Last night I dreamt about you again. About the first time we met.
I was running through the forest, pursued by I knew not what. The creatures chasing me were as dark as the night, and in the forest, it is a dark night. I thought I knew the forest, I had walked through it many a time, but all that was clear to me was that I was lost. It seemed to me that on that night, the forest was cursed, or was it me that was cursed? The trees were closing around me. My pursuers were getting nearer, their snarls becoming louder. I wished for a place to hide, but feared derailing from the well-worn path. Instinct told me I was running in the wrong direction, away from the town, instead of towards it. Still, I ran. The forest had to end somewhere. But the further I ran, the thicker the trees got. I wouldn’t be able to run forever, but I could at least do my best to run for as long as possible, after all, there must be a limit to their strength too, surely? I was surprised at my own endurance, even as I allowed myself a small chuckle, you will not catch me that easily. No sooner had I uttered that chuckle than the trees parted in front of me.
I slowed down. Did the trees—move? They didn’t. It was a clearing, a little glade. On the far side of the glade there was a black shape, approaching me, growing larger. I halted. Ambushed, I thought, this is the end. As the shape moved closer, I saw, in the moonlight, that it was a rider on a horse, and that rider was you. You raised your gloved hand, fingers spread-out. The creatures behind me went quiet. They must have retreated, for when I turned back to look at them, they were gone.
“Need a ride?”
It was you, offering me your hand. I took it, and you lifted me up into the saddle. I thanked you for saving me, but you shrugged it off with, don’t mention it. As if it was no big deal, as if it was not my very life that you just saved. “To town?” You were smiling, and, even then, I wondered if it was the most enchanting smile I’d ever seen.
We set off. “So I was running in the wrong direction,” I said. I explained to you that I had been babysitting the daughter of my friends in the village, and was taking my usual shortcut back home to town, when those creatures sprang out from nowhere, and started chasing me.
“I suppose now’s the time for the don’t-take-the-forest-shortcut-after-dark lecture,” I said. Days were getting shorter, I didn’t realise how dark it would get.
“On the contrary,” you shook your head. “Roam the forest whenever you want. They will not bother you anymore.”
I don’t know what it was about your voice. It was calm, and warm, and so reassuring, but there was iron in it too. I supposed there had to be. “They don’t usually wander that close to human habitat,” you added.
You talked to me about the forest. You knew every inch of it, you rode there every day. I said I’d never seen you there. Although, aside from that shortcut, I didn’t frequent the forest that much, not lately.
“I have seen you,” you said, “taking the shortcut.”
You threw it in there, casually, then continued your narration about the forest, the trees and plants, and how it changed with the seasons. The forest in autumn was magical.
“There’s a horse chestnut tree on my shortcut,” I said, “its leaves in autumn are pure gold.”
You smiled. “There’s even nicer ones deeper in the forest.”
As if, I thought, after tonight. But then again…
Sometimes, a smile is enough to tempt one back deep into the forest.
“Do you go to the village often?” you asked.
“Once a fortnight, at least. I visit my friends, the ones whose daughter I babysat tonight. I help her with schoolwork, she likes me.”
“You must be a good aunt to her.”
We reached town. I dismounted at the end of our main road. “I’ll make my own way from here,” I said. “Thank you.”
“I said, don’t mention it.”
“I meant thank you for the ride, you only said not to mention it for saving me.”
You laughed. “Pleasure.”
I patted your horse’s head. It was a beautiful beast. Not many people still rode horses in this part of the world.
“I’ll see you again soon,” you said.
Our eyes met. You smiled again. You knew then, didn’t you? Perhaps you had known for a long time, before our meeting in the glade. I stood there, under the lights of the street lamps, my mind already turning our encounter into a story I’d one day tell my friends’ daughter, a story too fanciful for adults, but easily wrapped up in a fairy tale. You might have been a knight. No sword, no armour, but you did have a horse. But why was he dressed in all black, auntie?
How could I have known, how could I have had any idea that I would never be the same again, that the memory of your smile and the tiny dots of light in your slate grey eyes would stay with me forever, how could I have known?
And yet, something in me could not just let go. Those creatures. They don’t usually wander close to human habitat, you said. So why were they there, why tonight? And—my reason returning—why had no one ever heard of them? In a village, where they never missed a chance to tell tales, where any rustling of leaves could spark the most fantastical stories?
They will not bother you anymore.
But, what were they?
And earlier, you said: “I have seen you before. Taking the shortcut.”
I could have just say goodnight. Or—
“So,” I said, “how did you do it? How did you stop the monsters?”
Still smiling, you leant down and spoke: “Oh, darling, don’t you know? I’m the greatest monster of them all.”