Earlier this week I was delighted to win the Birmingham Writers’ Group Winter Competition. The theme was ‘Snowy Wastes’ and my entry was titled Prey.
The judge said it won because of the economic writing and the believable and sympathetic protagonist.
The story is reproduced below in full. It’s only 1100 words so makes a quick Christmas read while you’re waiting for the sprouts to cook.
I hope you enjoy it too.
Prey by Rachel McLean
Elric crept forwards, keeping his body as close to the ground as he could. Up ahead, the creature stopped to sniff the air.
It turned and gazed in his direction.
There was a crack from off in the distance, beyond the animal. It turned, every muscle in its body tensing. Elric watched, his heart hammering into his ribcage. He felt faint.
It moved again, picking its way through the snow.
Elric pulled his thin jacket tighter. It was worn at the elbows and one of the sleeves had been sewn back on a hundred times. He shivered.
The snow would deaden his footsteps; help him hide from his prey, so long as he kept to the shadows. The sun was low, as it always was this far North. It cast long, silky shadows across the snowy ground.
The cat had stopped. It was licking its paw. A display of feigned nonchalance, or the real thing? He knew how alert the creature would be, despite it being as emaciated as he was. His mother had stopped looking at his ribs now, at least not when she thought he was watching.
Its fur, though matted and dirty, was bright against the snow. A ginger cat wouldn’t get far out here. He wondered how Mrs Morrow, the farmer’s widow on the edge of their dwindling village, had held onto him for this long. Since Lord Snyder had requisitioned the grain for his troops, no animal had been spared. They were all food. Even that cat.
He wondered if Mrs Morrow knew it had escaped. If she’d kept it under lock and key, fearful that a neighbour might spot it and hunt it down.
A neighbour like Elric.
There was another crack. Elric felt his heart accelerate, his breathing heavy and laboured. He was too tired for this. But his sister Hismena was slowly dying of starvation and his parents looked more desperate by the day. He listened to them when they thought he was asleep. Talk of soldiers, and war, and famine. Big words that made his head spin. Too big for the likes of them.
He rubbed his eyes. It was getting dark, and his vision was blurring. He lifted his head a little, just enough to spy the cat again.
It was gone.
He stood up.
He rushed from the bush he’d used for cover, sending a flurry of snow to the ground. He ran into the clearing where the cat had been cleaning itself.
It had known he was there.
He looked back towards home. He was far away now, at least three miles. HIs mother would be calling him in. Should he keep going, find the cat, bring back his prize? Or should he play safe?
He heard rustling in the undergrowth ahead.
He dropped to the ground, his muscles tense. He waited.
The cat emerged from the dark bushes, its nose first. It quivered in the air, testing for prey. Or predators.
He held his breath.
It turned away from him, straightening its thin neck. There wasn’t much meat on those bones. But it was more than they’d had for almost a month.
He pulled back, deciding to skirt around it and approach it from behind the hawthorn bush it had emerged from. He needed to disguise his scent.
On the ground a few feet away was a pile of reindeer droppings. He grabbed it in his threadbare glove. It was hardening, but still had a trace of warmth.
He held his breath and smeared it on his face, his hands. His knees where they came out of his trousers. Anywhere he might produce a scent.
The cat was still. It was looking to one side, narrowing its eyes. If there was prey, it wouldn’t be long before it pounced. That would give him his moment.
He shuffled along the ground, feeling the cold seep into his pores. He stifled a cough. His throat felt like fire.
At last he was close to the cat, only the hawthorn separating them. He reached through and eased the branches aside, ignoring the thorns.
It had its back to him, the muscles in its back high. It was quivering, mounting up to a wiggle.
He held his hand, and the hawthorn, as still as he could.
Its back started to shift from side to side, its head still. Its tail flicked.
He readied himself to pounce.
There was a rustling and a thumping as the cat leapt forwards. It dragged a small creature from the undergrowth.
He followed, flying over the hawthorn and opening his arms to grab the cat.
He cried out. His foot had snagged a branch and he was twisting, falling.
He landed with a thud. His breath was shallow and his ankle throbbed. He put a hand on it and groaned.
He looked back towards home. Three miles, maybe four. Darkness was falling, the sky shifting from white to grey to blue. He would die out here.
He closed his eyes, willing strength through his veins. He was half-starved, but he wasn’t dead yet.
He felt something move against his cheek.
Please Lord, he prayed. Not a wolf. Please not a wolf.
He opened his eyes. The cat was above him, nuzzling his cheek. He felt the air rush out of his lungs.
It pulled back, staring at him. He smiled at it.
“Sorry. It’s alright. Come here.”
It narrowed its eyes at him. Its bones were as prominent as his own, and its fur was coming off in clumps. Shared between his family, it would be no meal. The mouse that lay at its feet, blood seeping into the snow, had more flesh on it.
But for Mrs Morrow, it could be the difference between life and death. A companion, giving her a reason to live.
The cat bent to the mouse. It snapped it up in its mouth and ate it. He watched, his stomach growling. His mouth watered.
The cat looked at him, its eyes glinting.
He put out a hand. The cat drew back, then leaned in to sniff his fingers. It recoiled.
He smiled. “It’s only deer shit, stupid.”
He wiped his hand on his jacket. He wriggled his foot; the sensation was returning.
He rolled over to put his palms on the ground and pushed himself up, wincing. Carefully, he put weight on the bad foot. It screamed at him, but it wouldn’t stop him walking.
He bent to the cat, putting his weight on his other foot. He held out his arms. The cat came to him, mewing.
“Come on,” he muttered.
He picked it up. His fingers almost pierced its scrawny ribcage.
He gave it a gentle stroke and it blinked at him.
“Let’s take you home,” he said. He plunged the cat inside his jacket and turned for the village.