The stone was cold to the touch. Even in such a hurry, with the sounds of Mrs Miles’ hurrying footsteps already fading, she stopped dead when she saw them. In the midst of these massive and strange caves, her eyes found a familiar sight. Everywhere she looked, there were shapes and pictures carved into the limestone walls, some childish and jolly, others works of art, but this one held her full attention. The hairs on her arms and neck stood on end. Her fingers brushed a dozen small indentations in the stone, birds with razor sharp beaks and talons, not a flock of gulls or a murder of ravens, but a swarm of vox, something she hadn’t seen for three years.
“Stay in sight, Nyx,” her mum said, while tending to the chickens.
The words barely broke through. Nyx was walking bent over, her eyes fixed intently at the ground, where a line of ants was busily hauling their goods. Her foot banged against something in the long grass, and for a moment she was flailing and tumbling forwards, then the arms of her big brother were around her.
“Careful,” he said with a smile.
It took a couple of seconds for the pain in her toes to register, but, as Edward placed her back on her feet, her eyes began to water. She opened her mouth to cry but was cut short by a sound much more terrible.
It resonated from all around her, right in her ear, and miles away. It was shrill and piercing, a thousand tiny screams. No, not screams. It was a war cry. Even for a six year old girl, who had known nothing but the safety of her mother’s arms, it filled her with dread and an animal desire to run. But where do you run when your enemy seemed to be everywhere?
“Nyx! Edward!” Her mum’s shout was desperate.
Nyx’s eyes darted left and right, up and down, until they landed on what looked like a writhing black cloud on the horizon. The cry went out again, louder this time, deafening, and Nyx began to sob. She covered her ears with her hands. Even as she felt her mum grab her and lift her into the air, she recognised the cloud to be birds the size of falcons. The tangled mass flew at them in their hundreds; a couple fell to the ground as they bit, scratched, and bashed into position.
She was half carried, half dragged towards the open door of their tiny wooden shack. The world went silent again, and Nyx could just make out the sound of Mr Harrison’s door slamming shut amidst the steadily growing wind. The journey back to their house could only have lasted seconds, and her mum threw Nyx past the threshold.
When she turned around Edward was still outside.
“Edward!” her mum shrieked, but he was facing the birds.
“I can kill them!” he shouted as the terrible screech went out again.
His hand began to rise into the air, pointing towards the creatures, which had seemed so far away mere seconds ago. But the next moment, his mother was there. She grabbed his arm and pulled it down. They exchanged a brief look, before he allowed himself to be pulled back towards the house.
Nyx scrambled away from the door and slid into a corner as they barrelled towards her, soulless black eyes only yards behind. Edward screamed, tumbling to the floor of the house, as their mum slammed the door closed.
The rune on the wooden door glowed a dull white light as the birds thudded into it, but all eyes were on the one that had made it through.
It bounced off the wall and fell to the floor, its long, silver knife of a beak lost amongst the tangle of black and purple feathers. Edward pounced towards it, but it was quick, and flapped its powerful wings to fly out of reach. It shrieked at the boy and dived at him as if he were nought but a mouse. Three inches of talons clawed at his face. Edward shouted out in pain, and flailed wildly at the bird. His clutching hand found feathers, and he threw it to the floor. It hit hard, and Nyx gasped.
The black eyes turned towards her. It hissed a shriek at her, and spun back to its feet. Edward leapt, grabbed its neck and shoved its face to the ground. A second later, their mum was there with a butcher’s knife, and the fight was over.
Nyx realised she was shaking. She watched her mum and brother climb to their feet. Her mum reached up towards the blood slowly trickling down Edward’s cheek, but he brushed her hand away.
“I’m fine,” he said shortly.
Her mum paused for a moment, but then walked back to Nyx, and slid down beside her, stroking her hair. Edward stayed standing, and began pacing up and down. They all listened to the terrible sounds of their chickens slowly being torn to pieces, along with Mr Harrison’s sheep.
“I could have killed them,” Edward said.
“It was too dangerous,” their mum’s usually calm voice trembled.
“But, the chickens-”
“We’ll survive; it’s what we do.”
Edward looked at her for a long moment, and nodded his head. He walked over to Nyx and slid down next to her, grabbing her hand, and they waited until it was all over.
Nyx dragged herself away from the wall carving. She’d had nightmares for months after that day. Night after night the vox would come for her, but they never came back in the waking world. They had survived that winter, and when the blades had finally come for her mum and brother, they had not been on the heads of birds, but in the hands of men.
By Andy Wright
That is an extended version of a scene from my soon to be finished fantasy story The Walk of Shadows. If you enjoyed this fantasy prose, and would like to read more, try The Walk of Shadows: Footsteps. And we have plenty more fiction in the form of serials, prose and short stories across the greatest genres, from horror (Guilty) to sci-fi (The Coldsuit) to fantasy (The Yesterday Key) to action (Wartorn).