OF THE WILD
Third in the DeLande
Saga - by Gwen Hunter
Mara was born into
a race of slaves.
After all this time, after all she had seen and
begun to understand, she could finally admit that simple and salient fact.
In the modern-day world, this world of personal freedom and privilege,
DVDs and satellite dishes, war by push-button and remote control, she
was a throwback to another timebred for the use of a man, as were
all the women of her Louisiana clan.
She was born a LeMay. A breed apart from the rest
of the world, different in mind and body, emotions and spirit, conceived
from the genes up to be shackled, owned. Chattel to the DeLandes.
The Eldest DeLande of New Orleans had a strange
power over the LeMays, an enchantment that bordered on wizardry. To the
women of the LeMay clan, the DeLande males were a fascination, an enticement,
a beguilement that could not be refused, though legend had it some had
tried over the centuries. The DeLandes ruled them, owned them, possessed
them. In the eyes of a DeLande Eldest, the LeMays were their entitlement.
An inheritance. A birthright. The family ties lay intertwined for centuries.
Mara had seen it herself as a childhad seen
the way they could captivate and entranceand she had seen what was
left when that power was broken. She had watched her mother for years
as Rosemon waited for her man, her DeLande protector, to call for her.
Watched as she wasted away, growing pale and lifeless, drab and passive.
Watched as she came alive when she finally heard his call, changing from
submissive and unresisting, to passionate and fiery in the space of a
Mara watched her mother the night her man died.
He was Andreu, called the Eldest, a title of power
and respect among the DeLande Clan, that strange and powerful family who
had ruled Louisiana for centuries. Mara knew him as the green-eyed master
of her mother's sensual enslavement. The father of her half-brothers and
sisters. A man of secrets and prestige, holding the power of life and
death, joy and misery, passion and indifference, all in the palm of his
hand. He could destroy with a word. Comfort with a glance.
The night he died, Rosemon had been lying supine,
her head thrown back, her eyes glazed, skin flushed with passion, in thrall
to him, though he was miles away and perhaps not even aware of her at
all. In some bizarre manner Mara had never understoodnever would
understandRosemon was linked to him and lost to her children.
It was late, cold, and wet in this land that was
never dry, this land of bayou and swamp, miasmic gasses and cypress, predator
and prey. Fog wisped in through the windows, pale tendrils touching Rosemon's
skin as she locked on to Andreu, communing and captivated. Sharing his
life as she had been bred to do. And Mara watched, curled in a corner,
gnawing her lip, jealous and frightened as always.
And then Rosemon screamed, threw back her head,
the tendons in her throat stretched taut. Screamed as if she were dying
and faced a hell unimaginable. Clawing her throat and chest in blood-red
welts, she crawled, crab-like, on to the floor. Cowered in the far corner.
Hidden, Rosemon whimpered, eyes wide and staring, mouth open, as her throat
bled from the violence of her own nails. And then the seizures started.
She had been nearly catatonic ever since. Silent.
Mara hated her for her little death. But she hated the DeLandes more.
We are DeLande by blood but not by name.
That was the maxim by which LeMays lived. It had been a way of life for
over two hundred years. A life of freedom and safety in the wilds of the
Badlands of Louisiana and Texas.
LeMays were DeLande only by bloodlines, not by
marriage, not by custom, and never by mores. LeMays were free from DeLande
dominance, free to live as they chose in swamp and bayou.
The DeLande Eldest guaranteed that independence,
and at least one LeMay woman in each generation secured that freedom with
her body. In the last generation that woman had been Rosemon, Mara's mother.
In this generation that woman was to be Mara. Unless Momo set her free.
Mara hated it, this life of slavery promised to
her. And she would fight it with the last drop of life in her body. Yet,
though she could admit it to no onenot even MomoMara had lived
all her young life in terror that she would one day meet a DeLande and
lose herself to him as her mother had lost herself to Andreu. And a worse
fear . . . that she would no longer care.
The BadlandsA Trap
her hair back over her shoulder, irritated that it was no longer in its
braid. It was too long, too straight, too black, and some day she would
disobey Momo and hack it off with a skinning knife. Would cut it short,
above her ears, boy-style.
Momo would shriek and wail and proclaim disaster
over Mara's life and future, her shrill voice sounding like wildcats mating
on high ground. She would wring her hands and cry to her saints, and big
tears would run down her face like rain down cracked window glass. She
would make a fuss because the day Mara cut her hair, she would be free.
That day, she would be grown.
Twisting up her skirt, Mara pulled the fabric
through her legs, tucking the hem into her waistband, creating makeshift
short, baggy trousers, exposing her legs. Balancing her cane pole on a
stump, she freed both hands to re-braid her hair, and tied it off with
a length of twine pulled from her pocket.
Unencumbered, she waded deeper into the bayou,
mud to her ankles, water to mid-thigh, and untangled the fishing line
from the brambles collected there. Perch and catfish were attracted to
the brambles to feed and lay eggs. Mara had seen a three-footer in the
shallow water just yesterday at sundown, and was determined to hook him.
Yesterday, he swam past in lazy superiority, flaunting
himself. Today, it was if he could read her mind. As if he knew her intent
to catch him, skin him, and serve him up crisp and fried golden brown,
to Momo for dinner. He stayed hidden.
She was using the pole just to occupy her hands
and mind, the real work done by the trot-linethe catfish lineshe
had strung over the bayou. Eighty feet of number 18 nylon twine was tied
off to a sapling on either bank. It was sturdy cord, 165-pound test-line,
just in case she caught more than one monster fish. Mara had tied ten
loops in the twine at various distances, and dropped 18-inch stringers
from each. On two, she had tied weights, short lengths of cast iron pipe
buried in the muddy bottom, keeping the trot-line in its proper place.
The other stringers were hooked with 3/0 Eagle Claw hooks, and baited
with worms or crickets or a slice of Momo's whole-hog sausage, all treats
for even the most finicky catfish.
If she caught the granddaddy catfish, it would
likely be on the trot-line, not the single hook caught in the brambles
beneath the dark water. Statistically speaking, the trot-line was her
best bet for success. But it was so boring.
Freeing her line, Mara clambered back up the muddy
bank, settling herself on the rounded stump of the huge oak at her back
to re-bait the hook. It was sundown, finally, blue herons soaring past
to roost nearby, gators slapping the water as they slithered off the banks
to hunt, mosquitoes swarming up from some watery hell to feast on her
blood, a breeze from the gulf blowing in damp and almost cool, and the
sky turning a vicious red that bled into the water like a great wound.
It was her favorite time of day.
Tossing a wriggling worm back into the water,
its body threaded with the fish hook, she smeared insect repellent on
to her skin and waited for her supper to bite. The world darkened around
her and daylight died. Bullfrogs sang a basso harmony. A cat screamed
in the distance, sounding like a woman in agony. Bats flitted and dived
after insects. Mara narrowed her eyes, watching warily. She didn't like
bats. Ugly things. Rats that could fly. Careful to monitor their movements,
she rested her head back against the bark.
Behind her, a twig snapped, the sound sharp and
It is never silent on the bayou; the sounds of
wildlife are a constant accompaniment. Mammals and insects, reptiles and
amphibians, birds and fish, all intent on their next meal, carry death
up the food chain making a mutable hum of background noise, a varying
clamor. Even the plants contribute to the insistent cacophony as wind
rustles leaves and dead branches break off and fall. A thousand sounds
she knew by heart and scarcely even heard.
But this one was different. Mara held her breath,
Twigs that break off, tend to fall and land in underbrush or water, settling
with a tiny susurration of sound. Twigs that are stepped on, don't.
Moving slowly, she slid her hand along the root
stump where she sat, and found her gun, its worn butt sliding into her
hand as if it had missed her touch. She rested the bamboo rod on the aged
With a single motion, she dropped to her belly.
Rolled. Extended her arms. Bracing her body, she scanned the low foliage.
There were three of them that she could see, dark
shadows widely spaced among the tree trunks. Moving, crouched, man-sized.
They hadn't seen her yet, but they had seen her
airboat, Jenny's tall fan-cage painted in the yellow and black
tail bands of a Japanese hornet, the powerful engine cool to the touch.
They knew she was here. They knew who she was.
And Mara knew what they wanted. Shock, like a
jolt of icy water, drenched through her. She knew what they wanted.
She knew. A flush, hot and burning, steamed through the sensation
of cold. She shouldn't know anything. She should simply be afraid.
A crow cawed in the distance. Bat wings whisked
by her head. Not thinking, Mara aimed the Colt. Squeezing gently, she
pulled off a single round, shattering the music of the bayou. She could
hear his scream over the roar of the shot. He dropped, a bullet in his
thigh. She could feel his fury. His pain. His fear. Her heart twisted
and thundered in her chest.
The one on the left had seen the muzzle flash.
A Colt 9mm makes a cannon flash in dim light. He ducked behind the wide,
twisted bole of a leafless chenier and emerged a moment later in a different
place, carrying a shotgun.
Mara had lost the one on the right. Not good.
The bayou was to the left. The one with the shotgun had nowhere to go.
The one on the right had plenty of room to maneuver.
Rolling again, she came up beside the old tree
where she was protected on all sides, by the tree in front, by the bayou
behind. Her heart hammered, her breath came too fast. Too loud. Louder
than the sounds of the men. Again, she aimed and fired, this time taking
her target in the abdomen, low on the left.
His scream of pain was more than an auditory reflex.
She heard it reverberate through the swamp and through her mind as well,
a psychic impulse that left her shaken. She had hurt him badly. She knew
it. She knew.
Mara clutched the tree. Blinded. And then, suddenly,
she felt them move away. She didn't see them leave. She never left
the safety of the tree that was both her protection and obstruction. She
just felt them leave, her eyes wide in the falling darkness.
The one on the right was HoBoy, and he just followed
orders. The one she shot through the thigh was DeMarc. And the one seriously
injured was her cousin, Tether. He was one of her clan. And he was a traitor.
silver clinked against fine china as footmen moved with choreographed
precision down the long table, removing the roti settings from the guests.
Priceless Limoges china, smeared with the greasy remains of quail and
stacked with small bones like piles of twigs, vanished, exposing fine
linen beneath. Elegant conversation was exchanged to either side. Discreet
laughter whispered the length of the room.
The setting sun cast fiery shadows across the
long table as coffee was poured and a trolley laden with confections rolled
down both sides for the guests to chose between a half dozen luscious
desserts. There were local politicians, a former Texas governor, her hair
in a bee-hive, three bankers, one from Tokyo, two from Germany, an artist,
a drunken writer, and the winner of this year's British Open. And, of
course, there was family, moving elegantly among them, guiding conversation,
eliciting information, titillating and seducing. Always seducing. After
all, these were DeLandes at their best.
Miles watched it all with hooded eyes, the guests
to either side of him forgotten for the moment, his mind blank, his quiet
anger carefully shielded as he watched a red-haired cousin cajole a smile
out of the man across from her. Further down, a red-headed second cousin
flirted with the woman to his side. Beautiful, each and every one of the
DeLandes. Utterly and completely beautiful. And most of them were broken
or depraved within, thanks to the lifestyle that came with the looks and
the grace and the very name itself. Miles frowned slightly, distracted.
The butler appeared at the head of the table,
his mien stiff, haughty, and affectionate all at once. He bowed behind
the host's chair and whispered in Miles' ear, "The Grande Dame has
suffered another attack, just an hour ago, sir. I have taken the liberty
of having her physician summoned, and upon his orders, have administered
a dose of Haldol. Any other orders, Mr. DeLande?"
"Yes, Jenkins. Ready the Cessna," he
said, speaking of the twin-engine aircraft in the hanger at the back of
the estate, "and pack me a bag. Jeans, boots, survival gear."
Jenkins lifted a brow in that supercilious manner
that had held sway over the estate for two decades. It was his only indication
of surprise. "Destination, sir?"
Miles grinned finally, black eyes like sooty torches,
throwing back the light. "Don't know yet," he said. "Somewhere
in the Badlands. I think the Grande Dame's attack was the result of an
injury to one of us."
"You found another, sir?"
"I think so. I couldn't pinpoint the location,
but I have a general idea of the territory."
"Very good, sir. And I'll have Cleo reschedule
your appointments for the rest of the week."
"My pleasure, sir. My pleasure."
Miles turned his attention back to the crowd before
him. His sister Angelique was laughing into the eyes of Raul Gastineau,
an artist from the South of France. Gastineau was the art world's newest
sensation. His medium was construction paper cut into tiny triangles and
pasted on artist's board, or some such nonsense.
Angelique, scarlet hair seeming to burn in the
crimson light of sunset, bent forward, her low-cut dress gaping, revealing
far too much to be merely accidental. Angelique had always been attracted
to the artistic type and Miles could hear the warm purr of her voice as
she put her hand on Gastineau's arm. Her laughter melted away, eyes grew
wide, lips parted. Raul's eyes rested on them, fascinated. Snared by the
art of seduction perfected.
She was good at it, Miles' sister, practiced at
seduction and temptation, the destruction of marriages and of good men.
She considered it her calling, as others are called to the ministry, or
to the mission field, or to some selfless occupation. She went about it
with the dedication of the true believer, leaving heartache and misery
in the wake of dozens of affairs.
If the devil ever advertised for a female lieutenant
whose specialty was to lure the tempted but undecided, Angelique would
snap up the job in a heartbeat. She had even made an attempt or two on
Miles himself in the last year, appearing in his suite in the middle of
the night, naked and inviting. The ties of blood between them had been
only an added attraction, from her point of view.
Until he became Eldest, incest had been a DeLande
family tradition, a custom going back for centuries. Some Eldests had
insisted upon the practice, mating brother to sister, parent to child.
During kinder times, the ritual matings had been optional rather than
obligatory. Throughout the reign of the Grande Dame such matings had been
forced. Angelique believed they should be again. Miles wanted the matings
Miles watched his sister preen, a sheen of sweat
and imported oils glistening on her skin. Her pulse beat like the heart
of a trapped bird as she slid her palm along the artist's thigh.
Down the table, Gastineau's wife watched the little
tableau of Angelique and her husband in the prelude of passion. Her face
was furious and embarrassed all at once. Angelique cast slanted eyes at
the wife and smiled her triumph.
Miles sighed. He would have to do something about
his sister. And soon.
from the book LAW OF THE WILD by Gwen Hunter
©2005 Gwen Hunter
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The DeLande Saga