It was the jangle of the alarm bells that woke me from my troubled slumber. My body assumed the upright position of rigor mortis, flesh tingling, eyes searching frantically for my younger brother, Albert. The boy was curled into a tight ball around his travel-stained stuffed bear of a companion, Marcus. I relaxed my death grip on my heart.
I had been having that dream again.
I am traveling with a large flock of plump, bushy ewes and rams, bleating and wandering ever downward among rocks and crags, descending peacefully into what appears to be a valley. The shepherd and I walk side-by-side, conversing in a tongue only my dream self can understand, only pausing when the shepherd’s attention is demanded by a stray ram.
On one of such occasions, my eyes trail over the valley and latch onto a dark patch among the sea of white. I can’t believe I have not noticed it before; my eyes must have passed over that area several times. I consider calling out to the shepherd, but some unknown intuition stops me.
The wolf is young and unskilled in the art of killing; only fortune has kept him from being caught thus far. He has made his way into the center of the flock, a trail of red-flecked wool in his wake. The rams do not notice him.
The pup finds its target with ease, launching himself at one of the larger rams. Teeth rip into flesh; blood leaps from the attack, landing on safer nearby wool. The ram’s head twists sickeningly, the black ball clinging to the body by thin strips of flesh. The ram kicks its legs to no avail, its black eyes fading. It gives one helpless bleat and succumbs to the wolf’s teeth. Not one sheep reacts.
The wolf busies himself immediately with his feast. He laps up the oozing blood with his tongue, tearing off strips of pink flesh, gnawing, and drinking more blood. I am going to be sick; I turn away to avoid the scene.
But now the shepherd has noticed, and he is storming toward the beast, crook raised like Mars of war. Wood connects with flesh, and the wolf yelps as it is sent flying from its meal.
A horrible sound, that yelp. If the world could utter one sound of protest for the hardships of life, it would be that yelp. The sound drives me mad with unexplainable rage, and I fling myself over the wolf, shielding the poor creature with my back.
The beatings never cease, despite my pleas.
The dream had me on edge every night, especially now that the alarm arose every other morning. That, combined with the obvious lack of food among the camp, was enough to stress anyone’s mind.
Albert stirred beside me, his bony frame unwinding from its protective position. Marcus stared at me with black eyes that unsettled my already frayed nerves.
“What’s going on?” Albert mumbled, too asleep to understand the significance of the bells.
“Just a check, Al,” I replied soothingly, stroking back the filthy golden-bronze curls. “Go back to sleep.”
He looked about to protest, but his mouth cracked with a yawn, and he snuggled back into the thin blankets in which I had wrapped him. My hands performed their loving tasks without need for direction. Blankets were tightened around the small boy; hair was brushed back.
My mind was drifting back to the bells; who had been slaughtered this time? In the past few weeks, members among the camp had begun disappearing: women washing their ragged laundry, men digging through the surrounding wood, desperately searching for sustenance for their families, children finding enough stored humor to explore the wood, lost in their imaginations. Hours later, the body of the missing would be found on the fringe of the dark forest, flesh torn and shredded and in many places missing altogether.
When my hands were satisfied at the safety of my brother, I stood up, draping a blanket around my shoulders and stepping into my boots.
The wind outside my tent swirled the blanket, and the bitter cold made me gasp. The exposed flesh curled away from the cold, shrinking in on itself painfully.
I ignored the cold, knowing that my brisk pace would warm me, and directed my steps to the edge of the wood.
A crowd had already clustered around the corpse, speaking in low, urgent whispers. The body was sprawled in their center, a young girl with lanky red hair made darker by the fresh blood. The girl had not died instantly, though large chunks of her flesh had been ripped away. I knew her only as the girl who sat near the creek and skipped rocks on free days. I did not know her name.
The group was anxious, speaking only of the creature and when it would strike next. The girl was ignored; even her family glanced at her seldom. The living were more concerned with the living.
“What creature could do such a thing?” The question arose without origin and ran like wildfire through the group. Richardson, our unofficial superior, felt an obligation to answer.
“The teeth marks are too dull for a wolf or bear,” he announced, though he knew as little about teeth marks as we did, “but too large for most herbivores.”
“Then what is it, for God’s sake?” The man who spoke was middle-aged, though his hair was prematurely gray and his face was made of leather. I thought he was the dead girl’s father, though his eyes were dry.
Richardson’s mouth cracked open, but no response came; he closed his mouth, opened it, closed it again, and cleared his throat. The answer was obvious to the entire group.
There really was nothing further to say. Something had to be done, but no one had any idea what it might be. A silent decision was collectively established, and the ring of people slowly began to diffuse into the camp.
The girl’s body was burned, and life resumed. Nothing more was said about the beast.
That night the cold reigned supreme, crushing any unsuspecting wanderer back into his tent. Icicles dripped from the spits where once juicy rabbit or hog had roasted. The touch of stone burned one’s hand, and the hard-packed earth was as cold and solid as the stone.
Huddled in every piece of cloth available, Albert and I shared a meal of a handful of wild mushrooms and the last crumb of bread stolen from the emergency rations. The frigid air forbade conversation, and I was too involved in my own reverie to consider breaking the long silence. My eyes studied Albert instinctively, watching his bony limbs wrap themselves around the small cup of steaming water with which I had supplied him. Marcus sat beside him, wrapped in an old shirt, despite my protests. Albert would not let his best friend freeze to death.
Night continued on, and the cold was worse in the dark.
The ominous ringing of the alarm bell sounded in the early morning, an unprecedented occurrence. Never before had the alarm bell rang through the night twice in forty-eight hours.
My eyelashes were frozen shut; I had to cover them with my hands and wait until they were warm enough to unfreeze. My eyes stung from exposure to the painful cold, and every muscle in my body felt as if it, too, had been frozen. I sat up slowly, grimacing, squinting eyes traveling to the empty pile of rags beside me.
Empty…I was on my feet, shoed, and running by the time my brain had processed what that meant.
My mind was blank; it shied away from the emotions I needed to feel. Adrenaline propelled me toward the dark forest, my eyes searching the fringes. I had no time for the thoughts I knew would come.
The crowd clustered farther from the camp this time, and my eyes had yet to adjust to the oppressive blackness previously staved by the kerosene lamps. I had stumbled into the small group before my frozen mind had recognized them as friends.
I parted the crowd as Moses, but Moses had seen salvation on those distant shores.
Relief flooded through me, warming fingers and toes; the scarred face was not angelic, the sightless eyes not a penetrating blue, the locks of bloodied hair not a cascade of gold.
Voices were speaking around the corpse of a woman, meaningless chatter to my ears. I forced myself to listen to them.
A boy old enough to hunt but too young to be husband or father was speaking rapidly to Richardson, his half-starved form trembling with excitement, his eyes gleaming with bloodlust.
“We’ve caught ‘im!” My ears picked up the sound, but my mind had trouble interpreting the meaning. “We’ve got the beast, Richie! He’s holed up in the western pass! Come quick, Richie!” The boy crowed with laughter, thrusting a worn scythe at Richardson. “This is it, Richie! This is the end!”
The cold seeped into my skin; I shuddered, though I shared the group’s enthusiasm as we trekked the few miles to the western pass, blocked by heaps of snow and ice from the winter’s first storm. I lagged behind the mob, weaponless, kicking back the relentless snow.
The tension in the air intensified as the crowd entered the pass, the boy pointing at an outcrop of jagged rock, whooping with delight. The cold sank to my toes.
My numb feet tangled in something concealed by the drifts of snow, and I fell deep into the cold. I turned, my hands finding the object that had tripped me.
My fingers came back red, soaked in a dead woman’s blood, clutching brown fur. Black button eyes glistened menacingly at me.
My other hand flew out as if the force of my will alone could stop the hunters. “No!” My voice rang out desperately, shattering the dark.
But too late.
Iced silver flashed down, and the shriek that resonated through the frigid air felt more the keening of an animal than the scream of a tiny, golden-haired child.