Hilda lost her way in the woods. Grandmother lived all the way out in Nachtgarten, past the safe embrace of the valley, where the ebony woods grew darker and wilder than any of the forests at home. As she hiked past walls of blackwood trunks, she clutched her father's pocket watch close to her chest. Its silver face and golden bezel chilled her fingers. Her thumb traced the etched letters on the back: Befürchten der Vollmond; befürchten die Wolfssegner. Hilda didn't speak the old tongue as well as her father did, but she knew the inscription by heart: "Fear the full moon; fear the wolf charmers." She pulled her red hood over her head and pressed on beneath the vines and creepers.
She shouldn't have trusted that raven. Her father warned her about the animals outside the valley. She liked ravens, though, and had given the bird a chance.
"Shortcuts, we ravens know," it told her. "Vertrauen, vertrauen." It wanted her to trust it? "Riddle, riddle," the raven continued, holding its beak open and cocking its head sideways. "From die Wolfssegner, the animals hide, hide. But we ravens do not hide. Why not, why not?"
Hilda twiddled at a handful of sweet alyssums she had picked along the way, smiling at their springtime fragrance as she puzzled the raven's words. "I don't know," she finally said.
The raven reared and flapped for a moment, letting out a laughing caw. "Our shortcuts, of course, of course!" It hopped back and forth on its branch. "Hide, we need not. With our shortcuts, die Wolfssegner cannot catch us, it cannot!" Its accent was as natural as her father's.
Hilda pushed her brows together and spun a lock of hair around her finger. "You are clever little creatures, aren't you?" She extended her hand to the raven, presenting the white flowers to it.
"Clever, clever!" The raven fluttered, grabbed the flowers in its talons, and perched nearer Hilda's face. As it jumped, trickling moonlight reflected in its eyes. "Vertrauen, vertrauen," it repeated. "You have a pretty face, pretty, pretty. This raven would like to help you with a shortcut, help, help!"
Hilda giggled. Her voice carried into the tunnels of the wood. "That's very kind of you, Sir Raven," she said. "Such a gallant, handsome bird you are."
"Handsome bird!" The raven spun on its branch and pointed with its beak to a cavernous trail that split from the path. "There, there." It pecked at the flower. "Take that way, that way! No path, there is, but it is a raven's shortcut."
She thanked the raven with a dimpled grin and a curtsy before setting off onto the shaded trail. Moonlight barely reached the ground, painting a grey pall across the dirt. Hilda shivered. The path got darker and darker. Still, ravens were smart, and it was true that they didn't hide in the days before the Vollmond. Hilda delivered Grandmother's medicine on those days—her father taught her to travel on the eve of the full moon to avoid the dangerous animals in the woods. "But you must always spend the night at your grandmother's house," he had told her, "because that is when die Wolfssegner come out to hunt."
She fingered the pocket watch again. It ticked diligently in her palm. Only the lockstep click of clock hands broke the silence between her steps. Even on the quietest nights in the valley, the wind sang her to sleep. But these dark woods choked the wind before it could lapse into the shadows. Hilda bit her lip.
What time was it? The darkness obscured the watch's face. The main path would have taken her from the valley to Nachtgarten in the space of an afternoon. She had left after lunch, expecting to have dinner with Grandmother. How much time had she wasted on the raven's shortcut? Her heartbeat overtook the rhythmic tick of her watch, creating a waltz in the darkness: tick, thump, thump, tick, thump, thump.
Ahead, Hilda caught a delicate scent that washed away the stifling air around her. Sweet alyssums. She gulped before offering her voice to the dark. "Hello? Who's there?"
The watch ticked three times before the answer came. "How did you find me?" A young woman's voice whispered in the gloom.
"Those flowers," Hilda said. "They don't grow in this forest."
"That's sharp of you." The stranger fumbled with leathers before lighting a small torch. "It's not very smart to carry a light in here. Might attract a monster," she said, raising the flame. "But I wanted to see your face."
Hilda stared. Just like her, the stranger had deep, sepia skin and hair as dark as a new moon night. "You're from the valley, too," she said.
The girl nodded. "My name is Saskia." Her eyes glinted in the firelight. "The raven was right. You are pretty." As her features pulled into a stretching grin, the reflecting fire in her eyes gave way to a silver glow.
Hilda squeezed her watch. "It's good to meet you." Her voice trailed off to a rasp. "You met that raven, too?"
"He gave me these flowers." Saskia took a bit of cloth and smothered the torch. "He told me about a valley girl who got lost in the woods." As the flames died, a silver light remained, illuminating Saskia's features like a porcelain mask floating in the shadows.
Hilda stepped back. "Who are you?"
"Someone who knows a lot about these woods." Saskia blinked, flickering the light. "Do I frighten you?"
Saskia gave a husky laugh. "All the creatures of the forest have eyes like mine." The glow faded, and the woods went dark again. "I can put the light away, if you like."
The metal of the watch bit into Hilda's palm. What time was it? She quivered and forced herself to speak. "Who are you?"
Saskia did not answer. In the silence of the ebony wood, something drew a ragged, hungry breath.
A mist of steam, smelling of pumpkin soup, drifted from Grandmother's door. Hilda closed her eyes a moment and imagined the flavours—the textures, too. Tender, spiced from the garden, and so fresh it drew tears. With the smile of a puppy, she knocked.
Grandmother pulled the creaking door open. Light from the hearth spilled into the night. "Hilda! My dear. You're so late, sweetheart." Grandmother looked past her at the fields and forest that lay beyond. "Come in, come in."
"I'm sorry," Hilda said, wiping the dirt from her leathers. "I met a new friend in the woods."
Grandmother slowed. "Hilda, my dear..." She reached for the door. "Your eyes—"
"All the better to see you with, Grandmother."
Rob Sullivan is a writer, musician, fencer, and full-time human being. He is an Ottawa native, with a mix of Newfoundland and French-Canadian blood. He writes young adult fiction, but has a soft spot for essays. He is also known as "that guy who really likes Rush." Rob has recently written The Crush, an urban fantasy web novel.