Thanks to Tami for the prompt.
The wind whispered through the dark, empty trees like a warning in a foreign language. Winter was coming, and with it the snows that turned the mountainside, difficult to traverse even in high summer, into a prison as inescapable as any king’s dungeon.
If I was leaving, it would have to be tonight.
That was the last push I needed to step out of the doorway and onto the path, drawing my cloak tighter against the wind as I did so. My pack was a solid weight on my back: such food as I had managed to squirrel away without Father noticing; a spare set of boy’s cloths that my brother had outgrown; Mother’s books.
There were precious few books available to us up here, most traders considering them too heavy to haul up the mountainside and most ‘steaders considering them luxuries not worth spending barter on that might be better traded for staples like grain and potatoes. Then, too, any book that did make it up the mountain was liable to be used for kindling when the snows lasted a few weeks too long. Oh, and most of the folk that made their way up here didn’t know how to read.
Mother knew how to read, though. She taught us when Father was out, me and Nikki both, though soon enough Father started taking Nikki out with him, to teach him how to set traps and suchlike. Then it was just Mother and me and the two books she’d brought with her from the city.
My favorite was the almanac, for though it was many years out of date it had maps that showed the whole country, from the edge of the Great Water to the peaks of the Dragon’s Tooth range. I poured over those pages every chance I got, gently turning the onionskin-thin pages to gaze hungrily at the world my father would deny me.
I wasn’t afraid of the woods, nor the haunts and witches that lived in it. I had a pocket full of salt and iron, and the knowledge gleaned from my book of folktales. Wolves would be more of a problem, though I’d stolen Nikki’s spare hunting knife, and may God forgive me for his bruises.
A sharp crack behind me, like a twig breaking underfoot, caused me to jump. I turned, gaze sweeping the trees for any sign of pursuit –
Heart pounding, I resumed my downward journey. The sun was setting, and the dark crept in, leeching away what little warmth remained. For a moment, I considered going back. The cabin was cramped, but it was warm; if I hurried I could arrive before Father returned and he would never know I had tried to leave…
Unbidden, the memory rose: Father’s eyes, wild and wicked; Nikki’s screams; rough hands wrapped tight around my throat, squeezing. I pleaded with Father to let me go, with Mother to help me, but he only squeezed tighter so that my head spun and she watched me with a distant expression, one had covering her own cheek.
I would not go back.
Winter, wolves, witches – let them come for me. There was only one true monster on this mountainside.