Fiction


Nonfic


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ELKWOOD by ZACH LEVERTON

Chapter 1 - PART ONE

Thin crests of white lapped over each other like an ocean frozen in time, with all that is dead and cold hidden underneath. The trees, like spire islands, jutted out from undisturbed blankets of frost. Through the bare branches, jagged and grasping, the wind hissed gently in the ear of the forest, sifting snowdrift from place to place, over all things and over itself. The sky was grey. It is always grey. On every side are the mountains, old and forever, laden in grey oak, green pine and black rock. Dark caves that hide dark peoples, a nation of hermits and witches, ogres and cannibals, impossible things lurking in violent collusion.

Dorothy’s paws padded deliberately across the ground, silent, as her white eyes surveyed everything around her. Her ears gently twitched from place to place, head down, tail up. I plodded behind her gracelessly, lugging my pack and rifle, trying vainly to stop snow getting into the firing mechanism. My legs ached with every laborious step, leaving sloppy knee-high trails in my wake. Dorothy was patient with me, always.

My old coat flapped at the edges in the wind, anything not strapped closed or tucked tightly into something else seemed to wave violently with the wind constantly. At every opportunity a draft would sneak up some seam and find my skin. I patted the frost off my shoulder - build up from leaning into the wind - and when I looked up, Dorothy’s tail had dropped to level with her body. Her ears were perk.

I dropped to the ground on my belly, making an oval crater in the snow under me. Frantically I unstrapped the little bit of leather that covered the gun and rested its butt on my shoulder. Dorothy stared ahead and her breathing grew heavy.

I saw it out there, standing in the fog of the mountains, great and strong, its antlers like a golden crown upon the head of dignity’s god.

The Elk was enormous; at least nine feet from hoof to antler, its fur a golden brown, its chest a perfect, shimmering white. Small plumes of steam rose in soft rhythm above its snout as it stood perfectly still. It was easy to see why it was here, still alive, saved from wolf and ogre and troll and dragon and all the secret horrors of the mountains. Old things, impossible, wretched things, things my forefathers fought with their swords, their guns and their dogs, back when they first came to this infinite place. Things that craved all the blood in the world.

The Elk's proud chest shivered in the northern wind like ripples in a pond. Its glassy black eyes seemed to see all things, all at once.

I levelled my gun and pressed my cheek into the top of the gun’s shoulder rest. My left eye shut tightly, and the other widened against the penetrating wind, drying it to the bare edge of tolerability. I levelled my eye with the sight at the tip of the barrel, and with gentle stretches and readjustments of my wrist, lined my shot up to my quarry. I pulled the hammer back on the rifle as slowly as I could, imagining in my head that it would be quieter if I did it that way.

It wasn’t.

Simultaneously the elk’s left ear perked in the direction of myself and Dorothy, and heaved its great body backwards and to the left. I panicked and fired, pulling just to the left at the last instant in hopes of some miraculous shot that would let me and Dorothy go home tonight with the great beast in tow.

No such luck.

The crack of my gun skipped through the air like a stone on a pond, disturbing the calmness and echoing across the mountainside, making all things aware that there was a man here; this new and terrible thing to these woods, not like the hermits or the witches, not like the ogres. Far cleverer, far deadlier.

As I clambered to my feet, I noticed Dorothy sitting beside me on top of the snow, leaving it undisturbed, no footprints in her wake. The little steam clouds that danced in front of her face mingled with mine and this pleased me. I ran my gloved fingers through her coarse white fur. She was never pleasant to pet, but she was warm and loyal and smart. Her ears still twitched in every direction, her back was straight and firm. Dorothy was a far better hunter than me or my father before me, when she hunted with him.

Once on my feet I rewrapped the rifle and slid it with some effort onto my back between the straps of my pack. I rolled my shoulders and whirled my head around. Dorothy growled musically at me and stood up, turning around and carrying on, expecting me to follow her dutifully like some pup, and I did.

We both knew it would be days before we’d see that elk again, and in much darker, deeper places than this sparse nursery of trees, which we wound around in trudging steps.

* * *


The night sky was always clear. Stars shimmered in litany as if their radiance had forced out the clouds that would creep back as dawn came, swallowing up the sun. My hands shook as I unstrapped my pack, letting my gun fall into the snow barrel-first. I cursed at myself and spun around, flinging the pack behind me and to the ground as I snatched up the gun and kicked the tip of it. A cylinder of snow tumbled out in pieces. I set the gun on a tree, butt down, and covered the barrel’s tip with a glove. When I looked up I could see Dorothy plodding along with a few sticks tucked neatly into her mouth, which she dropped at my feet. Then she tilted her head at me and I praised her. She dropped her bottom jaw and her black tongue wagged out, and as my fingers ran between the folds of her head, I remembered what it was to be warm. The moment I lifted my hand, Dorothy whipped around and trotted into the dark to find more wood. I began shoving back snow with the sides of my arm, making a circle big enough to sleep in.

On my hands and knees I felt the earth creak under itself, as if something had shifted the rock underneath. I stared at the icy ground I had cleared of snow for a moment, and then heard an awful and distant din, deep in the trees. Some unwholesome life lurched through the darkness towards me. I looked up at my gun. It was across the clearing, still leaning on the tree. I stood quickly and as fast as I could, began pushing my legs through the snow towards it. I could feel the earth shaking gently, could hear the raspy gurgling in the distance. I knew what was coming.

When I looked out into the forest to the left I could see the dim glow of a fire lazily swinging between the trees, to the right the forest was black and silent. I froze for a moment, thinking. The gun was at least thirty feet away, I had managed about three feet since I saw the swaying flame. It was clear I wasn’t going to get to the gun in time. I turned and dove for my pack, landing face first in the edge of the snow I had flattened with my legs, crawling on all fours across the ground until I came to the enormous leather bundle and pawed at it, cursing under my breath.

Dry cracking and a thunderous rumble echoed through the dry, black air. The flame swayed closer and closer. I could see the edges of trees as the flame passed them, see the embers tumble into the snow as the flame crashed and banged against the forest itself, knocking over trees and sending great heaps of snow into the air. Birds whizzed past me, closer than they’d dare at any other time, fleeing for their lives.
Though I couldn’t see it very clearly, I heard the closest tree to me creak loudly before it snapped and crashed into the snow; behind it the weird, floating orange flame. I ripped off my hood, as if that would help me see better, and scrambled backwards on my knees, dragging my pack with me to the border of my little clearing. My fingers squeezed at every strap and gentle extremity it danced over until I grasped a wooden handle, and pulled.

I pointed my sword at the darkness and stood, my feet wide apart, as if I knew what I was doing. My sword glimmered in the light of the flame, which swung forward into the clearing and was followed by a low, gratified grumble; a black and almost inaudible laughter.

I could only just make out the ogre. It must have found me by my smell, desperate for food, not caring about the gun. Maybe it knew that at this time, when the sun was only just down and the night was darkest, men left their guns to make camp. Maybe it was a hunter like me. Perhaps it didn’t care.

Its eyes were a white-green color, like the mucus one coughs up when sick. Its horrible teeth were crooked and green, covered in slobber that dribbled down its lips all the way to its chest and froze there, glimmering in the flame of its enormous torch-club. It was almost as tall as the trees. It swung at me with its great hand. I dove backwards into the snowdrift and clambered back to my feet.

I swung my sword at the night, and the thing didn’t seem impressed or deterred. It made a sound from the bottom of its throat like the din of a sick old man close to death, and swiped at me in the darkness again. This time I held the sword out in front of me and stuck it in the palm. It gasped and wrenched its hand back in agony, the sword still driven into its flesh.

I turned to run, fighting the snow with every bit of my strength, wondering when I’d trip and be eaten. I felt a sharp pain in my side and was thrown across the snow. I must have rolled seven times before I lurched to a groaning stop and remained still in a kind of shock. As I lay there, struggling to get up, I could see little cinders on my coat. The thing had hit me with its torch. I patted the cinders out and collapsed backwards into the snow. I could see the stars, bright and perfect, bordered by the snow and the mountains, calm and peaceful.

Laying there, thinking about how stupid this all was, I almost laughed. Almost.

* * *


I come from a small village on the outskirts of the forest. My people came here to find gold and secrets. They brought women and children, they wanted to be here forever, among the great mountains, cultivating the forest, digging for precious things and bartering with the people of the dark. The legend goes that on the tenth day of travel, they were lost, deep in the woods, when a dragon came upon them. It was a white, wild dog that saved them.

* * *


The ogre sauntered towards me, its shape blotted out the night sky above and as it raised its fist, I resigned myself and closed my eyes, thinking of home, thinking of my mother, thinking of Dorothy.

* * *


The ogre made that awful noise again and slinked back away from me. I could feel its steps shake the earth as it backed off. I opened my eyes and watched it drop its torch and growl. I spun around and saw Dorothy, panting deeply, her teeth brilliant white and shivering with a deep snarl. Her hackles rose and twitched, and as she stepped forward the ogre turned and shuffled off into the mountains.

I collapsed, and Dorothy let out a loud, thunderous bark that echoed along the mountainside and through the trees, a final warning to whatever horror bade come to us that night. A White Dog is here, she seemed to proclaim. This man is my man.

She came beside me and licked my ear to see if I was alright. I recoiled and she whimpered until I got up and flattened the fur on her neck.

We huddled by the fire of the ogre’s torch after we had gathered all my things - the gun, the pack; and on the edge of the clearing, by the flattened trees, my sword, slick with blood. We lay by the fire and ate the dried hare meat stowed deep within the pack. When Dorothy went to sleep, I knew it was safe, and dozed off, holding my burnt side tenderly and dreaming about home.

* * *


Dorothy woke me up with her cold nose, driven into the crook of my neck with a warm lick. I started awake and saw the all-consuming whiteness of things, all around me. Dorothy bothered my burnt side and I patted her head reassuringly. To her, I was still a pup. She was almost a century old, I wasn’t even a quarter of that.

We got up and began walking immediately. I carried my gun in my hand now, afraid I was going to let it fall into the snow again and my sword at my hip, afraid I wouldn’t be able to get at it otherwise.

As we walked to the border of the flattened, broken trees left by the ogre, I froze. Dorothy stood perfectly still, ears perked, tail straight. The morning mist of the mountains swirled around us like some omen. It seemed to clear around the Elk, standing there deep in the forest among the bare trees, before the pines.

It didn’t move, but I knew it would should I lift my gun. It was smart, smarter than anything here. That’s how it survived in this strange and infinite place. That’s why I was sent to hunt it. The Elk’s pelt bristled gently as a silence overtook all things. No wind, no birds, no creaking wood. The mountains watched the three of us, standing there as if in some vigil or recognition of a passing... Or a thing to come.

One of the pine trees beside the deer folded its branches for it to pass, and as it retreated into the woods I could see him. He was taller than any man, and green of skin. His eyes, even from the distance we stood at, looked as if they were carved from wood, his hair like fetid and green fecundities, draping his entire body like a robe. If he looked at me I didn’t see him do it, and as the branches of the great pine tree closed like a curtain, the wind seemed to pick back up, and I could once again hear the sound of my breathing, and Dorothy’s.

We went on into the white, into the dark.



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