Appalachian Mountains, West Virginia
WINTER KING ran nimbly through the trees, skillfully dodging prickly brambles, enjoying one of the perfect, crisp days of early fall. There was a nip in the air almost too cool for comfort, the kind you could see as you exhaled fog, a precursor to the bitter winds that would soon send winter howling across the mountains of Appalachia. Brilliant color splashed the mountainside, the fleeting gift of nature before the deep snows came to smother the hills until late the next spring. Despite the boy’s name, autumn was the season he treasured most, when the air held a promise of frost-kissed grass come morning, but the afternoon sun was still strong and warm on his face.
These woods were Winter’s home, his refuge, and he was familiar with every inch of them. He knew every trickling stream and secluded clearing, every cave carved by time into the mountain’s rock with enough space to accommodate a curious ten-year-old boy. He knew the animals that slithered and those that flew. He knew the ones that grazed and the ones that ate the grazers, and how to avoid biting or kicking by the former or becoming dinner for the latter. They knew him too, and were as comfortable with his presence as he was with theirs. The forest belonged to him as much as to them, the place he often found asylum when his differences made life in the village of his birth unbearable.
Although Grammy raised him and loved him, and was as kind a person as he reckoned anyone could be, her reputation as a healer and witchy woman set her apart from the rest of the village as well. His own strangely dual-colored eyes—one a brilliant blue and the other a vibrant green—were in and of themselves enough to mark his difference from the other children, but the death of his unmarried mother in childbirth, combined with the villagers’ fear of his grandmother’s powers caused the chasm between him and them to widen too far to bridge.
His life in the village was lonely. Folks did not allow him near their children or livestock and hurled insults—and sometimes stones—at him when he wandered too near. He was much more at ease with animals than with humanity. Nature accepted him, warily perhaps, and from a distance; humans did not.
Barefoot even this late in the season, he splashed across a brook, gasping at the bite of icy water on his feet and ankles. On the other side, he pushed through a screen of brush into a small, hidden clearing. It was one of his favorite places, secreted from the world, or so he believed. Sunlight streamed through a natural break in the forest’s canopy of leaves and branches. Dropping to the ground, he rubbed his feet to warm them, then leaned back on his elbows and watched thin white clouds skim across the sky. The clearing smelled earthy and ripe, of vegetation just beginning to turn autumn brown.
Grammy used certain roots and leaves ground into powders for her healing potions, tinctures, and plasters, and tasked him with gathering what little he could find this late in the season. While it was true she wasn’t as spry as she used to be, she could still do her own gathering if she wished. She was much more adept at spotting the plants she needed than he was too, but he suspected she understood his need to get away from the village and used gathering her herbs as a good reason to leave his chores at the cabin unfinished and roam the forest alone.
It was time-consuming work, scouring the ground for the late-blooming remnants of summer’s bounty, but his work could wait a few moments. He wanted to enjoy the quiet and peace a while longer.
A soft rustling noise drew his attention. On the far side of the small field, a white-tailed deer’s narrow face peeked from between crimson and orange leaves. The doe sniffed the air, alert for danger, ears twitching in one direction, then the other, before she tentatively stepped through the brush into the clearing. After another moment or two, she began nosing the ground for the last of the season’s greenery. A dappled fawn emerged from the thicket and followed its mother into the open, keeping close to her side.
He wasn’t surprised. He knew his scent was familiar to the creatures in this part of the forest. They would allow his presence, providing he kept his distance from them and remained a still and silent observer.
The fawn was a dainty, fragile-looking thing, with a delicately shaped head and long, spindly legs. Already fading white spots speckled its reddish brown coat. Its gangly awkwardness brought a smile to Winter’s face.
As he watched the deer graze, he became aware of several other creatures sharing the mountain clearing. Squirrels chattered and scampered between the trees, running up and down the trunks like quick, gray zippers. Field mice skittered through grass just beginning to turn brown. A rabbit twitched long ears and nibbled leaves. Shadows of quick wings darted over the clearing as birdsong frequently punctuated the silence—warblers, whippoorwills, turkeys, and a hawk’s screech among them.
No matter how peaceful the scene appeared, he knew from experience that death always lurked in the shadows, just out of sight, waiting to pounce. He shuddered when the hawk suddenly dropped like a stone from the sky and snared a field mouse in its talons before flying off over the treetops.
The hawk’s attack sent icy fingers of foreboding skittering up his spine, and he sat up, fully alert. Like the deer, he listened carefully for any sound out of place. Although he heard nothing, he could sense something was coming, something dark. He could feel the icy chill of death, so different from the benign coolness of the changing season, raising gooseflesh on his skin.
He caught sight of a long and narrow object moving almost too quick to see. It was an arrow and, aimed at the gentle deer sharing his mountain clearing, shot across the space. The doe, alerted at the last possible moment by some subtle sound, perhaps the soft twang of the bowstring as the hunter released it, turned and bolted a mere heartbeat before the arrow reached her side. She bounded into the relative safety of the trees unharmed.
The fawn was not so lucky. It fell to the ground, an arrow shaft quivering in its side.
Winter jumped to his feet as the hunter, a young man not much older than himself, ran out into the clearing.
As a rule, Winter walked away from confrontation. He was a pacifist by nature, possessed of a crippling shyness and an acute awareness of his differences that had been drummed into him by nearly everyone around him since birth. He was uncomfortable with conflict, but this time something within him snapped. This was his clearing, his deer! Drawing in a deep breath, he screamed and charged toward the hunter.
The hunter froze and gawked as Winter raced toward him, his expression quickly segueing from surprise to anger. Winter knew him; it was all but impossible not to know everyone in an area with such a small population. Joe Bob was his name, oldest of the seven sons of Dale Scroggins, who made a living brewing ’shine in the hills west of the village.
He knew Joe Bob to be a hard boy, just as full of mistrust and hate as his father and brothers. When folks threw insults and stones at Winter, Joe Bob or one of the other Scroggins boys usually cast the first one.
By the same token, Joe Bob knew Winter and, judging from the black look coloring Joe Bob’s face, was not at all pleased to see him.
Winter knew the Scroggins family believed he, the grandson of the local witchy woman, had even stranger powers than she had and possibly could be the very spawn of the devil. As Winter raced toward him, bellowing rage, his arms outstretched, fear quickly painted over the anger in Joe Bob’s expression.
He took a step backward, then another, then finally turned tail and ran, seeming to forget all about his kill in the face of the screaming devil child with one green eye and one blue and fury gleaming in both.
Winter chased Joe Bob until he was sure the hunter would not return to the clearing, then retraced his steps. He knelt beside the fawn, feeling tears pricking the corners of his eyes. He didn’t know why the fawn’s death upset him so much—he was no stranger to hunting, or to butchering animals for food. He’d even snared and field dressed rabbits for Grammy’s stewpot. Death was a necessary part of life, an essential element to survival in the unforgiving mountains.
This one, for whatever the reason, felt different. The fawn’s death shook Winter to his core and awakened something unfamiliar within him.
Although his young mind didn’t quite comprehend the question, the answer echoed in his soul. The hunter’s trespass into the boy’s sanctuary was what upset him and moved him to anger. With the fawn’s death came the realization his refuge was no longer his own, no longer private or safe. In his heart of hearts, he equated his life with the deer’s and felt the attack as if he had been the target.
Winter returned to the body of the fawn and knelt beside it. He pulled the arrow from the fawn’s flesh and snapped it in half before tossing the pieces as far away as he could, then sat back on his heels. There was no more he could do, was there?
A wave of grief washed over him. He felt a deep, aching emptiness growing in his heart. He bent over the body and laid his cheek against the soft fur of the deer’s spotted hide, his tears turning pink as they mixed with the fawn’s blood.
As his fingers brushed through the fawn’s pelt, he felt them begin to tingle with his power. He didn’t understand how his power worked; he only knew it did. Winter had the power within him to heal various sicknesses and injuries. It had been there for as long as he could remember. Colds, gout, rheumatism, sprains, burns…. Hadn’t he healed the Johnson girl when she’d taken ill with the fever not long ago?
This wasn’t the same as the usual aches and pains plaguing folks, though. Why should his powers surge up now? The fawn wasn’t just sick. It was dead, and that was beyond his—or anyone else’s—ability to fix.
Sitting up, he roughly brushed away his tears with one dirty forearm, the first tendrils of excitement stirring low in his belly. He placed his hands flat on the deer’s side, directly over the wound, and closed his eyes.
His power bubbled up like a hard-shaken bottle of pop, effervescing through his veins, igniting his nerve endings and, finally, flowing out of his fingers into the deer. He was aware of the process on a cellular level, as if his energy was a river of white water, and he was rafting through it. He felt the connection as his power found each of the fawn’s nerves; the sizzle of life flaring in every cell of his own body and, by extension, into the deer’s.
On some dim level, he realized that life was fluid, and death only a dam thrown up at a bend in the river, funneling the life force into a different channel. Breaking through the dam allowed the water to return to its original path.
Only when he felt movement under his fingers did he open his eyes again, just in time to see the fawn take a second breath. Another moment and several more breaths followed, and then the fawn struggled to its feet. It walked unsteadily into the forest in search of its mother, seemingly unaffected by the attack. From what Winter could see, there were streaks of blood on the fawn’s dappled hide, but no discernible wounds.
He might have believed it to be only a daydream were it not for the blood coloring the palms of his hands.
What had he done? Was it true what they said about him? Was he the devil’s child?
He didn’t feel evil. He felt lonely, and always a little sad, although he was happy the fawn lived, and just the tiniest bit proud he’d been able to help it. That wasn’t evil, was it?
Winter sat back on his heels again, shaking with fatigue, and more than a little fearful of his own power. His teeth worried his lower lip as he considered his discovery. He glanced around, suddenly afraid he was not alone, and was slightly relieved to see there was no one lurking in the bushes, spying on him.
Instinctively he knew no one in Balder Hollow must find out about what he’d done. If they did, it would only make things worse on him. If they thought him a demon now, then to the villagers, him having the power to bring back the dead would surely have them thinking Winter was Satan incarnate.
The only one he could tell was Grammy. She would understand. Grammy always said he had the Gift, although like him up until a short while ago, she’d thought it meant simply a gift for healing. This newfound power was something else entirely. To wield such power was both exciting, and terrifying.
Tell Grammy. She’ll know what to do.
Holding tight to that belief, he ran off on shaky legs in the direction of the village.