Regina shivered and drew her thin summer jacket closer around herself. She should have listened to the people at the inn who had discouraged her from wandering out into the Forbidden Field. The village people believed it was cursed. Apparently, several people had ventured out into the innocent-looking field, never to come back. One or two had made their way back and never been the same, staring in wide-eyed terror when asked about the matter or waking up screaming at night when bits and pieces of traumatising memories haunted them.
The more the people at the inn had persuaded her not to go, the more certain she had been about making the journey. As a journalist, anything that smelled of a good story was worth some effort, even if it meant being touched by some ominous curse.
She had decided on the spur of the moment, donned her jacket, ensured her trouser pockets carried her digital camera, a small notepad and a pen and set off on the walk to the outskirts of the village. Hours later, she was a lot more inclined to believe that there was at least a kernel of truth to all the spooky stories they had told her.
Regina had started out post lunch when the day was bright, a slight breeze ruffling the grass along the well-trodden path that led from the border of the village through a field and into a forest. With all the pleasant nature around her and the possibility of a story beckoning, she had been full of determination to go through with her plan, sometimes grinning a little to herself when thinking about the village people’s behaviour.
How odd that they believed in magic, in curses, in forbidden areas and unsolved riddles.
How odd that now, her mind filled with exactly such sentiments.
But soon after setting foot in the forest that was supposed to lead her into the Forbidden Field, things changed.
At first almost imperceptible, there was a change in the air. It grew cooler by the minute, the trees blocked out the afternoon sun and in the distance she could see wispy white mist, looking thoroughly out of place. With the forest behind her and the fog curling tightly around her shivering body, she felt she was in a different world. Where were the fragrant flowers, the friendly sunshine and the chirping birds? Where was her courage? She must have left it behind among the gnarled trees or lost it in the oppressive, heavy silence that was her only companion. With each step, she felt lonelier. With each lifting and setting down of a foot, doubts crowded her mind.
Voices whispered to her, urging her to turn around and go back before she would become another tragic tale in the village’s folklore. Others prodded her on, scoffed at her cowardice and persuaded her that she would indeed have a lot of material for a story if she went through with her plan. Something told her that the mist with its deadly whiteness and its ghostly fingers brushing over her was holding a secret at its end. If she crossed this field of fog, what would wait for her? Who would wait for her?
Summoning every ounce of determination, Regina walked onwards a little faster, head held high and eyes squeezed almost shut in an attempt to see through the mist around her. Sometimes it was so dense that she was unable to seen her own outstretched hand. The way her body and balance suddenly shifted, she realised she must be walking up a slope. Were there any hills or mountains in this part of the countryside? She had no idea. There was another change in the atmosphere.
Where earlier she had felt the fog pushing her back and warning her off, she now felt propelled along by it. There was a cold, crude sense of satisfaction in the air around her, as if the mist had been hungry and she was satiating its hunger by walking through. Shivering more than before, Regina slowed her pace again, then stood still and scanned the area in a slow circle. There was nothing to be seen. Nothing to be heard. Nothing to be done.
A voice seemed to call to her from ahead. It cajoled her to carry on walking, seduced with the promise of a spectacular discovery just a few more steps ahead. While she stood still with her arms tightly wrapped around her torso, her breath coming out too fast, in puffy white clouds of her own personal mist, a blanket of darkness covered her. In the middle of a seemingly endless void, she felt as claustrophobic as if caught in a stuffy elevator between two stories. The strange feeling grew and grew. It was as though all the happiness she had ever possessed was being sucked out of her. Something or somebody wanted her to feel sadness, pain, anger, fear, despair… anything negative.
A flood of bad memories attacked her, so powerful that it brought her to her knees, rocking in anguish. The time when she lost her grandmother to cancer as a child. The exam she had failed and reappeared for to get her degree in journalism, hardly eating or sleeping for weeks. Her last boyfriend, promising love ever after, proposing on a drunk evening and walking off the next day without a word. Regina cringed and choked back a sob. What was this evil magic? Why was she feeling all this? The mist around her grew thicker until it seemed to possess real arms that pressed in on her, seeming to suck out more of her negative emotions. She gritted her teeth and balled her hands into fists. She had to fight this onslaught! An idea formed in her head, something she had read in one of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series about the Dementors and how to hold them in check by happy memories. She knew what to do.
After digging her fingers so hard into her palms that she drew blood, she drew strength from the tiny, sharp needles of pain and got to her feet. Regina willed herself to think of all the moments of joy in her life. Falling asleep on the couch with a sore throat and fever, only to wake up to her 20-pound dog climbing up to curl himself into a warming fur ball beside her and lick her icy hands. Reading a good book that left her smiling and re-reading passages for days afterwards. Holding a tiny, purring kitten that looked like a ginger ball of fluff in her palms. Going on a trip to the coast with her best friend who had travelled half the globe to meet her at last, both of them enjoying the companionable silence amidst stunning landscapes as much as the constant chattering during the train ride that had them saying the same things at the same time. Her all-time favourite song that spoke of never giving up and finding true love. The last thought seemed the most powerful one to her, though even the memories before had made her feel less cold and anxious. With her chin pointed defiantly upwards and her body hardly shivering anymore, Regina took one step and then another. All around her, the mist receded, coiled in on itself like a venomous snake on the retreat. She continued on her upwards walk slowly, singing that song in her mind and then another two songs. There was still a little fog in the air, but up ahead, the scene all but cleared. What she saw then almost made her stop again.
In front of her lay a path of stones leading up to the hilltop. Over it loomed a mist-wrapped, dark, ancient castle, towering impossibly high into the sky. Regina gasped at the mysterious, magical sight. Was this her reward for having come so far? She quickened her steps, full of determination again. When her feet hit the walkway to the castle, though, walking became difficult. This time, it wasn’t the mist holding her back. It was what she saw that made her wince and swallow and put foot after foot hesitantly. On both sides, slumped against the stone railings of the path or huddled on the ground, were grotesque stone statues of people. Crying, screaming, fighting people. With lifelike details, as if real people had been frozen and turned into stone in the middle of their suffering. Now shivering more than ever, the words to the songs failing her, Regina stopped several times to stare at the statues and wonder what they were leading to. Somehow, she didn’t want to give up, though. She had come this far. She could go even further.
After she didn’t know how long, she found herself walking through an immense gate that stood wide open, like a monster’s gaping mouth that would lead her right into its belly and never spit her out again. The mist stayed outside the gate, hissing quietly and making her wonder how she would make it back if she ever came out of here alive. Turning her back on the mist, Regina found herself in a huge atrium with a hall that soared high and wide and was echoing eerily with her footsteps. It was strewn with more of those grotesque statues of suffering people. She didn’t want to approach them, but what she saw from the distance gave her pause. Some of these statues out front had been dressed much the same as her and could have been any of the villagers and travellers mentioned to her.
Here, in the hall with its dark, mossy stones and its few windows glassless high and narrow on the walls, some statues depicted people from earlier times with flowing gowns and curly manes, with tights and high boots and hunter’s cloaks. For the umpteenth time, she wondered which artist would have had the courage and creativity to come out here and create the statues that mirrored what a traveller felt while battling the mist. They looked so incredibly authentic, as though they might spring up at any moment, shake off the dust and cobwebs and break into gut-wrenching sobs or a piercing scream. A shiver ran down Regina’s spine, as if the cool tendrils of mist had followed her. For a second, she considered taking her camera out and taking a photo, but somehow it seemed the wrong thing to do, almost a sacrilege. Besides, more than ever, she could feel that pull that urged her onwards. Something lay behind the hall that wanted to be discovered.
Singing her favourite song softly to herself without even realising it, Regina walked on. She crossed the great hall, her steps ringing loudly in the still, neither cold nor warm air. Behind her, the mist seemed to shout out to her not to go on, to come back and let herself be embraced and caressed and comforted or to walk on and be doomed forever. From ahead, a plea for help tore at her heart. Regina chose somebody else’s comfort over her own comfort.
She broke into a run along the narrow, stone walled, windowless, dark corridor, not even sparing the few openings leading to rooms to her left and right a glance. The person that needed her – it had to be a person or at least something living – was straight ahead, pulling at her heart and body with an invisible force that had her pulse racing. The corridor ended abruptly. So abruptly that she all but crashed into the massive wooden door that faced her. The weight of her body pushed open the door and she tumbled into what lay beyond, the rusty iron hinges on the door creaking and whining reluctantly.
Regina steadied herself against the slightly open wooden door that was twice as high and wide as her body and probably a foot thick. When she gave it an experimental shove to open wider, it didn’t budge an inch.
The pull was stronger now, a desperate plea for help that resonated inside her body and made her palms sweat.
She held her breath, flattened herself against the wall and squeezed through the small opening the huge door had left. Before her lay a room that must once have been a bedchamber. On the opposite wall was a round window and beneath it stood a wooden four-poster bed whose curtains were no more than moth-eaten, hole-riddled tatters hanging in a listless grey down to the floor with its chipped stones and weeds growing out of the cracks. On the bed was a statue, looking like somebody lying against the pillows with one leg stretched out and one drawn up towards the body. This statue was the most life-like of all. And the most beautiful.
Regina inched closer, walking on her tiptoes as though she might disturb the man’s rest if she made any noise. She stopped a few feet away from the bed and stared at the handsome face of stone before her. Every single detail, from the fine eyebrows over the elegant slope of his nose and the indent of his upper lip to the hardly visible lines on his forehead, seemed taken right out of life. He was clothed the modern way, every fold and button sculpted with minute detail from stone the colour of ashes. How tragic that the most attractive man she had ever laid eyes upon had to be a statue in a haunted castle.
Then it struck her. This was the only statue to look peaceful, even bordering on happy. There was the slightest of smiles to his mouth and just the way he reclined on the bed spoke of a relaxed attitude. It was as if the artist had pictured somebody falling asleep during a visit. Yet, the pleas for help were louder than ever. Nothing could drown them out. With great effort, she tore her eyes from the statue and scanned the room. There was nobody else and nothing else inside that could be responsible for the screams inside her head.
She turned her eyes back to the figure on the bed, so solid and at the same time so close to something alive. Two more steps brought her closer. She gingerly stretched out an arm, about to touch the face that was so hauntingly beautiful. Not even an inch away from it, her hand stilled. Regina bit her lip, her thoughts racing. Then, as if on some silent instruction that left no room for doubt, she drew her hand back and bent down. Before she could question her own behaviour, she had leaned in and laid her lips ever so softly against the statue’s mouth. It was a quick, chaste kiss. In her mind, she and the handsome stranger — no longer an immobile statue — were wrapped around each other in a passionate embrace, exploring, giving and taking, dreaming.
When she snapped out of her reverie and stepped back, what she beheld had her gasp and sway for a second. Right in front of her eyes, the statue woke to life. The thin layer of stone cracked, a thousand fissures crisscrossing over the prone body. Within a second or two, the eyelids fluttered and opened, revealing a shining blue that would put a cloudless summer sky to shame. The eyes looked straight at her, alight with some emotion she couldn’t place.
What was this?
Some twisted version of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale?
Her mind playing tricks on her?
The mean mist’s last attempt at making her succumb?
While her hands flew to her mouth in shock and she watched unblinkingly, the statue turned into a living, breathing man. He propped himself up on his elbows, sat up and then shook himself like a wet dog. The stone crust that had held him captive flew off like dust. A fascinating caterpillar transforming into a butterfly so colourful, real, and beautiful that her heart was close to bursting.
Regina was rooted to the spot. The man never took his eyes off her when he slowly flexed his muscles — of which he seemed to possess a lot in just the right places — before inching forward and getting off the bed in one fluid, strong, masculine move. As sure of himself as if he had never been a statue frozen into stony sleep, he walked the few steps towards her and took her hand. It felt right. It felt perfect. And it felt utterly confusing.
The stranger’s voice rang loud and clear, drowning out the frantic beating of her heart and the lament of disappointment of the fog on the other side of the castle walls.
“Thank you for saving me. You didn’t let the mist suck out your happiness and you answered my silent call for help. Now let us go and save all the others the way I should have, instead of letting the castle seduce me to this room and lull me to sleep.”
Regina could hardly think a straight thought. The statue was a man. All of the statues she had seen were people. People who could be saved. Awakened as she had awakened him. And what an angel he was, with his water blue eyes and his shock of sandy blonde hair and his fit body and his rough, deep voice. She couldn’t take her eyes off him, and neither did he seem to be able to look away from her, although he was practically vibrating with energy and determination to jump into action. After minutes or maybe hours dragged by, Regina managed a nod, her head full of possibilities and her heart filled with pride because she had not let herself be dragged down by the bad in her life and had chosen to focus on the good instead.
“Thank you,” the statue-come-alive said again.
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze that felt as human as the flesh and blood of his fingers entangling with hers and pulled her along to the sound of the mist howling in frustrating while it evaporated outside the castle.
Ahead of them lay a life filled with magic.