Matilda stared out the window of the cottage as the moonlight danced through the tree limbs overhead. Her heart hammered in her chest and she was sure one of her sisters would hear it; she hoped it wouldn’t wake them. She needed only a few moments of silence. Tonight was important.
They slept, snoring quietly in their beds that were pushed against the far wall. The only thing that separated the bedroom from the openspace of the kitchen and living area was a thin curtain. A woman in town had gifted it to Matilda for a job well done, the soft fabric had been sitting on a shelf in the woman’s home collecting dust since her husband had brought it back to her from one of his many trips. The wife didn’t like it, but Matilda had fallen in love with it the first time she had seen it. The same thing had happened when Matilda first spotted the woman’s son…
Matilda slipped on her shoes.They were soft and weak, pliable but easily damaged. She didn’t expect to go far, she was just stepping out. The night had called to her, as it often did. And she must heed its call. She wasn’t one that disobeyed nature. Particularly on nights like this, when the moon was full and the garden was sitting open and eager, just awaiting her presence.
She walked out the door, pulling it closed softly behind her as the night air touched her skin. There was something different about tonight, she could feel it. There was something in the moon, something it was trying to say. Perhaps that was why she stepped outside so willingly, even though she grew up hearing the tales of the creatures that roamed the woods at night and feasted upon the flesh of the innocent.
There was a buzzing in the air, she couldn’t hear it, but her skin hummed along with it. She had been expecting a chill to settle into her bones, but instead she found the night unseasonably warm. She twirled in the moonlight, watching the beams dance with the bits of her pale skin that weren’t covered by her nightgown. If mother were here, she would scold her. She supposed there would be many things her mother would scold her for. And perhaps if mother was here, she wouldn’t be living in the lonely cottage in the woods with only her sisters.
And her mother would have made sure Matilda didn’t fall in love with the son of the most prominent man in the city…
Matilda wasn’t even supposed to be entering the city, but she had learned to act normal. No one knew her secrets, no one knew her parents.
Matilda ceased her movements. What was that noise?
There was something in the shadow…wasn’t there?
She glanced back towards the house, and then towards the wood. The forest sat just beyond the fence of their garden. Far enough away it didn’t provide too much shade to the plants she needed to grow, but close enough she could usually spot animals from the window during the day. The night didn’t provide such a luxury and she was now nervous that perhaps there was something sneaking around in the dark, watching her.
But hadn’t the night called to her? Hadn’t mother nature requested her presence?
She believed so. And nature had never steered her wrong before. She was where she was supposed to be, she was certain of that.
She pushed thoughts of the tales her parents had told her from her mind, thoughts of half-men-half-wolf creatures roaming the night, eating virgins and children before feasting on herd animals of those that had sinned. There were theories that the Church had created them to keep evil spirits at bay, but something had gone terribly wrong and there was no longer control over them. Other tales said a witch had created the first one and from there the epidemic had sprung out of control…
Silly stories, Matilda reminded herself. There was nothing to them. The forest held only wolves, there was no such thing as a half-man-half-wolf creature running around. Then again, she didn’t want to run into any wolves either.
“Is someone there?” Matilda called into the night, finding herself at the edge of her garden now, a hand resting upon the gate as she debated walking out. What would she find on the outside?
There was another sound in the woods, a grunt, or a growl. She couldn’t tell. Either way, it was a response and she found the sound to be too human to be scared. Could someone be hurt?
Nervously, she turned towards the cottage again. The small building that her father had built and nestled in the woods to hide them. They weren’t supposed to be found. She wasn’t supposed to fall in love with a man in town. No one was supposed to know. Who could possibly be in their forest?
It was just the three of them. Her parents had been hunted, hunted and destroyed. Their remains were buried elsewhere. An unmarked grave on the grounds of a church they didn’t believe in. They couldn’t believe in. Matilda found she didn’t believe in it either, but she was able to pretend well enough in town when she went. She was able to quote the book on que. She even had a cross around her neck.
But still…someone could be out there. As long as she lead them away from her sisters perhaps things would be okay. Whoever it was, didn’t have to know there were more like her, more like her parents. They didn’t have to know there was even a cottage here…
With a new sense of purpose, Matilda stepped into the woods. As the darkness enveloped her, she found her resolve shake only slightly. She was doing this for her sisters, they were in her care now. It was up to her. No one was coming to save them.
“Hello?” Matilda said again. The thick line of trees stopped her voice from following far, but still there was a response. The sound of the voice sent chills down her spine, her heart hammered in her chest, and despite the drop in temperature her hands began to sweat. She knew that voice.
“Matilda? Is that you?”
“William?” She spoke into the night, looking for the face, the shape of the man she knew would be there.
But she couldn’t see him.
She stepped further into the woods, afraid to leave her entrance too far behind, but also afraid that she may not find him if she stayed too close to the edge. How did you find me, she wanted to ask. But he had never seeked her out before, she wondered if he even knew she existed. She faded into the walls of his home while he was there..
“What are you doing out here?” He asked, his voice was strained.
“Are you hurt?”
She heard him laugh softly. He was to her right. She turned abruptly, in time to see his form shift against a tree. She didn’t know how she hadn’t noticed him there before. He was hunched over, as though in pain. “Only marginally.”
She rushed to him, but he held a hand out, stopping her from getting too close. “I can help you.”
“I wasn’t expecting to find anyone out here.”
“Why are you out here?”
“Did you know it’s the solstice?”
Matilda smiled. She hadn’t celebrated it since her parents had died, but she questioned how he could possibly know that. What else didn’t she know about him? “I wasn’t aware of that.”
“I think you’re lying.”
Her breath caught in her throat at his tone. He had never been sharp with her before, had always been quiet and polite when they did speak. More so than anyone else in town. “Why are you out here, sir?”
He sighed. “I was told a witch lived out here, someone with a garden that can help me.”
Matilda crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t know about a witch, but I do have a garden. This couldn’t wait until morning?”
The forest filled with a low menacing growl, the kind of growl that made the hair on the back of Matilda’s neck stand on end. She stepped back, wishing she hadn’t entered the forest in the first place. She tried to remember where she had come in, but even if she did remember she wouldn’t forgive herself for leaving him behind.
The growl soon turned into the screech of a man and she realized both sounds were emitting from the man before her. The man who was beginning to shake upon the ground, his hand now reaching for her, his hand that was the hand of a human for one moment and then the claw of a wolf the next.
In her surprise, Matilda thrust out her leg, kicking the arm that was reaching for her. The beast’s-William’s claws gripped the soft fabric of the shoe she had slipped on and before Matilda knew it, the shoe was ripped from her foot. Quickly she turned, intent on getting as far away from the creature as possible.
But her sisters. She had to get him away from her sisters.
She ran, as hard and as far as she could. She had an idea. Watching her plan slowly unfold within her mind’s eye kept her distracted from the pain that was blooming in her foot. Thorns and sharp twigs were poking into her skin, rocks scraping against unsuspecting heel. Branches smacked her face, briars tore at her hands and her clothes. But Matilda had spent her life building calluses; in her hands, her feet, her heart, her soul. She knew at a young age that she had to be tough. When her parents were taken away, she knew it was up to her to protect the family she had left.
Morning would be coming soon and with it, it would reveal the truth. It was the solstice, the time of year when the two worlds were close, but not the same. That was why she could feel it, it wasn’t the moon that had been calling her. Not quite. It was her ancestors. Her parents, their parents, and even their parents. They all knew what to do. All she had to do was listen. She had to follow their voices. And she already knew where they would lead her.
He was behind her, she could hear him coming. His four legs carried him faster than her two. He was large, but she was small. She weaved in between giant trees, thrusting herself into small openings between briars and brambles. Branches whipped her face and she told herself the tears in her eyes were caused by a twig catching her, she wasn’t scared.
She couldn’t afford to be scared.
As she kept running, feeling more than knowing the closeness of the city, she heard the first bird song. It fluttered to her ears, softly at first, and then loud. It became a screech and then a mad flapping of wings. At first they surrounded her, wild birds of all colors and breeds calling loudly to one another. There was an intruder in their forest, but it was an intruder they knew. They knew her better than she knew herself.
In one swift motion, the flock turned and flew towards the creature following Matilda. Their screeches broke the morning; she found herself curling upon the forest floor, her hands pressed to her ears as the sounds echoed around her. Through the blockage, she could hear when the sound changed. The loudest sound was no longer the screech of the birds, it was the screams of a man.
The first sun’s ray landed upon her nightgown, illuminating the new stanes and tares she had earned in her mad dash through the woods. She knew where she was, but she refused to look around. She was waiting for the sounds to stop, or the birds to return to her. But still she knew, without looking. She was aware of the family cemetery to her right. A stone wall encircled it and the bodies of her family were marked by piles of stones. Her parents were the only ones not entombed there. The ancient family members were there, their souls tied to the area by ceremonies performed after their passing. This area was sacred. She hadn’t known what to expect when she ran to it, but she knew she would find an answer to her problem.
As the sun warmed her legs, Matilda released her ears. She felt the tension in her shoulders ease away. She sat up, looking around. The world was calm, quiet.
A crow sat upon the wall of the cemetery, staring at her with its intent black eyes. She softly nodded to it and then turned away as it lifted itself into the air and headed towards the city.
She looked towards the sky, seeing the beginning of a blue sky. A new day had arrived. She rose, removing her single shoe before turning to walk back home in her bare feet, feeling the dirt and decaying leaves on her souls. She sank into the earth, enjoying the coolness of the leaves and needles.
If it hadn’t been for the mass of feathers upon the ground, Matilda would not have known where it had happened. The face of the forest revealed nothing, but Matilda knew. Thirty feathers of various shapes and sizes laid upon the ground at the base of an oak tree, a blanket meant to shield the blood that had been spilt upon the ground. But Matilda could see it, it stained a few of the lighter color feathers. Claw marks marred the base of the tree, nails sinking deep within the bark. Just as they would have sank into her flesh had she not acted quickly.
Matilda closed her pale eyes, touching the earth with her fingers, finding a single feather. She plucked it, a reminder of what could have been.
In silence, she started her walk back to the cottage where she belonged, where she believed she would now stay. Although she wondered what happened to William, she found she was more concerned with the well being of her sisters. She picked up her pace, knowing they would be worried if they awoke without her. It was up to her to ensure no one would ever find them again.
About the Creator
Katrina Thornley is a Rhode Island based author and poet. You can find Arcadians: Lullaby in Nature and Arcadians: Wooden Mystics on Amazon now. Her debut novel Kings of Millburrow is now available!