[PS, this has been my first Daily Prompt ever, Flee!]
County Sheepshire lies between the wooded hollows in the Valley Without Name. Imagine a sleepy part of the country, spread with idyllic farms and jovial townspeople who’ll gladly take a traveler in, in exchange for a hard day’s work. Who raise barns overnight and drink warm cider, and whose most pressing concern is whether the weather will hold for the season. There, can you imagine it? Yes, just like that. A bucolic paradise. Well County Sheepshire is nothing like that. County Sheepshire is a fucking terror.
It rains violently most of the year, making the forest roads an impassable mudslide of hopelessness and despair. Fields always flood. Neighbors only take a break from plotting against each other to board up their windows and, sometimes, attend chapel. At night, when the wolves howl, they lock every door. And in the morning, when rain pools in the fresh lupine tracks, they return to plotting, and boarding up windows, and giving side-eye between the pews. If you can avoid it, never visit County Sheepshire. And never, ever go out after dark. That time belongs to the Wolves.
Darling doesn’t believe in Wolves. She hears them, sure. She watches her fellow townspeople prepare for them, and sees the evidence of them in dawn’s light. Outside the orphanage (all children in Sheepshire live in orphanages, even those with parents) she hears growling and panting, and she’s seen the corpses who took a deadly chance and went out to spy on their neighbors after dark.
“Wolves are the root of all evil!” Parson shouts through a megaphone at the shivering masses packed into the chapel. Shivering, because it rains a whistling, cold rain year-round, and all the wood goes to boarding up windows, not heating stoves.
“Wolves have turned your neighbor against you. Wolves once abducted all the children for a child army! Remember, Wolves once enslaved the next town over to raise livestock and fuel a pre-agricultural Wolf economy. Wolves once made men fight for their lives, for sport. Blame the Wolves for your problems! Wolves are the transgressors, and everything you do is perfectly fine because Wolves.”
Darling thinks this train of logic is unsound, but she can’t decide why. In her years of schooling, the only thing she’s learned is to “Smile more. You look so pretty when you smile.” And she’s not really sure how this will help her against Wolves.
No one’s even seen a Wolf, she thinks. Maybe this is because if you see a Wolf, you don’t live to talk about it. Or maybe it’s because there are no Wolves, and it’s easier to invent a common enemy than look inside at your own dark parts.
Darling’s final straw came, as most final straws do, on a day like any other day. Having come of age, she was no longer living in the orphanage (she’d been kicked out, something fatal to many in Sheepshire who had never learned to adult). And, having to make a living on her own, she’d taken to sewing and embroidering fabrics for small coin. Her designs were always malicious, just the trend in Sheepshire: a hem stitched with tiny guillotines, with a single suggestive dot of red on the blades. Lewd terms for genitalia. A house fire with the plumes of smoke rising from the cuff of the shirts all the way to the shoulders. Her designs were very popular. She was on the verge of becoming a real trendsetter.
But the inventory she was most passionate about were the designs she never sold: her imaginings of Wolves.
Since no one had seen a Wolf, Darling could only speculate. She had a yellow two-headed beast with a green tongue spitting fire. A deceptive house with four paws. Two men on paw-shaped stilts, haplessly conjoined at the neck and forced to walk in tandem. These designs were very unpopular, and the townspeople scowled when they saw them.
“Why concern yourself with Wolves?” ” Your name is Darling, shouldn’t you be demure and sweet?” “You really ought to smile more.”
The day of Darling’s final straw was a day like this, a market day where she sat in the square near the steps of the chapel and sewed her designs and tried to smile, even though her cheeks were sore from pretending. It was a beautiful morning; the rain was only a light mist, and the townspeople less suspicious than usual. The butcher’s son across the way had been ogling her for some time, but everyone knew butcher’s sons were always trouble. Name a single fairytale where a butcher’s son isn’t a damn nuisance, or an ax murderer, or full of dark intentions.
Darling was trying to ignore him, but having to constantly smile seemed to only encourage him. She was considering a frown when she became aware of a long shadow falling over her. A tall, athletic man with a fur cap and a musket tied to his travel pack stood over her. He was a stranger, which was odd. Darling had suspected there were other human beings outside Sheepshire, but she’d never actually seen one, on account of the roads being impassable and the forest being full of wolves. And mudslides. It was a valley, after all. A valley that had seldom seen a stranger, and never a wolf.
Distracted from the embroidered pillow she was decorating with polka-dotted bloomers sprouted with four paws, Darling pricked her finger and let a single drop of blood fall on the white linen. She frowned at the blood.
“Where’s that pretty smile?!” a passerby called. Darling forced her cheeks back up, and looked at the stranger.
“What are you making?” asked the stranger in the fur cap with the musket.
“Have you ever seen a Wolf?”
“No, no one has and lived.”
He laughed. They were getting looks. Only Parson could really get away with talking about Wolves, but that was because he was the best at pinning things on them. Remember, Wolves once threw your favorite childhood toy in the furnace. Wolves once left deer carcasses on your roof. Don’t forget. Never forget.
“What if I told you I’ve seen a Wolf?” the stranger asked.
“I’d say you’re a liar.”
He reached into his travel sack and pulled out a necklace of teeth. The Stranger handed it to Darling. “These teeth are from the Wolves I’ve killed. My name is Hunter. Those teeth were my prey.”
“You aren’t from around here.”
Darling ran her fingers over the points of the teeth. They were strange teeth. Not like human teeth. Like dogs, but different.
“What are you doing here?”
“I heard your valley didn’t trust Wolves. And yes, Wolves can be scary, but they don’t do all the things you say. It’s a little ridiculous, don’t you think? Blaming the apocalypse on Wolves?”
“I think if people hear you talking, they won’t let you stay.” Darling already sensed the town would be plotting against her for associating with this stranger, Hunter, who talked so openly about Wolves. Who’d ever heard of a Wolf-hunter, anyway? Who would ever seek out Wolves?
“Well I’ve been watching you sew. And I think you have a fascination with something people think you shouldn’t. That gives you a perspective. But this is your town. Won’t they listen to you, if they won’t listen to me? It’s dangerous to believe a thing that isn’t true. It fucks up the way you react towards everything.”
“Everything is already fucked up, Hunter.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know, at least, what a Wolf really looks like?”
Darling looked down at her polka-dots with paws. The lemon-colored beasts. The crawling fleur-de-lis with seven spikes. She sighed, still smiling. It was an idiotic expression.
“How can I trust you?” she asked. “How is trusting you any different from believing in the Wolves I don’t see, which are the spawn of Satan and Sin? Faith is faith.”
“I have seen Wolves. I have killed them. I have their teeth, and I have their pelts. Your Parson has words, and for teeth, only his own.”
Darling considered this, but she wasn’t sure it was much of an argument. There was the possibility of proof, but until she’d seen Wolves with her own eyes she’d never know. At least Hunter might give her that.
“Well fuck this,” she said as she threw down her stitching and stood up. She scowled across the market at the butcher’s son, who instantly fell into vile convulsions. He had always been a delicate man. He simply couldn’t handle a woman frowning at him. The market-goers were gathering around him and casting suspicious eyes on Darling.
“No one’s ever left before, and I don’t know what will happen,” she added, hurrying Hunter by the arm out of the square. “But I have the feeling we’ll have to run.”
The farther they got from the square and the chapel, the more anxious Darling grew. She threw looks back over her shoulder. But though she felt the eyes of the town, and indeed of the entire valley, no one seemed to follow.
Now the cottages were farther apart, the workshops off the cobbled path. Darling saw the edge of the forest, dark and foreboding, and considered that Hunter might be a false prophet leading her to her death. “But there are less exciting ways to die,” thought Darling, and she surrendered to her curiosity.
They rounded the final patch of cottages, coming to a rocky and unplowed field. In it stood a line of villagers, their faces stony and pitchforks ready. Parson headed the little gang, and his voice rang out across the sterile soil.
“Darling, you’ve been seduced by talk of Wolves! This Hunter is a great Deceiver, in league with our enemy. You must not go with him. He will ruin you. He will throw you down a well. He will smother you in the mud. He will feed you to the Wolves!”
A clap of thunder shook the Valley Without Name. Lightning cracked, shooting menacing shadows over the townsfolks’ features. Hunter rubbed his temples, visibly irritated and without a poignant response to the bullshit around him. At least, that’s how Darling understood the gesture.
Hunter turned to Darling. “You said something about running?”
And without another word, they sprinted off across the field. Parson and the townspeople followed. Another thunder crack, and a downpour began. In seconds it had turned the earth to mud. Darling slogged through, lost a shoe, continued though each step made a sucking noise and tried to pull her back. The townspeople struggled, too, losing their footing. Falling over, unstable, and piercing themselves with their own pitchforks. It was a tragic scene. Such idiocy was seldom seen before, or since.
“They won’t follow us into the woods,” said Darling. “These Wolves better change my fucking life.”
“I think they might,” Hunter admitted, although he had no way to know. They didn’t really know each other, Hunter and Darling. They hadn’t really gotten the chance yet. Fleeing a town doesn’t leave much time for your typical pleasantries, that “so where did you go to school? oh that’s so interesting” exchange. In the long run, perhaps it was better this way. It’s important to skip as much of the bullshit as you can. Life is really too short for all that.
And, in fact, once Darling had fallen at the edge of the field, and Hunter had pulled her out of the mud and helped her through the brambles into the wood, there would be no returning to that “if you were stuck on a deserted island” talk. It was more of a mercy, really, not to have to ask whether the other had siblings or pets or liked having either of these things in their lives.
When it became clear that the townspeople were not following into the dark, rainy forest, they were at last able to slow down and take in their situation. Hunter directed to where he’d left his camp, which would be a safe enough place to dry off and spend the evening. As the sky grew darker and the rain returned to its typical dreary mist, they built a pathetic little fire and huddled over it.
Suddenly a lone Wolf’s howl came out of the woods. Darling looked with alarm, and Hunter sharpened his knives.
“They’ll come tonight,” he said, testing the edge of one blade. “You won’t have to wait to see them.”
“I expect my perception will change, but I don’t know how. I suppose it’s best to keep an open mind.”
Hunter held up a hand to silence her. Something was creeping through the leaves outside their camp. Darling felt a chill creep up her spine. She was excited, but also terrified. She had left a lot behind just for knowledge. Just to know.
Another howl, closer. As though it were just beside her. Darling’s eyes grew wide. Her breath caught in her throat as out of the brambles stepped one paw, then another. A silver-grey creature with golden eyes. It was, beyond her entire imagination, a Wolf.
A real, live Wolf.
And Darling was alive.