unedited manuscript not intended for distribution.
I place my feet carefully, making certain to disturb neither leaf nor twig as I progress through the humming stillness of the forest. All around me I feel tension—in the air, in the ground, in the leaves interlaced over my head. It’s as though the trees themselves are holding their breaths, waiting for me to pass on by.
The trees are not fools, after all. They know a predator when it walks through their midst. They don’t want to draw my attention or interfere with my hunt.
A smile curves my lips, small, bitter. Even a little cruel. No, who am I fooling? There was a time when I could have denied or at least ignored my own natural bent for cruelty. But it’s always been there. Deep inside me. Pulsing through my soul like poison in the veins.
And now—now that everything I ever loved is taken from me, gone—why shouldn’t I indulge the truth of my nature?
I’m following a trail. Not particularly difficult one. My quarry is either unaware or simply unconcerned with my pursuit, and leaves clear indications of its progress everywhere it goes. It doesn’t seem to be very steady on its feet, bashing up against tree trunks and shrubs, leaving large tufts of reddish fur in its wake. Occasionally I spy an enormous pawprint with deep indentations where the claws dig into the soil. Almost like it’s left them. Just for me. Showing me the way.
I adjust the strap of my quiver across my breast. I’ve faced my fair share of foes over the last few years. Killed a couple of them too. I’m not afraid of a fight, not afraid of a little slavering, some claws, some teeth. I’ve spent my whole life in the company of monsters of one kind or another, and it’s hardened me all the way to my core.
But I’ve never been sent out to track, stalk, and kill anything before. The thought makes my stomach knot uncomfortably. With a growl, I shake my head and force that knotty feeling down deep where I can’t feel it. It’s not as though I have any choice, after all.
“Seven years,” I whisper.
I don’t belong to myself. Not anymore. I belong to Granny Dorrel. The ward witch of Virra County. For Granny saved my life . . . but only at price. And that price was me. My obedience. My skills. All at her disposal. For seven long years.
I’d been unconscious at the time the bargain was made. Otherwise, I would have put up a fuss. Still, can I honestly say I would rather be dead now than indentured into my own grandmother’s service?
I’m not entirely sure . . .
My ears prick. There’s a strange sound up ahead, a sound I can’t quite place. It doesn’t seem to fit anywhere within my range of understanding. Kind of like a growl, kind of like a high-pitched whine. But also distinctly—and horribly—like a woman’s sob.
I shudder. I’m close now, though. Soon this whole sorry business will be behind me. My first hunt at Granny’s command. There will be more hunts, of course. That’s the main reason Granny wanted me after all—for my woodcraft and my archery skills. And Granny has more than a few problems in her life that could be simply solved by a well-placed arrow.
But this first hunt is the worst. Surely. Nothing can be quite so bad after this one.
I slip an arrow from my quiver and nock it in place. One eye on the ground to make certain I’m still picking my footsteps well, I creep through a grove of young fir trees and peer through the thickly-woven branches into a clearing down at the bottom of a small incline. A quiet, peaceful scene appears before my vision—all gently lit by dappled sunlight and graced with a pool of crystalline water in the center of a swath of emerald green grass. The pool reflects a clear patch of sky overhead. It’s all just a little too perfect, a little too pure to be believed . . .
But that’s the sort of thing one finds in Whispering Wood. As long as you’re not fool enough to actually drink from a pool like that, you should be fine.
A figure sits hunched over that water. A large, ungainly figure, covered all over in red and black fur. At first glance, I might easily mistake it for a wolverine. A second glance would quickly dissolution me of that idea. No wolverine could possibly grow to such a size—at least as big as a small bear. Nor could it crouch like that with its over-long hind legs bent at a pair of knobby knees. Its forearms are too long as well, covered in fur, muscular, but relatively slender.
A shaggy head with a long muzzle bows over the water. It seems to be peering at its own reflection. The still surface of the pool ripples with little drops. I realize with a sudden, sickening lurch in my gut that those drops are tears.
Oh, gods on high, the creature is crying. Weeping as though its heart will break.
The sickness in my gut coils a little tighter, like a poisonous snake. It’s for the best, I tell myself, and step softly from my hidden spot out from among the firs. I take a stance, raising my arms, my bow. It’s for the best that I put this beast out of its misery. Weres are abominations. Unsightly, ungodly, never meant to walk in this world or any other. However it came by this curse—if it is a curse; I’m still not entirely certain on that score—the monster certainly will be better off dead.
It’s a mercy what I’m doing.
I draw back my arrow, my right arm strong, my left wrist straight, my eyes focused true. Slowly I let out my breath, counting down from five. I take aim for the back of the skull.
And I stand there. Frozen.
Come on, do it.
My arm begins to shake.
Suddenly, the monster’s head comes up. A loud, snuffling growl erupts from its nose and throat, as though its choking on a sob. The bristles on the back of its neck rises.
Then it turns. It looks directly at me.
I stare into those red eyes. Eyes glowing with a light of pure madness.
But I can’t loose my arrow.
With a roar, the monster lunges into motion. Its overlong forelimbs tear into the ground, propelling its strange, hunched-over body up the incline and straight toward me. I have just a split second in which to make a decision.
Biting out a curse, I drop my arrow, turn, and flee into the trees.
What a fool! What a fool, what a fool, what a thrice-cursed fool! The ground behind me reverberates with the pounding stride of that great creature racing just at my heels. I can feel its hot breath, panting through ravening sharp teeth which will any moment now close down on the back of my neck, snap my spine, shake my body until I’m nothing but a broken, lifeless pulp.
So much for my first hunt.
But hey! At least this means there won’t have to be a second. Not a huge comfort under the circumstances.
Instinct tells me the monster is leaping. I can almost feel its feet leaving the ground. Instinct also tells me to stretch out my right arm, to grab hold of the trunk of a nearby tree. To swing myself around it like a pole. My own momentum nearly yanks my arm from its socket, but the abruptness of the maneuver is just quick enough.
The were-beast surges past me into a thicket of gorse, spraying yellow petals and dark pricklers every which way as its claws tear into the dense growth.
I have just enough time to gasp a huge breath.
Then I’m turning, running again. Maybe I can get enough distance between myself and the were before it quite works itself free? Maybe I can still take a solid stance, slap another arrow into place, aim. I’m good under pressure. I can hit that monster square in the eye if I need to. I can still recover from this, I can—
All the breath bursts from my lungs as I fall headlong and slam into the dirt. Gods blight it! Did that tree really just stick a root up and trip me? Never trust the trees of Whispering Wood. Only the oaks are friendly to humans. All the rest, they’re just looking out for themselves. If they see you as a threat, they’ll take any and every opportunity to bring you down.
I scramble to right myself, my boots scrabbling in the dirt. My bow? Where is my bow? I must have flung it when I fell and now . . . there! Several yards away, caught in the branches of the same cursed tree that tripped me. Even now, I see the branches lifting my weapon a little higher out of reach.
Behind me, the air fills with the puff, puff, puff of hot wolverine breath as the were lurches after me once more.
Cursing through my teeth, I reach for my boot and draw a knife. I roll, catch on my own quiver, and only just manage to get up into a seated position, knife upraised.
Then the were is bearing down on me. I stare up into those mad, red eyes. Full of hatred. Full of bloodthirst. Full of revenge. A huge arm swings back, claws gleaming. I brace myself, try to angle my knife for defense, knowing all the while just how futile it is.
That arm swings.
There’s a dull thud of heavy bodies. A blur of gray fur against red. A flash of teeth.
I sit back, blinking, my knife still upraised, my heart pounding. At first I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing. Slowly the vision begins to clarify—two monsters. Gods above! Two of those awful horrors, locked in a vicious brawl. They tear with their teeth, swipe with their claws, but worse still, they rise up on their hind legs and swing at each other with movements that are altogether too-human.
Parting, they circle each other like wrestlers, then lunge again, all teeth and fur and grasping arms. The red were is nowhere near as large as the gray. Nowhere near as muscular, its shoulders nowhere near as broad. It isn’t long before the gray one has knocked the red were off its feet, pinned it to the ground beneath its huge bulk.
I watch in open-mouthed horror as the gray were roars straight into the red monster’s face. I half expect to see him keep bending, to tear into the fallen creature’s jugular and rip it out.
Instead, the gray were backs up. Still on all fours, it retreats, lifting its weight off the red were’s body. The red were scrambles up into a crouch, panting and foaming, eyes rolling with dread. The grey where, its haunches tensed for another spring, holds its gaze with steady ferocity. Then he opens his mouth and roars again.
A little whimper escapes the red were’s throat. It turns and, with a last flashing glance my way, lopes off into the trees. Soon the ruddy fur vanishes among the green foliage.
Still panting, ribcage expanding with each labored breath, the gray were turns its wolfish head around and looks directly at me. For an instant—an instant so brief, I might almost have missed it—I see that same flicker of hatred in his eye which had been so clear, so burning and bright in the red were’s gaze.
Then he speaks in a low, rumbling growl: “Are you all right?”
END OF EXCERPT