“Do not step over that threshold tonight,” her mother said. “When twilight descends, lock the door and bar it.”
Gilda nodded. Her mother pressed an iron key into her hand. Gilda tucked it into the pocket of her apron, white handprints smudged on the fabric.
“Arlyn will stay with you,” her father said by the door. He bent down and patted the hound between the ears.
“Rowena needs feeding before nightfall,” her mother said. Gilda handed her a freshly-baked loaf of bread. Her mother slipped it into the satchel on the table, along with two apples and a chunk of cheese. “Don’t bother milking her. Just get inside and stay safe.”
Her father placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “She’s not a child anymore, love.”
The last branches in the hearth crackled. Her mother picked up her chipped cup and swirled the contents around. “Tonight,” she said, taking a long drought of the diluted wine, “everyone’s as good as children.”
Gilda took the poker and stirred the embers whilst her parents gathered the rest of their things. The pile of firewood was running low. She’d have to get more before darkness fell.
Her parents wrapped themselves in their cloaks and pulled their hoods up against the cold autumn wind. She kissed her father on the cheek, and leaned into her mother’s embrace. Satchels slung over their shoulders, they set out, leaving a chill draft and heavy silence in their wake.
Gilda peeled off her apron, and shouldered her way outside. On the left, the rolling hills and fields stretched off, thick woodlands growing on the right. A mound of logs was pressed against the side of the cabin, next to a weathered stump with deep lacerations in the top. She hauled an overflowing basket inside. The kindling was dry beneath her fingers. She struck the flint against the honed edge of a steel blade. A spark leapt and caught in the twigs. She placed logs onto the flames. A warm glow filled the chamber, the shadows flickering in the corner of the room and in the windows.
A frustrated snort filtered through the window. “Rowena,” Gilda muttered. Arlyn stayed close to her heels as she slipped out the door and pulled it behind her, keeping the warmth trapped inside. She hurried to the barn. The colours of the day had succumbed to the darker hues of night.
Rowena paced in her pen. She swished her tail as Gilda filled the empty buckets with grain and water from a trough in the corner. She dumped them over the wooden fencing, kernels and droplets spilling onto the hay. Gilda stroked the beast’s nose before hurrying off.
The light of the fire filtered through the windows. Gilda pushed against the door. It didn’t open. She threw her weight against it. It didn’t give an inch. The hairs on the back of her neck stood upright. Gilda reached down to fish the key from her apron pocket. Her fingertips grazed against the skirt of her dress. Gilda rushed to the nearest window. Her apron was draped over the back of the chair.
Her heart stopped. She glanced around, searching the darkness. She couldn’t stay out here. Not tonight. Arlyn’s ears pricked upwards, and he let out a long whine as he looked across the fields. He tucked his tail between his legs and bolted in the other direction.
Gilda hitched up her dress and ran after him. His senses were better than hers. She wanted to be as far away as possible from whatever he had heard. Beams of moonlight were strangled by the canopy. Boles with twisted limbs towered high. Fingers reached out and snagged in her hair. A graze bloomed on her cheeks.
Gilda burst through the line of trees. She skidded to a halt before the gates of the abandoned church. A crumbling stone wall enclosed the graveyard, ivy winding over the arch above the entrance. The chancel was roofless, and the structure around the nave lay in fragments. Clouds of dust stirred from amongst the brickwork.
“Arlyn,” Gilda called.
The wind howled.
She eased open the metal gates and stepped into the graveyard. A church was holy ground. She’d be safer here than in her own cottage. Her skin prickled as she picked her way around the headstones. Shrivelled flowers broke under her feet. Fading letters were etched onto the slabs.
Gilda reached the entrance. One of the doors hung on rusting hinges. A whisper echoed behind her. Her heart raced in her chest, in her throat, in her ears. She could feel the pulse in her fingertips.
A light glimmered in the corner of her vision. Gilda looked over her shoulder and swallowed.
Figures stood outside the low wall that marked holy ground. They glowed, their pale, white skin clear, their hair and clothes tousled in the breeze. Hundreds gathered, eyes pinned to her. They stood still.
Gilda breathed out, mist rising in thick plumes. One of the figures, crowned in a wreath of withered petals, lifted her arms towards the heavens. Lights rose through the earth. Silhouettes hovered over the graves. They twisted as if they drifted on the sea’s surface.
Those beyond the cemetery disbanded. They filtered back into the woods, concealed by the shadows. The resurrected souls passed through the gates and into the forest. The woman with the crown remained. The hollow eye sockets promised peace. Gilda couldn’t bring herself to look away. A tranquil mist settled over her mind.
Gilda’s feet grazed the grass, her footsteps light and hesitant. As she grew closer, the pressure in her chest eased. Her beating heart stilled. The church, with its empty interior and decaying structure, held no sanctuary for her.
She passed between the gates which she had entered through. They swung shut behind her. The woman smiled and held out a hand. Gilda clasped it with cold fingers, veins circulating ice, and went with her into the night.
Charlotte Williams is a Creative Writing student in Exeter, United Kingdom. She enjoys writing fiction, and her favourite genre is fantasy.