Photo: Sue Vincent
“This is where it broke out.”
Bender shaded his eyes from the glare and squinted at the black patch on the meandering snake of ice.
“Tis a mighty small one, then,” he noted.
Roman frowned. “That hole is bigger up close. And anyway, you should’ve seen the length of it.”
Bender shrugged and took a few steps closer, daring Roman to do the same. The ice crunched under their feet, a staccato to their accelerating heartbeat.
They would be punished for walking here. The Winter Gods had taken too many who strayed onto what masqueraded as solid ground but was in fact bog fairies lurking beneath frosted fronds. Even in summer these flats were dangerous, full of sinkholes and swampy ponds that sucked at your feet and then leeched out your blood. Children were outright forbidden from entering the bog.
Which made the space all the more alluring to boys who had to prove bravery and test the lore.
For there was a boy, the stories told, who got swallowed by a sinkhole only to be adopted by the creek and made half-human and half-snake. He could breathe both in the air and underwater, and came to hunt in winter, when other snakes were slowed by cold.
Some had said they’d seen it, slithering among the silver plants by dusk and dawn. Some even claimed to have escaped its grasp — for the half-boy-half-snake had arms that ended in sharp claws held close to it’s lower body as it undulated silently toward its prey. One man had four parallel scars upon his calf that he said were the proof of his escaping the creature.
Roman said he’d seen it, slipping out of the ice.
Bender never could trust Roman’s sight, influenced as it tended to be by what his friend wished to see but often did not. Still, to say so would be showing him a coward … so … Bender took another step, crunching deeper into the foreboding land.
Behind him, Roman breathed out clouds of exhalation accentuated by shorter puffs of terror. “Perhaps it had gone back in already,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” Bender gasped in barely masked relief. “Must have. After all, it is almost full light. Nothing for it but for us, too, to head back.”