The sun sits on the horizon, a swollen orange eye, when we enter the forest. Most of the trees, already crippled by a premature winter, claw at a sky the color of bile. We find the path, grey with ash and snow, and follow it, stepping over twig and root, doing our best to pass silently. To either side, sickly white undergrowth sticks up from the earth like cancerous growths, thorny and crude in their intentions.

We had been on the path for a few hours when the pilgrims step out from between the trees. Hatchet-faced bastards, their ribs protruding like fists through the skin of their exposed torsos. For a moment, I wonder how they tolerate the cold, then realize when you’ve got nothing, cold is the least of your worries.

We face the three of them. The leader, taller than the other two, steps forward, and I clutch Anika and Oskar, pushing them behind me. The leader’s eyes are bright, his lips cracked. He opens his mouth once, then a second time, finally speaking.

“What do you want for the children?” the big pilgrim asks without preamble.

I consider his question. It would be easier, better than what the banehounds will do when they catch us. Far better than what the reavers will do. I can’t protect them forever.

No. I made a promise.

I shake my head. “Not for sale. Move on.”

He steps forward, eyes glittering. There’s a fever on him. If the Becoming hasn’t taken him already, it soon will. Lizbet’s curse clings to them, shows the beast beneath the flesh.

“Children are a burden,” he says. I ignore the ugly echo of my own thoughts and step back, pushing the kids with me. His followers move alongside him. “We can take care of them. Keep them warm. Right?”

The woman to his left leers, showing brown nub-like teeth and receding gums. The smell of rotting meat and infection hits me in the face, and I breathe through my mouth to keep from retching. He advances, and my hand falls to the knife at my hip. His eyes follow the movement, then back up to meet my own. I shake my head slightly.

Don’t make me choose.

He doesn’t take the hint, and I shove the kids back, the decision taken from me. Anika wails as she tumbles into the snow, but it’s the least of my worries. The leader is big, even if he’s starving, and he’s got two others with him. He lunges, long arms reaching.

I duck and free the knife. My heart hammers, fear surging through my veins. Rage and hurt and frustration erupt, and I take it out on the pilgrim. I slam the blade into his guts, rip upward. His eyes go wide, and he staggers back, the steel slipping free. His guts slide out, wet intestines pooling at his feet. He stares, uncomprehending, then falls to the snow, stained red with the remains of his life.

The other two, desperate enough to try to steal children from a man but smart enough to run, flee into the trees, pale skin disappearing in the dark between boles. In moments, we’re alone again, a cooling corpse at our feet. I turn away from the ruin I’ve made of the man and help Anika up. She throws her arms around me, weeping. Oskar huddles in close. I embrace them both, and after a long while, we move on.


I usher the children down the grey path, the cold setting in like a nail through bone. In the distance, that howling again, feral, knife-edged rage tainted with hunger. It’s getting closer. Ahead, the path winds and turns through the trees. Snowflakes are spit from a steel sky.  There’s a cabin ahead, just back from the tree line. That is, if the pilgrims haven’t found it first.

I push us on. The children are silent, uncomplaining about ache or hunger. I don’t know what scares me more: quiet little ones or the baying of the hounds. Both are indicators the world’s gone mad.

Again, the thought hits me: They’re weak and small and slow. I could leave them in the cabin. Maybe they survive. I almost certainly will.

Run. Run now!

I take a shuddering breath and banish the thought. A father has no business thinking such things. But I am so very scared, and these thoughts creep in regardless.

We step off the path by an old sycamore that’s lost its leaves, its trunk scarred by a lightning strike. Picking our way through the undergrowth, I try to remember the last time I’d been this way.

We came the summer before Minka was pregnant with Oskar, the trees were bright and green, the path lush with soft grass. Wildflowers to either side of us, birdsong in the forest.

Kinch and Lizbet had come with us. Lizbet was excited. Had found some sort of parchment buried in those crypts she liked to delve. Something about a Sleeper, and how it might help us in the coming war.

Well, it stopped the war, that much was true.

Before that though, we spent the night in our cups, Kinch playing a lively tune on his lute, Lizbet making shadows dance with her Art. I remember the laughter in Minka’s eyes. The pink on her cheeks. The light in her smile.

I shake my head as if to dislodge the memories. Fond recollections are a distraction and distractions are death.

The path, little more than a game trail, turns, and the cabin sits ahead. I hunker down in the bushes and bid the children do the same. We sit until the light bleeds from the day, legs going numb from the icy slush, backsides aching in pins and needles. My hands hurt, my back sends up flares of pain from sitting so long. I can only imagine how the children feel, though they keep their quiet. When the windows stay dark, we approach the cabin, slinking up the porch, carefully opening the door.

My gut says to leave them here. To run.

Live! A man is only a man as long as he breathes.

I ignore it. Make a stand, I tell myself. Be a man. Fight off whatever comes hunting. If I’m lucky, it’ll kill me first. Spare me their deaths.

I know that’s wrong, too. I’m only a man. A man saddled with two children I don’t have the strength to take care of. Death would be a mercy.

Shut up.

The voice in my head clamps down, and I move.

I enter, blade at the ready.

Nothing here. Nothing but dust and old memories.

I bring the children inside.


Icy wind knifes through a crack between the logs of the cabin, sending a shiver up my back, gooseflesh rising on my arms. I mutter something indistinct and use the knife to lever a chunk of wood free from the interior, shoving it into the space. The unwanted breeze cuts off, and I sigh.

There’s dried meat in the cabinets and I stand staring.

Take it. Leave now. Live.

Maybe even escape. Maybe someone will find them. Some unaffected pilgrim. Some kind soul. Oskar’s almost old enough to be on his own, isn’t he? Maybe he can keep them well until help arrives.

I hear the lie in it. There are no unaffected. There are no kind souls, me least of all. Oskar will certainly fail.

Still, the weakness rises in me, and I fight it down.

They’re my kids. I can’t just abandon them, can I?

The answer comes with steel certainty.

If I stay, we all die.

I look over at Anika, silent in the bed. A tousle of blonde hair peeks from under the drawn-up covers. She’d wanted a story, and the night grew deep. I’d slept precious little since we’d left Hapsburg, and less in the cabin.

The howling grows closer, and her brother, Oskar, calls for me. I sheathe the blade and go to him, the lantern in my hand shuttered, darkness closing in. I move by feel between the rooms, my heart in my throat, imagining banehounds crashing through the windows, pilgrims hiding in the dark, glittering eyes like pinpoints of silver. Oskar is sat up in bed, hair rising in corkscrews from his scalp. He wipes bleary eyes with one hand, and I sit the lantern on an end table, opening it a little until a soft glow lights the space.

“What is it?” I ask, taking the chair next to his bed.

“I heard you talking to Anika,” he says. “Did you tell her a story?”

I nod. The wind howls outside, and I shiver. It’s closer this time, no mistaking.

Not the banehounds yet. Calm.

I reach out and ruffle his hair, gently lay him back ‘til his head nestles on the pillow. “And you want one, too?”

“Yes.” His lips turn up in a grin.

He knows I can’t resist that smile. Knows I’ll do anything for him and his sister. Especially since I’d put their mother in the ground a month before. They might not fully grasp death, might not understand the depth of a father’s love, but they know the levers that move me.

I will never leave you, never abandon you.

Then I think back to the trail, to the night in the cave. To the things since then and I know I am only a man, and weak at that.

I sigh and run a hand over my face. “Sure, sure, then. What would you like to hear? About Kinch the Liar? Lizbet the Mad?”

His lips tighten, crooking to one side, like a painting hung out of true, and his eyes narrow as he thinks. The tip of his tongue peeks out and wets his lips.

“Tell me about Mummy,” he says finally.

I lean back in the chair. The request hits me like a punch in the gut, and I struggle to suck in a breath. Still, at least it wasn’t Kinch or Lizbet. Kinch met his end at the hands of Lizbet, after all. Ugly, that. Though, if Lizbet hadn’t fucked with that summoning stone… well, things would be a lot different now. Hapsburg wouldn’t be in flames. We wouldn’t have been chased halfway across the continent by reavers and their hounds. I wouldn’t have had to bury Minka after what happened. A lot of things might be different. At least I keep telling myself that.


I wave a hand at Oskar, bidding him be patient until the black spots pass from my eyes. I haven’t thought of Minka but in passing for nearly a month. The children, bless them, don’t ask. There are some things that linger in the back of man’s mind, like a waiting thorn. Pass it too close and it snags you, tears flesh, draws blood.

I recall a guttering fire, sweat standing on her forehead. She’d been complaining of cramps and headaches for a week. And the dreams. She dreamt in blood and would wake up crying after, sure her mind was splitting. But that night… The children slept in their rolls nearby. We knew it was coming, but not when. She’d been there, as had I, when Lizbet opened the gate with that stone. Though Minka had helped, pouring some of herself into the ritual. There was a flash and a voice in our heads.

Lizbet and Kinch, the Becoming took them instantly. But like any contagion, it was slower for Minka. For days she lay on the ground near the fire, sweating and panting. Her skin was clammy, her eyes rolling in their sockets. I watched in helpless horror as scales formed on her forearms, her fingernails the black of the outsiders. She clasped my free hand with inhuman strength and pulled me close. Her breath smelled of a charnel house.

“Tell me the children… the children will be safe.”

I nodded. Somewhere to the south, the sound of banehounds on the trail. The few pilgrims we shared the path with had already begun to pack their goods, rolling bedrolls up, taking to their heels. First, the hounds. Then, the reavers. Minka squeezed my hand, pain bringing me back to her.

“Swear it,” she rasped.

“I swear it.” Tears pricked the corners of my eyes.

She clenched her eyes, and something seemed to go out of her, a tension she’d been holding since the summoning.

“Do it,” she said.

In the stories, there’s a final heroic moment. A lover’s conversation, a way to say goodbye, to profess your true feelings before the climax. In the stories, the hero always finds a way to reverse the curse and save his lover.

This isn’t the stories.

I slit her throat.

“Papa?” Oskar again, insistent, pulling me from the past.

I blink away the memory. In the dark behind my eyes, a grinning visage, lips stretched to the point of tearing. A hunger, deep and alien and cold. I open them again and give him a gentle smile.

“I’ll tell you about how your mum taught me to plant. Would you like that?”

He nodded.

“She was on her knees in the yard. I’d dug and tilled and broke sod until we had a suitable patch for growing, and then brought her seeds from the Creek. She pulled me from my spot on the porch.

“C’mon old man,” she said, a twinkle in her eye.

“What is it now?”

“Time you learned something.”

“I dug you rows, woman.”

“Something that isn’t cutting or plowing.”

“Never heard you complain,” I muttered as I found my feet.

“I heard that. Keep sassin’ me and you’ll be plowing by hand.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said and followed her to where I’d turned sod to loam, where I’d dug furrows for her seeds.

She knelt and reached into one of those little paper pouches, pressed the seed into the earth with her finger, then scooped more earth over it. When she was done, she did it again, and again. When she was halfway up the row, she stopped and looked at me from under her big floppy hat.

“I swear to gods, Cutter, if you don’t get down here, you’ll be eating potatoes until next spring.”

“Sorry, I was admiring the view,” I said.

“Flattery will get you the rest of the row.”

She stood and handed me the packet of seeds. I sighed and knelt, and we planted a whole row together, her guiding my hand to the right depth, and showing me just how to build the earth so it wasn’t too tight but still kept the seed safe. When we finished, she fell back and mopped her forehead, fanning herself with her hat.

“Not bad,” she said.

“Yeah? Would you say I’m pretty good at planting seeds?”

She smiled and leaned in, took my hand and put it on her belly. “Not bad at all,” she whispered in my ear.”

Maybe not a story for a boy of eight. But it was what I had.

They say when a man meets the love of his life, the mean goes out of him. I’d been that man, once. After I met her, less so. Sometimes it went in small bits, like venom leaving the blood, sometimes in great rushes like an open artery. When the woman who drew the mean out of you is gone, it flows back in, and you know you never really changed.

“Your mother… was brave. And kind. And good,” I say. “Now go to sleep.”

He lays back, and I turn the lantern down. His eyes drift closed. In the stories, the beleaguered man is still a hero. He stands and fights and wins the day. Love is greater than evil. But that’s why they’re stories. We control the narrative. In real life, sometimes the hero is weak. Stupid. Only a man. Sometimes evil wins.

Outside, the wind howls again and I hear the baying of the banehounds in the trees.

When he’s fully asleep, I unsheathe the knife. I listen to his breathing for a while.

I am their father. I would do anything for them.

I am only a man.

I press the blade against his neck in the dark.

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