The leaves and grass were a vibrant, fresh spring green despite it being the Winter Solstice. Outside the grove, the fields were covered in snow and the trees already long retreated into hibernation. The air inside was warm also. Gaelin wore simple clothes as he had little else. No coin in his pocket or food in his stomach. The cold gently left him, but his feet remained numb as he forced his legs forward. Each step an uncertainty. He did not feel the grass against his bare feet.
Before him was the alter. He had wandered for weeks, unsure of what he sought, until he saw the grey stones and the large willow tree. There were rumors of this place. Folktales told in taverns and inns and even then mainly by master storytellers or drunks seeking attention. But sometimes, rarely, a story is told by a frightened child. These stories add to the tales and are also dismissed as such. Gaelin knew otherwise. Whenever such a story was told, there was often something new. He experienced such a rarity the day before he began his search. It was during the description of the creature when Gaelin noticed the truth hidden in the large, fearful eyes of the child. The young boy had seen something inexplicable, and no one paid it any mind.
Gaelin had taken the child aside and calmed him. The child welcomed his interest and comfort despite the fact he was a stranger. More than anything, he was glad to be taken seriously instead of laughed at. The child gave him a detailed description. Legs like that of a horse, bare torso of a man, face also of a man except for wolf’s teeth and antlers like a stag. And the eyes. It had the eyes of a demon. They changed constantly from blue to green to yellow then red. Pulsing, flickering like fire. The creature spoke in a language the child hadn’t understood. Gaelin comforted the child with hot cider and left him by the hearth. That was the last time he remembered being warm.
The numbness was fading gradually. Some feeling returned to his calves as he climbed the stone stair toward the willow tree. If it had been Spring, the grove would have been lost within the forest. Against the dead of Winter, it was a beacon at the end of a maze. He ascended onto the large stone before the willow. The air was charged but nothing stirred. No animal, no noise, nothing but his own quiet breath until he muttered, “God of the green, Lord of the forest, I offer you my sacrifice, and I ask you for your blessing.”
Silence. He breathed quietly and waited. The air began to move and a breeze softly brushed against him. The willow leaves reached out like vines and curled around his limbs and torso. They were warm also. He was lifted from the stone and pulled in slowly. He fought the fear that threatened to overwhelm him. Then he was lost in the darkness of the tree. He could hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing. The grove was silent and still once again.
Three days passed without a sound until the willow opened its veil. Its vines floated down to the grey stone and retreated just as slowly. Gaelin stood. A loud clack echoed through the winter air. He opened his eyes and saw the grove in every season. His eyes flickering from red to blue to green then yellow. His smile revealed wolf’s teeth. He had finally found what he was searching for. He would now live among the forests for the rest of time.