She was swimming. Water rushed around her and she felt the good coldness of it, the quickness of her body. She kicked and dove. The world had a swirling lid on it: circles and ovals and chains of bubbles, light refracted, joining together, breaking up in white foam, reforming.
She was a fish…
Lizzie shivered. She was curled up into a ball, taking up as little room as possible. Even with the great bulk of the horse she felt the cold. The wind seethed around her lean-to and pulled with its icy fingers, sent whirls of snow inside. She turned over.
She was swimming upstream. It was hard, the current pushing against her, but she couldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop. Her tail flashed bright behind her. All around her were others: silver fish with pink tinged bellies, fins fading to green-blue. They all leapt and pushed together, up against the water.
An animal howled. It was not far away. Lizzie burrowed down deeper. In the part of her brain that was awake she wished for a cloak. I should get up. But she slept.
She was through the rapids now. The other fish turned off into calm tributaries and rivulets and pools, but she pushed on. Why? She didn’t know. She swam farther and farther. The stream wound up a mountainside. Even from within the water she felt the air grow thin.
She felt the horse shift against her. A low whinny reverberated in her ribs. He nudged her again. But there was something else…
She shot into the mountain. The river ran fast through tunnel of rock, lifting and falling, but always rising higher. Then suddenly the water was no longer a stream but a pool. She could feel the depth and the way the cold was different here. And she could feel—
Lizzie opened her eyes. Everything was a gray-white.
“Get up. I must leave here, and because I am bound to you I beg that you get up so we can ride.”
She sat up and looked at the horse. His eyes were large and white around the black. He was so large and so strong, and yet he was afraid. His fear seeped into her like cold. She nodded. She slid the saddle blanket into place and lifted the saddle. The horse froze and pricked up his ears; they swiveled left and right and Lizzie felt the air around him tingle with energy.
“Hurry,” he whinnied.
She grabbed his mane and made to swing herself up. “No, the saddle,” he said.
“I don’t need—“
She let go and heaved the saddle onto his broad back. Her cold fingers fumbled with the buckle. With her face pressed against his side she could hear how his heart drummed, and it made her hands shake and falter. At last she pulled the strap snug and put her now empty bag over her shoulder. She kicked off the ground made to settle herself when the horse-of-power started. He shot forward and pranced.
“Woah!” she cried, but he didn’t hear her. Lizzie struggled to right herself and barely managed to get her feet in the stirrups before the horse took off as if he had been stung.
Wind and snow whipped past her face and bit her cheeks. She leaned forward, gripping his body tightly with her knees and the reins in her fists. He leapt over a fallen tree and she lurched forward. Lizzie dropped the reins and snatched wildly. She grabbed his mane.
“Stop! Stop or I’ll fall—“
But it was too late. He leaped over a thin stream of open water, stumbled on a loose rock and Lizzie was flung up into the air. She crashed through low branches and threw her arms up to protect her face. She hit the ground hard with her shoulder and tumbled end over end. Snow packed into every opening in her loose-fitting clothes so that when she lay still at last she gasped as much from the cold as from the wind being knocked out of her.
And then, with her lungs still shuddering for breath, she gasped again.
Crossing the stream on thin gray legs was a golden-eyed wolf. It was looking right at her and it was grinning.
Lizzie scrambled backwards but the snow hid sticks and rocks and there was nothing she could get ahold of, no way to get her footing. Then it was too late and the wolf was there. She could feel its breath, warm puffs in the cold air. It was a thin wolf, but it was powerful. She couldn’t run. She closed her eyes and swallowed. Her body felt hot where she had struck the ground. I’ll be dead before I feel the bruises.
Lizzie opened her eyes. The wolf stood only an arm’s length from her. Her own smallness in the face of another’s appetite felt too familiar. She closed her eyes again.
“I’m hungry, and these are not your woods.”
Lizzie gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes hard; this was the end. She felt the cold air on her face and neck, the loose wisps of hair brushed against her skin. I love being alive. Then, I don’t want to be afraid anymore. She felt the blood in her veins, the breath in her lungs, even the scraping pressure of her empty stomach was beloved to her: she was still alive. And in this next moment, she was still alive. And in the next, and each one was beautiful.
And then, she wasn’t afraid. She opened her eyes and looked at the wolf. “What do you expect of me?”
The wolf plopped down and curled its tail around its paws, squinted its eyes and made a sound so akin to a chuckle that she was amazed. “Who are you?” she asked.
The wolf’s grin snapped back into a solemn, wild expression. “I only tell my friends who I am. But what I am I tell to everyone. And I am hungry.”
“Well, what am I to do about it? I gave all I had to the raven.”
The wolf’s ears pricked up. “Indeed?”
She pulled her bag around and opened it. “See? Empty as my belly.” Her stomach growled obligingly. The wolf cocked its head and considered.
“That was fortunate for the raven, but what is good luck for one may be bad luck for another. You may not pass until I am fed.”
Lizzie raised her shoulders; she was no longer cowering. “But I don’t have anything for you to eat! If I did, I’d share it with you, honestly I would, but I don’t.”
The wolf licked its chops. “That is too bad. I like creatures who aren’t afraid of me. So many are.”
The hairs stood up on Lizzie’s neck. She scooted back. “What do you mean?”
“It must be your tiny ears, but human creatures never listen. I will repeat myself one last time: I am hungry and must be fed. And you are the only meal I see.”
I don’t want to die! She thought. Then one of the women, many of them at once cried, The horse!
“The horse?” she asked in surprise.
The wolf grinned. “Ah, the horse.” And the horse appeared at the edge of the trees, blacker than black against all the white. His eyes were wide and he did not stand still but lifted and lowered his hooves. Lizzie saw him.
“No! No, you can’t eat my horse!”
“But he’s not your horse, is he?” The wolf leaned closer and sniffed. “Just as these are not your clothes, and this is not only your errand.”
Lizzie pulled back. “What of it? And he is my horse. He’s faithful to me, and I to him.”
The wolf’s eyes narrowed. “Then it will be bad fortune for both of you: one to die, one to carry on alone. Which will it be?”
The wolf stood and swished its tail. “Choose. Which of you will be my meal?”
READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux