Hidden in the shadows of the forest, Bo peeked under the low-hanging branches of a tree and watched the village children play a game. Spinning and dancing, they gathered in a circle, facing the center with their arms stretched wide and twinkling their fingers. “We’re the Stars in the night sky,” they chorused, as one child—a boy—crept into the middle of their circle, a blanket flapping around his shoulders, gray and coarse like a wolf’s pelt.
Bo longed to play with the village children, but the last time he tried to join in, they had pointed at him, chanting: “Devil-child! Shadow Creature!”
Bo was lucky an old woodcutter had found him when he was a few days old, abandoned in the forest. But he was unlucky the villagers knew he had survived a full night alone in a place infested with Shadow Creatures before Mads, the woodcutter, had rescued him. “The child must be a Shadow Creature too,” the villagers said. “How else could he survive the Dark? Or perhaps he struck a deal, a promise to lure innocent villagers into the forest for Shadow Creatures to devour in exchange for his own life.”
So Bo could only watch from the forest edge as the Star-children spun in their circle and sang: “Wolf so hungry, wolf so bold, don’t hurt us, do as you’re told.”
The wolf-child howled: Ah-wooooo! Ah-wooooo! A shudder ran the length of Bo’s spine at the sound. Ah-wooooo! Baring his teeth, the wolf-child roared: “Little Star, little Star, the hungry wolf knows where you are. He’ll chase you round, up and down, he’ll never stop until you’re found.” The wolf-child covered his eyes with his little wolf paws and counted, “One, two, three . . .” as the Star-children danced clockwise around him.
Bo edged forward, gripping the tree beside him, the prickly, crinkly bark rough against his fingertips. He felt a pinch at his waist and looked down. A spiky vine had caught hold of him, just above the little pouch clipped to his belt. He pulled and twisted the vine, hearing it tear his shirt as it finally ripped clean off.
“Curse this forest,” muttered Bo. He’d need to stitch the tear tonight before Mads saw it—the old man hated when Bo ruined his clothes.
Bo’s head whipped up as the wolf-child shouted, “Ten!” and charged, scattering Star-children, who screamed and laughed and twinkled their little fingers.
“You can’t catch me,” they each cried.
But the wolf-child caught them all. One by one he gobbled up every last Star-child.
Bo crept forward, eager to see more, but a small growl from behind made his shoulders slump and his chest heave with an almighty sigh. “Well, I wonder,” said Bo. “Who could that be?”
He turned and saw a fox padding toward him, his tail a fiery plume flecked with white and eyes as golden as the Light in the Burning Season.
“You never listen, Nix,” said Bo, hands on hips. “I told you to stay put, didn’t I?”
“Not now. Back there.” Bo flung a hand toward the heart of the forest. “When I told you to stay by the sled. Remember?”
The fox cocked his head, snapping his mouth shut. He whimpered, low in the back of his throat.
“Don’t argue.” Bo turned around to watch the running, screaming, laughing children. “I know I’m not allowed to be here but it’s just this once, okay? Besides, you need to listen to everything I say ’cause I’m the boss. Mads said so.”
At the very edge of the green, Bo spied a little girl sucking on her thumb, resting her chin on her mother’s lap. The mother wore her fair hair braided around and around her head, and Bo wondered if that was how his mother wore her hair. Every night in bed, Bo would close his eyes and picture the mother he had never met. Every night she wore a different face.
Bo crept forward, careful to stay hidden behind the low-hanging branches but close enough to read the unease on the woman’s face as she watched the lengthening shadows stretch closer and closer to the playing children. The little girl curled the fabric of her mother’s skirt through her stubby fingers and stared wide-eyed as the wolf-child stood triumphant in the center of the green.
“The hungry wolf has fed, now all the Stars are dead.” The wolf-child puffed out his chest, beating it with a roar. “The Dark will come, you’d better run, now all the Stars are dead.”
The little girl gripped her mother’s skirt tightly. “Bad wolf,” she said, frowning. “Why bad wolf eat Stars?”
The mother stroked her child’s hair; Bo’s scalp tingled as if the touch belonged to him.
“Because . . .” said the mother. Her lips stayed parted as if to speak further but no words came to her. Bo sometimes felt that way: as if all his words had scattered like Star-children hiding from a hungry wolf. The mother shook her head and sighed. “All I know is if we don’t get you and your brother home this second, there will be no Stars to protect us from the Dark.” She swept her child into her arms and called for her son. “Come inside now, Peter.”
“Do I have to?” The blanket slipped from the wolf-child’s shoulders. He pouted.
The Star-child at his feet giggled. “You can’t catch me,” she said.
“I already did,” said Peter, snapping his teeth.
“Inside,” said his mother. “Now.” She frowned at the Darkening sky above.
Bo looked down and found Nix sitting quietly beside him. He could see the animal’s right eye was weeping. A pink scar ran from the corner of the little fox’s eye and along the bridge of his nose—curled and thin like a beckoning finger, a witch’s finger. When the Dark was near, the scar wept.
It was true.
The Dark was coming.
The little fox barked.
“Fine,” said Bo, bending to pick up the pile of kindling at his feet. “Let’s go.”
Bo hurried to his sled, passing shadows that rippled as though alive. He knew they weren’t. Not yet. But he kept his distance anyway, hugging the k...