The Black Forest was a dark wood with an even darker history, but winter was approaching, and the larder was bare. The boy packed his crossbow and quiver and as much water as he could carry, then set out just after dawn. Frost festooned the leafless trees, and the ground crunched noisily beneath the well-worn leather of his boots as he traipsed across the countryside, leaving behind the only home he’d ever known.
Plague had swept across the land just the season before, killing his parents and all but the healthiest citizens of the village atop the hill. Marching Flagellants murdered the rest.
He spied the acrid smoke from the funeral pyres as he stood outside the rundown manor and watched the band of maniacal zealots march past on the road to Ravensburg. He remembered their banners hanging limp in the autumn morn, 100 men whipping bloody stripes across the pale flesh of their backs as they chanted prayers for salvation.
His family had been one of means, but coin mattered little in a realm populated by nothing but traveling monks and wandering ghosts. Now that he was alone, the four walls which held him were nothing but shelter from the wind. His needs were few. He only hoped to find and kill a boar for enough meat to last until spring. He’d set several traps in the fields, but they remained as empty as his belly. He knew if he didn’t leave for the forest soon, he wouldn’t have the energy to do so. His father had told tales around the fireplace of hunters who had entered the Black Forest never to return—victims of the wolf packs who called the forest home. This, the year of our Lord 1350, was meant to be the year they finally braved the deep woods to face the wolves and kill a boar together, father and son. Now he would have to face the challenge alone.
He was tall for 15, lanky but strong. Even clad in thick leathers and furs to protect him from the bitter cold, he looked more like a wraith than a man. The moment he set foot in the wood, he became just one more shadow amongst the skeletal trees in an indistinct world of gray.
It was late afternoon, his crossbow still untested when he first heard the monsters howl. They were distant but unmistakable. Long, lonely cries pierced the forest, silencing all other creatures as each held its breath, waiting for what might come next. Seconds ticked away, then one by one, the birds began to chirp, and the squirrels began to scamper once more. The boy was too deep into the wood to turn back empty-handed. He readied his crossbow and again took up his trek for winter sustenance.
The sun began to set, its rays gold and red as they touched the top of the barren trees. His gray surroundings became an orange haze, like a warning fire gone unheeded. When he first saw her, she was in the form of a naked woman: wild eyed, wild maned, and draped atop a tree branch. Too stunned to speak, he stood and stared, his crossbow forgotten at his side until she smiled.
“You must be freezing,” he managed to say. He pulled off the topmost of his furs. “Here, put this on.”
Her smile grew wider, revealing a set of gleaming white teeth. She shook her head and then leapt to the ground gracefully, her bare feet hardly making a sound when she landed. She glanced down at the boy’s weapon, then took off at full speed, racing into the trees as if to escape him. He gave chase without a thought, desperate to know more about this strange woman, determined to save her from the predators he knew must be near.
She was fast, and he quickly grew winded, but he managed to keep her in sight as she dashed ahead. As the last of the day’s light glittered on the frost-laden trees, she finally stopped in a small clearing and waited for him to catch up. He approached warily, careful not to frighten her away. When he stood before her, she stepped close and, without a word, lightly planted a kiss upon his numb lips.
He shivered as he stood in place, unsure what to do next. She took a step backward and directed her deep brown gaze toward the sky. She howled as the last of the day’s light disappeared, and the full moon revealed itself in the darkness above.
It was the howl of the wolves, and goosebumps arose on the boy’s skin as other beasts hidden in the wood joined her cry. They stepped into the clearing, one after another, a dozen winter wolves with white-gray coats and hungry eyes. As he stood frozen in place, the boy watched the woman transform, her beautiful face and body morph from woman to wolf in a matter of seconds. He tried to raise his crossbow, but his muscles failed him. Instead, he dropped to his knees, and like the Flagellants who had heralded the end of the world, he begged for salvation.
She delivered it quickly. She sank her teeth into his throat, and he felt the cold seep into his bones. She drank his blood as her pack watched in silence. Everything went dark. The night swallowed him whole. He was sure he would be reunited with his parents in the afterlife. But it was not to be. He awoke the next morning curled next to his new mother in a snow-dusted den, comfortable and warm despite his lack of clothes. She stroked his hair and smiled, gifting him with a look of utter devotion. She had tasted his heart, and it was pure. He was one of them. He had entered the forest a child of man. He was one of the moon’s children now.
Matt Handle lives in Atlanta, Georgia where he juggles the reality of being a husband, father, and software developer with the imaginary characters and worlds that constantly vie for his attention. His short stories can be found around the web including at Dark Recesses Press, Daily Science Fiction, Verbicide, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Fabula Argentea.