Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Wolves and Witches and Bears

The hike hadn’t been Ella’s idea. Of course it hadn’t; nothing about this holiday was. It was Nick who’d chosen the destination, Nick who’d chosen the hotel. It was Nick who wanted to go walking, though the day was hot, the sun already furious. At least, she thought as she pulled on the new hiking boots he’d insisted she buy, it would be cooler under the trees. This part of Croatia was thick with them, the trunks tight-packed, keeping out the light. She frowned. Her arms were still pale. There was no chance she’d get to work on her tan today, not on the route Nick planned to lead them.

He picked up his compass, turning and turning it, not hiding his look of impatience. He caught her eye, but she straightened before he had a chance to say anything. “Ready,” she said.

She remembered when he’d asked her to go on holiday with him. They had been lingering in bed together, an increasingly rare occurrence: a lazy Saturday morning. He’d stroked her hair. “More days like this,” he’d said and smiled. “Lots and lots of days like this. Come on. You’ll love it.” And then the thing that clinched it: “It’ll be good for us.”

Yes, she’d thought. Yes, it would.

Now here she was, staying in a small guest house — “hotel” was really too grand a name — on the edge of nowhere, out of touch and out of reach, beyond the regular tourist trails or the faintest mobile phone signal; nothing but the trees blanketing hill after hill after hill.

“What’s at the end of this walk again?” she asked.

He rolled his eyes. Days like this, she thought. Lots of them. But she didn’t say anything as they hoisted their rucksacks and turned towards the slope. She had heard it already: He’d told her. Nothing, he’d said. Miles and miles of nothing, the thing they had come to see, the thing they never could see back home. The thing that would make them better.

“And you’re sure it’s all right?”

He waved the compass over his shoulder, patted the map.

“It’s easy to get lost — the rep said it’s best to use a guide. Shouldn’t we . . .”

Nick turned and shook his head, then replaced his expression with a smile and held out his hand. “Come on, you’ll love it. We can relax later. We can drink wine, chill out in the room.” He raised an eyebrow suggestively.

It was different when he looked like that. He was like the old Nick, the one she’d fallen in love with. It was something about his eyes, like clouds scattering on a windy day; making everything seem clear.

She nodded and started to walk.

• • • •

The slope was long and the ground hard, as if it hadn’t rained in a long time. The track was wide, and sunlight speared down after all, pleasant pools of it interspersed with a fresh breeze. Ella wore shorts and a tank top, but it was still hot, the friction concentrating warmth in her armpits and groin. Her boots were starting to rub the side of her foot, just a little. She stood with her hands on her hips, letting the breeze cool her, looking back the way they had come. The guest house looked distant, smaller even than it had seemed from the inside.

She felt Nick’s hand on her shoulder. “Need a rest?”

“No.” She knew Nick didn’t like to stop and start once he’d got into a rhythm. He liked to keep walking and walking, something she’d never quite seen the point of, but wasn’t that what this holiday was about — compromising? Learning to appreciate one another again? And she might learn to enjoy it. It was, after all, beautiful: wild and green and beautiful.

• • • •

Nick stopped, staring down at the compass. His hand was cupped so that Ella couldn’t see. “This way.” He indicated a narrower path, a steeper path. It was possibly a more direct route to the top of the mountain. Ella didn’t ask; it couldn’t matter if all they were going to see was more nothing, and it would be nice to be deeper into the trees. Most of the forests out here were deciduous, ash and hornbeam and oak and poplar. They were interspersed with the occasional pine, tall and furry-looking, smelling fresh and musky at the same time. It surrounded her, that fragrance, as if she was being enveloped by another world entirely.

Nick led the way. Ella lagged behind; she kept peering into the trees. Everything was quiet and still. Anything could be in there. It reminded her of the fairy tales that her mother had told her when she was young. She used to read them aloud and then tickle Ella, putting on a deeper voice, a scary voice that wasn’t really scary: Wolves and witches and bears, she’d say. Wolves and bears and witches.

That could describe this place pretty well. Ella could easily imagine the forest to be peopled, with fairies and sprites certainly, but also those other things: wolves and witches and bears.

She almost walked into Nick’s back. He’d stopped again. “What’s up?” she asked.

He frowned at the compass. “Nothing. We’re right on course.” He started walking, stomping hard at the path, which had begun to narrow further.

After a while, the ground started to undulate, long steady rises followed by steeper descents. Nick paused, and Ella drew alongside him. In front of them, the land fell away in a steep drop, revealing pale-coloured earth like scar tissue. On either side, it was steeper still; then it curved away so that she couldn’t see its end.

She opened her mouth to speak, then jumped back as Nick launched himself suddenly onto the scree. It happened quickly. He put out a hand to slow his slide, then landed on his haunches at the bottom. He reached out to help Ella down, and she stared at the palm of his hand. The skin was roughened and blood-spotted. She was no longer sure that this was the right way, wasn’t even sure it was a path at all. She should have said so before he’d scrambled down. Now it was too late. She crouched and leaned into the drop, took his hand and let herself fall. He caught her, and she found herself looking into his eyes, not sharing a romantic moment, but trying to read his expression. He looked away, then turned his back.

“Up there.” He gestured towards the next slope. It was thickly wooded like everything else, but the trees seemed closer together. Under the branches, everything was dark.

“We should stop and eat something,” Ella said. “We could have a good look at the map.”

“When we get to the top.”

“But . . . my foot hurts. We could rest.”

“We’ll rest at the top.”

Ella sighed as Nick plunged into the trees. She followed. When she looked down, there hardly seemed to be a path at all. She glanced over her shoulder. The scar was still just in sight, and she stared at it, memorising the way it looked so that she would recognise it when they came this way again.

The trees shifted, stirred by a warm draught of air that felt like breath. Now all was pine, and there was no undergrowth, only a rust-coloured patina of fallen needles that slid like silk under Ella’s boots. They kept on walking and they didn’t talk. It reminded her of the way they were at home, together but not together. Now the air was cleaner, that was all. She had thought a holiday would make everything different.

Her complaint about her foot had been a pretext to stop and examine the map, but as they went on, she found it was hurting. It was intensifying, along with the heat of the day, becoming a bright, raw pain. She pulled a face. Nick was irritated enough already. She’d adjust it when they stopped.

She looked into the trees and saw only more of them, rank upon rank: waiting, silent figures. Wolves and witches and bears, she thought, and shuddered. It was easy to imagine stumbling across some gingerbread house or grandmother’s cottage. Easy to imagine a wolf. But then there were wolves here, weren’t there? She thought there might be. Maybe bears, too. They could be here now, watching from behind the trees, masked by the shadows and their own dark stealth. She opened her mouth to ask Nick — it might at least start a conversation — when she heard the snap of a breaking branch, loud amidst their steady soft footsteps, and Nick stopped directly in front of her. She expected him to turn around, but he did not. He simply stood there, one foot in front of the other, as if frozen.

“Nick?”

A wolf, she thought. He’s seen a wolf. She peered into the trees, but there was nothing. “What’s up, Nick? Are we stopping?”

He drew in a long, hoarse breath.

“What is it?” Ella went to his side and looked up at him. His face was white. His eyes were wide. He didn’t look back at her, just stared dead ahead, focused on nothing.

Her voice faltered. “Nick?”

“Get — away, Ella.” His voice was breathy, sick-sounding.

“What is it?” She reached out to touch his arm, and he swung it, almost hitting her. She stepped away.

“Ella. Oh, God, Ella.”

“Nick, stop it. You’re scaring me. What’s wrong?”

He turned his head. He moved carefully, as if his neck pained him, as if all his movements pained him. “I stepped on something.”

“Is that all?” She glanced down. “I think I heard a branch snap. It’s nothing. Nick, there are no wolves here, are there? Nothing that would have heard it?”

“Don’t — be fucking — stupid.” Nick’s cheeks flushed, then paled again. “I stepped on something. It’s the war, Ella. The fucking war.” He paused, took a deep breath. “When Yugoslavia broke up in the nineties. There are still mines in some places. Remote places. They’ve never been cleared.”

“Nick — what the hell? That’s ridiculous.”

“I heard it. I felt it give, under my foot.”

Ella bent and looked down. There was nothing to see, not even the fallen branch or twig that had snapped. She shook her head. It must be hidden by his boot. She reached for his foot, started to pull on it.

“Don’t fucking touch me. What are you trying to do?”

She jumped away and looked up at him, hurt.

“It’s a landmine. They’re set when you step on them. When you get off, they explode. People lose legs. People die.”

“Wha — ”

“I can’t move, Ella.”

She shook her head. No. This was stupid. This wasn’t happening. They were on holiday, they were on a walk, and soon they would be back in the guest house, sipping cold wine. What Nick had said —

“You have to go and get help.”

“No, Nick — ”

He sighed, closing his eyes. “Take a look first. Just — be careful.”

“What?”

“Don’t get too close to me. Just scrape away the needles — gently, all right? Try to see what’s under my foot.”

Ella’s mouth opened and closed, and then she did what he said because he was wrong, he had to be wrong, and she would show him, and afterwards, they would laugh about it, and things would be all right again. Maybe everything would.

She brushed at the needles. They were smooth or sharp depending on how she caught them, and then there was hard-packed earth, gritty against her fingertips.

“Careful,” he said.

More slowly, she shifted a little of the dry earth, too. She thought she could see the edge of something under his foot. It was grey. More earth, or something else? She touched it, and it was cool under her fingers.

“Well?”

Ella couldn’t look at him, couldn’t lift her head. She was cold all over now; she started to shiver. “It — it’s metal, I think. I think you’re right.”

He hissed out air between his teeth. “Fuck. Fuck.”

“I’ll get help.”

He didn’t look at her, just stared down at the ground. Then he took the map from his pocket and held it out at arm’s length. She took it. He passed her the compass, too.

“Oh, Christ, Nick, I — ”

“You can.”

Her breath hitched. “What if I get lost?”

“You won’t get lost.” Nick turned and met her eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was small. “You’d best go, love.”

“All right.” She leaned in, made to kiss him, and he jerked his head away. “Better not touch, eh? Get help, love. It’ll be okay.”

“Yes.” She nodded, but didn’t move.

“Well?”

She shook her head, then slipped the rucksack from her shoulders. “You’d better have this.” She set it down a short distance from Nick’s feet, within his reach. “Just in case. There’s my food. Drink.”

He stared at it. “But you won’t be long.”

“No. I won’t.”

He nodded. Then he glanced around. His eyes were wide, helpless; it made him look younger, like a small boy.

“I’ll see you soon. I love you, Nick.”

“You too. And Ella — ”

“Yes?”

“Don’t get lost, will you? Just don’t get lost.”

• • • •

She half-ran back down the path. She didn’t know what had just happened, couldn’t wrap her thoughts around it. Nick was joking, wasn’t he? His face rose before her eyes, the skin drained of blood. No, he hadn’t been joking; still, she didn’t know how they’d traversed from a simple walk to this.

She forced herself to think about where she was putting her feet, concentrating on getting down the slope without slipping or falling. It occurred to her, somewhere at the back of her mind, that there might be more of those — things lying beneath the surface. She thought she could see where their boots had stirred the dead needles, and she tried to step on the old footprints. The pain of her foot was distant, as if other things had squeezed it from her mind. Nick, she thought. Nick.

She had a sudden vivid picture of herself walking up the stairway onto the aeroplane, tears streaking her face, Nick nowhere to be seen. She pushed it away. The thought of going home without him — of Nick not being there any more — was inconceivable. It wouldn’t happen. And then something else struck her, so hard that she stumbled to a halt: what if she’d been wrong?

It might not have been a mine at all. People would come all the way out here to help them, and they’d be angry. Nick would be angrier still. Of course there was no mine, there couldn’t be, because such things didn’t happen. How would she know if she even saw one? Did she really trust her own judgment that far? Did Nick?

But it had been grey. Cold.

Ella held her hand before her face, as if she could still sense the touch of metal on her fingertips. And she got moving again, and then she started to run.

• • • •

The scar was there. It was just as she remembered, a gash on the green slope, and Ella felt a flush of pride. This was where she had looked back, making a point of remembering their route. She had done well. Nick would be proud of her when they both got out, when they were home.

It looked even steeper from this side. Ella saw where chunks of rock jutted from the earth, everything the same off-white colour. It looked solid enough. Nick wouldn’t have hesitated, would have been at the top by now. She stretched upward and grasped one of the rocks. It was firm, slightly warm under her fingers. She pulled herself up, reaching for the next, and the next. Then she felt the tufts of grass that edged the banking, and beneath that the slide of dead needles, and her hand slipped, and then her feet, and Ella began to fall.

She saw the exposed earth in front of her get further and further away. It happened slowly and all at once. She was flailing for something to grip, but there was no grip. There was only the blue of the sky and the pale earth, and then Ella was lying on her back, the breath knocked out of her.

At first, she didn’t move. Then she raised a hand and touched it to the back of her head. A moment later, the pain came. There was no blood, but a lump was rising under her fingers. She pushed herself into a sitting position, and her eyes welled with tears. She squeezed them closed; she wasn’t going to cry. She had to help Nick, had to help him now.

She got to her feet, steadied herself and looked at the scar. She knew she couldn’t do it. To each side, the barrier was even steeper. Beyond that, though, the land curved away. Perhaps she could find somewhere else to climb, and then she could backtrack, find this place again. It would be better than falling and breaking something. If she did that, she’d be no good to Nick at all. She’d knock herself out, and the bears would come. Bears and witches and wolves.

She brushed the dust and grit from her shorts, streaking them with blood from her grazed palms, and she started to walk.

• • • •

Ella stood still, breathing in the heavy scent of the trees, and she listened. She should have reached the path by now; it must be just up ahead. Surely, though, she should have found it already. She closed her eyes. Stupid. She should have done as she’d planned, found the scar again and got her bearings. Instead, she’d scrambled up a narrow gully to the top of the slope, and, in a flush of triumph, had tried cutting straight across to the path. It should have been quicker that way.

Now she couldn’t see the path at all, not even a trace of one. There was silence all around her; only the sound of her own breathing broke it. When she held her breath, there was nothing. Ella bit her lip. If she headed downhill, wouldn’t she find the right path anyway? She tried to remember. The first part of their journey had been all uphill. After that it was undulating, slopes rising and falling everywhere.

And a thought entered her mind: that was how he’d got lost.

She shook her head. Nick never got lost. He’d had the compass, and he knew what he was doing. Ella’s hand went to her pocket. Of course, the compass was hers now. She took it out, wondering if it would have broken in her fall, but it had not. The screen was clear, the needle bobbing on its mount, waiting to be called upon. The guest house was south, wasn’t it? Or was it further west? A little of both, maybe.

She pulled out the map, too. The village was marked on it, but the guest house was not. It was close to the village, though, only a kilometre or so away. Which direction? She wasn’t sure. Everything else, for mile upon mile, was green. She crumpled the map in her hands, felt tears burning at her eyes and blinked them back.

Then she heard something, faint but definitely there, drifting through the trees: I’m here, Ella.

She caught her breath. It was Nick’s voice, carried towards her on a draught of air. He was shouting, but it was coming from a fair distance away, and off to her left.

Another call followed on the first: Here, Ella. I’m here.

He must think she was somewhere close, bringing help with her. He was calling to guide her in. But he couldn’t expect her back so soon, could he? Ella glanced at her wrist and realised she wasn’t wearing her watch. It must be back at the guest house, in their room; their small, shabby, gloriously safe room.

Unless he was calling because he’d heard something else out there. In the trees.

Ella looked around. She had seen nothing, no sign of wolves or bears or anything else. She couldn’t even hear birdsong.

Here, Ella.

She took a deep breath. The sound was coming from her left. She must have gone too far, crossing the path without even realising it. She should go back, and she would find it again. Ella turned and ducked under the low branches, back the way she had come.

• • • •

There was another gash in the earth. Ella stared at it. It was as if some giant had taken a huge knife and scored a line through the forest. The pale earth was shocking against the deep green.

Ella let out a sound, a little like a sob. It wasn’t that the scar was steeper than the first; it was because it was there, and she had never seen it before, and she knew with certainty that she hadn’t been this way, that she had got lost after all; and because she could already see the disappointment in Nick’s eyes.

She shook her head. It was no time to feel sorry for herself. If Nick was angry, it was because he deserved to be angry. He’d have the right to shout at her when she saw him again.

She went to the bottom of the drop and took a deep breath. Beyond it, she could keep following the slope downward. Sooner or later, she would find her way.

A rock jutted from the earth, a little like the first. She gripped it and pulled herself up. It was easy. She shouldn’t have been so pathetic about it, the first time. That was where she’d gone wrong, where everything had. She reached for the next. And the next. And it pulled free of the earth, a heavy weight loose in her hands, and she couldn’t hold it, felt it slip from her fingers; but she wasn’t afraid. She only cursed herself as she fell for the second time.

The sound was sharp and distinct, like a twig snapping. Ella knew it wasn’t a twig. She knew because she felt it go, her leg giving in a way it shouldn’t give as it bent under her. Then the pain flared, and she cried out.

She closed her eyes. Click, she thought. Click, click. The sound that had caused all their problems, Nick’s and her own. A sound quite different from the breeze in the branches, or the slide of needles underfoot, or the vibration of her heartbeat echoing in her chest, the one that accelerated now into half painful throb, half fluttering panic.

Click.

She shifted her weight a little, just a little, and that was when she saw the bone. She stared, realising it was only raw earth clinging to her skin, and she brushed it away. No, she couldn’t see bone. She knew her leg was broken, though, from the pain that was gathering itself deep inside.

Fuck, she whispered. No.

It was a dream, that was all. She wasn’t here, and this wasn’t happening. It was only some sort of nightmare.

Ella could see Nick’s face in her mind. It wore an expectant expression, but she knew, after a time, that would change: it would become disappointment, then contempt, then anger. She had been given this thing to do, just one simple thing, and she had screwed it up.

I don’t even know where I am, she thought, and she put her hands over her face.

She tried to slow her breathing. It wouldn’t help her to panic. She had to be sensible, to think this through. There must be something that she could do, a way to get out. She tried to work it through in her mind, but all that came was: click. Click. Click.

• • • •

Ella knew that Nick would still be waiting for her. He would still have faith that she was going to come. He’d be standing there now, expecting every rustle of every branch to be her. He wouldn’t have started to hate her yet. When the light began to fade — when the dark came — maybe then he would.

Ella drew a deep breath and shouted: Nick, I’m here.

There was no reply except the breeze, stirring her hair, mocking her. It was coming from behind her. The breeze had carried Nick’s voice to her, bringing it like some gift, but it carried her own voice away. She tried again. Niiick!

There was no answer. He hadn’t heard; she felt sure he hadn’t heard. There was only the breeze, cooler now, and she was in shadow, her clothes weighed down with sweat and panic. Her leg was colder than anything else, and she started to shiver.

It was so unfair. She had wanted to help, she had, and now she was here: nowhere. Useless. Nothing.

But someone would come. They must. Someone would surely come.

• • • •

The ache moved around her body. First it was the back of her calf, then the small of her back, then her leg, stabbing deeply there; then a steady throb across her shoulders. Her head ached. The sun would move across the sky, melting on top of her scalp, and then clouds would cover it, leaving her blessedly cool. Time was passing while here, everything waited: the softly shifting branches, the air, the earth. Herself. Nick.

Help would come. There would be other hikers, or woodsmen, or rangers. She didn’t know what they’d be doing out here, but they would surely come, and everything would be all right. They would take away the pain. She could drink clear water, as much as she liked. She would feel better; she might even laugh about it. They both would.

She could no longer hear Nick’s voice, though she listened for his call.

• • • •

Ella’s throat was dry. It was driving her mad. It was worse even than the pain in her leg. Her mouth was dry, too, her saliva a thick paste. She wanted to pour water over her head, to drown in it. Somewhere below them, down beyond the endless trees, somewhere far, far distant, was the sea. Even salt water, she thought. Even that.

But she had nothing to drink. She had given it all to Nick. At first, she hadn’t thought about that, but once she remembered the rucksack, lying a little away from him but within his reach, she couldn’t think of anything else. He had water, he had lots of water, and he could drink and wipe it from his lips, flicking the precious drops away. He would waste it, gulp it down, squandering it in his belief that soon, she would come. Only Ella knew that she wasn’t coming, that she couldn’t move one fucking step; there was only this, and there was no water, and there was no help.

She reached out her hands across the earth, her skin dry, crusted with blood. She tried to grip its surface, to pull her weight across the ground. She moved a couple of inches and doubled over, biting her lip, squeezing her eyes closed. Everything behind them was red. Her hands clawed at each other. She wasn’t moving. She was staying here until someone came. She remained motionless until the pain moved on.

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been here. Four hours? Five? More than that? She was hungry, too, though it wasn’t as bad as the thirst. Now the sunlight speared her head again, heavy heat at the crown, sweat running onto her face. She licked at it, and she knew it must be salty, but it tasted of nothing. It helped for a brief second, then the thirst returned, worse than before.

Back at the guest house, they would be serving cold, fresh salad. Pastries and meatballs and pizza. Cold beer. Water, for God’s sake; a glass of water. They would realise their guests were missing soon, wouldn’t they? They would send someone to search for them.

Ella drew in a long breath just as the breeze blew, a cool draught that caught the back of her throat, making her want to gag. Then she heard something behind her, a loud snuffling. Twigs being brushed aside. Then it was gone. Had she imagined it? Possibly. Probably.

Wolves, she thought. Bears and witches and wolves, and suddenly she needed to pee; her stomach turned to water, the contents hot and restless.

She swallowed, hard, fighting the urge to cry. Wolves and witches and bears.

She listened harder. The soft movement of air stirred the branches at her back, needles brushing against each other. There was the single high note of a bird. The sound the trees made was almost — not quite — like voices.

She knew she had to turn, to see whatever was there. She took deep breaths, preparing. Then she grasped at the earth and lifted herself, dragging her leg, until she could see the trees. There was nothing there, nothing to see. Instead, she listened. The endless whispering had been here long before she arrived, and would be here long after she was gone. The words were beyond her reach, but she felt she could almost understand, if she listened hard enough; that she should understand, if only she learned the trick of hearing properly.

Perhaps, soon, she would.

• • • •

If Nick stepped off the landmine, help might come.

That was all Ella could think about. It would end it, end the thirst, end the headache, end the guilt. If the mine exploded, someone would hear. They would come looking, and they’d find the pieces of him; they’d go looking for her. If he died, she’d be saved.

She shook her head. She was useless. Useless.

Nick would have already saved her, if she’d been the one stuck in the forest. He’d have gone straight to the guest house, running most of the way, no hesitating or falling or straying from the path.

Now she imagined his legs being torn away, the blast taking his toes, his feet, his knees, his thighs. His hands, maybe. Ripping him in two. Melting his face. She shuddered.

If it was her, and she knew it would save him, would she do it? Would she step off the mine?

It’ll be okay, he’d said. He trusted her. You won’t get lost. It was like they used to be, as they should always have been.

As if in answer to her thoughts she heard a sound, one she hadn’t known she’d hear again: Ellaaa . . .

It was his voice, his dear voice shouting into the wind, and she listened, and a smile drifted across her face. Then the smile faded. She frowned. She could hear him clearly now: Here, Ella. And then: For fuck’s sake, Ella. You dumb bitch . . .

It wasn’t the words. She had always known he would be angry; who wouldn’t? He was waiting and waiting for help, and no one had come. No, it wasn’t the words. It was the sound of them. His wasn’t the voice of someone whose throat was parched. It was a strong voice, a well-fed voice. He had water to drink. Food to eat. He had those things because Ella had given them to him.

Rage rose through her, like something waking. She felt it rising through her feet, her spine, as if coming from the ground, as if it was part of the earth itself, part of the trees, a primal thing. She clenched her fists, closed her eyes tight and kept still, just breathing. She hadn’t wanted to come.

When she opened her eyes, the wolf was there. It stood just under the trees, looking back at her with a steady gaze, its eyes amber-coloured, unblinking and unmoving. Its hide was an uneven dark grey, half hidden by shadows. Only its eyes were bright and clear: it was impossible to look away.

Ella didn’t move. She didn’t breathe.

The wolf sniffed the air. Then it turned and walked into the trees, its tail curling after it. Its movement was soundless, and then that voice came again: Ella. I’m here.

Fuck you, she whispered. Fuck you, Nick.

• • • •

The heat had sunk to Ella’s feet. It pooled there like a solid thing. No, a liquid thing. It was the blister. That fucking blister. At first it was just itching. It was still itching, but now the sensation had grown into something unendurable. It itched with a fury she had never known, one that made it everything, that made the world red behind her eyes. It was like a hot, wet pool inside her boot, a pool of acid, of fire, of rage. It was worse now than her leg, which had retreated to a steady low ache; much worse.

The rage made her head hurt. It was inside her, in the centre of her chest, in her brain, running in hot waves down her back. It coated her temples and her face and her tongue, soaked her back and her stomach and her hair. It felt as if everything was melting, except — that — blister.

If she bent low, reached down, tried to keep her leg still, perhaps she could loosen her laces, slip her foot out of that merciless boot; let the heat stop, let the pain stop. She could let the breeze take it away, take everything away.

She stretched towards it, straightening again with a gasp. The pain in her leg stirred, a living thing. She couldn’t move. If she did, the world would turn to fire. Like Nick, she thought, and a spurt of a laugh escaped her lips.

Everything was burning. Her head was hot; her eyes were hot. She wanted to scratch them out of her head. The sun had found her and it wouldn’t leave.

Nick had food. Nick had drink. The words ran through her mind and took on rhythm, like a mantra: Nick had food. Nick had drink. It was molten, this anger, part of the sun, her body, the earth. She knew now why the wolf hadn’t claimed her. It had looked into her eyes and known her as something like itself: a part of the forest. A beast, like it. A monster.

Wolves and witches and bears.

It had looked into her eyes and felt her rage, and it had known she wasn’t ready.

• • • •

Nick had brought her here, into the forest. It was Nick who’d got them lost, who’d caused it all. Nick didn’t believe in wolves and witches and bears. He thought it was all right to leave the path. He didn’t understand the things which lived, in spite of him, beyond its borders. Bears and witches and wolves.

He thought the world didn’t need such things. Instead, it had made this: grey metal, hidden in the ground. Things that detonated and maimed and killed. The pinnacle of glorious invention.

But there were other things. Ella knew that now. She had felt them inside herself, something planted there long ago. Now they had taken root; they were growing.

She could hear the language of the trees. She could close her eyes and see the sky and feel the earth and listen to the pines as they breathed and she could hear their whispers. It was inside her, and it balanced, all of it, the land and the air and the light and the darkness and the wolf.

She was no longer thirsty, not hungry, not in pain. She no longer felt afraid. It didn’t make sense to be afraid when she was in all things, and they were in her.

She could still hear Nick, making those sounds that no longer made sense. His voice meant nothing; it was only human words and human fear, and she knew that soon he would trouble her no longer. The thought didn’t worry her. It would happen as everything happened, some things growing while others passed away.

When she looked up, the wolf was there. Despite the fading light, each hair of its rough grey pelt was sharply delineated. She knew it was because her eyes had grown stronger. She met its gaze and the wolf looked back at her, accepting, as if it saw something in her it recognised.

Then it looked away, its muzzle jerking aside as if it had been drawn. And Ella knew why; she could smell it, too. Somewhere, upwind, there was food, a rank smell, something turning sour in the heat.

Nick has drink. Nick has food. The words came unbidden, and in the next moment were gone. Ella didn’t need them. Instead, she could see the scent, the trace of it on the breeze like too-sharp, too-bright colours. And the wolf was gone, leaping into the trees, running silently, its muscles lean and smooth, full of purpose and age-old hunger.

Ella listened to the leaves, to the music they made. Then, distantly, there came something else: a snarl, low and reverberating, and a sound that drowned them all, that, for a moment, drowned everything. She felt it beneath her feet, a growl that shook the earth: a wrong sound.

There was a brief, high yelping, then nothing, and Ella knew that the sister-wolf was dead, that it wouldn’t be coming back. Tears came to her eyes. For a time, she let them fall; and then they too were gone.

Soon, she thought.

Because there were others. She knew there were more, even now, walking the dark places beneath the trees. She could feel them. She longed to join them, her muscles sliding lean and neat as she ran, her movements sure and silent, her fur warm, her teeth sharp. She could no longer remember why she had waited, why she had stayed, alone, when she could be glorious and beautiful, the hot blood of life on her tongue.

She started to move, stretching her muscles, feeling the ground shift under her feet. She struck her hands against it, drawing bright, fresh blood. It was all right. She would be in the forest always. She was ready for whatever came next: for the earth, for the fire. She closed her eyes, reaching out, sensing their presence; and she threw back her head and began to howl.

Alison Littlewood

Alison Littlewood

Alison Littlewood is the author of A Cold Season, published by Jo Fletcher Books. The novel was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, where it was described as “perfect reading for a dark winter’s night.” Her second novel, Path of Needles – a dark blend of fairy tales and crime fiction – was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award. She has recently written The Unquiet House, A Cold Silence, and a Zombie Apocalypse! novel, Acapulcalypse Now.

Alison’s short stories have been picked for Best British Horror 2015, The Best Horror of the Year and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, as well as The Best British Fantasy 2013 and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 10. She also won the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction with her story “The Dog’s Home”, published in The Spectral Book of Horror Stories.

Alison lives in Yorkshire, England, with her partner Fergus, in a house of creaking doors and crooked walls. You can talk to her on twitter @Ali__L or on Facebook, and visit her at www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk.