy hunting and the identifying tells of serial killers. It really is the arrogance of man to believe that we are in control of nature and not the other way round. This time nature fights back!

Snarling Vixen

CHAPTER EIGHT

Archie Campbell had lived with the hunting ban as long as he could. He had become the youngest leader of the Mullardoch hunt at thirty-five years old, and enjoyed one glorious season at its head before the hunting act of 2004 came into effect. His accomplishment had not been easy or quick, and he heavily resented the unfair timing of the ban. The Campbell name in the Scottish Highlands still came with negative connotations that did not match the prestige of their wealth and land ownership. Older Highlanders still instinctively mistrusted the Campbell name and he had fought hard for the appointment.

Archie’s father had always enjoyed telling him the family history, chequered as it was. Their support of Robert the Bruce saw the family rewarded with land, titles and marriages into the Royal family itself. Clan Campbell rose to become the controlling power of the Highlands, taking over weak districts with stealthy precision and gaining further titles as they spread west. They manipulated the clan system by joining forces with those with strength and power whilst exterminating the weak. In 1490, Clans Campbell and Drummond joined against Clan Murray at the Battle of Knockmary. It would become known as the Massacre of Monzievaird. The Campbells met the Murrays as they retreated from an overwhelming force of Clan Drummond, and hunted them down until only one man remained, who was saved by a family member. Duncan Campbell was hung for his involvement as an example, but the family gained allies in Clan Drummond and further land and titles in their name.

From there on in, history repeated itself. The Campbell family continued to support the Royal family and were rewarded for it. They fought beside King James IV of Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots, and there were many oil paintings and tapestries around the grand house depicting these historic alliances and battles. In the early 17th century, MacDonald lands were given over to the Campbell family in recognition of their loyalty. When the Clan Lamont tried to take these lands back, Clan Campbell fought them off. A year later, they hunted the Lamonts down and exacted their vengeance at the Dunoon Massacre. When death and debt allowed Clan Campbell to seize Sinclair lands, the remaining Sinclairs disputed the claim and tried to take back their birthright. The resulting Battle of Altimarlech gave rise to the legend that so many Sinclairs were killed, the Campbells could cross the river where the battle was fought without getting their feet wet.

Archie’s 10th great grandfather, the 9th Earl of Argyll, was involved in the Monmouth rebellion and had tried to depose James II. Although they were not successful, his 9th great grandfather, Archibald Campbell 1st Duke of Argyll, was rewarded with the surrender of Clan Maclean, their lands and home – Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull.

There was no sacrifice a Campbell wasn’t prepared to pay in return for power, and at no point in history did this become more evident than at the infamous Glencoe Massacre. When bad weather delayed clan leaders taking an oath of allegiance to the English King, an opportunity was seen by two Campbell cousins. With help of an accomplice, they coerced the King into signing an order to extirpate the MacDonalds of Glen Coe, whom they described as a den of livestock thieves. As the snows of February were on the mountain now, so were they then in 1692. Robert Campbell of Glenlyon and over a hundred men of his command were greeted with the traditional hospitality of the Highlands by his relation in marriage, Alexander MacDonald. For two weeks they enjoyed his protection, and dispelled the suspicions of the MacDonalds by suggesting they were collecting tax. One evening, orders were received and confirmed by Robert. He bid his hosts goodnight over cards and accepted an invitation to dine with the clan chief, Alasdair Maclain, the next day. Maclain was killed as he rose from his bed the next morning. Thirty eight others were slain in their homes or as they tried to flee. Their wives and children died of exposure as the village was burned. Nine of the commanding officers involved bore the Campbell name.

Clan Campbell were seen to be guilty of murder under trust, a heinous crime under Scots Law, and their name had been associated with the acts of traitors ever since. The centuries old feud between the Campbells and MacDonalds became glorified in popular films and works of fiction, helping the further staining of the Campbell name in modern times. Archie was aware that even now, the Clachaig Inn of Glencoe, a popular bar and hotel with climbers, bore a sign advertising ‘No hawkers or Campbells’. Archie had been brought up to expect the malcontent, and had also been taught by his father that despite the scapegoating and occasional reprisals, the Campbells had gained lands and furthered Scotland’s borders to their credit. He viewed his family’s villainy with shrewd scepticism, but not everyone had been quite so level-headed.

Archie had hosted cocktail parties and dinners for years before his approval in the hunt had been gained. His rise through the ranks had been uncharted, to the point where he had even provided the land for the new stables, along with kennels for the hounds. Slowly but surely he had brought them under his wing, until total control was inevitable. He gained it just in time to be threatened with being shut down completely.

Like some of his descendants before him, he was a gifted archer, and he had turned to hunting deer with a crossbow whilst the fate of the hunt had been decided. He took some satisfaction from this activity, and wondered how people who had never known the exhilaration that came from hunting and making a kill could make comment on it. Within a few months of the ban becoming effective, both he and the committee for the hunt had decided to focus on trail hunting. Bags of aniseed would be dragged before the dogs to scent and trail. Archie found it ironic that the very thing that so many protestors had used to sabotage hunts in the past was now being used to keep his going.

When the new season had started, things began well. The hunt would meet as usual and follow the trail. Almost every aspect of the previous hunts was the same, only their lack of quarry had changed. But Archie had noticed the apathy of the other riders from the very first day. There was no thrill of the chase when you were hunting a grubby brown sack. At the end of the trail, the pack hounds would look round in bewilderment. It pained Archie to have spent so much time and money on preparing events that were becoming more and more seemingly futile.

Then one day, quite unexpectedly, as they were following the pre-laid trail as usual, a fox had bolted out from the cover of some bracken in front of the pack. A large foxhound named Hamilton had let out a deep long howl that alerted the rest of the pack to the fox’s presence, and suddenly the entire hunt was on the trail. As the hounds led off, Archie caught the wry smile of some of his fellow riders. He looked around him. The hunt was well within Campbell lands and there was no way anyone would know. He had slipped the small hunting trumpet from his waist and let out a quick burst of tally ho. The hunt was on, for the first time in months it had really been on.

Archie contemplated all of this as he walked towards the feed barn. His gamekeeper Bill Fowler had asked him to meet him somewhere they wouldn’t be seen, and had suggested here. He was impatient to get the hunt underway and didn’t like the idea, but Bill had pressed it was necessary. He glanced quickly behind him to check nobody had seen him slip off as he passed through the large double doors of the barn.

The sight he was met with wasn’t anything he had expected. Sitting on the floor was a grubby young man with greasy looking hair. He looked somewhat dishevelled and was shaking slightly. His jeans and dark green anorak were torn and tattered, and then Archie noticed the blood on his right hand. Bill stood over him, his shotgun resting over his arm. He met Archie’s gaze with a smug smile. Licking his muzzle and sitting a few feet from both of them was Bill’s Dogue De Bordeaux, a rust-red coloured French mastiff named Rochefort.

“So I’m guessing this is the problem you wanted to talk to me about?” Archie asked, a look of smug disgust creeping over his features as he addressed Bill.

“Aye. Came across him trailing the back meadow as I made my rounds,” Bill answered, his eyes darting to the torn sack of aniseed a few feet away.

“Unfortunately, he ran. Rochefort saw to that. Poor wee bugger dropped his phone though,” Bill smiled smugly, handing over the smashed remains of a smart phone. Archie could see the battery and SIM card were missing.

“What a shame,” he replied, this time smiling at the hunt saboteur directly. He let out a sigh. “In a way you’re lucky. We used to have the power to deal with trespassers privately. All I’ll do today is have you arrested. Its tomorrow you should be worried about. I don’t know where you live or work, if indeed you have a job, but I will find out, and I’ll do my best to have you removed from both. There aren’t many landlords or employers around here I can’t influence,” he sneered. “And as you’ve done your best to ruin my afternoon, allow me to show you the same courtesy. We will be calling the police as I say, but I am not disrupting my schedule to do so, so you’ll have to be patient.” Archie nodded to Bill and began to walk out.

“I need medical attention!” the man blurted out. “I’ll have that bloody dog destroyed too.”

Archie stopped and turned back towards the man, his eyes narrowing with contempt.

“What’s your name?” Archie asked with a whisper of a threat.

The man went silent.

“The dog was doing his job and if you hadn’t trespassed, he wouldn’t have had to. Believe me, we will be making a very good case as to how we couldn’t possibly know your intentions or what you were carrying. You may be a poacher. You might well be a terrorist. I haven’t decided yet. You’re lucky he’s so well trained he didn’t do anything but hang on to you. Frankly, I miss the old days.”

With that, Archie beckoned Bill over.

“I’m not worried about this little fool, but I am worried he might not be alone,” he whispered. “What do you think?”

“We can’t use the back meadows now, the trails will be ruined,” Bill replied. “If he’s not alone though, they could only have come from the farm road. It would be a slight risk, but you could take the hunt towards the forest. You’re miles from any trails, and with dark approaching you should be safe from prying eyes I’d say.”

“That might make things interesting,” smiled Archie, liking the idea. He looked back at the young man. “Call the police and give my solicitor a heads up about him will you. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy myself,” he snorted, and strode out of the feed barn.

~

The creature paused a few feet from the trees. It cocked its head ever so slightly to taste the scent on the breeze that teased and distracted it from its intended path. The strong yet sensitive leathery pads of its paws felt the distant vibrations in the ground, telling it of prey on the move. The rich honey sweet aroma was intermingled with two distinct and stronger smells, both of which it recognised. The creature turned and began to prowl the perimeter of the forest, each silent step taking it towards the prey it could sense but not yet see. It stopped to scent the air repeatedly as it went, flexing its muscles each time it did so in preparation, warming and stretching its body into readiness. It began to hunt.

~

Thomas and Catherine checked the rest of the clearing. They found a few more dismembered parts of the wild cat, as well as some hair and dried blood.

“What do you think happened?” asked Catherine, staring at the head on the forest floor.

“Territoriality,” answered Thomas. “Whenever cats meet, regardless of species, there will be a fight to claim the territory. Big cats especially show a very low tolerance for other cats in their territory. I would guess that old one-eye found himself outsized for once”

“That’s awful,” exclaimed Catherine. “Do you think the same thing has happened to the rest of them?”

“It’s hard to say, but the fact that you couldn’t find any signatures from the radio collars hopefully means they have moved on, rather than anything else.” He held up the broken radio collar he had found to show Catherine, just as the distinct blast of a hunting horn floated across the tops of the trees. “The Mullardoch hunt is out tonight,” said Thomas, a look of total disgust forming on his face. Just as quickly though, a wry smile became visible. “Want to get a closer look?” he asked.

Catherine smiled in turn and patted the digital camera in her pocket. They had both long suspected the hunt was still fully active. They had found a number of dug out fox earths, but they had never been able to prove it was the hunt. Catherine realised this might just be the opportunity they needed.

Thomas was pretty sure he could creep up on Archie Campbell without him knowing. He had plenty of practice, tracking and ambushing the illegal bush and trophy hunters he had encountered in Kenya and Tanzania, and he doubted Archie would be much of a challenge. He especially hated sport and trophy hunters. He understood and recognised the skill, nobility and respect needed to make use of an animal for food and other practicalities, but to kill an animal just because it gave you pleasure was no different to how you identified serial killers as far as he was concerned. More than that though, trophy hunting had changed and become something very ugly in the 21st century. People hunted polar bears from helicopters and stalked tame lions in tiny enclosures and called it sport. There was no skill or risk in what they did. He had stared down charging man-eaters in the wild and taken out marauding elephants. There had been plenty of risk and certainly a very real elation in survival, but no pleasure there. In any case, it was simply now illegal to hunt with dogs for sport and he needed no further justification.

~

Archie sat upon Saracen, his 16-hand grey gelding thoroughbred/Belgian-draft cross, a fast and formidable jumper with strength and stamina to spare. He picked out Hamilton and watched the old dog expectantly. The large hound moved methodically from one side of the track to the other in a soft and lumbering gate, taking his time to check each and every scent he found. The hunt moved forward as one, almost silent in their anticipation to find their quarry. As if on cue, Hamilton suddenly lifted his head and let out a deep, long howl as the familiar musky scent hit his nostrils. Archie spurred Saracen on and quickly started moving up through the other hunters. He knew to stay close to Hamilton no matter what.

~

Thomas was lying flat on the ground. He and Catherine had reached the edge of the forest, and from their position could just see the hunt as it edged towards them. Thomas took out a small leather pouch from one of his jacket pockets and popped the button holding it shut. He removed the small pair of binoculars and held them up to his eyes.

“Are you sure you were never a spy?” Catherine whispered.

Thomas smiled without taking the binoculars away from his eyes. The Sony DEV50 digital binoculars had a 12x zoom and a 20.4 megapixel camera that was capable of full HD video. They were a relatively new purchase for Thomas, and he had been desperate for a chance to try them out.

“Archie Campbell is leading the pack,” he told Catherine. “They’re heading this way, so they could be heading towards any of the dens on this side of the forest,” he continued, still looking through the binoculars. “Looks like they have a scent, they’re changing direction slightly, moving towards that clump of gorse on the right.” He pointed so Catherine could see where he meant. Sure enough the hunt was arching round and were beginning to pick up their pace. They could hear the hounds baying now, as they moved along the track.

~

Archie knew that any moment now the quarry would break from its cover. He could somehow always sense when the quarry was near, picking up on the dog’s excitement instinctively before anyone else. The dogs were almost skipping now, as the slower hounds in front stopped the more eager and younger dogs at the back from surging forwards. Instinctively, Hamilton broke from the pack with three other hounds following him, heading to the left of a patch of gorse in front of them. As soon as he did, there was a blur of red-brown fur as a small fox bolted from its thorny refuge and sprinted across the open field towards the cover of the trees.

~

The creature accelerated forward. Its whiskers flicked back and forth and it moved with maximum alertness, ears pricked and eyes scanning forwards. It sensed the prey had turned and was moving towards it. It gambolled forward and left the ground silently in order to clear the chicken-wire fence in front of it. It used the thicker cover of the inner-forest trees to break its outline and shield its silhouette. The sweet honey-like scent was closer now, and it detected the underlying odours of the leather saddles and the hay the horses had lain in. The putrid, smoky scent of the dogs it knew and recognised, as well as the pungent, prickly equine musk. It followed its instinct and crept closer.

~

“Right,” declared Thomas. “Let’s see if we can keep up with them. I need to try and get as much of this on video as possible.”

Catherine hesitated, a slight sense of anguish becoming clear on her face.

”Tom,” she asked softly. “Are we going to let them make the kill?”

“Not if I can help it,” he replied quickly, glancing back at her and registering the anxiety in her voice. He put his arm round her. “We’re in the conservation business, I do remember you know?” He smiled kindly.

Catherine returned the smile and felt better. In her time as an RSPCA officer, she had once nursed and raised a fox cub, which she named Bold after a popular children’s novel. She had always been fond of them and knew she wouldn’t be able to watch one get killed, even if it meant securing a conviction against Archie Campbell. Thomas turned and started making his way through the undergrowth again, and Catherine followed.

~

The fox was streaking away over the brush, nature making it far better adapted for cross-country dashes than the heavy hounds and horses that followed it. Archie had been pleased that they had found the fox out in the open, as entering the trees was always risky, albeit necessary to hide a kill effectively. Killing a fox in the nature reserve meant there was always a risk that some naturalist could be in there at just the wrong time, and they would be discovered. Even if they claimed they were trail hunting, they definitely didn’t have permission to enter the forest and they would be in serious breach of the agreement that still allowed them to hunt.

Archie had already seen by the bulge in her stomach that she was a vixen carrying cubs. This was good, as it meant the extra weight would slow her down. It also meant she was much more likely to rest up or go to ground sooner, her exploits exhausting her far quicker than a younger or less burdened animal. Archie followed Hamilton as the hound instinctively broke away from the other dogs, his three loyal followers sticking with him. Archie smiled as he saw the hound’s cunning at play. Whilst the younger dogs dashed across the field, enjoying the run as much as the pursuit, Hamilton was cutting across the field to intercept the fox at the forest’s edge, where a chicken-wire fence with a stile marked the far boundary of the Campbell estate. He spurred Saracen on, hoping the vixen wouldn’t make the trees. As Hamilton banked towards the fox he broke into a gallop, but Archie could already see the vixen was just enough ahead of them. With a final burst of speed she squeezed under the fence and Archie caught the white wisp of her tail as it disappeared from sight.

Hamilton stood with his forefeet on the stile and he bayed with the forlorn voice of his kind.

“Go on Hamilton,” yelled Archie, thundering towards him on Saracen.

The dog needed no further persuasion and bounded over the fence. His three companions skidded after him and moments later, Saracen cleared the fence and thundered into the forest. Hamilton and his followers pushed past the thick brush quicker and easier than Archie did, but their furious barks and baying howls let him know exactly which path to take through the trees. The branches were thickly entwined, which he was glad for, as it meant they were far from any of the forest paths and were less likely to be discovered. He was keen to make the kill soon though, as the sun was beginning to dip below the trees and in about fifteen minutes there wouldn’t be enough light to see. The less experienced and more hesitant riders soon got left far behind in the maze of tree trunks, thorny gorse and brush. Hamilton led his small band and Archie further and further ahead into the darkening trees.

~

The creature crouched in anticipation. It could hear and feel the approach of hooves and sensed the dogs getting closer in their reckless charge through the brush. It had killed dogs in self defence before, as well as hunted and eaten them with ease. It wasn’t concerned by their presence. The muscles in its shoulders coiled like wound springs and its eyes widened in anticipation. It licked its muzzle, wetting its nose to help intercept the exact direction and strength of the scents. As a gorse bush shivered, it twitched slightly, but let the fox bolt past as instinct held it in position. It knew that better prey followed.

~

Damn, thought Thomas. Even though he could hear the dogs and thought he had seen the flash of a red hunting jacket, he wasn’t close enough to catch any of it on film or clearly prove they were hunting in the nature reserve. He had though managed to get one very clear shot as the fox had sprinted towards them, obviously pursued by the hunt in the background. Now what he wanted to do was surprise the hunt, make them aware of his presence and hope that they would withdraw. He knew that there might be a confrontation, but he doubted they would recognise the binoculars as a camera, and they would probably presume he was out bird watching. Thomas could easily justify his presence, which he knew the hunt could not. He had always told Catherine that lying was a matter of confidence, and he had plenty at the moment.

~

Archie gunned Saracen over a bank of gorse and found himself in a small clearing. The horse came to a lurching halt and bellowed a fearful whinny, stamping its front feet and trying to turn away. Archie hung to the reigns as Saracen bucked and stamped in fright. The hounds were whimpering in terror and desperately turned back to the thorny gorse, finding their way blocked by branches they had passed through just moments ago. Archie glanced to the trees but saw nothing. Saracen dashed sideways and bucked again as he clung on for dear life. Even the dogs were backing away from the horse that was now whinnying in what could only be madness or terror.

The deafening roar that filled Archie’s ears made him turn and face the trees in front of him. He tried to scream as something immense burst from the shadows and leapt towards him, but no sound came from his throat. He felt the molten touch of outstretched claws, as they swiped downwards across his face and chest and reached for their target on the far side of the horse’s neck. He was flung backwards as he slipped from the saddle and both he and Saracen crumpled to the ground. His eyes glazed, the brain not yet giving in to death as the overpowered horse fell on top of his body. The creature that had killed both of them gutted the three dogs with casual flicks of its claws, as they leapt upon it in a futile attempt to protect their master. He watched as it padded over, its great head blocking out the last of the light as it paused above him. The last thing he saw, although his body no longer registered the pain, was the gleaming flash of its teeth as the creature bit down into his chest and tore his rib cage open.

The creature lapped at the hot blood, enjoying the slightly metallic and salty taste. The skin was easy to puncture and it yowled quietly as it sucked and tore at the body beneath it. There was little taste of fat on the meat, but it was soft and tender and smelt clean. The organs spilled freely from the cavity it had made and it enjoyed these the most, finding their taste and smell unusually rich. It had found the animal easy to kill and it savoured the meal. It had learnt to trust its instincts from its earlier experiences and now knew that the strange scent was that of prey, and no longer had to be avoided. It had feasted on man flesh for the first time and it would remember the satisfying taste from now on.

~

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