She Returns from War - By Lee Collins


Their eyes appeared first, floating in the night like orbs of yellow flame. One minute, the Oxford countryside was cold and still beneath an early April moon; the next, canine shapes ran alongside a certain backwoods lane. Tongues black as ink lolled from phantom jaws. Though they rose to the height of small horses, their feet made no sound on the young spring grass. They might have seemed like illusions - playing at the edge of sight only to vanish when looked at directly - but for their eyes. Saucer-sized, they smoldered like pits opening into a blazing furnace, silent beacons lighting the road ahead.

Victoria Dawes pulled her scarf up over her chin. Beside her, her mother wore a look of exasperation. The motion of the carriage threw their shoulders together time and again, but the seat left the two women no room to move apart.

"Come now, my dear," came her father's voice from the driver's seat. He had given their usual driver the night off so he might enjoy the nighttime countryside with his wife and daughter. "It isn't as though we are asking you to marry a chimney sweep or stable boy. Roger is a fine young man."

"A fine young man, a fine huntsman, and heir to a fine estate," Victoria finished for him. "Fine hair, fine teeth, and fine smallclothes."

"Really, Victoria," her mother said, "no need to be crass. Your father and I simply want what's best for you. Roger Grey will take good care of you and your children."

"Assuming he could see us around that beak nose of his."

Her father glanced over his shoulder. "I hardly think a large nose is reason enough to decline a marriage offer, especially for a woman your age."

"You make it sound as though I've one foot in the grave already," Victoria said. Her scarf tickled her chin as she spoke, and she pushed it down. "I'm only just twentythree."

"And the last of your friends to be married," her mother reminded her.

Victoria folded her arms and looked away. They could say what they liked; she would not marry Roger Grey. Even if he had a proper nose, the man was still too simple by half. She didn't want her children to carry on his legacy of dull-witted comments and friendliness with hounds and hawks. Roger seemed to prefer the company of such animals to that of people, but she couldn't fathom why. Her own father's hounds held little interest for her, and although she had learned to ride at a young age, she'd never formed any special friendships with her horses. She had no pet cats or canaries. Animals were animals; dumb beasts bred to serve, not sit at table. Were she to wed Roger Grey, she would no doubt find herself breaking her fast with his favorite riding-horse each morning.

A flicker of light in the distance caught her eye. Leaning forward, she squinted into the darkness. A shadowy line of trees stood at attention across an open field, their crowns forming a jagged horizon against the night sky. The moon, just past the first quarter, flooded the field with silver-blue light. Despite the rumbling of the carriage beneath her, Victoria could still see well enough to make out an odd shape running over the grass. It looked as though it might have been a horse, but she couldn't make out a rider. The shape was also wrong, somehow, but she didn't know what else it could be. No other animal that size lived in this part of the country.

"Father, what is that?" she asked, pointing at the strange shape.

He glanced in the direction of her finger. "Just a fellow out for a ride, the same as us."

"No need to change the subject, Victoria." Her mother sat up as straight as she could. "I've half a mind to-"

The carriage swerved to one side, throwing Victoria against her mother. The older woman let out a grunt as they collided. Before they could disentangle themselves, the carriage veered again. Victoria's lungs emptied as her mother's elbow landed on her midriff. Struggling for breath, she tried to roll out from under the weight, but her mother clung to her in a panic. She was dimly aware of her father's surprised exclamations as he regained control of the horses.

After a few agonizing seconds, Victoria managed to climb out from beneath her mother and reclaim her seat. "What on earth was that?" she asked.

"I haven't a clue," her father replied. "The girls must have spooked at a