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I should have killed him straight away.

It would have been a mercy.

I’m capable of mercy.

But…

…he smelled of starlight.

 

his one is thin. So little meat and my children are hungry. So very thin. Could it be that his tribe has cast him out and he, too, is running from the Cold Sleep? His marrow will be warm, though, his blood sweet. Unlike so many of the others, his young face belongs to his young body. Not like the ones who came before. Not like the ones who have lived so many lifetimes that can only be seen in their eyes.

Hesitation would bring me shame if there was anyone left to know. But I am alone. Alone in the wilderness, cut off from my world. Alone like he is. His keen dark eyes gaze into mine without fear. And he should be afraid. Very afraid. Perhaps the Sleep has stalked him even longer than I, drinking deeply from the warmth of his soul. It is a patient hunter on any world, but I am swift. My blood burns

with my anger and my need. I will snap him in two to feed my children and clean my teeth with his small bones.
 
Wind and cold swirl about my body. The second star is low, soon to be eclipsed by the mountain. I must away from this place with my prey. My children are hungry. This meat will have to sustain them. I cannot tarry. Darkness hunts us as surely as the Cold.

I raise my paw to strike him down, expecting him to flee, to flinch, to close his eyes, but he does not. His eyes are proper eyes, dark and large. Stars shine within them; so many stars, burning brightly, turning slowly. He has gazed into the Heart of Time, that much is clear, and he is running. Great wisdom for one so young.

His lips, small and pink, move, but I do not know the words he sings. The prey things never speak to me. They only scream. That I understand, but this? Why would he speak to me? Why should I listen? His teeth are small and round like a child’s, his flesh beneath another creature’s skin is naked. What a sad creature he is, this traveler in the wilderness whose eyes are filled with stars. Eating him will be a mercy. I am capable of mercy.

You don’t have to kill me, you know.

His words enter my mind and I can only stare at him. He, all pink and thin and lacking meat for my children. Speaking to me. Speaking into me. Cold Sleep rides swiftly on the night air. I strike a single blow, knocking him down, silencing his Voice. As I scoop him up I notice blood on the snow. It smells sweet. It tastes sweeter. I will have to kill him, of course, but it is a shame. I press my nose against his soft, dark hair. He smells… of starlight.
 
The moon is bright. The storm is gone. The Cold surrounds us. Within the cave, my children are sleeping. If they are not dead. It is difficult to tell these days. I count them. Four. Only four. A fifth one huddles outside the nest. Alive, but only just. What remains of another lies to the other side of the nest. That is why they can sleep. Their bellies are full. Soon enough they will need to eat again. I lay my kill out for them to wake to.
 
My kill. But not killed. He did not die. He will be good sport for my young when they wake. They must learn to hunt. Someday I will be gone. Someday I will not come back. They must learn… After they have eaten their fill, I will empty his bones of their marrow and perhaps I, too, will sleep.
 
I crouch at the entrance to the cave, the wind stiff against my face. Below the mountain the world is warm and the grass mirrors the burnt orange sky. The trees are silver and the night is still. I have hunted there. I have killed there. I am a dark legend in that country. The Great Houses send their mightiest against me, but I am swift. I am fearless. I am their worst Nightmare. But, I do not venture there anymore. I cannot leave my children. Not yet. They are too small. Even we are vulnerable when we are small. So I do not go. But they have music below, and sometimes, if I listen very carefully, I hear it.
 
My children press close against the gift I have brought them, seizing what little warmth is left in his body. They should not lie so close to him. They should not take comfort from anything except his bloody flesh. But they are children and they have never seen the likes of this creature before. He bears so little resemblance to the enemy I am accustomed to. Only one of his hearts beats for this world. The other longs for the stars.
 
As I watch, he stirs, one pale, reddened hand touching that place on his thin face where I cuffed him earlier. It is mottled, blue and green. The blood has congealed. He stares at his fingers dumbly, then at me, as if to challenge me for my actions. Then he sees my children waking around him, stretching their small bodies, extending their claws, teeth gleaming as they grin at him. First one and then another strokes his face with a taloned paw, then presses a muzzle against his dark hair. They inhale and their eyes dance and they look at me and I smile. If he was not frightened before, he will be now. Unless he has no wits left. But not a one of my children strikes. They only sit and stare into his star-filled eyes. I have looked into the Heart of Time. I have seen the past and the future. I have seen, and I have seen everything perish. I wonder if he has seen it too.
 
Slowly, ever so slowly, he reaches beneath the layers of fur that are not his own and draws out an instrument that emits light and some faint warmth. I am unconcerned. A child’s toy. But the light is hypnotic for my children, and they watch intently as this half-grown, child-thing holds it out to illuminate our meagre surroundings.
 
 
artwork by ANDY LAMBERT
used with permission
 
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