One glance. That’s all it took. Just one, meaningless little glance at the setting sun, and then my life changed. My eyes should’ve been on the road–should’ve been on the car in the next lane, should’ve seen the drunk driver before it was too late and hit the brakes. But no. My mind and my eyes were too busy enjoying the florescent red of the sun upon the river below, the Danube. Within those few brief seconds, I thought about how I’d describe to my folks all I’d seen that day: the walk through the Black Forest, the tour of Freiburg’s campus, and of course, the wonderful people of Germany. The moment ended when something slammed into the driver side. One moment I was gazing out through the passenger side’s window, the next I was flying towards it, only my seatbelt yanked me back into place. “What the-!?” was all I could get out before I saw the view in the windshield change from a setting sun to the oncoming sight of the bridge’s iron railings.
A painful flash of light filled my eyes as my head flew into the steering wheel, just as the car plowed through the side of the bridge. Within the course of a heartbeat, everything went into slow motion. I felt myself float up in my seat, taste the rising fear in the back of my throat, and stiffen as I saw the inky, wet darkness below grow larger and larger as the car raced towards it. Then God pressed play, and everything went back to real time. The car crashed into the water below and I was thrown forward again. Hard fabric punched my face as the airbag went off. The light of the sun winked out as both water and darkness engulfed the vehicle. The icy sting of water began to pour onto my knees from where I assumed the air vents were.
The cold touch of water brought me out of my daze and adrenaline kicked in. I remembered that the river’s current was rough and there were rocks that jetted from its bottom. I needed to get out, now. I undid my seatbelt and felt for door’s handle. A sudden jolt ran through the car as hit the river’s bottom, and its current began to drag it away; my hand found the handle just as it did. I yanked it and pushed on the door, but to no avail. Damn it! The water pressure. I’d forgotten about that. Then I remembered the glass. Right! I need to break the glass! Before I could think of how, something slammed into the passenger side, throwing me towards the side again, just as the sound shattering glass and bending metal reached my ears. Within those briefs seconds I thought: The rocks! Then a wave of hard, cold, dark water crashed into my face.
I awoke to the sound of water beating against the shore; to the feeling of throbbing pain in my both my chest and forehead along with the kiss of cold perspiration against my skin; to the smell of firs and spruce; and to the irony taste of blood. I opened my eyes to see the starry sky and face of the ivory moon looking back.
I blinked a few times, surprised that I could still blink, let alone feel anything. Somehow, I was alive. Somehow, I’d gotten out of the car.
I raised myself up into a sitting position and winced as a bolt of pain ran through my ribs. It didn’t take more than a small prod and another wave of pain to guess that I’d broke one–two–maybe three ribs–thanks to seatbelt, no doubt. I took a deep breath and ran a hand across my forehead. I wince when I found the large painful bump. “Great,” I murmured. “That’s just what I need right now.” I lowered my hand and took another breath, thanking whatever strange providence had saved my life. I glanced to my west, expecting to see the damaged bridge and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.
Instead, my eyes were greeted by a long bending stretch of a river, flanked by the tallest firs and spruce trees I had ever seen. No lights. No roads. No people. Just a river, a cold breeze, and a dark forest.
I closed my eyes and let out a small groan. I realized the current had carried me downstream. What was worse was that I knew full and well the place the river had deposited me–I’d just spent the day strolling through the edge of it, and it was the very last place I wanted to be at the moment, especially at night: The Black Forest.
“Damnit, damnit, damnit,” I murmured to myself. “Out of all the places to wind up.” I shook my head, Could it get any worse?
Just then, a harsh breeze passed through, bringing along with it a shadow that blocked out the moon. I raised my eyes to see thick clouds gathering above and felt the all-too-familiar nip of the cold from the nearby mountains. I wrapped my arms around my shoulders for warmth. Wonderful…
I got to my feet and dug a hand into my pocket for my phone. I hoped that perhaps by some miracle it had survived. I pulled it out to find it hadn’t. The water and the being tossed to-and-fro had made certain of that. Cracks had spider-webbed across its entire screen, with small dark blotches of water beneath it; I saw my own battered reflection within each crack. I looked nothing like the young fair-haired, twenty-year-old exchange student I used to be. I’d lost my windbreaker and been left with a soaked burgundy t-shit, tan ripped-up cargo pants (thank you rocks), and a haggard face.
I let out a sigh and slid the phone back into my pocket; then looked around for something–anything that could help me. But all my dark eyes beheld was a thin veil of mist rising within the forest coupled with low lighting–thanks to the thick, unending canopy of trees, it made it almost impossible to see no more than three yards at a time (hence the “black” part of the forest’s name). To my east, the river ran for what I assumed was another one or two miles. Several brooks and streams branched off from it, but I couldn’t see much beyond that due the mist, although I could see the peaks of the nearby mountains jetting above it. The shore to the north of me matched the south: a thick forest with almost zero-visibility.
So, I’ve got two choices here. I tossed a look at woods behind me. I can press my luck and take a stroll through the woods until I find a path or trail. Or… My eyes flew back to the water. I can follow the river.
Both choices looked bleak. I had no idea how far the current had carried me, but judging by how close the mountains were–which was very–it’d been far. I’d have a better chance of finding a town if I went down-river rather than up it. But still, how far would that be? I mulled over the question a few good minutes, before settling on following the river. Sooner or later I’d have to stumble across some sign of civilization. I just had to.
I’m not certain how much time passed as I walked, not with my phone busted. The only other item I had on me was my wallet and its contents, and I was pretty sure fifteen Euros cash wasn’t going to get me back home to my dorm, not in this situation. Of course, I would’ve traded everything in my wallet at that moment for my jacket back and a break from the stinging pain in my ribs.
On a somewhat brighter note, my clothes had begun to dry off (though I found it a bit too slow for my taste), so eventually the breeze wouldn’t be too bad after that happened. On a darker note, I’d yet to see any signs of a town or another road, which was unreal. Several towns and roads peppered alongside Danube River, I knew that for a fact. So unless I had drifted at least thirty-plus miles downriver (a scary thought) I should’ve seen something by then.
I trudged on for another painful hour or so, before I spotted something: a small splash of orange within the mist. A light.
My hopes rising, “Hey!” I hollered then broke into a light run. “Somebody there!? I need help!”
As the light grew, I heard rushing water and noticed that the river’s current had quickened, but I brushed it off–my hopes of being rescued had driven all curiosity out. When I was about five yards away, I realized that the light was smaller than I thought, and there were in fact two of them–both chest level. When I broke through the last veil of gray, I slid to a stop.
“Oh,” I grunted, my hopes–dashed.
In front of me were two wooden poles with a Victorian styled lantern sitting on top of each–replicas by the looks of them. They marked the beginning of a trodden path that ran into the forest and the start of an old, wooden, rickety-looking bridge. Beneath the bridge, I saw several rocks jutting out of the whitewater rapids. I also noticed that I was near the start of one of the smaller mountains, less than a mile away.
Mountain, old-styled lanterns, really old bridge…I smiled as I remembered the history of the area from one of my classes just a few days earlier. This must be part of an old historical mine. And if they’re lit lanterns, that means… My eyes went to the other end of the bridge and made out a large, dark shape on the other side. A station. Maybe I had some hope of being rescued after all.
Without thinking about it, I grabbed one of the lanterns and stepped onto the bridge. A sudden loud whine came from the plank underfoot.
Uh-oh. I looked down at the damp, dark stained planks. “Oh, please don’t do that,” I begged the bridge. “Just let me get across.”
I took another tentative step forward, careful not to put too much weight on it. “Creeaaaaak,” squealed the wood. Oh, come on! I’m not even near the middle!
I closed my eyes and prayed that it’d hold. I took a couple steps forward. The floorboards complained with a whine and a squeak every step of the way but held. When I reached the center of the bridge, I saw that the large shape I’d perceived earlier was indeed a station.
“Oh, thank God,” I murmured, then took another step, thinking I was saved. The bridge, on the other hand, thought otherwise. A loud, sudden creak followed by a snap came from beneath and floorboards gave way.
“Waaah!” I yelped, as I fell, dropping the lantern into the water. I managed to throw a hand back at the last second and snag one of the unbroken boards.
“Not cool! Not cool!” I yelled as the pain in my ribs went onto an all-time high.
Despite burning in my chest, I pulled myself back up, and dragged myself away from the edge. Holding onto my chest, I looked back to see that two of the poles holding up the sides had collapsed from age and decay, bringing the entire center along with it. There was an eight-yard gap between both sides now.
“Damn it,” I let my head fall back onto the planks beneath me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make a jump like that, and I had no intention to take a desperate swim for the other side, not with the way my ribs were hurt. I looked back at the building that had once been beckoning. Now it taunted me.
Maybe I could still get help though.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Is there anyone over there!?”
I waited for an answer, but no light appeared within the windows. No one stepped out. No one hollered back. Nothing but the sound of my raspy breaths and the rushing water below.
“Great,” I muttered with a sigh. I got back to my feet, and with a hand pressed against my chest, made my way back to the first lantern. My eyes looked down between my feet at the trotted dirt of the old path. I raised my eyes following it all the way into the forest. I sighed once more, then grabbed the last remaining lantern, and set down the trail with the dim hope that there might be another shack on the way. I doubted it.
The moon’s light had almost been extinguished by the overhanging canopy and thickening dark clouds above. It brought along with it a grumble of thunder. I tried my best to ignore it and the sting of the cold wind as I walked. I passed several makeshift lamp poles–much like the ones I’d seen at the bridge, though none were lit. The farther I walked the more signs of a mine I saw: rusty discarded spades, busted turned over wheelbarrows, pickaxes with broken tips, and other tools I didn’t recognize.
When I reached the end of the path and halted at tall wall of granite–the foot of a mountain–another rumble of thunder filled the silence and a cold rain began to fall.
I looked up at the sky. My lips parted in disgust.
“What did I do to you again?” I asked aloud, to nobody.
I sighed then gazed at the large gaping hole in front of me–the path had led me to the start of a mine. Wooden tracks ran out of it with a few overturned minecarts next to it. I’d hoped I might find someone or something over here, but there was no one. Whoever had lit those lamps must’ve been on the other side of the river, in that station.
I looked back over my shoulder towards the way I’d come, assessing my options. I could go back and wait by the bridge until morning. There was another rumble of thunder. In the cold, damp, rain. I shook my head. No. Stupid idea. I sighed and frowned at the dark cavern. I sure as heck didn’t want to go in there either. It looked creepy, and probably had who-knew-what living in there. There was no good reason for me to enter it…asides from keeping dry, which sounded very, very appealing at that moment.
I groaned. Choices, choices…
Before I could decide, a white figure appeared at the edge of the lantern's light, at the start of the cave.
“WHAT THE–!?” I jumped back in surprise almost dropping the lantern. The figure didn’t move or react, just stood still.
“Dang, you scared me,” I said, trying to get my shocked breathing under control.
The figure made no reply.
“Uhh, do you talk?” I asked.
The figure said nothing.
“Oh, right,” I said. Clamping my eyes shut, I cleared my throat. “I mean, Sprichst du Englisch?”
I took a step forward as I spoke, hoping to get a better look.
“Nein?” I asked when I didn’t get an answer.
I took another step, but froze when I made out what I saw: a striking young woman, unlike any I’d ever seen or seen since. Her hair was a blond so pale that it appeared almost white; it trailed down her shoulders with a few strands curling up on the front. Her complexion was easy, her jaw–sharp and angular, like many Germans I’d met. I guessed she was either 5’8 or 5’9 in height, and her eyes had this surreal amber tone to them, that if it hadn’t been for the lantern’s light, I’d’ve sworn they glowed. She wore a short-sleeved ivory dress and skirt, an odd attire given where we were, the rain, the time of day, and the cold.
I’d heard stories how guys had been stricken to a standstill when they’d seen “the one” as they called–that one woman they just knew was meant for them, but I hadn’t understood how literal the phrase could be until I saw her. I couldn’t move, she was that beautiful, and on some deep level, it scared me.
Her amber eyes scanned me over before locking onto my own.
“Bist du verloren?” she asked.
I didn’t answer–couldn’t answer; dazed by her face.
“Bist du verloren?” she asked again, when I didn’t answer.
“I uh...” I sputtered then shook my head, to clear my stupor. “No–I mean–yes–I mean–Ja,” I answered. “Ich kann nicht viel Deutsch sprechen.”
“English then,” she said, more of a statement than question.
I wiped some of the rain from my brow, then nodded. “Yeah. Um…c-could you help me?” I asked, the cold making it hard not to stutter. “I was in a car accident and got run off the bridge. I-I need a phone and need to get to a hospital.”
Her face portrayed no emotion as I spoke and still had none when she spoke.
“I am afraid you will not find any hospitals near here,” she said, “and I am afraid I do not have a,” she paused and appeared to tongue over the final word, “phone.”
She said the word as if it were foreign to her, but I was too cold, in pain, and dazed to care or think much of it. I wanted to get indoors, sit in front of a heater, and then get myself checked out by a doc.
“Alright,” I said. “Then c-could you take me to the nearest house where I could find one? I-I saw a place back there,” I jabbed a thumb over my shoulder with my free hand, “but the bridge to it went out when I t-tried to cross it. I’ve got no clue where to go next.”
She looked past me, towards the river for a moment before her eyes flicked back to mine. She chewed on her pale lips, contemplating something, then said, “That bridge is the only way across, unless you care to swim. However,” she gazed over her shoulder at the cave, “on the other side of this mine there’s a house where a professor is staying. He’ll likely have a phone and be able to help you.” She turned back to me and smiled for the first time. “You’ll just have to follow me.”
“Through there?” I couldn’t keep the gasping surprise out of my voice. This lady wanted me to follow her through the creepy, dark, dank cave? Was she serious?
“Yes,” she replied, serious.
My mouth opened and closed a few times, unable to say anything. “Um,” I began, trying to think of an excuse of why I couldn’t go into the mine, “do you know the way?” I felt stupid the moment the question left my lips. I’d just seen her come from the mine, of course she knew the way!
She must have thought the same, because she raised an eyebrow at me, reinforcing how stupid I felt, and said, “Yes, I do.”
I stood quietly, asking myself once again: what had I done to deserve all of this? But when I couldn’t come up with an answer to the question or a good excuse to not follow the strange lady, I nodded my head and gestured for her to lead on.
We walked side by side for a time, taking a left, then a right, and then another left every now and then within the cave. For the first fifteen minutes or so, we didn’t speak. I was too afraid to, yet I couldn’t fathom why. Perhaps it was because of the way she smelled. I’d noticed when I got next to her that the scent of pines and wild grass wafted from her, yet her dress looked immaculate. Stranger still, I noticed that she wore no shoes. That made me break the silence and ask if she’d lost them. Instead of answering, she smiled and asked in return, “What’s your name?”
“Ethan,” I said, “yours?”
“Hulda,” she said, with a warm smile.
“Hulda,” I echoed. The name tugged in my mind, as if I’d heard it before, only not as a name. But when I couldn’t recall where I’d heard it before, I just shook my head. “Well, Hulda,” I said, “may I ask what you’re doing out here so late? I mean–obviously, I’m glad you are, but I’m curious.”
“I wanted to go for a walk,” she said, still smiling.
I raised my eyebrows, skeptical. “In the middle of the night, barefoot?” I didn’t mean for it to, but the question came out like a sneer.
Hulda’s smile melted. “Yes,” she replied, this time devoid of warmth.
I bit my tongue, realizing that I may’ve annoyed her. “Hey, I didn’t mean anythin–”
“This way,” she said, cutting me off. She turned down another tunnel so suddenly that I had to quicken my steps to keep up.
When I fell in step next to her, something in the back of my head nagged at me once more. There was something very off about her, about all of this, but what?
We walked for another ten or fifteen minutes in silence. The pain in my side had lessened to a dull ache, though would crank back up every time I tripped over a rock or an old piece of mining equipment (and here I thought today’s littering was bad). It was a wonder how Hulda could handle it with just her bare feet. I had a hard-enough time watching my step, even with my shoes on and the lantern light guiding my way. Wait a sec., the lantern…
I stopped. Hulda didn’t register I had until she’d gone another four or five steps without me. She paused and peered back with her brow and mouth furrowed.
“Are you alright?” she asked. “Why did you stop?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but no words came out. I’d noticed something else. This was the first time I’d seen her up close from behind with the lantern and I saw something I’d missed back at the mine’s entrance, back when she was still masked by the darkness. Something thin–like a velvet cord or a braid of hair–protruded just beneath her dress, but what got me was that when she’d stood still, it’d flicked to the side.
“Hulda,” I began, “I just wanna go ahead and finish what I tried to say earlier: I didn’t mean anything by it when I asked about your lack of shoes. Okay?”
She arched her head back an inch, bemused, then with a slow nod said, “Okay… Is that it?”
“No,” I said, and tried to swallow down the fear I felt rising, which didn’t work. “You said you were out for a walk right before you found me, right?”
“Through the cave?”
She turned around to face me. “Yes,” she said again. “What of it?”
I looked at the lightless walls and gesturing at the darkness around us, asked, “How can you see in the dark?”
Oh, how I wish I could write that she said, “Oh, because I have a flashlight” or something like that to reassure my pounding heart that everything was okay and what I thought she was at that moment was wrong. Instead, I got a very different response.
“Just how an ignorant boy sees in the light of day: with my eyes,” the mirth in her voice unnerved me. It didn’t sound at all benevolent.
I felt the back of my hands moisten, and it wasn’t because of the damp air. Taking a shaky breath, I said, “An ignorant, but not an impolite or foolish boy, I would hope.”
Her mouth parted into a small laugh. With it all doubts, all disbelief I’d ever had about the stories of old surrounding the Black Forest fell away with that toothy, fanged, grin that followed her laughter.
Oh, God, please tell me this isn’t real.
“That remains to be seen,” she said. A strange glint appeared within her eyes as the amber brighten in the lamplight. “Tell me,” she asked amused, “what does a foreign boy know about this place, and of me?”
She knew I’d figured out what she was. Sweat began to build upon my brow as memories of the tales I read back at the campus came rushing back.
“Well,” I said, trying my best to not sound terrified, “I know that a lot of history happened in these mountains, and in this forest. I know nothing of this mine, but if I had to guess, I’d say that it was one of the many used back in the Victorian period when the entire forest was nearly logged.” I paused to take a breath and to think carefully over of what to say next, because I still wasn’t 100% sure I was right about this–or rather, I prayed I was 100% wrong about this next part. “As to what I know of you, I would guess you were around for that. And from that piece of your…” my eyes flicked down to her skirt, where I saw the cord curl on its own, confirming what I feared, “clothing, ‘Hulda’ isn’t just your name, is it?”
Her grin grew wider, as she crossed her arms. She gave an approving nod, then said, “Go on.”
I did. “It’s what you are: a Huldra or Huld, if I remember the name correctly.”
Hulda gave a slow nod. “I am impressed,” she said. “I would never have figured a foreigner to know anything about my kind, let alone know the name.”
One of the names anyways, though I wasn’t stupid enough to say. I still couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “But, I thought–I thought your kind was just a myth!” And I begged the heavens that were true. I’d once read a book on both German and Scandinavian folklore. Huldras or skogsrå were a very popular topic. They were female creatures that resided in the forest or in caves. They were seductive and often dangerous, though not always.
Hulda brought me back to the present, when I heard her say, “Do I appear to be a myth?” Her head was tilted to the side, with her eyebrows raised, and with an ever-present smile. Before I could answer, she strode forward and closed the gap between us, so that her face was less than five inches from mine. I wanted to scramble back, but my limbs had turned to lead.
“N-no,” I stammered.
“I didn’t believe so,” she said, with a titter. “Tell me, though, what gave me away?”
“Other than the way you’re dressed, the time of night, the lack of a flashlight and the fact that you just admitted to me you were one?” I asked with a nervous laugh.
“Well,” I said as my eyes honed back to the bottom of her skirt to where I’d seen the cord, “I saw your tail.” My eyes went back to hers. “And if I remember the stories correctly, your kind often lead men either deep into a forest or into a cave,” I found my eyes wandering back to the dark walls as I spoke, “often to…often to…” I trailed off, then took a deep breath. I didn’t want to say what they did. I didn’t like it.
“Go on,” she urged me. “I want to hear it. What else do we do?”
My heart was thumping against my chest, screaming to me to run, but I stood and spoke anyway, “Well, they either kill them, leave them to be lost forever, or…or–actually, I don’t think I need to say the last one because we both clearly know what it is and right now,” I paused, not believing the words that were tumbling out of my mouth, “I am begging you to just please, PLEASE let me go. I don’t want any trouble or to cause any harm. I just wanna get back to civilization and back to my dorm.”
Her eyes stared deep within my own, as if she could see everything there was to know about me in them. After a few heartbeats, her lips curled into a smirk, and she looked off to the side, as if in thought.
A minute later, she nodded, turned her head back to me, then said, “The way out is just ahead,” she turned and pointed down the tunnel. “You’ll find the professor’s house beyond a small brook after you get out,” she turned back to me, her amber eyes staring deep within my own. “Assuming you can get across it,” she continued, “you’ll be fine.” Her face turned serious. “But stay true to the path. There are others aside from myself that dwell here. You do not wish to meet them.” She stepped away from me.
I let out the breath I’d been holding in the entire time, and with a small gasp, asked, “You’re-you’re gonna let me go? You’re going to help me?” I could hardly believe it, after all, why would she? Almost every single story I’d read concerning the huldra had a bad ending. What made mine any different?
Her goblin grin returned. “I am, yes. I cannot speak for what lies ahead, however,” she said. Her eyes went to my lantern and pursing her lips as if to whistle she–somehow–blew out the light, plunging the entire tunnel into complete and total darkness.
I grew still, petrified. Before I could snap out of it, I felt a warm, moist breath against the nape of my neck.
“Should you escape what lies ahead,” I heard Hulda whisper, “return to the forest. I would like to see you again.” Warm lips pressed against the back of my neck, with it a sudden dart of pain and heat shot down my spine. The lantern fell from my grasp and my hands flew to my chest as a silent agonizing fire filled my ribcage. The heat was so excruciating, it sapped away all energy to scream. Then she withdrew her lips and just as fast as it’d come, the pain vanished. In fact, all pain vanished. The aching in my ribs I’d carried with me since the crash had left me; the knot on my head had receded.
I felt myself gasping for breath. When I had it, I turned and asked, “What did you do?”
But only the echoing of my voice answered me back.
Hulda was gone.
I tried to ignore the warm sensation lingering on back of my neck as I felt along the walls. As far as I could tell, Hulda’s kiss had healed me (which sounds very weird now that I’ve written it down), but even without the pain and with my eyes accustomed to the dark, I still couldn’t see.
As I walked, my doubts began to tantalize me.
Not sure why she had to take away the light. Would’ve helped immensely right about now. I mean, what kind advice is ‘stay on the path’ anyway? How the hell am I supposed to stay on anything if I can’t see!?
“Well, maybe she did it to help me?” I found myself saying aloud.
Why, oh yes, my thoughts mocked, to help you. Because she knows having no light to see any bats or bears or wolves or other evil thingies she hinted might be living in here will certainly help save your life.
“Okay, well, she did just take away the pain.”
Yeah, and then left you alone to wander in the dark, dank, creepy cave. What was that you said earlier about Huldras again? Oh, yeah, that’s right: ‘they lead their victims into caves to be lost forever.’ But Hulda wouldn’t do that to you. Oh, wait...
I grounded to a halt. “Will you stop it!?” I said, raising my voice. “Why are you patronizing me anyway? It isn’t like it’s going to help me get ou–”
I clamped my mouth shut, then blinked. “Am I seriously arguing with myself, right now?” I murmured.
That’s a sign that you’re losing it. I would’ve retorted that thought, but I’d managed to clamp down my anger and put my hand back against the wall. Only my hand found empty air instead of rough granite.
“What the hell?” I let out as I almost stumbled over to the side. “Where the wall go?" I said, this time with my voice raised, like an idiot, for then I heard hundreds of ’where the wall go’s echo down the entire tunnel. I stood still a long minute before the last echo died away.
Very slick, moron. What would you’ve done if something were living here- that’s when I heard a strange, greasy crackle.
“Ist jemand da?” a sinister, gravelly voice grumbled back from the new tunnel.
Uh, oh. Forgetting all caution, I sprinted in the direction Hulda had pointed (I think) with my arms outstretched ahead of me. The sudden sound of something large padding against stone followed.
Ooohhhh no. Not good!
I tripped a few times, but always managed to scramble back to my feet to keep running. But every time I fell, every time I stumbled, the sound of footsteps behind me grew louder and louder; closer and closer.
Now I know why Hulda blew out that light! I thought, as my hands found the wall again. She didn’t want that thing to see me!
I ignored the burn in my palms as I ran, dragging them across the wall.
Come on, come on, come on. Where’s the exit!?
The sound of gruff breathing and heavy footsteps grew louder. The thing chasing was less than a yard behind me.
“WHERE’S THE EXIT!?” I shouted. My foot caught a pothole. “Oh, crap!” I cried, falling forward. I expected to hit the hard ground and be trampled by the thing chasing me, but to my surprise, instead of getting a mouthful of rocks, I tumbled down a steep slope. “HOLY-OW!” I yelled as I rolled into brush, branches, and then landed in a bush.
“Oooowwwwww,” I groaned. “That did not feel good.” I pulled myself out of the bush to find that I could see again. Dark clouds moved across the sky above while the moon’s light seeped through the cracks and edges.
“Oh, thank you,” I whispered at the sky, then looked back up the slope. Fifteen or so yards above me, the mine’s exit sat. At its mouth, I saw two tiny silver reflecting eyes filled with hatred glare down at me, then retread back inside. I’d just missed whatever the heck it was that lived in there and was glad of it.
With a relieved sigh, I turned to find that, although there wasn’t a path, the mist was much thinner on this side of the mine. The amount of shrubbery was few and made it much easier to see around me, only there was one problem: I didn’t see this “brook” Hulda had mentioned.
“Great,” I murmured, gazing around for some sign of it, but found none.
Well, she did say, “stay on the path,” so I guess that means go straight. Seeing that I had no other real choice, I slid my hands into my pockets, and headed out, while trying to pretend that it still wasn’t raining.
About an hour or so later, I’d almost given up on finding the brook. I was certain I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. I should’ve found it by then.
I was about consider doubling back when I heard it: a gentle music, like from a violin.
My eyes widened. The professor’s house? It had to be. I broke into a full sprint and raced for the music’s source. A grin spread across my face as I ran. I was going to go back home. I was going to get back in my nice, dry, warm bed. I just knew it.
When I was certain I was maybe fifteen feet from the source, I heard running water. The brook! Now I knew for certain I was saved. I slid to a halt in front of a large wall of brush. The music came just from the other side of it.
This is it, I grinned wider than ever and pushed through to the other side expecting to see a running brook and a house on the other side.
My expectations took a hit when I saw what was there. The first thing I noticed was that there was a brook: a wide, smooth stream of water flowing eastward with its glassy surface peppered with stones, lilies, and ripples of the falling rain.
The second thing I noticed was the person playing the fiddle. A young man, or perhaps a boy sat on one of the rocks sticking out of the water. His form was silhouetted from the water’s ivory reflection, but I could see the outlines of his hands, head, and face and hear the soothing notes that came from the strings of his fiddle. It brought a strange sense of loneliness, and sadness, yet still felt pleasant and hopeful.
For a moment, I forgot where I was, everything that had happened, there was nothing but that sweet, sweet song to be lost in. I just stood there, listening. When he reached the final note, he lowered his fiddle, and took a deep breath. His eyes, which had been closed the entire time, opened. I took a step back and did a doubletake. The fiddler’s eyes were just like Hulda’s–they contained a strange inner glow, but unlike Hulda’s, were a florescent sapphire. I watched the eyes regard me for several log heartbeats before the fiddler opened his mouth to speak.
“Was ist das? Ein verlorener wanderer?” the musician asked. His voiced sounded smooth, calm, just like running water. It lessened my initial shock, but didn’t take away the fear. I knew better than to let it.
“Englisch?” I asked back.
The musician’s posture straightened in surprise, but then relaxed as a small chuckle left his lips. “It’s been a long while since I’ve had the pleasure of an audience, longer still the pleasure of a foreign one,” he said.
“Indeed. I take it you’re not the professor?” I asked, knowing full well this thing wasn’t.
“The professor?” the fiddler, echoed sounding bemused then after a second nodded, “Oh, you mean the old man who lives up a-ways,” he pointed with the bow just further down the brook, where a wooden bridge sat (a much newer one than the last one I’d tried crossing, thank God). Beyond it I saw the faint outline of a small house.
“A shame, it is,” the fiddler said with a sigh, bringing my attention back to him. There was a small trace of sorrow in the lights of his eyes as they remained fixed on the house. “The old man crosses that bridge everyday looking for signs of the past; searching the mines, the trees, the very shores of the river for remnants of better times. The old times.” His eyes looked to mine. “He never stops to simply listen to me play or to gaze around him and take to heart the beauty he sees.” He sighed, then shook his head. “A native yet a foreigner to his own land.”
There was a small sting in the back of my neck when I heard those words. I rubbed it, and thought about what he said. Before long, I found myself gazing back at the professor’s house, then to the cave, thinking about what I had seen and gone through so far, before turning back to the fiddler who regarded me in silence.
“How am I able to see any of you?” I asked, lowering my hand. I thought understood his words, but I couldn’t see how I fit into them. “Why am I able to see any of you?” I looked back at the professor’s. “I’m not from here. Hell, even if I was, I doubt few, if any us, could see or hear your music. Well, not my generation at least.”
The fiddler watched me in silence, his eyes searching mine for something I was certain I didn’t have. After a time, he gave approving nod, as if he’d found what he sought, and was satisfied. He raised his fiddle, readying himself to play again.
“I believe you already know the answer to that,” he said, then closing his eyes, began to play a smooth, hopeful rhythm.
The conversation was over, so I walked away.
The professor was no doubt surprised to see a young man, such as myself, knocking at his door so late. No one ever came out this far on their own, especially a foreigner who looked like he’d been through hell yet spoke and acted like he’d seen heaven.
He called the authorities, gave me a blanket, and had me sit in the corner as we waited for the cops to show up. He asked me what happened, and I told him about the accident, the collapsed bridge, the walk through the mine, but I left out Hulda, the Fiddler, and the strange creature that had chased me.
Once I finished my tale, I asked him why he lived out here alone. He laughed, then said he was a professor (which I already knew) writing a book about the old tales surrounding the forest. He wanted to find what had sparked the imaginations of his ancestors to create such fantasies. At one point of the conversation, he said, “As a young boy, my Oma told me stories about the old forest and how The Nix lived in the river and brooks, the Moosleute within the woods, along with the Weiße Frauen, and–”
“Huldra?” I added.
The professors raised an eyebrow, then said, “No, that’s Scandinavian, though very similar.” He chuckled. “I’m surprised someone as young as you would know something like that.”
I shrugged, then said, “Well, let’s just say I share a mutual interest for the past.”
Not long after that, the cops showed, took my statement, sent me to get checked out at a hospital, and let me go once the docs cleared me (the baffled looks on their faces when they discovered I had no injuries was priceless).
Now, I’m back at my dorm, three weeks later writing this. I’ve only now taken the time to write it all down because I feel as if I must and because I’ve found something just last night that I hadn’t noticed before–not since the accident. When I got out of the shower and went to pull on my shirt, I noticed in the mirror a small amber mark, like a tattoo, on the back of my neck:
Now that I know it’s there, I can’t help but keep thinking about Hulda’s last request before she vanished, “Return to the forest…”
Maybe I will.
 “Do you speak English?”
 “Are you lost?”
 “I cannot speak much German.”
 The Scandinavian name for “Huldra.”
 “Is someone there?”
 “What is this? A lost wanderer?”
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