Gregory peered cautiously from the hollow in which he had hidden himself. The form was obscured by his shielding of brambles, but it was certainly the woman. Even with an incomplete view, her beauty made an impression. It was like the sun sparkling on fresh snow. Only, there was no sun this winter.
It had been a rough winter, marked by dark mornings, cold nights, and an empty belly. That this woman dressed in white and looking like a vision should appear in the woods—it was some kind of magic. Perhaps it was ill magic. Gregory was willing to risk it. It had been a rough winter. Magic could grant wishes, and he had plenty of wants.
He followed the slender figure with his eyes, waiting until she was at her nearest point. Her hair fell past her waist in a shimmering sheen of white. She moved among the barren trees in a hesitant, almost timid, manner, touching the trunks as if hearing something from within, lifting her face to the heavy clouds to listen. Her eyes were filled with curiosity and something like pensive joy. Such innocence, Gregory thought. That was beauty enough in these times.
Suddenly, he stood and addressed her. His voice seemed too loud in the stillness of the forest. She stared, frozen in place, her wide eyes swallowing the rest of what he meant to say.
“I—”She turned and ran, moving so fast she seemed a deer leaping through the drifts of snow. He hurtled himself forward, his battered boots trampling through the virgin snow in pursuit. She seemed to leave no trail, her small feet dancing on the crust of the snow. He nearly lost her in that first moment, but he was fast and his eyes were sharp. He caught her receding figure and followed.
His pace turned to a sliding stumble as the ground dropped sharply beneath him. With large, unsteady leaps he dodged around the trees as he descended, using the smaller trunks to change direction and to keep him from tumbling headfirst down the slope. He skidded to the bottom; she hesitated at the bank of a wide, shallow river. She glanced over her shoulder at him. Her gaze beckoned him—or so he imagined—before she shook herself and began skipping across upon rocks.
Peter felt a sudden stab of scorn. He needed to catch his breath, but he pressed forward. He splashed through the swift current, not trusting himself with her more graceful path. The cold clawed into his feet and scrambled up his legs.
Up the other bank he went, heaving as he tromped through the thick snow. Sweat soaked his shirt. His feet burned with frost. At the top, the land fell away into a small depression deep with drifts. He shouldered his way through waist-deep piles as the wind threw fine particles of ice into his face. Blinking, his face stinging, he glimpsed the disappearing trail of her white hair. He stumbled onto his hands and knees, got up, and pressed on.
Dropping again, the land spread into a wide, flat expanse. She was already halfway across.
He stripped off his bulky coat and forced his throbbing legs forward. If he did not catch her now, he knew he never would.
She hovered in the near distance, drawing closer. He wanted to call out to her but had no breath.
She reached the other side just before he did and threatened to disappear beyond the trees. He flung himself forward and grabbed ahold of a bit of her gown. She fell with him. She kicked and struggled, and he took several hits to the belly and face, but he held her close and forced her still. She was blazing heat in his arms. She was like the sun, warming his limbs.
They breathed together in the quiet of the snow-laden field.
“What will you give me?” he managed. “I caught you. What will you give me?”
“Give you? I have nothing to give.” Her voice was low and verdant.
“Am I under a curse, then? What will you do to me? If not a reward, what?”
She laughed. “A curse? It is you who have freed me. I was forced to wander, to run…until caught. You have freed me.”
He released her and sat up, sullen. “I’m glad.” He tried to mean it, but he was exhausted and still empty-handed. He could lose some toes if he wasn’t careful. He wanted to hold her again, to stay warm, but it wasn’t proper. He would stand in a moment. “Where will you do now, then?”
She stood, looking away from him. The cold did not seem to touch her at all. “I don’t know. It’s been years. All my family is dead.” She hesitated. “There is something I can give you. If you want it.”
“And what’s that? Cough and a fever?”
She turned to him, uncertain.
Dark mornings, cold nights, and an empty belly…it wouldn’t be so bad with another near. “Yes, I think I’d like that. Help me up, will you?”
Her hand flooded him with warmth.