Excerpts for Beast of Noor

Chapter One: Lost Polly

Do not wander in the deeps, where the Shriker's shadow creeps. When he rises from beneath, beware the sharpness of his teeth.

-- A saying on Enness Isle

The full moon darkened over as Polly crept through the trees. A sound had drawn her into Shalem Wood. A call so low and sweet it made her forget her sorrow over her lover, Tarn, who'd drowned at sea.

She stepped in rhythm to the call that filled her body and sang down to her bones. It was beautiful. So rich and deep. Who was the singer? Where was the song? Her heart beat in time with it. The green trees swayed with it. All dancing, dancing.

Polly began to spin, reeling round and round to the sweet, dark sound. She tripped on a root. Fell. Cried out. The sudden, sharp pain in her leg awakened her from her trance. She'd cut her knee and torn her sleeve in the blackberry hedge when she fell. Inching her way back to the trail, she came to a stand and looked about. She'd come into the woods alone at night, and in her sleeping gown! How had she gotten here?

It had been a full-moon night when she bedded down in Brim village, by the sea. Now the moon had eclipsed, and all was deep in shadow. Nothing but pale starlight to guide her.

Polly twisted the shell bracelet on her wrist. Think. She had to think. Taking a deep breath, she turned about. She'd retrace her steps, find the mountain road that led back to town. Aye, she could do that; she'd walked these woods by day before and knew her way well enough. Polly headed down the winding trail, never mind her sore knee.

An owl hooted from the pine branch above. Polly sped up her pace. There was a tale Gran used to tell years ago about a beast that haunted the forest on dark-moon nights like this. But it was just a story told to frighten little children and keep them out of Shalem Wood.

"Just a story," whispered Polly over and over as she walked. Branches waved in the wind. Leaves trembled in the thornbushes. The broad-limbed oaks and pines creaked above like black-boned giants.

Halfway down the trail Polly stopped, heart pounding. This was the way back, wasn't it?

That call again. Her chest tightened. It was that call that had drawn her into Shalem Wood. Some kind of spell. It must be, for it didn't sound so lovely now. It sounded more like a wolf's howl. One wolf or many or... Polly took off running. She had to reach the road. It couldn't be far. But which way? It was so dark in the forest with the moon gone.

She fled through the bracken, gulping down the chill night air.

The baying sound came again. A wolf, surely, but it must be more than one; no single wolf could have such a monstrous howl. Polly rushed right, then left, then right again. She had to find her way out!

The sound of paws against the earth behind her. Fast. Faster. The beast was gaining. The pounding paws were too loud to come from a wolf. Not a wolf. Something bigger than a wolf.

The thing was bounding closer. Paw to earth. Paw to earth. Pounding. Pounding. She ran fast, faster.

The beast pounced.

Miles awakened with a fright. Someone had screamed. He leaped off his cot and stood in his stocking feet, trembling, listening.

The scream was real, wasn't it? He looked out the window. Outside the full moon was eclipsed. Miles blinked in wonder. He'd never seen an eclipse before. How dark it made the barn, the dirt road. How black it made the trees in Shalem Wood.

Another horrible, high-pitched scream.

Miles started. The first scream had been real. Had his sister, Hanna, gone dreamwalking in the woods again? Was she badly hurt?

Miles tugged on his boots, grabbed his bow and hunting knife, and flung open his door. Halfway down the hall he ran into Da, who was already throwing on his cloak.

"Did you hear that?" asked Da.

"Aye. Where's Hanna?"

"She's in her room. I told her to stay put."

Someone else, then. Who was out there? No time to think -- they were already racing across the dirt road, the torch fires blowing back as they rushed along.

Starlight fell dimly on the treetops. The moon still hid in shadow. It was hard to see very far ahead, even with the torches.

"This way, Da!" They took the broadest trail through the whispering pines.

"Hello!" called Da. "Anyone out there?"

No answer. An owl winged overhead.

Miles splashed across a mountain stream, the cold water soaking into his boots. On the far side he saw something. "Look!" he called. They raced up the grade toward the blackberry bushes, where a bit of torn fabric flailed in the wind. Da held his torch up near enough to see the pattern in the cloth, white cotton stitched with violets.

Miles touched the violets. Small stitches like the ones his sister, Hanna, made.

"What is it?" asked Da.

Miles couldn't tell his da what he knew now, knew down in his bones, though he couldn't say why.

They'd find the girl -- find her too late.

Copyright © 2006 by Janet Lee Carey