The forest holds its breath. Shadows are dark, still pools.
Trees reach towards the sky, bare branches cradle a pale sun in skeletal hands. Even the birds are subdued, perched on frosted peaks like silent watchmen, cloaked in black.
Icicles hang like sharpened diamonds, catching the weak, milky light.
Something moves from behind a tree. One foot, encased within a weathered fur shoe painstakingly presses on the ice. The other follows, making barely a crunch as the two stand together.
They join two legs, wrapped in more brown faded furs. Hands hang at the waist, appearing relaxed but knuckles white with cold and fingers ever so slightly curled betray something more. A torso, enshrouded in a fur cloak. A strip of leather around a neck. Something that catches the light, just hidden out of sight beneath a cloth shirt. A face, flushed, twitching. Terrified.
Nix barely breathes as he stands next to the tree. He is conscious of every sound he makes, no matter how soft. His hand instinctively reaches to his neck, wanting to feel the weight of something solid, but he suppresses it, knowing even the smallest sound could mean the worst. Breathing in, brown eyes jumping from frosted ground to towering trees to wizened branches, he takes a step. His whole body tenses as he stands still, leaning forward. His nose itches, tingles with cold, but he is frozen. Another breath in. This one he holds. And then Nix runs.
“If you ever get lost out there, no matter where you think you are, you run, ok?”
Nix is just a small boy, and he doesn’t understand the worry in his mothers voice yet. But he nods, his brown eyes staring into hers. The fire crackles behind them, casting dancing flickers over the walls.
“But what? You have to run. You keep running until you are out of the dark, remember. You don’t make a single noise and you keep your head down and you run.”
“But what if I want to go home?”
His mother gently reaches out and takes Nix by the shoulders. A small smile pulls her lips, and her own brown eyes sparkle, filling him with warmth.
“Nix, home will always be right here. You know how to get back.”
His small face wrinkles in confusion.
“You’ll know. You won’t be alone out there. Ok?”
He doesn’t understand. But he nods, wanting to see his mothers smile again. Her eyes twinkle as she stands up.
“Now, how do you feel about some dinner?”
He moves like a shadow through the forest, weaving between black trees, eyes watching a path he has run so many times, yet his heart still swirls in his throat with adrenaline. His footsteps are light, his breathing shallow, and there is no sound as he flies over ice and snow. He feels the cold burn his lungs, his nose becoming numb, but he doesn’t stop. He can’t stop. For a moment, he whips his head back. The whites of his eyes gleam, like pale moons. Was that another moving shadow behind him? Moving faster?
He turns back to face the path, trying to keep his focus. He skips over branches, ducks under leaning trunks, skirting swiftly around slippery frozen pools. His heart seems to race even faster. His stomach feels like a blizzard. Swirling, sharp, in turmoil. He is too scared to do anything more than keep his head down and run. So he does.
Above, a clearing. Light spills from the trees like liquid gold, giving his aching limbs an uplift he desperately needs. He takes bigger steps, but still never makes a sound, his mouth tightly closed, holding his breath. He sprints, racing, shadows whipping by faster and faster and he jumps over a log and clenches his fists and he steps into the pool of light. He has made it, at least for now. For a moment he just allows himself a self-congratulatory smile and slowly exhales, taking care to make no noise. His eyes close in relief, and he stretches his arms out, soaking up the light, however faded it is. He takes a step backwards, wanted to get his whole body out of the dark shadows. His foot raises, tilts back, his shoulders drop and
Nix freezes. His foot seems stuck to the ground, pressing on the remains of the broken twig. The snap seems to echo through the forest, getting louder and louder until it pounds in his head. Every nerve in his body screams at him to run, to get away while he still can, but all he can do is breathe, shaky, hiccuping breaths. A thousand images course through his head, of him laughing, speaking, running through an endless dark forest, searching for something.
He is interrupted by a sound behind him, one that makes his heart plummet to his feet.
The click-clack of claws on hard ice. To him, it sounds like the ticking of his bomb, counting the seconds until disaster.
He feels sick. He has to go. Fighting through his screaming thoughts, swallowing his overwhelming panic he lifts his foot and lunges forward, getting ready to run. He leans over and before he knows it the soft white snow-covered ground is rushing towards him and he falls on his face.
The metallic, aching taste of snow fills his mouth, and his hands scratch and squeal over ice as he frantically tries to get up. He can’t stop his hand from going to his throat, clutching the metal, cold and smooth against his palm. Something makes him jump and he can’t suppress a cry, a gasp of fear. A low, guttural growl from behind him. He scrambles onto his back, one hand weakly shielding his face, and finds himself staring into a gaping set of jaws, fangs sharp, breath steaming in the frosted air. A muzzle, curled, showing all the way to the back teeth, gleaming white. Grey fur that dances and shivers in the still breeze. And piercing eyes, like bottomless pools of fire, staring directly at the young boy. For a moment Nix and the wolf stare at each other, the creature towering over his cowered body, brown eyes staring into flaming amber. Nix’s eyes widen. His body shakes with fear and pain-and he sees, the wolf’s does too. Before he can move the wolf collapses on top of him, burying him in a pile of fur.
On one side of the clearing, Nix sits against a tree, rolling his necklace in his fingers. The object is cylindrical, silver, barely longer than his finger. A whistle.
Before he leaves, a hand falls on his shoulder. His mother, looking sleepy but with that same smile.
“Not so fast, Nix! I have something for you. When you’re out there in the woods, I don’t want you to feel lost. So here’s something from my heart, to yours.”
She hands him a cord of leather. On the end, a silver whistle dangles, gleaming.
“A whistle? So you can hear me blow it?”
She shakes her head, chuckles.
“No, silly. Even if it was that type of whistle, I wouldn’t be able to hear it from within the forest.”
Nix is confused. But he wants to go outside. The forest has scared him; it always has. Its big and dark and full of creatures that dig holes and run fast. He always feels alone out there. Yet everyday he goes searching, looking for something, some sign he has a friend, someone to explore with, to be his companion in the big cold world. So he nods and makes to exit the door. His mother grabs him in a hug before he can step out and he squirms, but then he hugs her back.
“I won’t be long!”
“I know, I know. Just wanted to make you wriggle.” She grins and he does too. As he walks out he hears her faintly say to herself,
“Yes, the forest is much too deep for any human to hear a whistle. I’d have to have the ears of a wolf! …”
Nix is tired. He stares at the sleeping creature on the other side of the clearing. He remembers his mother telling him about finding his place, and knowing where home is. But now, he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t trust this creature. How can he? He clutches the only thing he feels a connection to, and lifts it to his lips. Like it always has, when he blows it no noise comes out. He sighs and slumps back against the tree. That’s when the wolf’s eyes open, two slits of glowing coals. And they stare right at him.
The wolf rises to its feet, slowly. It is still tired from its journey, bounding through the forest, chasing the sun before it goes down. It too, is lost. Like Nix, it remembers a home. Somewhere warm, full of noise and dancing light. But that is something far away from the cold forest it is in now. Normally, it would have left Nix long before this. But something about his scent, his look made the wolf stay. And now it has heard something it hasn’t heard in a long time.
It warily steps towards Nix, who is frozen, still holding the whistle loosely in his hand. It’s eyes glow like embers, but not fierce, or violent. They sparkle, almost. And Nix is inexplicably filled with warmth. He shakes his head, trying to get his thoughts straight. He watches the wolf make its way towards him. He is quiet, but there is something that passes between them that makes him lean forward, hand outstretched. He gingerly presses his hand on the wolf’s muzzle, feeling the soft fur beneath his fingers, feeling the warmth spread. The wolf sits and they are still like that for a moment. To both of them, it feels good not to run. The wolf stands again. Nix does too, this time. It turns and walks to the edge of the clearing, staring expectantly at the boy. As though it knows something. Or rather, it knows somewhere. He rises and joins it. His whistle is held in one hand, the other rests softly on the wolf’s head. They stare at the pale moon, together. Nix is not alone.
“Nix! Come see this!”
He races to the back of the house, excited. He hears the happiness and wonder in his mothers voice, and smiles to himself
“What? What is it?!”
“Just come! Bring your whistle!”
He obliges, grabbing it as he turns the corner, to see his mother, smiling, eyes twinkling, standing next to…next to a creature. A small one, with bright eyes. He stops. His mouth drops.
“I don’t know why he’s here, but he insists on hanging around! He is lovely, and warm. I thought he could keep you company, out there in the snow?”
Nix nods slowly, still taking it all in. He walks towards the animal and kneels down.
“I think its a wolf”
He stares into its eyes. They are golden orange, like crackling fire. They sparkle, just like his mothers. And the wolf stares back at him. It is not alone.