From the author: When a winter chill rides the late autumn wind, and the bare branches rattle, who knows what will come calling at a lonely old widow's cottage? Then again, the one who knocks might be in for a surprise, too...
It was time to kill the sparrows.
Every autumn, after the last leaves fell and the bare trees rattled their bone song to an empty sky, the widow Clarabel started baking. Five parts flour, three parts water, a pinch of salt and emptins for leavening, plus a handful of the devil’s blend, finely ground. She would let the loaf go stale for a day, then scatter it about the field between her cottage and the forest.
A knock on the door was the worst sound in the world if you asked Clarabel, when beggars and travelers and all kinds of wretched, needy folk would flee winter in the high peaks. Fortunately, Clarabel had discovered that a lone cottage in a field of dead sparrows seldom received any visitors.
Late one afternoon, though, in that season of travelers, after she’d been walking in the woods all day to gather her ingredients, there was a knock.
It was the boy from over the hill with a moustache of dirt and snot.
“I don’t know where your kitten is,” Clarabel said.
The boy’s eyes widened. “No, Miss Clarabel, it’s not--wait, is she missing?”
“Isn’t that why you usually bother me? I only killed the one, and that was two years back.”
The boy wiped his nose. “No, Miss Clarabel. Papa sent me over. Something for you to see out our way.”
Clarabel sighed, tied her kerchief around her head, and closed the door behind her.
At the Trundlin farm, the boy’s lumbering father, ragged mother, and five grimy sisters were all inspecting the mud at the bottom of the sloping turnip field, along with a smattering of neighbors. The children leaned closer to their parents as Clarabel swept by, and the parents shifted nervously too as she shoved her way through to see what was on the ground.
Four-toed paw prints, the size of a man’s foot, and two-legged, not four.
In the shade of the tall fir that marked the boundary between Trundlin’s field and Firny’s, the prints turned human. Five toes, instep and heel. Plain bare footprints. And then a wolf’s again on the other side of the tree.
“Pack your things and your children,” Clarabel said. “Leave before sundown. Go down the valley to the village. Further if you can. Don’t come back till I send for you.”
Clarabel had no use for neighbors, but it didn’t mean she wanted them dead. Likely that would just rouse suspicions again.
She made to leave, then stopped when no one else budged. “Or stay,” she said. “It makes no matter to me.”
Good. It would be easier without them around.
When Clarabel was a little girl, home with her grandmother while her father was away, a stranger had arrived late one afternoon. Her grandmother grew stiff as she invited him in for a bit of supper and a place by the hearth. Then she quietly sent Clarabel out to gather thistledown. “Don’t come back till you fill the pouch,” she told her.
Clarabel was halfway over the second hill, the pouch still empty, by the time she realized that the season for thistledown was already over. She raced through the gloaming back to the cottage. Though she did not know exactly what, she knew there were horrible things a strange man could do to a poor old woman.
When she opened the door, she found Grandmother cleaning her long knife, while a wolf the size of a man hung upside down from the rafter, blood running into the feed pail like rain through a leaky roof.
When Grandmother saw how pale Clarabel was, she tut-tutted. “Death is for the weak,” she said.
Grandmother taught Clarabel how to skin the wolf and tan its hide, and when Clarabel’s father returned, Grandmother sent him to gather a hunting party, and she sent Clarabel to fetch the silversmith.
The morning the men set off for the mountains was the last Clarabel ever saw of her father. They never came back. But neither did the wolves.
The memory made old Clarabel wonder now if she ought to be fleeing to the village herself. But no--she couldn’t stomach it. The people. The filth.
She’d do her best to keep the wolf away, and if not, she’d be ready for him. Death was for the weak.
On the way back to her cottage, she checked her protections.
The invisible, wayward trails she’d lain over the forest paths last spring had mostly decayed beneath a blackened carpet of leaves. No time to fix those now.
In the field, beneath the slate sky, she visited her scarecrow and whispered him a spell, but he was already drowsy with winter.
At the rickety wooden gate that clicked and clacked with every gust, she bound the latch with a simple ward. Good against prying children, but not much more.
At her doorstep, she inspected the sentinel jack-o-lantern, carved in the proper and ancient way her grandmother had taught her. It had started caving in days ago, rotting from the inside out in a mélange of pinks, blacks, and grays, and now it stank like the dead. No good.
When she opened the door to her dark cottage, she felt near to frozen, body and soul. So the widow Clarabel did what she always did when the chill gnawed inside: she put on a pot of soup. It was the only thing to do. The simple magics.
No time to waste. Into the pot went the last of the vegetables she’d saved from the first hard frost, along with the carcass of the chicken she’d slaughtered and plucked, gutted and divined, and then cooked and eaten last Sunday. There wasn’t enough water left to both fill the pot and have enough for her bedtime tea, and she didn’t want to go out in the dark later to draw more, so she filled the pot half-way and topped off the rest with her own crabapple cider, pressed the way her grandmother had taught her, and which she did not like to share.
She had barely put the lid on the pot when there came a sharp knock-knock-knock.
“Who is it?” she cried.
A pause. Then a muffled reply that her old ears couldn’t make out through the oak. She cracked the door.
A large man stood there, brown and bushy, his cheeks covered in whiskers that stopped above a clean-shaven chin. He smiled awkwardly, and he smelled like the forest.
“Forgive me, ma’am, didn’t mean to startle you,” he said. “There’s wild things about and, uh, twilight’s gettin’ on... I was wonderin’ if you might have some room on your floor, maybe even out back in your woodshed, for a poor stranger to bed down for the night?”
His voice was deep and gruff. Wild things, indeed.
She opened the door the rest of the way. There was nothing to do but let him in. The worst bad luck not to. Old magic, that.
He stooped under the lintel and stomped his boots on the mat, then after considering her clean swept floor, he bent to unlace the boots and entered barefoot instead.
She eyed his feet, measured them against the footprints in the field.
When they skinned the wolf so long ago, Grandmother had told little Clarabel all about the bootless travelers who came begging at your door late on a cold autumn day. Turn them away, and they’d return for you under the moon, in their true form. No, you must invite them in, Grandmother had said, make them comfortable, tame the beast. Only after feeding and entertaining them and offering a bed for the night would they leave you be and vanish by morning.
The gruff and bushy traveler noticed Clarabel staring. “Sorry,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to be stampin’ the mud in. Besides, my feet is kind of sore, if you don’t mind.”
Barefoot travelers. Wolves under the moon.
He looked at the pot on the stove and sniffed.
“The soup’s not quite ready yet,” Clarabel said. “But please, come sit by the stove and warm yourself.”
Make them comfortable. Tame the beast.
They were touchy guests, her grandmother had warned. A bit wild, naturally. Easy to offend. Tales were told of unlucky hosts who would commit some unintended slight, let slip some bit of carelessness. Sometimes they just disappeared; sometimes a well-gnawed bone or a few stray fingers would be found come morning.
Clarabel flexed her achy hands, knuckles like knobs of pain under wrinkled skin, tired old bones gnawed by the season’s labors.
Her visitor sat and took in the meager furnishings, the cast iron stove, the small cot in the dark corner across the room.
“Don’t often find an old woman all by her lonesome so close by the mountains.”
Clarabel picked up the wooden spoon and shrugged. “My son checks in now and then.” She stirred and tasted the soup. “He lives down in the village.”
“Well, he best be careful next time he comes up. Like I said, there’s wild things about.”
“Oh?” she said.
“Early cold in the peaks is what’s brought ‘em down. Bad winter on the way. Haven’t been this far in years.”
“I know,” Clarabel said.
He considered her in silence. The soup bubbled. “You lived here long?”
“Since I married my husband a lifetime ago, and ever since,” she said.
She watched him look for a man’s boots, a man’s coat on the peg, a gun by the front or back door.
“He’s dead now,” she said.
“Hmph. Gone long?”
“A year after we married. He died suddenly of a cough.”
He nodded once. “Tough woman.”
The silence fell awkwardly. No good, those eyes. Something savage in them.
“I don’t know you,” she said. “I know everyone from around here.”
“I’m from a ways up in the mountains.”
“On your way to the village?”
He stared at her, and a smile curled one corner of his mouth. “Depends what I find here. I’m a hunter, of sorts.”
She humphed. “And there are wild things about?”
He splayed his hands and inclined his head as if to say, Exactly. Or maybe, Here I am.
“Well, I’ve put my protections up,” she said.
“Your jack-o-lantern is rotting,” he said. “It’s wore out.”
“Even so,” Clarabel said. “The scarecrow’s in the garden.”
“Sleepin’ scarecrow won’t do any good against what’s come down from the mountains.”
“Well is the moon out yet?”
He shook his head. “Still cloudy.”
She turned and checked the soup. The knife still lay on the cutting board beside the stove. She appraised it. It could kill a chicken well enough, gut a squirrel or rabbit in one easy slice. But it was no good, him looking right at her. Soon as she grabbed it and turned, he’d be on her.
“What was that?” she said.
“The noise outside.”
“I didn’t hear nothing.”
“Please, will you check?” She let her voice waver.
He furrowed his brow and pushed himself out of the chair.
“Oh, thank you,” she said.
He put his boots back on and reached for the door handle.
She reached for the knife, and just as she wrapped her fingers around its well-worn handle, and just as the door creaked open, a howl pierced the twilight without.
He put his head out the door, and she heard him sniff the air long and slow. He turned back in with a toothy grin that remained even when he saw her hand over the knife on the cutting board. “That won’t do you much good,” he said. He closed the door and bent to take off his boots again.
“What if you need to go out?” she said.
“Danger’s a ways off yet,” he said.
“I’d feel better.”
He paused to study her, then he shrugged, retied his boots, and sat down with them on. Her hand was still on the knife.
He stared at her. “I’m hungry,” he growled.
She released the knife. She felt distant, aware only of her heartbeat in her ears as she pulled two bowls from the shelf, two spoons, the ladle from its hook.
It was the pouch of devil’s blend on the shelf beside the ladle that snapped her back to her senses. That would do. Yes, that would do nicely in his soup. And if the howl meant there was another one about? Fine. Let them all come. She’d made plenty of soup.
With her back to him, she took the pouch, poked her gnarled fingers in for a pinch of the potpourri of deadly herbs and mushrooms that Grandmother had taught her, and dropped it into one of the bowls as she ladled the piping-hot soup. She set the one with the extra bits down in front of him and then took hers and joined him at the table.
They ate. She sipped at her spoon delicately, blowing a little on each spoonful. He set to, ravenously. Wolfishly, even. Yes, yes, eat up. She watched and slurped softly from her spoon, and felt herself begin to warm up again at last.
When he was done, he sighed and pushed the bowl away. “That was good,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Where’s your gun?” she said. “If you’re a hunter.”
He blinked. “Out by the gate. Didn’t think it proper to bring in.”
She sipped at her spoon. Convenient. She’d give him her left arm for his pudding if he really had a gun outside.
“Besides,” he said. “It’s a good warning.” He cleared his throat.
“Oh?” she said.
“Yes,” he croaked. He tried to clear his throat again. “It’s a mighty famous gun. Those I hunt know it well.” He tried to smile, but he coughed instead, and tried to clear his throat once more.
Now she smiled.
“What?” he managed before a violent coughing fit seized him. It reminded her of her husband.
“Nothing,” she said once he stopped. “Just that you’re trying awfully hard to put me at ease.” She peered out the window through the gap in the curtains. Almost full night, but still cloudy. “Waiting for moonlight, I suppose.”
He began choking, wheezing, gasping for breath. He shoved his chair from the table and stood, hacking desperately.
“My grandmother taught me all about you,” she said. “You thought you could come under her granddaughter’s roof, share her granddaughter’s supper? Trick me and trap me and eat me up?” She laughed. “Not as sly you thought, you naughty little wolf.”
His eyes looked confused, then went wide. The coughing stopped. He struggled like a rabbit against the snare, frothing, his throat closing tighter and tighter. He clawed at it--
His pulse throbbed in his neck. She watched it slow. She watched it stop.
She rose, drew the knife off the cutting board and stood over him, blade poised, watching.
A minute passed.
He remained perfectly still.
She sat back down and waited more, the knife on the table beside her, just in case, but he remained as he was, and the tiniest doubt began to whisper like a moth on the lantern.
The moon, that was it. It would take the moonlight for him to turn, even in death. She stood and parted the curtains. It was overcast, but the dark clouds were scudding by on a swift, high wind.
She filled her kettle, set it on the stove, and waited. In another minute the pale light flooded through the window and fell across the body.
And nothing happened.
It occurred to Clarabel to check outside. She opened the front door and peered down the walk through the vegetable patch to the gate. Propped against the gatepost was a long, sleek rifle, gleaming in the moonlight. She fetched it inside.
It was a beautiful weapon, with a silver barrel and a stock inlaid with thin silver, some arcane script that seemed distantly familiar. Her hands shook as she set it down.
Clarabel, you old witch, what have you done?
The night carried on and the clouds fled the sky. The widow Clarabel knelt by the body for some time, and wept, and touched his face, and scrabbled to find some excuse, some remorse, but there was nothing inside her except the rattle of dead branches and dried leaves over cold hard stone.
What did he think would happen, coming around, a stranger, on a night like this? What did he expect?
She could hardly be blamed, an old woman all by herself.
Yet she couldn’t help but curse her haste. She might have used him well. Instead, the wolf was still out there.
She considered the knife. A resurrection spell? She’d never tried one on anything so large. And it would be hard to do, this time of year. Dead autumn. Winter poised on the air. Very hard.
Grandmother had taught her that spring was easiest for such things. She’d given Clarabel the secret just before dying, so many springs ago, before Clarabel had decided not to bring her back. She’d gone out picking flowers, instead, to put on the fresh grave.
This time of year, it would take more blood, probably more than she had to give. Besides, was there even time? A difficult spell in the best conditions. What if the wolf should come while she was in the middle of it? What then? A guest, slain on the floor? She’d probably be gobbled up on the spot.
Unless she could persuade him. Plead that it was for him, the wolf, an offering to the wild wanderers going about their dark and righteous work. Might she? She had persuaded people of more difficult things before.
Of course, none of them had been inclined to eat her. No, it was too dangerous. And death was for the weak--Grandmother, the hunter--not for Clarabel.
Only one thing left to do, then. The wood shed was just out the back.
She was breathing heavily in the cold and had him only halfway out the back door when another knock-knock-knock rapped at the front.
She dropped the hunter’s heavy arms with a thud. “Who’s there?” she called through the house.
No response. Just another sharp, knock-knock-knock.
“Just a minute!” She stepped over the body into the warm cottage, fought his massive legs as high as she could and leaned into them with both her small shoulders until she had the tree-trunk limbs bent all the way up from his waist. She pushed them past the jamb and then shoved them to the side. One boot heel rested against the outer wall of the cottage, but the other started sliding back through the doorway, so she shoved it back out and slammed the door shut quick.
She waited. Nothing but the sound of her heavy breathing.
The kettle began to murmur softly on the stove.
Maybe whoever it was had gone.
She crept across the cottage, trying not to creak the floorboards, and listened at the door. Nothing. She was just about to open up when a gleam caught her eye.
The gun was still on the table.
She grabbed it and shoved it under her bed across the room, just as another knock-knock started. “All right!” she cried.
The moon had risen high enough that the eaves covered the doorway in shadow. There stood a hooded man, slight of build, who looked at her with sharp bright eyes and a large smile full of gleaming teeth. He was handsome.
She heard herself say, “Won’t you come in?”
He said nothing, and he stepped over the threshold with bare, dirt-browned feet. He was careful not to remove his hood until she had closed the door on the moonlit night behind him. An animal stink followed him in.
He was young and gray haired, sleek, with dark eyes flecked with gold. He eyed the room and he eyed her.
Clarabel, now you’ve gone and done it.
“Come in by the stove, you must be cold,” she said. “You’ll want a drink, I suppose.”
He sat in the same chair the hunter had occupied, and considered her. “Don’t trouble yourself,” he said. His voice was low, with a fine grit like dirt on a floorboard.
She poured him half a mug of cider anyway. No way she’d be taken in that easily. She thought about the devil’s blend, but no, how would that look, bits of flotsam in his cider?
When she turned to set it down, he was staring at the knife and the empty pair of dirty bowls still on the table.
Clarabel, you fool.
“I suppose you’ve come down from the mountains too,” she said.
The young man looked up. “Yes.”
Clarabel cleared the bowls away and returned the knife to the cutting board. “It figures. You’re my second visitor tonight.”
The young man narrowed his eyes.
“He was a hunter, I think. Said something about early winter up the mountains and some nonsense about wild things coming down.”
“He’s not wrong,” the young man said.
“Well, we may be rustic out here, but the wild things know to stay out.”
“Oh?” he said.
“You saw my scarecrow, didn’t you? And my jack-o-lantern?”
He smiled. “Yes, I saw them.”
A chill skittered down her spine like the last dead leaf of autumn.
“You must be hungry,” she said. “Let me get you some soup.”
“I am hungry,” he said. He drained his cider mug, licked his lips, and propped his filthy feet on her table. “But I don’t care for soup.”
She glanced at her knife.
“What was that sound?” she gasped.
He stared at her. “Nothing. There wasn’t any sound.”
Her pulse quickened. She searched for something else, anything, that might do the trick.
A steady jet of steam was pouring from the kettle. “Tea!” she said.
He tilted his head quizzically.
“The hunter. I promised him some tea when he came back.”
“He’s coming back?” He sat up, put his feet on the floor.
Like a cornered dog, the way he growled.
“I think so,” Clarabel said.
She pulled the kettle from the stove and crumbled the tea leaves into it. The pouch of devil’s blend was still beside the cutting board. She hesitated, then dumped the rest of it into the kettle as well. “At least he said he’d come back for tea, after he checked around outside.”
The young man started to get up.
“No, stay!” she almost yelled. “Won’t you wait with me and have a cup?”
He eased back down, eyeing her. There, there, now. He couldn’t resist a lonely widow’s hospitality. The bedrock magics.
She set three cups beside the cutting board. “I really do appreciate the company. He was a frightening man.”
“Yes, he is.”
She took her time. She covered all three cups with a piece of cheesecloth. As she poured, the devil’s blend hid among the sodden tea leaves that gathered and sagged over each cup. She folded up the cheesecloth and put it aside.
“Don’t worry,” she said. She placed one cup in front of the young man, sat down with one for herself, and set the third down on the table as well. “This is my own blend. It ought to do you nicely.”
She brought her cup to her lips, blew on it, and feigned a sip--carefully, carefully, not letting the tea touch her lips. Close enough to feel the steam like devil’s breath. She flinched and said “Hot!” and set her cup down.
He blew on his own, tested it, then slurped.
They sat with their tea in the deepening night, she feigning one or two more delicate sips, he draining his cup in a few grimaces, watching the front door, the backdoor, the windows, sniffing the air. She drank his unease.
He finished and set the empty cup down. Looked at it.
“Was it nice?” she said.
He glanced up to speak, but his words caught on the phlegm in his throat.
He coughed once.
“Quite,” he said.
Clarabel put her tea down to hide her shaking hand. Her cup was still full. He looked at it, looked at her.
“The hunter. How far was he going?” he asked.
“Oh, not far. Be back in a minute I expect.”
He rose. “I’ll have a look.”
She watched him leave.
As soon as the front door shut, she grabbed her knife and started for the back door, throwing off the lies she’d told herself before. There was still time. She knew the Words, knew how to make them work, even if it was nigh winter. After all, it hadn’t been spring yet, all those years ago, when she brought her son back, the babe gray and lifeless in the cradle. Slash herself long and deep, let it pour over him, and the hunter would spring up like a colt new-fallen from the foal. And if she put his gun in his hands first, she wagered he’d know what to do, even as she dropped dead in her own blood.
Dead. She, Clarabel?
She paused with her fingers on the backdoor’s handle. Removed them and touched a finger to the knife. So sharp.
No, he was dead. Not her. Not yet.
Death was for the weak.
She put the knife on the table and felt under her bed for the gun. She dragged it out, rehearsed what she remembered her father teaching her. Slide open the chamber. Check for a round.
Of course he wouldn’t leave his gun loaded outside.
She set the gun on the floor, glanced at the backdoor, glanced at the front. She’d have to be quick about it.
She’d forgotten about the heel of the dead man’s right boot, propped against the door, and it caught her above the eye. Blood trickled along her brow. She tried to ignore it.
She threw both legs aside and straddled the corpse, her breath steaming out in the cold air as if to spite the dead. She patted down his pockets: his coat, his shirt, his trousers. There, on his belt, stuck through a line of small loops was a row of silver bullets. She poked one out, thought about it, then poked out a handful more.
A howl sounded over the roof, from in front of the cottage, wild and thrilling, running through her like the first winter wind, and then a dead silence covered the night.
The front gate creaked.
She leapt back inside and wrestled the dead man’s legs. She tried to throw them out and slam the door closed but she wasn’t fast enough. A heavy boot caught between the door and the jamb. The blood was dripping into her eye now.
She heard him padding toward the house, his steps loud on the gravel walk in the cold night.
She gave the lifeless foot a shove and slammed the door shut, spun, and dove for the rifle on the floor. The silver bullets scattered. She scrabbled for one and raced to load it with her shaking hands when the front door burst open.
She jammed the bullet in, slammed the bolt shut, lifted the gun and fumbled for the trigger. He leapt across the room and slapped the muzzle aside. Thunder exploded in the cottage and the bullet smacked the wall and whizzed away, and then she was on her back and the gun was across the room and the hooded figure loomed over her.
“Mercy!” she cried, and something skidded loudly against the back door, exactly like a pair of heavy boots scraping across the wood, and caught the jamb with a thud.
The young man snarled and leapt across the wash of moonlight to the door. Her heart emptied like the November sky to see the sleek gray fur on his forearm, the taut sinew and muscle of ankle and paw, the wolf. A man again in the shadows, he paused, then snatched the door open and jumped back as the dead man’s legs tumbled in. He turned to Clarabel, grinned wider than a man could, and stepped back into the moonlight.
She fled--out the front door, through her vegetable patch, out the gate where she should have left the gun and, her mind a wild bramble of animal fear, out into the cold and misty night. A howl sang after her.
Thoughtless as a rabbit in the open she ran, across the field, over the hill, faster than she’d run in years. A memory of youthful speed stirred briefly in her old bones before it ebbed and stumbled into agony.
On hands and knees she cried for help, but the surrounding farmsteads stood dark and silent.
The night was an empty grave.
Her breath calmed, her heart calmed, her own voice spoke to her in the cold, dark silence.
What a fool she’d been. Death was a fine end. All her life she’d courted and tamed and wielded it, darling Death, and now it was time to let it in, and it would welcome her to a lonely grave, quiet and lovely.
She sat up and faced away over the open countryside, the dark woods distant, and braced for his sharp claws in her back. They could not be sharper than the pains of her years. She awaited the fangs in her wrinkled flesh, the hot wash of her own hot blood against her cold skin. They could not pierce any deeper than life’s wounds ever had.
She heard him, a skitter through the leaves, then a panting mass of fur and muscle pressed her frail body to the hard ground. She felt the beast’s hot breath and writhed to meet her death, gasped as his maw engulfed her shoulder and neck.
The bite was gentle. A lover beneath the moon. A mother with her cub by the nape. The blood trickled its warmth over her collar bone. Her breath was the rattle of leaves in the wind.
He released her and loped away. A long howl sounded in the night.
She waited, relished her thrumming heart, her wheezing breath. Gingerly, she pushed herself up and blessed whatever grace had saved her. She, Clarabel. She, the murderer! She had life in her yet. How silly she’d been! Death was for the weak.
She managed only a step before she collapsed. She felt herself falling, past the cold ground, down into a bottomless hunger where ancient winter devoured her soul and death was a spring that would never come.
Oh, Clarabel! What have you done?
She cried out a wild cry, keening with agony, soaring to the clear, cold sky. Another howl answered over the hills.
After several days without word from old Clarabel, some of the neighbors ventured back. Trundlin and Firny tracked two sets of large wolf prints through the forest but did not follow them into the mountains. They puzzled over the widow’s empty cottage, and they marveled at the silver rifle inside. The remains of the devoured corpse they found beside it would live long in their nightmares.
They said little as they dug a grave for what was left of the man, and they worried about what could have happened to Clarabel. They took some comfort, though, in the swarms of happy sparrows chittering across the fields.
Copyright (c) 2020 by P.G. Galalis
This story originally appeared in Footsteps in the Dark (Flame Tree Publishing).