The stone circle met them silently in the fading light as Aimee and Tom entered in single file. They each had a rucksack, and though Aimee let hers fall casually against the nearest stone, Tom lowered his carefully beside it. It clinked against the foot of the ‘watching witch’ in a short chorus of pagan promise.
“It’s so quiet.” Aimee remarked. Tom, who was already stepping uncertainly across the undulating ground and grass inside the circle, heard her words and immediately felt the earth crunch even louder underfoot.
“We’ve got an hour of daylight at most.” He said, eyeing the sky from the centre, examining the brightening curve of the crescent moon as though it would reveal hitherto unseen features to him alone, in magical response to his position.
They had planned to arrive earlier and spend the day sketching and snapping for the assignment they had paired up to do over the half term. But Aimee wanted to retrace the path she rode three years ago during the summer following her final school year.
The riding sessions were a reward for her exam results, especially her grade in art which placed her at the top of the year and guaranteed her a place in the local college. She loved painting wildlife, particularly foxes. To her they exuded a restlessness that brought a shimmer and a rush – almost scentlike – to the studies she made of them.
Tom was sweetly obliging and made much conversation as they wandered under canopy of woodland. A little too much, Aimee thought, especially as she found herself struggling to focus her mind upon a haunting fragment from that sun-dappled day of celebration.
She had dismounted from her horse and decided she wanted to walk a little while leading her precious steed along the path. The sound of the soil crumbling beneath its heavy and regular pace enchanted her, entranced her, emphasised her. Then it stopped. She patted its flank and stretched outward the bridle but the horse would not take another step, seeming to signal as much with a shrink and a snort.
Sensing a presence Aimee turned to her side and looked across an untraversable stretch of marshy scrub. On the other side another rider galloped into view and suddenly stopped, his horse now strafing and keen to canter. She didn’t see his face straight away but she could see he was wearing the unmistakable colours of the hunt, and her first thought was that he had lost his way. There was certainly no sound of bugles or barks to be heard and that surely meant he had strayed from the trail.
Aimee’s second thought was more of an inner shriek than a calm observation, for when the rider span his horse around to face her she saw that below his riding helmet, rested the head of a fox. She stifled the inner shriek which begged to be let out and stood absolutely still. Though the rider had a clear view of her across the marshy divide she felt he – it – couldn’t see her, as though her stillness rendered her invisible.
She wanted to scream for her father to come save her, protect her, to see what she was seeing, but the moment had too much of an inevitability about it to wrench it away from her, or her from it. Instead she looked harder at the rider’s face, began to reason coolly about it. It was a mask! Yes that’s all it was. He was just having fun, playing a prank on friends, maybe even strangers. He did see her really but now he was too preoccupied with finding his intended quarry to bother with her with any attention.
But his face looked so real; the eyes! They weren’t human, they darted and froze and darted again with a feral vigour that threatened (promised?) to outrun her. The breeze picked up and across the marshy divide she divined a heady scent.
The tapered muzzle twitched, the rounded pupils thinned inquisitively, the clay and white fur exuded, and then it was gone, galloping off on a solitary hunt, leaving Aimee free at last to tremble and breath.
At a point where she felt ready to concede to herself, given the time that had passed, that in all probability she had witnessed a prank her study in memory ended when Tom kissed her (had he run out of things to say?) and said “I hope you don’t mind only you looked like a sleeping beauty, no, a sleep-walking beauty, so I took it upon myself to wake you.”
She laughed and kissed him back. She did like him, especially his unruly hair and his habit of looking down when in thought as he walked about the studio they shared, almost burying his head in his chest. She made sure they’d be working together, alone. They made their way to the stones.
The sun was setting and shadows were forming in the circle. Small swarms of midges gathered about the clearing like ghostly tumbleweeds caught in low branches. Wine bottles clinked and the sound of laughter danced around the stones as Tom and Aimee toasted the witches and promised them they would return to capture their likenesses, as promised, at a more appropriate time, when their ‘hours’ were done.
They kissed again, and then Tom stood up and excused himself with a brusque “gotta go.” Aimee leant back against the petrified rock and tried not to giggle and listen. She couldn’t help but hear the slightest of sounds. The darkness and the stones amplified them determinedly. Then she heard it: a low growl, rising and falling in pitch a little, getting louder too: slowly at first but gathering pace now, and getting nearer.
“Tom are you still there?” She asked, almost whispering. A snap and a stumble was her reply and Tom dropped beside her with an ineffectual boo! Aimee shushed him, and beneath the warping iris of the moon she gestured for him to listen.
They both listened to the growls. Tom frowned, and to Aimee his features appeared to soften in the silvery moonlight. Her hair felt charged, and the braids which curved across her neck felt like the gentle touch of a toying predator.
In a second the growls were upon them. A pair of glowing eyes rushed out from the trees with a triumphant roar; they stuttered and sputtered, stopping and starting, churning the ground, goading and circling. Then, preying solely on the silence that ever eluded them they appeared to pick up a far off scent, one sleepier than that exuded by the stones around which they rode, and started off in the direction of the canopied woodland beyond.
“Bit dark for motorcross eh?” Tom broke the growing silence, trying to cover up his mild shock. Aimee nodded and followed the lights as they flickered and shrank like fireflies burning themselves out. She didn’t move until they had completely vanished, didn’t speak either. She was transported again, so much so she really didn’t register that Tom had kissed her again. And again. In fact his hand had already undone the top three buttons of her shirt before she came to and blankly brushed him away.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like him. She did. She liked him from the moment they set up adjacent workspaces at the start of her second year. It had only just become clear to her, though, that he lacked — a heady scent.