Victor hovered before the open window, the cigarette held loosely in his fingers, the gloom of the lightless cabin behind him almost a physical weight. The hairs on the back of his neck were raised, but Victor didn’t dare turn on a light only to be silhouetted against the window for anyone out there to see.
Not that the woodsmen hunted by sight. Cigarette or no, the woodsmen hunted by smell and could hound out a deer from a mile away. Which is why the borders of Emily and Victor’s land were planted with wolfsbane and lavender, the herb and the flower, that for some inexplicable reason, confused and drove away the woodsmen.
Victor suspected that the science of the past would have been able to discover why, but in the aftermath of the world collapsing under the weight of the woodsmen and their unending hunger, the few sciences that survived were those of survival and the body and the simplest forms of farming and animal husbandry. Time could not be taken away from the act of survival to discover the answer to the all-encompassing question: why?
Roger didn’t put too much stock in the wolfsbane and lavender, but then Roger was an idiot, village leader or no, which was why he hid behind walls and Emily roamed the forest, with knife in hand.
Furtively, Victor inhaled, the nicotine seeming to course through him, soothing his nerves and twanging them like fingers on a guitar all at once. Emily didn’t like his smoking, and he didn’t like that Emily didn’t like it, so he attempted to not smoke out of his affection for her as much as he stole moments alone for a quick smoke when she was gone.
She was gone often, lately. Roger, while spouting off about how he respected Emily’s ability to hunt, used her as his attack dog more than Victor liked. While Emily was out in the woods, hunting down the woodsmen to save the village, and perhaps, even humanity as they knew it, Roger was safely ensconced in his house, with his women, and his laziness. Roger could hunt. He just thought that his new role as village leader meant he didn’t have to. If Victor had anything to do with it, Roger would learn to think differently.
The cabin outside the village walls, with its fallow fields and achingly beautiful view of the wood and sky was meant as a gift of thanks, from Roger, and from the villagers. Most of the time, Victor felt like bait, or the second soldier in a two-person army on the front lines. Emily and Victor were the alarm, the guards, the King’s food taster. What does death taste like? Ask Victor and Emily.
Victor took a last drag, then snuffed the cigarette out on the windowsill, then went to the front door and propped it open, holding the spent filter between nerveless fingers, staring out into the fathomless black that night made of the meadow in front of the cabin. Beyond, the beginning of the treeline and a forest as deep and wide as any ocean, with the crumbling monuments of civilizations past turning to dust in its depths.
A cold, wet thing touched the back of his hand and he turned, stifling a yelp, to find Winthrop gazing up at him, a four-legged, furry shadow in the dark cabin. He could dimly see the shape of Winthrop’s pointed, Shepherd ears in the dark and reached out to ruffle them exasperatedly. “Thanks, Winnie.” he said, the sarcasm heavy in his voice.
Sighing, he turned one last time to look out at the meadow. Above, the full moon slid out from the clouds it had been hiding behind and shone a silver light over the meadow, brushing the edge of the forest. Coming toward him, out of the treeline, was a shambling shape, formless against the backdrop of giant trees. Winthrop raised his head, shaking off Victor’s hand, and let out a warning huff, his hackles rising. He sniffed the air deeply, then set off across the meadow, becoming a blur in the night before Victor could react.
“Winnie!” Victor called, and he was off the porch chasing the Shepherd, his bare feet whispering through the grass. The shambling shape stopped and Winnie met it with an enthusiastic bark, launching himself at the shadow with abandon.
The shadow barked back, or at least the garbled shout, words lost in Winnie’s enthusiasm, sounded like a bark, cracking out into the night like a shot. Victor ran faster, the familiar voice spurring him on. At a brusque command, Winnie settled on his haunches, and Victor ran past him and –
Victor skidded to a stop, his bare feet on the grass almost slipping out from under him. Emily was in clearer focus now, the moonlight illuminating her just enough for him to make out her features.
Emily was covered in black splotches, her clothes, her face, her arms and hands. Emily held out her hands to him, warding him off, and they were the blackest of all.
Before the sharp scent of iron reached him, Victor realized the black splotches were splashes of blood.
“Oh, God-” He said, starting forward.
“It’s not mine,” Emily said, taking a step back. “Not even a scratch.”
Even in the moonlight, Victor could see Emily’s teeth in the dark as she gave him a smile.
“You found them, then.” Victor said.
Emily shrugged. “They found me.” Her teeth disappeared in the dark and Victor knew she was frowning “What are you doing out here?”
“I was waiting for you-”
“What did I tell you about being outside in the dark-”
Victor raised an eyebrow though Emoly couldn’t see it. “ I may not be the hunter you are, but I’m at least equally as good of a fighter. I’m not one of the villagers.”
Emily grew silent at that, absentmindedly rubbing the blood on her cheeks. This action served only to smear more blood across her face and she jerked her hand from her face with a grimace.
Victor opened his mouth to say something, and then a motion behind Emily caught his eye. Almost as fast, Emily saw the stillness of Victor’s body, and whipped around, even as Winnie moved in the forward position, absolutely silent, ruff rising on his neck and back like a mountain thrusting up from the ground.
A woodsman stalked the edge of the forest, a shadow among shadows in the moonlight. Every few steps it would bend to the ground, then rise up and pad silently forward, then bend again. Its meandering trail took it further from the edge of the forest and the woodsman stepped fully into the moonlight. Even from this distance, Victor could see the unnaturally wide nostrils flare as the woodsman inhaled, nearly arching its back, and cocking its head with an animal like focus that made Victor’s skin contract over his bones.
The woodsman took another step, another breath, and reared back, scuttling backwards several paces on all fours.
The three of them, Emily, Victor, and Winnie, watched the woodsman’s antics in silence, the border of wolfsbane and lavender only a few feet before them. Victor inched near Emily, and said, sotto voce, “One of yours from tonight?”
“He disappeared during the fight. Not even Alvin could find him after, and you know how good Alvin is.” Alvin, in Victor’s opinion, was the second best hunter of the village, but he kept that to himself. Emily respected the man.
“I told the others to return to the village and then headed straight here.” Emily glanced sideways at Victor and he became suddenly, viscerally aware that Emily had arterial spray covering half of her face. The sclera of her eyes shone white against the dark blood coating her forehead and cheeks. The impression of fingers smeared through the blood encircled her mouth, her skin appearing as open wounds against a canvas both black and red.
“Do you know what this means?” Emily whispered.
They whispered out of habit, but both had long known that the woodsmen were deaf, as well as blind – another inexplicable mutation that no doubt would have been discovered by the science of the past. For Emily and Victor, it was merely an advantage.
Victor shrugged in response, making sure to exaggerate his movements. Knowing the woodsmen were deaf did not necessarily endear Victor to the idea of speaking aloud while standing not far from one of them.
“Everyone, including Roger, assumes the woodsmen are mindless animals.” Emily said. “It’s possible this woodsman got scared during the fight and ran off. It’s also possible he hid himself, realizing they were outnumbered, and then followed me here, again, knowing if he followed the villagers he would be outnumbered. It’s possible that this is a plan.”
Victor shifted beside her, shock coursing through him. “Emily,” he whispered. “Just kill it.”
Emily made no response, except one second she had a throwing knife in her hand, and the next the woodsman’s head jerked back and he sank slowly to his knees, before falling forward to the ground with an audible thump. Emily stared at the corpse for a moment, before turning towards the cabin. “I’ll get the knife in the morning.”
Victor moved to follow, briefly ruminating on how convenient it was that the woodsmen were also terrified of their own dead.
“Roger will be pleased.” Victor offered, referring to the successful hunt of the woodsmen, and not the possibilities the lone woodsmen brought up. “And everyone in the village will be able to sleep better now.”
“Roger can go fuck himself.” Emily said.
Victor let out a breath of laughter, but he couldn’t help but note the pain he heard laced in her voice. He was glad she had been successful, but it was hard for Emily to do these types of hunts. No matter how gone the woodsmen were, Emily didn’t like killing them. Never had.
“Better you than Roger,” he said.
They reached the cabin door, their steps quickening together with the treeline at their backs. Victor waved Emily inside with mock courtesy, and Winnie brushed past him to follow Emily into the living area.
“You’re merciful – and quick.” Victor continued, coming up behind her. “And you know how he likes-”
“Yeah,” Emily grunted, not turning to face him.
Sighting softly, Victor shut the door and reached toward the light switch and flicked it on.
Most of the blood must have been on her front, because there were just a few splashes on her back. “We’ll get you cleaned up.”
Emily turned and faced him. Winnie moved to her left and looked at him too, as if he was supporting Emily.
“I’ll never be clean.” She said. She held up her hands, fairly dripping with blood, some of it already drying under her nails and in the folds of her knuckles and the lines of her palms. Her face was a death mask.
Without thinking, Victor grasped her hands, feeling Emily’s flinch travel throughout her body, and squeezed them, letting Emily pull her hands out of his grip, leaving behind a trail of blood. Victor pressed his palms against his own face and slid his hands down until his fingers slid off of his chin, leaving behind a trail of blood like a macabre face painting.
Emily stared at him, mouth open, her eyes betraying her shock, with a tinge of disgust, which made Victor give her a broad, shit-eating grin. The blood against his skin was a heavy, sticky mask that felt like it would never come off, and for a moment, Victor felt the burden may be too great. For him, and for Emily.
“Victor,” Emily began, recovering slightly.
Victor made a motion to stop her and she quieted. He took her hand and held it and steered her towards their bathroom.
“What’s yours is mine,” he said, deciding the burden was light. “Now, let’s go clean up.”
One of my creative writing classes was the study of genre, and one of the assignments was to write a romance. I’m not sure why this is the type of romance I decided to write, but I do remember feeling particularly salty about something and I was little peeved I was working with another genre instead of the genre of my choice. So, I guess I wrote this in rebellion.
Let me know what you think in the comments!