If Those Ragged Feet Won’t Run

March 30, 2021

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Annie Neugebauer is a novelist, blogger, nationally award-winning poet, and two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated short story author with work appearing in more than a hundred publications, including Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and Year’s Best Hardcore Horror volumes 3, 4, and 5. She’s a columnist and writing instructor for LitReactor. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com.

Content Warning(s):
Animal cruelty or animal death, Child in peril, Violence

The night comes. It can’t yet be seen, felt, tasted, or smelled, but you can hear it. You can hear all things fall quiet as the dusk draws near. It is a fearful silence, waiting.

The days are noisy things, full of freedom like the space of the open plain with its whistle winds that dance and push. There are daytime dangers, yes, of course—there are always dangers no matter the life—but they are things like a cough that infects the lungs, a stinging centipede creeping between the tight boards of your hut, or your husband getting injured while out on a hunt, coming home permanently wounded, or, like Bethesda’s husband, not coming home at all.

Their daughter was only a few weeks old when it happened. Keena. A secret name. Their village doesn’t allow for naming children under three years of age. But you cannot build a life inside you, grow it up from seed, birth her out into the world at risk of your own life, and not give her a name. Many, if you count the nicknames and endearments that Bethesda allows. Darling. Starflower. Bunny. Honeyheart. On and on, though in front of council members she calls her “little baby.” Probably no one would punish her for an affectionate stand-in, but she defers as a safeguard and sign of respect.

Right now, though, Bethesda and Keena are alone. Horribly alone. The only other living things within sight are the two thinning, tired oxen, snorting tiredly at the scrubby greens that spatter the open plain. They smell like manure and defeat.

Bethesda clutches a swaddled Keena to her, swaying back and forth to keep her calm. “Shhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhh, shhhhhh,” she breathes, trying to keep herself calm, too. Even at only six weeks old, the baby can sense her emotions.

Her home village, tucked safely under a thick canopy of the trees, is beyond sight ahead. Bethesda looks back the way she came, from the other village across the plain. A full day’s journey, traveling since the break of dawn, as fast as the oxen could pull the box cart. Horses are faster, but less strong and far more expensive. The two villages are just close enough that oxen are still quick enough to be safe.

Unless, of course, something goes wrong. Like the box cart turning over, flipped on its side by a hidden rock the beasts have taken at speed, one wheel splintering off.

The front and back left wheels still spin. The door to the box cart stands straight up from the side, open to the sky, the windowless interior a dark hole from which they climbed after the crash, candle flame thankfully extinguished rather than kindled in the tumult.

The oxen make no sound but heavy breathing, despite their hunger and possible pain from the accident. They know. All know.

The silence is dreadful.

Keena’s tiny face scrunches into a knot, the impending cry trilling through Bethesda like the cry they all wait for. She bounces, increasing the volume of her hushing. Even that sounds loud, but it’s far softer than Keena wailing.

The acute knowledge of what she should do is screaming, screaming into the stillness. The council has told them. They tell each other. You grow up knowing.

You leave the baby. If it isn’t old enough to be quiet when told—before being given a name—it isn’t worth the risk. Some people put them to death first. Others let them cry as a diversion, if it comes to that. But you leave the baby.

Bethesda will not consider it. Her grip has tightened around Keena’s small form automatically, but that upsets the child. Bethesda relaxes her arms, bounces, raises her hushing to a series of gentle coos.

She will not leave her baby. Dead or alive, she cannot do it.

And so, she cannot run. The motion would jar Keena into shrills of terror or hurt her soft, nearly boneless structure, so new to this air. Even if she were willing to leave her daughter behind, Bethesda might not be able to run home in time. She is still mending after labor. She had a healthy delivery, and she wears no injuries, but she is far weaker than she used to be. She is pale, fatigued, breathless. She lost a lot of blood, and it is still slowly filling back in.

Bethesda turns to look at the spilled box cart. Aside from the splintered, detached wheel, it seems whole enough. In one spot some of the metal trim that reinforces the wooden structure is bent up, but none of it is missing or cracked.

Keena’s fussing begins to escalate, her little mew rising from a mouth full of gums.

There is no other choice.

Bethesda hurries past the oxen and prepares for the climb up over the side of the cart. At one animal’s huff, she pauses, weighing the benefit of keeping them reined or letting them go. Her heart wants to set them free. Her womb wants to grant them the mercy of a peaceful death. Her head sees them as a possible diversion, almost a sacrifice. But then her gut tells her the truth: they are a beacon.

She has no time to unbuckle their harnesses. She draws her blade with one smooth, habitual motion and slices through the straps. They need no word, no gesture to realize they’re free. The already over-exhausted beasts take off at a lope toward home.

Bethesda has time to wonder if she’s just made a grave mistake, and then she hears it.

From the mountains that run parallel to the open plain between villages, the sound floats up and out, seeking like its own living thing. A nightbird calls.

It is a song unlike any other. It is achingly familiar, the echo of every person’s nightmares, and yet different every time. It seems to bring dusk, sweeping it across the sky like storm clouds. It seeks, out and out, touching every blade of grass, every jagged rock, every living being standing out in the open, stilled with fear.

In her village, some say the nightbirds can see things using only their voices. Others say they cast spells. Whatever their magic, real or legend-twisted, Bethesda feels their waking presence like a finger run down the long side of her neck.

The wagon it will be. Must be. “That is what it’s designed for,” she whispers, merely a breath on Keena’s hot cheek.

Whether Keena quiets at her mother’s voice or the nightbird’s call, Bethesda doesn’t know, but she takes the opportunity to climb into the spilled cart. She lands with a thump on the bottom, once the other side door, her knees buckling partly beneath her since she can’t put her hands down to soften her fall. She rocks back on her heels and lands against the wall, once the ceiling. Keena sucks in a tiny breath, ready to protest the jolt no doubt, and Bethesda forces her aching legs to push her up, reaching, stretching to draw the door strap down.

It slams into its opening, muffling the nightbird’s eerie cry and dropping them into absolute blackness.

She has to drag one of her crates over to latch the door above them one-handed, but she manages, fumbling with increasing franticness as Keena’s whines grow into wails.

Pain. Hunger.

The reason for the trip. Bethesda had made the journey because Keena wasn’t nursing well. She was losing weight instead of gaining, and she cried all the time, falling asleep only from sheer exhaustion and waking just as hungry. The midwife in their village didn’t know how to help her, but there was an older, more experienced midwife across the plains. Despite her aunt’s assurances that the baby just needed time to grow, Bethesda knew something was wrong. She insisted on going, even when no one could take the days to ride with her.

It turned out that Keena had an attachment between her tongue and bottom jaw, hidden deep, deep in the back of her flesh, that the younger midwife had missed. It was carefully severed, and the pain of nursing lifted immediately, although the child was in new pain instead of hunger.

To feed her, now, is a risk. Will the comfort of Bethesda’s breast and the fullness of milk calm her, or will the pain of sucking send her into even more crying?

It’s all she knows to try.

The nightbird’s cry grows more distant, bringing momentary relief, but then it swoops louder, and Bethesda knows that dusk has dropped, and that the creature has left its roost in the mountains to soar the sky.

Her fingers tremble as she fumbles with her garments, offering a breast to her infant. “Sweet darling,” she whispers. A tiny gasp and then the small, wet pressure of a mouth around her nipple. Bethesda can’t see if the latch is good or not in the dark. “My honeyheart. Good girl. Big girl.”

Keena falls still, suckling, sniffing softly as she drinks.

Tears spring to Bethesda’s eyes. The relief is so great that she can’t feel the triumph, the victory. She’d been right. Right to go, right to risk the travel. That had been the problem. But under the circumstances, she feels the deflate of gratitude rather than the swell of success.

Even that is short-lived. The nightbird’s call grows louder, stranger, sent out like creeping claws to scour the terrain. It will find the cart. It will find them.

It can’t get in. That’s what the carts are built for.

But their cart is crashed, vulnerable.

Perhaps if Keena stays quiet the creature will not bother exploring them. Perhaps tonight there is easier prey. The oxen, maybe, if they haven’t made it to the village safe beneath its thick canopy of trees.

With that thought, as if the thought had made it happen, an ox bellows a deep, shrieking scream in the distance.

Bethesda senses rather than feels Keena look up, consider unlatching. She balances the child in one arm, uses her other hand to squeeze her breast the way the midwife showed her, encouraging milk to flow into her baby’s weak mouth. Keena’s sucking resumes. Bethesda wishes she could sit, but the bench is vertical now, a column that she can only awkwardly rest her shoulder against.

She could relight the candle if she could find it in the wreckage, but the prospect of trying to do that one-handed while keeping Keena calm seems worse than staying blind. Maybe the darkness will put the baby to sleep, like when they cover the cribs with heavy blankets to block out the sun during naps.

Keena’s small sounds tell Bethesda that she is finishing on the first side. The sky has grown silent as the nightbird feasts, but it doesn’t take long for them to devour their catches. Sometimes they even leave them and come back later to carry them away. Normally she would burp the infant before switching sides, to be sure she doesn’t spit up what milk she’s managed to get, but she always cries when Bethesda does that. She can’t tell her child that even the brief minutes between sides are temporary, that she will be put back to the breast in mere moments, that she needn’t wail so at the delay; this is better than losing what nutrition she’s gained.

She bares her other breast, slips a pinky into the corner of Keena’s mouth to break the seal, and flips her for the other side before she can do more than draw in an inhale to cry.

A moment of seeking, and a new latch.

Bethesda gulps in a broken sigh.

The nightbird calls again, much closer. The sound sends Bethesda’s shoulders up to her ears, but she forces them down, tries to relax her muscles like she’s been taught, so that Keena stays relaxed too. It will be beyond dusk, now. Darkness has fallen.

Sharp, wiry trills test the walls of the cart. The wheels creak in a downdraft of large, taut wings. Leather and metal shuffles as if the oxen’s leads have been ruffled, and the cries end.

It’s the worst silence Bethesda has ever heard. She feels lightheaded with it, her eyes inventing shapes in the dark, seeking reason.

She imagines the creature out there, large as the cart itself but far more delicate—graceful, even. The strange way they stand on their bent hind legs, wings folded up and over their own backs like exaggerated elbows. Uncannily human faces cocking side to side, listening. Elongated snouts full of serrated teeth.

A soft barrage of squeaks encircles the cart, testing, seeking.

Breathless silence. Keena’s oblivious sucking.

And then, so gently that Bethesda stills instead of jumping, a tap. On the door now at the roof. Curious.

Bethesda doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe. Keena is blessedly silent but for swallows so quiet she has to strain to hear them, but she can hear them. She has practiced hearing them, to tell if the baby is still drinking or if she’s simply suckling. They’re slowing down, drawing further apart from each other. Bethesda’s milk will be emptied soon.

Sometimes the child will suckle herself to sleep on the breast. Sometimes when she runs out she’ll unlatch and begin to wail.

Another tap on the ceiling door. Two more. Three. A series of clicks almost polite in their inquisitiveness.

Bethesda can picture the nightbird’s long, many-jointed digits extending off the pads at the middle joint of their wings, which they use as front feet or hands when not flying.

Tap, tap, tap.

This time, from the side that was once the floor. Moving all along its surface, testing, testing. Listening to the hollowness of the structure. Hearing them in that middle?

Bethesda wishes she’d laid down on the floor, in case it’s true that the nightbirds can see with sounds. Perhaps then it would brush over her shape among the scattered cart contents as just more rubbish, not a living, standing thing.

She dares not move now. She stands still as a tree trunk, fighting rigidity with forced calm, lest her sudden panic send Keena into a fit.

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap. Moving around to the other side of the cart. Tap-ping. Tap-ping. Tap tap tap-ping ping ping. Its finger finding wood and metal, wood and metal, drawing out the structure and strength in its mind.

Keena’s suction eases, changes. She’s finished. Bethesda has become quite practiced at noticing this shift, because it’s when she’s supposed to unlatch the child. Letting her suckle wears out her weak jaw muscles without bringing in new nutrition. But before she understood that, Bethesda had let Keena comfort suckle for as long as she wanted. Her baby would sometimes fall asleep there, the nipple slipping out minutes later, the darling limp and heavy, head nestled wherever it fell and Bethesda holding still, so still, cherishing it even as she longed for a break.

It has been a while since she’s allowed that, since the tongue attachment. A baby’s world changes hour to hour, day to day. Will Keena still want to?

The lack of tapping unnerves Bethesda even more than its progression. They say the nightbirds can work their talons almost like human fingers—that they are almost human-smart in using those long, segmented digits to seek their quarry.

Metal groans. The loose bracing. It’s prying the piece back. It found the one weak spot to manipulate.

A chill races through Bethesda; cool air has gotten into the cart and her shoulders are exposed. Cool air means a gap. A gap means space for a talon to slip in, to begin prying open the boards.

Keena stirs, starts to shift. Bethesda sways, ever so carefully, to soothe her.

The wooden planks beneath her feet creak, once, loud as thunder through the dark.

She holds her breath, listening.

Keena resumes a lazy suckle, but Bethesda can’t relax.

The looming presence outside gives one low, moaning siren. She thinks this is it, that the bird is crying victory. Then comes the sound of strong, thin wings beating the sky. Loud, higher, growing distant.

It’s gone.

Bethesda is so stunned that she stops swaying. Keena no longer notices, content to suckle herself to sleep in the darkness.

Why would the nightbird leave? It had them. It might’ve taken all night, but it would’ve been able to wrest its way into this broken box cart before dawn. The nightbirds stop at nothing.

Yet, this one has left.

She should run. While she has a chance, she should run. She can strap Keena to her using the swaddle and smother her face to her chest and pray and run and run.

But what if it’s still out there? They are known to be uncannily intelligent. Could it be so very clever as to sound like it’s flown away only to land and walk back on silent feet? Could it be standing nearby again already, waiting with head cocked to one side for her to come out, making its job swifter?

Leaving now seems unbelievably risky. Even if that creature has left for some unknowable reason, another nightbird could find them at any moment. Especially if Keena begins crying. If Bethesda begins running, the baby most certainly will. Won’t she?

Bethesda’s breath is shallowing, coming fast.

Not necessarily. The jolts and bumps of the cart rolling over ruts and rocks seemed to lull her calm. Maybe, if Bethesda is careful, her running can do the same?

She has to stop wondering. She has no other viable choice. Now that the cart is broken open, staying is a death sentence.

Waiting for even a short length of time would allow Keena to fall into a deeper sleep, but she doesn’t have that time. In the darkness of the cart, she fumbles through unlatching and wrapping her daughter to her chest, tighter than usual, doubling the knot behind her lower back. She makes sure she can still draw her blade. Squatting achily, she feels around on the floor for her canteen and drinks all the water left. Then she stands, lightheaded already with blood loss and what’s to come, and pushes over a box to stand on so she can reach the door at the ceiling.

If the nightbird stands by, it will hear even her quietest movements. But she is careful anyway, forcing herself steady through her building dread. If it’s gone, she doesn’t want to draw the attention of another. She doesn’t know how many there are. They are territorial, so there’s a chance not too many hunt here, but it’s a grand sky.

Bethesda’s arms tremble as she pushes open the door. The night is lighter than the cart was, full of lingering light and the glimmer of thousands of stars. The fresh scent of it makes her realize she’s sweating enormously, comically, a postpartum effect that made the cart smell musty and panicked.

She waits for wings to send wind down her spine. She waits for talons to stab her. She waits for teeth to clamp around her throat.

Every direction she can see is open, empty.

No more time for awe.

Keena shifts, and Bethesda knows from endless nights swaying that steady motion is better than sporadic, and so she hurries down to the earth, still warm from the day. Many of the women in her village wear skirts, but after birth Bethesda switched to high pants, not liking the loose, could-spill feeling of her guts still tightening back into place. She is grateful for it now, grateful for the miraculous recovery of her strange new body. She prays it will be enough.

The winds push her forward, and she obliges.

She walks past the cut reins, scent of ox still clinging. When she’s beyond the rig, she’s utterly exposed. There are no hiding places in the wide plain. Nothing to run to but her beyond-sight village. Nowhere to take cover.

Her pace is swift and smooth as she can make it, though she occasionally stumbles on ruts and clumps of weed. Her moccasins are too tight, her feet larger than they used to be. They aren’t swollen anymore—she still remembers the shock of how they expanded in the last week of pregnancy, and still more the days immediately after birth—but they are still larger, and softer, the bones shifted and strange, like walking in someone else’s skin. They ache.

Her hips ache, changed too.

Everything aches. Her back is tight and knotted at the bottom of her spine, because Keena is in a phase where she wants to be able to look up at her as she’s held. With that thought, Bethesda glances down, peeking under the wrap to see if she’s asleep. Keena dozes, lips parted, cheek smushed against Bethesda’s chest, eyes hooded. Good. Good enough.

She walks faster.

Somewhere, far away and perhaps in the mountains, comes another nightbird call. Bethesda imagines it sailing out like the creature’s wings, spanning and coasting until they find moving shapes, like her, and then folding, landing, feeling with those long, segmented fingers, tapping, testing.

The sensation is so vivid that a shudder climbs her back and jolts her into a violent spasm. Her poor nipples throb with the goosebumps, leaking, and she prays the smell doesn’t set Keena off again.

Another near-stumble sets her into a jog, but the extra bounce makes Keena huff, so she slows back into her longest stride, walking. A glance at the sky.

She pushes her body, wishing for the noise of her home trees. Wishing for the easy cacophony of night where the skies are blocked, where things roam and burrow and climb and go about their business. Not this hush, only the wind whistling past her ears like a long-held breath.

By the time the tree-line appears as a dark blur up ahead, Bethesda is panting and trembling. Keena coos, and when Bethesda looks down she finds her baby has managed to peek her head from under the wrap and is gazing up at her. When Bethesda looks into her large, serious eyes, she strokes the soft, fuzzy head and doesn’t so much sing as hum, making no sound but that which will vibrate through her chest so Keena can feel it.

Keena smiles.

Bethesda’s mouth parts, and the hum halts for a moment. The smile is tiny, toothless, a single dimple winking in her cheek. It is her first.

Tightness springing up her throat to prick her eyes, Bethesda smiles back.

Darling, she wants to say. My little starflower. Keena. But she dares not speak.

She wishes that Keena hadn’t woken, and the thought stabs her with guilt.

Then the call comes, joyful, sneaking, and far too close.

She whirls, searching.

Rising from the mountains, the dark, menacing shape of a nightbird in full flight. Bethesda’s feet stutter, her thighs on fire with the effort to keep her from falling. Her hands clench reflexively on Keena’s bundled back, and the squeeze makes the child whine.

Shh,” she whispers. “Shhh-shh shhhhhh.”

A second shape ascends behind the first. Smaller. At first Bethesda thinks it’s even farther away, but then she sees its clumsiness, its slower pace, the way it shadows the large one.

It’s a juvenile. Its offspring.

The adult who found them earlier and left—it hadn’t given up or gotten distracted. There was easy prey and time to teach. It had gone back to get her young.

It is a mother.

The two nightbirds’ cries twist into a beautiful, chilling song. They speak to each other. The small one flaps its wings quickly to keep up, the large one riding the thermals to slow her pace.

Bethesda knows in a depth beyond reason that they’ve already been spotted. They are found. They are what the creatures come for.

Mothers stop at nothing.

She breaks into a run.

Three things happen at once. Her knees buckle at the sudden jolt, the joints still soft and elastic, but she catches herself on the next step and manages to stay upright. Keena explodes into a wail. And Bethesda’s bleeding, which had slowed to sporadic clouds of pink, resumes in earnest, spilling in a gush so hot it seems to scald the insides of her thighs.

It doesn’t matter. It can’t matter right now.

Bethesda finds her strange feet, her footing, her tired legs and her hip joints and her bowed back and she runs. She runs as fast as she can make her body answer. After not long at all, Keena’s sobbing fades to confused little grunts and hiccups. She likes the motion, but not the jolting. Not the pounding heartbeat that is usually slow, steady, her comfort rhythm.

Bethesda tries, tries so hard to look forward, not up. If they come, they come. Watching them come will only slow her down.

But she does, up and over her shoulder to see how they gain.

Close enough to see the details of their silhouettes. Close enough to see the mother crane her flexible neck to keep an eye on the juvenile.

The ground, flat from a distance but subtly curved in its natural course, has been rising. Over this gentle rise, a line of trees grows, small, dark, safe.

Too far.

Keena’s protests have become wet, bubbly mouth sounds. Happy. She likes it.

Not so very far.

Bethesda worries about her baby’s little neck. She cradles her with both hands despite the snug wrap.

The wind feels even colder in contrast to her heated skin. Her hair has come free in vicious little strips that whip her face. She can’t catch her breath. She puts every ounce of her energy toward home. She stares at the trees and wills them closer, larger. She will drag them near with the sheer intensity of her desire.

Above, behind, closer still, a new call. A short series of sharp prods. A pause. Bethesda risks a glance up to see the mother turn toward her offspring, waiting.

The juvenile sends out a call of its own. Fragile, testing.

What she pictures, as the mother swoops low behind her, is the way their knuckles feel. She’s held one, once, detached. One of the hunters came back with a nightbird. The meat was tough and bitter, but he kept its hand for pride. Their leathery, rough skin is even thicker at those long appendages, but right at the knuckles, where the joints fold into several curving segments, little tufts of soft, downy fur protrude, like starflower fluff.

The mother dives so low behind her that the power of her massive wings sends the wind backwards, into her back, and it smells of clean minerals and cool caves.

No blow comes.

The mother lifts off, her form casting shadow under the starlight.

Bethesda’s blood has soaked through her pants, sticking the material to her skin. Her feet are going numb. She runs faster.

A keening, desperate cry splits the sky like a slice of lightning.

Something slams into her upper shoulders.

Bethesda falls. In slow horror she falls, desperate not to let go of Keena, desperate to put her hands down to catch them—to keep her baby from landing first. She doesn’t have time to choose, to realize that the wrap will hold Keena and she can let go, but her instinct chooses for her.

Her wrists slam into the grassy dirt, followed by her knees. She bites her tongue. Somehow, she manages to slide forward onto her face, neck bowing near to breaking to hold Keena off the earth. She is braced in the cave of her mother’s body. All the impact vibrates up Bethesda’s arms and thighs. Her belly and spine have done something awful, something sharp and straining. Her cheek is scraped raw.

Keena shrieks, a cry so fierce and angry that for a moment the juvenile nightbird goes silent above them, flapping to lift away once it realizes that it didn’t get a grip.

Bethesda never stops running. She uses the fall to launch herself up and faster, an arrow shot from a bow, and she screams, rage and pain spilling from her mouth as she charges toward home.

The trees. She can smell the trees. Their sweet, sappy trunks and their thick, dense leaves. The wind brings them to her, rushing past.

Both nightbirds flap up and away, but she knows they aren’t leaving. They’re too large to make tight turns. They have to strike from above as they plunge down.

The space between her shoulder blades is bleeding, scraped or punctured.

Bethesda can hear her own breath, hoarse, rasping, gasping.

They won’t make it. It’s close but still too far. Lights glint between the crowded trees. Someone from the village has heard or spotted them, sounded the alarm. But no one will come from safety to help.

Her husband would have.

The rest would tell her, if they could, to leave the child, save herself.

But mothers stop at nothing.

Her knees wobble and threaten to give with each pounding step. The lack of cries from above is ominous. Are they far, circling, or are they so confident of her placement that they don’t need to sound her anymore? Are they already gliding in for the next strike?

She shouldn’t look. She should stay focused on the woods, drawing near. She should fight not to fall. She should save every single drop of energy for speed.

The wind shifts ever so slightly at her back.

Without thought, she darts to the left.

The sharp hind talons of the mother grasp empty air to her right. The bottom of her wing’s central fold brushes Bethesda’s hair.

There’s no mistaking the cry this time. Fury. Bethesda, still hugging Keena tight despite the wrap, glances at her back as she soars up and around.

The juvenile will be next. Mimicking, learning.

She’s close enough to the tree-line now to hear shouts from villagers. What flashes in her mind isn’t the hunters who might be standing there, bows and arrows poised uselessly. It isn’t the elders or her midwife, too sorry to watch. It’s her hut, empty now that her husband is gone, but still safe, still smelling of him and milk and the smoke from their hearth.

This time she doesn’t feel wind. She doesn’t hear wings. She doesn’t know how she knows that the young nightbird is striking, but somehow, she does.

She darts to the right.

It learns quickly. It saw her dodge its mother, knows that trick. It splays its hind feet wide, bending one wing directly to her left, and it knocks her. Not the talons this time, but some bony part.

Bethesda grunts, flailing, and she somehow grabs an edge of wing as she falls.

They are a tussle of arms and soft, taut skin.

Keena is a background siren, constant, shrieking. The nightbird is silent but for one panicked bleat. Bethesda grunts with effort.

She can’t see beyond the underside of the creature but in fits and flashes, glimmers of the trees so close, so close now, just one more attacking swoop away from making it. Two more lucky dodges.

She dives into her fall, rolling over her shoulder and slamming onto her back to save Keena from being crushed. She tries to sit up, launch forward again, but her belly muscles don’t respond. The delay panics her. She rolls to her side, coming face to face with the young nightbird.

She stares into its strange, brilliant black eyes, and she feels it see her. She senses its fear, its regret at the mistakes that brought it to this moment in its young life.

She, too, feels that.

Her chest is drenched in her sweat and Keena’s spit, pooling from her open mouth. Her daughter cries so hard that she no longer makes sound, unable to catch breath to keep wailing through her distress. All blood to her face.

The nightbird gathers itself as Bethesda does, folding its wings in and down, so the hands balance on the earth like front paws, wing tips up and back stretching above its head. Bethesda rolls to her side and shoves herself up on one wobbly arm, panting. With her and it both standing, it’s scarcely taller than her at the eyes. Very young. This may even be its first flight.

It cocks its face, so bizarrely human, to one side, then winds its neck around like a snake before striking. Its long, snout spreads to reveal rows of tiny, serrated teeth, a pointed tongue.

Bethesda knows it’s coming. She whirls to the side, backing away as she draws her blade. It’s far too short. To reach she’ll have to be deathly close to that striking mouth.

As fast as her feet can take her, she backs away, too afraid to take her gaze off the creature. It lurches forward, eyeing, she thinks, her blade held out in front. It won’t take long for it to realize that the blade doesn’t pose much threat. It’s probably the first time it’s ever seen one.

She senses, in some subtle movement of its body, a weight shift, a wing tilt—she’s not sure—that it’s about to strike again.

With one arm shielding Keena, Bethesda leaps back, slashing frantically with the blade. The creature ducks the first and edges around and under, bobbing lower than she realized it could go.

She slices back up and catches the side of its face. A gash opens. It jerks its head back, letting out a piercing, unearthly howl.

She hadn’t realized that they’d both grown silent until she hears it. Not both. All. The nightbird, her, Keena.

Keena. Her daughter has fallen silent.

Bethesda’s body, already alight with terror, seems to catch fire.

Every instinct in her exhausted body tells her to look down. To check her baby.

Bethesda flexes her neck, resisting forcibly. She cannot look away from the predator in front of her. A glance won’t help no matter what’s wrong, and it could cost both their lives.

Jogging backward, Bethesda clutches the baby with her free arm, trying to focus on the animal, not the warmth through the wrap, not the wetness that could be anything. Home. She must get home. Home, home, home.

The nightbird tracks her every motion, head swaying on that eerie neck, keeping her guessing, making her track its every motion as well. Almost like it’s distracting her.

A chill rips up Bethesda’s spine. The hair on her neck tingles.

The silence. The silence was more than the three of them.

It was all four of them.

She has no time to look or doubt or even guess. She just acts.

Her back is exposed. She feels its nakedness as if her dress has been stripped away. She is made of soft, tender meat.

Bethesda dives forward, into the juvenile, toward its strange hind feet and massive trunk. She drops her blade to break her fall, twisting so she doesn’t land on Keena. Her shoulder grinds into the ground. Pain sears down her left side.

Wind gushes from every direction at once.

The young nightbird screeches.

Bethesda scrambles, trying to avoid the wing that smacks her, but she can’t gain purchase. The youth’s front hand grabs her ankle at the same time that the mother nightbird slams into it, unable to stop her attack. Her long, wicked talons dive into her child’s body.

The force of it drags Bethesda along and several feet off the ground before the young nightbird releases her ankle. She knows with certainty that it’s dead, already, being carried away by the mother, who now sings violently of her outrage.

Bethesda is up and running. Somehow, before she knows, she is sprinting as fast as she can go—faster than she’s ever gone, injuries and numbness and bleeding and all—toward the trees.

Both arms brace Keena as tightly as she can, now too afraid to look down for a different reason.

Instead, she glances up, back.

The nightbird flies with her child in her grip, beating the night itself with her massive wings, descending, turning already. To set the youth down? Bethesda looks forward so she doesn’t trip. She can’t feel one leg, but it’s working. The creature will have to release the body if she’s to attack again.

The voices of her villagers draw louder. Their words mean nothing to her, but she can hear them now. She can’t see their faces for their lights, but she knows every eye is trained on her. She doesn’t care.

A wail of agony so pure it seems ripped from Bethesda’s own ribcage finds her, pushes her back. Faster, faster, faster. One glance.

The mother has set her child down. She ascends again, no doubt gaining height and speed for her last attack.

Home is so close.

But without her baby? Without her husband or her darling girl? How can she live?

Bethesda’s knee folds. She screams, dropping to her knees and then her hands. Her body seems to stop. To crumple. Her clothes are soaked through, every last scrap of them, with blood and sweat and tears and pain. She can’t go anymore. She has nothing left to give.

She can imagine the nightbird bulleting toward her now, gaining speed, hyper-focused and with no distractions, no obstacles. This time, she won’t miss. Bethesda’s head drops, hair mingling with the grass.

Keena’s tiny scream blasts her in the face. Small, ragged, rageful.

Alive.

Bethesda shoves with something she didn’t know she had. She stands, steps. Her knee wobbles, but holds. She steps again. Pain, fresh waves of pain through all the numbness. But she can go. She goes.

She all but flies.

Behind her, the air shifts and parts for the monster who wants to eat them.

Bethesda pumps her legs and arms, letting Keena be held by the wrap as she pelts toward the safety of the trees.

The nightbird doesn’t bother with stealth. It hisses hoarsely as it glides toward her. It is only a race. There will be no dodging, no fighting.

The villagers have faces now. A barrage of arrows dot her periphery, but no one dares risk hitting her, and the creature is directly behind her now. She can feel it. Hear it. Smell it.

Just arms’ reach away. Surely. Surely.

Bethesda stretches her arms in front as if touching the bark of the closest trees alone will be enough. She leans forward.

The villagers all scuffle back and to the side, making room for her between the trunks.

Three more strides.

Two.

The glance of something touching her back.

The nightbird roars.

Bethesda bursts into the shade of the forest.

A loud crashing. The creature slams into the trees.

Bethesda slows and turns. It struggles to free its wings. It looks directly into her eyes and opens its mouth to make a sound that Bethesda has no name for.

Wrapping her wailing babe in her arms, swaying the way she has countless nights of sleepless feedings and singing, Bethesda makes the sound back.

In that moment, the two mothers understand each other.

A man shouts. The villagers have gone quiet.

“Don’t shoot!” Bethesda commands.

The nightbird can’t fit through the tree trunks so close together. Standing on the ground she senses her weakness here. Wings folded up above her head so she can run across the grass, she turns and streaks away, running, running, running, and then she spreads her arms and unfolds her wings and she’s soaring into the night sky, silent.

Bethesda wants to collapse. Instead, she carefully pulls Keena from the wrap and lets the fabric drop to the ground as she brings her crying daughter to her neck, murmuring, swaying, singing.

“Keena,” she says aloud. “Keena, Keena, Keena, my child.”

Keena sings her hot-faced outrage with milky breath, and Bethesda sobs.

In all the world, there is only them.

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© Annie Neugebauer

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1 Comment

  1. Koconut Latte

    The editors at Apex Magazine must have cheered aloud when they finished reading the manuscript, both for Bethesda’s victory and their luck in acquiring this piece. Beautifully done

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