Irish Times Shortlist 2020
The shattered moon hung low above the forested horizon, her amber core glowing eerily against the deep midnight sky.
This was a night to regret and one he could never truly forget.
It was Samhain, a celebration that marks the ending of autumn, which is revered among the people of the Oak. It is said that the veil between the physical and spirit worlds is at its thinnest on this night. Or at least, that’s what the elders say.
He doesn’t believe a word of it. Nor what they say about the elusive and demonic fae, or the Great Forest beyond which they live.
To him, Samhain was a day of grief. Only bad could ever happen on Samhain.
As soon as the sun began setting, all those sensible in the village set out candles adorned with dried meadow flowers on their doorsteps and hung wooden runes of warning and protection outside their homes.
He was not so sensible. At sundown he left his empty shell of a home with no candle lit and no rune in sight. He had to get away from all this celebration and joy. He wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink with all the cheering and laughter and drumming going on in the village centre. He eyed the Great Forest in the distance, looming around the village, holding a tremendous darkness within its embrace.
It must have been out of spite to the elders, who had never listened to him. Or maybe it was out of pure curiosity. But whatever it was, with it he forgot all caution and headed straight towards the Great Forest.
As if in a trance, he only realized where he was heading until he got caught in the swirling crowds of the Samhain celebrators. Children ran about wearing wooden masks of demons and fae, holding small lanterns their parents had given them just for this night. Most adults wore wooden masks like the children, or had their faces and bodies decorated with berry-paints. On the outskirts of the circle centre, knights of the oak stood cloaked in emerald green and holding large dripping candles on rusted metal plates. Their faces covered by their own special metal masks, a custom brought in not so long ago. The council of elders stood together on the mossy stage to the south of the circle. They were dressed in their finest of clothes, robes and silly cone hats, all a patchwork of the more regal cloths available. Four of the elders held an object each. It seemed they were about to begin the annual ceremony of commemoration and warding.
At the thought of that, he picked up his pace and effort of weaving himself away from the crowds. He kept his head down and did his best not to be noticed but just as he thought he was safe, he felt a hand grab his arm. A jolt of panic went through him, afraid of whom it could be. He yanked his arm away and ran. His name being called after him in the distance by a voice he had dreaded to hear.
He headed straight into the embrace of the Great Forest.
The moss underfoot was soft, it was like his feet were sinking into the earth itself. The undergrowth was littered with brittle twigs that snapped cleanly and loudly, the sound rebounding through the silent darkness. As he ran the trees got thicker and thicker and older and older. He very quickly lost his breath, and had to lean against the trunk a very large tree. Wheezing ragged breath took hold of his body, the common battle of his life. He stood for a while, as he allowed his body to calm, watching the myriad branches dancing above his head. A faint whistle of the breeze could be heard as his world seeped into utter stillness.
Eventually, he stepped away and turned around. Facing him was a wolf, only just smaller than a horse and pure black. It seemed to be made of shadows, wisps of darkness coiling off of the snarling beast.
And so, he ran again.
He could feel the shadows curling at his ankles. Grabbing at his clothes, brushing through his hair like ghostly hands. All he could hear was the pounding of his heart in his head and the shrill howling of the shadow wolf.
The trees around him were now wider than the huts back in the village and their roots jutted from the moss, almost as reaching up to his thigh. His head felt sluggish, as if stuffed with bread. He felt utterly lost. He couldn’t remember where he’d come from or how or why. He just needed to run away.
He ducked under a root, and as he emerged, his foot was caught and he felt himself fly towards the forest floor. It was softer than any fleece and speckled with small white flowers. He dragged himself by his elbows into the clearing before him. A metal tank, coated in rust and ivy, sat in the heart of the clearing. Small saplings were bursting from the windows. Jagged broken glass glinting amongst the foliage that had taken over this ancient object. Sticking out from under it was worn black rubber wheels of sorts that must have once held up tank.
He found himself on his feet once more, staring at the object, walking closer to it until he could see his reflection in the glass. And behind him, he saw shadows. His mind was still so full of fog that he didn’t have time to react.
The wolf pounced on him. He fell suddenly, whacking his head against the glass. It cracked from the force, red tinging the seams.
All he could see were large black jaws opening to reveal sharp black teeth with a black tongue that dripped with black saliva, only a fingernails length away from his face. He was pinned to the ground by large black paws with knife sharp claws that dug deeply into him. If shadows had a scent, it would be the stench of the wolf.
All he could feel is pain, pounding, throbbing pain.
He couldn’t move.
He couldn’t breathe.
He couldn’t let out the scream that was building in his chest.
Why was this happening? Was this a fae, come to kill him for trespassing on their land? To punish him for not believing? For not listening to the elders? Was this his fate?
Of course it was Samhain. The day where only bad can happen, the day he had lost and continued losing.
There was a moment, a pause in this horrific scene, where all he saw were a pair of large yellow eyes glowing in the darkness before him. They stared into his very being.
His mind seemed to clear in that moment. The world was ringing and with that ringing seemed to come a voice. A soft, dark voice singing a soft and dark song. It was in a language he didn’t know. But somehow he knew it, and it filled every pore of his being. The pain seemed to have vanished.
But then the song stopped.
And the wolf ripped out his throat.
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