Fractured Suspension

TIME FREEZES STILL on the coldest of winter mornings.

“I dare you to touch her,” Tredan’s chilled whispers came to Edrick. Both their eyes never strayed from the corpse abandoned at the forest edge.

A nameless little girl.

Edrick only knew of her. She was from another village visiting family, Dregan’s kin.

Seeing her distilled the cold right out of the air.

“As cold as a grave,” Tredan had said when they snuck away and followed Edrick’s father here. It was a kind of cold that froze the world hard, denying it of all comfort. A cold that was absent of soft snow. A dim, frozen world where timber-lions snatched children at dawn.

Tredan shook his meager purse of animal fangs and claws slung from his belt. “Six wolf teeth if you touch her.”

“This is no game,” Edrick warned his friend, then stepped toward the girl, slowly, respectfully.

“I think we should leave then, Edrick,” Tredan called from behind him. He was nervous, Edrick could tell. “I don’t want your father to catch us here. We should have waited at your home, like he told us.”

Edrick did not heed Tredan’s words or share his fears. This girl was alone in death and he would not leave her. Dregan’s kin, her family, dared not chase after her. No villager dared braving the winter morning knowing timber-lions were hunting. Seldom do these beasts leave the shadowed forest of Wudelic. It must have been desperation that lured this starved hunter from the wilds, into the stark openness.

In past summer days of long light and playful moods, village children like this girl would wonder, “Why can’t we play in the forest like the Woodcutter’s children?” as they beheld the great and wild Wudelic.

“Because the ways of the forest are fickle and beguiling.” The sensible parents would answer. “Those children were practically born there, like the elves and other creatures of the fey. They aren’t quite the same like you or others. They are…strange.”

Strange, like the woods.

Like rumors of distant seas, or tales of enormous desert mountains of amassed sun scorched sands, stained in sunset hues, as wide and wild as any ocean. Things no sensible villager truthfully knew about, but heard enough to become disinterested and dismissive.

Today, such warnings would cut into every man, woman and child like bound rope, cinched so tight, it choked them all.

But not the Woodcutters. Not his father, Edrick thought with great pride. His father gave chase when they all heard the girl’s distant screams. Not one villager stirred as Edrick and his friend Tredan hurried through the village. Not a fearful peek was given from any window.

As soon as this girl stepped out of her cottage that morning, she was on her own, Edrick thought.

He approached the corpse-girl in slow reverence, stepping in his father’s footprints outlined in scraped frost. Father had tracked down the timber-lion and must have chased it back into the woods. He would return, to bring the dead girl back to her family, Edrick knew. Until then, Edrick would stay. It was the right thing to do. As a Woodcutter, it was their way.

She appeared as a doll, discarded by some passing forest giant. An innocent creature cast away with disinterest. An ephemeral thing. She lay sprawled on her side, turned away from his approach, arms and legs twisted, fingers half curled. She remained in stunning stillness, but not like sleep. Instead, a fractured suspension, like the air captured by the winter dawn.

Edrick shivered. The sight chilled him from the inside, beneath his thick winter furs.

Blood saturated her woven wool skirt, deepening the bright reds, distorting the sunburst oranges and light blues of the knitted winter pattern. Her torn shirt revealed where the timber-lion feasted. Edrick had seen this carnage before with lost sheep or deer they found in the woods, but never with a person. Entrails spilled out like shredded sausage. Her stomach, liver, and kidneys, snatched away in a frenzy.


Edrick could not take his eyes off the gaping cavity that was once her belly, soft and smooth like his own.

Unlike the death of village elders, which were somber but peaceful passings like drifting clouds against a marbled sky, this was his first glimpse of an ash stained storm swallowing the horizon. It was ugly and cruel and it forced Edrick to his knees.

He removed his winter gloves and held the girl’s hand. There was no warmth, just slick, cold skin. He slid his fingers between hers. She was not stiff despite the cold. He rocked her arm gently. It moved freely as if she was just sleeping. She rolled onto her back with the movement. Her lifeless eyes gazed above.

“What are you doing?” Tredan demanded, for the fourth or fifth time. Edrick continued and would not hear him. The dead should not be touched by the living unless you have protection. Protection of an alhíelda, a faerie-guardian. Edrick was irreverent to these concerns. All he knew was that she wanted someone by her side and he would not leave her until she was buried.

She was exposed to the cold world and she should not have been. Her stomach was gone, her mouth hung open, absent of breath, and her eyes stared far into the sky. Stared beyond the blue until she saw the blackness before the stars. Saw what no child should witness in their young lives - unkind Death, and through her eyes, her soul poured out into the infinite.

Edrick wept, holding her hand, imbuing her with one final touch of life as he cradled her fingers against his cheek. His tears smoked through the air.

“You are not alone anymore,” he whispered to her. “I am here with you. You won’t be alone anymore.”

There is a change in people when they die and Edrick saw it, though he did not know her. He wondered what her eyes saw now. Did she know he was there? Did she know his father hunted her killer?

“Bring me some straw!” Edrick ordered with urgency, remembering he was not alone. “As much as you can carry!”

“What?” Tredan replied, uncertain and afraid. Edrick shouted his request repetitively until he heard Tredan’s boots gritting into the distance.

Edrick closed the girl’s mouth with his fingertips. Her pale skin took the likeness of flawless snow. He leaned over until he met her eyes. “I am Edrick,” he said, quiet as chill morning.

A corpse is not a person, yet the body should be respected in life and death.

Mother said people die at different speeds, some quite slow, others fast, yet it is hard to tell the moment when the soul departs. Some souls linger in this world long after the body is buried.

He hoped this girl’s ghost lingered. He needed her to know she was not alone.

Time freezes still on the coldest of winter mornings. The day does not grow brighter for long hours. Time was unchanged as Edrick knelt next to the girl, holding her hand until Tredan returned with arms full of straw. He dropped it on the ground next to them, then gasped.

Edrick ignored his friend’s shock and grabbed handfuls of golden stalks, stuffing her hollow abdomen.

“Stop doing that! Leave her,” Tredan pleaded, tugging his shoulder.

“We can’t leave her like this, empty,” Edrick said in a low voice. “We have to put it back. We can’t bury her empty like this.”

Edrick packed the straw against her torn diaphragm, gaping with holes. The beast’s maw had burrowed farther and farther toward the heart. He stuffed each space tightly, closing and sealing her. Replacing the emptiness. Warmth still clung deep inside, he thought.

Warmth. A small remnant of life remained. It gave Edrick hope the girl’s spirit knew he took care of her remains with a caring touch.

When he finished, Edrick removed his winter coat and laid it over her.

“She is dead, why are you doing that?” Tredan asked.

“To show my respect!” Edrick snapped, irritated.

Winter air rushed over Edrick’s bare skin, shaking his body. Punishing his body. Muscles flinched fast, faster than his racing heart.

Then Tredan leaned closer. “What if the timber-lion returns? How are you going to run frozen stiff?”

Edrick shook his head. “I will not run. I am staying here until my father returns,” he said through clattering teeth. His breath puffed like a chimney billowing white smoke. “You can go back if you want.”

Tredan said nothing else. He stood motionless over the two as morning wore on. He eventually removed his own cat-skin coat and draped it over Edrick. They took turns wearing the fur and shivering as they waited for Edrick’s father.

The world was terribly silent on that frigid winter morning, sluggish and harsh. The appearance of a lone figure emerged from the woods after long empty moments; Edrick’s father, the Woodcutter of Athelyn.

In one hand he carried a great ax, the head of something dark in the other.

“Edrick!” Father yelled out from the distance. His voice shattered the silence like slicing icicles crashing through the trees. His father quickened his pace as he approached them. Edrick fell back, away from the girl and stood at quick attention.

All of the Woodcutter children shied from their father’s wrath, but Edrick never feared him. He did his best to respect him though.

Tredan jumped. “Edrick, he killed it!” he shouted, patting Edrick in relief.

There, clutched in his father’s left hand was the devilish visage of a timber-lion’s severed head. It was huge. Edrick mistook it for a bear at first. This beast’s eyes were not empty like the girl’s, but remained menacing and fierce. Its maw still snarled. Its lips curled back revealing the jagged weapons that had stolen the girl’s vital organs, swallowed her life whole.

It is a tortured spirit that remains in the body of the dead, unable to flee into the afterlife, and this thing’s spirit did not yield.

Tredan stepped back as Edrick’s father stood over them.

“Did I not tell you to remain with your mother?” Steam blasted forth from each word. He seemed as an animal himself, clad in shaggy, dark wintery wolf hide.

“Yes sir, you d-d-d-d-did,” Edrick said, teeth clattering. The hard, cold air became an iron vice pressing into every pour of his exposed skin.

His father shook his head, then looked over what was left of the girl. Edrick had treated her remains honorably, without thought to his own exposure.

“Edrick, you are the most challenging child I have had yet. Willful. Defiant. Ignorant to what should terrify prudent children.” The two held each other’s eyes in the stillness. Edrick looked away first, only to look back upon the girl.

“You never waste a moment worrying your mother or I, do you?” His father asked, more kindly, with a note of resignation.

Edrick blinked. “I want t-t-t-t-to bury her.” He nodded toward the girl beneath his coat, while clenching down on his jaw, willing the cold away.

Father dropped the timber-lion’s head. It rolled toward Edrick. He picked it up, only to see how much it weighed. Heavier than he thought, like a wide bucket of rocks.

Edrick did not like the feel of the beast and wanted to be rid of it. But he would carry it for his father.

Father then knelt over the girl. “I will bear her to her family,” he said, taking the body into his arms, gentle as if he cared to harm her no further. “I hope they find peace knowing the beast is dead.” He let out a heavy breath. Edrick knew it came not from exhaustion, but from a different place.

“Follow me,” Father said and turned away from them.

The two boys did their best to match the Woodcutter’s long strides.

The Windows update prank can easily trick someone when opened in full screen. It looks and acts like a real install page.



An ancient and proper title for the one villagers ridiculed as Woodcutter, Alaric, son of Accenan. It has been his responsibility, passed down through untold generations, to protect and serve the village Athelyn, to appease the spirits of the forest so all honest men and women could live peacefully, in the name of the king in Athéalgian.

So it was, that cold, bitter morning, Alaric rushed out of his family’s home at the edge of Wudelic Woods, ax in hand, chasing after a young girl’s panicked screams before the winter worn beast broke her neck. It was his responsibility to tame the wild, to ward off outside harm intruding on descent folk. Truthfully, responsibility or not, Alaric acted on impulse. Compelled by an honest heart. It was compassion that moved him, sprinting toward the unsettling cries of a young girl desperate to live.

It was his burden that he failed that morning.

Alaric could not explain to Edrick why Dregan and his kin were thankless for returning the girl. He could not explain how the sight of a dead beast frightened them more than one that lived.

“What have you done!” Dregan yelled at them. Yelled at Alaric and his son and friend. They were not welcomed inside the farmer’s home. “Her death is what Lhodyn desired, or She would not have sent the beast!” The man argued, pushing Alaric away from the door, taking care not to touch the corpse. Alaric caught a glimpse of the grieving mother. The family held her inside. It took three of them to restrain her as she reached for her slain daughter. “If Lhodyn wanted the girl,” Dregan continued, “then she is not ours to welcome back. Return her to the woods before She demands more of us, you dull Woodcutter.”

They slammed the door on him. Left the three in the cold.

“I told you, you should not have touched her,” Alaric heard Tredan whisper to his son.

Alaric turned on them. “You two should not have left the house at all!”

Tredan shrank back.

“Where will we b-b-b-b-bury her?” Edrick asked, undeterred by his father’s anger or Dregan’s fear. He had walked the entire distance without his winter coat, without complaint, carrying the head of the dead beast.

Alaric had led them the entire way without looking back, urgent to return the girl to her family. He now noticed with great concern how Edrick’s skin lost its color.

“I will bury her. You need to go home, now. Before sickness comes over you.”

“Where will you bury her?” Edrick insisted.

A burial was impossible in this cold, but Alaric spoke the answer his son wanted to hear. “In the byrgen with everyone else. Now get going. You too, Tredan. Your folks will be concerned.”

“You p-p-p-p-promise?” Edrick pressed.

Alaric paused. “I promise. Now get home.”

Edrick did not move immediately.

Alaric knew the child was deciding whether to follow instructions or do what he willed. Edrick finally set the beast’s head on the ground. He took the girl’s hand in his, trembling terribly. “Let Lhodyn p-p-p-p-protect your soul in her V-V-V-V-Vaults.”

Alaric tried not to let his son see him shudder. Edrick’s piercing eyes jumped from the girl to meet his own.

The boy did not realize what he said. Anyone would have said the same except the Warden of the Woods. They alone were burdened with Her secrets.

“I will see you at home, son. We will speak about your punishment when I return.”

Disobedience should never be ignored, even when he did right by the girl.

The boy nodded and ran. Tredan followed.

He ran because that was the best way to warm a cold body. Alaric taught him that. Sometimes the boy listened.

His stubborn son lived without fear. He lived as the rest of them could not. But that time would end. There were few things a person could escape in life and fear could not be one of them. Even if the boy managed it for nine years, it would inevitably work its way into his heart.

There would be no mourning openly for Wylla, the girl he and his son cared for in death. Sacrificing a life to Lhodyn or any of the other gods was nothing unexpected. A young girl, an old man, a newborn. Such deaths ensured crops yielded fruit, disease passed onto the next village, that their beasts birthed calves, lambs and piglets to replace those slaughtered to feed their shrinking stomachs. There was never a sowing without a reaping. One always hoped to have balance.

But the gods mostly took without giving. That was why Alaric buried the girl. It was why he hunted that rarest of beasts, that seldom journeyed into the realm of men, to thwart their desires.

The gods that walked the earth did not acknowledge the wisdom of balance. They were like drunken kings, all of them, taking pleasure at the ruination of mortals. And all the world were their captive dinner guests. To refuse a seat at their table meant to be thrown from the hall into the inhospitable night. To suffer their company was their lot in life.

Alaric laid awake that night, thinking of the girl, the woods and all the secrets desires that seemed impossible for him. A better life for his family.

Elisial, his wife, snuggled beneath his chin, arm draped over his chest. He listened to her rhythmic breath.

“I have never known a timber-lion to leave the woods,” she said. “Winter turns the most cautious creatures into brutes.” He welcomed the sensation of her breath across his skin. “I would have never known timber-lions to be real unless I saw their tracks over soft ground. Have you seen them before?”

“Yes,” Alaric replied. He held her close beneath mink fur blankets. She ran her fingers along his ribs and down his stomach. “They watch us always, when in the woods.”

“They must be beautiful, I imagine. Like you, husband.” Elisial reached to kiss his lips. He never knew how to feel when called beautiful.

“And deadly,” Alaric reminded her.

Something startled the animals outside. The chickens cackled in a frenzied chorus, the sheep bleated like when they were young, separated from their mothers.

Elisial raised her head. Both she and Alaric were now intent on the sudden noise.

Living on the forest edge often attracted nightly visitors. The Woodcutters kept a few animals. A family could not live without their animals. The faerie lamps they lit every evening deterred most predators, rendering most nights peaceful. Alaric dealt with the rest.

Silence now fell across the Woodcutter household as the animals went quiet all at once.

Alaric sat up.

A great raucous clamor burst again from their small barn. The animals screeched and cried in pain, reacting to something. Then one by one, the animals fell deathly silent.

Alaric jumped from their bed and dressed swiftly. “Gather the children into our room. I’m taking Halig.”

“Be careful husband,” Elisial said as she crossed through the dark like a woodland spirit.

Outside, the faerie lanterns had gone out.

“What could have extinguished those flames?” Halig, his eldest son asked, readying his bow.

Lhodyn, Alaric thought. He looked to the forest. She was not done with him.

Whatever had entered the barn, still lingered. A hollow cracking of bone popped forth from inside. It fed richly, having discovered a pantry so near its forest abode.

“A timber-lion.” Alaric whispered to his son. The chewing ceased. It had heard him, clearly. “His mate, I’d guess. She must be with a litter.”

“She followed you from the woods?” Halig asked, surprised, afraid even.

Alaric shrugged. The reason did not matter. He killed her mate, who never returned with their morning meal. She starved in the emptied woodland. She came to feed. She came for the young ones in her belly.

But now, he would not let her keep them. He had his own kin to look after.

She screamed like a dæmon when Alaric plunged his hunter’s spear into her chest. She fought wildly, fought for her cubs, as if each stab plucked another life from her.

The beast pushed Alaric into the open, fighting to escape, bending the spear shaft. She attempted to flee to where she knew it was safe. The woodland was but a few bounding leaps away.

But Alaric held her firmly as Halig pelted her with swift arrows. In only a few moments, all strength fled her powerful form. Vapor rose from the ground around them, where its blood pooled.

Alaric withdrew the spear. The timber-lion crawled away, bleeding out, mewling like a frightened cub. It would die before she entered the forest. Halig followed, bow drawn.

Lhodyn can keep her, Alaric thought with contempt. A reminder the Woodcutters came into this land before Her. Survived still and would remain.

Inside the barn, Alaric’s heart sank at the sight of his dead animals. The beast seemed to kill for sport, for revenge, to burden the Woodcutters with injurious blows in an already difficult winter.

One lamb lived yet, both rear legs shredded to the bone, it would not live much longer. It lay trembling next to its mother’s carcass, mute with terror. Alaric lifted the lamb in his arms and stepped back out into the night. It struggled against him.

He called for his sons. They would not sleep that night. The meat needed to be salvaged. Eadwyn, his fourth eldest, arrived first.

“Son, bring the carving knives and your brothers. We will see how well you can skin these animals.”

Alaric considered the trembling lamb in his arms. He should have killed it swiftly, there, in the barn. But something urged him to remove it from its dead parents. To rescue it? he asked himself. No, he would have Elisial and Meghan prepare it for tomorrow’s meals.

“What are you doing with Mathilda?” Edrick asked, once he was outside. He stood with his brothers, Eadwyn and Baldice.

“She’s dying. She will make a decent meal or two. There will be plenty of meat to share with our neighbors from all our dead animals, but something tells me they will not touch it.”

“No, not Mathilda!” Edrick pleaded. He ran to Alaric. “Mother can save her, I know she can!” Alaric did not expect this. This was not the first animal slaughtered for dinner.

“She won’t be able to walk or graze again, Edrick. And if she does survive, she will be vulnerable to wolves and other beasts and suffer this again too easily.”

“But that’s Mathilda, Papa,” Baldice calmly pleaded, Alaric’s third child. He stepped forward. “Sunniva loves her dearly. We all do.”

“Then don’t mention it to her. At four years, she will remember little of the past.”

“We will,” Edrick stroked Mathilda’s head, nuzzled her soft face, “remember.”

The lamb’s trembling ceased at his son’s touch.

“Let Mama treat her.” Edrick asked him once again. His words were tender. “If she dies, then Lhodyn claimed her already. If she lives, then Lhodyn has blessed us.”

All three boys waited for a reply. There was work to be done. Alaric yielded, giving Edrick the lamb. “See what your mother can do,” he finally said.

He watched as Edrick lovingly carry the lamb inside as if he held all their lives in his hands. Alaric addressed his other sons. “If it lives, you will see to her survival. You feed her and change her straw. She cannot be with the flock ever again. You children will see to her health. She lives by your hands now.”

“Aye, Papa,” Baldice answered. Eadwyn nodded.

Halig returned from chasing the beast. “It is dead, Father. What should we do with the carcass?”`

“Take the skin only. Leave Lhodyn Her portion.”

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