"I'm scared," I muttered, wrapping the blanket tighter around myself as thunder boomed.
"Oh, hush, Jena," Tati admonished me, her violet eyes narrowing in annoyance. Tati was 8 and thought she knew everything.
"You hush! I'll tell Papa you were being mean to me if you don't," I whined as lightning flickered outside.
"I said HUSH!" she snapped. "And by the way, Papa doesn't know we're still awake. If you tell on me to him, we'll all get in trouble."
"Yes, let's keep going," Iulia thrust her tiny hands in front of the candlelight and formed the head of a dog with her fingers. She made barking noises, panting and sniffing like the hulking hounds that sometimes came out of the heavy forest surrounding Piscul Dracului. I let out a weak chuckle, while Tati giggled uncontrollably and Paula burbled her little laugh. The candle stuttered slightly, throwing giant shadows on the dank stone walls.
"This is fun!" Tati exclaimed pointedly, smiling at me. I smiled back, suppressing a small yawn. I had never stayed up this late.
I watched in silence while Paula, still struggling to control her meaty little baby fists, tried to make rabbit after rabbit. Finally she gave up and was content to watch Tati and Iulia make perfect swans and butterflies.
As another throb of thunder growled outside, I squeezed my eyes shut and gasped quietly. Piscul Dracului still scared me. We moved here not but three months ago, after my father inherited it. It was horrifying to me, a young child, who was overwhelmed by the craggy towers, the spiraling, stone-bound staircases, the shadowy, candle-lit walls. I had woken up in the middle of the night more than once, swearing I could hear the distant howl of a lost soul, or the angry scream of some wild forest creature. Tati, of course, reprimanded my thinking, dismissing it as mere child's imagination. Yet, I knew Florica, our old housekeeper, sensed something too. She kept a silver crucifix in her apron pocket, of course.
"Let me do one," I finally demanded, clambering over to the wall where the light was cast. "Florica showed it to me. Give me your hands," I instructed, clasping Paula, Tati, and Iulia's outstretched palms. "Now, do this," I folded their hands into an L shape, joining them together. When we held our hands up to the candlelit wall, they formed one large star.
"It's so pretty!" Paula chuckled, staring transfixed at the shadow. Tati flashed me a real smile. "It's very nice, Jena," she acknowledged by way of compliment. I beamed proudly.
Suddenly, there was a rumble deep inside the wall. We all stumbled backwards, nearly tipping over the candle in the process. "Oh, you are such babies," Tati scolded, her violet eyes scornful. "It's nothing. Just the storm outside, if that. Now come on, I can make a-"
Suddenly she jumped back with a shriek, for where our hands had just cast a star seconds ago, the wall was sliding away. I was so scared I didn't know whether to scream or hide, or perhaps both.
The place where the wall had been was some sort of tunnel, large enough for someone my size to walk in standing up. Not that I wanted to.
"Where do you think it goes?" Iulia asked, trembling next to me.
"Put the wall back. Cover it up," Paula whimpered. "Everybody quiet!" Tati commanded, but she was pale too. "It's probably just a servant's tunnel or some such thing. We'll just have to see where it leads to."
As if on cue, thunder exploded outside, louder and harsher than ever before. I felt close to tears.
"Tati, you're the oldest. Please, put the wall back. We can make more shadow puppets." Tati looked frustrated. Her hand were working their way through her knotted hair. "Maybe if we go inside," she reasoned slowly, "The door will close when we come out."
"But what if we get stuck inside?" Paula's lip quivered. Tati squared her shoulder bravely and stood up. "Well, we'll scream at the top of our lungs, and Mama or Papa will come and find us. Maybe. But we have to find out."
A slight echo howled through the tunnel. I stepped back. Tati glanced at me. "Come along, Jena, you're grown up now, aren't you? Well, prove it." She picked up the candle and grabbed my arm. "Come along, Iulia, Paula-" Tati paused. "If you're brave enough."
Sure enough, we were soon all clutching each other firmly, led only by the light of Tati's candle. There was no going back now.
I recoiled as my bare feet touched the cold, dank floor. Tati yanked my arm and pressed on. Her eyes were spiteful. I hated her right now.
The tunnel was not nearly as dark as I originally thought. Even without Tati's candle we would have been fine. Iulia, however, thought otherwise. "It's so dark in here," she moaned. Tati just rolled her eyes.
Suddenly, a huge, grotesque face leered out from the shadows, its horrible features magnified by the candlelight. I screamed as loud as my little lungs would go, and even Tati gasped. "Are-are they real?" For the first time, she was scared, which somehow bolstered my own confidence. "Just nod," I whispered, accelerated by some unknown giddy force that was growing within me. "Just keep nodding, and keep walking."
We must have looked odd, four skinny little girls wandering through a tunnel nodding like our necks were broken, our hair a mass of tangles. Looking back, I laugh.
We walked along for what felt like hours, before finally a burst of warm air slipped through the cracked brick. "What's that?" Paula begged, her eyes wide and swiveling. In mine, I felt Tati's slim hand begin to tremble. Looking back, I knew none of us expected to find anything.
But we did.
A pale shaft of light flickered across the wall, like candlelight, only brighter. "Maybe it's the kitchen," Tati reasoned. Indeed, I caught a whiff of something sweet and sicy-gingerbread, maybe, but lighter.
Finally, we emerged-but to where, exactly?
"My lord..." Tati's wry expression melted away to one of slack disbelief. She dropped the candle to the floor, which immediately stuttered out.
We were on the banks of a lake, one I had never seen before. It wore a smoky shawl of thick mist, with skeleton trees reaching for the starry, moon-lit sky. It was not very cold-rather, it was warm, and I no longer felt the need for my patchwork quilt.
Suddenly, an expanse of pale lights shone through the mist, bobbing like fireflies. "What's that?" Paula pointed a shaking finger at the lights. "Maybe they're sailors. Maybe they'll find us!" Tati cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted. "Over here! Woo! Here!"
We all took up the chant, jumping and flapping our arms and yelling. I suppose they heard us, because the lights changed course and started speeding in our direction. As they cut through the mist, we saw the lights were lanterns, held aloft in small rowboats with artful figureheads-a wildcat, a swan, a frog, a fish, and a wood duck. The boats were captained by men of varying size-one, a dwarfish man with a fire-red beard and a pointed blue felt cap; another, a tall, slender statue of a being clothed from head to toe in pale grey.
The dwarf-man lept out of his boat the minute it touched land, scurrying over to us like an energized beetle. "You found it! You found it! I TOLD Grigori someone had found the Wildwood! I practically had to DRAG him and the others out here. 'You won't find anything,' they said. 'You've drunk too much Sweetburry wine,' they said. But I was right all along! You've found the Wildwood!"
He scurried over to me and bowed low. "Forgive me. Master Anatolie, at your service."
"Wha-where are we?" Tati stammered, her eyes trained on the tall, wiry sailor who was staring calmly at the four of us.
"The wildwood! You've crossed to the other side of the forest, my dears. Every now and then, someone stumbles cross us. You can only come cross the Great Divide on full moons, of course, but isn't that enough. Come along, now, into the boats, the party's only just begun."
I glanced at Tati, who was speechless for once. Her jaw was nearly scraping the ground. Civilized, sensible people would have blamed this wood on drink, on dreams, on delusions.
But we were not civilized, sensible people. We were four young, impressionable girls who still believed in magic like this.
And so it was. With a little convincing, we loaded into the boats, the one they called Anatolie leading me into his craft with his wide, rough hand in mine.
The moonlit ride across the lake was eerily beautiful. Softly and quickly as summer wind we went, nearly flying across the glassy water without a sound. Glimmering, thin beings with round eyes swan along with us, just beneath the water as if trapped. Water sprites, Anatolie had said. They were beautiful, yet carried an air of complete danger. My slim little hands nearly touched theirs.
We reached the shore in no time, and what a shore it was! I could not help but gasp at the sheer loveliness. The air around it was nearly alight in pale pinks, blues, and yellows, lit by fairy lanterns strung in the thick, fruit-laden trees. Couples of every shape and size draped in expensive-looking silks and gowns swirled across the meadows recklessly, as if they had no fear of falling. A group of goblin-like creatures were playing a lively tune, caught up in the bustle of the dancing around them. The air was heady with smells of fruits, of perfume, of spices and warmth.
Sheer giddiness brushed away any fears I had had before. All I wanted to do was join the dancing, get swept up the bright gaiety of the music. I glanced at Tati, Iulia, and Paula, who were equally as charmed.
One of the sailors, a squat fellow with cat whiskers and lamp-like eyes, offered his paw to Iulia. "May I have this first dance," he led her out of the boat and twirled her on to the floor. The dancers barely acknowledged any newcomers, just continued their spirited quickstep.
I glanced at Tati, who was grinning from ear to ear. "We'll be back before dawn," I assured her. She nodded. "Just a few dances wouldn't hurt." Her eyes were bright. "Jena, a wildwood! A real dancing glade! We mustn't tell anyone. But we shall come back," She took my hand as we approached the dance floor. "Aren't you glad we decided to play with shadows tonight?"
We joined hands and started to sway to the lively reel. "Yes," I said as I drank in my new, beautiful, surroundings. "I am very glad."