Wings can not cut the cold night and take flight.
Instead the bird will fall where the dark ones wait.
In those woods, a woman walked the empty road. The sound of her steps moving crisply on frozen dirt broke the silence of falling snow, creating a restlessness in the woods around her. She was a flash of red in an otherwise uniformly pale scene of trees, snow, and sky. There had been no one on the road for hours; those who preferred the gentle predictability of spring, the plentiful harvests of summer and autumn had long left these roads weeks previously. Those types would winter in the warmer lands by the southern seas.
And yet she continued, her back to the south, her steps facing north — a brown eyed, brown skinned bird caught in a frozen wind. She sang quietly under her breath a strange little nursery rhyme, not knowing that it had been a lean fall, and an even more punishing winter that had lasted weeks longer than anyone could remember. She did not know why the trees had been rubbed raw; she had never seen the type of hunger that drove small animals to leave their dens after the first snow and wander out desperately to forage, only to be plucked off by larger, equally desperate animals.
She had not been in the Northlands for years.
While the cold began to wear down at her, she reminded herself that it was only ten minutes from Winchester to her grandmother’s home. She had been told if she had walked straight north down the road from Crossroads without stopping, she would be at Winchester in time for the evening dinner. The shopkeepers in Crossroads, however, could not have possibly known that the many hilly parts on said road would have iced over and could not be traversed as quickly as they had promised.
When the sun had set, she found herself not yet in Winchester. Instead she was caught in the deepening dark of the woods. When a howl sounded faintly in the distance, she was surprised. They had neglected to warn her of the things that dwelled within the woods. The woman’s hand left the basket she carried and drew instead to her side, fingering the gift from her mother that had been secured around her waist. She began to move more quickly.
Not yet, she thought. Not now.
She should not use it; once the gift was used, she could not use it again so soon. She compelled herself forward, as she soon would be at the bridge where her grandmother’s retainer should be waiting to help her. And beyond the bridge, was a village, and beyond that was grandmother, waiting. That thought sustained her courage for the next five minutes as she walked quickly and tried not to panic as the howls began to draw faintly closer. She was able to maintain her purpose and courage by thinking of all these things.
And yet, as she came upon a clearing before an open bridge, she found no one there other than a stone lion statue who yawned indifferently at travelers as they passed by. For a moment, she paused in disbelief and looked askance at the lion before she heard the howls somewhere behind her turn into growls and barking– their sounds drawing closer.
She fingered the pouch on her side and picked up her pace to pass the stone guardian. It had been placed there, she had been told as a child, as a protective ward. If there was any luck to it, she wanted to be behind it.
Across the bridge she went, trying not to slide as she did so. The growls from somewhere close by had stopped. She tensed slightly, but kept going. If those things were preparing to follow her, they would have to come this same way.
The growls started again as she finished crossing the bridge, but had changed their pattern. There was clearly something else that had directed their attention.
Growls became barks, angry and attacking.
Barks became sad, pathetic yelps that, in kind, turned to howls of anguish.
She was startled. Had whatever bear or large animal the dogs had run across suddenly turned on them?
There came yet another sound, an odd sound an ominous snuffling and crunching noise — a sound of bones being crunched and dogs screaming as if they were splintered into nothingness. That was no bear, she realized with a sudden start. There were no roars, no sounds, in that sad fight. Whatever they were up against was silent.
Her feet had started moving on their own. As she passed old, abandoned houses along the road, her thoughts flew back to the stories of the Shadow things, or the Unthings, as Grandmother had liked to call them.
Grandmother had said that many years ago, they had appeared shortly after the elves withdrew from the area. Her grandmother had scolded her never to go out alone at night, particularly when there was no moon. Unlike other creatures which feared man or the weapons they held, these things were creatures of emptiness, hungry for both flesh and spirit, and consumed things indiscriminately. However, they detested the light, and could be tricked easily.
In the summers she had passed here, she had never seen one. And yet, the moon was clearly out this evening. If that were an Unthing, what sense did it make for it to be out now?
Logical thought asserted itself… she needed light, a lamp, something to force that thing away should it come for her. She paused at a gate where lanterns were lit. It would be rude to try to force her way in, but this was the first sign of any sort of inhabited residence, and she was anxious to get off this road . Looking back behind her, towards the bridge — she thought she saw a large shadow at the stone lion. She shook the gate with her hands forcefully, not expecting it to suddenly swing inward. She stumbled inside the gate, and as soon as she had recovered, instinctively slammed shut the gate behind her and secured it.
She took a deep breath, trying to figure what to do. She looked down what appeared to be a slightly cleared path; lighted buildings stood at the other end. Her feet started to move her towards them as there would surely be someone here to help her.
She had not gotten very far when her boot carelessly caught a bit of ice, sending her into the snow and scattering apples in her wake.
For a moment, she forgot that she was trying to flee something strange and that killed wild dogs. She looked at the ground horrified. The apples were precious items, intended for her grandmother, waiting for her at the end of this strange evening. There wasn’t any fruit to be had in these parts this time of year; to lose these would be a blow for her ailing grandmother.
She made an undignified picture sprawled over the ground as she tried to pick them up, making haste to retrieve them, but trying hard to finish. Too late, she noticed a sudden warm flickering color on the white snow, and a slight shadow looming over her.
“Who dares trespass these grounds?” A voice like ice made her tremble.
Slowly, she turned her head to look up at cold grey eyes.