Long ago, in the land of our ancestors across the sea…
A woman in an emerald cloak drifted through the snow, down a white path that snaked through a thick forest. She was alone. No one had come with her because no one knew where she was. All her life, she’d heard the forest wasn’t safe, but it would be better to die than to go on living as she had been. She didn’t know what she was searching for in the forest. She didn’t know what she was running from in the village either. She only felt it. A knowing that there had to be something more. It called to her on the wind. The wild wolves answered, and suddenly she needed to answer it too. She needed it so badly that it didn’t matter what might come of her.
The song of the wolves danced along the frozen North Wind. They sang of the night, and the pure white snow, and the lonely moon grown full with waiting from above. As if conjured by their plaintive call, she came to a place where the trees formed a long arch above the path, like a snowy cathedral that glittered in the moonlight. A pack of silver wolves stood sentry at the far end, weaving a web of deadly confidence.
My goodness, they will hurt me, she thought. I will die here all alone.
But she had been hurt in the village too, and lonesome, although she was always surrounded by her people. On that path with the wolves, fear made her blood race, and she felt alive.
“So beautiful,” she whispered. “So fatal. I will grow, or I will die.”
“You won’t die today,” A young man stood over her. His hair was cut haphazardly, as if he’d done the job with his knife and no mirror, but it shone as silver as the wolves and the moonlight. He carried a large wooden shield on his back and the horned helmet of a warrior under his arm.
How had he interrupted her solitary path? She never wanted him to look at her like that again, and she wanted him to always look at her like that. Like the unknown forest, how his eyes promised her life and danger.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am a traveler.” He shrugged, but the corners of his mouth grew tight, and she wondered if he had traveled much farther and longer than that shrug let on. She only dreamed of travel and yet to him it seemed like a burden. “I am many things to many people. Who are you?”
“I am Evelyn. I mean nothing to anyone.” It was impossible for her to shrug away the secret that she had just left being a daughter, and that she was intended to be someone’s wife. Those both meant something to someone. The truth was that she was the one who didn’t know the meaning of any of it. That felt like an unworthy sentiment, and she looked down so he would not see her go red.
Cuts and bruises ran over his hands and into his fur-lined coat.
“Are you hurt?” She reached out and touched a clotted wound. What made her do that? What made her ache to think he felt pain?
“Only a little. Nothing that won’t heal. Are you hungry? Are you cold?” The way he said it, not like she was a child, the way she felt at home, but as if he had a giant heart and he really saw her standing in front of him. Like a woman should be noticed, full and real.
“Only a little.” She smiled.
He returned it with a small, lopsided grin that made her grow warm right through her heart.
“I am very far from home,” he said. “I don’t have much to offer you, but there is a cave just around the bend. I’ve got dry wood, and I could build you a fire.”
“Yes.” She hadn’t really, honestly said yes to anything for a very long time.
“I see the richness of your cloak, and I’m worried it won’t be enough for you.”
Richness. Comfort. Plenty. She’d had every one of them in abundance, but none had given her the warmth she gained from his crooked grin. She reached up and kissed him on the corner of his mouth.
“Come on,” he said.
They walked together to his cave. He moved toward her, so close she could feel his heat and smell the foreign spice of his skin.
“I am brave in battle.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “But you frighten me.”
“Why would I frighten anyone?” She wasn’t afraid, not now that she had said yes and meant it. She liked the moment just as it was with the promise of discovery spread out in front of her. It would never be like that again, with everything right on the edge of beginning.
“I am afraid to part with you.” His face grew sad again, as it had when he spoke of being a traveler.
Evelyn nodded. She knew what it felt like to always be waiting for the hurt to come. “I was afraid of the wolves in the same way. They captivated me, but I knew they could hurt me.” It was worth the risk. She stepped in closer to him. “I’ve never done this before. Have you?”
“I don’t think so. Not like this.”
She smiled. He kissed her.
Neither of them left the cave, not for a very long time.
One night, Evelyn woke and watched the warrior sleep next to her. His profile glowed gently in the firelight. He looked so much more a boy than a man. Sleep had taken the edges of worry from his face, but a single tear slipped from his eyelid and slid down onto his temple. She put her lips against it and tasted the salt of that tear. Her heart grew so big she could hardly breathe.
My goodness, I have fallen in love, she thought. He will hurt me. I will die here all alone.
When morning came, and the sun pressed out the shadows and the mysteries, she was afraid to tell him how she felt.
Time passed. The wind and the wolves stopped howling. The cave echoed with the rush of melting snow. Evelyn watched the warrior’s face grow distant, as if he were listening to something far off beyond the newly budding trees. She felt the coming hurt, waiting to tear out her heart with the same deadly beauty as the pack of silver wolves that had stopped her on the path.
“I’m cold,” she said. “Will you put more logs on the fire?” As long as he kept the fire going, he couldn’t be leaving.
He did not look at her as he put them slowly, one by one into the flames. “It is time for me to leave. These are the last logs I will ever put on this fire I built for you.”
“Why can’t you stay with me? I want you to stay.”
“Because the snow has turned to water. The dead of winter has turned to the life of spring. That is change. I have heard the thrumming call to battle, and I always answer that call. It is as much a part of me as what I was here with you.”
“I thought you said you were afraid to lose me.”
“I am afraid to lose the warmth of your touch, and the way you look at me, and the way you notice life’s simple beauty. Even worse, I am afraid you won’t understand that I have to go. I have no choice. I am afraid you will be so angry that I will lose your love.”
“You don’t know that I love you.” If he did, he would know how vulnerable she was.
“Yes, I do know you love me.” He put his arms around her and pulled her close to him. She felt the muscles of his chest move beneath her hands. It seemed impossible that she was about to lose the familiarity of his form. “Before we met,” he said, “you knew how to find the beauty in life. You don’t need me for that.”
“I don’t want to live without your touch.”
“You will live all the same. You found me with a pack of wolves, Evelyn, but I am the lone wolf. Please let me go.”
“I wanted you to stay forever.”
“Forever isn’t possible here on earth, and believe me you wouldn’t want an unchanging forever even if I could give that to you.” He smoothed the copper hair from her face. “Do you remember the first day we met, how I built you this fire?”
“Yes.” She forced the word through the pain in her heart.
“I will build you a great fire in the Heavens. The largest and brightest you have ever seen. It will be my gift to you. For your love and for showing me how beautiful this world can be. I had forgotten that beauty a long time ago. My fire will always show you where I am, and how to find me when you are done with the life you were intended to live.”
“But I want to come with you now.” Impossible. It would be impossible to move through the world without his touch and his voice.
“Your story isn’t over yet. Someday you will come tell it to me, and I will hang on every word.”
He kissed her. She tried to smile.
A cloud of ravens flew through the cave. And he was gone.
To be continued…
The story continues: The Northern Lights, Part Two: The Path