Aiden Fielding stumbled over a loose rock on the cracked asphalt, catching himself on a nearby rusted car chassis. He pulled his stained bandana down from his mouth and wiped the inside of his elbow over his face, trying to clear some of the sweat and dust. The wind was starting to pick up, whipping dust around and stinging his exposed face. It was taking more effort to stay on his feet now, fatigue weighed heavily and the journey home would still take days of walking.
Turning and checking the road behind him, he saw no sign of pursuit. Unsure if they would travel this far out of the city to search for him, he had forced himself on regardless. He was nearing exhaustion though, and if he did not make the choice to rest soon he would risk collapsing somewhere.
He unshouldered his pack and dropped it before easing himself down to lean back against the ruined car. It had been stripped for parts years ago, and now stood as a corroded monument to an old world, when distances were measured in hours not days. There were a few other vehicles in similar condition scattered around the stretch of road. The wind whistled through their metal frames, all rooted by the weeds that grew through them. Forgotten relics left to weather away.
His mind wandered as he rested his aching muscles. He had not seen home since the day Kate vanished. She had been out foraging, but never returned to the house. As darkness fell he had grown worried and headed out to look for her, but found nothing except her dropped knife amid signs of a struggle in the undergrowth. Since that day, he spent every waking hour searching, swearing he would bring her home and kill whoever had taken her. Going through every contact and exhausting every lead, he had found no trace of her. All his effort and energy over the last few months and still he was no closer to finding her. Even though heading home without her seemed wrong, it was the only thing left to him now. He needed a place to rest, to regain his strength so he could continue the search.
Reaching into his pack, he pulled out his dented metal canteen. He unscrewed the cap and upturned it to his mouth. The few remaining drops did little to clear the dust from his throat. He cursed and tossed the empty canteen. It skittered across the asphalt and clattered against the wreck of a nearby lorry cabin. He let out a long, slow breath as he leaned his head back against the car. The rough, eroded metal felt strangely comfortable. He struggled to remember the last time he had slept.
The sun burned down from high overhead, creating a blurred halo in the sepia coloured sky. A gust of wind lashed grit and small pebbles against the panels of the car behind him. Squinting towards the north, he saw clouds of shadowy dust expanding on the horizon. Another dust storm. He attempted to rise, knowing the importance of finding shelter, but his body fought him and he slumped back down.
Glancing down, he saw the dried blood covering his hands. Memories of what he had done in his search for Kate reared up from the back of his mind. The man was a known human trafficker, and Aiden had tracked him to a large house in one of the more comfortable areas of The Rim. Sneaking into his house during the night, the man had been alone, though uncooperative. Aiden had been forced to be creative to find the answers to his questions. When he was finally satisfied the man knew nothing of Kate’s whereabouts, he sheathed his bloody knife and pulled out a pistol. Before he could end the slaver’s life, he caught sight of a child watching the scene unfold from the doorway.
Seeing that look of horror on the child’s face, a moment of self-awareness had crept over him, giving him a glimpse at the man he had become. After that he fled the scene, leaving much of his gear behind, and unable to give the human trafficker the death he deserved. Now, because of that moment of doubt, the city police were probably already hunting for him.
Aiden was pulled from his thoughts by a rustling sound nearby. A shadow moved under the lorry cab near his discarded canteen. Probably rodents. The crops rotting in the nearby fields tended to attract vermin. The sky was darkening now as the growing level of dust in the air cast a brown tinge over the landscape. He rubbed his bleary eyes, trying to clear his vision and summon the energy to pick himself up.
Something small shot past his foot. A rat scurrying away. Aiden watched it run, wondering what had spooked it. He looked back to the overturned trailer where it had sprung from, and saw a grey wolf step into view.
His heart skipped at the sight of the predator, and adrenaline surged through his system. He eased out the small knife he carried on a string around his neck and thumbed the blade open. The wolf raised its powerful muzzle and sniffed the air as it padded out into the road. Two more wolves came into view, and a sinking dread settled over Aiden’s stomach. He might have been able to fight off one, but if a pack attacked him then he would be eaten alive. There was no way he would survive the onslaught of teeth and claws.
Any movement now would just draw their attention, so he sat as still as he could, gripping the blade with white knuckles. He watched the wolves pad across the road, expecting them to turn and sprint at him at any second. But they seemed uninterested, only briefly turning their yellow eyes towards him before continuing on their way.
A final wolf stalked into view, the pack leader, a scarred beast with thick grey fur. It stopped in the road and focused directly on Aiden. Locking eyes with the unmoving alpha predator, he suppressed the panic that flared from deep in his genetic memory. The moment stretched out as he fought his urge to get up and run, knowing it would be the end of him. He braced himself for the animal to bound towards him at any second.
The spell was broken by a low droning noise coming from somewhere in the distance. The wolf pricked up its ears, then turned and followed the rest of its pack. Once the wolf disappeared from view, Aiden was alone again and he forced himself to take deep, shuddering breaths in an effort to calm his pounding heart.
After a few moments, the adrenaline slowly faded away to be replaced with a numbing exhaustion. Looking down at the knife he still clenched in his hand, he ran a finger over his wife’s name etched along the handle. He still remembered watching her the morning of her birthday as she clumsily scratched her name into the wood, happily declaring she would carry it everywhere.
The droning was louder now, and growing closer. Looking towards the source of the noise, Aiden caught sight of a spray of dust on the road back towards the south. A vehicle was on the road, and heading this way. Rare to see these days. The trafficker must be well-connected to warrant such a use of resources.
Aiden knew he had to move, but his muscles refused to respond. Just one more minute, then he would find his feet. He sighed and closed his eyes as he listened to the sound of the nearby trees creaking in the rising wind. A few minutes later, he dimly registered the sound of a vehicle pulling up, and two people climbing out. The engine continued turning over as they walked around.
‘You seeing anything, Bill?’ a man’s voice asked.
‘Nothing,’ the other replied. ‘Looks like he’s alone out here.’
Footsteps crunched over the crumbling asphalt of the road as one of the men approached. Aiden managed to open one of his eyes slightly to see a pair of polished black boots planted on the tarmac in front of him.
‘You look tired there, friend. You got a name?’
Aiden was beyond exhaustion now, barely registering the question, his mind adrift and unable to focus. The man knelt down, putting a hand on his shoulder. A blue sleeve. The city police uniform.
‘Is that your blood? Are you hurt?’
Aiden stared down at his stained hands again and shook his head. Not his blood, no. He rubbed his palm with a finger, feeling the dried blood flake off.
‘Looks like he’s in shock or something,’ the kneeling man said. ‘You reckon this is our man?’
More footsteps crunched over the loose stones as the other man approached. ‘Oh hell, it’s got to be. Even if it ain’t, look at all that blood on him. Who’s going to argue?’
‘Alright, you’re probably right. I don’t fancy getting caught out here in that storm anyway, so let’s get him in the car and head back to the city. We can sort it out there. Come on, friend. Time to go for a ride.’
Everything felt distant and unconnected as Aiden was hauled to his feet. His hands were bound behind his back by something cold and metal, and he was pushed into the back seat of the vehicle. The door slammed shut and he leaned his head against the dirty glass. He gazed through the cracked windscreen towards the north where the dust storm rose up high above the horizon.
The two men climbed into the front of the vehicle, one carrying Aiden’s pack. The car turned around and headed back towards the south, picking up speed quickly as the storm rolled after them. Unable to keep his eyes open any longer, the vibrations of the engine soon lulled Aiden in to a deep sleep.
Forged in the Dawn is available on Amazon: bit.ly/forgedinthedawn