Curses flew from the young soldier’s lips as the first flakes of snow began to fall. Once again, he scanned the darkness that stretched between the densely packed birch trunks all around him. There was no sign of the troop from which he’d been separated---not a shout, nor a musket blast, nor the clop of a horse’s hoof. Not so much as a twig snapped anywhere near him. Now, with night fully fallen, and the snow and wind biting at the bare skin of his face, he had to admit that he was lost and completely alone.
Nevertheless, he trudged on. He moved through the forest on foot, having no horse of his own to share his burden. Heavier and heavier the snow fell as he traveled. Looking down, he could see a light coating of it on his sleeves and the legs of his trousers. The sight of it amplified the chill that had already seeped to his bones. He would need to find shelter, he knew, and soon, or there would be no surviving the night.
Who knows how much longer he walked? Perhaps it was hours, or only minutes. The snow fell relentlessly all the while, and the wind showed no mercy. The soldier was nearly ready to give himself up to the elements when it seemed his prayers had at last been answered. He had happened upon the entrance to a cave. The soldier let a cautious relief warm his heart. He knew it was not out of the question that this cave should already have some wild and dangerous occupant, but it was a risk that needed to be taken. If it came to it, he decided, he could hold his own in a battle against a wolf or bear. At any rate, whatever this cave had in store for him, he was sure, was better than freezing to death.
The soldier ducked his head and stepped inside. He was immediately consumed by darkness. What little light came in from the heavy gray sky outside only reached a few feet into the space. As unsettling as he found the complete darkness, he was pleased to find the place otherwise dry. His footsteps echoed as he ventured further into the cave. One hand was pressed against the cave wall as he felt his way around. A moment later, he turned a corner, and the light from outside fell completely out of view.
Now, the blackness was absolute. The soldier could not even make out his own hand stretched out before his face. He had managed to avoid freezing to death, but now another danger---that of falling and breaking his neck---seemed a very real possibility. The decision was made to simply stay where he was and wait to see how well his eyes would adjust to the darkness.
It happened slowly. The various juttings and striations of the cave’s walls and ceiling began to materialize before him. With each passing second, he gained a better understanding of his surroundings. He seemed to have found a dead end of sorts, with no clear way to progress further into the cave. This didn’t worry the soldier in the slightest. He had already come in far enough to stay warm and dry for the night. Indeed, he felt himself relaxing and settling in more and more as the seconds ticked by.
Then something moved.
He wasn’t sure if he saw it first, or heard it. With a slight scrape against stone, it looked as if a piece of the darkness on the far wall had come loose and was swaying, almost imperceptibly. Fear gripped the young soldier as he realized what he was seeing. It was not a patch of darkness or a spot on the wall, but another person.
All he could do was stare as the figure slowly came into focus. It was thin and apparently cloaked. It did not seem to advance, but moved in such a way as to show intelligence and purpose. Gradually, the features of a face emerged from the darkness. His hair stood on end and his knees quaked as he found himself staring into two wide, dark eyes.
“Who are you?” a voice said at last. It was slight and female, lacking any sense of command. The soldier could not mistake what he was hearing: the voice sounded frightened.
“I’m a traveler,” he said. “The snow falls heavily outside and I am in need of shelter. I’m very sorry to disturb you, miss….”
“Shelter?” The voice repeated, almost absentmindedly, without any form of subtext. There was a tense silence. “It’s cold,” the figure said at last.
“Yes,” said the soldier. “Perhaps you’re a traveler as well? Perhaps we both fell into the same misfortune?”
Slowly, the figure nodded. “Yes,” she said.
The soldier chose his next words very carefully. “Miss,” he began, prepared to charm his way into this lady’s confidence.
Before he could continue, the figure spoke again. “Helena.”
“Helena,” the soldier repeated. “Is that your name?”
The woman nodded.
“Well, Miss Helena,” the soldier said, resuming his previous air. “If you would be so charitable as to let me pass the night here in this cave, I can give you my word that no harm will come to you, either from me or from any animal who may dare to enter here. I assure you I am armed and well-skilled in the handling of beasts.”
For a moment, the woman was silent. “What’s your name?” she asked at last.
The soldier smiled, even though he was sure the woman couldn’t see his lips. “My name is Trevor Duncan, ma’am,” he said, and gave a bow. He chuckled at his own observance of form, rendered nearly meaningless by his lightless surroundings.
“Trevor,” the woman said, softly, as if she were trying the name on her tongue to see if it fit. She inhaled sharply before speaking again. “Yes,” she said. “There is room for you here tonight.”
“A thousand thanks, ma’am,” Trevor said.
“There is wood,” Helena said. Trevor could see her extend an arm toward one corner of the cave. “Here. We could light a fire.” She let out a shuddered breath. “It is so cold.”
“How fortunate,” Trevor said, and set straight to work with his flintstone on some of the logs. He lit the fire in the most advantageous spot, allowing the smoke to billow down the stony corridor and escape out the opening through which he had come. This should keep the beasts away, he thought.
Now, in the soft glow of the flames, he could see his surroundings and his companion clearly. She was young, no older than twenty, he was sure. She was thinner than any living creature Trevor had ever seen. She shivered as she held her tattered cloak fast around her, making herself seem even smaller.
Most interesting of all to him, however, were her eyes. They were wide enough for the whites to show around big dark irises. Something about them chilled him. It was not merely the fact that they never seemed to leave him. It was something else entirely. He could almost see a story in them, one of horror and deep dread. He was sure this woman had witnessed and experienced things, the details of which he never wanted to know.
For a time, Trevor and Helena sat in silence on opposite ends of the space they occupied. Trevor felt his head grow heavier. His eyelids began to flutter and close. He had even managed to doze off for a brief moment when he heard Helena speak again.
“Will you come sit beside me?” she asked.
“Mm?” Trevor was surprised enough by the response that words seemed beyond his capabilities at that moment.
“Yes,” Helena said. “It’s very cold. I’m so very cold.” She wrapped herself tighter in her cloak and shook strongly enough to be seen.
A pang of chivalrous compassion stirred inside Trevor, and before he could change his mind, he was already up and moving across the space toward her. There, he sat himself down beside her as closely as he could without touching her. The effort was in vain as she almost immediately closed the gap between them.
Now, with their bodies up against one another, Trevor could feel how strongly the girl was shivering. “My God,” he said. “You must be freezing.”
“I am,” she said. “Feel my poor hands.” She held out one of her nearly-bony hands.
Trevor touched his skin to hers and was astounded. There was not a hint of warmth left in her skin, it seemed. “My dear,” he said. “How long have you been out here in the wilderness?”
“So very long,” Helena answered without looking at him. Trevor thought he might have heard a quaver of emotion in her voice. “I cannot remember the last time I was truly warm.”
“Come,” Trevor said. Before Helena could object, he wrapped a strong arm around around her shoulder. At first, she gasped and stiffened, but within moments, her muscles relaxed and Trevor felt the shaking begin to subside.
“Better?” he asked.
“Much,” said Helena.
She leaned in closer to Trevor until her head came to rest on his shoulder. Trevor smiled, delighted with himself. He relished the feeling of helping someone who needed him, especially a young lady. Perhaps it was this very desire that inspired him to join the military.
His thoughts swam about these and other ideas as peace and calm overtook him. Again, his eyes began to close, and soon, he had drifted far off into a deep slumber.
The fire had shrunk considerably by the time Trevor stirred again. His shoulder and arm had gone numb beneath Helena as they slept. Even as he slid away from her, she remained still and quiet, something Trevor was grateful for. The last thing he wanted to do was wake her. After everything she seemed to have gone through, who knew when she last slept soundly.
Free at last, he pulled himself over to the fire. After finding a stick to poke it with, it sprang back up to an echo of its former glory. “There,” he said aloud, and turned to go back to Helena where she sat.
What he saw stopped him dead.
Against the opposite wall, where Helena had been the night before, a corpse sat, shriveled and desiccated. It was the same size that Helena had been, and was wrapped tightly in that same tattered cloak. Its face, however---there was no trace of Helena there. Its head tilted unnaturally to the side, as if awaiting the return of Trevor’s shoulder. Brown, leathery skin stretched over sharp facial bones. The corpse’s mouth hung open gruesomely, and where the eyes should have been were two black, gaping holes.
Trevor felt a wave of cold panic wash over him. He was spurred into action, his eyes darting all around the space. Every shadow that danced in the fire light startled him, tightening the knot in his chest more and more. None of them were Helena.
Trevor wanted to rush about, call out to her, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. He asked himself, What good would it do?
He turned back toward the only way he knew led out of this godforsaken cave, hoping for footsteps, something else, anything to tell him that this had all just been a joke and that he hadn’t just spent his night with….
His eyes landed on the corpse once more. This time, revulsion got the better of him. He whirled back around and sped past the still burning fire toward the cave’s entrance. The cold air he’d wanted so badly to avoid now felt like salvation.
At last, he was out and still running. Light was just beginning to show in the east. Sharp flakes of snow pelted his cheeks as eyes. His heavy footfalls crunched and pounded the white, wet earth as he pushed on and on, further and further, faster and faster, without so much as stopping to look back.
Written by Jdeschene