The wind moaned through the bare branches of the thicket of trees. As the moon shone down upon the snow, I shivered. Determined not to be stopped by the bitter cold, I followed the path through the little wood and up to the high ground. The world seemed to be shades of black, white, and blue. As I emerged from the trees, I could see my destination ahead. A mound rose up several yards away from where the trees ended.
My breath fogged in the air as I pulled my hood tighter against my head. The snow crunched beneath my feet as I broke through the rime of ice that formed earlier with each footfall. In the warmer months, the mound was a place of green grass and tiny white flowers. Some said they were planted when the mound was made in an age passed. Other said that they were from seeds dropped by the birds that pecked the gravel at the base of the mound. None came to pick those flowers, though they would have been well suited to bridal wreaths.
The mound was said to be a fey place. On the night of the full moon, we had been warned to stay well away from it lest the hill folk carry us away. A part of me said that visiting the mound this night was a doomed venture and that dawn would find me dead of the cold. I had decided I could not endure the life of servitude that I inherited from my mother. If the hill folk did not come, then I at least would have the freedom that came from escaping to the hall where my ancestors abide.
I had dressed in my best clothes when I was sure that everyone in the house was asleep. I put on the woolen coat that my mother had left me, the hood that my lady cast off in disdain, and the rough woolen mitts that I was allowed. My boots were poor things but my stockings were sturdy and helped to keep my feet from freezing too badly in the snow. Still, as I approached the mound, I was keenly aware of the pain in my toes. I found myself yearning to be near the smoored fire and then remembered what morning would bring.
Though I was not a slave, my lady had decided to sell me. A man with a reputation of cruelty had paid her price and enjoyed the comfort of her bed. At this late hour, I was fairly sure that he was well and truly asleep. It was the only reason why I dared to escape. Now I walked to the apex of the mound and I looked back along the path I had come.
Beyond the trees, the path went down into the dell where my lady resided. A fine house stood up boldly at the center of the settlement. It was there that I had fled from. I sat down upon the mound and looked at that distant house. I watched for a light to come from it. As the night deepened, I dared to hope that perhaps no one had awakened when I left. The cold grew progressively more vicious as the wind set clouds scudding across the moon.
My eyes began to grow heavy when a sound behind me set my heart hammering. The noise of hoofbeats muffled by the snow approached me. I scrambled to my feet to see a man leading a coal black horse coming towards me. Dressed for the weather, he was an unexpected sight, for I had never heard of anyone riding in the dark or venturing from the grassy plain that stretched in that direction. He held the horse's bridle in his left hand as his right ran over the horse's nose. "This is no weather for a girl to be out in," he said, "You should go home."
"I have no home to go to," I answered, wrapping my arms about myself, unable to keep the shiver out of my voice. He tipped his head slightly to the right and regarded me solemnly. "I'll die before I go back to her," I said. He nodded slowly. As he turned towards his horse, I suddenly found myself saying, "Take me with you. Where ever you are going, please take me. I'll work for you. I'll wash and cook." He turned towards me.
"You won't be returning here if you come with me," he said with a note of warning in his words.
"If I stay, I'll die," I answered. He gave a small nod. I walked towards him, wondering for a moment if I was moving from one bad situation to another. The man stepped around to the right side of the horse. He interlaced his fingers and held them at his waist. I looked at him in confusion.
"Get up on him," the man said as the clouds began to grow thicker, "We need to get out of this weather before it turns bad."
"But I don't know how to ride," I answered. He snorted. Hesitantly, I set my foot upon his hands. With some effort and some luck, I managed to mount the broad high back of the black horse. Then, my rescuer mounted behind me. With a cluck of the tongue and a tug of the reins, the man seated behind me turned our mount and we started off at a walk. Soon, snow began to fall. We rode around the mound once. The flakes began to fall faster and thicker.
As we circled the mound a second time, I had a difficult time seeing through the heavy snow. On our third pass around the mound, fog rose up. We were completing the circuit when I could dimly make out a light before us. "Is that where we're going?" I asked. The man at my back said nothing, letting action answer my question. It seemed that the mound had grown larger as we approached the source of the light, which appeared to be a great archway.
We passed beneath it as the wind shrieked through the trees. Inside the mound, I found myself looking at what appeared to be a glade in the wood at high summer. A table was laid out in the center of that greensward that was filled with food. My rescuer dismounted and then helped me down from the horse. He took the bridle off of that black horse and patted his nose. The horse huffed and then walked away into the trees along where we had come from. I turned to look along that path the horse went and found no sign of the snowy night we had left.
"Come," the man said at my right hand, "Eat. If I am right, it has been a long while since you have been full of food." I looked over at him and gaped with wonder. Where he had been dressed in dark woolen clothes and heavy boots, now he was wearing a fine silken shirt and leather pants that seemed too perfect to have been made by human hands. His hair was dark as it could be, looking almost indigo blue in shadow, and falling around his face in a mass of curls. Eyes that were blue as the summer sky shone with warmth and kindly nature. He looked over to the feast.
"The others shall come in their own time," he said, "but I would have this moment alone with you." He took me by the hand and lead me to the table. A high backed chair sat at the head of the table with a sable cushion at the seat and a matching low footstool. Beside it was a similar chair, adorned with white cushions. He lead me to the white chair and held it out for me to sit. I looked down at my mittens and my coat. He smiled. "Cast them aside," he urged, "You will not need them anymore here." I took off my coat, hood, and mittens to find that it was pleasantly warm. I dropped them to the ground and took the seat he urged me to.
"I have watched you," he said, lifting dainty morsels and putting them on a gold chased plate, "You have struggled since your mother's death. Elsa has been hard upon you. I think she blames you for it. She, however, has forsaken us in favor of the white Christ. Though it seems she does not care for his words of love." The black haired man with the elegant hands set the plate before me. "Your mother was a friend of my people. She gave us milk and honey. She put aside the best crumb of the loaf for us. It would please her to know that you have come to us," he said, sitting on the chair to my left.
"Like your mother, you have lovely eyes," he said, "And white hands, though work has hardened them." I blushed and hid my hands in the folds of my apron on my lap. "Your lovely eyes shall weep no more," my rescuer said solemnly, "And your hands shall grow soft. You mother had promised you to me when you were but a babe. She swore it in exchange for her freedom when you came of age. When she made that promise, I was sworn to treat you as I would my queen. So it is that you sit in the place of honor at my side."
"What is it that you would have of me in all this?" I asked. He smiled and reached for my right hand. He lifted it to his lips.
"The comfort of your arms," he said, "For this night and always." I started to pull my hand back when his grip tightened. I swallowed past a lump that rose up in my throat. "You are mine here," he said, his expression turning solemn, "I could command something more of you. I could put you to work as you had offered in the snow. Your white hands would age and you would stand at the ford for eternity washing garments. I could put you to work cooking, never to taste the fine things you make. I would rather something sweeter then that."
At his ominous words, I felt the blood drain from my face and the world swam for a moment. "Eat," he commanded, releasing my right hand. I picked up a sugar plum and bit into it. I was amazed by the sweetness of it. It seemed to go far past anything I had ever had before. Slowly, I ate the sweet before I picked up an apple. I turned the perfect fruit in my hands. As I brought it to my mouth, he spoke. "You do not know how I have burned for you," he said, reaching over to catch a lock of my hair between his fingers. He twisted it about one and ran a thumb over it. "Doomed to watch but never come near," he sighed, "I would have spirited you away before now but the iron banded doors of Elsa's hall were proof against me. Ah, your face has shone with the light of a thousand suns when you laughed and each smile was worth all the stars of the heavens. And now, you are with me."
Unsure if I were to answer or eat, I looked at the apple. He let go of my hair and set a hand upon my left knee. Cautiously, I resumed eating, keenly aware that he watched each bite and movement I made. I was partly through eating the piece of mince pie that he had set before me when he sighed. I swallowed my bite and looked over at him. "All of the feast is nothing to me," he said, looking forlornly at the food, "What good is the finest of food if I starve anyways?"
"How can you starve if you have food to eat?" I asked, confused by his words. He turned his gaze to me and I was struck by the brilliance of his eyes. He lifted his right hand and set it against my cheek. The warmth of his touch spread through me and a curious sensation of fluttering filled me. A part of me wished to close my eyes and nuzzle that warm hand, more of me blinked in confusion at these odd feelings.
"I perish for but a kiss," he said, "Long have I yearned for it and I wane in the waiting. Even now, within my dwelling, I am weak with wanting. Only you might heal me."
I wiped my hands on my apron and reached up to take his hand in mine. He slipped his hand into my hair and leaned forward. His breath smelled of apples and wine as his face drew close to mine. Suddenly, I felt as though I had imbibed strong drink and I realized I would have stumbled and fallen if I had not been sitting. I closed my eyes to resettle myself when his left hand cradled my cheek. Slowly, his full lips settled against mine with all the tenderness of a butterfly's landing.
Despite myself, I leaned into his kiss and soon found my breath had been stolen from me as he deepened that brush of lips into a full and passionate kiss. All of my body seemed to tingle with anticipation as a soaring sensation swept through me. He slowly broke the kiss and I found myself feeling almost pained by the loss of contact. I opened my eyes and looked at him. A softness seemed to come about the edges of the world and I felt lighter and happier then I had in years.
Drunk on that sudden joy, I leaned forward and kissed him. His strong arms pulled me to him, all but lifting me from the chair I sat in to be in his lap. His embrace was both fierce and tender at the same time. I kissed him until my head swam. I broke the kiss and he smiled. A knowing, tempting smile curved his lips and some part of me wondered if I had wandered onto dangerous ground. My body moved of its own accord and settled me in his lap.
He held me close and pressed a kiss to my right cheek. As he moved his lips to beside my ear, he whispered, "Now, you are mine." I shivered with pleasure at the sound of those words. I could hear others coming from the wood to take their seats at the table. I sat with my eyes closed, breathing in the woodsy scent of him and I found myself wishing for yet another kiss. Where I had felt intoxicated earlier, now, it felt as though some edge of madness had crept into my veins.
It whispered that I surrender all to him. As he ran his hand lightly up and down my spine and toyed with my hair, I found my resistance softening. The thought of his warm arms about me became increasingly persistent even as he breathed against the hollow of my neck. I leaned weakly against him. It seemed that all of my strength was melting into some suffused warmth that passed through my whole being, only to rise to an almost incandescent sensation where his hand passed. I breathed the perfume of wildness in his hair and I shivered with pleasure.