Welcome to the third year anniversary celebration, where we present three of our favorite Halloween stories. Last but not least is SNOWFALL by the brilliant Mara S. Akram. This story is inspired by the Swiss folk legend of the undead hunter Türst and his three-legged hounds. To end the celebration, we give you a nightmare come to life!
I knew it would be that night and not the next.
Maybe it was the moon that told me, its honeyed light poured in through the spine of the cabin as I lay snug under the warm covers, my face bathed in the orange light of the fire.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Ama’s words all those years ago. ‘Magic happens when no one’s looking,’ she had told me. Ever since, I had been determined to see it – to know for certain it existed.
So much had happened since the last Light’s Giving. With Ama gone and my mother a shell of herself, I needed something to prove life still held meaning, still held magic. But everyone knew not to go out on the nights before Light’s Giving. All the stories said that whoever saw Türst was never seen from again. Those were the stories the Elders told. The stories Ama had told. But I, for one, had never seen anyone disappear, except those who died and were buried in the cold ground. And besides, my best friend Kilan said the stories were just there to scare children into doing what they were told.
On the other side of the dying flames, my mother’s rumpled form lay obscured beneath a heap of dark pelts. She would not even notice my absence, I was sure. A quick look and I would be back before the flames in the fire had dulled to embers.
I didn’t give myself long to think about it. I pulled on one thick skinned boot and then the other, wrapping myself in Ama’s old cloak. I pulled the hood down over my hair as I pinched my body through the small door and out into the milky silence of the night.
I made my way down the narrow path, enjoying the delicate snowfall that kissed my lips and nose. The cabins looked like snug snow boots, their wood frames wrapped in animal skins, barring out the cold. So quiet a night, and still I was not worried. I should have noticed that even the forest had gone quiet. That not one animal made a sound as I passed close to its shadowy edge.
Kilan said it was the Elders who buried the tribute beneath the crooked yew tree themselves, that they wanted to keep the rest of us fearful; believing in old magic, believing in shadowy creatures that lurked deep within the forest but secretly I hoped he was wrong.
The altar fire had all but died under the chill night air. Across the ravine, the field stretched out, yellow moonlight glinting on the unbroken snow. I stood for a long time, watching my clouds of breath in the snowfall. Even the gentle sound of my boot crunching against the snow seemed loud in the stillness.
The sound when it came was distant at first but sharpened suddenly. It was something like the jangle of tiny bells followed by a slow grating sound.
The noise made my chest tense. I fell to the ground behind the altar bracing myself against the stone. As I peered out across the field, I saw nothing but the wide expanse of glistening snow. Then the sound was gone and for a moment I was sure I had imagined it. I rolled over in the snow, feeling the relief of the steady rise and fall of my chest.
I leaned into the altar, gripping the edge to stand but as I pulled myself up, a movement caught my eye on the far side of the field. I froze, crouched, halfway between kneeling and standing. The world seemed to be spinning as I watched a shadow move out of the forest. My chest ached for breath but still I could not breathe as I watched the shadow lengthen and stretch across the snow, slick and stealthy as oil.
I didn’t wait to see the shadow’s body as it came out of the forest. I gasped in the cold night air and pressed myself flat against the snow. It would not see me behind the altar. It would never know I was there.
For a moment it was impossibly quiet except for the gentle snicker of the dying embers in the altar above. Even the wind seemed to have silenced itself in the presence of whatever now moved out across the snow. There was a pressure to the air, like the feeling of having one’s head under water. I raised my head and rolled on my side, trying to get free of the murkiness that had filled the air.
That was when I saw it.
Türst stood frozen at the edge of the field.
Everyone knew Türst was a man, or at least that he had been at one time. But the shadowy figure I saw now was so far from being a man I couldn’t reconcile myself to calling him one.
The dragging sound resumed as the dark figure advanced across the white. Behind it, a trail of piteous creatures hobbled along – Türst’s three-legged hunting dogs. To call them hunting dogs seemed wrong. Their skeletal frames trembled in the still air, as if each step were painful.
I was so entranced by the sight, that my head inched up, over the edge of the altar to take in the full view of Türst and his dogs as they moved across the field. As I peered over the dying embers, I saw a glimmer of silver nestled between Türst’s bone white fingers. My heart danced in my chest at the sight of it. Silver. A gift from the lake beneath the mountain, the place where all dead things were said to go and from which some, like Türst and his hounds, returned each year. It was a strange mixture of glee and terror that filled my chest as my eyes tracked Türst across the field. Each long stride was as slow and inevitable as the dark pool of blood that clotted the snow around the great sow’s body after each Light’s Giving.
I could not look away though my mind screamed at me to do so. The same voice that had pulled me out of the ice when I was seven. The one that had told me to jump off Myra’s sleigh before it went crashing down the ravine. The voice that had saved my life on more than one occasion was pleading with me to turn away, to crawl back to the cabin, to shut my eyes and turn my back on the open field where Türst and his hounds had come to do their work.
But though the voice pleaded with me, I found my body would not move. It remained rigid, peering over the altar, knees anchored in the snow, fingers almost frozen to the altar’s base, gripping the stone like two pale spiders.
It was the sound that broke the spell. The sound that unchained my body from the altar.
It was a wholly unnatural sound, like life breathed into stone. Türst was speaking to his hounds and in that moment, I knew that somehow, he knew I was there.
My body acted even as my mind remained frozen at the base of the altar. My hands and legs pushed me back. Away, away. The only words that came to me. I chanted them silently, trying to keep as low as possible, grateful for the monstrous height of the fire altar. If I could just make it behind the last cabin, I could stand and run the rest of the way.
A terrible sound rooted me to the ground. The howl of the hounds sounded like a chorus of dying animals. There was a reason magic happened when no one was looking. The creatures that wielded magic were hideous and beyond nature’s care. They were indifferent to time and suffering, to pain and joy. I knew these things instantly the moment I heard the howl of the hounds and the chilling sound of their scampering legs covering the distance across the field to where I lay planted in the snow like an offering.
The scampering legs and low whines grew louder as the hounds descended into the ravine. Shock and fear shot through me as my head collided with something hard. I turned, expecting to see the dark wood of the base of the cabin, but instead I found myself looking up at a boot.
I could barely recognize Kilan’s voice as he pulled me up and pushed me behind the cabin. ‘Run! Don’t stop!’
The world melted. I choked and gasped for air, but still I ran.
A safe world. I needed to get back to a world where Kilan was right, and I was wrong. But behind me the hideous howling continued to fill the air.
I did not wait to hear the sound of life breathed into stone again, and when the scream came, I didn’t stop.
Mara S. Akram is a Pakistani-American writer living in Switzerland. An alumna of the Author Mentor Match mentorship program, her fiction writing has appeared in the archeo-fantasy novella The Eye of the Ocean. When not reading, writing or drawing, she can probably be found getting lost in the Swiss countryside. To connect with Mara, visit her on Twitter or at www.art4mara.com.
What do you think of Mara’s story? Let us know with a comment. And… be sure to come back at 1pm for another featured story. We hope you enjoyed the party and will keep it rolling in 2023, when we come back for a whole new year of literature, art, and fun!
As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to Submit.