The mist was heavy and it set a chill through me. I looked about the grove. The trees had begun to wane, but the leaves were still fairly thick upon them. In the moonlight, it all seemed darker and more primeval. At the center of the grove, there stood a wide boulder that had been used for several years as a makeshift altar, picnic table, and bench by the group of pagans that owned the property. This night, I had managed to avoid their company and had the space to myself.
I shivered within the woolen cloak that I wore. I had mistakenly thought that the heavy fabric would have served to trap more of my body heat. It was one of many errors in judgment that plagued me this evening. My bare feet were scratched from the stones on the path and screaming in pain. I was fairly certain that I had a bruise forming on my shin where I stumbled into an overgrown root along the edge of the path. Stumbling, however, was my delicate way of admitting that I had tripped and went sprawling. I was fairly sure that it was only pure luck that kept my little basket from dumping its contents onto the ground and down the hill.
I passed through the edge of the circle that was fashioned from field stones at the edge of the treeline. As I did so, it seemed as though the chill became less intense. I wasn't sure if I was becoming acclimated to the cold or if something of magic was at play. I was too worn out. All of my plans for a ritual seemed to have gone wrong. The items I had set aside vanished with the exception of the bottle of wine. Unfortunately, this included the ever so necessary bottle opener.
I thought about just giving up on the whole affair when the weather report came in. Clouds that were forecasted were stacking up to the west. I felt cold, tired, and miserable. It was only pure force of will that brought me up here on the verge of a stormy night. I walked around to the leeward side of the stone and crouched down. The wind blocked, I started to feel a little less rotten.
“I was an idiot for planning this,” I grumbled, setting my basket beside me. A misshapen loaf of burned bread and a shaken bottle of mead stared up at me from the basket. “Ah well, at least I'm doing it. That counts for something, right?” I sighed, “Might as well get on with it...” I set the bottle and the loaf of bread on the stone. I stood and unfastened the clasp at my throat. As the wind picked up, it knifed through my flesh when I took off my only garment and set it down on top of my basket.
I was about to make the invocation when the sound of movement caught my ear. My heart lept into my throat as I turned. The scuttling clouds paused in their play with the moon long enough to let his light gleam on the blond hair of the man striding out of the wood. I gasped, expecting to be alone at the hour. He walked up with an affable smile, even as the wind tossed his hair about. The linen of his shirt was shockingly pale against the darkness. I couldn't help the terrible sense of vulnerability.
“You're cold,” he said, holding out a blanket, the leaves crunching beneath his boots as he walked across the circle to me. “This isn't weather to be out like this in,” he said with a touch of warm amusement in his voice, “Unless you're one of those silly polar bear people.” I bent down to gather my cloak and hide myself behind the stone, but he was upon me in moments. Next thing I knew, he had wrapped the surprisingly warm woolen blanket around me and he was picking up the cloak to drop it about my shoulders.
I struggled to find my words but this man proceeded to bundle me up. My feet and hands felt terribly cold but I had to admit that the blanket's warmth was more then welcome. “Storm's going to break soon, c'mon. Let's get you to some shelter,” he said, “What ever you're up to can wait until the weather passes. It's going to get cold tonight.” I thought about retreating down the path back to the cabin but my rescuer looked at me expectantly and my teeth were chattering.
I started walking silently after him when he paused and looked closely at me. He frowned. “Nope, this is not going to work. Wait here,” he said, handing me the basket. He turned and walked off into the darkness. Convinced that we were finally parted, I turned to walk back to the central stone when the sound of hoofbeats caught my ear. I turned slowly in amazement to find him leading a roan stallion forward out of the dark wood. He smiled at my stunned look.
“Come on,” he said, waving me over. “This will be faster and easier on those feet. I'm surprised you're not complaining after walking up here with out any shoes on.” I looked down at my feet and shrugged. He clucked his tongue at the horse and the magnificent beast dropped down to its knees. “You don't know how to mount a horse. Let him help you,” he said, moving to help me onto the back of the horse in question. “Now, hold on to his mane, right there,” my mystery man continued, “Hold tight. Don't worry about hurting him. He's tough.” Obedient to his directions, I found myself seated on the back of the powerfully built horse and unable to help my squeal of alarm as the horse rose.
He laughed and vaulted up onto the back of the horse, wrapping an arm around my waist. He held me firmly against himself and gave a shake to the reins. Again, I was surprised as the horse started forward. “Oh, this … this isn't safe,” I said nervously as we started forward towards the forest. The man at my back laughed and kicked the horse into a run. I screamed in terror, bringing my hands up to cover my face as we bolted forward, convinced that disaster was sure to come.
“Ye of little faith,” he said with an amused smile as I cringed against him. The rider and horse seemed to move through the wood as though it was nothing but grass. Trees reached towards us but nothing touched us. As the darkness grew complete, a sudden fear wrapped around me. Some how sensing my fear, the man with his arm around me said, “It's not much farther and you're perfectly safe.” I was about to argue the impossibility of such a thing while riding through a forest in the middle of the night when we burst out the edge of the treeline into a place that was surprisingly bright considering the hour.
I squinted against the light, when I realized that before us there was a bonfire and on the other side of it was what appeared to be a hall of some sort. I blinked and the basket slipped from my nerveless fingers. The man caught it just as it fell out of my grip, reaching around me with both arms as he gave the horse his lead. The roan walked forward around the bonfire. As we reached the entrance to the hall, a pair of solemn eyed men walked out the door. Upon seeing me, their expressions brightened. One nudged the other before turning and calling into the building that we had arrived.
A full breasted woman with a dusting of flour over her apron and hands walked out, muttering something about distractions. Then she looked up and her grumbling turned to a sharp scolding of the man who had called her. The man holding me laughed as he let go and dismounted. He helped me down from the broad high back of the horse, smiling broadly as the blanket slipped and a flash of my body was revealed.
A blush washed over me as I wrapped the blanket tightly about myself. I began muttering apologies for disturbing them when the woman turned from scolding the man I had gathered was her husband to looking at me. Where she was all annoyance with her spouse, her expression was kindly as she looked at me. She noted the blanket and clucked her tongue with disapproval. “That won't do, not at all,” she fussed. Next thing I knew, she was herding me into the building, taking the basket from me, and nattering on about how he had been waiting for me to come calling.
We passed by several individuals who looked up from their respective meals with surprise. Laughter and good will seemed to ooze from the very walls as the people sitting at the tables noted my passing with cups raised in salute or smiles. Quite bewildered and more then a little bit self-conscious, I found myself ushered into a large, well appointed room at the end of the hall. The woman with me fussed a bit over a chest bursting with fabrics before pulling out a grass green gown with gold interlay. I thought about protesting when she decked me out in it.
I realized, however, that the cloth was warm and felt good upon my skin. She picked up a comb and then put it aside with a sigh. “No, nothing I can do with that mop,” she said with a tone of disappointment, “Just wasn't right of you to chop it all off like that. Be that what it may, I have work to do and himself is waiting for you. Go on out.” She made a shooing gesture and ushered me out into the hall.
My host looked over from where he was conversing with someone with impossibly copper red hair. He noticed when I looked around, visibly uncomfortable. He excused himself and walked over, his smile seeming to grow impossibly brighter as he looked at me and drew closer. “Come, sit,” he said, “Let's have some of that wine.”
“I.. I can't,” I started when he gave me an amused look.
“You brought it for me. I want you to drink with me. Now, you were saying?” he replied, taking me by the hand and leading me to a chair beside his own. I started to open my mouth to argue but simply couldn't do so. Seated to his right, I stared at the table and realized that I was terribly hungry. I twisted the fabric of the gown between my fingers, uncertain of what I should do. Panic was rising in me as the weight of the gaze of all in the room settled on me.
“I.. I need to go,” I stammered, “I should leave. I.. it is rude of me to be here. I...” He smiled kindly and the panic flared brighter in me. I could feel my hands beginning to shake as my heart hammered. He took my hand in both of his, setting them upon his knee as he turned to face me. Holding my left hand with his, he reached up with the right and brushed a stray lock of hair out of my eyes. I cringed back away from him, my gaze darting to everywhere but him.
“Look at me,” he said quietly in a low tone that I knew he used with his horse. I wasn't sure how I knew it, but I just knew it with all the certainty that gravity still functioned. Gently, he touched my jaw and guided my face so that I couldn't help but look him in the eye. A white hot stab of terror shot through me and I closed my eyes tightly, shuddering with fear.
He sighed. I expected that he was going to do like everyone else always did when I tried to shut down, break physical contact and turn away. Instead, he gathered me into his arms and held me firmly against his chest. A part of me screamed that I needed to flee. Another part of me wanted to sink into his embrace and hide from all the people there by way of his broad chest. For some reason that I couldn't define, the urge to weep rocked me when he said very quietly in my ear, “You are perfectly safe here. No one will harm you.”
Too strained by the situation, I failed to keep those sobs bottled up inside me. I gave a great, body wracking sob, followed by another, and yet another. I wept with my terror, strangely feeling safe enough to express it. Wave after wave of tears flowed from me. With it, fled my strength. Even as my sobs subsided, I realized that something had changed. I some how felt lighter. And then it struck me, I was not terrified. Instead, I was exhausted.
Too weak to do much more then stare numbly at the gathered, who had watched my display with neither approval, disapproval, or any distress of their own. In their faces, I saw some kindness, some pity, and some wearied knowledge of what I had just experienced. My eyes widened in amazement when I realized that not one soul there looked on me with disgust or contempt. I started to sit up when he tightened his embrace ever so slightly.
I laid my head against his chest, listening to the slow, steady sound of his heartbeat. Listening to it, I seemed to feel some measure of strength return to me. Calm, as though I had woken from a deep, peaceful sleep, rose up in me as I slowed my breaths to match his. I closed my eyes again, focusing more upon him. The fabric of his shirt did little to trap the heat of his body. It felt as though I rested against the warmth of a sunbeam. The thought made me smile.
“There,” he said, “That is much better.” He relaxed his hold on me, leaving the impression that I was welcome to remain in his arms or to sit up, however I pleased. My stomach rumbled and I sat up, looking slightly chagrined by the visceral sound. He chuckled. “Emotions are hungry work,” he said with a smile, his green eyes alight with good humor.
I looked at the table and cringed when I realized that sitting proudly before my host was the burned loaf of bread. “Oh my,” I sighed, “You really shouldn't eat that. It came out horribly...” He laughed and picked it up. As he broke it into halves, I found that within the charred crust, the bread was tender, yet dense and gave a wonderful, yeasty aroma. I stared in shock.
He laughed again and set the unburned portion on the platter before me. “Oh, no, no, no...” I said in a rush, “No, you should take that. I'll take the burned.” He grinned and tore off the blackened bit and popped it into his mouth. I couldn't stop myself from gasping in dismay and clapping my hands over my mouth in a wee fit of horror. He laughed aloud as the rest of the hall resumed their buzz of activity.
“Haven't you ever had toast?” he laughed, “Burned a bit over an open fire? This is nothing. Now that one over there...” He pointed down to the end of the long table where a lean, red haired man grinned at me and hefted up a cup. “He burns damn near everything he cooks. Travel with him and you have to learn how to eat your bread toasted or raw. Isn't that right?” my host laughed as the red haired man gave a graceful shrug before taking a deep drink of his own cup, looking entirely pleased and amused with the whole situation.
My host turned to face me, smiling. “Perhaps a drop of wine will soothe you,” he said. He clapped his hands and the woman who had decked me in the gown was at his side in a twinkling. He gestured to the cups and she filled them. As she stepped back, she gave me a matronly smile of reassurance. He picked up both cups and pushed one into my hands. “I bid you welcome in to my home,” he said as I took hold of the cup.
“I.. I thank you for the pleasure of your company,” I said in a small voice. He made a small gesture, indicating that I was to take a sip of the wine. As I did, some one down the hall gave a cheer. True to his word, as the wine slid through me, I felt calmer. I took the cup away from my lips and he grinned. I flushed to the roots of my hair and dropped my gaze back down to the wine. Deciding that what ever proved so promising of calm in the wine would do me greater good, I took another drink.