This is the new beginning for book one of the Bachelor Battles. We’ve been working on the rewrite for a while now and it will be released in October. I thought you would enjoy an early glance.
Have a great week!
Southern Ohio Recovery Zone
“There they are! Stay down, son.”
Hiding in the hollow trunk of a tree, the two thin fugitives stayed still and covered with their dark cloaks as the riders crested the hill near them. If they were caught, the teenage boy would be added to the round up. His father wouldn’t be brought back alive.
In the apocalyptic landscape that was framed by early summer, the only road into the nearby town became obscured with dust from three dozen running horses. On these foaming animals were some of the most intimidating warriors that the Network employed. Their cold banner, a glaringly red arrow outlined in black, was held high in warning of who they were.
Behind the riders were a line of bound men and boys on strong leashes. Forced to run or die, the slaves were barely getting enough air to breathe. As the group cleared the trees and entered the farmlands, the female workers they showered with dust winced at the cruel treatment of the males, but didn’t interfere. The citizens of New America had learned not to challenge their rulers. The price was often more than they could pay.
The heavy hooves and harsh coughs of the approaching group echoed to the townspeople ahead of them and the single sentry called out a late warning.
Full of impotent anger, the two fugitives in the hollow trunk watched from the cover of the thick trees. There was nothing they could do to stop the riders, and the father kept a scarred hand on the teenager’s shoulder to prevent him from trying. The emotions of youth didn’t always allow for logic and the man wasn’t going to risk his last son in a futile battle that they couldn’t win. However, he would risk both of their lives and more for a fight with different odds and different players.
Inside the three-street town, shutters begin closing at the sentry’s repeated call. Doors locked and young boys cowered behind defenseless, pink-eyed women. In some of the salvaged homes and barely surviving shops, terrified males were hurriedly shoved into clever slots and panels to keep them from being taken.
As the riders got closer, the leader waved her crew into a defensive formation. Always sent on these roundups, this crew had earned the nickname The Ring, because of the circle they made of Network lands to collect the men and boys. They were also called vicious demons, a whispered title that was well earned. All of the women were ruthless. Their leader, Rankin, worked directly for the Network-inside the pristine Dome and in the deadly wastelands that surround it-and she enjoyed her job. In her red hair was a braid for each male she’d broken in. They covered her back in dusty proof of her brutality.
The riders formed a V as they reached the town, weapons ready in case the females of this town chose to fight for their men. The Ring had specific names to bring back, but Rankin would take any appealing males they ran across to up their credits and account for the percentage who didn’t survive the trip.
“These slaves will be surrendered immediately, by order of the Network.” Rankin began calling names and pointing at doors. Most of the women here owed a son in payment for a debt or fine.
Rankin’s riders went to the residences, and dragged the males out, not letting goodbyes be said or pleas to be voiced. Few of the mothers fought them, and those who did were cut down. It was against Network law to refuse an order of surrender. The penalty was death.
While the riders rounded up the load of slaves, those already on leashes dropped to their knees, grateful for the break. Fathers comforted abused sons, exhausted men tied off bleeding foot wounds with what remained of their shirts, and some didn’t move at all. Those were mostly the ones who had been dragged, and they were dead. Rankin would receive half a credit for their bodies.
“Runners!” one of the riders shouted. “We have runners!”
To the west, shadows were fleeing toward the trees.
“Bring up the dogs!” Rankin ordered.
Menacing, the Fire Hounds ran at the rear of the group to keep slaves from escaping and they padded forward at Rankin’s shout. Canines suffered the Change alongside humans, making them larger, angrier. Their eyes flamed and their breath was noxious. Some of them could even snort fire and they would attack any target.
The hounds gave chase without being told and screams echoed through the area as the large dogs reached the runners. Those who stopped, the dogs escorted back with slobbery nudges and growls. Those who kept fleeing or fought, the dogs mauled and then ate. It was Rankin’s system to keep her animal escort fed and the Network had embraced it eagerly.
“That’s all of them from in town,” Lena told Rankin. Behind her, four of the riders were binding crying boys to leashes.
“We require one more male. Surrender a gift and we won’t torch your town,” Rankin demanded, scanning closed doors with pink eyes.
No one came forward and Rankin frowned. “I can smell them, you know. If I have to come in and sniff around, I’ll kill every one of you I find and still take your male.”
A door opened across the street and a stern-looking woman shoved two trembling boys outside. “Sorry, it took me a minute to catch them.”
The rest of the townswomen scowled at the orphanage keeper, but Rankin grinned happily. “Two! Very nice.”
Rankin made the motion for the other riders and dogs to hurry up. “Thank you for your cooperation. May you all have a Network day.”
“Same to you,” came the muttered, expected reply. It was a dismissal, and those who had been waiting for it now left Rankin’s sight. Those hiding males in cramped slots and mousey panels tried to remember how to breathe.
“Next?” Rankin asked her second in command.
“Let’s see…” Lena scanned the sheet. “Hey, a blond! That’s a double credit.”
Rankin snatched the sheet, annoyed at not getting the answer she’d requested.
“Daniel, blonde, paid for, priority.” Rankin kept reading, unease growing. “Owner provided this address for pickup. Approach with caution.”
Rankin recognized the address and the names. “Pruetts!”
Her riders sat up straighter, looking around.
“Not here, you idiots!” Rankin snapped. “They have the boy. Get ready while we wait for the dogs.”
“Do we fight them?” one of her riders asked quietly. “They have the same boss.”
“We’ll kill them if have to,” Rankin answered, swallowing the instinct that said to mark the kid’s name off their list as dead and move on. “They’re only bounty hunters.”
The shabby town street was mostly deserted around the nervously waiting, pink-eyed riders. Peppering the shops were lists of items the people were forbidden to have (radios topped every one), prices that were to be charged, and Wanted posters that covered entire front walls. One in particular, a tall male with blond hair and a scar down his hand) was repeated more than the others. It was for the current leader of the rebel males who had been trying to oust the Network for as long as the Network had been in control. There were also advertisements for the Bachelor Battles, with each laminated photo featuring a bloody, victorious female clutching a terrified man as her prize.
Near the edge of this sad town, a sandy blond boy of eleven barreled from the front door of a slimy home put together with toothpaste and fishing wire. He slipped painfully down muddy rocks that were the hovel’s steps.
“They know where to look, boy!” his mother shouted cruelly from inside the makeshift home. “Pruett hunters can’t save you!”
Heart pounding, Daniel ran awkwardly through the piles of rubble that edged the road and detoured into the thorn trees that lined the nearby property. The branches on the trees reached for him, but he ducked in perfect time to their swipes and made it through unscathed.
Weapons clanged and grunts echoed as Daniel neared an opening in the trees and burst into the neighbor’s yard. The four black-cloaked people there were working on a fighting routine, moving in tandem with beautiful knife slashes, spins, and leaps. Even their long, black cloaks flared out together in a stunning, unintended visual effect.
The sweaty family stopped and lowered their weapons, staring at Daniel with sympathy. The adults understood instantly what had happened as fresh screams sounded. The Network riders were moving again, and already close enough to hear the pounding hooves and the chilling cries of individual slaves. They’d finished in town.
“You know the law!” Candy’s mother answered the boy fearfully. “We can’t hide you.”
Daniel ran to Candy in terror. “Help me!”
“Get out of here!” Candy yelled, shoving him back toward the tree line. “Don’t let them see you!”
“My family sold me!”
“Sold?” Candy repeated, mind spinning into a hazy rage. It was her worst fear.
Twelve-year-old Candy turned to see the Network riders reach their driveway. The thorn trees lining it were poisonous and carnivorous, with vivid red and green coloring. The tree limbs reached hungrily for the riders, but weren’t noticed.
Candy scanned the homestead, already knowing there was no place she could hide him. Her home was a white dome buried mostly in the ground. There were sheds and a storage building with locks, and two MOPARS for traveling the apocalyptic lands. The Pruett’s were better off than most, but none of it could save Daniel.
“Mother?” Candy asked for help in that one word, dazed with pain.
Candy’s mother winced, but didn’t answer.
“I’ll be alone now,” Daniel moaned brokenly, shaking.
“You’re mine!” Candy growled, hugging him tightly. “I will find you!”
“Promise me!” Daniel demanded, starting to panic.
Candy kissed him softly, stealing the first taste. There was no doubt that she would lose everything else.
Her eyes were red when she pulled back. “On my life, Daniel. I will find you.”
“There he is! Release that male,” Rankin ordered arrogantly. “His family has transferred ownership to the Network.”
“You can’t keep him, Candy,” her mother reminded them shakily. “You know that. You can only die while we watch.”
The words made Candy’s anger more pronounced and her muscles started to swell as her mother forced them apart. Both kids struggled and the thorn trees subtly tried to reach the watching riders.
Tiring of the drama, Rankin kicked her horse forward and dropped a leash around Daniel’s head. When he reached up to take it off, she grabbed his wrists and tied them to the waiting straps on the rawhide tether.
Candy raked her new claws down her mother’s arm to get free and ran after Daniel.
Rankin spun around and punched the girl in her shoulder, making sure she hit the ground.
Candy cried out, but got right back up, glowering with red orbs.
Angel, Candy’s younger cousin, rushed to help and the two girls went into their fight training, spinning and slashing the air with their knives.
Spooked, Rankin’s horse reared up and almost unseated her.
Busy calming the huge mount, Rankin got too close to the thorn trees and a branch slipped eagerly around her neck.
Fighting to keep from being punctured, Rankin snatched the knife from her belt and sliced through the thorn going for her throat, then used her fist to snap off the branch.
“Only Pruetts would have these...things!” Rankin sneered, flushed.
Her riders smirked, but when Rankin waved them closer, they surrounded the small family.
Candy’s mother wrapped her up tighter this time and their family slave, Candy’s father, grabbed Angel.
“If you weren’t so useful tracking down trash, I’d slit all your throats!” Rankin waved at her riders to head out and viciously yanked Daniel’s rope to make him stumble and fall.
“Help him, Mother!” Candy shouted, fighting to get free. “Help me!”
“You can’t take over this family if you’re dead,” her mother insisted, holding her. “Pruetts never openly fight the Network.”
Candy realized she wasn’t going to get help from her parents and the full Change of Rage Walker’s disease spiraled through her small body. Her muscles swelled and ripped her clothes, her hair shot out and down, her claws extended, and her pupils became flames as she attacked her mother.
The thorn trees withdrew to their proper places in shocked disapproval.
Candy turned from her mother’s bloody face to find the riders leaving, Daniel being pulled along behind Rankin. She took off running, executing an amazing snatch and jump to grab her fallen weapon and clear a lot of the distance. Knife ready, she leapt again.
Well trained, Rankin sensed it coming and turned in time to catch the child in the head with her boot. Candy staggered to the ground, puking from the pain. The signs of the Change faded, but her eyes remained crimson and ran with red tears.
Candy’s mother and father ran toward them as Rankin looked down without compassion.
“He belongs to the Network now. If you want him, come and fight for him in the Bachelor Battles.”
Rankin gave Candy’s mother a knowing look as the couple reached them, but stayed back. “Just don’t wait too long. You’re a Changeling now, stage one, and Pruetts burn-out fast.”
Staggering to her feet through the pain, Candy wiped her mouth and snarled, “Pruetts will see you in hell!”
Rankin, taken aback at the words from a child, frowned and kicked up dust to coat the family as she turned to leave.
“Heaven and hell don’t exist,” she tossed over her shoulder. “There’s only been the Network for five hundred years.
“That’s going to Change!” Candy vowed, glaring. “Someday, I’ll take power from them, the same way they’ve taken something that I need.”
Her family gasped at the open defiance, but Rankin only snorted, and then kept going. On a slow day, she might have executed them all, but she was busy now and even burnt-out Pruetts with only their slave and whelps were still dangerous.
Candy turned to her mother. She didn’t speak, but her expression screamed.
Candy’s mother lowered her head in shame, bleeding from her arm and four gashes down the side of her face. “I’m sorry.”
The icy façade she would become known for settled over the girl’s heart and Candy turned from her mother’s misery without providing the expected forgiveness. She wasn’t capable of it.
Back on the road now, the thundering hooves and screams of the round up echoed hauntingly.
“I will come for you!” Candy promised, staring at Daniel, who was already struggling to keep up and breathe through the dust. “All of you.”
Have you checked out The Bachelor Battles Trilogy yet? Here are the links to Book One, which is free: