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In The White of the Snow

Mark Patrick Lynch is the author of Hour of the Black Wolf, published in the summer of 2012 by Robert Hale Ltd. His short stories, mainstream and genre, have appeared around the world in various publications, from Alfred Hitchcockís Mystery Magazine to Zahir. Mark divides his time between Kent and Yorkshire in the UK, with his partner Michelle and Millie, the mint-eating dog. He keeps an infrequent blog at markpatricklynch.blogspot.co.uk and you can find him on twitter @markplynch.

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..."
I waved away his fears. "Later. I'm well enough for now," I lied.
The study windows had exploded inwards when Mrs. Anderson, my housekeeper, had switched on the electric lights. I'd no time to cry at her to douse them before the artificial light had fallen on the girl's fetch dancing beyond the glass. What energies were loosed from her in her moment of pain were extraordinary. A storm rent the glass, striking in a swirl of angry rainbow plasmas, and I was lacerated badly by the flying shards. The injured fey had run, a blur of prismatic colors, and now, in our pursuit, my patched injuries were telling. But I had to see this, before the night and much more was lost.
We entered a glade untouched by the trees' thorns. At our entry several small creatures--vaguely man-shaped--scuttled in low grunts to the undergrowth, fearing the potential threat of our torches, and we approached the dais upon which the last of the rainbow clouds were fading to reveal...
"You see, Prentice?"
"I do."
"I've lived to witness my theories proved true."
But for a dreamer's tremble of an eyelid, a dark-haired girl lay still, hands clasped over her breast. In her sleep she appeared unharmed by the artificial light from Roberts Lodge. "This night each century, she dreams and her fetch can be seen beyond the woods."
I placed a trembling hand on the fairytale princess's glass coffin.
"It's so cold."
I didn't know if I meant the numbness spreading through my veins, or else the night, or the fate of the dreamer under the glass.
"And so white," I murmured as the last of my strength faded.
I felt Prentice tug me away to retrace our route, so that I might be tended to at Roberts Lodge, and I was unable to resist him. All the same, I doubted I would ever see the lodge again, for my life was draining quickly.
Still, I had witnessed the wonder of the princess before the usually impenetrable woodland hid her, and I was grateful for that, even if she was the last thing I would ever see.
Everything was turning white. Snow, snow white.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Author Comments

I think, when it comes down to it, there are two distinct groups of writers: those who pre-plan, and those who donít. They do have one thing in common, these groups: each thinks that the other groupís way of writing is easier than their own. I donít pre-plan. I follow a character and learn his/her story as I write it. Thatís what happened here. The characters learned their fates exactly as I learned their fates. I stepped out into the snow with them, a silent observer, recording what happened, and I was engaged on their quest with them, right up until we reached the end. Thinking about it, writing this story would probably have been easier if Iíd pre-planned it. But then I would, wouldnít I?

- Mark Patrick Lynch
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