NIGHT. He ran through it as a deer runs from wolves, dodging and leaping through the snow. His path lay revealed by the light of the full moon glistening on the snow. This night, of all nights, was not one to be out in the woods. Yet Bran had no choice. If he had stayed in his cottage, he would be dead, set ablaze as the building had been. The mob had come for him in the darkness, in the night, carrying torches and swords in equal measure. He could hear the baying of Jacob’s dogs as they caught his scent. No, the winter solstice was not a night to be in the forest, even if it weren’t the actual Wild Hunt chasing him. Chuckling wryly, Bran had to admit he might have preferred the real ones to the men he’d called friends not three weeks ago.
The cold seeped through his clothing. His boots filled with snow as he struggled up the hill. He could see his breath as it puffed from his mouth, billowing before him. Still Bran ran. He knew he couldn’t stop. His fellow villagers were nothing if not persistent and stubborn, curse their Irish hides. It wouldn’t be much further. If he could make it over the next rise, he would be safe. All he needed to do was make it that far. Then they would back off. They never went that far into the woods, not here, especially not tonight, no matter how much they wanted to kill him.
The baying of the dogs grew louder. Bran scrambled up the small hill and over the snow. His arms pumped and his chest heaved as he struggled to keep running. Not once did he look back. He didn’t need to. He knew they were still there, still chasing him. Then he breached the crest of the hill and couldn’t prevent himself from stopping.
The moon’s light filled the grove. Full and bright, she shone down from the velvet blue sky. He turned his face upward and prayed with all his might to Danu, the Mother. He beseeched her to grant him just a few more moments to reach safety, just a few. Then he dropped his head and plunged down toward the small oak copse in the center of the grove. He would be safe if he could just make it through the natural arch. Somehow, Bran knew this to be true and he never doubted that feeling.
Just as he reached the bottom, Jacob’s mongrel dogs made the crest. He half expected them to charge down after him, but all they did was bay loudly. They wouldn’t come any further. Bran paused and looked back for the first time. He drew great, heaving breaths, filling his lungs with air while his legs shook with fatigue. Then he heard the voices and saw his fellow villagers appear in ones and twos.
“Ye’ll not escape us, Bran O’Rury!” Padraig the blacksmith shouted. “That ye ran here of all places proves much, but ye can’t hide forever!”
“I say let’s not let him hide at all!” That deep baritone belonged to Padraig’s brother Seamus, the farrier.
The night echoed with a whistling sound. Bran jumped backward as a javelin thunked into the snow where he’d been standing. He tugged his black wool cloak tighter around his body. Taking another step toward the grove, he felt the need to answer them.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” he shouted. “Ye’ve no cause to do this.”
“We have need of only one cause,” Tristan the miller shouted. “Ye should be dead!”
“Ye make no sense!” he cried. “I am to be punished because I live? Where is the logic in that?”
“Logic has nothing to do with it!” Padraig returned.
“Clearly,” Bran muttered.
“Ye do not belong here anymore, Bran O’Rury. Ye belong in the Summerland!” Seamus said as he flexed his massive shoulders. He and Padraig were almost a matched set with their huge builds. Each had the dark curling hair of their mother while taking after their father in sheer size. Padraig’s sparkling blue eyes normally matched Seamus’s green when they were at the tavern.
“I tell ye I did nothing wrong!” he shouted as another javelin forced him to dance backward. The dogs began to bay, and Bran wished Jacob would shut them up. He needed to think. They were right. He couldn’t hide forever, but he was going to make a right go of it.
“Archer, the Archer is here!” the rest of the mob cried, hanging back even further than Seamus and Padraig.
It was now or never. If he didn’t make a run for the copse of oaks, he wouldn’t last the night. The Archer was their greatest and most skillful hunter. It broke his heart to know the other man was there. Hadn’t they meant anything to each other, even as hidden as their relationship was? Would Archer shoot? Would he let loose his arrows at the man he had claimed to love with all his soul? Bran wasn’t about to wait around to find out. Yule was upon them, the moon shone full and heavy in the sky, and he would be very lucky indeed if he remained alive long enough to see the Sun God’s return. Of all the villagers, only Archer would brave the grove.
As quick as the raven he was named for, Bran turned on his heel and made good on their slight distraction. A few moments later, he could hear their disappointed shouting. He didn’t care. All he wanted to do was slip through that doorway. An arrow thunked into a tree trunk to his right, and Bran felt his heart break in his chest. His question had been answered.
One backward glance was all it took. His foot caught beneath a root hidden by the snow. Bran stretched out his arms to catch himself. The breeze from his fall brushed across his face, and he bemoaned his luck once more. What happened next, he could never have imagined.
Bran tried to brace himself for the impact. He knew it wouldn’t be long. Yet it seemed to be taking more time than he would have thought. A mere second after the thought flew through his mind, Bran O’Rury was eating snow. The air rushed out of his chest as he connected with the ground. For a moment, all he saw were small stars whirling before his eyes. Chanting filled his ears, a voice that drew him like a lodestone, sad and enchanting. It rang like the sweetest music in his ears. Absently, he realized he wanted to get close to that voice. Nothing else mattered.
THE full moon silvered his skin as he stared up into her face. Snow fell, soft and light, upon him. All the forest was silent. Not even a breeze stirred in the velvet darkness. Reverently, Mikhail set down the stone bowl filled with salt. Joining the elements, he first anointed his forehead with the mixture of sea salt and river water and then gently waved the censer around his body, letting the incense smoke brush against him, cleansing his spirit. With a deep breath, he moved to stand before his altar, ready to begin his private Yule celebration.
He invoked the Goddess and then the God, lighting the silver and gold candles respectively. He chanted his words of welcome in a deep, rich voice. Subtle energy slowly filled his circle. Mikhail loved practicing here. There was a sheer sense of purity in the energy of the land. Of all the places he’d lived, this one came in a close third. Russia and Ireland, the lands of his parents, took the top two positions. Yet this little wooded area and its oak grove not far away held freshness, the new land that wasn’t so new in reality. Yes, he loved New York.
Standing almost knee-deep in Adirondack snow, he welcomed the return of the light and the God’s rebirth. Just as he lit the red Yule candle, Mikhail felt a surge in the energy around him. It was as if an invisible wave had crashed over his protective circle and then washed back the way it had come. Curiosity filled him, but he stubbornly stuck to his task. He would not investigate until he was finished.
Completing a ritual always lifted his spirits. Once the celebration was done and the libation made, he carefully took down his circle as he had put it up, bidding farewell to the gods and the elements. He would not be swayed from his routine, not in this. Once he was done, Mikhail very carefully walked in the direction the wave had come from. His senses, both mundane and spiritual, remained heightened. He knew there was a grove of oak trees nearby, a faerie ring. His father often warned him to stay away from such things.
“Misha,” his father would say in his heavy Irish brogue. “Dinnae e’er trod on a ring o’ flowers nor walk through a ring o’ trees. Be wary and respectful o’ the meeting places o’ the Fae, lest they snatch ye to teach ye a lesson.”
His mother had the same things, or at least similar ones, to say about the Domovye, the spirits of her native Russia. Thus, with two such influences in his life, Mikhail Finnegan had a healthy respect for each culture’s Fair Ones. He shook his longish black curls, dusting snow over his lightweight L.L. Bean barn coat as he pulled it on over his ritual clothing. The closer he got to the grove, the more his proverbial hackles rose. Whatever had happened, it had come from there. Mikhail paused, debating whether he should continue or not. He could admit to his catlike curiosity, but he was not stupid about it. Well, he thought to himself, as he moved forward once more, not usually.
There it was. Energy hummed through the air, sending his nerve endings tingling. It reminded him that he hadn’t completely grounded his personal energy yet. With a shrug, he moved toward the ring. The snow, still softly falling, increased in volume. The weatherman had said it would dissipate by midnight. Mikhail chuckled. They never quite got it right. Movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, and Mikhail’s head snapped in that direction. He froze in his tracks, waiting for it to come again. When it didn’t, he moved again. A sound caught his ear. He paused, snow dampening his pant legs.
“There,” he said.
Placing his hand on the trunk of a massive oak, he stared at the figure lying in the center of the grove. It moaned again and rolled onto its back. It was a man! Immediately, Mikhail rushed forward, dropping to his knees beside the stranger.
“Hello?” he said, placing two fingers on the man’s neck, feeling for a pulse. It was weak, but there, and he sighed in relief. “Can you hear me? Are you hurt?”
There was another low moan. On further examination, he could find no serious injuries. It seemed the man had a nasty bump on the head, but nothing more than that. Granted, he wasn’t a doctor, but he figured it was safe to move him. When he finally reached up and brushed the wet hair off the man’s face, he lost his ability to breathe. It was hard to see, but he got the impression of a smooth, bronzed face. It spoke of many hours outside. He had a day’s worth, at least, of stubble on his strong jaw. His cheekbones were sharp, but not harshly so. He was… “beautiful” seemed the wrong word, but “handsome” was insufficient.
“Either way, we need to get out of the snow. It’s going to storm soon,” Mikhail murmured.
Very carefully, he brought the other man into a sitting position, realizing just how large his patient was. Then Mikhail put him in a firefighter’s carry over his shoulders. A bittersweet smile came to his lips. Memories best left in the past were pushed back as he made his way back to where he’d celebrated the seasons. He’d used a toboggan sled to carry his altar box over the snow. Fortunately, it was long enough to hold both the unconscious man and the box. Soon, they were on their way to Mikhail’s home away from home.