Copyright © 2007 by Sheri L. McGathy
Cover Art Copyright © 2011 by Sheri L. McGathy
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.
Thank you for respecting the author’s work.
Sheri L. McGathy
Zachary kept his gaze trained forward as a bitter north wind pushed against his back, threatening to tear the tattered remnants of his cloak from his grasp. He wrapped the thin wool tightly about him, fearful he would lose what little protection left him and die alone in this winter wasteland.
And would his fate be any different when he reached the end of his journey?
He clenched his fist over the clasp of his cloak, grimacing as its sharp edges pierced his skin through the worn leather of his gloves. He must go on, if for nothing else than to see her face one last time before darkness took him. ‘Twas that single hope that kept him moving ever forward. He dare not dwell beyond that thought.
A mournful howl wound its way through the tall pines, the sound serving to enhance the solitude of the place. The wolf had trailed him for days, since he had entered this cursed land that had once been his home. The animal was never far from him, yet never so near as to leave itself vulnerable, if vulnerable it truly was.
“You shall not have me yet.” Zachary glanced toward the creature lurking within the murky shadows. “For I shall keep my promise to her. And then . . .” He halted and stared directly into the wolf’s glowing eyes. “And then, we shall see what fate holds for me.”
Zachary crossed the frozen river as the last struggling rays of sunlight gave way to the rise of the moon, leaving the land awash in pools of silvery light. As he climbed the bank, he spied the circle of stark white birch trees that shielded the dais from mortal eye on all days save this one.
An unearthly glow gave life to the evergreen boughs draped across his lady’s prison, the splash of color in an otherwise colorless world a beacon to his weary soul. This night would see him returned to the arms of his beloved, if only in his mind.
He knelt upon the dais and brushed aside the snow that hid her from his view. A shaft of moonlight shone down upon the form encased within ice, its glow illuminating the beauty of the face that had given him hope on an otherwise hopeless quest.
“My Lady of the Wood,” he whispered as he looked upon a face frozen in eternal youth. “At long last, I have returned to your side.” His numb fingers stroked the clear, smooth surface above her brow and trailed down the wavy outline of her delicate cheek. “And here I shall stay.”
A slight shift in the silence caused Zachary to pause. He need not turn about to know the wolf waited just outside the circle of birch.
He ignored the creature as he laid his cheek directly above his lady’s breast, and sighed as long sought understanding finally gave him clarity.
He pressed his lips against the ice and murmured, “My love, I have been a fool.”
The wolf inched forward, but halted when Zachary withdrew a small acorn from his pouch and placed the tiny nut within the branches of the evergreen. “On this night of all nights, when the impossible may be made possible and moonlight cloaks the land in its ethereal glow, I evoke the magic of the ancient grove and ask that the spirits of those who have gone beyond look favorably upon me.” He turned to stare into the wolf’s ice-blue eyes.
The wolf drew closer, never taking his inhuman stare from Zachary. As he stepped into the protective circle, his form shimmered and changed. Gray fur blurred into a long flowing robe as silvery as the moonlight that shone upon it, while padded limbs that had inched silently through the snow, transformed to arms and legs. A crown of holly graced hair as dark as a moonless night and rested on a brow as smooth as silk. The man was ageless, yet seemed as old and ethereal as time. The wolf turned man took a careful step forward while leaning heavily on a staff of ancient oak.
“By what right do you, a mere human, dare to ask a boon of the ancient grove?” The spirit lifted a bushy brow as he drew nearer. The spirit’s voice surrounded him, drifted past him, as illusive as the wind yet as tangible as the ice beneath Zachary’s fingertips.
“‘Tis my right as a fool.” Zachary fingertips caressed the ice as he spoke. “A fool who believed, Old Father, the half truths told him to assure he left behind that which was most precious to him, and most coveted,” he lifted a defiant chin to the spirit, “by you.”
The wail of the wind was the only sound that disturbed the silence between them. The spirit nodded toward the tomb. “She came to me of her own free will.”
“For me,” Zachary shouted, managing to halt his fist mere inches above the ice. “Though your lies blinded us both to your true intent.
“Yet I am blind no longer; my journey has come full circle. I have returned at a time when the moon above shines silvery bright and magic guides its glow to this ancient grove, here at the very moment time hesitates between the old and new.” Zachary looked upon the face of his beloved. “On the one night you and your kind cannot deny this fool his boon.”
“A fool, you claim? Nay, I think not, for a fool would still be searching. It would seem your journey served you well, for few now know the sacred binding of Oak and Holly.”
“Aye, I learned much on my fool’s quest, but the time for talk is through. By the rights given within the ancient pact, you are bound to grant my boon for the trickery you visited upon me, a descendant of the first woodland clan whose blood gave life to this grove.”
“You claim blood rite of the First Clan?” The spirit circled him, wary as the wolf, a sneer upon his lips. “Yet, I claim foul, for ’tis you who has broken the pact by failing to return the heart to the land, the very heart you pledged to find.”
“The heart was here all along.” Zachary pressed his palm to the tomb. “You encased her in ice—my lady, my life. She was always the prize you sought, and I the tool you used to gain it.
“Yet enough of this useless banter. Do you not think I see how you seek to forestall until the moon ebbs from the circle? I will wait no longer. ‘Tis time you grant my boon.” Zachary tossed his cloak to the ground and shivered as the bitter wind leached away what little warmth left him. “Give her the life that yet clings to me . . . still my heart so hers may beat. I would know selfish joy once more before I draw my final breath.”
“Ah, ’tis true that you are not near the fool I thought you to be, nor as selfish as you would have me believe.” The spirit continued to circle him, the thump of his staff against frozen ground matching the beat of Zachary’s heart. “You offer your gift freely, yet must know you will not live to see it given or realize this selfishness you claim to possess.”
“I do.” Zachary nodded.
“‘Tis also true that I cannot deny your boon for I am held to the binding of Oak and Holly. You have indeed learned much upon your quest, Zachary of the Gray Woodlands.” The spirit offered him a feral grin. “Yet you remain the blinded fool who gives his gift most foolishly. A fool who has not considered the simple truth in his haste to give a selfless gift, for long after you are gone, I shall remain to claim her heart.”
Before Zachary could cry foul, the spirit lifted his staff above his head and released the magic of winter from within. “The boon has been stated and shall be granted. Prepare, young fool, to embrace your fate.”
Light flowed forward and wrapped itself about Zachary. He could no longer move. A chill far beyond the simple chill of the ice and snow invaded his body. What little warmth he still possessed fled. He grew numb.
He could do no more than watch as the spirit tapped his staff against the tomb, causing a crack to run across the smooth surface and down its sides. A glow built from its core, bathing the form within in silvery light.
Zachary fell down upon the frozen ground and waited for the nothingness to claim him. Though his eyelids grew heavy, he struggled against the power that sought to claim him. With no regrets, he had given his gift, though he remained unwilling to go without seeing the laughter in her eyes one last time. Yet, selfish joy was to be denied as his eyelids slid slowly closed. “For you,” he whispered as he floated toward a sea of darkness. “My lady, my life.”
He had not drifted long, nor met with the spirits of his woodland clan when warmth again found him. He struggled to pull that warmth about him. Energy he had thought long lost, flowed into tired limbs, and the oft-imagined touch of his love’s soft lips pressed against his.
“And my gift to you, beloved,” a voice near forgotten whispered near his cheek.
He opened his eyes to the sparkling blue gaze of his lady, his love . . . his heart. “Do I dream?” He drew her into his embrace even as he searched the circle for the winter spirit.
“He is not here.” Another spirit stepped into the circle. “My brother’s reign is over for another year, the season has turned toward the light, and darkness has been forced to surrender. ‘Tis I who must honor your boon now.”
The spirit wore a robe of green and a crown of acorns encircling a brow as fair as a newborn morn. Long white hair graced his ageless face. In his hand, he held a bough of evergreen. The spirit looked toward Zachary’s love. “My Lady of the Wood, your gift was given long ago and has now been returned tenfold.” He nodded toward Zachary. “And you, my child, have been granted a great boon.”
When Zachary raised a questioning brow to the ancient spirit, he merely laughed. “No gift ever truly remains without reward,” the spirit’s voice floated over him as he reshaped into the form of a great white bear, “when that gift is given from the heart.”