The cold winter wind whipped at her face and stung her cheeks. She leaned into it, daring it to freeze her more. The pain in her face still did not compare to the pain in her soul.
“Megan?” Laera called in a soft voice. “You shouldn’t be out here without a warm coat or cloak.”
“My soul is colder than this wind will ever be,” she whispered.
“Please, Megan, come inside. I will be blamed if you should die out here.”
“All right, Laera,” Megan sighed. “For your sake, and May’s, I’ll come inside.” The thought of May and Spirit’s Haven almost brought tears to her eyes, but winter had already stolen all of them with its icy touch.
May had sent her to Hawksbridge, accompanied by Laera, in the hopes that being away from Dargon, Spirit’s Haven, and memories of him would ease the pain in her soul. Laera was May’s daughter and being young, she enjoyed the travelling, no matter how cold it got. This was Laera’s first trip outside of Dargon. They had stopped at an inn to wait out the blizzard before continuing on their journey.
Dargon had been the place where Megan’s curse had finally ended. She had been paralyzed from conscious movements. Throughout the long duration of the curse, he had provided for her. He had protected her, and in the end, he had willingly placed his life in danger to save her. Spirit’s Haven had been the inn owned by May where she had recovered from the curse.
Now she was travelling without him to Hawksbridge and to her family. Raphael was no longer by her side.
Megan walked back inside to where the fire crackled and spat embers. Red-orange flames danced and flickered. The shift in temperature stung her skin, but she stayed in front of the fire. It blazed and burned as it tried to engulf her, though she was out of reach of its grasp. Paying no heed to the fire, she thought of Raphael — of all that he had done for her. Small round tears formed in the corner of her eyes as she tried to stifle a cry.
“You shouldn’t stand that close to the fire, Megan,” Laera said. “I brought you a bowl of soup and some bread. The bread is a bit hard, but if you dunk it in the soup, you won’t notice it.”
Megan only partially heard Laera; she was still thinking of him. At night, he would cover her with a blanket and then crawl under it to settle in beside her. He would always take a little while to get situated next to her. Throughout her curse, she never could tell him how warm and loving he felt beside her. And when the curse was over … things were not the same.
She felt something brush her arm and looked down. A large black wolf stood next to her. It was staring at her with a puzzled look in its eyes. She was glad that she had brought Anam. He had a calming affect on her that she did not understand.
“I am alright, Anam,” she said. “I was just remembering him.” Anam licked her arm. She felt his wet tongue scrape her skin. She lifted her hand and scratched behind his ear. “I miss him.”
“What was that?” Laera asked.
“Nothing Laera. Is my soup hot?”
“No, it was just warm when I brought it,” Laera replied. “I could heat it up for you.”
“No. It will be fine.” She turned away from the fire and walked over to the table. The inn was fairly nice. There weren’t many holes in the walls, most of the tables were solid, and the smoke from the fireplace went out the chimney rather than gathering in the room. The food wasn’t as good as the food at Spirit’s Haven, but few places could boast that. A blizzard had forced her to stay there longer than planned. Although the blizzard had blown past a day ago, her escort had wanted to wait and make sure it was fully gone. She sat down at the table and started eating her soup.
“Your wolf brought back the deer that’s in your stew,” Laera told her. “Just after the blizzard ended, he went out and returned dragging a deer. I was helping fix dinner. We didn’t tell anyone about it ’cause you know how people get. They wouldn’t want to eat something a wolf dragged in. But they’ll eat something a man’s dragged in just fine. It’s the same if you ask me. With that one, at least.” She pointed to Anam. “He didn’t chew on that deer or maul it in any way. Just dragged it back here.
“The cook heard a scratching on the back door and when he opened it, there was your wolf with the deer.” Laera giggled before continuing her explanation. “He said he nearly went in his pants seeing that wolf at the door. It was funny the way he said that. His voice was a bit higher than normal and he checked himself to make sure that he didn’t go in his pants,” Laera laughed. “Then he recognized it was yours as it trotted away. He said he never turns down free meals, so he butchered the deer right then and there. He said to thank your wolf for the meal.”
Megan turned and looked at Anam. He was stretched out on his side on the floor with his eyes closed. “You’re just like him, you know that?” she whispered. “Always watching out for me. Did he teach you that?” Anam didn’t acknowledge that he had heard her voice. She knew he wasn’t asleep; he was just resting there because there was nothing else for him to do.
“He’s beautiful,” Laera said. “Do you think he’d let me pet him?”
“I don’t know,” Megan answered. “He doesn’t take to too many people.”
“I won’t try then. I’m too scared he’d bite my hand off. He’s so … oh, I don’t know … majestic, I guess. Where’d you get him, Megan?”
“He was just there one day when I woke up,” Megan replied. She didn’t really lie to Laera, but she couldn’t tell her about Raphael … how he had found the pup in the woods when he was searching for something to break her curse. It was the only one left alive out of the litter; even the mother was dead. He took the pup with him and when the curse was finally lifted, Megan woke to Anam licking her face.
“Just there? Where?” Laera asked, curiosity almost blinding her to the expression on Megan’s face. “Oh, Megan,” Laera blurted when she saw the painful look. “I didn’t mean to pry. Really. I get so curious about things, I keep asking questions.”
“It’s okay,” Megan replied, wiping the almost fully formed tears from her eyes. “I’ll let you know when you’re prying.” Wanting to turn the girl’s attention elsewhere, she forced a small smile on her face. “Now, tell me what you’ve heard about Hawksbridge. What’s it like?”
“Oh! It sounds so grand! I’m told it’s …” Laera began, but Megan’s mind wasn’t on Hawksbridge; it was on Raphael.
“I *said* I can’t move them!” Raphael yelled, his voice strong and hard.
He was stretched out on the bed, his hands curled into fists at his side.
“Try,” Megan pleaded. She was kneeling beside the bed, hands on the edge, wanting to hold him.
“I *have* been! Do you think I like lying here like this?”
“What if I help move –”
“*No*! It won’t matter! It won’t work! I can’t move my legs and I never will!” he yelled at her. His fists pounded the bed in short strong hits.
“Don’t yell at me,” Megan told him, her voice rising a bit. “I didn’t do it!” Raphael turned his face away from her and stared at the wall. “I didn’t cause this to happen!” she said, emphasizing the point again.
“I can’t move my legs and that’s all that matters,” Raphael replied.
“*No* it isn’t!” Megan said, her voice getting louder. “Why can’t you see that? *We* matter.”
“And what will *we* do now that I can’t move?” Raphael asked, snapping his head around to look at her.
“I’ve been working downstairs,” Megan said. “May needs the help.”
“And I’ve been on this bed all day. Useless.”
“No, love,” Megan said, taking hold of his hand. “Never useless.”
“What can I do?” Raphael snapped, pulling his hand out of hers. “I can’t walk, I can’t move my legs at all, I can’t work … What am I to do?”
“You don’t know,” Raphael finished for her. “Useless.”
“Try to move your legs. Please.”
“I *have* been trying!” Raphael shouted. “I try every day that you’re working. They don’t move. I try so hard, I get soaked in sweat. They don’t move. I try so hard, I pass out from exhaustion. And they *still* don’t move.”
“You don’t have to shout at me!” Megan replied, angrily. “I’m trying to help!”
“We’ve been to healers and mages and priests! Nothing has worked so far; why do you think you can?”
“Quit! Quit shouting at me and quit being angry at me!” She got up and started for the door.
“Go then. I can’t follow you!” Raphael said to her back. Megan stopped and turned around, her hand on the door latch.
“You won’t make me feel guilty! You *won’t*! I didn’t do this, that twisted mage did! If you want me, come downstairs and get me.” She opened the door, walked out, and slammed it shut. She didn’t leave him, though. Instead, she went downstairs and found May. She needed someone to talk to because Raphael only made her angry.
She had told May all about what had happened. How Loth had been an evil mage and how he had twisted a spell and had caused her to fall under the curse. She had not been able to move consciously, but she had been able to see and think on her own. Raphael had taken care of her in that state for a long time, all the while searching for a cure. With the help of his childhood friend, he had found the cure and that cure had been killing Loth. The price of the cure had been paralyzation. Loth had paralyzed Raphael before he died.
She had been freed from the curse, but Raphael had taken on another. He couldn’t move his legs and for him that was the same as death. She understood what it had done to him. He was used to travelling, used to caring for her, used to being able to defend himself and her, and he couldn’t do any of those things.
No, she hadn’t left him that time, but things had grown worse and eventually May had arranged for her to travel back to her family. May said she needed some time away. May also said she’d take care of Raphael.
“Megan?” Laera asked, bringing her back to the present.
“Yes?” she answered.
“Were you listening to me?”
“I’m sorry, Laera. My thoughts drifted away.”
“You look sad.”
“No,” Megan replied, quickly. “I’m just tired. That’s all.”
“It has been a long day.”
“Yes, it has. I’ll see you in the morning, Laera.” She stood and started for her room. “Come Anam.” Anam lifted his head and looked at Megan. Her back was turned and she was starting to climb the stairs. Anam slowly got to his feet and then followed her.
Megan and Laera left with the others the next morning. The snow was piled high in places, but the road was manageable. Dark grey clouds hid the sun. It looked more like dusk than daybreak. Efram, the leader, wanted to make up the time that they had lost, so he pushed ahead, disregarding the gloomy sky. They didn’t travel far.
Anam was usually well away from the horses as he tended to make them skittish. Megan watched as he loped closer to her wagon. He was headed straight for her. The horses pulling the wagon behind her caught sight of him and started acting up. The wind must have carried his scent as the horses pulling her wagon jumped about, but the blinders kept them from spotting Anam. Someone called a halt and she jumped down. As she went over to Anam, the sky darkened. She looked up and saw black clouds headed their way. The trees in the distance swayed and bent from gusts of wind.
The blizzard came upon them suddenly. They were unprepared for the fierceness of the storm and it hammered its rage upon them. Everything went deathly white as the wind howled against them. Megan could hear someone shouting, but couldn’t make out the words. The blizzard hid all but Anam from her. He was right by her side. She didn’t know where to turn to find anyone. Anam started to move forward and she put her hands on his back and gripped his fur so that she wouldn’t lose him, too. The two of them inched forward. She didn’t know where Anam was going, but anywhere had to be better than just standing there.
The snow and wind assaulted Megan, causing her to stumble and fall several times. Anam would stop and wait for her to stand before moving on.
She was cold and her face stung. When she breathed in, it was like daggers filling her insides. She thought about trying to pull a scarf over her nose and mouth, but she didn’t think she could with gloves on and she didn’t want to lose track of Anam.
The blizzard hindered her sight and all she saw was white as she nearly collided with a tree. She hoped Anam knew where he was going. She tried to lift her feet to push through the snow, but stumbled and fell again. Anam stopped to wait for her. The cold was seeping into her and she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to continue on for much longer. She moaned from the aching inside her as she stood to continue onward.
And then, the white was gone. She stumbled and nearly fell as the snow disappeared from around her legs and she thought she had gone blind because it was now dark. Turning around, she saw the white of the storm. She finally realized that they had entered a cave. Anam moved on ahead. Megan followed; she didn’t want to lose him in a cave either. She also didn’t want to be left alone.
“Anam, wait,” she said after taking a few steps. “I can’t see.” When Anam stopped, she took off her cloak so that she could get to the straps on her pack. “I hope the others find shelter, too,” she muttered as she took the pack off and opened it in search of her flint. After finding it, she searched for the dry kindling she carried. Her escort had made her pack it. They had traveled in harsh winters before and knew that dry kindling sometimes made the difference between life and death. She was glad they had helped her pack. Her fingers twitched and shook as she started to build a fire.
Using a strip of her scarf and some kindling, she struck the flint and watched it spark. Each spark built hope inside her. If she could get a fire going, she knew she would survive. Another spark and the strip caught on fire. Breathing a sigh of relief, she built a small fire which gave off enough light to see a little deeper into the cave.
“It seems as if someone is smiling upon us, Anam,” she said when she saw the scattered remnants of dried grass and sticks. Gathering the sticks, she built a slightly larger fire and warmed herself at it. “I don’t know what used this cave as a home, but I am glad it brought in what it did.”
She huddled next to the fire. Anam paced around her, sniffing the cave.
“Don’t tell me that whatever makes this cave its home is still here?” Anam made his way back into the shadows. “If you’re going back there, let me at least make a torch so that we can see.”
“Anam, wait,” she called, afraid to lose her only companion. She wasn’t afraid of the cave. If there was any danger in here, Anam would have sensed it. He stopped and turned to look at her. She wrapped a strip of scarf around a branch and lit it. “It won’t last long, so I hope this cave isn’t very big. Let’s go.”
Anam led the way down a small passage in the cave. Although it was high enough that she didn’t have to stoop, there were places where she had to scrape through, and the winter clothing didn’t help.
At one narrow passage, she lowered the torch as she squeezed through. Looking ahead, she saw a light. It was a soft green glow that lit the passage in front of her. Anam was sniffing and walking toward the light, and she hurried to catch up with him.
The narrow passage opened up into a round chamber. Covering the walls was glowing lichen. It gave off a soft green light that lit the whole chamber. She stepped into the circular room and looked around. The floor was covered with dirt and there was a glimmer of something in the middle of the floor.
Moving over to it, she knelt and brushed away the dirt. It was shaped like a rectangle, and the more she uncovered, the more it reflected the green light. After removing most of the dirt, she blew onto the square object to clear away the dust. Staring down at the object, she saw her reflection staring back. It was a mirror.
She looked at her red face and grimaced. The wind and snow had cold-burned her. Reaching down to pull the mirror out of the ground, she felt a tug. Something was pulling her down to the ground — no, to the mirror. She fought back. The mirror was sucking her into it and fear flared throughout her. It was magic and it was taking her! Her fear of being cursed again blazed through her, giving her added strength to try to pull away. She raged and shook, her long red hair whipping about her face.
Her strength receded slowly and she found herself falling into the mirror — into another curse.