“Faster,” I urge my horse, leaning low over his neck.
His lungs heave like a bellows. Foam flecks the corners of his mouth. He can’t last much longer at this pace, but his panic is a near-match for mine, and he heeds my command.
The full moon hangs low and pregnant above the tree line just ahead, casting long shadows over the road. We’re galloping so fast that I can’t tell if we’re speeding toward one of those innocuous shadows or a hole that could break my horse’s leg and spell our doom. I’m forced to trust my mount’s sight, believe that he can distinguish between the two, leap or dodge if he must. All I have to do is hang on for dear life.
Around us, the darkness seethes. Howls rend the air. I look over one shoulder and then the next, searching for any sign of the wolves that dog our steps. Fur flashes in my periphery, and I spin toward it. There, just between the trees, something moves through the forest, keeping pace with us.
I choke back a fresh wave of fear and try to concentrate. All is not yet lost. I have three loaded pistols. If we go down, I’ll put a bullet through my horse’s head and one through my own. I’d rather die a quick death at my own hand than be torn to pieces while still alive.
Another chorus of howls rises from the trees. The gelding beneath me trumpets his terror and pulls at the reins. I let him have his lead. If he stumbles on this godforsaken country road, we’ll both die, but if I keep him at a safer pace, the wolves might grow bold and pull me from the saddle before tearing into his belly – so we’re likely dead either way. At least galloping flat out we have a chance. Not two miles ahead of us is salvation, the sole village in this wilderness of trees. If we manage to outpace the wolves and reach it, we’ll be free. Safe.
A crash comes from my right. I pull a pistol and aim in that direction, searching for a target.
Show yourself, damn you.
If I can wound one of the pack, it might frighten off the rest. Or maybe the smell of blood will draw them to their fallen comrade instead. We’ve had a hard winter, and the wolves might be hungry enough to cannibalize one of their own.
As if in answer to my prayers, a beast bursts forth from the trees not a hundred yards ahead. My steed catches sight of it and balks, nearly throwing me, and I have to dig my heels into his sides to force him back into a gallop.
The wolf stops in the middle of the road, snarling at us as we run it down. An answering snarl curls my lips, rage replacing my fear. I brace myself and stand in the stirrups, my left hand gripping the reins, my right lifting to take aim. It costs me a few precious moments to acclimate to the rise and fall of my horse from this position, but I need to match my breathing to his motion if I have any hope of hitting my target.
Breathe in on the rise, out on the fall. In on the rise, out on the fall. Now shoot!
I pull the trigger. The bullet explodes from the pistol in a belch of smoke and fire. Its kickback sends my arm heavenward and nearly unseats me. My horse is trained for war, and he handles the sound of the small explosion better than I do, not even breaking stride. Gunfire, he’s used to; the wolves are another matter entirely. No amount of training can keep a horse from reacting when one howls.
The figure in the road crumples, and I whoop in victory.
Take that, you bastard!
I drop back into the saddle and switch out my empty pistol for a loaded one, pausing to spit at the still-twitching animal as we skirt it. We round the next bend in the road a heartbeat later, and the trees part to reveal a glimpse of lights shining in the distance. The village.
“Thank God,” I choke out, nearly sobbing in relief.
The howls cut off when I fired, but sounds of pursuit still echo through the night. Twigs snap. Paws pound the earth. I strain my ears, and I swear I can hear their ragged panting. Instead of converging on their fallen brother, they hunt me instead. It’s unnatural, as if something more than starvation is driving them on.
Damn them, they must not have hesitated at all when I fired, and they sound too close for me to risk slowing our pace. At least the villagers might have heard the gunfire. Maybe they’re already stirring, rallying men, lighting torches that might serve to drive the beasts back. My father once told me that wolves fear fire.
We round another bend in the road, and the lights grow brighter through the trees, their merry glow filling my heart with hope for the first time in hours. We’re so close. Only half a mile remains between us and salvation.
We’ve done it. We’ve escaped. We’re going to make it!
I cast my gaze heavenward. Thank you. Thank you, thank you.
“Isabelle,” a deep voice tolls out from the darkness.
“No!” I cry, recognition sluicing like ice through my veins. Why is this demon haunting me?
My horse shrieks and veers left. I whip my head to the right in search of what spooked him. Something is moving in the tree line, loping through the forest with preternatural grace. It’s too tall to be a wolf, too fast to be human, and too silent to be anything made by God.
The fear in my veins spreads to my lungs, freezing them, and I choke on my terror. “No. Please, no.”
A pair of amber eyes flash out of the darkness, reflecting the moonlight.
I turn in the saddle and drop low over my horse’s neck. “Faster,” I urge.
The village’s light is almost blinding now, and shouts from its inhabitants ring through the night. They heard the shot. I’m saved!
It’s then my horse drops out from under me. We’ve finally found a hole in the road. He was galloping so fast that our momentum carries me forward, over his head. Trees blur in my periphery. A scream tears from my throat as the ground rushes up to meet me.
My body takes over as my mind goes blank with panic, and I turn midair, landing on my side instead of my head. I hit hard enough that I bounce over the hardpack. The breath is knocked from my lungs. Rocks tear into my clothing and skin as I slide to a stop. I lay there on the ground, stunned, tears streaming from my face, gulping at the air like a fish out of water. Everything hurts, and, oh, God, my horse. I lift my head, expecting to see him dead, but instead, I watch him struggle up to standing. If his leg is broken…
But no. He gets his hooves beneath him and limps off toward the village, leaving me on the road.
“Wait,” I wheeze.
Movement draws my gaze away from him, to the right, near where I last glimpsed that, that…thing. I study the shadows for less than a heartbeat before a monstrous figure bursts through the trees, moving toward me with impossible speed.
You will not take me, I think. Somehow, I managed to keep hold of my pistol through the fall, and though my hand shakes something awful, I bring it to bear. My movements are sluggish, pain slowing me down. Black dots dance across my vision – I still haven’t managed to drag in a full breath. I fire into the growing darkness regardless, hoping that the sound of the shot might at least give the creature pause.
The bullet goes wide, and the thing hits me like a battering ram, wrenching me up from the ground. My head smacks against its chest so hard that stars explode across my sight, and the gun falls from my numb fingers, lost in the undergrowth as we speed into the woods.
“Help,” I croak.
I’m only two hundred yards from the village. People pour from the gates, one man gathering the reins of my horse, others holding torches aloft as they peer out into the night. If they’d been but a minute faster, they might have seen me lying in the road, might have glimpsed my attacker and come out to save me.
I finally manage to drag in a full breath, but a heavy hand covers my mouth before I can scream. I’m forced to watch in strangled silence as a villager leads my horse inside the gates. Still others continue to gaze into the darkness as if searching for his rider.
Here! I’m right here! Please see me! I pray.
They do not, for I must be completely hidden in the gloom by now.
“Isabelle,” that rough voice rumbles from above, sending shivers down my spine.
Hot tears streak over my cheeks. Around us, bushes rustle and branches snap. I pull my gaze from the village and am met with a nightmarish scene. Wolves slink from the shadows, creeping ever closer through the undergrowth. They sniff at my feet when they reach us and begin to whine and growl as they rub themselves against the legs of my attacker.
“You’re mine now,” he whispers. “You’ve always been mine.”
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.