Anna led the way across the sweeping grounds of the estate. In the distance Heather could see a dense woodland area, heavily shadowed as the lush, verdant canopy of the trees robbed it of sunlight. The wood was obviously where they were heading. She said as much to Anna, but the young woman flashed an enigmatic smile and did not answer.
Finally they reached the wood and Anna dismounted. "We'd better go the rest of the way by foot," she said. "The horses don't seem to care for this place."
Heather had guessed as much. The closer they drew to the trees the more agitated her mount became, tossing its head from side to side, nearly snapping the reins from her hands. Closer still and the horse began pawing at the ground with its hoof and tried to turn its body away from the approaching woodland.
Heather reined in the horse and climbed off. The women tied their mounts to a sapling and entered the shadows on a path trampled through some bracken.
"We're really quite close to the Hall here," Anna said as she tramped down more bracken to make the going easier. "The orchard joins the wood on the other side."
"I see," Heather said, distractedly. She was not really listening to what Anna was saying. Her attention was more attuned to the complete silence of the wood. She could hear no bird-song, no rustle and click of the undergrowth as small creatures moved through it. It was as though the wood was devoid of life.
Prickly gorse scratched at the leather of her riding boots as she followed Anna's path, making her thankful she was wearing boots and not shoes, but the rest of her clothes were inadequate. The lack of sunlight made the wood cold, and chilly breezes seemed to spring from nowhere, cutting through the thin cotton of her blouse. She shivered.
She stared up at the canopy of trees, her eyes searching for a squirrel or perhaps a magpie, something to tell her they were not completely alone here. The sun was blinking though the leaves, creating tiny starbursts of light, and she had to adjust her eyes to compensate. Finally she saw what she had been searching for. High above her, in the 'v' formed by two crossing branches of an elm, was a grey squirrel. It sat perfectly still and appeared to be watching her. Above the squirrel were birds, two song thrush, like the squirrel, totally motionless, as if suspended in time, never to sing or fly again. For an instant she wanted to hurl a stone or a broken branch at them, to shake them from their immobility, but the moment passed.
With a shrug she looked back to the path. Anna was nowhere to be seen.
"Anna? Anna?" Heather pushed her way through a dense growth of rhododendrons; she had completely lost the path now. It was at least ten minutes since she had seen Anna Otani and she was beginning to feel panicky. Although she tried to rationalise, to tell herself that Desborough Hall was just on the other side of the wood, she could not quell the growing feeling of unease. It was like that incident in the bathroom shortly after she first arrived, only this time she knew for certain she was being watched. If only by the impossibly still creatures nesting in the treetops.
She broke through the foliage and found herself in a clearing. Roughly circular, on the opposite side to where she stood was a small chapel, stone built with an orange tiled roof and a heavy wooden door. The door was partially open, an invitation. Perhaps Anna had slipped inside for a rest and to wait for her.
There was a sudden noise above her, an awful screeching and the beating of wings. She looked up. It seemed like every bird in the wood had chosen that exact moment to take flight. There were hundreds, if not thousands of them, wheeling in the sky above her head, blotting out the sunlight as effectively as the trees had done earlier.
When she looked back at the chapel it had changed. So too had her surroundings.
She was in the Japanese garden of her dreams, walking across a lush green lawn encircled by maples, azaleas and flowering cherries. To her left was a small pool breached by an ornate wooden bridge and fed by a small stream that trickled over rounded stones, creating tranquil water music. Ancient statues stood to her right, covered in moss and lichen, the vegetation softening their hard stone lines.
Ahead of her, where moments ago had stood the chapel, was now an ornate temple painted a stark vermilion, its roof a blaze of colour and sweeping curves.
She was totally captivated, her earlier misgivings forgotten. Rich perfumes were filling her senses, as if her nose had become a thousand times more sensitive to the aromas that surrounded her. A butterfly rose into the air from its perch on an azalea flower and she could hear its tissue-paper wings beating in flight.
Another sound reached her ears; a soft, rhythmic chanting, coming from inside the temple. As in her dream she found herself walking forward, drawn towards the almost hypnotic music. The door opened wider and the sound increased and, following it out on the warm afternoon breeze, was the alluring, heady smell of incense.
The smell was intoxicating in its intensity, and Heather felt her head swimming deliciously. She pushed the door open wider and stepped inside. The marble floor was icy under her feet. She looked down at herself and her mind registered mild surprise that she was now completely naked, though she could not remember taking off her clothes.
She parted the bead curtain painted with the dragon motif and found herself again at the top of the stone steps.
"Heather." Her name was whispered, and the whisper echoed from the stone walls. At the bottom of the steps the pool was rippling with life. Something was making a circular wake as it swam round and round, with growing anticipation and rising excitement.
© LH Maynard and MPN Sims 1998, 2001.
The full version of this novella is published by Cosmos Books.
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