The Footprint of a Beast

New snow had fallen only a day before the tracks appeared, great, oval prints the size of three dinner plates with strange, sharp looking indents in the center. The animal that made them must be enormous, or else have unbelievably large paws. It was strange, though, how in four feet of snow the prints never sank more than six inches. None of us knew what to make of them, even Ana, who had been tracking for twenty years, had never seen anything like it.

“It looks as though there are three of them,” she said, pointing to the different shapes at the heels of the tracks, “And not very agile. See how close together their steps are? Nevertheless, whatever it is must be quite large. I’d keep the children inside until we kill the beasts or find out more about them.”

A murmur of assent traveled around the circle, mothers and fathers tucking youngsters under their cloaks, turning against the wind to make their way back to lodge and fire, leaving criss-crossed prints in the snow from the basket-shoes that helped them float on top of the drifts. I stayed behind with Ana, fascinated by the perfect regularity of the creatures’ feet and the strange, claw-like dips at the center of each.

It was a blustery night, though the sky was clear, and a full moon lit up the mirror-white surface of the snow, almost as light as day. It was when I turned away from Ana’s lantern that I saw the movement, stark silhouettes between the winter-bare trees.

“Are those people?” I asked, pulling the tracker away from her subject. She peered into the twilight.

“Maybe. Listen.” She paused, sniffing the air, his ears pricked. Sure enough, a distant crunching sound, and a murmur, as of voices. Ana picked up her lantern and we set out towards the figures, hands close to knife and sword.

A bright light flashed ahead of us and we halted. I pulled an arrow from my quiver and notched it. We waited. The silhouettes were clearly human-like, now, but without cloak or shawl to warm or obscure legs and  arms. The light had come from them. It pointed towards us again, unbelievably bright, like a tiny sun, and then one of them started waving arms around like a windmill.

“Look,” Ana hissed, indicating the ground. The tracks we had seen earlier had reappeared. I had only a moment to comprehend what Ana must have already guessed before she raised her lantern and called out to the people with the bright light, who had begun to move toward us. I replaced the arrow in my quiver and let my hand rest again on my sword. An answering cry came. We made our way down the hillock and across the frozen creek.

As we approached the place where the newcomers stood, the bright colors and sheen of their garments became visible in the moonlight. It was difficult to tell them apart by any gender, for none were bearded, nor yet were any in skirts. One of them leaned heavily on the other while the third, whose arms had waved, swung the light suddenly into our faces and we were blinded for a moment, dazzled.

“Travelers,” Ana said, “we mean you no harm if no harm you mean to us. But speak and tell us what has brought you here to this Edgeland.”

The light flicked down from our faces to our feet. As I blinked and caught my vision again, I saw a young woman (at least I think she was a young woman) whose open mouth and wide eyes belied surprise and a little awe. She swallowed.

“Sorry!” she exclaimed, “Didn’t mean to blind you. Who… What are you? Sorry. Ignore me. Where are we? I’m sorry! We’re kind of lost, and Dad’s ankle isn’t really working very well, he kind of stepped funny a ways back and… We need help. I don’t know what you mean by Edgeland, or like, what kind of people you are–are you like, Amish or something? Sorry! That’s probably, like, totally rude. We were just snowshoeing and then it got dark way early and now we can’t find our car. We walked a lot. I’m not even sure if we’re still in Vermont anymore. I mean I didn’t think there were any Amish people up North like this. We saw your lights–I think they were your lights?–boy am I glad you came to us. Can you help us? I think he might need to be carried or something.”

The man, her father, grimaced as the woman (was it a woman?) shifted her weight underneath him. On all their feet they wore long, oval, basket shoes made of a hard, leather-like substance, and a frame of metal. All around them lay the tracks of what we had mistook for a strange beast. Strange these people surely were, but beasts they were not.

“Calm, young one,” Ana said. “Lost you must be; some help I hope we can give. You are less than a mile from our lodge and our fire. We will bring you there. I do not know what you mean by ‘car’ or ‘Vermont’ or ‘Amish,’ nor how it is you carry a light so bright, or by what sorcery you have not died of cold in this wind without cloak or shawl, but the hospitality of our People is not to be doubted. Ame,” she said, turning to me, “See if one of the sledge runners can come here to bring these folk back to the Lodge. Go quickly! I’ll stay with this lot.”

I nodded and turned to go but she grabbed my shoulder and gripped it tight for a moment. In a low tone she said, “I feel a bit of an idiot, as it were, seeing now what should have been obvious given the depth of those prints. Pray don’t mention it to anyone before I return. I’d prefer to bear out the humiliation myself.” I looked her long in the eye and went.

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