ISSUE 15, October 2017



Cover Art by Gabriel Nova



*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

The People's Assassin
By Eddie D. Moore

   ​    The chair creaked, though heavy and well made, as King Ulric leaned forward to stare into the eyes of the captain of his personal guard. His voice was low and threatening as he spoke. “What do you mean, you can’t find her? Gabek, over the years, your men have tracked down some of the slimiest thieves and assassins ever to plague this kingdom, and you’re telling me that you can’t find that witch I call a wife!”
    Caden stood behind the servant’s door, straining to hear the conversation in the other room, while candle flames quivered on the walls. He fingered the thin blades sheathed on each of his forearms through his shirt, ensured that the cuffs covered the hilts. Though he had performed this task many times and was proficient in his skills, he wiped a sweaty palm on his pants with a shake of his head and thumbed the solid metal ball in his pocket that he considered a lucky talisman.
    Gabek stood straighter. “Your Grace, most peasants are eager to see the king’s justice served to thieves and murderers, and a few coins always helps them to overcome any fear of retribution. The Queen is a different matter. She has help, and their fear of her is greater than their desire for coin.”
    The King growled to himself, and the chair protested as he leaned his weight against its back. “Then they will have to learn to fear me more than her. Round up another group for execution, make sure this group is younger than the last, and the fires burn slower.”
    When Caden heard the King tap his cup against the metal tray sitting next to him, he lifted the wine pitcher, straightened his back, and held his chin high as he entered the king’s chamber. Gabek glanced at Caden while he filled the king’s cup and his eyebrows drew together.
    Gabek placed a hand on his sword hilt and his eyes flicked toward the King. “Do you have a new serv…” Gabek’s voice trailed off as a small metal ball bounced under the king’s chair and rolled across the room. The King and Gabek turned their heads and watched the ball until it hit the far wall.
    Caden placed the pitcher of wine on the table, then reached up his sleeves and grasped the dagger hilts. “I’m sorry, Your Highness,” said Caden as he swiftly drew the daggers and stuck one into each man’s throat with practiced skill.
    Gabek grabbed the thin blade with one hand and fell to the floor gurgling. The king’s eyes grew large, and he held his breath as he stared at Caden. Hatred burned in his eyes as his face turned red.
Caden shook his head as the King reached for his dirk. “As I was saying, I’m sorry, Your Highness. The people have decided that you no longer represent their interests.”
The King opened his mouth, blood ran down his chin, and stained the front of his shirt. Long seconds passed while the king’s eyes glazed over, and bubbles stopped forming around his wounds. Caden cleaned and sheathed his blades. He emptied the pitcher of wine on the floor and looked over his clothing for blood then whispered, “Not a drop on me. Damn, I’m good.”
Caden pocketed his metal ball and listened at the door to make sure the guards hadn’t been alerted. Careful not to open the door too wide, Caden slipped out of the king’s chambers and nodded to the guards. He walked straight backed like a proper servant until he turned the corner and then burst into a run. He dashed up the stairs taking three at a time and tossed the pitcher into an empty room as he passed. He heard footsteps approaching, and he slowed his pace as he reached an intersection.
Eyes averted, Caden walked with a sense of purpose, and the servant didn’t give him a second glance. Caden found the room he was looking for and slipped inside. He stripped off the servant’s uniform and returned it to the closet.
Bells began to clang in the distance, and he heard raised voices shouting. Caden grabbed his own clothing that he had stashed under the bed and dressed quickly. The pants, shirt, gloves, hooded overcoat, and even his shoes had been dyed white to match the castle walls perfectly. The overcoat was made of rough spun material and dyed with a few streaks resembling the mortar between the castle’s rough-cut stones. The tips of his fingers protruded through the gloves allowing for feel and grip, and he rubbed his thumbs and forefingers together while he prepared for the descent to come.  He sat on the edge of the window and took a deep breath. He could hear doors crashing open and soldiers shouting to one another as they drew closer. With a deep breath, he swung out the window and into the night air as the door to the room burst open.
    Caden clung to the side of the castle by his fingertips. His overcoat blended perfectly with the wall, making him invisible to the passive observer. Forty feet did not seem far, until it was between you and the ground, and he fought to slow his breathing when he glanced down. His finger tips flared with pain, and it took every ounce of strength he had to keep his grip while the soldiers searched the room inside. The finger and toe holds on the castle wall were tenuous, and it took the skill of an experienced climber to find them. When prepping for the job, Caden had specified the exact thickness of his shoes soles to fit into the mortar joints. Without the shoes, he doubted he could have made the climb.
Over the years, Caden had become known as The People’s Assassin because he tended to accept contracts on those who abused their power; however, he often tracked down criminals for the bounty with the aid of his partner, Jerrell, to keep coin in his pockets. It seemed there was never a shortage of men willing to take advantage of those less fortunate than themselves, or devious men willing to prey upon the weak. He held his breath as a soldier approached the window and looked out.
    The soldier breathed a deep sigh and turned back into the room without looking to his right. “The assassin could not have gone far. The king’s guard said he wore a servant’s uniform and went this direction.” The soldier stomped away from the window. “There are more servants’ quarters above. Find him!”
    Caden heard the soldiers’ footsteps fade as they ran to continue the search. Criers announced the king’s death in the distance calling for the people to be on alert, while he carefully worked his way down the wall using the same finger and toe holds that he found to climb it earlier. He had planned on being far away before the king’s body was found; this job was going wrong very quickly.
    He dropped the last ten feet to the ground and rolled under a wagon. He opened a hidden door on the underside, pulled himself into the false bottom and latched the door. He reached through a hole under the driver’s seat and tapped Jerrell’s boot. A moment later, the wagon rolled forward.
    While the wagon rumbled down the cobblestone street, Caden tried to clear his conscience. It always bothered him having to take another person’s life. He forced himself to think about the people he saw die the day before by the king’s order. Three were burned at the stake and four were beheaded under the accusation of harboring the queen. One of those executed couldn’t have been more than thirteen, and it broke Caden’s heart that someone so young died so horribly. If any man deserved to die, it was King Ulric.
The queen had disappeared after her husband ordered his guard to arrest her. After searching the town without success, the King began executing people, and he promised to increase the numbers daily until she was found. It was widely known that they both accused each other of assassination plots, but it was the common people paying the price.
    The wagon made a right turn, and it came to a sudden stop. Caden heard the clank of steel and the shuffle of several horses’ feet. “Hold! What’s your business at this hour?”
    Jerrell’s deep voice was unmistakable. “It’s just a load of hay for the stables. Is there a problem?”
    “There is an assassin in the area. Have you not heard the criers? The King is dead.”
Through a small crack, he could see a soldier search underneath the wagon and he could hear thuds above him as they poked around in the hay. The wagon had been used by a local smuggler for years and the false bottom was cleverly concealed. Caden felt confident that the false bottom wouldn’t be discovered, but he breathed a sigh of relief as the soldiers departed, and the wagon began moving again.
The wagon made less noise as it moved off the cobblestone streets and on to the dirt roads. Caden stretched out, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.
    He jumped as something thudded into the side of the wagon. “We’re clear, stop sleeping on the job, and let’s go get paid.”
    Caden lowered himself to the ground and then rolled out from under the wagon. Jerrell extended a dark hand to Caden and pulled him to his feet. “Jerrell, I’m disappointed. We just gave the people of this city justice, and your focus is on getting paid?”
    Jerrell folded his massive arms. “Once we get paid, we can put many miles between us and this city. I am rather fond of my head, and as we get further away from here, the odds of keeping it attached to my shoulders get greater.”
Caden put on some darker clothes and a cloak to cover his face. “If my skin was dark like yours, I wouldn’t have to wear a cloak on hot nights like this.”
    Jerrell’s laughter sounded like a landslide. “What makes you think that I’d want to see your face?” He reached over and pulled Caden’s hood over his head. “There now, light or dark, that is much better.”
Caden tossed the clothing used to scale the wall into a nearby fire pit and climbed onto the wagon’s seat. “Well then, let’s get a move on. Our contact should be at the tavern by now.”
    Jerrell climbed onto the wagon beside Caden and snapped the reins. “It’s about time you see things my way.”
    After returning the wagon to the smuggler they had borrowed it from, they walked to The Charging Ram, a small tavern on the edge of town. Jerrell went inside first to look for anything out of the ordinary, and Caden followed a few minutes later. He spotted Jerrell sitting at a corner table nursing a drink, which signaled that all looked well, but stay alert. The bartender met Caden’s eyes and nodded toward a door left of the bar.
    Caden eased open the door and found his contact, Narac, sitting at a small table in the center of the room. Shadows danced eerily on the walls of the dimly lit room as the lantern’s flame flickered. Caden was hesitant to enter. Narac sat with his back to the only other door in the room, and he adjusted the lantern brightening the room as he met Caden’s eyes. Caden closed the door behind himself as he slipped inside. Narac nodded as Caden took his seat and poured them both a tankard full of stout ale.
    Narac pushed a tankard closer to Caden. “Congratulations on a job well done, and of course, living through it.”
    Caden took the offered mug but sat it back on the table without drinking. “I will say I lived through it when I am far away from here.”
    Narac gave one glance at the mug sitting on the table and sat back down. He reached under his chair and then tossed a heavy leather bag onto the table. It landed with a solid thump and the jingle of coins rattling against one another. Caden loosened the drawstring and peeked inside with a raised eyebrow. He nodded once and placed the bag back on the table in front of him.
    Both of the room’s doors burst opened at once, and four battle scarred soldiers stepped in. Two of the soldiers entered from the common room, closed the door, and stood firmly planted in front of it. The other set of soldiers stepped through the door behind Narac, and they were followed by a woman with a commanding presence. Chills ran down Caden’s arms, and his heart beat hard against his chest as he looked into the cold, dark eyes of Queen Lycia. Her black hair hung in large curls around her shoulders, and Caden would have thought her beautiful if he hadn’t learned so much about her recently. She wore the golden robes of a priestess, and she looked at Caden appraisingly.
    After an awkward moment passed, the Queen smiled. “Caden, relax. The crown thanks you for your service.”
    Caden’s eyebrows drew closer together. “I’m afraid you're mistaken, Your Majesty. I don’t work for corrupt governments or merciless tyrants, and from what I’ve heard, you are just as merciless as your husband.”
    Lycia raised an eyebrow. “It seems to me that you made an exception in this case, because I was the one that sent Narac to find you and acquire your services. You see, I discovered that our dear subjects were planning to seek out your services. So, I planned this little trap just for you.” She wiped away nonexistent tears. “What a shame that you managed to kill my beloved Ulric before we could spring the trap.”
    Caden replied sarcastically, “Yes, you look absolutely devastated.”
    Lycia gave a thin smile in reply.
Caden leaned back in his chair and nodded. “This is a trap, but it isn’t your trap, Your Majesty.” He lowered his chair to the floor and smiled. “It is my trap.”
The Queen tossed back her head and laughed. “You are too much! I have my four best guardsmen with me. You cannot threaten me! I will admit that you are good at sneaking about, but you don’t stand a chance against my soldiers.”
Caden locked eyes with the Queen. “I think you picked a bad time to make your position as a Canist priestess public knowledge.” Caden shook his head slowly. “The people don’t want magic returned to the world, and everyone knows that the Canist would have to sacrifice children for the magic to be restored. Did you really think they would let that happen?”
Lycia lifted an eyebrow and a finger as her anger flared. “I don’t care how they feel! A few less children in the world is a small price to pay if I can have real power, and I grow weary of this conversation.” She glanced at the guardsmen and said tiredly, “Kill him.”
A metal ball bounced under the table, and it roared loudly as it rolled across the wood floor. A couple of the guards watched the ball until it thudded against the wall. Caden leapt from his chair, put his back against a wall, and slid a blade from his sleeve. As the two nearest soldiers began to advance, the door to the common room burst open, and Jerrell rushed in. The soldiers closest to the queen turned to fight Jerrell, and Caden lunged toward one of the distracted guards. The guard fell clutching at the blade in his throat, and the other soldier ran toward Caden.
Caden was slammed hard against the wall as the guard plowed into him. He managed to grab the guard’s arm and hold back his dirk. Caden’s heart raced as he stared into the man’s eyes. The soldier pushed harder, and the dirk moved slowly toward Caden’s chest. Caden resisted with all his strength, but the knife came ever closer. He began to panic as he felt the tip sting his flesh and warm blood ran down his chest under his shirt. The soldier froze as a large brown hand holding a small curved blade appeared at the soldier’s neck followed by a deep voice.
“There is no need to die today. Just drop the dagger.”
The dirk fell to the floor with a thump, and Caden let out a deep breath. Two of the guards were left sprawled on the floor in bloody pools, and a soldier that Jerrell had knocked out began to wake up. He yielded as Jerrell stepped toward him. Caden looked at Lycia, and she ran out the door that led to the tavern’s common room.
Caden glanced at Jerrell with wide eyes and released a deep breath. “I could’ve taken three of them as well if I had your muscles.”
Jerrell laughed with a deep rumble. “If you had my muscles, you could not climb walls like a little spider, and then you would be jobless. What else is a little man like you good for?”
Caden grinned and shook his head. “I would love to be jobless. Sadly, I’ve already heard of a Lord in Atha that…”
Jerrell held up a hand and interrupted. “You can tell me of his deeds on the way to Atha. Let’s finish here first.”
Caden nodded and walked with Jerrell into the tavern’s common room that was now completely full. Lycia was red with anger, and she was being held between two men large enough to give Jerrell a challenge in a fight. She screamed about divine rights and demanded that the people obey her will. When no one moved to aid her, she began to telling each one of them how they would die.
Narac stepped up beside Caden and offered him his hand. “Well, you were right. I was just told that the rest of the soldiers are laying down their weapons.”
Caden stared into Lycia’s eyes and stepped closer. “As you can see, Your Majesty, I only work for the people.” He nodded toward the door. “I think there are a few grieving families outside that are waiting to pay their respects to the crown.”
Fear filled Lycia’s eyes, and she screamed in terror as she was dragged outside.

Eddie D. Moore

Eddie D. Moore’s job requires extensive traveling, and he spends much of that time listening to audio books. His stories have been published by Jouth Webzine, The Flash Fiction Press, Every Day Fiction, Theme of Absence, Flash Fiction Magazine, and the Centum Press. Find out more on his blog at: https://eddiedmoore.wordpress.com/.


Good Intentions
By Gerri Leen


Gerri Leen

Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. In addition to being an avid reader and an at-times sporadic writer, she's passionate about horse racing (the racing part, not betting), tea, whiskey, handbags, and art.  She has work appearing in: Nature, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Grievous Angel, Grimdark, and others, and has edited several anthologies for independent presses.  See more at http://www.gerrileen.com. 
Trapped in Ceramic
By Maureen Bowden


Maureen Bowden

Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had ninety-two stories and poems accepted for publication by paying markets, and Silver Pen publishers nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies. Her husband has performed these in Folk clubs throughout England and Wales. She recently retired from a long career with HMRC, and in 2013 she obtained a First Class Honours Degree from the Open University. As well as Literature and History, the Degree included modules in Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing. She achieved a distinction in both. She loves her family and friends, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare, and cats.





Flightless Rats
By James Dorr

"They used to be bats, you know.  That was before they lost their wings."
"I beg your pardon?"
    It was going to be one of those kinds of conversations.
    "The story goes," the man persisted, "that when Noah built the ark, he sent invitations to the bats, but they refused. 'Why should we ride on your smelly old boat?' they said.  'Even if there is a flood, we can just fly over it.'"
    Aimée had already decided she didn't care for this story.  She gritted her teeth, discreetly, keeping her lips closed.  That was the problem with chance assignations, even as late as the Nineteenth Century. Just meeting up with someone in Jackson Square, listening to the music on a hot summer's night, then crossing Decatur Street to the levee to walk by the river; other than him having told you his name, you never really knew who you were with.
    She tried to smile at him, again discreetly.  To get him to gaze at her face, her eyes, in the flickering white light that spilled onto the river.
    "After the rains stopped – it stormed for forty whole days and nights – the bats, thoroughly exhausted from fighting the wind, landed on the ark anyway.  But Noah confronted them.  'You'll have to get off,' he said.  'I gave your space to a different couple, one that was more grateful.  There's no room left for you.  After all, you had your chance, but you didn't want it.'"
    Aimée's first thought when she had picked him out from the crowd had been that he was formally dressed, as well as good looking.  As was she, in a low-backed, deep blue gown that, with her black hair, blended into the darkness and contrasted with the whiteness of her shoulders and face.  Such a man, she had thought, must surely lead an interesting life, one she could find herself interested in, too.  But instead, he insisted on telling this story.
    "The bats begged Noah.  'We've changed our minds,' they said, dropping to their knees and kissing the man's feet.  'Please, Noah,' they cried, 'we'll do anything you ask of us in return.'
    "So Noah took pity.  'There's still no place for you, but here's what you must do.  First, remove your wings and cast them overboard into the water.  The ark is overloaded already and can't take on even that much extra weight.  Then, when you've done that, you must go in the hold and find some out of the way place to sleep in the bilge, some crack or cranny beneath the floor where the baggage is stored.  As for food, you must forage that for yourselves from whatever the other animals discard.'
    "The bats agreed, removing their wings as Noah had said, and slinking below decks."
    By now, Aimée had risen from the bench she had selected, taking the man with her.  Patience was not one of her best virtues.  They wandered slowly, together, downriver.
    "And that," the man said, "is why the rats are as they are today.  Wingless, of course, but skulking in shadows.  Seeking dark places.  Sly thieves of whatever opportunity they find.  Feared, hated by honest men.  Killed when they can be caught."
    Aimée shuddered at that.  Perhaps due to a sudden breeze from the Mississippi?  She recalled a time when she was on a boat, as big as an ark, pressed in its hold with dozens of young women just like her, or at least so eventually.  She had, in fact, had to kill another in France to steal her passport, to come to New Orleans.  But that had been a long time ago.
    While as for this man – who now seemed so shallow. . .
    "But aren't there still bats?" she asked.  "I mean, you see them sometimes in the night, flying against the moon – just as we spotted that rat before.  Or did Noah relent and give some their wings back?"
    "No," the man replied.  By now, they had progressed past the French Market, away from the newly installed gas streetlights, following the river's bend.  "These aren't real bats, just bat-like creatures.  To help keep what really happened a secret.  And then, of course, there are such other things as flying foxes."
    Aimée persisted, though.  "But I have heard there are all kinds of bats.  Some from places like South America where, perhaps, the Flood didn't reach.  Even some bats, they say, that feed on people's blood.  What of these kinds of bats?"
    The man laughed at that.  They had entered a place of darkness, past the main docks; a place of quiet lit only by the moon.  "Legends," he told her.  "These are just stories to frighten schoolchildren.  These aren't about real happenings, like in the Bible."
    "I see," Aimée said, turning slowly from him. "But aren't there some things that aren't told in the Bible, or even hinted of?  Some things not even in Bible stories?"  Momentarily, she let her wings unfurl, giving him a single glance, before folding them back into her bare shoulders. 
Whirling around, she sank her teeth in his throat.
            She took his purse too, when she had finished, rolling his drained corpse into the river.  He had been wealthy, as she had surmised. And what a shame, as she – not so long ago having been widowed, her husband having succumbed to age like all her others before – had really been looking for a new companion.
            But not one who bored her.

James Dorr

Indiana (USA) writer James Dorr’s THE TEARS OF ISIS was a 2014 Bram Stoker Award® nominee for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection.  Other books include STRANGE MISTRESSES: TALES OF WONDER AND ROMANCE, DARKER LOVES: TALES OF MYSTERY AND REGRET, and his all-poetry VAMPS (A RETROSPECTIVE).  Also just out in June 2017 from Elder Signs Press, a novel-in-stories, TOMBS:  A CHRONICLE OF LATTER-DAY TIMES OF EARTH.

An Active Member of HWA and SFWA with more than 500 individual appearances from ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE to XENOPHILIA, Dorr invites readers to visit his blog at http://jamesdorrwriter.wordpress.com.

​ 


The Cold
By Patrick Winters

The chill of winter works its way into the cabin, setting the man and girl to shivering as each weeps in their own way.
He sits at their family table, hunched over and shaking, as much from the cold as the sorrowful fury he feels possessing his heart and limbs. He clutches the hand of his wife, who lies still upon the table, wrapped in her tattered shawl and dress. Her hand is even colder than his own, the life gone out of it for the past hour. He rubs at the dirt that streaks her fingers with his handkerchief, as he has been doing the last few minutes; the grime simply won’t leave the skin. He rubs harder.
"You did this." He spits the words into the air, his breath a fog before him. He has mustered up the ability to repeat this accusation now and again, whenever his rage crests a new, jagged peak. "This is your fault . . ."
At this, the girl curls further into the corner and her whimpers rise. She bears the warm sting of cold back-hands, her cheek bruised and battered brown, her lip split with a rash of red. The strikes that caused them were dispensed with angry shouts from her step-father each time she tried to approach her mother's body, or when she fought to deny his callous claims against her. She had only wished to kneel beside her mother, to pray in Allna's name for her departed soul, and to share in her grief with that of her step-father's. For, no matter how they had bickered with each other in the past, they had both lost one that they loved this day.
But he would not hear of it. His hatred of her won out, as it always had, cursing the child that had come from another man's loins and who he believed to be the cause of all his woes.
"This is your fault," he repeats through gritted teeth. "You did this to her. Put a curse upon her. Made her sick."
The wind picks up outside, buffeting the home. A dusting of snow sneaks in through the gap of their door as it continues to fall from the dim winter skies. It is the sort of weather that could make a soul's poor health all the poorer, perhaps even take it entirely—though the man refuses to recognize this harsh yet simple reality.
Heaving her labored breaths, the child pulls her teary face from her chest and lets loose a wailing, desperate "No!" at his words. But he will not be dissuaded.
"What did she do to warrant this? Tell you ‘no,’ for once? What was it!"
He spins about and sets his eyes on her, his mouth twisting in a snarl and his own tears still falling. She meets his gaze, her chin back to her chest, her mind working to anticipate his next strike. She flinches as his hand shoots up, pointing a rigid finger at her.
"You think I don't realize what you are? How things around here break or move or fall on nights when you cry out from your nightmares? Or how you talk to the animals when you're out playing? And how they listen to you? Or . . ."
He falls silent, his mouth shutting tight and his eyes darting about manically. He stares at the dirt floor a good while, thinking, mumbling words under his breath as he holds fast to his wife's hand. Another hard gust that sets the roof to creaking snaps him out of his spell. He lets his wife's hand fall limply over the table.
He rushes at the girl with a simmering growl.
She recoils from him, but cannot hope to hide away; his rough hand wraps about her thin wrist and he pulls her from the corner. She stumbles to her feet with a cry as he leads her hurriedly along. He shouts: "No more! No more! I'll not suffer a witch and a bane to live under my roof any longer!"
He leads her to the door, and she wails, realizing his terrible intentions. She smacks at his arm, fighting to be free, but he holds on tight. He thrusts the door open, the near-blinding, all-encompassing white of the brewing snowstorm now forcing its way into the cabin through whipping winds and snowdrifts.
"Out with you!" he hollers over the racket. He wrenches her arm and the rest of her out into the cold. She falls into the snow, her breath catching in her chest as the cold hits her with full force. She tries crawling back around and dashing to the cabin, pulling her robes and her blanket close about her.
"Let the winter and whatever devil made you, have you!" the man shouts into the gale, and he forces the door shut once more.
The girl comes careening into it, screaming and pleading, banging her fists against it. She begs for mercy and asserts her innocence. Her desperate seconds of going ignored feel like minutes in the severity of the snow. Still, she cries and implores on for a short while more, hoping there is some trace of love left in her step-father's heart that will make him see the error of his deed.
The door stays shut, and she hears not a word from him.
The rising chill wafts over her, its sting no less than that of her sorrow, and she turns from what was once her home. She treks through the snow and towards the Corinthian forests beside the cabin, hoping there may yet be some shelter therein. If not—and in truth, even if there is—she will surely perish within the hour, under the pressing thumb of this winter tide.
Her past adventuring and play through these forests serve her well. Her mind harkens back to a cave she once happened across; to her memory, it lies a small distance northwest of the cabin. With strength and luck, she could make it there . . .
She pushes on through drifts that reach up to her little thighs and against gusts that seem intent to drive her back from whence she came. She wraps an end of her blanket about her face, peering through it to find her way through the gray-white curtain all about her. Her eyes ache from the cold and the breeze, but she keeps them open. Her legs burn from exertion, but she keeps them trudging along. Her heart breaks from her pains and her losses, but it keeps beating with the promise of a modest hope.
After a time spent wandering through the trees and scanning the terrain, she finds the cave, its mouth agape within the face of a rising hill. She dashes to it and hurls herself inside, going ten feet in before reaching its furthest wall. She lays herself against it, her back to the cave's mouth and the storm. Rubbing at her arms, chest, and legs, she tries to warm herself and bring feeling to the parts of her that have gone numb.
The cave hides her from the dreadful winds, but the cold can still reach her here. And with no materials to build a fire, nor food of any sort, her chances of survival are small.
Thinking on her poor mother, wishing she were here to cuddle, warm, and love her again, the girl falls into sleep, exhausted in both body and soul.
***
She wakes to the sound of the persistent winds. Hours have passed, and that she has survived them is no meager feat. She stretches her limbs and opens her eyes, the light frost that has covered both her skin and her clothing cracking with the motion. Snot has dried up under her nose and her lips have split from their dryness. When she licks them, there's a slight touch of pain.
Underneath the noise of the winds is the slight rumbling of her stomach and . . . something else.
From out of the wilderness beyond the cave's mouth, comes a low, guttural call. It steadily rises as she turns to look into the snowy, gray haze of the early evening.
It's the din of howling.
The sound soon ceases, replaced by animalistic growls and huffs that seem to be drawing closer. The girl stills her already slowed breath as a shadowed, hunched figure makes its way through the storm and towards the cave. It breaks through the wintery veneer and leaps inside, revealing itself as a large black wolf.
It stands there a moment, shaking the powder off of its great, shaggy head and sides. When it catches sight of the girl, it stops.
It stalks forward, ears flat against a lowered head, teeth bared in a predator's smile. Its stomach gives a rumble of its own.
Staring into its steely black eyes, the girl hears a voice echo within the walls of her head: Ah . . . what a fine, fortuitous little morsel . . .
The girl swallows down her dread and turns to face the animal. "Please, don't eat me," she begs, as much with her tongue as her mind.
The wolf hesitates, flinching as though a gnat had just buzzed across its muzzle. Its ears lift ever so slightly from the back of its head in curiosity.
What . . . what did you say? The wolf's gravelly voice rings inside her head again. How did I understand you? How . . . ?
"I said, please don't eat me! I . . . I don't know how I can hear you, and you me, but . . . I can."
The wolf tilts its head and begins pacing to and fro, keeping its eyes on her. Its snarl slackens, leaving only the tops of its canines exposed in a sort of teasing grin. Its laughter strikes up in the girl's mind, chilling her all the more.
Interesting, it says with sinister whimsy. Very interesting. I've never before had a conversation with a meal of mine.
"You don't have to eat me," the girl says, a lone tear falling from her eye to freeze upon her cheek.
Oh, but I must, indeed. The wolf steps closer to her, its pacing done and its fancy with the girl flitting away. You see, I've gobbled up only a single, chittering squirrel in the hours since this storm began. Poor taste and a poorer serving. My hunger is hard to sate. But you and your tender flesh . . . just . . . may . . . suffice . . .
Her next words are wrenched out of her by desperation and a dire will to live.
"I can give you a better meal."
The wolf stops inches away, its face before hers, its hot and noxious breath forcing her nose to scrunch at the odor of blood and meat upon it. It regards her with narrowed eyes, trying hard to hide its thoughts from her. It thinks in silence for a few moments more.
Eventually, it asks: What would you propose?
***
The man has sat before the fireplace since he threw the devil-child out into the forsaken white. He has not moved, lost in himself and to the thoughts that plague him. He built a fair fire as she pounded and wailed at the door, and by the time he sat down to appreciate the licking heat, she had fallen silent. Whether she had died right then and there or had ventured out into the woods to do so, he neither knew nor cared; as long as her end had come.
He stares into the fire, his hands having finally relaxed their tense grip upon nothing at all. He hopes the storm will have ceased by the next morn, and that the ground has not frozen enough to prevent him from laying his wife to rest. He wonders what will come next for him and when his pains may finally ease.
A light rapping on the door pulls him from his contemplation, and his anger comes rushing back like a red ocean's wave, sudden and with staggering sway. He knows who is out there, and he is infuriated to think that she is still living, let alone returning to where she is not—and was never—wanted.
He bolts to his feet and grabs hold of the fire iron at his feet. He will use it to poke her and prod her and smack her away once more; the cold will have her yet. He pulls open the door and readies to bring his wrath upon the girl, raising up a curse and giving the iron a shake.
But the wind howls in at him, bringing with it a leaping, gnashing black wolf.
The man's curse slips into a cry of surprise and the iron drops from his hand. His arms shoot up to guard himself as the great beast crashes into him, knocking him backwards and off his feet. He lands with a huff across the room, his senses dazed. He has no hope of fending off the wolf that is already biting into his arm, drawing a wash of blood and bringing excruciating pain, as his skin and clothing are torn away.
The girl comes in from the cold while the man screams and thrashes and the wolf gnaws and rends. She steps slowly into the cabin, bundled up, her head hung low. She forces herself to look anywhere but at the violent scene before her, ashamed of the bargain she has struck so that she may have a chance to live.
She wonders if she is now as bad as her step-father had claimed she was. Her heart grows as cold as the rest of her to think that it may be so.
Grabbing hold of a blanket upon the floor, she wraps it around herself, letting it and the fire warm her chills. Tired, she wishes for sleep, and hungry, she yearns for food to fill her belly—but she has a greater matter to tend to. She moves to the table where her mother still lies, hand hanging limply over the side. The girl sits down—to where she cannot see the grisly feeding on the other side of the table—and takes her mother's hand in her own, bowing her head as tears come once again.
First, she prays in Allna's name that her mother has found peace beyond this world. Second, that her step-father, for all his hate and evil deeds, will find it as well, once his cries have ceased. And finally, she prays for herself, fearing she may need Allna's forgiveness and guidance most of all.
The storm rages on outside. The man's struggling ends. The wolf has his fill of what he was promised and then leaves, quite pleased.
And all the while and into the long cold night, the girl prays.

Patrick Winters

Patrick Winters is a graduate of Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL, where he earned a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. He has been published in the likes of Sanitarium Magazine, The Sirens Call, Trysts of Fate, and other such titles. A full list of his previous publications may be found at his author's site, if you are so inclined to know: http://wintersauthor.azurewebsites.net/Pages/Previous%20Publications.
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About the Editor:
Amber M. Simpson

Amber M. Simpson has been writing short stories and poetry since the age of ten. Lover of all things horror and fantasy, she writes mainly in these genres, often with a touch of romance thrown in for fun.  Amber lives in Kentucky with her husband and their two crazy but loving little boys.