A chunk from NaNoFiMo. This definitely won’t get finished this month, but at least I should pack a bit more meat on its bones…
It was a small stream. It had never been dragged with iron chains or even shackled with a footbridge. It lay across her path, glinting in the light that slipped between the trees, gurgling and joyous and mad.
Laura did not want to cross it. It looked to be about eighteen inches deep—too shallow for sirens, too fast for the mud-colored wights with their moss-green teeth. Between those two extremes lay any number of Other creatures that could drown a mortal girl and pick the meat off her bones, and a few that wouldn’t bother with the drowning and would proceed straight to the picking while she was still alive to appreciate it.
Jack did not seem troubled. He snuffled at the water and nothing came out of it to get at him.
“Easy for you,” muttered Laura. “You’re not all the way normal.”
Of course, neither am I.
She followed the stream a few hundred feet, skidding on the faded corpses of last year’s leaves. Jack kept pace, the red tips of his ears tilted up to catch the forest sounds. Nothing strange happened. The water rushed and chuckled in its bed.
Perhaps it was only water.
They reached a clearing in the woods.
“Ah,” said Laura. “I see.” She felt the need to sit down—right now, at once, without looking for a handy rock or log—and did so. Leaves stuck to her dress.
At some point in the past, a beaver had tried to dam the little stream. He had built a framework of logs across the streambed. Perhaps he had been a normal beaver, or perhaps one of the strange altered ones, but it scarcely mattered, because the stream had not particularly wished to be dammed.
The water ran right up to the log pile and then broke apart in a hundred white-furred bodies with blood-black eyes and sharp black tail-tips. Ermine. Yes. Laura recognized them. Pa trapped them sometimes, but never in great numbers. Not like this. This was a flood.
The slender weasels slid and scurried over the logjam and down into the streambed, and within two paces they were water again.
She watched the flowing weasel-water for a long time. Jack sat down next to her and panted happily.
“Very well,” said Laura. “Very well. I suppose—well, I suppose they can run up my dress and drag me down and eat me. Hmm.”
Jack, who knew only that his person was talking to him, wagged his tail.
The stream lay across their path. If Laura was going to continue going north, she had to cross it, or follow its meandering route east until it became a spring. That could take hours or even days.
If I cannot even cross a stream, she thought, I have no hope at all. She took a deep breath and dusted old leaves off her backside. Very well.
“I am looking for the Jack of Woods,” she told the stream. “If you can’t help me—and I suppose you probably can’t—then I ask you not to hinder me. Um. Please?”
She stepped into the water.
It broke around her foot instantly, into a scurrying flood of ermine. They scrambled out of her way. Her foot came down on the stones of the riverbed, which were as dry as old bone.
She took another step. The ermine skittered away, and that foot stayed dry too.
Inches away, the water ran on undisturbed. Slender white bodies squirmed away from her, their tails flickering like foam. They chittered and whistled and squeaked, a noise not entirely unlike the gurgling of the stream.
If she closed her eyes, she might not be able to tell the difference.
Closing my eyes is probably pressing my luck.
She took another step. The water rushed to fill in the space behind her.
Jack—her Jack—was frantic, snapping at the weasels as they ran by, but as soon as his jaws closed on one, it became a shower of droplets that splashed into the body of the stream.
“Stop that!” she hissed at him. He dropped his head and whined.
It took her six strides to cross the weasel-water. When she was safely on the other side, she turned and looked back, and there was only water in the streambed.
She called to Jack. He leapt into the water with a great splash and crossed to the other bank, then stood and shook himself off. She saw an ermine splash together under his chest and run down to the stream, but that was all.
“Well,” she said to her dog. “Well.” And then she could think of nothing else to say, and they continued in silence into the flickering wood.