art by Agata Maciagowska
In The White of the Snow
by Mark Patrick Lynch
In the white of the snow, dusk-stained and bordering on invisible, the footprints were increasingly harder to follow. The curled moon was little use to see by. It turned the land grey. Clouds would soon make everything dark. We'd have to use our electric torches then, and that could ruin it all.
"We're too slow. We're not going to make it." Prentice halted, bringing me to a stop also. He paused to reclaim his breath. "Once we're in the woods it'll be like midnight. We'll never find her."
He was right. With every yard traveled the prints were less substantial, a sign her body was losing its adherence to the flesh. She was dissolving into less than a dream once more. The flitting shadow dancing at the limits of our vision like a beautiful moth--which we'd delightedly observed from the dark of my study windows--would shortly vanish. In moments the girl's fetch would be gone, locked in her forest keep, and we'd be left with nothing.
"We go on," I said, fingers numbly clutching the journal in which I'd recorded my triumphs and defeats, the years of research leading to this night.
"We go on."
Prentice breathed a cloud of frustration at my stubbornness, and for a moment I thought he would refuse. But he said nothing. He readjusted his pack, tightened the harness to the sled. He glanced behind us at the flickering lights of Roberts Lodge and the ruin of my study. The spume of snow we'd turned with our desperate pursuit across the meadow was speckled, the red drops of blood turned black by the moonlight.
"We go on," I asserted. "It's tonight or never."
"As you say."
With some reluctance he pulled on the sled. Battered and without care for the injuries I'd sustained, I was dragged over frozen hummocks and across troughs until we reached the point where she'd vanished into the fairytale woodland.
"You're sure this is where she went, Prentice?"
"As I can be."
Her footprints were nothing more than powder disturbances. I wondered at the sharpness of Prentice's eyes to have picked them out. I had to lean close and peer a long time to discern them against the wind-sculpted snow, further sign that my senses were failing.
"It's a grim place," Prentice said of the woods. The formidably twisted branches reared barrier-like before us. "I've no liking to go further."
"We'll be safe. The fey can't survive in the artificial light of our torches. You know that. You've seen the result. And you've read my research." I waved my journal at him, caught in the need to see my work out despite my draining strength and fading life. "You've been with me this long, Prentice. Help me through this last."
Abandoning the sled, I leaned against him to compensate for my injured leg, from which coins of blood were dropping in a steady patter, and we made a slow penetration of the woodland. Prickles and barbs were everywhere but for this single, ghostly track.
"Perhaps this is a secret way by which the inhabitants enter into the heartwoods," I said.
"Something no one knows about?"
"Only the fey of fairytale." Despite the loss of feeling in my outer extremities, my scientist's curiosity recorded the wood's strangeness. "It's not so dark, do you notice? As though there's a glow to the path. It steers us safely. No need for torches."
We made our slow, stumbling way through the coiled forest. I grimaced as the journey progressed. Prentice shouldered my burden well. "You're getting worse," he said eventually, and brought us to a stop. "We should go back. You need a doctor. I'm not convinced we cleaned all the shards from your wounds."
"There wasn't time. We had to chase her."
"If a vein was nicked..."