Wispy clouds trailed across cold, cold stars, twinkling high above. The Nightmare slipped free of the shadow of the woods and stalked along the edges of the path into a small village in northern Minnear.
So much time had passed since she last hunted here. Perhaps the mortals had forgotten. She barred her jagged teeth. Humans could be wonderful like that.
Wind whipped through the village. Rattling gates. Rustling leaves and grasses. Drowning out the snuffling of the Nightmare as she sniffed around the properties on the outskirts. A stout iron fence surrounded the nearest on the left. Its cold iron poisoned the air. The Nightmare felt its foulness before she’d slunk three steps from the woods. That house she gave wide berth.
Bells jangled on the wind to the right. The Nightmare flinched and slithered nearer the ground, under the sound. She fled to the shelter of a hawthorn. Scurried up its hospitable branches. The tree wrapped her in its protecting limbs. She listened to the night.
The clamor dimmed under the hawthorn’s compassionate leaves. She flexed strong, bony fingers. Her eyes narrowed as her gaze roamed the dark village. A hex set into the door of the nearest home on the left. Another on right and the one after it.
Her face twisted in disgust. Long years had passed. Decades, if not a centuries. Why were these humans so prepared? So ready? The warnings should have decayed from counsel to stories to foolish old wives’ tales to be scoffed at and ignored.
The Nightmare blinked her lambent eyes. The hexes looked old, weathered. She slipped from the tree and edged closer to the nearest cottage. Yes. Many years old. Carved by a grandfather or grandmother old. The corners of her mouth flicked up. She only need find the home that had repainted or replaced their door.
Her laughter creaked like branches bowing under the wind. Up the path, deeper into the village, she crept. Another hex. A small set of bells, jiggling threateningly, under an eave. The Nightmare snarled at them and darted away.
She stopped. Cocked her head to the side.
She slinked around the picketed fence. No hex on the door. No hex on the wall. Her teeth glittered in the starlight. No bells. She leapt atop the wooden gate, balanced precariously and studied the house again.
Sneer widening to a grin, she dropped to the ground and crawled toward the house. No iron leapt back out at her. No bells raised a warning. The front garden, agitated by the wind, cloaked her rasping amusement.
She skirted around the side of the house. Froze. Hissed at the cluster of rowan trees standing guard against her kind, and tumbled back.
Spitting and snarling, she crashed through a holly bush and leapt over the fence, out of the yard. A hawthorn beckoned across the road. She pressed against it, panting. Growled at the world.
Blasted village. How dare they try to trick and trap her? Their cruelty would not pass unscathed. No. Not this night. This night someone would pay for the bites of iron and jabs of bells and the prickly rowan that came so very close to scalding her skin.
Darkness held full grip on the world. Not a pinprick of light escaped from any of the cottages. The moon sulked out of sight. The Nightmare’s night. The Nightmare’s time.
She gnashed her teeth and stalked from the welcoming hawthorn. No village with this many hawthorn–she counted four more from where she stood–could possibly be inviolate.
She veered away from another iron gate. The cottage door unhexed, but banded in iron. Hissed at that in a desultory manner even as she turned her back. Faced another hexed home. Rowan bristled around the gate. She spat at the trees, though she appreciated their honesty. Right there. Out in the open. Where any might see them.
Two more hexes. Then a cottage with … nothing. No hex. No stench of iron in the air. Definitely no bells. She hopped atop the gate and tasted the air. No rowan.
The Nightmare slithered across the yard. She sucked the night’s chilled air through her teeth. Caught not a whiff of herb nor metal out to do her harm all the way to the house itself. Caressed the wall with the tips of her long fingers.
She slithered around the side. Tested the air before turning the corner. Nothing barred her way to the shuttered window. She snuffled around its seams. This time she sucked air through her teeth in satisfaction.
Here. Her prey.
Ragged nails slipped under the shutters. Popped them open. The scent of boy drifted through the open window. The Nightmare slinked inside.
He slept in a sprawl. One lanky leg free of the covers dangled off the bed. The Nightmare squeezed the calf. Watched the boy grimace in his sleep. Jerk his leg back under the blankets. She chuckled soundlessly and glided to the head of the bed.
Her fingers were quick and clever. Between one deep, slumbering breath and the next, a knot twisted the lad’s hair. He muttered. A frown creased his brow.
Mouth cracked in a grin of glee, the Nightmare perched on his chest and tied another knot in his hair. He thrashed beneath her. Whimpering, groaning. She shook with laughter. Tied another knot. Another. No escaping now.
His thrashing grew more feeble. Less force filled his groans of protest. Of terror.
The Nightmare tied another knot in his shaggy golden locks.
He stopped moving. Stopped breathing.
She caressed the cheek that would soon cool and slipped back out into the night. Satisfied and full of life, she glided through the troublesome village, back into the welcoming woods.
Lynn Rushlau graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in Anthropology and minor in Sociology–which seem like awesome planning for a life creating cultures and societies, but she’ll admit to not have been thinking that far in advance. She lives in Addison, Texas with two attention-needy cats, and can be found online at lynnrushlau.com.