Near Berlin, Germany
6 June 1878
The bump in the road jolted Elizabeth awake. The slow rocking of the carriage and the rhythm of the horses’ hooves had lulled her to sleep. She looked out the window and immediately knew something was wrong. Even the light of the full moon wasn’t enough to penetrate the murky woods crowding the road on either side. Friedrich, the driver, had said they would make Berlin by sundown.
She leaned out as far as she dared and called to him. “Friedrich, where are we?”
He didn’t answer.
“Friedrich, is something wrong? Shouldn’t we be in Berlin by now?”
Again no answer.
Elizabeth tried one last time. “Friedrich, are we lost?”
At that moment, she caught a glimpse of something in the woods out of the corner of her eye, something that worried her more than Friedrich’s failure to answer. A few seconds later, it appeared again, a shadow, darker than the darkness itself, keeping pace with the carriage. It was following them, and it wasn’t the only one. All around her, yips and hoots pierced the night, and then a full-throated howl. The horses whinnied. The carriage lurched. Friedrich struggled to keep it under control.
The wolf howled again, joined by others this time. The carriage pitched to one side and then the other as the horses panicked. Friedrich fought as hard as he could to keep them from bolting, but ultimately lost. The carriage careened to the left and crashed onto its side.
Elizabeth lay there momentarily, listening to the horses’ hooves as they galloped away. Something warm and wet ran down her cheek. She winced when she reached up to touch it.
Elizabeth twisted herself around until she could stand. With some effort, she managed to push open the door on the side of the carriage facing up, and with even more effort, more than Elizabeth thought she was capable of, she lifted herself out of the overturned vehicle.
The horses were gone, and there was no sign of Friedrich. Elizabeth gingerly placed a foot on the carriage’s running board in order to climb down, but the barks and the yips returned. All around her in the woods, pairs of yellow eyes glowed. Emerging from the dimly lit tree line, a dozen smoke-grey wolves surrounded the ruined carriage. Teeth bared and growling, they inched toward her, making the circle smaller and smaller.
The largest lunged at her, catching the hem of her dress in its teeth. It tried to pull her off the carriage, but her dress tore, and the animal fell back. Elizabeth fell, too, and almost met her end at the jaws of another wolf taking the opportunity to spring at her. Sooner or later, one of them would succeed in pulling her down.
A gunshot shattered the night. The wolves broke rank, turning their attention from her. A moment later, another gunshot sent the pack scattering back into the woods. Elizabeth looked in the direction of the shots to see three men on coal-black horses emerge from the darkness. Gypsies.
The one in front barked something in a language she didn’t understand, and the three of them stopped. The leader dismounted and walked toward her. His piercing green eyes and long nose gave his face a hawk-like appearance, even over an ample brown mustache. At the base of the carriage, he made a dramatic bow and offered his hand to her. Elizabeth slipped her hand in his, and he helped her down off the carriage.
“Are you all right, my lady?” he asked in strangely accented German.
“Yes,” Elizabeth replied in her own tentative German. “Thank you for scaring off the wolves.”
The man smiled. “I simply could not let you be devoured. It would have been ungentlemanly.” His smile melted away, replaced by a look of concern. He reached up to touch her cheek. “My lady, we must get you some help. You have been hurt.”
“It’s just a scratch,” Elizabeth said.
The man shook his head. “No, our camp is not far from here. I insist that you come with us. We’ll have someone look at it there.”
He helped her onto the back of his horse. They followed the road for a while, then without warning turned off into the undergrowth. The Gypsy’s companions did the same. Startled, Elizabeth clutched the man’s midsection. She could feel his compact and powerful muscles as he guided the horse over a trail she never would have seen on her own. They wound their way deeper into the woods, into a world completely foreign to Elizabeth. The moon shown down in patches through the trees, spotlighting odd vignettes—a half-fallen tree with its branches turned to grow upward toward the sky, a thicket of shrubs with bright red berries, a massive oak tree with branches so heavy, they almost touched the ground. Unfamiliar sounds filled the air around her, too—not the night noises of the city, but crickets, owls, and bats.
The nearly invisible trail reminded Elizabeth of the stories her father used to tell her about fairy roads in England that appeared and disappeared without warning. If a hapless traveler took one of them, he would find himself in a different realm entirely, where the fairies ruled and where our world’s rules of logic held no sway. Only a very few ever came back from that world.
Soon, an orange glow emerged from the darkness ahead. They came upon a clearing where the Gypsies had set up camp. The man dismounted and helped Elizabeth off the horse. He walked over to a group of women and spoke to them in the same language he had used with the men earlier.
A few minutes later, he returned and spoke to her in his accented German, “Magda will show you where you can sleep tonight. Tomorrow, we will take you into the city.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said again.
He took her hand and kissed it. “I would not be a man if I did not give aid to a beautiful woman in distress.”
As he turned to walk away she called after him. “Wait. I have to know your name. Please.”
“Alexej,” he replied before disappearing among the others in the camp.
A plump older woman led her to a small tent with blankets and pillows, and almost immediately, someone thrust a cup of some hot liquid into her hands. It smelled like cloves and honey. Elizabeth sipped while the Gypsy woman carefully dabbed the blood from her cheek with a cloth soaked in warm water. She stayed up listening to the Gypsy music as they played their instruments and sang in their peculiar language. She drifted to sleep with the music’s rhythms running through her head.
Elizabeth woke with a start. She looked up to see Friedrich’s concerned face from where she still lay in the overturned carriage. The sky overhead was several shades lighter than she remembered.
“Lady James,” Friedrich repeated. “Don’t worry. Help has arrived.”