Nightshade -- old scene

Fiction By Melissa // 9/16/2010

Tighearnán couldn't understand it. The creature had only bitten him, and the wound was shallow. But as they struggled the last half-mile up the slope to home, Tighearnán was feeling more and more ill. Though it was a warm day, the breeze felt like ice where it touched Tighearnán's skin. The bite was bandaged tightly in a strip of wool torn from his own tunic, but it refused to stop bleeding and throbbed agonizingly with every step forward.

Tighearnán did not realize that he had stopped walking until Síne called out to him. "Not far now, come on!" she shouted over the short distance that had sprouted between them while he tarried. Hazily uncertain now of where he was supposed to be going, Tighearnán nevertheless began to walk again. But he was horribly lightheaded and his feet had become clumsy. A stone rolled in the grass beneath his feet, and he fell headlong.

"Tighearnán!" Síne appeared beside him, crouching in the short, dry grass. "Tighearnán, are you all right? Open your eyes, come on!"

No answer.

"Órlaith!" cried Síne, brushing Tighearnán's sweat-soaked blond hair off his face. "Help me!"

There was no answer from Órlaith either.

Síne jumped to her feet, almost in a panic. Órlaith had just been walking with her! What could have happened? Leaving Tighearnán, she ran back up the hill to find Órlaith lying spread-eagled in the grass. Her eyes roamed the sky, then set on Síne's face.

"Síne. . . something's wrong," she murmured faintly.

"What? What's wrong?" Síne dropped to the ground next to her friend. Órlaith's eyes half closed for a moment.

"Don't know," she mumbled. "Cold. . . so cold."

Síne felt cold too. A chill went down her spine as Órlaith brought her eyes open again, and she fought the urge to back away.

Órlaith's normally blue eyes had changed; the irises were a dull, fiery orange.

"Oh no." The words fell from Síne's lips in a faint, shaking whisper. "Órlaith --"

A sigh escaped Órlaith, and her eyes closed again. She was unconscious.

Terrified, Síne stayed where she was for a moment, wondering what she could do. She'd never seen an illness like this one. But there had to be something she could treat it with! Maybe it was a sort of fever? Maybe it was like pinkeye --

Before Síne had time to finish her thoughts, an eerie growl interrupted them and tossed them into the breeze.

Grrrrrrrrrmmmm-mmm-mmmmnnn.

Hot breath blew on Síne's neck. Slowly, slowly, she turned.

It was an Ulundu.

All was silent except for the Ulundu's panting. It was huge, standing almost six feet tall at the ugly hump of its shoulders, and its breath smelled of blood and rot. It opened its mouth and grinned malevolently at her, saliva dripping from the ends of its long fangs.

Síne couldn't move. She wondered faintly if the Ulundu could hear the pounding of her heart.

"Ohhh, yessss. I can," the creature snarled. Its snakelike orange eyes blinked and its toothy grin widened. "And I can feel your fear. You are afraid for your friends, the brother and sister I wounded," it hissed. "Ahhh, their names. Tighearnán and Órlaith. How interesting. Though I did not need to know them, this is interesting, indeed. . ."

"How -- how did you -- " stammered Síne, attempting to back away. They can read minds. The Ulundur can read minds. What are we going to do, we're all going to --

"Die, yesssss, that's right." The Ulundu shot its long black tongue out, almost licking her face.

The abominable thing was laughing at her. Its fiery eyes flickered with twisted mirth. Trembling, Síne tried to get to her feet.

The Ulundu growled and slammed Síne with one massive paw, knocking her to the ground. Síne screamed, hands searching her waist frantically for her dagger.

"I would not do that if I were you," came the Ulundu's unearthly snarl. It crouched over her and thrust its slimy black nose into her face. "I could bite you, too, you know. Or would you prefer that I killed you?"

With that it bounded away from her and went up the slope to Órlaith, who lay still and helpless in the grass.

"No!" screamed Síne, leaping to her feet and drawing her dagger. She raised the blade, ready to throw.

The Ulundu froze and stared at her. "She isss no longer afraid for herself," it muttered to itself in a gravelly whisper. "Such courage. . . ."

Síne held the dagger ready. Such a small weapon could hardly be expected to do much harm to such a large creature, unless perhaps she struck it in the face or belly, but there was no use at all in sitting by while it finished off Órlaith and Tighearnán!

But the Ulundu wasn't looking at Órlaith anymore. It was still staring at her, its orange eyes glowing inscrutably. Síne's fear returned as she remembered how horribly the creatures had mauled Faolán. He was still lying in the healer's hut, recovering, after almost a moon.

Without warning the Ulundu leaped at Síne, roaring with lust for blood, so loud Síne's teeth rattled.

Síne flung her dagger. But she missed. The blade only grazed the creature's cheek, leaving a small wound that slowly began to ooze black slime.

The monster once again pushed its muzzle into her face. Its foul breath made Síne retch. Síne's legs shook and gave out; she dropped to her knees and cried out as one of them smashed painfully down on a rock.

The Ulundu lifted a paw and shoved her backward. It stood over her like a storm cloud, and as she lay in the grass beneath it more black blood dripped on her forehead from the slice in its face. It growled softly and licked its ursine lips.

Síne closed her eyes. There had to be a way to escape, there must be! But she was weaponless and tiny. The Ulundu could spy on her thoughts and anticipate any move Síne might make.

No, there was no way out.

Síne closed her eyes and clenched her teeth, waiting for the deathblow she knew would soon come.

An enraged howl burst forth from the Ulundu. Blood sprayed Síne's face, but it was the Ulundu's, not her own. Shocked, she wiped the sticky, black liquid from her eyelids and looked up.

The Ulundu's eyes were ruined. Blood streamed all over its face. It howled again in agony. Then, before Síne had time to react, it roared and sank its teeth deep into her arm. Síne screamed and tore at the creature's disfigured head. It released her arm and backed a few paces away.

"May you die by the hands of those you love," it hissed. Without another sound the Ulundu loped away down the mountainside.

Síne stood unsteadily and looked around. Órlaith and Tighearnán lay still where they had fallen. Her dagger shone in the grass not far away, its blade stained with black.

Síne picked up the dagger and made her way slowly up the hill to her friends. Her wound bled profusely, streaking her arm with red. With every step Síne gritted her teeth to stop herself from crying out. She couldn't give in to the pain; she had to help Tighearnán and Órlaith. But somewhere in the back of her mind lurked a shadowy fear that all three of them were beyond help. Maybe there was some poison in its bite that would cause its victims to die an agonizing death. Maybe it was the poison that was causing the icy cold to creep through her veins.

"Cold. . . so cold." Síne heard the echo of her friend's voice in her mind. She shivered. Tears overflowed as she struggled to shut out the burning pain in her arm and the even worse pain in her soul. The Ulundu's curse whispered in her mind. “May you die by the hands of those you love." What could it have meant?

Síne stumbled and almost fell across Órlaith's still form. With shaking hands she checked her friend's wrist for a pulse. Órlaith's skin was as cold as death, but the faint flutter Síne felt proved she was still alive.

Síne felt lightheaded. I must be losing too much blood, she thought. She ripped a long strip of cloth from her skirt's hem and wound it clumsily around her arm, doing her best to tie it one-handed. 

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