Laura stood outside the cottage. The overcast sky rumbled in the distance, though the sun peeked through the dense clouds and glimmered on the grass. She knew not how long she’d convalesced. Her wound still pained her, but no sign of fever today. She hadn’t yet met the Good Samaritan who’d helped her, though she recalled footsteps during the floating moments between sleep and fever.
Someone had left a metal plate with bread and hard-boiled eggs, and a metal cup of milk on the rustic table inside the cottage. Laura was hungry, but stepped outside hoping to greet her rescuer and get her bearings.
“It’s a farmstead,” Laura murmured as she scanned the rundown cottage and its surroundings. Chickens clucked by a rickety coop and a goat bleated; a loose rope, tied to a fence post, hung around its neck.
“Like in Heidi, goat’s milk and eggs. I wonder where they made the bread.”
She walked around the small property, careful not to injure her bare feet. She’d run out her door barefoot—the night of her devil—and her ragged feet were only just healing. The Good Samaritan had left a pair of leather boots by her bed, but they were much too big and uncomfortable.
“Mystery solved,” Laura sighed as she discovered an ancient brick oven behind the residence.
The property thus comprised the cottage, the coop, the goat, the oven and a small field where, Laura suspected, the mysterious inhabitant farmed the grains for the bread. Thick woods surrounded it beyond her sight.
“Self-sustaining and off the grid,” Laura addressed the goat; it bleated in response.
A chill crawled up her spine, “I hope this property doesn’t belong to one of those doomsday cults.”
The goat gazed at her with passive eyes.
A thought tingled at her nape. Where was the dog? She’d heard one during the nights of sick slumber. She found no sign of other animals beside the goat and the chickens.
Laura retreated into the cottage to plan her escape. She rubbed her arms; the wound at her side hurt and her stomach grumbled. But other thoughts pressed her. What if she’d fallen into their trap? What if this person was one of them, or worse?
Night fell and Laura remained in the cottage. She’d eaten the meal and stepped into the too-big boots intent on leaving, but had stopped at the forest edge, uneasy, scared and convinced invisible eyes were upon her. They had means of finding her through the air and time.
Something—perhaps the intuition that had failed her when she met her devil—assured her the cottage was a safe place. A small fire crackled in the fireplace; the sound of the forest entered the windows and raindrops pattered on the roof.
A thud at the door; Laura gasped, and knife in hand, waited with her heart in her mouth. The door creaked open and tiny hooves clip-clopped as the goat ran through the doorway. It bleated a greeting. A thick mass entered, and by the firelight, Laura thought it was a bear. An instant later she discovered it was only a tall bearded man.
“Who are you?” Laura held the knife before her, ready to defend herself.
“This is my home,” the man spoke in a deep, rumbling voice, “my name is Rainier.”
“Oh,” Laura had expected… well, something else, “did you bring me here?”
“No,” he answered, “you came to me. You knocked on my door.”
Rainier was young, maybe in his thirties, though by the thick voice, Laura thought him older. He wore his thick black hair long, had piercing blue eyes and the darkened complexion of someone who spends most of his time in the sun, wind and rain.
“The wound’s better? Does it hurt much?”
Laura shook her head, “Only a little.”
They stared at one another in the flickering light.
“Thank you,” Laura broke the awkward silence, “I’m Laura.”
An owl hooted and the wind howled through the window. It almost blew out the fire; the red-and-orange tongues ebbed and waxed and cast a dance of eerie shadows on the walls.
Rainier stood tense and alert with the brow-knitted expression of one who listens to the small sounds of the night.
“There is no danger in here,” he glanced around, “but someone outside means harm.”
In an instant, Rainier disappeared into the drizzling night. Laura sat dumbfounded at the table, the knife loose in her hand. She listened for his heavy footsteps on the damp ground, but heard none.