The moonlight that filtered through the tangled branches of the nightmare pines was tainted by their boughs, and where it touched the snowclad ground, black twins of the twisted branches lay. In the still night a single draught slid across the moonlight snow towards the peacefully slumbering farm. It slipped over a snow drift and gently tipped a latch on the stable door, creeping inside. In the gloom of the stable, something in the draught watched the black horse’s nostrils flare as it sensed the presence, whickering in fear. The draught swept across the hay-strewn floor, towards its prey.
At the horse’s scream, Karl jerked from his sleep, breathless and sweating. The house was silent but the scream still quivered in his ears, worming its way into his brain, thundering through his heart and racing in his breath. It shivered down his spine. Around him his dark bedroom loomed, and the formerly safe room, his day-time sanctuary from the arduous work of the farm, leaned in close as though waiting for its moment.
Deep beneath his rough, splintery floorboards, Karl heard something, scratching away. It grew louder and for an instant it was something gnawing its way into his room, chewing through joists and floorboards just to get at him. In the darkness the sound was enormous, a saw-toothed scratching that vibrated through the room.
Karl’s door opened suddenly. He froze.
From the dim candle light seeping through the frozen night air, he could see his father’s concerned, wrinkled face.
“Are you all right?” he asked, grey moustache twitching as he spoke.
“Yes, Vater, fine,” the young boy replied, his voice shaking as he spoke. It bothered him that he couldn’t keep it steady, but if his father was bothered by the sign of fear, he didn’t show it.
“It was the horse,” his father said, trying to comfort his son in his cold, adult way. “Probably spooked by a mouse or an owl. We’ll check in the morning.” Karl nodded absentmindedly, remembering the horse’s terror, wondering if that’s all that it had been, really, a mouse or an owl. His father said good night and shut his door, taking the light with him.
In the darkness, Karl shuddered and pulled the bedclothes up around his chin and ears, scrunching his eyes shut tight.
When the sun came up his eyes were still tightly shut, but he had not slept a wink.
In the morning the snow was even and glittering, a perfect, smooth covering for the hard, cold world that lurked beneath, a muddy smear of brown and grey. The horse, the farm’s only draught horse, a large black beast, stamped fretfully around the muddy ground of its enclosure, dirtying the snow. Its eyes were wide, still, and its nostrils flaring as Karl’s father approached carefully. The terrified horse shied away, whipping its head back and forth. Its chest and shoulders were foamed, Karl saw, as though someone had ridden it hard, even though its saddle and bridle were still in the barn gathering dust. This was a plough horse, which was hardly ever ridden. Its mane was tangled and matted, like something had been rubbing against it.
The wind hopped from tree to tree, knocking free huge drifts of snow that collapsed to the ground with satisfying thumps. Eventually Karl grew tired of watching his father and wandered away across the inviting snow. His path meandered for a while, then something drew him to the pines which stood guard on the south boundary of the farm. Sometimes he saw snowshoe hares bounding around out there, he fancied, though he could never find their burrows.
A few yards into the pines, Karl stopped. There was a hare. Just lying there in the snow, a white island in a moat of red. It took him a second to realise what the bright colour was. The smell of raw flesh cut through the cold fresh smell of winter morning air and pines. The hare was crushed, flattened from twitching nose to bobtail, as though something had simply smoothed it out. He caught himself as his innards churned at the sight of the exploded intestines, which lay there on the ground like earth worms, frozen, instead of writhing with life.
Karl glanced around fitfully. Perhaps it was an owl, the same one that had spooked the horse. It would certainly make the shivers in his spine subside if he could see one, snoozing amongst the branches. There was no sign of any bird amongst the pines, though. Instead, Karl saw pine needles and small branches grown into whorls and tangled nests. There was one above the flattened hare. He stepped closer to inspect the strange confusion of green needles.
Karl recoiled quickly, a hand flying to his face, as a single drop of water fell from the tangle and splashed on to his forehead, the cold water burning into his skin.
That night, as he climbed into bed, Karl recalled what his father had said about the hare. It was probably crushed flat by the horse, which it had spooked, and then an owl, opportunistically, had taken it into the forest. Simple. It seemed reasonable enough, but Karl felt something was simply wrong, and once again, rubbed the spot on his forehead where the water had landed, before pulling up the cover to his chin and shutting his eyes. He fancied that he heard the gnawing again, out of the corner of his ear. A few seconds later he was asleep.
Then he felt as though he was awake again.
The walls of his bedroom were gone, replaced only with a roiling darkness. He lay there entombed in the blankets, waiting while the sound of hooves grew closer, tapping across the floorboards to the end of his bed. In the dark the black and white muzzle of the plough horse hove into view, and the horse’s ice white eyes grew large with fear.
Noiselessly, without a whicker or neigh, the horse began to eat the bed. It slowly opened its sparsely haired lips, revealing tombstone teeth, and began with the quilts at the foot of the bed. It somehow managed to fit the entire width of the bed into its mouth. Karl watched in frozen silence, completely unable to move. He felt the horse’s rough lips against his feet and suddenly it was crunching through them, up to his ankles. Another bite and the mad staring eyes were closer, broad incisors scything through his knees. His breath seemed frozen in his chest, a ball of immovable ice that filled his lungs with searing.
A few more bites and he could smell the horse, its farm-yard musk and sweat, as it chewed implacably through his abdomen. Then it was in his chest, cracking through ribs and lungs and spine with the same swiftness that it cropped the turf in the summer. Before long it was up to his neck and he screamed, or tried, but nothing came out, his mouth was made of marble, cold and immobile. In a single bite the teeth closed over his head and all was darkness.
Karl gasped awake, struggling to breathe. For an instant he could have sworn that something was lying on his chest, pressing against his ribs, stopping the cool air rushing in, like being bundled too tightly in an oppressive woollen blanket, but the instant he awoke and opened his eyes the weight disappeared. He gasped and sputtered, like a beached and suffocating fish, pale and clammy. He panted a second, cold sweat running from his temples down the sides of his face. He sat up and rationalised quickly. ‘It was just a dream. Just a horrible, horrible dream.’ He lay down hesitantly and drew back up the covers.
In an instant, he couldn’t move again. His eyes remained locked open, drying and watering in the cold white winter air.
A small hand grasped his foot and used it to lever itself on to the end of the bed. The shape gambolled closer, resting heavily, painfully, against his knees. The shape moved closer still, sitting on his abdomen. The creature must have been incredibly dense, its clawed feet piercing his belly. Finally, it slunk forward once more, until it rested all four hands and feet against his chest, and he could see it all.
The tiny humanoid seemed female, shrivelled and wizened, lank grey hair hanging around its partially bald scalp. Long thin hands and feet, equipped with sharp, dirty talons, which stank of rotting gore. Its eyes were slits, all white pupils with night-black, pin prick irises. Its mouth was a puckered maw, scabbed and filled with rows of pine needle thin teeth.
“Go to sleep,” it drooled, in a rasping, hissing voice. “It’s just a nightmare,” it chuckled, and then began to chew.
This was originally written for a short story competition on the Fantasy Faction Forums, back in March. The prompt for the month was ‘Nightmare’.