PseudoPod 736: Lifeblood

Show Notes

From the afterword: “‘Lifeblood’, with its mean-spirited prejudice towards immigrants, pits one marginalised group against another in grim-dark tale of poverty and desperation. Information about the 1898 Kauri Gum Industry Act and the government’s monstrous persecution of immigrant and native labour can be accessed on New Zealand’s national archives.”

Review for Grotesque: Monster Stories by Shawna Borman, with review by Places We Fear to Tread by Josh Tuttle, with both read by Josh Tuttle.


Lifeblood

by Lee Murray


Nikola Silich drove his gum-spear into the ground and let it stand upright while he bent to lift the clod from the ditch. Crouched in the trench, he weighed the blackened lump in his hand, then rubbed at it with his thumbnail. What would he find beneath the grunge? Would there be a droplet of the kauri’s lifeblood, a golden bead of tree-sap petrified for years and years beneath the soil and turned as dark and rich as good wine?

His heart skipped and he breathed deep, his nostrils filling with the smoke of burning manuka bushes. In his head, he whispered, Please, let it be good.

The size wasn’t bad. Not massive – Nikola had heard tell of a slab of gum the size of three well-fed men – but it was big enough to cover Nikola’s palm. Shaped like a half-moon, it was encrusted with debris. It would need lots of scratching and scraping by the fire to free it of its rind before Perkins, the storekeeper, would condescend to swap it for supplies. Taking out his penknife, Nikola gouged the surface of the nugget, cutting away a patch for a better look. Underneath the grime, the resin was golden and pure.

Nikola smiled. These Northland swamps were full of kauri amber, and all you had to do was dig it up. British and Americans couldn’t get enough of it for polishing their fancy carriages, although they needed deep purses, because the copal was fetching a colossal £43 per ton. He chuckled. It certainly beat being back home in Vrgorac, where the grapes were rotting on the vines.

His stomach growled. Where was Perkins? Still no sign of the storekeeper’s wagon. No matter. Nikola’s day was made. Even after paying the week’s bills, there’d be enough to buy him a good bit of lamb. He’d get himself some tea; soap too. A few more nuggets like this one and he’d have enough to send home for a bride.

Furtively, Nikola glanced about him. The Chinaman was digging for gum just twenty yards off. His head bent to the task, he wasn’t looking Nikola’s way.

Good.

Working quickly, Nikola knocked the biggest clumps of dirt off his prize, slipping the nugget into the pikau-sack slung over his shoulder before he straightened. The gum fields were full of scum: runaway militiamen and drifters, but there was something especially unnerving about that Chinaman with his slanted eyes and wide smile. He was everywhere and nowhere at once. A dark scurrying thing, like a roach. Nikola didn’t trust him.

“Look out,” said his friend and compatriot, George Unkovich, from an adjacent trench. “Here comes trouble.”

Nikola looked up. A couple of the local constabulary were making their way across the scrublands. The pair skirted the patches of manuka burn-off, walking with the swagger of men accustomed to getting their own way. Word about the settlement said the younger one was decent enough, but his senior, a fat balding man named Carter, was a mean-arse son of a bitch.

George slapped the dust from his trousers. “Now, what do you reckon they’ll be wanting?”

“Dunno. Guess we’re about to find out.” Whatever it was, it wasn’t good news; Nikola had never seen them carry arms before. He freed his spear and climbed out of the trench.

“You there! Dallys,” the constable said. “You need to clear off.”

Nikola started. “What? Why?” he sputtered. “We’re not bothering anyone.”

Carter sniffed. “It’s the Kauri Gum Industry Act, lad. Came into force yesterday, didn’t it? So if you want to work here, you’re going to need to get yourself a licence.”

“What’s this about a licence?” asked Milos Vasyl, joining them from another ditch. “We never needed one before.”

“You gotta see Perkins at the store,” the young constable said. “He’ll give you a paper to sign. Then you pay over a quid, and Bob’s your uncle.”

“Bob’s your uncle,” George echoed.

Except it wasn’t that simple. A pound was a lot of money, even for a gumdigger. And Nikola still had bills to square. Squinting, he looked across the swamp at the men still at work. “You kicking everyone off? Or just us Dalmatians?”

The younger man lowered his eyes. “We’re telling everyone,” he mumbled.

“What about the Chinaman?”

“We’ll be getting to him,” Carter said.

“I don’t see the Brits leaving,” Nikola replied.

Carter raised the ancient musket and pointed it at Nikola. “You giving me trouble, Austrian?”

“No trouble here,” George said quickly. He clasped Nikola’s shoulder, holding him back. “A pound, though,” George said, sucking air through his teeth. “You have to admit, that’s lot of money.”

The constable shrugged. “Not my problem, is it? I don’t make the laws, sonny. I just enforce them. Anyway, you should count yourself lucky.” He jerked his head toward the Chinaman. “The government makes their lot pay a hundred quid before they’re even allowed off the boat. Prime Minister Seddon won’t let them bring their wives with them, either. Good thing, too, or the country would be overrun with the yellow devils…”

Gripping his spear, Nikola stepped towards the trench. “We’ll see Perkins for your licences later.”

Carter fired the musket at the sky. The roar split the air, making Nikola’s ears ache. All around them, men looked up from their work.

“If you want to dig gum, you’ll see Perkins now,” Carter said when the smell and the noise had died away. His voice was calm, but the menace remained.

“You want us to go right now?” George asked. His jaw twitched.

Carter tilted his head to one side. “It’s like I said: the law’s the law, isn’t it?”

It was close to an hour’s walk into town. They’d never make it back before the sun went down. Seemed they were done for the day. While Milos went off to spread the word, Nikola and George collected up their belongings. They didn’t have much: a spear and spade each, and the pikau-sacks they carried on their shoulders.

The constable and his man hovered near the ditch. When Nikola and George were about to leave, Carter stepped out in front of them. “Leave the bags, Dallys.”

Nikola made to move around him. “No. We’ve little enough. What’s in here is mine.”

But the fat constable shifted his finger on the trigger. “What’s in there is stolen goods. You dug up that gum without a licence.”

“It’s only one day’s takings!” George complained.

Carter thrust the barrel at George’s stomach. “Yes. Be a shame to die for a day’s takings.”

His nostrils flaring, George gave in, scattering his gum on the ground. “There, you can have it, but I’m keeping the bloody bag.”

“Now yours,” Carter said, swinging the musket towards Nikola.

Nikola frowned.

“Take it from him, Jones,” Carter said, jerking his head.

“Yes, sir.” Lifting the sack off Nikola’s shoulder, Jones took out the moon-shaped nugget and gave a low whistle. “Nice.”

“Right now, clear off,” Carter said. “Don’t come back without a licence.”


Perkins’ store was still open.

Squeezing inside, Nikola and George filled out the form. It was hard to know what they were signing; Nikola’s English was better than George’s and, even so, he only knew half the words. They waited in line behind the men, some of them waiting on licences, others ordering spades, salt, bacon, even a new pair of boots. By the time they reached the front, the afternoon sun was burning orange-gold streaks across the planked floors.

Nikola slid his paper across the counter of rough-cut Kauri – polished with wear.

Perkins flicked his eyes over the words. “That’ll be a quid,” he said.

“I haven’t got it,” Nikola replied.

“Gum?”

“No,” Nikola said, thinking of the moon-shaped nugget. “I’ll owe you the money.”

Perkins pushed the paper back. “Can’t help you, sorry.”

Nikola shook his head, incredulous. “Why not? I’ll pay the normal interest, same as I always do.”

“Not any more. You Dallys are too much of a risk.”

George elbowed his way forward. “What risk? We work as hard as anyone,” he said.

Perkins scratched at his nose. “Makes no difference if the plots have already been worked over. Naturalised New Zealanders – the Brits and the Maori – they get the new plots, those who can afford the paperwork. Dallys and Chinamen get what’s left. I reckon there won’t be much left to find, and if you don’t find any gum, I don’t get paid.”

Nikola shivered. The British were forcing them out.

“Hey, if you’re not trading, move out,” someone shouted from behind.

Nikola thrust the paper at the storekeeper. “Help us, then,” he pleaded. “Give us a good plot.”

Perkins waved to the next man in the line, gesturing him forward. “It’s not up to me,” he said to Nikola. “If you don’t like it, take it up with the government.”

“You know us,” Nikola insisted. “We always pay…” But Perkins was done with them, already talking to the next man.

They made the long walk back to the camp, following the ever-present mists of burning manuka. Their tent was just one of a hundred or more makeshift dwellings clustered on the edge of the gum fields, most nothing more than huts and bivouacs made from branches and bracken. The mood in the settlement was grim. True to their word, Carter and Jones had chased everyone off the field, even the Brits. One man had already acquired the precious licence. A group crowded about him, demanding to see it.

“What’s it say?” one asked.

“Read it out,” said another.

The man who owned it couldn’t read, so Milos Vasyl did the honours, but nobody could glean anything new from it, so the men ambled away, off to their fires to drink, scrape gum, and tell stories.

The Chinaman was sitting beside his campfire, his head bent scraping gum.

Nikola’s breath caught. Wait! He’d seen that moon-shaped nugget before. “Hey, where did you get that?” He strode across the campground and snatched it out of the Chinaman’s hands.

The Chinaman jumped to his feet. “Not mine, not mine,” he said, dropping the knife and reaching for the nugget.

“Did you steal it?” Nikola roared.

“No, I no steal. I scrape for policeman.”

“This is my nugget.”

The Chinaman bowed. “No, no. Police nugget. Police give to me. I clean for them,” he said.

“Leave it,” George said in Nikola’s ear. “It’s not his fault. Here, let’s just get some food, eh?”

“It’s my nugget. He stole it,” Nikola said, but there was no conviction in it. George was right: it wasn’t the Chinaman’s fault. You couldn’t blame a cockroach for scuttling. Nikola released the gum, forcing the Chinaman to scrabble on the ground for it. When he stood up, he gave Nikola a sour slanty-eyed look, then returned to his spot by the fire.

“There’s plenty of gum still in the ground,” George said, putting a heavy arm around Nikola’s shoulders. “I’ve got some stashed away. I’ll trade it for the licence, then I’ll work the plot they give us, and you can scrape any gum I find. Just until we get back on our feet.”

It was a decent offer and a kind one, yet Nikola couldn’t help glowering as his friend led him away.


Nikola waited in line, his hat pulled forward on his head, and wiped a rag over the nugget’s surface. Even in the gloom of the store, the kernel gleamed like a new sovereign. This piece had been the last in the basket. Their last income, until George carried more gum home from the gum fields. Nikola prayed his friend had better luck today.

“Next.”

Nikola stepped forward, handing the nugget over the counter.

Perkins lifted it to the light and his eyes widened. “I’ll give you a loaf of bread and knuckle of lamb for it.”

“What? It’s worth three times that,” Nikola said.

“That’s my price.”

“It’s robbery, that’s what it is.”

The storekeeper gave him a wolf’s smile. He held out the gum. “Take your nugget, then. You can always walk to the docks. See if you can get a better price there.”

Nikola kept his hands in his pockets. “There’s no meat on that knuckle,” he protested.

Perkins shrugged.

The bastard. The dock was a half-day’s walk, and Perkins knew starving men don’t haggle. In the month since licences were introduced, the storekeeper had grown fat on the gumdiggers’ misery. Nikola imagined him soaking his bread in bacon dripping, grease sliding down his chin…

Nikola’s stomach churned, the juice souring in his belly. It didn’t do to think about food, not when you hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Glaring at Perkins, he grabbed the bread and stepped outside into the scorching sun. The loaf was stale, but Nikola put his nose to the crust anyway and sniffed deep. It smelled heavenly. Saliva pooled under his tongue and he almost fainted with longing. Instead, he tucked the loaf into his pikau-sack out of sight. He mustn’t eat it. He had to save it for George. You couldn’t dig gum on an empty stomach, and the gum was their lifeblood. Grasping a handful of gum leavings from his pocket, he rolled them in his palm, then stuffed the clod in his mouth, chewing on the salty resin to stave off his hunger on the hot walk back to the settlement.

When he arrived, Carter and Jones were there again, stopping by to hand more confiscated gum to the Chinaman, and to take away their newly polished nuggets. The Chinaman held something up, displaying his handiwork. Nikola’s blood boiled. Why would they trust their gum to the Chinaman? The cockroach was eating better than he was.

Nikola hovered in the alley. “I could scrape that gum for you,” he said, when Carter and Jones passed by. His stomach burned with shame. “I’m a hard worker.”

Carter just laughed. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll keep you in mind.” The pair sauntered away.

The sun had set when George returned from the gum fields. He was too tired to wash. Slick with sweat and grime, he gobbled up the dense bread, washing it down with big mouthfuls of lamb broth. When he’d finished, he wiped his chin with his hand. “You’re not eating?”

“I already ate,” Nikola lied. “You don’t get hungry scraping gum. How did you do today?”

George dropped his eyes and waved a hand towards his pikau. “Nothing much. Just some peas.”

Nikola opened the sacking bag and his heart sank. Even polished into diamonds, the tiny grains weren’t big enough to buy even half a loaf. He’d have to wait another day before going to the store. Fear seized him. What if the same thing happened tomorrow? What if the plot was empty and George was turning the earth over and over for nothing?

“No matter,” Nikola said brightly. “You’ll do better tomorrow.” He could have saved his breath because George was already asleep.

Nikola licked out the pan, slurping up the dregs of broth, but the emptiness clawed at his guts. He lay awake for long hours in the darkness.


With so little gum to scrape, and none to sell, Nikola had no choice but to follow the Maori women into the forest to forage for food. He wasn’t the only one; several of his compatriots had joined the group and he caught sight of the Chinaman through the trees. So, scraping Carter’s confiscated gum wasn’t enough for him…

One of the Maori women snipped a spiral fern frond off its stem with her fingertips and put it into her flax basket. Good. The plant was edible. Nikola didn’t wait; he broke off three fronds and ate them raw. While he was eating, the woman cracked open a rotting log and lifted out a fat white grub. She dangled it in his face. Nikola shook his head. Grinning, the woman bit the creature’s head off, chewing it even as it wriggled. She handed him the remainder of the grub. Nikola swallowed back bile and stepped away.

“You get hungry enough, these grubs are pretty tasty,” Milos Vasyl said, taking the morsel from the woman and putting it in his own mouth. Nikola barely recognised the man. As thin as a spade handle, Milos had tied a strip of flax around his waist to keep his trousers up.

The Maori woman had gathered up the last of the larvae and was hurrying after the other womenfolk.

“There’s a river about a mile in,” Milos said. “They’ll be going to check their eel traps.” Together, they followed the women deeper into the trees, stray branches brushing at their thighs. “George is still working the plot, then?” Milos asked after a while.

Nikola nodded.

“Any luck?”

Nikola sniffed.

“Some of us are heading to the port tomorrow,” Milos said. “You can join us if you like.”

“You’re looking for work there?”

Milos exhaled. A long breath. “We’re going home. There’s nothing for us here now.”

“How will you pay?”

“We’ll work our passage.”

Nikola’s heart thumped. Could he leave George and return to Vrgorac? The vines had failed. He might be going home to starve. “George might find something today,” he said finally.

“Sure,” said Milos.

They passed under a grove of thick-trunked kauri, their feet sinking in the swampy ground. Nikola looked up. The trees were as tall as a ship’s mast, their branches as wide as they were tall.

“Look at that,” Nikola breathed.

Up high, out of reach on the stippled trunk, was a boulder of golden resin as big as Nikola’s torso, the result of an old injury, perhaps a branch broken off in a storm or by a bolt of lightning. If only he could reach it. A clump that size would fetch him an entire side of beef at Perkin’s store.

Nikola sucked in a breath and it was as if the scent of the gum had cleared his head. These were kauri trees. They were full of gum. All you had to do was score them, and the trees would bleed. Why waste time digging when you could cut the trees and take what you wanted? Running to the nearest trunk, Nikola pulled out his blade.

Milos snatched at his sleeve. “Don’t.”

Puzzled, Nikola shook him off. “Why not?”

“Because the kauri are protected. If Carter catches you bleeding one, he’ll lock you up.”

“Look at us, Milos,” Nikola said, breathless with excitement. “We’re starving. You can hardly hold your pants up. So, we take a little gum. Who’s going to know?”

“It’s not just the police. The Maori say bad things happen if you hurt the trees. The gods get angry.”

Nikola rolled his eyes. “That’s just talk. Anyway, they dig for gum like everyone else.”

Milos plucked at a fern and nibbled on the tip. “It’s not the same.”

“How is it not the same?”

Milos peered through the bush at the departing women. “The kauri in the swamp are dead; these trees are alive.”

Nikola stared at him.

“They say the gods punish you,” Milos whispered. “Years ago, there was a bleeder who lived in the settlement. He did all right for a while, before the gods came for him. Then he disappeared.”

“Maybe he decided to go home.”

Milos shook his head. “He was cursed. Climbed up a tree to get a nugget like the one above us. But the gods stole his rope and he got stuck there. Loggers found his skeleton when they felled the tree.”

Nikola scoffed. Lack of decent food was affecting the man’s brain. “You don’t really believe that. It’s just a story.”

Milos spat out a green husk. “It’s their country, isn’t it? Their gods.”

“What if we make a little cut? A tiny scratch just big enough to make the sap flow, but not enough to hurt the tree.”

“There’s a bounty,” Milos said absently.

Nikola felt his eyes narrow. Would Milos report him for the money? The man was little more than a skeleton, with big gaunt eyes and hollowed-out cheeks. Hungry men did desperate things. Why risk it? Milos would be gone tomorrow.

Nikola gave his compatriot a solemn nod. “You’re right. It’s their country. No need to upset the gods, is there?” He put a hand on Milos’ back and steered him away from the massive trunk. “Let’s get after those women and see if we can score ourselves a fish head, shall we?”

On the way back from the river, Nikola stole away from the group. He selected a kauri well back from the others and chose a spot down low, hidden by a clump of fern. He didn’t believe Milos’ superstitious prattle, but he wasn’t about to get caught either. He’d make a little nick and squeeze out just enough gum to get himself a good meal and a licence. Who would know?

Checking there was no one about, he took out his knife and set it against the wood. Blunted by a month of scraping gum, the knife slipped on the bark, gouging a chunk out of the tree and slicing deep into his palm. Nikola sucked air in over his teeth. Dark red blood welled in the gash and sap melted into the wound, the mixture turning red-gold.

Biting back the pain, Nikola pressed his bloody palm to his trousers to staunch the flow. Already, the nick in the tree was beaded with golden sap. Despite the throbbing in his palm, Nikola felt a surge of hope. At this rate, the kauri would deliver him a nugget the size of a coconut in just a few days. Let’s see Perkins try and give him a loaf of stale bread then.


Two men carried George back from the gum field. He was burning up with fever. Sweat pooled beneath his arms and on his brow, yet he shivered beneath the thin blanket. Nikola lifted his head and fed him a sticky broth of fish and fern roots, but either the food was too strange, or his friend was too sick, because George vomited it up again.

Milos’ voice buzzed in Nikola’s ears. The gods will punish you. The gods will punish you. Nikola ignored him. Bleeding the kauri had nothing to do with George’s illness. It was a coincidence, nothing more.

That night, as he slept on the ground beside his friend, Nikola had a nightmare: a tattooed warrior stole up behind him and sliced his throat with his greenstone club. Only, in the dream, blood didn’t gush from the wound. Instead, it beaded in the gash, dribbling slowly down his neck in a red-gold thread. He awoke to George’s moaning.

In the morning, George was no better, so Nikola became a gumdigger again, leaving George in his bed, while he went to work the plot. The land was a sorry sight, the earth pitted with holes, evidence of a month of fruitless searching.

Nikola’s palm throbbed where he’d sliced it, and his head buzzed with the heat, but he stabbed his gum-spear into the ground and felt for the tell-tale tug of the resin beneath the blade. There was nothing. He was too weak to bury the blade in the dirt, the spear merely sliding across the surface. He lifted the shaft and stabbed again, his head swimming. All he needed was a decent nugget he could sell for real food, so George would get better. Then Nikola would harvest the resin trickling from the tree, and everything would be fine again.

The spear slipped, just missing his foot. Nikola giggled.

A blurry figure appeared on the horizon. Nikola’s pulse thrummed. The warrior? No, it was the policeman. Carter.

He was there in an instant. “What are you doing here, Silich? This isn’t your claim.”

Nikola looked up, squinting against a blaze of pink light. “It’s George’s claim. He’s sick, so I’m working it for him.”

“That’s what you say. How do I know you’re not stealing from him?”

Nikola’s throat tightened, the pink fading. “George is my friend. You can ask him.”

Carter raised the gun. “I could, but it’s easier to make you leave. Tell you what, I’ll let you keep your sack this time, since there’s obviously nothing in it.” He grinned.

Nikola didn’t have the energy to fight him. He could barely lift his spear. He shuffled off, trailing the blade in the dirt.

Someone followed him home. Carter maybe. Or the other one. Nikola was sure he could hear bare feet slapping behind him on the hard-packed dirt.

“Who’s there?” he said, stopping to look back. His heart leapt, and he tightened his grip on the spear. The wound in his palm throbbed, red-gold blood oozing down the shaft, making it slick. It was the warrior from his dreams. Covered in fearsome tattoos, the man was crouched in the road, the muscles in his thighs rippling. The warrior screamed and brandished his greenstone club at Nikola, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

“What do you want?” Nikola shouted.

But the warrior was gone in the hazy drift of manuka smoke. Beside the track, the brush stiffened and rattled in the wind.

The gods will punish you, Milos whispered. Except Milos and the others had left for the port this morning.

Nikola turned and spied the Chinaman through the smoky mist. Had it been him following Nikola all along? What did he want? And why was he slipping into the forest? Nikola shuddered. His skin prickled. Did the Chinaman know about Nikola’s kauri? Of course he did. The Chinaman was everywhere. He was planning to steal Nikola’s treasure. He’d stolen the big moon-shaped nugget. Nikola had seen him with it, whittling away at it in the firelight.

Well, he won’t be stealing from Nikola again.

The pain in his hand flaring, Nikola pushed through the prickly manuka.

The Chinaman was tricky. He pretended he was searching for food, stopping here and there to pinch off the spiral fern tips. Sometimes he’d pause to watch the birds flit about in the trees. Nikola wasn’t fooled. He was heading for the grove of kauri. To the tree Nikola was bleeding.

Nikola frowned. That gum was for him and George. By the time Nikola returned, the nugget would be enormous. Nikola would sell it to Perkins at the store. He’d get two licences. Three. Good plots, too. Not barren bits of dirt that had already been picked over by the British. He and George would employ their countrymen to work the land. Maybe they’d get Milos to be their foreman. Why not? They’d be pulling so much gum out of the ground, they’d be able to send home for wives for everyone.


The spear hadn’t pierced the ground at the gum fields, but it made easy work of the Chinaman’s thigh, the blade slicing through the artery at the top of the man’s leg. Nikola pushed the blade home, slicing lengthwise. Blood sprayed from the gash. So much blood. Pink haze flooded Nikola’s vision, the spurt of liquid mesmerising him.

The Chinaman slumped, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. His fingers flailed, searching for the edges of the wound. It was too late. The gush was already slowing, the thick clots of blood seeping into the ground.

Nearby, the leaves rustled. Nikola looked up. Crouched low in the bracken, the warrior was watching him. He grinned at Nikola, but he made no move to stop him.

Grinning back, Nikola rifled through the dead man’s pockets and found the moon-shaped piece of gum. He held it up to the light. The Chinaman had whittled it into a fantail.


Nikola burst into the tent. “George, see what I’ve found. My nugget, only now it’s a bird. Just look at the size of it—” He stopped still.

There were three men in the tent: Carter, Jones, and George. Of the three of them, only George didn’t look at him, staring instead at the roof with dull, blank eyes.

“Your friend’s dead,” Jones said.

And people said the younger one was decent.

Nikola’s lip trembled. His hand opened, and the bird tumbled to the ground. It was only then that he saw his clothes were covered in blood.

“Jesus wept,” Jones said.

“That’s the bird Yee was carving for me,” Carter said. “Grab him, Jones!”

Nikola turned on his heel and ran. One thing about being thin; it makes a man nimble. He flew through the forest, easily outstripping the constable, but not the warrior, who was following him again. No matter. Nikola didn’t plan to stick around long. Just as soon as he’d harvested his gum, he’d go to the port and buy himself a passage home. Maybe even catch up with Milos.

He found the grove of kauri, and the tree, circling to the spot where he’d scored the bark. He sucked in a breath. The drizzle of sap had grown to the size of a man’s heart, the nugget hanging off the trunk like a perfect drop of honey. All he had to do was cleave it off.

Nikola kneeled on the swampy ground. He took out his knife and sliced at the edge of the nugget, each stroke loosening the amber but also causing him to sink a little more. By the time he’d prised the nugget free, Nikola was chest deep in the earth. He tossed the nugget up on higher ground and put his hands on the edge to pull himself out. The side of the hole broke away. He tried again. The edge crumbled. He was dizzy with exhaustion. He didn’t have the strength to haul himself out. His body quivered with terror. He would drown here, petrified in the swamp like an ancient piece of gum.

Unless…

He twisted to look at the warrior watching from the bank. “Help me,” he gasped.

Grinning, the warrior stood up and extended his club, beckoning to Nikola to grasp its flattened end.

Relief flooding him, Nikola lunged for it. But instead of pulling him out, the warrior swung the club and slashed it across Nikola’s throat.

Nikola’s eyes widened as his lifeblood welled in the gash.

I told you the gods would punish you, Milos said again.

The warrior-god stepped forward, placed his foot on Nikola’s shoulder, and pushed him beneath the swampy ground.

About the Author

Lee Murray

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. Editor of award-winning titles HellholeAt the Edge, and Baby Teeth, Lee’s latest anthology is Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, edited with Geneve Flynn.

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About the Narrator

Heath Miller

Heath is an actor from far away, who currently finds himself living on an island off the coast of Maine with two cats (one human, one feline), an improbably fluffy dog and six chickens. You can find his narration at audible.com, the Uncanny Magazine podcast, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and elsewhere. For photos of the aforementioned animals & other day-to-day minutiae follow him on Twitter at @veryheathmiller.

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