Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams

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Fiction

Mad Honey

The three wolves in the sun-smeared wood did not turn and run when Aran approached with his musket in hand. Wolves were supposed to run from men with guns. This was the way of the world. Sweat and necessity made his musket slide against his palms. He gripped tighter, not wanting to startle the beasts by bringing the musket to bear too quickly.

Two of the beasts stood over the third, which reclined on its side in the patchy grass. He could count their rib-bones through their thin hides. His own hungry bones hummed in sympathy. But the world turned on toward frost and frozen ground, and necessity stilled the tremor in his chest. This was his people’s land, and it had been since the last blood prophets led them here. By the scarlet price they paid, they had remade it tame and reshaped it to human hands.

The wolves had the rest of the wide wilderness; this, here, was his.

He stepped closer, and a stick broke beneath his bootheel. All three wolves turned to look at him. Aran recoiled, but he didn’t run and neither did they. Black gore dripped from the muzzles of the pair still standing. They had torn their companion’s belly open and pulled his guts out onto the ground. The wounded one’s tongue lolled out of its jaw, almost as if it were grinning; and all three panted heavily as if they had chased the sun across the sky before stopping here to rest. Here, where only a narrow creek and the field of wild rosemary divided them from Aran’s village, from his wife and son.

This was a place for men now, not for wolves. Blood had made it so: the blood of men. A little more blood would keep it that way. But let it be the blood of beasts, this time; let it ever be so.

Aran’s finger found the outside of the trigger. He had killed wolves before, and he had seen wolves kill men. There was an honesty to that exchange, an understanding of blood and bone and bargain. Wolves and men were not so different when their pelts were peeled back.

He’d seen men kill men, long ago; had smelled the torn bowels and gas-bloated corpses of war. That too he understood, though he wished he did not have to. But a wolf killing a wolf, that was something new. The creatures’ languor now, their jagged red-stained grins, there was a wrongness to it all that clenched Aran’s belly far more than an open call to bloodletting.

The big one rolled farther onto its side as he approached. Its paw was the size of a man’s hand. To its massive muzzle clung the papery flakes of a ruined bee’s-nest. Ah, so that was all it was: a little mad honey. Holding an answer gave Aran a stronger grasp on his gun, too. He hefted it to his shoulder, laid his cheek along the barrel, remembered its familiar weight. He took aim for one of the unwounded wolves, fearless and honey-addled as they were.

A raft of ducks erupted from the wood behind. Aran startled, and fired off-kilter. The ball struck not the hale wolf but the already-wounded one, taking it clean in the eye. The beast kicked once, feebly, and its heartblood muddied the soil. Its companions scattered into the shadows. By the time Aran reloaded, they had vanished. Their laugh-like yips and yaps bounced back to him through the trees, the sound broken into a thousand fractured tracks that no hunter could hope to follow.

• • • •

The carcass was heavy, though not as heavy as the males Aran had slain as a youth in the valley, when the village was smaller and the sky wider. Not as big as a man grown, but close. Aran bent his back and pulled the beast’s paws over his shoulders, slung its head alongside his own. His musket he carried in one hand. As he walked, its lopsided weight pulled him to one side, while the dead wolf’s paws tapped his calves in soft counterrhythm to his heavy footfalls.

The white crowns of wild rosemary blossoms nodded him along as he crossed the field on his way back into the village proper. Here and there, old women in their lace caps picking tea-leaves stood out like the overgrown cousins of these fresh flowers. Aran had never developed a taste for the wild tea, as the fancy folks in the cities had. Unlike the honey made from these flowers, the tea did not drive a man prophet-mad, though an oversteeped cup might leave him too drowsy to work on the morrow. The leaf-pickers looked up from their baskets as Aran passed, but he had no breath to hail them nor a free hand to raise in greeting.

At the village square, he spied two of the farmers, whose mules drew an empty wagon. By this late-morning hour they would have already brought the day’s turnips and cabbages to the village food-share. Too late now to turn and avoid their notice; one startled when he first saw Aran, then doubled in laughter. “For a moment I thought wolves had learned to walk on two legs!” he cried. “And that one had come seeking his family’s weekly claim!”

Aran shared the man’s smile, but not his laugh. “I’ve never yet heard of a wolf who loved carrots.” He shifted his shoulders to adjust the weight, and the wolf’s slaver-stained throat rubbed his neck. “The wolves were at the mad honey.”

“What! The mad honey?” The farmer chuckled. “Will the beasts cast lots to be this year’s prophet, then?” The honey from the hives on the south side of town, where the bees grazed purple coneflowers and daisies, went into the cupboards of the food-share and into the bellies of the townsfolk. The stuff drawn from the wild nests on the north side where the town fell back before the towering wood—that was for another purpose entirely. The farmer gave his companion a sidelong glance, and looked back at Aran with a sly, tight-drawn smile. “Some folk think it’s time for another blood prophet, this winter. Give blood for honey and turn our tides for the better. What do you say, Aran?”

Aran’s shoulders pulled high and tight, drawing the wolf closer against him. “I was winter prophet last year.” Some had called for a blood prophet then, too, even as Aran’s wife’s belly strained with their growing child. The honey-dream had told him the names of the village’s new-born children, and where to dig a new well; it had even warned about a party of raiders. Armed with foreknowledge, the town had easily turned the pack of bandits aside when they came seeking coin and food and guns. Their fortunes this year weren’t so dire as that. There were still other paths to walk toward finer futures and fuller bellies. “I don’t have to draw again this year.”

The other farmer reached to peel back a flap of skin from the wolf’s side, where a loop of bowel hung down past Aran’s waist. “Shame about the pelt. You might’ve had a new jacket, with a skin that size.”

“Perhaps.” Aran had no use for might-haves or maybe.

The farmer let go of the skin-flap and shook gore off his fingers. “Bad luck, you know, to eat the flesh of a creature smarter than yourself.”

“Then it’s a wonder you can find anything to eat at all!” His friend clapped him on the back, and they got the mules moving again.

The women at the food-share stared when Aran tossed the carcass on the table in front of them. “Well,” one said, lifting a paw and letting it fall back down, “it’s meat.” Their blank faces showed no disappointment that it wasn’t a raft of tender ducks or a clutch of rabbits, but they didn’t show gratitude either. Good game was hard to find these days. Aran avoided looking over their shoulders to evaluate the food-stocks left, the stores that would get them through the long lean winter after snow stopped the trade wagons. Even without game, the farmers and poultry-keepers would surely keep them provisioned. There were worse things in the world than a few hungry months.

The women made quick work of the carcass, severing it from its torn pelt and unraveling the twisted innards. Their blades flashed over white-tinged muscle; when they struck home Aran felt the breaking of the beast’s bones deep in his own marrow. Half the meat for the town, half for Aran’s family: the way of necessity. The pelt, though, was his to keep, and he folded it to hide the exposed flesh on the inside when the stern-faced women handed it to him.

But at home, when he offered it to her, Ruta didn’t want the pelt or the wolf-flesh in the house. “It will taste foul,” his wife insisted, her stance wide and her thighs solid beneath her wool dress. The babe on her shoulder was startling white against the dark blue of her shawl. In sleep, Aran’s son looked like a rich child’s porcelain doll. “It’s not right that we should eat something that has fed on rotten carcasses and garbage and allgods know what else.”

Aran let the pelt tumble to the dirt floor, and the oilcloth-wrapped meat on top of it. “The marrow will make our son strong. And the fur will keep him warm.”

“Deer have marrow and warm fur, too.” But already she had moved the baby to the other arm, stooping to retrieve the fallen food.

“And when I see a deer in the wood again, you’ll have one to dress and cook and wear.” Aran’s hand found his musket strap, where it cut familiarly across the meat of his shoulder. “Until then we make do with what we have.”

She grunted as she struggled back to her feet with the baby on one hip and the meat on the other. “Two months till the prophet goes into the forest for the honey. Perhaps whoever it is will see us packing up and moving somewhere the gods still smile on.” She slapped the meat onto the table. “I’ll spill my own blood if I must, if it means my son has a better life than this one. Though I’d sooner spill someone else’s.”

Aran stopped in the doorway, his back to her. “Our parents already paid the blood price to bring us here.” The hungry earth had taken the life of enough good folk already. That time was done, the door to that dark-stained history best left shuttered. Enough had been sacrificed for this village to exist, sanctified, safe. “A place where the tea grows. A place without war.”

“There are other things in the world to be traded than this tea.” Babe in one hand, knife in the other; she brandished them both at Aran. “And other places. We’ve picked this one clean. I want to eat proper meat again someday before I’m an old woman with my teeth hanging on by a thread.”

There was nothing to be said to her in such a mood. Aran grabbed the oaken chair by the door and pulled it after him as he went outside. Clouds chased a patch of sunlight over the ground; he set the chair close to this moving target and sat with the musket across his legs to clean it. A well cared for musket might be the only thing standing between a man and the wild, and such things were not best left to chance.

Despite her muttered misgivings, Ruta made a wolf-shank stew for the evening’s meal. Stringy meat clotted the broth between slivers of cabbage, and its richness was undercut with a bitter metallic tang. “You’ll thank me when you don’t wake in two hours with your belly climbing your ribs,” he told her. She pretended not to hear him over the scrape of her bread in her bowl and the greedy sucking of the baby at her breast.

When her milk was gone, she swiped out the last of the stew with yesterday’s stale crust for the baby to chew while she did the washing-up. When Aran stood to help clear, the baby turned to him with a grease-smeared smile. The pearlescent tips of his teeth could just be seen through the gums. Aran slid a finger into his mouth to investigate, and he bit down hard. Aran yanked his hand back and left blood on the boy’s chin.

Ruta wrapped the wound with a spare bit of wool, but it still throbbed when Aran held it against his chest. The boy was strong. That was good. He would have to be, to take what he wanted from the world and make it his own. When the prophet went down to the winter wood this year, they would bring the boy back a good solid name. A normal prophet. A normal winter: a long and hard one, but all the more ordinary for that.

That night, as the last smoke from the fire wended curiously through the cooling cottage, Aran dreamed. In his mind, he shared his table with the wolf from the wood. Blood and foam mottled the beast’s snout, and the white shirt he wore—otherwise the mirror of Aran’s own—bore brown stains. No food had been laid out, but a clay cup of honey sat between them. Aran pushed it away from him, toward the wolf. “The honey made you vulnerable,” he, his dream-self, said. “It stole your wildness and your guile. And what are you, without that? Nothing more than meat for my table.”

“The sun circles the sky, and many things change.” The wolf’s tongue stroked his long yellow teeth. “The honey was before you. It is not a man-thing only and a wolf can be a prophet to see what things may come. A wolf can bleed to buy a better life for his sons.”

The light of the oil-lamp danced on the honey’s amber face. Aran dizzied, trying to make it stand still; he pressed his palms flat on the table to give himself its solidity. “What things are to come? What do you think you know?”

“Your laughter and your cruelty and your justice, which are the same thing before they are different.”

Aran stood and the chair crashed down behind him and the sound was one of beams breaking, walls falling in. “That’s not prophecy. That’s nonsense. Madness.”

The wolf nodded. His amber eyes had clouded over with death’s milk-white touch. “That is the same thing, too. We will have the safety of your madness, and the cruelty of your justice, and it will be our own, terrible though the cost.”

Aran lunged for the cup on the table and his fingers closed around cool clay. He upended it, but nothing poured out except darkness and the endless, chattering cold.

The man woke slowly as the bright light of dawn restored life to his frozen body. He lay curled about his mate, his bare limbs twined around and through hers, and the ice-pale babe clutched to her breast. There had been a dream, he thought, warm smoke fragments dissolving before he could see what lay behind them. Gone now. Nothing of warmth left to cling to.

He pulled closer to the woman’s body and breathed deep to capture the scent of her hair, loam-rich, the memory of flowers. Where their bodies met, a single curved line of radiance lit his world. The soft grass of the meadow held some heat around them but not enough, never enough. The sun circled the earth and the season pulled toward its turning.

Other trouble, too. He sat up, and the woman groaned in her sleep. Smoke from the wolf village rolled foul across the sky this morning. He roused the woman with a nudge to the shoulder and she awoke already rolling to her knees, ready to run. The wolves would not be glad to find men so close to their homes and their sheep-pens and their fat soft-furred cubs in their cradles. The sweet greasy smoke smell of desire and denial drove the man and his family naked and yowling out across the fields of white flowers and out into the wood, where the wind howled like an angry beast. The belly of this beast was cold, and there was no respite to be found, and they ran and they ran, for that was the way of the dark indifferent world.

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Aimee Ogden

Aimee Ogden. A brown-haired white woman lying on a floor behind a white and orange dog, whose head obscures the lower half of her face.

Aimee Ogden is an American werewolf in the Netherlands. Her debut novella “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” was a 2021 Nebula Award finalist, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She also co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a magazine of fun and optimistic speculative fiction. Her third novella, “Emergent Properties,” comes out in July 2023