The Howling Wood

It felt good to run with speed, grabbing the soil with every limb and propelling myself forward.  I was low to the ground and the scent of old leaves and the industry of worms filled my lungs satisfyingly.  There was also something refreshing on the air; a breeze issuing promises of cool flowing water.  Something dangerous as well, though I couldn’t decipher that so easily.  A presence.  The hint that I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t prey.

I heard a faint sound behind me.  It wasn’t close, and could have been any number of nocturnal forest creatures scratching, but my instincts told me it was trouble and I dug into the soft earth for more purchase.  I crossed a small stream and took pause to drink.  I was panting from my exertion now.  I lifted my head and let the air tell me stories.

My pursuers were downwind.  All I could smell was the forest, with occasional brushes of far off places.  Cool snow perched atop the mountains and faint salt from a sea beyond.  I listened, but heard no more movement.  I crossed to the other side of the stream and waited in the shadows, listening and watching.  Downstream I spotted movement on the far lip of the water but it quickly receded into the safety of the nearby trees’ dark secretive nooks.  Upstream, far too close, a high howl broke the stillness, followed by another directly across from me, and several more, farther away.

I turned and shot away from the stream.  They didn’t bother to hide their chase now, yipping gleefully as they pursued.  There would be no outrunning them.  One was directly behind me, gaining speed.  My shoulders and hips burned with effort but it wasn’t enough.  He was alongside me, separated by the odd tree trunk.   My spine prickled in fear.  This was it.  I stumbled, no longer finding the movement of my four limbs fluid or helpful.  My arms felt weak and my legs too long.  I tripped and rolled, sliding to a stop on my side.

I glimpsed a wolf passing behind a tree, but must have been mistaken.  A man stepped toward me from the other side.  I recognized him, but couldn’t place from where.  He smiled and I figured that had to be where I’d gotten the impression of a wolf.  Where was I?  I gazed at the stars visible through a hole in the tree canopy above.  The forest around me was dark, with soft, menacing sounds creeping through the gaps between trunks.  I realized I wasn’t wearing clothing.  Neither, for that matter, was the approaching man.  I scrambled backward, throwing loose leaves over myself in a silly attempt to feel more protected.

“You led me on quite the chase, Shevus,” snarled the man.

I struggled to think where I’d seen this man before – or how I’d come to be in this dark wood.  Why had he called me Shevus?  That wasn’t my name.  The full moon overhead made the men lurking behind nearby trees as visible as if it were noon.  Awareness of the scale of my trouble crept along my skin like a greedy paralyzing vine.

“You owe me a translation,” he said.

I blinked up at him stupidly.  Surely such an obviously perilous moment would hang on something more sinister than a translation.  The purse that usually hung at my side seemed a more likely target for these bandits’ interest, or the location of that creepy mirror I’d come across a while back – the one that had obviously belonged to one of the architects of Azminan.  A translation though?  I was no interpreter.  Hope sprang inside me as I wondered if these men didn’t have the wrong person.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I stammered, finding my voice.

Again the man’s smile reminded me of a predatory animal.  He knelt before me, locking my gaze.

“Now is not the time to play games with me, little Shevus,” he said quietly, brushing the hair back from my face and tucking it behind an ear.  “What did the carvings say?  If you tell me now, I promise nothing will happen to your blind friend.”

A knife of fear ripped through me.  They had Mirna?  I glanced around but saw no sign of her.  As if reading my thoughts, the man smiled almost kindly.

“You’re confused,” he said gently, looking around at the trees.  “This is new for you.  It’s understandable.  Take a deep breath.  That’s it.  Now concentrate on the platform in the Council of Azminan.  There were carvings.  What did they say?”

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.  “Are you sure you aren’t looking for someone else?”

The man’s expression grew darker as he studied my eyes.  He took my head in both hands and loomed closer, his gaze all I could see.

“You said it was a riddle, Shevus, remember,” he commanded.

I shook my head.  “I’m sorry, I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Tears pricked my eyes.  Did they really have Mirna somewhere?  Was she going to be hurt because they’d grabbed the wrong person and I couldn’t tell them what they needed to know?

The man released me and stalked away, fists clenching and unclenching.  He stepped into the shadows and conferred a few minutes with the other men, then returned to me, running long fingers through his hair.

“Someone has tampered with your memories,” he said.  “You’re going to come with us now.”

“And…” I hesitated.  He hadn’t used Mirna’s name.  “My friend?” I asked.

Shadows played with his features in a way that made me shrink farther against the trunk at my back.  “She’s safe, for now,” he said.

After we started walking I didn’t see the other men.  I heard things in the shadows from time to time but they didn’t sound like human noises.  I considered trying to run on a few occasions but the puzzle remained as to how I had arrived in these woods in the first place, and his familiarity with the landmarks made me think it would be unwise to try anything.  The air was cold and I wished above all that I knew where my clothes were.  Beyond succumbing to the night’s chill, I felt awkward being so exposed.  He, on the other hand, paid about as much mind to our state of undress as the trees around us.

Finally, we stopped at the ruin of an old cottage.  He touched the rotting threshold at three places and muttered something unintelligible, then pulled me through the doorway as if we were suddenly in a rush.  The other side was not the interior of a cottage, as one would reasonably guess, but a grotto with a raised stone well.  A small shimmering pool of water rested in a basin above and the man again touched several points along the rim muttering words I couldn’t hear.  He plunged his hand into the shallow bowl, which sank not to his wrist, but nearly all the way to his shoulder.  He concentrated for a moment and stepped back, pulling out a silver claw the length of his forearm.  I took a precautionary step back.

“Hold still,” he said.

I took another step back.

“It’s your choice whether this hurts,” he growled, holding out his other hand.

I placed trembling fingers in his palm and squeezed my eyes shut as he stepped closer, raising the claw toward my head.  ‘Make it quick,’ I prayed.

“Open your eyes,” said a woman’s voice.

Light was everywhere.

“I know you,” I said, gazing around in awe.  Beyond the light I could see galaxies.  “How do I know you?”

“We’ve met before,” said the woman.  “You are in danger,” she added, “and I won’t be able to take you away once Axbelis has you.  I am going to keep your memories for a while.  You’ll get them back when the time is right.  When Axbelis tries to force the memories from you, as he will, we’re going to play a little trick on him.  Are you okay with this?”

“Yes,” I said, wrestling with the feeling that I’d had this conversation before.

The light faded with a strange sound, like ceramic hitting stone.  It took a while for my eyes to adjust, and when they did, the scene made little sense.  The man lay sprawled on his back, unconscious.  The silver claw was near his hand, and in the space between us were shattered pieces of intricately carved ceramic.  It looked like it had been some kind of bowl.

“Run,” said a woman’s voice, and I did.

I scrambled through the threshold, and almost immediately heard movement behind me in the trees.  The moonlight tingled oddly on my skin.

“Run faster,” she whispered in my mind, and the tingling increased.

I dug in with all four limbs, speeding across the ground.  I could hear their pursuit, their heavy panting and yips.  I could hear that there were many of them, but I wasn’t worried, because I could hear something I knew they couldn’t.  The moon sang to me.  It lent me speed.  The ground barely mattered anymore as my steps found purchase on moonlight and I flew through the woods on song.  Their yips receded.  I was free.  I remembered who I was, and where I was, and knew that Mirna was safe.  I was safe.  Riding on moonsong I left them to their dark woods, howling in defeat.

I sang out in triumph.  Axbelis hadn’t gotten to my memories; but I’d seen a healthy dose of his.

Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com.  This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure.  Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure.  Thanks!