Snow crunched beneath my boots as I patrolled the winter forest, a gray wolf by my side.
Low on the horizon, a waxing moon shone through the trees, silvering the bare branches of oak and ash, sycamore and elm. Cold bit through the tips of my leather gloves, and my breath puffed into the still air. An oak branch swung at me, sleepy and slow. The wolfMatthewgrowled a warning, but I ducked out of the way easily enough. The oak sighed, but it didn't try again. The trees were too tired to do much harm this winter.
I walked carefully over a line of fire ants melting a trail through the snow. Nearby I heard the clicking of termites chewing dead wood. Termites were among the few creatures who hadn't gone hungry since the leaves had fallen from the trees.
Beneath a pine that had dropped all its needles, a patch of ice-frosted ferns shivered. Something dark moved among the fernsMatthew's ears stiffened into alertness. I slowed my steps and rested my hand against his back. We walked forward together.
A shadow hunkered amid the ferns, shapeless and trembling. As I knelt before it, the shadow took on a human shape, arms and legs and face, features smudged and indistinct in the moonlight. A childin one hand it held out a toy, shaped like a dinosaur from Beforelong Before.
I removed my glove and took the child's other hand in my own. Shadow fingers passed right through mine, and cold shivered through me. I reached out with my magic, and that magic was cold, too. Cold bound us one to another, shadow and living, strong as twisted rope. Softly I asked, "What is your name?"
Something deep within the shadow yearned toward me, aching to be called back to life. "Ben." His hoarse voice was at the edge of hearing.
I couldn't call any shadow back to life. "Seek sleep, Ben." I put my magicmy powerinto the words. "Seek rest, seek darkness, seek peace."
Icy numbness spread through my fingers. Ben whimpered as he sank into the ferns and the snow. His fingers slipped from mine. "Ethan," he whispered, and then he was gone, leaving behind only a moon-bright whiteness that stung my eyes.
Cold shot through my palm and up my arm. Matthew nudged my other hand, and I remembered the glove I held. I pulled it on. Tingling warmth spread through my fingers, until I could move them once more. "Thanks, Matthew." I pressed my nose to his. Our frosted breaths, human and wolf, mingled in the air.
Matthew made a quiet sound. "Time to go home," I agreed. We turned from the ferns, back toward the path and the chores that waited in town. I scanned the snow and brush around us, but I didn't see any more shadows.
At least it was only human shadows we needed to watch for now. Until this winter, the trees had held shadows of their own, and those shadows had attacked anyone desperate enough to venture out at night. The trees' roots and branches had attacked, too, by day and night both.
But now the trees had dropped their leaves and they slept, and instead human shadows from Before roamed the woods at night, shadows of those who'd died during the War with Faerie. Sometimes those shadows drifted into town, looking for lost loved ones. I still remembered the look on Matthew's grandmother's face when the daughter I hadn't known she'd had appeared at her door. At least she'd let me lay that shadow to rest. Another of our townsfolk had shivered to death when he wouldn't let go of the shadow of his first wife, whom he'd lost during the War. After that, Matthew and I had started doing regular patrols, heading out before dawn a couple of times a week.
We could head out before dawn now that the trees no longer sought human flesh and blood. It had been a welcome change not to fear every rustling leaf.
Matthew stopped and sniffed the air. He turned and trotted off the path, deeper into the forest. I followed. My hand moved to the belt cinched around my oversized coat and the knife that hung sheathed there, a habit from years spent tracking game through more wakeful forests.
Matthew stopped by a mound about the same size he was. He nosed at it, let out a low whine, and began digging. The old snow was unevenly packed, as if it had been shaped by human hands. A faded brown dinosaur sat perched atop it, molded of hard pre-War plastic.
Cold got down beneath my coat and scarf, chilled my toes in their wool socks. I helped Matthew dig, knowing well enough what we would find.
Ben had been young, little more than a toddler, with curls that hung frozen over a face made pale by the moonlight. He hadn't died in the War after all. He'd died no more than a day or two ago, after the last snowfall, and someone had buried him here.
I wanted nothing more to do with dead children. I wanted to flee this place, but we had to know what had happened to him, in case it posed some danger to our town.
Cold stiffened my fingers. The dinosaur toppled into the snow. I kept digging.