When Callista wakes up naked after being abducted one evening from Inskip’s Stables, she discovers she is the subject of a modern day, but very secret hunt club. Running for her life, she tries to evade her pursuers by hiding in a cave, but she slips and falls into a strange mist, losing consciousness on the way down. When she returns to consciousness, it is to bright midday sun, barren desert and a hunt of a very different kind. Captured by an Egyptian noble, Callista must adapt to a new land, and a different era. Torn from all she knew, she must also learn if she has to face the future alone.
Hunters of the Nile is available from the Smashwords, Kobo, Kindle, CreateSpace and iTunes bookstores.
Chapter One: The Hunt
Callista—What a name to be saddled with… and speaking of saddling… Callista pulled the girth tight on Romany’s saddle and patted him affectionately.
“Now, see you behave yourself,” she whispered, leading the big bay out into the mounting yard. “Play nice, today.”
It was a vain hope, and she knew it. Once Romany Prince had taken a dislike to someone, the dislike tended to stay—and Romany had taken a grand dislike to Steven O’Sullivan. For once, Callista couldn’t fault the horse’s taste. Mr O’Sullivan was a prat.
Unfortunately, Mr. O’Sullivan was a well-paying prat, and the stable couldn’t really afford to lose his patronage. Callista only wished the man had taken her advice and accepted a different mount for the day.
Running a hand through her reddish-brown hair and walking into the yard, Callista sighed. Mr. O’Sullivan was dressed for battle, and his grey eyes sparkled with anticipation at the idea of a difficult ride. If Callista hadn’t known better, she would have thought he’d picked a fight with Romany on purpose, but that was ridiculous. Why would anyone deliberately pick a fight with a horse? It wasn’t as though you got anything for winning!
Taking in the man’s tight-fitting cream jodhpurs, black riding boots, an impeccably laundered, black, riding jacket, and the riding crop he was impatiently tapping against one thigh, Callista forced a brief smile to her face.
“Here he is, Mr. O’Sullivan. He’s raring to go, today.” If she was lucky, he couldn’t read the worry that shadowed her blue-green eyes.
“Oh please, Callie, you can call me Steve.” The man paused, glancing over Romany’s upraised head and flaring nostrils. “Well, he certainly looks the part. Let’s see how he behaves, shall we?”
Hiding her reluctance, and ignoring the way Romany’s ears flattened against his head as they approached, Callista led the bay over. Romany snorted as Mr. O’Sullivan’s hand snapped out and Callista laid the reins in his leather-gloved palm. The rider paused once his hand had closed over them, and looked at her.
“Have you ever been the fox, Callie, in a hunt with hounds?”
Callista felt her shoulders tighten in resentment. She hadn’t given him permission to use her nick name, hadn’t even told him what it was. And she didn’t approve of hunting, not even the sort that used human runners instead of a real, live fox. Choking down her anger, she raised her chin and surveyed him coolly.
“No,” she said, her voice declaring an end to that line of conversation.
“A pity,” he replied. “You’ve the look of a runner about you.”
He said no more, but swung the reins over Romany’s head and rose quickly into the saddle. Before Callista had a chance to respond, he had jerked the horse’s head around, and kicked him into a fast trot that was barely within the stable rules. He had Romany up to a gallop by the time they’d reached the edge of the trees that marked the start of the Forest Ride.
Heart in mouth, Callista watched as Romany disappeared into Velici’s Copse. Was it only hope that made her imagine a slowing of the pace? With any luck, she had not imagined it, and Mr. O’Sullivan had shown the sense to ease back to a trot.
The Forest Ride wound through Velici’s Copse for a good two miles, before reaching the summit of the Morrisman’s Knoll. It wasn’t designed for a gallop. The top of the Knoll, however, held a broad expanse of grass, where there’d be room to give Romany a good run.
Callista shivered, thinking of the tricks the horse might try at a slower pace, beneath the trees. In some ways, Mr. O’Sullivan’s rapid exit had avoided much of the big animal’s mischievous antics. She dreaded seeing Romany’s condition on the man’s return.
For the next hour, she readied horses for Mr. Inskip’s riding lesson. The children came only to ride and, much as she disapproved of the policy, they were not expected to either tack up before, or care for their mounts after, the lesson. The lesson itself was well underway when Mr. O’Sullivan returned, triumphantly riding a steaming and blowing Romany through the gate.
Like the children, Mr. O’Sullivan came only to ride, and it was Callista who walked the horse until he was cool enough to stable. All the time, she was raging inside. That arrogant sonofa… she bit back a growl and patted Romany’s neck. He’d been ridden hard, and she could see where O’Sullivan had used the crop on his neck, and rump and shoulders. If Mr. Inskip didn’t ban the blackguard now… then… Callista paused… then… well, what would she do? She couldn’t afford to quit.
Mr. Inskip had looked over Romany, once the children were gone, and their ponies cared for. He didn’t say anything, but the thoughtful frown he wore as he left, meant Romany’s condition had him thinking. It was just turning dusk, when Callista racked the last saddle and hung the last bridle on its peg.
“See you tomorrow, Mr Inskip,” she called, as she hurried past his office.
“Good night, Callie.”
“Yeah, good night Callie,” another voice echoed, as she stepped into the dark outside.
Callista barely had time to register it, before an arm coiled around her chest, and a hand covered her mouth and nose with a wad of damp cloth. Her cry of shock never made it past the bitter-scented fabric as she was dragged into deeper shadows. When her struggles ceased, her captor swung her lithe frame into his arms and carried her to the waiting jeep.
* * *
Nausea was the first thing Callista registered when she opened her eyes. Nausea, almost overwhelming thirst and the discomfort of bare ground beneath her. She was staring up at a star-lit sky. No, she blinked and slowly moved. No, she was staring up at leaves, the leaves of a great many branches that arced overhead and shifted in the night breeze. The stars were really the moon, its shape broken as shone down through the branches.
Rolling onto her side, and then into a crouch, Callista noticed two other things. One, she was naked. Naked! She groaned, thinking That can’t be good. And, two, there was a note. Or, rather, an envelope, which must surely contain a note, taped to a tree.
It was a silver envelope, and taped beside it was the oblong outline of a torch. Callista reached for them both, her hands trembling, the nausea she felt no longer the sole result of the drug she’d inhaled. With the help of the torch, she could read the single word printed on the outside,
It was ‘her’ envelope. Callista took it down and carefully unsealed it.
The envelope was heavy and contained two things. The first was a watch face with a large crack across its middle. It was from a man’s watch, silver and black, with luminous numbers and glowing hands that she could see in the dark. To her surprise, it was only ten o’clock. The second item in the envelope was a sheet of good-quality paper, creamy-yellow in the torchlight, and displaying the following message:
Have you ever been the fox, Callie? Well, now’s your chance. If the clock reads 10 pm, you’re running out of time. We left the kennels at 9:55. The hounds have your scent and you’ve a long way to run. If you can make it over the river, we might never catch you. If you can’t, your tail is mine.
For a moment, Callie thought she would drop the letter with its poisonous words. Her heart beat sped up in panic. What did it mean? Forcing down the bile threatening to rise, she read the note again, but it wasn’t until the faint barking of dogs reached her ears, that O’Sullivan’s words came back to her and she understood.
She was the fox! Those were dogs… and she was the fox! She had to run. She had to outrun the dogs. The words in the note leapt to mind. She had to make it to the river, or…
Her tail? She wasn’t sure she wanted to understand exactly what that meant. Foxes had a tail; she didn’t, well, not a fox tail per se. No, she decided, I really don’t want to know that last sentence means. And there was only one way to make sure she didn’t find out.
The sound of barking dogs drifted faintly to where she crouched.
Who knows how far away the kennels are from here… Who knows how long it will take them to reach me… to reach … here.
She didn’t want to be anywhere near here once the dogs, the hounds, started casting about for her scent.
Using the shafts of moonlight as her guide, Callista rose to her feet and took stock of the country around her. She was in a forest, an open forest, she noted with relief, with not many bushes to block her path. She was also standing on an incline, which meant she was on a hill. From the top of the hill, she might see the river.
Moving now, Callista began to hurry upwards, moving towards the crest of the hill. She dared not run. Her feet were too tender, and her eyes were still adjusting to the dark—or was that her mind. She didn’t stop to figure it out. Clutching the note, the torch and the watchface in one hand, she scrambled towards the summit.
If I can see the river, I can run towards the river. If I can reach the river, I can cross the river. If I can cross the river, I can be safe. The words repeated through her head like a mantra. If I can see the river, I can run towards the river, If I can reach the river, I can cross the river.
Her determination took her to the top of the hill, and the moonlight showed her an outcrop of rocks that might give her a vantage point over the trees. Hurrying across to it, and using the moonlight to light her way, Callie began to climb.
If I can cross the river, I can be safe. If I can see the riv…er…
Behind her, the barking grew louder. Now she could hear the sound of horses making their way through the forest. She could hear the low murmur of voices. Surely there weren’t women in the pack that was searching out her trail?
Forcing herself not to panic, Callista, reached the edge of the outcrop and looked out. She was on a hill, alright, and one that descended into a series of valleys and undulations. Halfway to the horizon, she could see the gleaming silver ribbon of a river. It was the only river in sight.
If I can see the river, I can run to the river, Callista repeated to herself, scrambling quickly back off the rocks. Moving quickly around the outcrop, she picked another series of boulders and began to jog towards them. Running was out of the question. If she ran, she might fall. This shuffling jog was the best she could do. She could only hope that it would be enough.
If I can run to the river, I can…
Behind her, a dog raised its voice in a yelp of victory.
No! They can’t have arrived already! Picking up her pace, Callista lurched forward. The torch dropped from her hand as she reached out to fend off an oncoming tree trunk. The note followed it a short time after when she ran full tilt through a tangle of bushes.
Dammit! There goes the evidence! her thoughts wailed as she slid on a thick carpet of leaves and flailed for balance. The boulders she’d set her sights on loomed closer until, in a few short breaths, she slithered around their red, granite bases, using one hand to steady herself.
Behind her, another hound had raised its voice, and another, until there was a chorus of baying yelps echoing through the forest.
Only madmen would do this, she thought, and found herself answering the comment with an angry jeer. Oh yeah? Well, did you notice the moon? Full moon lunacy. And might I ask you what brings you out tonight, my dear?
She couldn’t quite stop the hysterical giggle that escaped her lips, and then had to stifle a yelp of pain as she stepped on something that bruised the sole of her foot. Not now! Christ that hurt! Callista limped two or three steps, before the pain faded enough for her to go back to her shambling run.
A hound started to bay. Closer now, so close. Callista sighted on another rocky outcrop and plunged downward. All her energy was going to keeping her feet as the slope grew steeper, and she left the more open forest for the wilder foliage that crawled up the base of the hill.
It’s hopeless, she began to think, but she didn’t want to give up. If I can cross the river, I can escape. Surely the undergrowth would slow the dogs. It would certainly hinder the horses. It was assuredly slowing her! Perhaps if she could find somewhere the dogs couldn’t reach, and the horsemen couldn’t get to her.
With renewed interest, Callista began scanning the moonlit forest around her, her eyes taking in the looming shadows of another outcrop of rocks with hope. What if there were caves? What if there was a whole network of caves? She could find a cave and push rocks across the opening and…
The sound of crackling leaves and snapping twigs came from behind her. The sound of the dog’s baying changed in pitch as it caught a glimpse of her pale skin and waving arms. Callista could not stop the sob of fear that wrenched itself free from her chest.
They couldn’t catch her like this! It wasn’t fair. Forgetting her fear of lurking spiders, and trying to ignore the sharp-edged rocks and twigs beneath her feet, Callista lunged towards the outcrop. Praying that there would be a cave, or a crevice, or something in which she could shelter, and hoping she didn’t step on anything else, she broke into a full run.
The dogs sounded bare meters behind. The outcrop was bare meters ahead. It seemed like forever. A branch caught in Callista’s hair, but she didn’t stop, didn’t notice what had happened until there was a sudden pain in her scalp, and then a crack as the twig ends gave way, releasing her. With another sob, Callista stumbled to the base of the outcrop, her vision momentarily stolen by the darkness of their shadow.
Using her hands to feel her way, she frantically patted the towering side of the formation. Behind her, the dogs’ baying changed note as they lost sight of her.
“Please, please, please,” Callista whispered, moving around the outcrop, her hands searching for a place to lay hold of, or for a hole to hide in.
“Please,” she sobbed, as she reached its lowest point and had to choose between searching the other side of the outcrop or running further down the hill and then either following the valley around, or climbing the next hill.
“Oh God, please,” she begged, as she chose to keep searching and the moon lit the formation’s side.
She came face to face with the dog, and a closely-following rider as her hands met empty air and her eyes registered the blackness of a deep hollow in the formation’s side. For a moment, they stared at each other, she, deciding between the possibility of meeting a spider or snake and the possibility of what might happen if the rider caught her, and he, for it was most definitely a he, rejoicing at his unexpected luck.
There’d been a wager that she would reach the bottom of the hill. If she did, then he’d have to share her. If she didn’t… He lunged, just as the dog jumped towards her. Callista stumbled sideways with a shriek, and disappeared into the darkened hollow between where two massive boulders reached for the sky.
“She’s mine!” he exulted, and called the dog away.
Should you want to read more, Hunters of the Nile is available from the Smashwords, Kobo, Kindle, CreateSpace and iTunes bookstores.
Should you want to read more, Hunters of the Nile is available from the Smashwords, Kobo, Kindle, CreateSpace and iTunes bookstores.