Milton grinned. "Gets your attention, don't it?" he barked, but the smile faded. "They tell you what my problem is?"
Another nod. "I understand you have a naked woman chained to a tree. I'm guessing it's not a morale boost for the men."
"Fuck no it ain't!" spat Milton. "Huffy bitch thinks she can stop my operation. Wants to save her fucking forest. I ain't got time to mess with it. I want her the fuck out of here."
Ryan remained composed in the face of Milton's repugnance. "Have you tried cutting the chains?" he asked.
"Shit yeah we tried it!" Milton huffed in frustration. "Jigsaws, miter saws, bolt cutters . . . even tried cutting torches. Damn chain's too tough. Either that, or I got shitty tools. Bitch says she ain't got a key and I didn't see no key holes on them anyway."
Ryan took a breath. Of course this wouldn't be easy, he lamented. "I was told something about a collaborator?"
"Yeah, some guy named Steven," Milton answered. "We ain't seen him yet." He suddenly snapped his fingers. "Billy! You hear from the marking crew yet?"
Billy shook his head. "They haven't reported back."
"Fucking great," growled Milton. "Now my marking crew's up in the woods having a fucking circle jerk and I'm getting behind schedule."
"So, you haven't heard from some of your men, and there's an unknown, possibly hostile, insurgent in the area?" Ryan asked carefully.
Milton narrowed his eyes. "You military, huh?"
Ryan shrugged. "Served a few tours."
"Doing whatever an Army Ranger is told to do."
Milton grinned. "Well, all right," he said. "Now we got us a bad ass. Good, 'cause that bitch chained to the tree says her partner is gonna wipe everyone out."
"Yeah, but she was talking all sorts of funky shit. She ain't right in the head. Hot as hell, but about as stable as a one-winged duck in a windstorm."
Ryan took a moment to let everything filter in. "I'll need someone to take me to where she is."
"Hell, I'll take ya."
* * * *
Ryan could understand the reason for all the fuss as soon as the woman came into view. She was, indeed, the most stunning woman he had ever seen. He had to admire both her beauty and bravery for subjecting herself to the situation . . . if, indeed, she was here of her own free will as Milton assumed.
"Not bad on the eyes, huh, son?" Milton asked as they exited Ryan's truck. Since revealing that he, too, was from Texas, Ryan had apparently made a new best friend.
"You could have at least put a blanket on her."
Milton snorted. "We tried. She refused."
"No one's touched her, I hope?" Ryan asked.
Milton looked offended. "I don't run that kind of operation. My boys are good boys."
"Just checking," said Ryan, starting for the tree.
The blonde woman uncurled herself from a seated position and stood as Ryan approached. She watched him with scrutinizing eyes that assessed every part of his body she could see.
Stopping several paces away, Ryan removed his hat. "Afternoon, miss," he said. "My name's Ryan Welch. I'm with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. You look like you're having an interesting day."
"I am certain it will prove memorable," she responded.
"So how long do you plan on staying up here like this?" Ryan asked. "Between those heavy chains, wild animals, and the dangers of exposure, you're taking quite a risk."
The woman's fierce green eyes narrowed. "As I explained to your hog-bodied companion, I am not here by choice," she said, then allowed herself a small smile. "As for the animals and the effects of nature, I have nothing to worry about that."
Beside Ryan, Milton was quivering. "'Hog-bodied?'" he sputtered. "Did you just call me a fat ass?"
The woman responded with only a haughty look.
"You little fucking--"
"Mr. Milton," Ryan said quickly, placing a restraining hand on the heavy man's shoulder. "Why don't you let me handle this?"
Milton glowered, then let out a heavy sigh. "Fine. Do your thing. I'll wait by the truck."
"Good idea," Ryan said, watching as the logging company owner grumbled his way back to the government truck. He returned his attention to the blonde woman and took a few steps closer.
"Colorful fellow, isn't he?"
She regarded Ryan with a small smile. "I have endured his kind for ages. They are all the same. Oppressive, insulting and afraid of their own shadows."
"'Ages?'" Ryan quipped, moving closer as he began to inspect the chains. "You can't be more than twenty-five, if that."
Her eyes wandered over his face as he stood before her. "If that is your belief."
He held her gaze a moment, seeing nothing but clarity in the woman's eyes. Then he directed his attention to the manacles and chains. "So what's your name?" he asked, taking up a length of chain.
"Una," she responded.
"Interesting name. Sounds European."
"I suppose it could be."
Ryan turned the chain over in his hands. It was heavy and rough, with no two links alike. It looked like a tenth-grade metal shop project gone awry. The manacles appeared equally shoddy. He noticed several recent marks on them, faint furrows into the metal caused by various tools. "Hard to see how these chains are so tough," he commented. "Given enough time, the right tool could cut right through them."
"No tool of man can sunder these bonds," Una said.
Ryan glanced back to her face. "You always talk like you're from the Lord of the Rings?"
She frowned. "I do not know who that is."
Okay, she may look sane, but I'm betting there might be some schizophrenia going on here, Ryan thought, following the chain to the manacles. As he touched one of them, Una raised her arm to make it easier. It slid down off her wrist. Ryan frowned as noticed the fresh raised welt on the inside of the woman's wrist. "What the hell is that?"
For the first time, Una's features fell. She looked ashamed. "That is a rune of dominance," she explained, then raised her right arm so that the manacle upon it also slid back, revealing a similar welt. "And this is a rune of transference."
"They look fresh," Ryan said, gently taking the woman's hand. He touched the skin beside the first welt. The mark was about an inch across and possessed the tell-tale signs of a burn.
"As of very early this morning," Una confirmed.
He met her gaze, seeing a hint of weakness there. "Who did this?"
She sighed heavily. "His name is Steven. He is the one responsible for all this. And for much more to come."
"Did he kidnap you, bring you up here?"
"He . . . took me against my will, yes," she revealed. "I was blind to his motives. I let my guard down."
"I've had that problem once or twice myself," Ryan said, giving Una a little smile of sympathy. "Sounds like you know him."
Her features hardened. "Not as well as I believed."
"So, what's the story? How'd this happen?"
She stared off at nothing for several seconds, contemplating what to say and how to say it. When she finally spoke, there was a tremor of vulnerability in her voice.
"I tell you this only because of your nature, though you may not understand it yourself," she began, returning her attention to him.
He frowned in mild confusion at her words, but said nothing, allowing Una to continue.
"I knew Steven when he was just a boy," she recalled. "His family, at one time, lived in this area. They were wholesome folk who lived in harmony with the land. I met him one day, when he had fallen and hurt himself, and gave him some healing. He would come to find me after that day. He . . ." she trailed off, smiling in fond remembrance. "He was a very exuberant boy. Later, when he had grown, I took him as a lover. It is not common that we do so, but not forbidden, either."
"What do you mean by 'we?'" Ryan asked.
She regarded him a moment, studying his features. Her own were stoic. "My kind," she said simply.
". . . which is . . .?"
Her expression did not change. "My kind," she repeated.
Ryan let out a defeated breath. "Okay. Go on."
"I know now that I should not have indulged him. But there are times in which one of my kind is simply unable to ignore her own needs. So I loved him, and loved him often. I suppose he assumed too much, because he wished to make me his bride. Try as I might to explain it to him, he could not understand why that would be impossible. He took my refusal as spurning. I did not see him again after that day."
Una hung her head and brought her hands together, massaging them with a faint rattle of chains. "Until yesterday."
"Go on," Ryan prompted. "What did he do?"
She drew in deeply, blinking her intense eyes as they drifted across the forest. "I saw him when he arrived, making a camp for himself in the forest. I did not recognize him at first, as it had been three decades and more since he left. But then he came to my tree --" she glanced at the trunk around which she was chained. "-- and called for me. I could not ignore the excitement I felt once I recognized him. Although he was aged, he was still the same man I had once loved."
Ryan struggled to accept what Una told him, as much of it went against the simple reality of the situation. If Una knew this "Steven" person as a boy, then had sex with him as, presumably, a grown man, and thirty years have passed since then . . . that would make Una at least sixty years old or more. But he suppressed his disbelief, chalking Una's story up to delusion, fantasy, and who knew what else.
"I'm guessing you, uh, went to him, then?" Ryan asked.
Una nodded, face reddening as she lowered her gaze. "I did. In the aftermath of our coupling, I did not recognize his true desire, which was to bind me and steal my power. He had somehow learned the runes that would allow him to do so, and burned the first into my skin when I was unaware. That allowed him to dominate me, making my powers useless against him.
"But then he branded me with the rune of transference, which gave him my power. It did not give him all, of course; mortal forms cannot harness the full scope of my abilities. Yet even the amount he has stolen, I fear, is too much. He cannot hope to control it. It will control him, and feed off his basest desires."
Ryan considered everything the nude woman told him. Most of it sounded like something from a cheap fantasy novel, and he wondered how much of the delusion Una herself believed. Though not professionally versed in dealing with schizophrenics, Ryan had learned a thing or two about people over the years and had always considered himself both a good and patient listener. So he decided to play into her fantasies.
"Okay," he said at last. "What is Steven going to do?"
For the first time, a semblance of real human emotion blossomed on Una's face. "He holds such anger for those who would destroy the bounties of the Earth Mother," she whispered fearfully. "To that, I can sympathize, but . . . with the corruption of my power, he will become feral. A creature of pure destruction and rage. Nothing you can do will stop him. He will be immune to all mortal weapons. Only that which can harm me can harm him."
"And, what is that, exactly?"
"What your kind calls cold-wrought iron. That is what these chains are made of, which is why I cannot sunder them. Only a weapon of such material can slay Steven."
"Look, I don't want to kill anyone--" Began Ryan.
She cut him of with a fierce look. "You will not be given the choice," she snapped. Emerald eyes blazed. "I see it in you. There is the potential. But even with that, if you have not the weapon, then the potential is wasted."
Ryan ran his hands through his hair. "Let's, uh, not get to far ahead of ourselves, okay?" he asked rhetorically. "One thing at a time. You said Steven made a camp. You know where it is?"
Slowly, Una nodded, her eyes round. "I can tell you how to find it."
* * * *
Milton stood beside the truck, sweltering uncomfortably as Ryan returned. "So what's going on? Gonna get that fucking cunt outta my way?"
Ryan released a breath as he stepped around to the bed of the truck. "You know, you might want to think about taking a public speaking course," he said as he unlocked and lifted the bed cover. "Dropping a bunch of four-letter words into every conversation doesn't exactly come off as polite."
Milton scoffed. "Yeah, my three wives kind'a told me the same thing."
"Might warrant some looking into," Ryan said, reaching for a black duffel. Reaching within, he withdrew a short-barreled, pistol-gripped shotgun and a box of shells. As he loaded the weapon, the sound attracted Milton's attention.
"I thought you was getting something to cut through them chains," the husky man said. "What the fuck's that for? Gonna shoot her?"
Ryan gave the man a deadpan look. "No," he said flatly.
"So what's the story with her?"
"My impression at this point," Ryan said as he slipped a handful of shells into his pocket. "Is that she was kidnapped, raped, and bound against that tree, and she's disassociated herself through some kind of . . . nature goddess fantasy . . . or something."
"So she's fucking psycho? Is that it? Why the artillery, then?"
"I have reason to believe there is a potential threat out there, and I like to be prepared." He slammed the cover closed, making Milton flinch.
"Well, okay," Milton said. "What you need me to do?"
In answer, Travis tossed a folded-up green army blanket to the man. "Put that on her and stay by the truck."
"We already tried covering her up--"
Ryan looked impatient. "Humor me, will ya?"
Milton nodded gruffly. "What you gonna do?"
"I'm gonna have a look around," Ryan said before he headed toward the woods. "There's a CB in the truck. Keep trying to call your marking crew."
* * * *
Una's directions took Ryan east, deeper into the foothills. The air became cooler as the sun was obscured by overhanging branches. Still, the humidity remained oppressive, and after only ten minutes or so, he felt the previous evening's alcohol oozing out of his pores. The beginnings of fatigue were already starting to creep in. He kept on course thanks to the compass on his watch, senses alert and trained to pick up anything he might see or hear out of the norm. Now and then a scuttling would catch his attention, or the movement of a small animal. But everything seemed typical.
He saw the small tent from a good hundred feet away, just glimpses through the trees and shrubbery. He slowed his approach, keeping the shotgun at the ready, and made the effort to move as silently as he could. He looked not only along his plane of view, but up amongst the trees as well. Birds chirped here and there, growing quiet as he moved past them. Thus far, nothing was giving him any warning signs.
The camp was small and spartan. A simple blue canvas tent with the opening hanging open faced a cold fire ringed by stones upon which was perched a large metal rack. A single folding canvas chair sat to one side, beside a plastic cooler. All dead underbrush had been cleared away, exposing the dirt-covered ground into which numerous shoe prints and bare footprints had been pressed.
Shoe prints for Steven, naked feet for Una? Ryan wondered as he knelt and touched the soil. His gaze assessed the camp. Fire hasn't been lit since last night. Twigs and leaves on top of the cooler -- it hasn't been opened today.
He pushed the flap of the tent open with the barrel of the shotgun. Within lay a single sleeping bag, a battery-operated lantern which still glowed, and a large rucksack attached to a frame. A smart phone lay on the sleeping bag, to which was attached a pair of ear plugs.
He took up the phone first, but it did not come on when he touched the screen. Of course the battery's dead, he thought ruefully. He set it back down and reached for the rucksack. Within, he found a pair of jeans, a few changes of socks, and two T-shirts, both of which were printed with the Army logo. Ryan frowned. Great. So Steven's a former soldier, too. Maybe.
There was something else, buried in the bottom, wrapped in an old towel. Ryan unrolled it, brow arching in interest as he revealed a knife. The blade looked to be at least a foot long and about four inches wide at the thickest. It was crudely made, of the same sort of metal, Ryan realized, as the shackles which confined Una. The hilt was nothing more than two pieces of wood which might very have come from a cabinet shop, held in place by tightly-wrapped strips of hemp.
While the metal was dull, the edge seemed sharp to Ryan's trained eye. It had obviously been honed, and recently.
What the Hell's going on? Ryan wondered, looking around. Something doesn't make sense. Okay, a lot of things don't make sense. If Una came up here with this guy Steven, where are her clothes? And what's the deal with the hand-made chains, and this knife? These two share the same delusion or something?
I guess that's a possibility, but . . . Ryan sighed, trying to make sense of what he had discovered thus far. But he knew he did not have enough information. He knew that what he needed was to find this Steven.
He rolled the knife back up in the towel and tucked it under his arm, then stepped from the tent. As he did so, a faint sound drifted from nearby. It was a voice, but one filtered through the static of technology.
"This is Mr. Milton calling the marking crew . . . God damn it, boys, answer the fucking call!"
Ryan glanced around, then listened, hoping to pinpoint the source of the voice.
"If you don't answer in ten seconds, you're fired! Got that? Ten!"
Ryan chuckled. That's it, Milton, keep talking. He started off toward the northeast.
Ryan moved quickly through the trees, remaining vigilant, but wanting to find the source of Milton's call as quickly as he could.
Weaving between the trees, he became peripherally aware of the absence of bird calls and the skittering of small animals. The forest became progressively quieter the further he ventured.
A faint odor reached his senses. Ryan wrinkled his nose as he recognized it. It was the odor of decaying blood.
Ahead, the ground sloped downward, and there was the faint sound of trickling water. A stream, Ryan deduced.
"Five! God damn it!"
Ryan stopped cold as he saw the first body. It lay twisted upon the ground, leaves adhered to numerous open wounds. One arm was twisted and broken in several places, with bone protruding. The man's head lay at an unnatural angle, and a massive gash had been torn from his throat. Flies buzzed in copious numbers all around the corpse.
Further down the slope, revealed when Ryan stepped up beside the first body, lay two more. Both had been equally ravaged, with limbs twisted this way and that and massive, gaping wounds torn through cloth and flesh and muscle. One of the dead men held a bloodied lockback knife in a death grip. Another clutched the communicator through which Milton's voice squawked.
Ryan pried the corpse's fingers from the device and depressed the send button. "Milton, it's Ryan."
"What the fuck? Where're my boys?" came the reply.
"Out to lunch," Ryan responded darkly. "As in, permanently."
There was a long pause. "The fuck you mean by that? They ain't dead. They can't be fucking dead!"
"Milton, I need you to be calm right now." He took out his cell phone as he spoke through the communicator. "The last thing you want is to get your men spooked. Got it?"
"Yeah," came the curt reply. "Got it."
Ryan sighed, looking around the grisly scene. He frowned at his phone; no reception. "Looks like you're going to have to make some tough phone calls, Mr. Milton."
"I'm guessing you just found out there's no cell phone reception up here."