Red: Part VI

wolf_at_the_door“Are you mad?” Fox cried. He turned in a circle, waving an arm at the forest. “You’ve marooned us in this frigid waste.”

Crowe stepped close. Gone was the cavalier attitude and the impish grin that had so nettled the Inspector since the case began.

“I suggest you lower your voice, my friend,” Crowe said, and the chilly silk of his voice raised the hair on Fox’s flesh. “There are ears to hear even your heartbeat in this waste, as you call it, and it’s like a dinner bell to them. I’d not risk good horses. We go afoot.” The deputy shouldered his rifle and squinted up at the vague sun. The disc was no more than a lighter spot on the massing, ashen bales of cloud. Its light was no greater than that of a storm-blurred moon.

“More snow’s coming. We have a deal of thrashing about ahead of us, Inspector, but first we’ll secure our flank.” Crowe nodded to the low wooded brow of a hill that Fox found indistinguishable from the rest of the wilderness about him. “Grandmother Tanis dwells just the other side of that. We’ll pay her a visit, the old she-wolf.”

“You speak in riddles,” Fox grumbled. For the first time, he examined the rifle he’d been given, testing the balance of it. “We’ll be lucky if we aren’t eaten by wolves before this folly is over.”

Crowe laughed softly, and Fox was surprised at how heartening the sound of it was to him. “Indeed, Inspector. But, there are wolves, and then there are wolves. Come on. We’ll catch ourselves one that will make you a rug like no other.”

***

Above the old woman’s cottage, masked by the thick pelts of the hemlocks, the men watched as a lean, grey shape skulked beneath the frosted windows. It glided along the tumbled wall of firewood and paused to lap at the ice atop the rain barrel. It trotted to the cottage door and, standing upon its hind legs, scrabbled at the latch with a long-toed paw. Fox gave a muffled cry of alarm and brought his rifle up, but the wolf pushed its way into the little house with a snarl, and the door banged behind it. Crowe swore and vaulted to his feet, dragging Fox up with him.

“Be quick,” he said, and then he was away, loping down the hill in ground-eating strides, the snow slowing him not a bit.

Fox struggled after him, the breath whooping in his lungs. Crowe hit the door with his shoulder, knocking it crooked on its hinges, and skidded into the dimness of the lantern-lit room. A shriek floated out on the frozen air, and Fox thought there was fury in it, but very little fear. He floundered through the last of the snow onto the slick cobbles of Tanis’s dooryard, and caught himself against the wrecked doorjamb. His breath steamed out in front of him in a glittering plume.

“What are ye thinking, ye great devil, frighting an old woman like this?” Tanis shouted. She cowered on her stool before Crowe, and shot him daggered looks from beneath her shaggy brows. She wore a voluminous flannel nightshift and a ruffled cap that threw her face into shadow.

Crowe seized the lantern and flung it into the fireplace. The oil and dry tinder exploded in a gust of flame that illuminated the tiny room. Tanis cringed and wailed, pulling her shawl close around her.

“It’s a bit late in the day to be in your nightgown.” Crowe snatched the cap from her head, and the firelight gleamed on the long, hungry smile of a wolf. “My, what sharp teeth you have, granny.”

Tanis leaped from her stool, and Fox saw the points of her ears jutting from the tangled mane of grey hair. Her eyes blazed yellow. “All the better to eat you with, hound,” she said, her words sliding away into a growl.

She struck at Crowe with a hand both clawed and partially furred, and the buttons of his coat ricocheted about the room. Fox, frozen in horror and disbelief, felt the sting of one against his cheek. It loosened something in him, and he shouldered his way into the room, kicking aside the rough furniture, blocking the creature’s escape.

Crowe touched his chest and brought his fingers away red. “Bitch,” he snarled, and drew a blade from his belt. The firelight ran along it in a liquid iridescence like mercury. “Come and eat death.”

Tanis sprang. Crowe caught her and turned with her, graceful as a dancing master, and the two of them crashed to the floor. Fox rushed to help, but the battle was over in that one nimble pivot. Crowe had driven the knife deep in an upward thrust behind her ribs. He knelt over Tanis and cleaned his blade on her flannel gown. His hair hung in his eyes. He did not look at Fox.

“She was old. Slow.” He sat back on his heels and stared at the corpse, the wolf in the woman’s skin. “She could have lived many years yet, if the red mage hadn’t come here. It would have used her against us, and old as she was, she was fierce.”

“You sound as though you regret killing the beast,” Fox said.

Crowe was silent for a moment, then he stood. “No. I don’t regret it. Neither do I celebrate it.” He shook the hair from his eyes and looked around. “Hand me that cleaver,” he said pointing to the utensil standing upright in the oak chopping block.

Fox wrenched it from the wood and held it out. Crowe crouched by Tanis and dragged her hand from beneath her body. He stretched out the clawed fingers on the bricks of the hearth, and, before Fox could ask what he meant to do, struck off one of them with the cleaver. He lifted the kettle from its hook and shook it. Satisfied with the slosh from its iron guts, he hung it over the fire.

“What are you doing?” Fox asked.

Crowe held up the severed finger. “This will make a whistle that will call the red mage close. I’ll boil off the flesh and carve it a bit. Very pretty, yes? Make yourself comfortable. We’ll be freezing our balls off soon enough.”

Fox looked at dead Tanis, at her savage face and long teeth. He looked at Crowe, squatting contentedly by the fire with the impossible finger, waiting for the kettle to boil as though he were going to make tea. He thought about the deputy carving the finger bone and putting it to his lips, no doubt all quite pragmatically, and whistling up a creature from a dark fairytale.

“Gideon Crowe, what are you? Some sort of magician?” he said.

Crowe thought about it for a bit, then shrugged. The kettle steamed, and he lifted the lid with the fireside tongs and dropped in the finger. A wet, feral stink wafted from the kettle’s spout. “No, Inspector, I’m no magician. But I’ve learned a trick or two.”

to be continued…

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Red: Part V

Virgin forest in winter in AlaskaPeter Moon lay on his back under the forest eaves, staring up into the flickering snowlight with the fixedness of a marble effigy. His torso gaped like that of one of Dr. Sang’s anatomy subjects, and a frosty slop of guts lay stiffly on his lap. Fox closed his eyes against the sight, and drew the crackling air in through his nostrils. Around him, the oaks and hemlocks seemed to jostle closer, a threat the Inspector felt as a cold, arboreal malevolence. He wished himself back in the familiar shadows of the City, and Sang’s words came back to him with renewed significance. The ways of the Wild are not like those of the City. There is a wall between us for good reason…

“Gruesome, eh?”

Gideon Crowe crouched a few feet from the dead Constable. He did not avert his eyes from the horror. Again, Fox was reminded of a raven at a feast.

“Indeed, Mr. Crowe. Gruesome and tragic.”

Crowe glanced up, his dark eyes registering surprise and humor at the Inspector’s acid tone. He stood and pointed at the snow around the body.

“Naught but the tracks of a beast this time. Do you think this one’s a murder, Fox?”

Crowe’s voice was quiet and even, but Fox thought he detected laughter lurking in it. Damn the man! Fox couldn’t make sense of the deputy’s interest. This wasn’t a matter for the palace. It might not be a matter for the City Police, except …

“The blood’s gone,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“The blood. It should be everywhere, but there’s only a very little about poor Moon’s body. Just like the one yesterday, after that strange naked girl ran from the scene.” He raised his eyes to Crowe’s. “What the devil is going on here?”

The deputy turned and stared off into the endless forest. The snow had slackened to the occasional fat flake, spiraling with slow grace to earth. A lovely, feathered bit touched Crowe’s cheek, and he flinched from it as though burned.

“You’ve not been beyond the wall before, have you Inspector?” he asked. “In fact, you’ve not been with the City for long.”

Fox bristled. “What’s that got to do –”

“I asked for you especially, because you haven’t yet been infected with the City’s fear of the Wild. Because your record is excellent, because you’ve been rewarded for your bravery more than once, and because I need a man here who can act without hesitation. I hope I’m not wrong on the last count.”

Fox suffered a brief paralysis of outraged astonishment. “You asked … you need … ? What have you to do with this at all?” Constable Moon was forgotten in the sudden glare of conspiracy. “The palace has no interest here. I was sent to investigate murder.”

“And so you shall, Inspector. But you’re wrong about the interests of the palace. Come and look.” Crowe waved him over to a lightning-scarred oak and pointed at the snow.

A single footprint lay in the thin shade of the tree, slender and bare. Fox observed the delicate imprint of each toe, the slight marks of the ball and heel that together were smaller than the heel of his hand. The foot had barely pressed the snow, and only the deep cold and the shelter of the massive oak had preserved the print. He reached toward it in wonder, but did not touch it. Crowe tapped his shoulder, and Fox looked up at the rough bark of the tree. Something red clung there. A wisp of scarlet wool. When he tried to gather it, it melted into a familiar, oily slick on his fingers. Blood.

“I don’t understand,” he whispered. He held up his besmeared fingers for Crowe’s inspection.

The deputy turned to the horses and tugged two long rifles from their bindings. They were fine weapons, and gleamed with restrained violence. Crowe caressed first one, then the other, before thrusting one toward Fox.

“I thought you should have a proper firearm. Our quarry is as deceptive as it is dangerous. We call it a red mage, for it has magic in it, but some know it as a winter wraith. It comes with the first snows, it commands the wolves, and it needs blood to grow strong. It is a merciless killer. Left unchecked, it will empty this village. I have hounded it across the mountains where winter comes early, and I will have it at last.”

Fox gripped the rifle in nerveless fingers. The world was tilting again, warping with the crazy abandon of nightmare. “But, this is the footprint of a child,” he said without conviction.

“A child who wears the lifeblood of Constable Moon as a cloak,” said Crowe. He slapped the rumps of the horses, and they surged away toward the village, leaving the men alone in the watchful woods.

to be continued…