There is a howl in the night. Maybe a fox, maybe more. Maybe not.
My horse gives a nervous little whinny. His ears prick up at the sound and I reach down to give the spot behind them a reassuring scratch. Jack looks back at me, I wonder if he heard it too. “You alright?” he asks. I nod. “Why’d you stop?”
“We should rest,” I say, glancing at back the forest we have just trekked through and wondering if the rustle of leaves behind us is made by the wind or something else.
“Next clearing we come to,” he agrees, annoyingly far more at ease than I am. Maybe this should comfort me, but it doesn’t.
We ride on, slower than before. My horse is still uneasy. I try my best not to mirror his moods, my brother once told me that horses can sense these things. I try to relax so that he will. I wait for Jack to stop before I push him to catch up. The dense trees have thinned out a little here, enough for us to make camp. I jump down from my horse and tie his reigns to a nearby tree. I tie them extra tight, I don’t want him getting spooked by anything else and running away in to the dark.
“How long do you reckon we have left to go?” I ask, opening up one of the saddle bags and pulling out our thick but grubby blankets.
“Hard to say,” he shrugged. “A few more days. Maybe a week.”
“Oh, okay.” Oh no. My whole body aches from the past few days of constant riding. This was the longest day yet, but I don’t want to complain. I don’t want to seem weak. I help Jack gather firewood. We pile it up in the centre of the clearing and then sit on one of the blankets to watch as he tries to light it. There’s no food left, but we have water and we can go hunting tomorrow when the sun comes up. When the fire crackles in to life and the warm glow chases away the immediate darkness I don’t think I have ever felt more grateful of anything in my life. Jack comes and sits down beside me, the fire begins to grow and I wait for the warmth to wash over us. I wonder if he will be too tired to talk. For a moment, he is silent.
“You’re doing well,” he says eventually and it takes me a little by surprise. “You’ll be home in no time.”
I smile at the thought, but I am so tired that it doesn’t feel as sincere as it could. “That’s good,” I say quietly, listening to the fire crackle and feeling drowsy. “I can’t wait to sleep in a real bed again.”
He laughs and stretches his feet towards the fire. I am more than ready to call it a night. I look up from the flames. I freeze. “Jack,” I whisper. I’m careful not to move much, not even my lips.
“Yes, Belle?” he says, sleepily.
“Jack,” I whisper a little more urgently. “What’s that?”
He’s alert now, sitting bolt upright and trying to work out exactly where I am looking. It takes him a moment, but then he sees them- two glowing yellow eyes across the other side of our makeshift campsite. I can’t tell what kind of animal they belong to, but it is large. The rest of it is so dark that it just melts in to the black night behind it. Jack instantly reaches for his pistol. As he does so, the creature starts to move, walking closer to the fire and the light it casts. We leap to our feet as the huge, dark mass begins to take shape. It is almost dog-like, with long, thick fur and paws that carry it silently across the forest floor. Its ears are large and pointed upwards as if is listening to something. It has the sharp, pointed snout of a wolf. But it is unlike any kind I have come across before. It sits down and observes us with intelligent eyes. It does not attack. Jack does not shoot.
“Hello,” it says in a voice I do not expect and with a smile I definitely do not like.
I gasp. Jack’s finger tenses on the trigger of his gun. It smiles. It isn’t a friendly smile. It’s knowing and a little bit dangerous.
“I said hello,” the creature says again. He sounds polite enough but there is something cold about his tone, as if Jack and I are children testing his patience. “It’s only polite to say hello back.”
“Hello,” I say quickly and quietly. Jack clears his throat and then does the same.
“Good.” The creature’s smile widens and becomes more mischievous. He seems quite content to sit by the fire and study us. The silence goes on for so long that I start to think I might have made the whole thing up. This dark wolf can’t talk, I’m just so tired I have started hallucinating. I wonder exactly what he is, but asking what someone is rather than who they are seems a bit rude and, whatever he is, manners are clearly very important to him. He looks directly at me, amused. “It’s okay,” he assures me. “You can ask.”
I glance at Jack. His wide eyes stare back at me in bewilderment. It is clear he means me. “Um… um…” I stammer. “Who are you?”
“Who am I?” he echoes back to me. “I think the question you really meant to ask is what am I, is it not?”
“Yes.” I admit, there seems no point in lying to him.
But how did he know? His grin widens.
“I am…” he begins to rise from his position by the fire and as he does so he changes. Parts of him blow away and rise up like smoke before clumping together again, solidifying until he is a horse unlike any I had ever seen. Everything has changed about him, but his eyes have stayed the same. “I am whatever I like.” He gives me a toothy smile before he melts back down to the dog beside the fire. “But I prefer to take this form today.” I don’t want to know why. I see his teeth.
“What do you want?” Jack pipes up. The dog looks surprised.
“Oh, I see you’ve found your voice,” he smirks. Jack pulls the trigger. The dog is smoke once more and the bullet hits a tree. It re-forms by Jack’s side and smiles, stretching out like a cat after a long nap. “Relax,” he says soothingly. “I’m here to help.”
“Help? Us? How?”
“Yes. You. By offering you a shortcut.”
“We don’t want it,” Jack says shortly and motions to me to get back towards the horses.
“What kind of shortcut?” I ask.
“Belle,” Jack warns. “No. We don’t want any part in whatever this is.”
I want to go home. The creature looks at me. “I can have you home by sunrise.”
Sunrise. I look to Jack. “No,” he says. I turn away, somewhat reluctantly.
Jack sees me hesitate. “No,” he says again.
“You’ll meet worse folks than me if you keep riding that way.” the creature warns. I can feel his smile in the air around us. He howls and I believe him.
This is an extract from something I haven’t really written yet and don’t know what do with so I’m just going to dump it here…