There’s an unusual quality to the air tonight; I’d almost think it feels like a brewing storm, but the evening is cool and clear. It’s lacking in the dark clouds that normally foretell thunder and hail and lightning, but there’s a definite chill.
A rabbit scampers past me as I climb, navigating clumsily around the rocks and fallen trees. It’s not my first attempt at mountain-climbing, but there’s certainly more vegetation than I expected here. My bag is heavy, the weight having shifted around and redistributed hours ago, and I’m starting to tire.
I’ve been told that there’s a good clearing though, just the right size for pitching a tent and enough trees around that I can be at least reasonably sheltered from any storms. Twilight is in the air as the ground levels out and sure enough there’s a small clearing, barely wide enough for the tent and covered by a canopy of sturdy trees.
Through the trees I can just see the last of the sunset; the leaves above block my view of the sky so I can’t tell how much darker it has become. Hung from the lower tree branches is the lamp I brought, casting enough light that I can easily move around in the tent putting together a cold dinner.
The ground is hard, made no easier by the thin layer of foam I’ve placed under the sleeping bag, and sleep is slow to come.
In the morning, I tie a scarf around the tree and leave the camp. The views from the top of the mountain are incredible; so I’ve seen in photos, anyway, but I want to see it for myself.
That strange sense I’d noticed last night is back, and I find myself invigorated, climbing with a sudden sense of purpose. Before, I’d been drifting, sometimes pausing to reference a plant in the small travel-encyclopedia packed in the corner of my bag to check something wasn’t poisonous to humans.
Now though, there’s a faint hint of smoke in the air, but as far as I can tell I’m too many miles from the nearest city for anything to carry. As long as I’ve been up here, all the smells I’ve noticed have been those immediately around me, or if I’ve been a short distance downwind.
Moving closer, almost gravitating now, I’m drawn to the scent of the smoke. It’s a typical wood-fire, not unusual in the city’s winter nights but this is only partially reassuring. Looking around, I can’t see any walls of flame springing up; can’t hear any rush of fire as it makes its way across acres of forest. Spinning – I’m disoriented, and the sun is bright. Too bright, almost, and when I close my eyes the image of the sun is still imprinted on the back of my eyelids. For a few minutes I’m sure it’s the moon, that the world around me has flipped and inverted everything I know.
When I rouse myself from my daydream, I find I’m not in the same place I was when I leaned against the tree to catch my breath. My backpack is lain at my feet, but there are no trees in this clearing, just a few piles of rocks. Somehow, the rocks look almost uniform in their piles, as if someone has taken pains to arrange them just so. Each stack is tall, the same height and width and built with similar sized boulders.
There’s a structure too, a crudely-built rock hut. Against the backdrop of trees and various plants, it juts out, bizarrely out of place. It takes me longer than I would like to reconcile the image before me, an almost medieval-looking shack in the middle of an entire mountain. Standing here, I notice the smell of burning wood is stronger now, and as I’m thinking this a log of wood crashes down opposite me in the clearing.
I whirl around, thankful for the sense of navigation I’ve honed over the years, and rush back to my own tent, crashing blindly through shrubbery and not troubling to brush branches away from me before they hit me. My tent is undisturbed, calm and peaceful, but it’s only as I’m slipping the blanket around me that I remember the backpack I left behind. It’s too dark now, there’s no way I’ll be able to find it now.
I doze fitfully, finding myself tossing and turning on hard ground. By morning my muscles hurt, more than they did previously, and I’m worn out. As the sun begins to rise, I take in my surroundings. I’m not in the tent, but in the clearing just a few minutes’ walk from the hut.
A girl appears, but she remains in the shadow as I approach. She’s about my own age, deathly pale, but she extends her hand to me and when I take it, hers is icy cold and solid in my own. Dark circles line her eyes, and her entire outfit – thin silken dress, soft-looking ballet flats – are entirely wrong for this setting. She doesn’t seem to notice, or care.
The strange sense I had before is back, overwhelmingly so now. This girl snaps a large branch from a tree, gestures to me to follow. Her eyes remain on me as I move, stepping through the doorway of the hut and perching cautiously on a boulder that serves as a chair. Is she rogue, perhaps – living here in the wild? No, her clothes look too new and well-fit to her body; despite the look of exhaustion she seems healthy.
Tossing the log on the fire, she turns and grasps both my hands in hers. When she speaks, she smiles brightly. Too brightly.
“Welcome,” her voice is raspy, disused.
“I’ve been waiting so long for you.”