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Copyright © 1998 by Clocktower Fiction. All Rights Reserved.
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She'd seen plague victims. This was worse. Much worse. Rotted rags still clung to the wasted frame, but gray flesh showed through wide swathes where the cloth had gone, and in places fat-colored bone protruded. Desperately fighting her instincts to flee, she limped on, but with broad strides now, a rapid stiff-legged gait. Quaking, she looked back again. It had vanished, but a tiny hillock now possessed a suspiciously deep shadow. She drew an agonized breath.
She'd been moving since before dawn, and the muscles in her legs throbbed. If the thing caught her, drained her, it might have strength enough to survive the season, possibly even strength enough to search out the children. She clutched the dagger more tightly. If she sliced it across her own throat hard enough, she might be dead before the thing reached heróbut she doubted that would prevent its feeding.
Rapidly, she lurched over the rough ground, picking her way through dead grasses and patches of frost, her breath coming in ragged gasps now, her side aching like a gash. The cut on her forearm had stopped bleeding, but she guessed the thing was close enough to smell it still, and she hoped only thatóby the time it chargedóshe wouldn't be too worn out to escape. Her ruse had bought time for the children, but what good would it do if she were lost? How would they get through the winter? Stephan, the oldest boy, was strong enough to plow their meager field, but the few potatoes would never feed them long. They had some things to sell, but would he be able to get all the long, dangerous way to town and back by himself? And would it bring enough to see them through the cold months?
Never. It would never be enough. Without her, they would starve in their hut. The baby first. Then little Ludmilla. Thenó
She must survive. She must make it back to them.
There had to be a way.
The creature dropped to all fours again, sniffing. The scent drove it to a slathering frenzy; froth slicked its neck and chest. Pushing its face to the dark spot on the dirt, it drew in the smell, licked at the sandy soil. It peered over the hump of earth.
The woman lay on the ground, her body hunched over a tuft of grass. A slight wind moved her cloak, but the shawl stayed tightly wound about her head. Nothing else moved.
The smell of blood diminished, and the thing whimperedóthe woman had died. It would have to move quickly: it had lost prey to wolves before, even to rats. It scrambled toward the lifeless woman.
It threw itself upon her, sank its teeth into her shoulder.
Something crunched. Violently shaking its head, it leapt up and spat bits of tooth on the ground. Senseless eyes veering wildly, it clawed at the corpse, and the bloody dress came away in sections. Beneath the cloth lay moldering branches for arms, a lump of stone for a head.
* * *
From her hiding place behind the dead tree, Mara lunged, bringing the knife down hard in the center of the creature's back.
It fell forward like a dead tree. In the dirt, it twisted its head and glared at her with rheumy eyes. Under the mottled filth, nothing human lay in the expression, only the dumb cunning of a weasel, something that prowled the woodpile for mice.
She yanked at the knife, but the blade stuck, then tore free, releasing a putrid stench. She brought it down again. It felt as though she stabbed a pile of bedding.
In a blur of movement, the creature turned, eyes rolling, and stiffened limbs flailed with animal fury. Teeth fastened on her bared forearm, and pain clamped down on her, almost paralyzing her. Almost.
With all her strength, she brought the dagger down on the thing's face. It growled now, clawed at her with skeletal fingers. She raked the blade back and forth, slicing away bloodless flesh, exposing broken teeth.
It drooled watery blood but would not let go. Thorny fingers stung at her chest, her shoulders.
She raised the dagger high and struck again. At the throat. At the side of the neck. Sawing and hacking. Aiming for the hard, dead muscles.
With one last sinewy snap, the blade sliced straight through the neck, but the head kept biting, and the body did not fall. Instead, for a moment she struggled against two adversaries. Then the body stumbled away from her frantic blows and toppled, thrashing in the brush.
She struck again and again at the head. She swung it against the ground, until the face became a caul of draining fluid, a mask of tissue and mucous. At last, her dagger found the hinge of the jaw and levered.
The obscene mess dropped away. It rolled.
Finally, she sat on the ground, gazed up at the sky and sobbed convulsively. Clouds congealed.
Stumbling up, she staggered a few paces, then sat heavily in the dirt again. Filth-smeared skirts bunched up around her legs, resisting her efforts to smooth them down. She felt ashamed for having cried out. Ashamed and stupid. If other such creatures lurked nearby, her cries would only draw them. There might even be wolves; yet she lacked the strength to rise.
The chill...the twilight...
She knew she should retrieve her cloak and begin the long walk home, but her resolve seemed to seep away into the hard, frigid ground. She gritted her teeth. Her legs kicked spasmodically as she wrestled herself onto her side, scrambled slowly onto her feet. Her arm ached with a numbing burn, like cold fire in her veins.
She forced trembling limbs to obey her. Liquid and gray, the landscape wavered, swirling in her vision. She made it as far as the next tree before she had to sit again.
The pain had stopped. All sensation had stopped.
She gazed at the bitten armóthe blood had ceased to ooze, and she prodded the torn flesh but still felt nothing. She considered the children and the warmth of the fire. Surely that warmth would bring feeling back into her frozen feet and hands. Surely.
Her thoughts churned apart, random fragments floating to the surface. The children. Stephan, eyes as black as the Cossack who had sired him and already nearly as tall. Maritsa, little mother to the others. She thought of the infant Mikhail, coughing already as his first winter approached...so fragile...his sweet breath on her face--.
Her hands clawed into the earth.
She knew what she had become. Was becoming. Could feel the venom coursing within her, drawing ever closer to her breast. By full nightfall, she'd be one of them.
And she would go home.
She clawed at her face, tore hair from her head in great clumps, trying to feel some pain that would help her cling to lucidity.
She knew what she must do. Now. While some strength of will remained.
Only with great effort did the sash at her waist come away, the knot battling her stiffened fingers and her numbing brain, but finally the length of it dangled from her hand. Wrapping it several times around her throat, she twisted it tight.
Again the children's faces swam through her brain.
She climbed the stunted tree: an ordeal, the bark hard and thorny on her palms and knees; yet she seemed not really to feel it, to be distant from the places where flesh scraped away.
"Maritsa, they're yours now." At last, she neared the top and inched her way along a sturdy limb. "Bar the door." Cold and viscous tears filled her eyes as she struggled to tie the sash around a branch. "Care for them."
She didn't jump so much as merely allow herself to fall.
* * *
"She will be home soon." Maritsa clutched at her brother. "You must not go out there until she returns."
Stephan tried to push past her through the open door. "Butó"
"Put down the ax," she insisted. "You cannot help her."
"But Mama isó"
"Think of the little ones. If the beast comes here, we will need you to fight it." She let one hand drop to her smaller sister's shoulder. Little Ludmilla blinked up at her brother, her thumb rooted firmly in her mouth.
The breath sighed out of him. "Close the shutter and latch it," he said. "Then help me pull Mama's bed against the door." Stephan stared at the gathering shadows. "It is getting dark."
* * *
A dim cinder, the sun faded on the horizon. Darkness spread like smoke along the ground.
Hanging from the end of the sash, the corpse quivered.
It twitched again.
The first gleam of moonlight brought convulsions. The body kicked. Hands clawed; arms windmilled. Hissing coughs gargled in the throat. At last, the sash gave way, and the flailing carcass plummeted.
Heaving herself up, she pitched forward, fell, scrambled on all fours. All around her, moonlight glowed on the ground, impossibly bright, blinding.
Images of the children swam in what remained of her mind, nothing so definite as a thought, more the tatters of a dream. Even these fragments disintegrated further as she lurched over broken earth, clawing past boulders, their shadows merging with the night. It grew colder, but no breath misted at her face. It grew darker, but she stumbled less.
The heath diminished to a path, and her feet drew her to it, carried her along it.
It seemed the cottage came to her. The only possible destination, it floated in the night.
At last, she reached for the front door: it failed to open. She pushed again. Her mouth opened to cry for them to let her in, but only a hissing moan emerged. Her nails scrabbled. Her fists beat at the door, leaving a smear of flesh on the wood.
She could smell them within. Her children. Growling with need, she launched herself against the wood.[an error occurred while processing this directive]