The chill wind blew more strongly from the east and Peter pulled his jacket more snugly around his chest. Spring was slow to come to this part of the world. Perhaps he had been more rash than usual to come here quite so early in the year.
His misgivings did not last long. He had no real regrets about choosing such an unusual holiday; not when he could almost taste the freshness of the cold air among the thickly wooded foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and on every side all he could see were the sights of nature. This place was a paradise that, for the moment at least, belonged to him.
His friends had thought him more than a little eccentric to think of such a place for a holiday trip. The Republic of Moldova: not really the sort of destination you'd expect to see in a tourist brochure. But, in a sense, it had been a tourist brochure that had brought him here. Catherine, his girlfriend of many years, had brought home a Spanish holiday brochure, happily telling him that she'd put a deposit on a holiday for them.
'Not Benidorm again!' he had shouted at her. 'We've been there for the past three years. Why can't we go somewhere different for a change?'
Catherine's face had immediately fallen. One thing had led to another, and before long they were having a blazing row, which ended with him walking out again. As they always did, they had patched things up a few months later, but in the meantime Peter had already made his own arrangements.
They had been back together for just two weeks before Peter had revealed his plans. Catherine's reaction was scornful:
'You only picked such an out-of-the-way place from sheer awkwardness. It's just like you.'
Perhaps she was right about the "just like you" bit, but this trip had only been possible after a long and trying correspondence with the Moldovan Government and Peter wasn't going to give up the idea so easily. Anyway, he had a point to make.
That had almost given rise to another argument, but Catherine was anxious to smooth things over and so he was able to come to Moldova with her agreement, if not her blessing. He had made a half-hearted suggestion that she should come with him, really knowing that a two-month trip wasn't practical for her at such short notice. So he was here, alone as originally intended.
He was alone, but not lonely. He missed Catherine, of course he did, but it gave him a wonderful feeling of freedom to be here in this beautiful place with only the sights and sounds of the wild and his own thoughts for company.
It was over five miles to the sleepy little village of Drakiya, to where he had to walk twice a week to get supplies of food, and to report to the taciturn local policeman under the terms of his visa. Apart from the policeman and Nicolae, who kept a little shop in the village, he rarely saw another living soul.
And yet he knew that the creatures of the forest were all around him. There were birds in plenty to be seen, some with a bright plumage he could not recognise, but it seemed that the weather was still too cold for many of the four-footed creatures to be active.
But on what was only his fourth night of camping, he had been thrilled to hear the distant howling of a wolf. Nicolae had told him that sometimes, in hard winters like the one from which they were just emerging, hunger drove the wolves out of their fastnesses in the mountain forests. They could even come quite close to the village, but were not really dangerous even then. They would always run rather than attack, Nicolae said.
It was towards the end of March, during Peter's third week in Moldova, when the old man came. The weather had turned sharply colder, and there had been a flurry of snow. Peter was breaking the ice on the surface of the little brook he used for his water supply, when he became aware of the presence of another. He looked up, startled.
'Good day to you, your honour.' Peter was surprised to hear the man speak in perfect if rather strange English, with little trace of accent. 'My name is Va Rog.' He spoke the name slowly and emphatically, taking care to distinguish its two parts.
'Good morning. I'm Peter. I didn't hear you approaching.'
The old man smiled. 'My people have learned to tread softly through the forest.'
Peter studied his visitor. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and cut a noble figure as he leaned on a heavy staff. The man was well advanced in years, but looked strong and healthy, save for a certain gauntness around the cheekbones. But the thing that Peter first noticed was that he was blind, or appeared to be, with his tightly closed eyes.
'Have you come from the village?'
'No, I come from afar,' said the old man, waving his staff in the general direction of the Carpathian Mountains behind him.
'And I am very hungry. I have walked for days. May I ask if you would share a little of your meat with a stranger?'
'Yes, of course. Please sit down. I should have asked you before.' Peter was glad that he had a full pot of stew bubbling on his log fire. Va Rog's nose was visibly twitching at the smell of the food, and he licked his lips in a sensuous anticipation. Peter suddenly realised that the reason for the old man's leanness must be that he was near to starving.
'I should think that it's well enough cooked by now.' Peter ladled a generous helping of the stew on to an enamel plate. 'I'll get some bread for you.'
'Please do not concern yourself with bread. The meat will be sufficient for me. And I do not care for my food to be cooked for too long.'
Peter watched in fascination as the old man devoured the plate of stew in minutes, and then cleared another just as swiftly. He spurned the spoon that Peter offered, preferring to use his bony, sharp-nailed fingers to thrust lumps of meat into his slavering mouth. After eating, he downed a pint of water in one steady draught, and then rose to his feet.
'I give you my thanks. It is many days since I had such a meal.'
'Wouldn't you like to sit by the fire and rest for a while?'
'No, no. I must return to my people. But you will see me again before you leave our country.'
Peter did not take his eyes from the striding figure of Va Rog until it disappeared from view beyond the brow of a hill. The odd contrast between the man's gentlemanly speech and the almost beast-like way in which he had swallowed his food intrigued him.
But more disturbing was what he saw as his visitor set off on his homeward path. When Va Rog had walked twenty or so yards, he had turned around towards Peter and lifted an arm in brief salute. As he did so, he opened his eyes for just a moment. Peter could not be totally sure of what he saw; it may have been a trick of the light or his imagination, though he did not think so. He was ready to swear that the eyes of Va Rog were of a luminous yellow hue.
Spring at last truly came to Moldova. Warmth seeped into the air and in grateful response the trees and shrubs came into full blossom in a way that gladdened Peter's heart. He spent many a day in walking through the forest seeking out the squirrels and other small animals that had now stirred from their long winter sleep. Sometimes he would fish for trout and grayling in the little brook, now swollen by the melting snows from the distant Carpathian peaks. Sometimes it pleased him to do nothing but sit in his camp and enjoy the delicious smells of the greenery and his smoky log fire.
Neither the old man nor any other visitor came to his fireside, and the weeks passed in this idyllic routine, broken only by his twice-weekly visits to Drakiya. During these visits he always held long, halting conversations with Nicolae the shopkeeper, but not once did he mention his encounter with Va Rog.
April passed into May, and so came the time for Peter to leave Moldova. Early on his last morning, he was lying awake in his sleeping bag, reflecting on his experiences of the last few months, when he heard the sound of light, quick footsteps outside the tent.
Emerging into the half-light of morning, he met with a sight that almost made his heart stop beating. Completely surrounding him was a circle of wolves, all steadily, silently looking at him. Save for an occasional twitch of nose or ear, they made no movement. Peter was rooted to the spot. Seconds passed, then minutes. He had almost recovered his senses sufficiently to wonder whether he should dive back into the tent when a grey wolf, much larger than the others and with a grizzled muzzle that betrayed its age, moved purposefully forward from the pack. Stopping just a few yards away from him, it suddenly threw back its head and let out a long, blood-chilling howl. The sound seemed to touch directly on some primeval chord within Peter himself, and he was filled with a fear he had never before dreamed could exist.
At last the sound ceased. The wolf did not leap to the expected attack. Instead, the pale yellow eyes looked deep into Peter's own. They seemed to hold him rigid. He could not move even a muscle. Slowly, Peter came to see that there was no malice in those eyes: something in their gleam spoke of fellowship. They were not the eyes of a monster, but of a fellow creature. And Peter knew where he had seen them before.
The wolf gave a short, excited yelp, and then suddenly wheeled around and trotted off, swishing its tail from side to side as it ran. The rest of the pack quickly followed, and before long the easy, loping strides of the animals had carried them far from Peter's sight. Within moments, everything was still again. The countryside was as peaceful as ever. Nothing had changed, except something within Peter himself.
Catherine was there to meet him in Victoria Station, even though he had arrived two hours later than his letter had said he would. It was some time before she saw him coming towards her from the throng. He studied her face, as if seeing her for the first time. She was a fine looking woman. She always had been.
When at last she saw him, she smiled quickly and brightly. But Peter could see too the shadow of something else flicker across her face, an expression that he had seen before but never really recognised. Not before the splinter of ice that had long lain buried deep in his heart had melted in the Moldovan spring. It was as if she was trying to read something in Peter's own face, trying to understand something within him that had never been quite comprehensible to her.
Peter knew what he must do. He ran towards her. He had wasted enough time already.