Part 1; Chapter 1
The cold was a stab wound in the chest. It was icicles driven into bone marrow. He shifted in his sleep, pulled at the heavy furs meant to warm him, reached out for a woman who was not there. Dreaming of blood and death and pain was normal. He had lived blood and death and pain. He had run from it but always it found him in his dreams.
The line between dreams and reality was a snare in the undergrowth. He tripped into waking, coughed instead of crying out. Tried to speak a name, to say a prayer, but his lungs took over, struggled for air.
When it was over and he could breathe again, there was a spot of blood on the ground. His chest hurt and he held his eyes closed, willed his head to stop racing. When it did, he swung booted feet out of the bed and stood. Wiping uneasy sleep from his eyes, brushing tangled, knotted hair over his shoulder, not unlike a small child. He buckled his belt on in the surety of a motion done every day for many a long year. Plucked the knife from its sheath and tested it’s edge; sharp.
He bent his head to clear the entrance of the cave in which he slept, and his boots crunched on a thick crust of frost. Breath billowed out in front of his face to dance with a thin stream of smoke from the dying fire. He must build up the fire, for it is life here, but where is the woman he reached for in the darkness of his dreams?
Off making or fetching water, his mind told him, and he bent to gather dry leaves and sticks. The fire is slow in growing, but with care and tenderness he breathed it to life. He remained crouched as it started to roar, warming himself and banishing the darkness of sleep.
There is a cold spot in his chest that cannot warm.
“Where is that woman?” he growled as he stood once more. He tossed another log on the fire and stalked into the forest toward the stream where they fetched water.
The late autumn sun filtered through the trees, danced upon the forest floor, turned everything golden. The frost sparkled on the ground, on the trees and he walked through this surreal landscape wondering at his great luck to have finally found peace and quiet among such beauty. Even the smell of dead and rotting leaves brought him joy, the cold air in his nostrils and the prickling chill of the air upon his skin. He felt a connection to this place like none other in his troubled life, and he wanted nothing more than to eke out the rest of his days among the trees, and there to die in the silence of the wood.
The creek sat in a gentle depression, and in other times of the year it was not visible until one was almost upon it. This late in the year, however, the undergrowth had died back, the leaves had fallen and a clear view of the creek was visible even from some distance. As he came to the edge of the depression, the creek in clear view, he could see something lying in the middle of it. His heart knew, though his eyes tried to lie, tried to tell him it was a fallen branch or a misshapen stone.
It was a woman, lying still in the middle of the creek.
He did not remember travelling between the line of trees and the creek. He could not feel the pain as his knees struck the river stones or the icy chill of the water that soaked him for there was an even colder feeling in his heart. He reached out to touch her shoulder and, as he rolled the body over, was struck with a memory. A different woman, a different place, the same hand reaching out, the same feeling of ice cold dread in his chest.
“Eponina,” he breathed as he pulled her into his lap. He lifted her, pressed his head to the side of hers and bit back the storm of emotions that raged against clenched teeth, fighting to escape.
Those feelings subsided and he was left with an emptiness, with the sound of the creek and the numbness of his legs. He looked up, starting at the sight of a woman who stood in the creek not five strides away. Her hair was a dark thundercloud upon her head and she was full with child. Her long robes falling to her feet seemed almost a part of the creek itself and her eyes were glittering stars. She smiled, a bright grin like a crescent moon. She seemed to float toward him, one hand reaching out to the woman in his arms.
He pulled the body of his dead lover closer and stood, lifted her with him. The only sound was the creek and the water dripping from Eponina. Another sound filtered through his grief stricken ears. The distant cry of gulls and the crashing of waves upon the shore. Sounds from his childhood. Sounds of the sea. Sounds that did not belong in the forest.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“You know who I am,” the woman said in a voice not unlike the sea itself.
He did, though he did not want it to be so.
“The Lady of the Waters,” he breathed, unable to take his eyes off her.
“Mag Rand Am,” she confirmed. Her voice was the deep boom of waves pounding the hull of a ship.
“You cannot have her,” he growled, held his lover more tightly.
“She is already mine,” the goddess replied. “She died in the water.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “If she were already yours you would not be here.”
Something flashed in the goddess’s star-like eyes. “She is rightfully mine,” she said. “Give her to me that I may dance with her in the deep until the sun and moon meet.”
“No,” he breathed. “She must be reborn.”
Finally able to look away, he laid his eyes upon the dead face of the woman in his arms. It was pale and waxen now, but he remembered it vibrant with life and laughter. He remembered smiles and kisses and her whispered thoughts of the next life.
“I would be a butterfly,” she’d told him. “After the Long Dark.”
It seemed like years ago, though it might only have been months or weeks.
“A butterfly,” he had laughed, in that long ago conversation. “They are so small and short lived.”
“Yes, but they bring such joy and colour to the world,” she replied, eyes gleaming. “And they can fly.”
It was then that he remembered his failure. The other woman, the other shoulder that his shaking hand turned over. He would not lose his head this time. He would take Eponina away, he would open the door to the Long Dark for her, that she might find her way through to rebirth, as she had wanted.
The goddess flowed toward him, changed to appear as a little girl, though her crescent moon smile and star-like eyes remained.
“But she’s so purdy,” the little girl said, reaching out to touch the waxen face. He yanked away from her touch, stumbled backward on the loose, slippery stones. He shifted his gaze for but a moment and the goddess had changed again. Now she was a man, a gnarled old sailor.
“Let me help you, son,” the man said. “We’ll carry her together.”
“No,” he repeated. “You cannot have her. Not this one.”
“She’s mine!” The goddess screamed like an angry gull. Her visage melting away, returning to her first form.
“You are too far from your domain, My Lady,” he said, shaking his head. He stepped backward out of the stream. As his booted feet touched down on the leafy slope the goddess melted into the creek leaving the lone howl of a faraway wind to echo in his ears.