The gusts of snow drove unremittingly across the land, sweeping away all signs of life.
Not even the mountains that towered over the valley like hardened guards cast a shadow into the pure, blinding white of the blizzard's wrath.
The storm was centered over the valley as if God had sensed the impurities ingrained into that very earth and was wiping it out to begin anew with the tears of the sentinel angels that
had long stood watching as the corruption crept forth.
Through the storm trudged one solitary man who had avoided the hand of God, a huddled gray mass that pushed determinedly against the punishing blows of the howling wind and biting cold.
He had been on his way to Galway, Ireland, just north of Kerry, and had settled on taking a shortcut through the Carrantoohil Mountains rather than attempting the long,
grueling trip around them. He gritted his chattering teeth as he wondered if that choice would be his death.
If he had made a mistake by yielding to the persuasive, yet apparently injudicious, desire to sooner end his journey rather than do as common sense demanded and follow the beaten path.
No, in the end he didn't need to wonder, as he already knew the answer. He was trapped in a hellhole with seemingly no way out except one, the route all mortals take in the end.
His one and only consolation now was barely a reality in his mind, more a glimpse,
a flash that had come and gone so quickly it was as if he were asleep and it had all been a part of a dream.
But the hope that he had not been hallucinating was all he had to desperately cling to. And oh, what a fragile hope it was and how desperately he clung.
Before he had breached the trees of the valley, before the gentle, almost calming snowfall had turned into a full tempest with winds that seemed to want to rip the very soul from his body,
he had thought he had glimpsed a light off in the distance through a gap in the trees.
The sight was gone as quickly as he'd seen it and had never returned, and he told himself then he'd imagined it.
But now, with shelter being his only hope for survival,
he vigorously rubbed his arms to contain the last dredges of warmth the freeze had yet to drive from him and trudged ever onward through the mounting piles of snow,
telling himself all the while that safety was ahead.
He almost wanted to give up. In this storm even if there was a shelter up ahead and even if it was close enough to reach he could not know if he was heading towards it.
The blizzard that drove relentlessly at him was so thick he could not see his hand when he held it aloft. He could be walking in circles and have no way of knowing.
But he had come this far from the battle of the Diamonds, and he would not surrender to the product of heaven's wrath yet.
He had deserted the army for his baby. His pregnant wife was due and, with impossible odds and no morale left in the army he fought for, he knew he would not survive another battle.
He had refused in that moment when death and newfound life loomed upon him on divided sides of one path, in the form of orders and a babe, to die.
He had chosen his way and it was one shielded by old weeping willows sending their tears and piercing shadows down onto him, filling him with their mournful mark.
Yes, it was a path cast with shame, but it was now his to stick to, and it was far more lively than the dead shambles that lined the road at the other end.
He had decided the army that forcibly enlisted him could go join the devil- he would not let his child enter the world fatherless.
His child is what had brought him to the valley and what compelled him onwards even then when he wanted to relent to the fury of the storm.
By what he believed a miracle, he arrived at what he saw was a grand castle.
Not even the storm could hide the heaven-reaching towers and massive parapets that forced their mark of black into its raging reaches.
He rushed at the castle, his frost-bitten lips opening to issue a parched cry of relief.
Pushing through the snow that now came to above his knees, he managed to reach the huge wooden doors that stood like the most lovely song of heaven before him.
He painstakingly struggled to open the heavy barriers, his strength all but leached from his body.
The doors were unrelenting in the face of his feeble shoves and refused him the shelter beyond.
He knew nobody would hear his knocks above the overwhelming howl of the wind, which had filled his head with a persistent scream since it had first begun.
Desperate, he began walking along the castle searching for a window.
Reaching one, he lifted his pack that had been strapped securely to his front and used his remaining strength to launch through the stain glass in front of him.
The glass shattered, tinkling down like stardust onto the earth, tiny pieces of cool yet somehow hellish fire mixing bitterly with the tears of the angels.
He clambered into the safe and warm confines of the castle with unconstrained relief and collapsed onto the floor a hopeless mess, yet, for the first time that day, comforted.
Arms outstretched, he lay among the shattered glass, breathing heavily with eyes closed.
He knew he needed to rise and find a place to hide, but for the moment, at least, he wanted nothing but to rest. He could only hope nobody found the shattered window for a while to come.
His hopes were found to be in vain.
A croaking voice, which sounded to him like the chorus of heaven itself after the endless shrieking of the wind, met his ears. He had never been more relieved, nor more terrified.
"We've been waiting for you."
He was filled with adrenaline at the sound. His eyes flew open as he jolted upright and whipped his head from side to side.
His eyes darted around the room in search of the source of the voice. He did not have to look far.
"Follow me. Leave your pack," the woman who stood before him commanded with the same creaky tone before he could say anything.
He was taken aback when he saw she had been right in front of him- he had never heard her approach,
and he was certain there was nobody there when he had lunged through the window moments before.
Could he have fallen asleep without realizing it? But then why would she say that they had been expecting him?
He stared soundlessly at the woman as he sat motionless on the floor.
He was completely clueless about everything- how she was standing before him, what she meant by her cryptic statement- but he was most staggered by the sight of her.
The vision before him could not have been older than twenty-five, yet her voice had led him to the conclusion she was archaic.
He had presumed he would be met with salt and cracks sinking into a hardened surface, the very image of time itself.
Just like earth exposed too long to the sun, he had expected all vitality to be drained, leaving nothing except for a barren foundation as a shadow of what once was.
Yet he was met with the image of a darkened beauty- her skin glowed with the unrestrained privilege of youth,
her hair was a glossy black that would not see the regrettable touch of gray for many years to come,
and inside of her was a fire so strong that the man was certain it was the heat of it that warmed the very room he lay in.
She suffered none from her darkness, for she seemed to shine into the dark interior of the parlor he had landed in, only glowing brighter as her surroundings dimmed.
As he sat stunned on the floor, taking all of her in, the darkened beauty he had been appraising was walking slowly away.
She tread lightly over the cushioned rug that he had landed on, almost as though her feet never touched it at all.
"You may follow me into the unknown or embrace the early death you only just avoided by entering the throes of this furious blizzard once more,
" she issued the ultimatum with no inflection to reveal any hint of emotion, as if offering him his death were as casual a thing as sipping tea.
He remained sitting, still terrified of what would happen.
He had broken the window of the castle- whatever the lord's intent was, it could not be pleasant, and he was neither ready to die by the blizzard, be punished at the Lord's hand,
nor to be sent back off into the war he had narrowly escaped from.
"Choose," she commanded with just as steady a tone as she had said everything else.
That last command was all he needed. Rising, he followed her, somewhat pacified. He was a soldier, after all. If need arose, he could kill her and any other nuisances.