The cabin was a bit of a hike up into the hills and wild forests. She’d been there only once before, in daytime. Dimitru’s uncle used it as a staging point for trapping and hunting, storing the tools of his trade there, sometimes even living out there when he was working or when he wanted to get away from Dimitru’s overly emotional aunt. She swallowed. “Maybe we should just find a place nearby. Maybe the Pacuraru’s barn?”
“No one is going to find us at the cabin. Even when they discover that you’re missing, they won’t think to look out here.”
“Is at home. I checked. I wanted to make sure that you and I had as much time as we wanted tonight. There’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Something important. And it can’t wait.”
He sounded serious, yet excited. What could he want to share with her? Maria blushed again, thankful that she was facing away and that he wouldn’t be able to tell in the darkness.
They wound through dense black locust, poplar and beech trees whose multicoloured fall leaves were now uniform dark-gray in the night. The horse’s hooves fell silently on soft earth and fallen pine and fur tree needles below. Around them, the forest was quiet. No, she realized, it was oddly silent. She listened harder. The forest wasn’t usually so quiet except in winter.
As the silence stretched and the world hid all with darkness, her mind wandered and her imagination invaded with unwelcome ideas and uneasy emotions. She began to feel unreasonably vulnerable and exposed, despite Dimitru’s presence and the horse, as if the small patch of universe revealed by the lantern she now carried were a lonely island floating in the infinity of the unknown that stretched in all directions around her. Anything could be lurking out there beyond the light and she’d never know until it was too late: a bloodthirsty army; a pack of hungry wolves; even a mighty, fire-breathing dragon from legend. And didn’t dragons eat virgins like her? She shivered slightly and bundled the blanket more tightly around herself.
Overhead, an owl loudly hooted. She and Dimitru both jumped at the sound. Looking up, the nighttime bird turned its flat face into a shaft of moonlight. It was an eagle owl, one of the largest species of owl. Even hunched up near the trunk in a niche of connecting branches, Maria could tell that the bird was fully adult and probably three quarters of a meter tall. It watched them, wide eyes following them as they slowly rode past.
Dimitru seemed to sense her unease. “It’s only an owl.”
She nodded, but said nothing.
The owl suddenly burst out of its perch and landed on a branch much closer to the riders. As if facing a threat, the owl lowered its head and ruffled its feathers. Its wings tilted down and spread out, creating a fan shape an imposing two meters wide. It screeched, a menacing sound, and angrily flapped its wings at them.
“Go! Go!” Maria urged Dimitru, instinctively leaning against him for protection. She brought her arms up in defence and hoped that the furious animal would leave them alone.
Lucky for them, they passed by and the owl was soon lost behind them.
“That was strange.” Dimitru laughed, the sound slightly forced. “I’ve never seen an owl act like that towards humans before.”
“It was frightening.” Maria agreed. “It’s not spring, so it couldn’t be nesting. Why would it be so hostile?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Escaping her detention and running away with the man she loved had been exciting so far. But the further they went, the darker the woods felt and the more chilled she became, even wrapped in her blanket. The warmth radiating from Dimitru’s body only helped a little. It wasn’t the night air causing her to become uncomfortable, it was something about the woods this night. They felt…wrong, even, dare she let herself think, otherworldly. She felt tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Her head twitched back and forth, eyes scanning the forest for any sign of a threat.
A crackle sounded off the left. The teenagers turned to look but there was nothing to see. Even the horse nervously glanced over. A crackle sounded off to the right. Goosebumps rose on Maria’s skin and she shivered. She raised the lantern and pointed it in the direction of the noise, but the feeble light didn’t reach very far.
The horse neighed softly and cast about, uncertain.
“Try to calm her.” Dimitru advised as it would be easier for her to do since she sat in front of him.
Maria leaned forward and stroked the horse’s neck. “It’s ok. There’s nothing to fear. There’s nothing out there.” She wasn’t sure if she was speaking more to the horse or herself. In either case, it wasn’t doing much to calm either of them. Something about the night was unnatural. Maria recalled the eerie tales told on All Hallow’s Eve of evil spirits and mysteries and found that, out here in the dark, it was much harder to convince herself that the superstitions were silly. She crouched lower and tried to use Dimitru’s physical presence to make her feel safe.
Dimitru jerked in his seat. Then he did so again, causing Maria to look back and see him frantically waving his hand about his head.
Before she could ask what was bothering him, she felt a large flutter at her ear and almost threw herself off the horse in shock. Something else flittered through her hair and she fought back a scream. Raising the light overhead to protect herself, she gasped as a cloud of black bats hurled through the night and swarmed over them.
Maria and Dimitru shrank down as far as they could and tried to throw off the winged menaces but could do little more. The horse stamped and twisted, then bolted forward, trying to get out of the swarm.
Maria felt leathery wings and claws all over her head and shoulders. She felt the beasts tangled in her hair. She hunched over and protected her face but grabbed onto the saddle as they shot forward. She felt Dimitru’s hands grasp her waist as he too fought from being unhorsed. They blindly galloped through the woods for a minute before the sensation of the bats was behind them. The horse, sensing that it had outrun the immediate danger, slowed.
Maria anxiously ran her fingers through her hair and examined her whole body. Her skin crawled with the sensation of bats touching her. She felt Dimitru’s arms go around her and it helped her relax. Still, she shuddered.
“It’s ok. They’re gone.” He tried to laugh and failed. “Well, that was weird.” He gave the woods an uneasy look in all directions.
Maria nodded. “Yeah. Maybe we should turn back. Go home.”
Dimitru hesitated, then shook his head. “We’re almost there. Just a little further. Then we’ll be safe. We’ll lock ourselves in the cabin where the bats and owls can’t get us. I’ll make a fire. It’ll be nice, I promise.”
This far from town and farms, they soon entered old-growth forest, a wild, primeval landscape untouched by men and largely left to the animals. It’s why Dimitru’s uncle hunted here. They continued along for a few minutes and came to a small clearing. Ancient oak trees, with lichen-covered trunks as thick as houses and huge gnarled branches, ringed a small, flat spot covered with grasses and clover. In the faint light of the moon, they could just make out a dark shape resting in the centre of the clearing.
“Huh.” Dimitru sounded confused. “I don’t remember there being anything in the clearing before.”
The horse balked at the edge of the open space. Eyes wide with fear, she tried to back up.
“What’s wrong, girl?” Dimitru asked. He peered ahead, but neither he nor Maria saw anything unusual.
“Maybe she senses wolves on the other side?” Maria suggested.
Dimitru reached down and pulled one of his uncle’s hunting rifles from a sheath hanging from the saddle. “Maybe,” he agreed, readying the weapon. Unwilling to back down or show fear in front of his beloved, he heeled the horse in the ribs and urged her forward.
The beast tentatively took a step forward. Then another.
The dark shape moved.
The horse reared and whinnied in terror. Dimitru fought to keep her under control.
Maria gasped as whatever the dark shape was rose up, seemed to stare in their direction, then darted away into the woods. Maria shook with fear. “What was that?”
“I have no idea.” Even Dimitru trembled.
“Let’s go back.” Maria anxiously pleaded. “I want to go home.”
A crackle sounded in the forest behind them. Whatever had been in the clearing was now circling behind them. And it was hunting them.
Dimitru hastily spurred the horse onwards and flicked the reins. “Ya! Ya!” he shouted.
The horse gladly galloped forward. They galloped through the clearing. Wild-eyed, Maria glanced down and saw the still body of a deer laying on the ground where the mysterious predator had been, the deer’s neck slick with blood. Then they were past and plunging back into the woods. Hooves recklessly pounded the soft forest floor and with each passing moment, Maria desperately hoped that they wouldn’t crash into a tree or that the horse wouldn’t step into a soft spot and turn a leg, killing them all in the fall.
The small cabin appeared before them, dark and ominous, a shadow within the shadows. How could such a place possibly provide refuge?
Dimitru hauled hard on the reins, bringing the terrified mare to a stop just outside the front door. He leaped down and pulled Maria behind him and up onto the tiny, dilapidated porch. Wooden floorboards creaked and bent deeply as they rushed over them. Throwing the cabin door open, he pushed her inside. “Lock it behind me while I put the horse in the shed.” he told her, then rushed off.
Maria, half scared of being alone, half scared that the strange creature in the woods had followed them, reluctantly closed and locked the door. Then she ran to the window and pushed the dusty curtains aside so that she could peer out and watch for Dimitru’s return.
A couple of anxious minutes later, he was back. Before he could knock, she flung the door open and dragged him inside, slamming the portal closed behind him.
They looked at each other for a long moment. Then Dimitru cracked a smile.
“Well, that was adventurous.” he said, trying to be brave.
Unable to stop herself, she felt her own half smile appear, probably more of a reaction to her fear and the sudden safety of the cabin more than anything.
He put the rifle down next to the door and gathered her in his arms. “It’s ok now. We’re ok. Safe.”
She let her body relax against his. He felt big and strong. As scary as their journey had been, it might have been worth it for this moment. “Did you see the deer?” she asked.
“Yeah. Must have been a bear feeding on it.”
“Bears don’t eat deer.”
He shrugged. “Not usually. But whatever that was, it was too tall for a wolf, I think.”
“Was it a person? Maybe someone out night hunting?”
“Could be. Maybe a scavenger living in the woods. Whoever it was, I doubt they’ll try to bother us here.” He puffed up his chest a bit. “Besides, if they try, I know how to use that.” He gestured at the rifle.
Maria smiled more freely. “How about that fire?” She moved towards the fireplace.
He nodded. “Sure.” While Maria placed fresh logs in the hearth and got them going, Dimitru lit a candle next to the bed.