"Up! Get UP!" Came Halim's mother's shrill shriek, along with the bite of her cane against the flesh of his leg. "If you don't get up right now, I swear I'll beat you all the way to Norheim and back! That goes for all of you!"
Halim groaned; he was sleepy and it was taking a great deal of effort to open his eyes, the sun streaming through the cracks in the window shutters burning afterimages on his retinas as he blinked, but his brothers and sisters were already rising around him and he would not be the one to incur their mother's wrath for sleeping in. He put his arms around beside him and pushed himself off of the dusty floor, rising into a kneeling position and brushing himself down as his torn rag of a blanket fell from his shoulders.
He stretched, thin, wiry arms creaking and spine crackling, and got to his feet. Halim was a peasant boy with eight siblings - Asim, Akil, Tahir and Aswad - all boys, and all teenagers save Tahir - and Lateefah, Prea, Aaleyah and Abia. Aaleyah was the youngest of all the children, no more than a few months, and still slept with their mother in her room. The rest of the children slept on the floor of their combined kitchen and living area. Their "house", if one could call it that, only had two rooms. They lived in the poorest district of the town of Balda-al-Jotuntronen. Once, his father had been rich and his wife had been an honourable woman, but his father, Thabit, had taken to drinking and gambling and his mother had lost her honour with another man. She was lucky to avoid stoning, but she and her children were forever destined to be poor.
Her mother brought bread and water, and the children fought over what they could get, Aswad - the biggest of the boys, even though he was a year younger than Asim - coming away with half a loaf. A whole half a loaf! Halim managed to snag a few good mouthfuls and poured himself a small cup of water from the jug their mother had left on the table. Halim had been born in the same year as Aswad, making him sixteen.
After their small breakfast they began making ready for the day's work. Tahir and Akil were young, and also light and agile and spent their days picking pockets on the streets, although Halim thought little of this - it was without honour, and he swore that all they did was play and fight anyway. Aswad worked at the quarry (the town's main source of income), big enough to swing a pick all day and tire little. Asim worked at a shop a mile from their home, which brought in the most money of any of them, although Asim was little more than a slave to the shop's owner. He was fit, though, and aspired to become a town guard one day. Halim had great stamina, and he ran errands for various rich men, but they paid him little. The girls stayed home with their mother, helping around the house and weaving and sewing baskets to sell.
As the boys were filing out of the door, their mother came back into the room and called at them, "we need water! Ay! One of you needs to go to the well on Wheezy and bring us back a bucket!" Wheezy was the name of the nag the family owned on a sort of rental-based deal with the stable master. Halim had always thought the name was a bit stupid, but the stable master recently told him that when he had bought the horse it had no name, and because it so often panted he had taken to calling it "Wheezy Bastard", and the name had stuck. The horse was ancient, and probably only had a few well runs left in it, but the alternative was walking and the journey was long enough on horseback as it was.
"Halim!" His mother called. He groaned and his shoulders sagged. The other boys giggled amongst themselves as they ran out the door. "Don't you shrug your shoulders at me! Do you want to die of thirst? Go! The bucket is by the doorstep."
He left the house, dragging his feet, and picked up the bucket, heading west towards the town's gate. He took Wheezy Bastard from the stable. He was grey, his hide patchy and messy, the longer hair beginning to fall out. His main was scruffy, hairs held together with globules of red, dusty mud from the road. He nodded to the stable master as he bumbled around near the entrance, and set off out of the gate on Wheezy's back.
The area around Balda-al-Jotuntronen was rough and dry and hot. Beyond the mountains to the north, they said it snowed around this time of year, but Halim had never seen snow up close; he had only ever watched the mountains turn white from afar. At this time of year, the only noticeable change was that the sun relented a little and the rains came thick and fast. The desert nights were colder too.
He rode along fairly slowly, wrapping a thin scarf around his nose and mouth to try and keep the dust out. The ground was red and dusty, the grass a straw-like brown, with the odd patch of green. The nag trotted along up the road, snorting, seemingly happy to be stretching its legs. Halim just tried to keep his skin covered.
The trip to the well took nearly an hour and a half at a quick trot, and by the time he got there dark grey clouds had swept down from the foothills of the mountains and were now gathering ominously overhead.
The well was to be found in a small fenced off area of land, not more than twenty acres, which was dominated by regular rising mounds with thick, sealed stone doors. His mother told them they were called "barrows" - ancient burial mounds of men from the north. Long ago men had come from Sudenway or perhaps even further north, from Norheim, and joined the ancient lord of these lands in battle against one of his enemies from Gipt to the south, and he had been so impressed by their fighting, and they by his, that they had joined his honour guard and been accorded burials on his land when they passed. This was all that was left. This, and the ruin-surrounded well on top of the biggest mound.
He hitched Wheezy to a post at the base of the hill and climbed to the top, taking a few minutes to bask in the cool shade the ruins provided. As he began to lower his bucket into the darkness, the sun winked out and thunder rumbled. Rain began to fall thick and fast and Wheezy whinnied in fear, pulling at the rope. Halim barely looked, still lowering the bucket. Another roll of thunder boomed out across the barrows and Halim could have sworn he felt the earth rumble. He was pulling the bucket up now, but he looked over his shoulder and looked down to Wheezy. Lightning flashed and Wheezy shrieked, wide eyed, thrashing and tugging at the rope.
"Calm, boy!" He called, slightly alarmed. Another boom, and Wheezy reared up, the post tearing from the red, dusty earth. "No!" He shouted, but Wheezy was already bolting for home. With his attention focused on the fleeing horse, hand outstretched after him, he let go of the rope and the bucket fell away down into the well.
"Shit!" He cried and began pulling the rope again, but he could tell from the lack of weight that the bucket must have come loose. Downtrodden, he made his way back down the hill and stared at the hole where the post had stood. That moment, the ground really did rumble, and he yelled aloud, climbing into the cover of the stone doorway and huddling in against it as a cold wind blew in over the barrows. He shivered and tried not to think of what his mother would say when he returned.
With his back against the arch of the doorway, his gaze turned out across the wet barrows, he didn't notice the stone door sliding quietly to one side behind him as the thunder roared. But he definitely felt the cold, bony hand that grasped his shoulder and the rasping voice mutter something to him in a strange, foreign language. He screamed then, loud and high, voice cracking, and took off across the barrows toward the exit of the land as quickly as he could without even bothering to look back. Rain drenched him and his ragged clothes clung to his skin but he didn't care, because over the rain and the thunder he could have sworn he heard footsteps lumbering after him through the mud.
After two minutes of running as fast as he could down the road, he caught sight of a very welcome thing. Wheezy stood paralysed with fear under a nearby tree and he practically leapt into the saddle with one jump. He kicked her flanks with his heels and urged her to run. He looked over his shoulder frantically and through the rain running into his eyes thought he could see a tall, thin figure running up the road after him.
"Come on! Go, you old bastard. Please!" He urged and finally, after much rearing up, Wheezy took off, nearly throwing him from the saddle. He kept looking over his shoulder at the figure, not sure if it was there or just a trick of the rain. It was because he was looking over his shoulder that he didn't see the low hanging branch before his head collided with it. He fell from the saddle and the world was black before he even had time to register pain.
When Halim regained consciousness, the first thing he noticed was the pain in his head, followed by the drops hitting his face, and then how cold he was. He blinked, and twisted his head away from the sky, grimacing with pain. He pushed himself up on one elbow and felt the back of his head; it was thick with congealed blood.
All at once, he remembered why he had been fleeing, and he blinked, clambering clumsily to his feet. It was dark now. How long had he been out? He looked around him at the trees to his right, shadows forever seeming to manifest as tall, thin figures. Then he looked down the road behind him. Nothing there, either. He began to walk slowly up the road, massaging the back of his head and wincing.
He had hardly been walking a minute when the scream of a horse in pain came echoing out of the trees to his left. He jumped, eyes widening and heart pumping so loud he could hear the blood passing through his ears, cutting out the sound of the rain with every loud "thump".
"Wheezy?" He whispered into the darkness. An image of Aswad laughing at him and calling him 'runt' swam into his mind and he shook his head lightly, calling more loudly "Wheezy!" and taking cautious steps towards the tree line.
He headed deeper into the trees, pushing through thick undergrowth, towards where he thought the horse's cry had come from. Finally he heard heavy, animalistic breathing, and he pushed through a bush into a clearing.
He would have screamed had it not been for the vomit that welled up in his mouth and forced it's way explosively from his lips. Wheezy lay in the middle of the clearing, his stomach split open from chest to stomach. Blood coated the ground in a steadily growing pool and some organs seemed to be hanging from the ragged tear. The horse's eyes were closed and his breathing was quiet and as ragged as the flesh of its underside.
Halim took a few terrified steps towards the dying horse, tears flowing down his face. "Wheezy..." he gasped, "what happened to you?"
"I was hungry," a rasping voice came from behind him, as a cold, thin arm slid gently around his neck. It was not a tight grip, but Halim was paralysed with fear and could not move. The cold monster spoke his language this time, but its accent was weird. Halim cloudily thought it sounded like one of the Northmen from Sudenway that sometimes came into town from beyond the mountains. He felt a growing wetness in his trousers as his bowels evacuated in pure terror. Something smoothing caressed his lower back.
"Don't you just get so hungry sometimes?" the voice crooned. "I could eat a horse. Why! It looks like I already have!"
"P-please..." was all Halim managed.
"Shhh." The sound hissed through missing teeth like a snake. The smooth object suddenly left his back and swam around in front of him, clutched in one wrinkled, decaying hand. He realised it was a long, strange dagger and made one vain, jerky attempt to struggle free of the arm about his neck before it drove into him, under his diaphragm, up through his lungs under his ribcage, the tip just scratching the base of his heart before it was withdrawn again. He coughed up a deluge of crimson blood, glinting in the desert starlight, and hunched over slightly, hands vainly clutching at the wound.
Shapes materialised in the shadows all around the clearing, and this time he was quite sure they were real. Their blank, pale eyes reflected moonlight, their long, emaciated figure stepping from the shadows with silent grace, ancient-looking armour clinking and shifting slightly as they moved. Weapons hung from their belts and their skin pealed back in places, rotten.
Halim coughed blood again, slumping into the almost loving arm now snaking around his midriff, dagger still clutched in its dead hand as crimson pooled at his feet. Fingers tipped his head back as his eyelids fluttered and then closed.
The last thing Halim al-Thabit felt was lips on the soft flesh of his throat.