Jenny played with Nero, her beloved black cat, while Gil fiddled with the kindling in the living room fireplace. Never a country soul, he surprised Jenny when he announced he had inherited a country cottage.
“It’s the old family cottage,” Gil beamed, “Uncle Gilbert used it as a hunting lodge until his mysterious death. He was an avid and excellent hunter, you know. My great-aunt Dorcas lived there for the rest of her life. She left it to me in her will.”
Jenny joined Gil’s enthusiasm at having a weekend getaway. She had never seen the place, nor met Aunt Dorcas, who was very reclusive, but they were the only relatives to attend the old lady’s funeral weeks ago.
This was their first night in the cottage, and Jenny marveled at the ornate ceilings with its hardwood panels. Aunt Dorcas had maintained the house in excellent shape; perhaps as a tribute to her late husband. The marble floors gleamed with exquisite patterns, and the chandelier shot out sparkling rays of light over the lavish dining room.
“Rich people…” Jenny muttered, glancing at the gold-leaf ornamented cornices, “and they call this a cottage!”
It was more of a chateau, but who was complaining?
The trophy animal heads that had disgraced the walls were the only things she had disliked about the place. As a veterinarian, they had shocked her, and she had refused to set foot in the building until Gil removed them. Gil did not protest, he also loved animals—live ones. Indeed, he had met Jenny through Rufus’s penchant for swallowing objects. Gil reached over and stroked the great Saint Bernard’s head.
“Here lies the laziest, dumbest dog there ever lived,” Gil joked; Rufus replied with a languid yawn.
Minutes later, Rufus glanced up as Gil got the hearth started, at last. Nero left Jenny’s lap and sidled over to his best friend, eager to share in the warmth.
“How did your great-uncle die?” Jenny asked, as the fire flared.
Flame-shadows danced on the walls as twilight cloaked the room. Jenny glanced at the standing lamp, but decided against switching on the electric light; the fire was cozy and bright.
Gil strode over to the couch and sat down beside her. He placed his arm around her shoulder; she leaned her cheek against the crook of his arm.
“No one knows,” Gil said, “they found his dead body deep in the woods, and could never determine a cause of death.”
“How mysterious…” Jenny murmured as the dancing shadows played around them, and her eyelids grew heavy.
“Aunt Dorcas once told me the Lord of the Animals took his life as a punishment for savoring the hunt,” Gil continued.
“How superstitious…” Jenny yawned; Gil, too, fell silent.
Night peeked in through the windows; cat and dog slumbered beside the roaring fireplace.
A sudden draft blew and stirred the crackling flames. Shadows whirled around them, and Jenny watched in placid drowsiness as they took shape. Shadow-trees flickered on the walls, and a deer silhouette pranced across it. The outline of a hunter followed. He paused, took aim, and shot the deer. Satisfied with the kill, the hunter kneeled beside the dead deer. Then, a creature crept up to the hunter. It was a tall person, much taller than any human, and it had antlers on its head.
The hunter-silhouette turned in its direction and, and upon seeing it, screamed. The shriek rang out through the house, and the flames sputtered. On the walls, the shadow-play ended with the hunter crumbling and falling dead beside the deer.
Another draft blew, and the spell broke. Gil’s and Jenny’s stunned eyes met; Nero and Rufus slept undisturbed.