Refuge

Short Fiction by Lindy Greaves

It’s dark. A deep embracing darkness that wraps my limbs into its folds. Outside the hollow tree the wind strops and lashes like a petulant child. Ice tendrils hang like fangs around the entrance and every so often a putter of snow wisps through in a grey chink of light. An earthy musty mouldering smell, almost chilled into nothing, permeates this nook and me, right through to the marrow of my bones. I squat on my haunches, barefoot, my cheek pressed against festering rotten wood. This is a place for animals. Bats and suchlike. This is a tomb. And yet it is a sanctuary – safer here than out there. Here I am hidden.  Shrouded from the worst of the weather and those that would hunt me. Alone save the slow muzzy white clouds of my breath inside the murky hollow. I watch each one dissipate before it leaves. No distress signal from me. My fingers are frozen. Silently, rhythmically, I rub them on my thighs. The flimsy dress moves under them. I try to move my head but my hair has snagged on something I can’t see and it won’t be freed.

I can hear one of them prowling around out there. Thick soles tramping nearer, further away, rough exhalations marking the fruitlessness of his search. Bestial sounds. His curses are strung together like beads. I strain with dark-sharpened ears, so that I imagine I hear them rushing towards me through this frozen night air. Homing. Guiding him in. Don’t follow I think. Don’t see. I send out these thoughts like blades, cutting through the strings of the searching beads, scattering them on the forest floor.

My bare toes curl. Can something be agonising even while it’s numb? The joints in my hips and knees are stiff. I want to change position but I daren’t. He’s close. I can sense it. Smell it. Brash-booted, he stalks though powder, listening. Waiting for me to break. But I won’t. I am one with the forest. One with this tree. Thank God, thank Thor, thank Diana there hasn’t been much snow in the wood. Not enough for me to leave a trail of prints that a torch beam could follow. The wound on my hand has stopped bleeding. The blood on my arms is almost dry. I don’t think about the other blood that spattered my face and neck. Coppery and still slightly tacky. The blood that isn’t mine.

The adrenaline-heat of escape has dwindled to a dying flame somewhere in the centre of my body. I picture it around my heart while the rest of me grows blue-white like an ice statue. A girl made of glass. Hard. Brittle. My teeth are clinched together to stop them chattering. Here in this obsidian hollow I force myself to plan the story I will write. A front page. Of girls lured, drugged, tied, gagged, held, priced and sold. Of grey-suited Russian men with guns and gold watches and cold empty eyes – like sharks. Of isolation, imprisonment, the sour taste of fear. I try to remain detached, like a proper reporter, to keep my words professional, but in these last few hours it has all been a bit too close to home.

*

I have lost track of time. If the traffickers don’t get me, the cold will. And perhaps with them it will be mercifully quick? Friendless and phoneless and unbearably cold, I think of Lars. Wonderful resourceful reliable Lars. But he has no idea where I am. My last message to him was something cryptic about following up a lead and how proud he was going to be. I hadn’t said where I was going.

And besides, I must be miles from where the party was being held, where my phone was destroyed.

I open and close my eyes. There is only black. My only thought when I ran from the cabin was to put as much distance between me and those kidnapping bastards as possible.

My only weapons a rusty nail and the element of surprise.

The one that came in – the one they call Aleksei – had expected me still to be tied to the chair. Aleksei had been wrong. I play back the scene in the movie screen of my mind, trying to imagine it in black and white. To press it into bold headlines and neat straight columns. Wannabe Journalist Escapes Traffickers: Astrid Gustafson, younger sister of renowned Newspaper Editor, Lars Gustafson, escapes through forest near Bergen. Astrid, 23, was at a party following up a lead when she was abducted by the notorious trafficking ring.

Victim turns Murderer: Untrained but desperate, abducted woman stabs captor in the back of the neck. Astrid Gustafson, 50kg, used the element of surprise to disable her attacker before fleeing the cabin where she was being held.

I don’t know he’s dead. I didn’t stop to check. I just ran. Ran and ran. Weaving through trees and falling snow, hair streaming in my wake. Stumbling. Scrambling. Into the welcoming ebony. Heart stuttering like an automatic weapon. Until, breathless and gasping, I found myself here, enveloped in a hollowed out tree. But now my plan has run out. Unravelled like a too-short spool of thread. Truthfully I never believed I’d get this far.

I tense. Are those footsteps? Or simply the sluggish creep of my heart?  I’m so tired. Ice-tired. It grips me, dragging at my clothes, my skin. I can feel the blood slowing in my veins. And there is a moan. A mournful, baleful sound. At first I think it is the wind, and then with painfully gelatinous clarity I realise it is me, braying. A cornered animal in the night. I am losing control. Too late I clamp a hand over my mouth. Swathes of ice-fog wrap and shift inside my brain. I think I hear a twig snap.

And the wind has a voice. Subtle syllables and sighs I can’t decipher. And I listen. I listen. And I know.

‘I see you,’ it says.

Lindy Greaves has ghostwritten as a career criminal and a missionary nun! Her short fiction has appeared in The Sunday People, Zetetic Record, Drabbledark Anthology, The Norwegian American and ARTPOST Magazine, and is upcoming in Dream of Shadows. She’s a mum and a wife and a casual librarian in Leicestershire, England. You can follow her on Instagram: 
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