"Where does that road lead?"
The simple five words that almost got her a slap in the face. Sarah didn't understand why. After all, she had asked a thousand questions such as that one already.
It was the first time she had ever left the village. Supplies were short and with the great winter that had not entirely passed, few merchants were willing to brave the cold and dark of the ancient forest riled with rickety paths that led to their remote corner of Transylvania. The only solution had been to send those not required for the upkeep of the village – and all those strong enough to make the journey and carry things back – to venture into the nearest larger town and bring back the goods necessary.
Her father should have been the first to go, but their inn was undergoing a sudden surge of popularity among the villagers, not least of all due to its steady – and steadily dwindling – supply of alcohol. Also, the place was small, but warm, and even the stink of the ever-present garlic didn't seem so bad when your very bones weren't shivering.
Sarah was used to the smell of garlic; it lined every door and window she had ever seen. One of her many questions had been why the homes of the townspeople beyond their village didn't seem to be decorated with it from every side. It seemed like such a design oversight to a child's eyes.
But now, they were on the way back home, and she noticed for the very first time the fork in the road they were taking; a path that seemed to have appeared out of the very moonlight. She hadn't noticed it previously, as they had left at the brink of dawn. Now, the sun was gone, the smell of garlic and burning torches stronger than ever, and an air of great fear all around her.
Her mother looked at her as if she had grown a second head.
"What second path, dear?"
"The one over there!" The child eagerly pointed through the darkness, focusing on a strangely shaped piece of rock. It almost looked like part of an ancient and neglected road – a proper one, fit for carriages, not the bumpy dirt. "There, deeper into the forest!"
"You're imagining things!"
"No, mama, look! There's even some light-"
Her mother grabbed her firmly by the shoulders, looking all too displeased. Sarah didn't remember this expression she wore; it wasn't the kind of anger she usually directed at papa for looking at a lady she didn't seem to like. It was a mix of terror and rage.
"Listen to me, Sarah. You must never, ever, venture down that path. Never, do you hear me?" Mama shook her for good measure, until her head was bobbing on its own accord. "Unless your life depends upon it and you have a cross with you!"
"But we aren't Christians." Sarah noted, confused. Her papa was proud of his Jewish heritage; her own name reflected that. Even at age eight, Sarah understood that the cross was of significance to the Christians in their village – to the majority of the place.
"That doesn't matter. A cross, or garlic, or something blessed from the village church is what you always must with you. Now forget about that… that place!"
"Do as I say!" Mama barked, satisfied at the girl's wince at her volume. And that, apparently, was the end of the matter for her.
So of course Sarah searched for the path the very next day.
The forest was beautiful during the day, even in winter. She found something soothing in the gentle swaying of the leafless trees, even if that made her seem odd to others. There was finally sunlight, unlike the grim grey skies of many weeks past, and Sarah expected her search to be easy.
She spent what seemed hours going around in circles. There was only a single road leading to their village, and the forest seemed determined to prove to her that there wasn't any other path leading through it. She tried to tell directions based on the location of the village, but things had looked so different at night…
It was an accident when she finally came upon what she sought; in truth, she tripped over the head of an ancient statue. It was breaking apart, obviously had seen better days, and its twisted body seemed to depict a winged creature of sorts, with enormous teeth. If it didn't look so strangely human-like, Sarah would have pegged it for a dog with wings; a much less threatening image.
Her hands were burning with frost moments after she took off her patched gloves, but she just had to touch the stone with her own skin. It was like something out of a nightmare, but frozen in time, too trapped and broken to threaten anyone. Sarah felt a strange thrill when she laid her hands on the statue, as if she was being so brave. Brave like the knights in the tales her mother sometimes told her, when her face wasn't burning with grim emotion that she told Sarah she would understand when she was older and had a husband of her own. That she should pretend she was a princess while she could.
Sarah didn't understand what "pretend" was just yet. But she didn't want to be a princess; that meant being captured in a tower, which just seemed so boring to her.
Unless she had a creature like this to keep her company, maybe. Not alive, of course; that would just be scary. But she could barely feel her fingers when she finally finished her exploration, and would have likely have kept on, if her own sneeze didn't alert her to the silence of the forest, the lateness of the hour… and the rustle of leaves not far away from her that could only belong to a swiftly retreating creature. It was coming from the direction in which the destroyed carriage road was heading…
The danger was something she was blind to; it could have been anything – a wolf, a bear, a particularly disgruntled rat – but her first instinct wasn't to run away, shrieking her little lungs out. Rather, she reluctantly let go of the gargoyle and carefully took a step towards the source of the noise… and another… and another…
Her father stumbled out of the darkness, flanked by two other men. Their air of toughness was somewhat marred by their large necklaces; rings of garlic. Papa looked entirely too frightened for someone wandering through the forest with at least semi-competent company, but clasped his hands imploringly when he spotted her.
"Sarah, you damnable, reckless girl! What do you think you're doing here?" She could already feel the spankings when Papa yanked her towards him and began dragging her back to the village.
"I just wanted to see the strange road I saw here yesterday!"
"Foolish child! Do you have any idea what could have happened to you?" Her father looked madder than when she had accidentally spilled that bottle he kept hiding from Mama at the back of her room.
"No, I don't!" Sarah exclaimed, struggling a little. "No one will tell me! What would have happened, Papa? Where does that road go?"
If possible, Papa turned even more ashen. "What road? You were imagining things again, Sarah! I keep telling your mother not to have you play so many make-believe games."
"I didn't imagine it! There was a statue there, and a road, a road for carriages!" Hadn't he seen the statue, the stones, the parted trees? "I just wanted to see where it went!"
Papa just repeated the panicked phrases Mama had spawned at her the previous day – filled with never, don't, not unless your life depended on it and even then, think it over carefully. But no explanations. Nothing.
There were spankings to be had, of course. Sarah really didn't think that compensated things very well. But it did deter her from returning for a while, and when she was caught trying to sneak out of the village and received further beatings without even a warning, she stopped trying long enough to forget the strange path. Even the dull little village contained many fascinating things for her young eyes.
Not that it could take that first step she had taken away.