The moon glows dimly between the trees, broken to shards between spindly silver branches. Thin shrouds of ice cling to them like skin to flesh; they seem to glow in the dull draughts of moonlight, reflecting a cold light more sinister than it is beautiful. Eliška walks in front of me—the velvety blackness of her cape is a spool of shadow, shrouding her figure in a darkness deeper than the night sky. Her feet, small bare marble-white, are soundless in the snow.
The woods reach up all around us like hands, their crooked fingers silhouetted against the sky. I can taste the frigid wind that runs down like rivers from the trees. And despite the deadening chill of the night, the flavor of blood still churns my stomach into a mangled pulp.
“Feeling sick?” Eliška sneers, peering at me back through the darkness. “Vážně, you were always such a baby. You should be more grateful.”
She must have sensed my impatience. Today, though, it does not matter—she is likely too excited over the prospect of killing to care, if the steel traps have left anything for her.
I kick a frozen branch from the path, watching as it sinks into the nearby snowbank. “He could have chosen someone else.”
Eliška cranes her neck to look at me. Hidden from the face of the moon, her bright violet eyes and glittering white teeth appear disembodied, those of a fairytale monster come alive in the darkness. “You take his favor for granted, Fina. If it weren’t for his kindness, you’d be lying under seventeen winters’ worth of snow by now.”
I am silent and Eliška laughs to herself faintly, far too amused by the thought to bother with my irreverence. The sound is punctured only by the dead silence of the winter and the occasional crack of the trees in the wind, as though the frost is splitting each cadaverous bough open one by one. Far beyond the lip of the dead forest, I can just glimpse the hazy pinpricks of the villagers’ firelight, smeared against the swarming blackness of the night. The villagers are not so foolish as they are desperate; the barren season offers them no other choice when they can no longer feed hungry mouths or kindle fires that burn dangerously low. But they are heedless of the steel maws of waiting beasts, buried deep beneath the snow, and I can sense one of them nearby as Eliška raises her head to taste the air.
“It needs to be big,” Eliška says, “big enough to sate his appetite.” She makes a mixed noise of hunger and contempt. “Last year was a shame. I want a man this time.”
Last year was a woman dragged half-dead from the snow. The frost had sealed away her body for safekeeping with a lace of ice and sleet, hardening her skin to a plaster. When she had been cut open, a swarm of maggots had broken loose, shaking free of her like butterflies out of a sack, spilling out over the table like slippery mud. Eliška had never liked the women either way; too small, she said, too unthickened of womb in their hunger. She said she could taste the desperation in their flesh, an acrid flavor that would ruin her appetite for the rest of the feast. The others had their share of opinions, but on one thing they all agreed: the little ones are too unripe, too pure like fruit not yet imbued with the sweetness of any mortal sin. Often left behind, but on rare occasion, taken as one of their own.
“Tonight is the night,” Eliška continues. “No longer confined to that stupid weak flesh. Never wanting for anything. Able to leave death itself behind.”
I ignore her, instead focusing on the bestial copper scent that has grown stronger now, worming its way into my mouth and nose. “We’re getting close.”
“It will happen whether you like it or not, little Fina,” Eliška says softly, leaning closer to me, but that is all she says and then we are silent, enough to hear the high, childlike trill of the wind grazing the treetops and winding through the midnight sky.
We move farther along the path. The snow is up to my ankles now, seeping into my shoes, and the wind has risen in fervor, lashing against my face with a sting as harsh as fire. I do not need to touch my cheeks to know that they are red like the pulp of roses, bitten by the teeth of a merciless frost. Eliška’s body is firm and white and bloodless as moonlight, like the others; she does not feel the consuming pain of the frost the way I do. I realize a sliver of envy, curled deep in my chest like a tendril of poison. But there is little time to dwell on the cruelty of the cold as we draw up next to the marker, a dead cypress whose mangled appendages glisten with the telltale lacquer of red, aglow in the twisted light of the moon.
Eliška steps over the exposed root that has torn out of the ground and beckons at me to follow. I know what I will find, and yet I step over anyway. Briefly the wind thickens as we both stand, unlooking for a small moment that slips away as quickly as it comes, and then her eyes have fallen downward and surged with an ugly delight that glitters like starlight in twin pools as black and bottomless as night.
“A man,” Eliška whimpers fondly, gazing down at the corpse. I follow her line of sight and stare, unable to look away, even though it is not my first time. The trap has all but severed his leg from his hipbone, matted in oozing sinew like the jagged flesh of a branch not yet fully snapped from a tree. From where I stand, I can see an intricate lacework of black forming beneath his skin where the frostbite has already set in. His blood glitters like a pool of rubies in the unrelenting moonlight. I am about to lean closer to inspect the body when Eliška claps her hands together in glee, her laughter beating against my ears the way the cold beats against my face, and she seizes hold of my arm.
“Vidět,” she whispers, her breath feathering against my neck, cold as the whisper of the wind. “He moves, Yefina. He is alive.”
I stare at the half-dead man. Then I see his chest stir, a flutter of dying flesh in the passing breeze. His eyelids slit open, revealing strips of glazed white delirium, and the shrunken black pupils between them roll up toward Eliška.
“A live one,” she says excitedly, bending over the half-corpse. Her hands skitter over his bloodstained vest, slender white spiders. “The blood will still be warm, and going through—oh.” Her throat trembles softly. “Oh.”
I think of how he will be long dead by the time we get back to the fire, but I say nothing. Instead I look at Eliška, her long white spider-hands scratching at her neck in her pleasure, and feel my hand slide around the half-moon blade in my cloak. The thought is as forbidden as it is exquisite—a thrill courses through me, and goes unnoticed. Eliška leans forward and strokes the gaunt greying face, her pitch black eyes full of affection.
“The parts taste better alive,” she says, to no one in particular, her voice a sullen rasp rubbed out by the wind. Then she smiles and places her finger around the right socket in his skull. Before he can scream, she pulls his eye out by the root.
I watch the blood spill down her spidery white wrists like oil, running down into the fold of her sleeve as she crushes the waxy grey ball between her sharp canine teeth. She is turning toward me when the knife cleaves the head from her neck. A blank expression fixes to her face, cold, and slowly the severed head slides off of its white stump, landing in the snow with a soft thunk. I grip the shoulders of her body and lean forward to look at her exposed neck, slick with blood, and slowly lick the red from its edges, feeling it slide down my throat like tar. When it is done, all I feel is a burning thirst, enveloping my body in a shroud so hot it hurts. The man still lies in front of me, half-dead, crusted in blood. I take hold of his foot with inhuman vigor and drag him through the snow, leaving uneven brushstrokes of blood smeared in the glistering white forest floor. I move towards the faraway heat of a flame, feeling my skin harden against the cold until I feel no more. The night is a thick black veil, draped over the trees, sown with the hideous twisted starlight of a thousand stars. It fades to nothing and all that is left is hunger, lulling me into a sweet stupor, pulling me back toward the place that is home.