Autumn’s Offer [Flash Fiction]
Nestling down into the pile of leaves clustered at the base of the tree, Lars folded his arms to tuck chilled fingers into warm pits. He turned his face toward the waning sun and enjoyed the warmth of the dying rays caressing his skin. It wouldn’t be long before the sun failed to chase away the frost entirely, and he was looking forward to long days spent in front of the fire.
Nearby, one of the flock bleated plaintively. Lars glanced over them and, content that the animals weren’t wandering too far, closed his eyes to doze in the remnants of autumn.
Images filled his mind, images of falling leaves and herds of migrating reindeer, of frost patterns on glass and flights of geese in their sloppy V-shapes. A song filled his mind, something strange but familiar, as quiet as a whisper, growing louder as its source neared.
Something brushed against his face. He bolted upright, his hat falling off, heart pounding a staccato in his chest. The ‘something’ was a leaf, crisp and orange, that the tree against which he slept had given up.
“Your coat is lovely and soft,” said a feminine voice. “Does it keep you warm and safe from my sister’s clutches?”
Lars reached for his crook as he leapt to his feet. Wolves and wildcats were the usual culprits when sheep went missing, but the occasional human thief was more of a nuisance than the wild animals.
He didn’t see the woman, at first. His eyes seemed to skip over her, so that it was only when she moved that he truly saw her. Crouched beside one of the sheep, she was stroking the animal’s woolen coat, and when she saw him staring, she smiled and stood.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said. Her voice, soft but crisp, reminded him of the wind sighing through the wilting trees. “I was just passing through.”
“Who are you?” He kept his grasp firm on the crook, let his gaze dart from side to side. Last year, over on Gunther’s pasture, a pretty maiden had distracted the shepherd while a thief snuck up behind and knocked him clean out. When he woke up, every single sheep was gone. Lars was not going to fall victim to the same fate as his friend.
“Like I said, just passing through.”
It wasn’t until he glanced down to her feet that he realised how outlandishly she was dressed. Her long auburn hair was braided in a crown around her head, whilst her dress wasn’t only the colour of the fallen leaves, it actually seemed to be made from them! A pauper, clearly; she went barefoot, without even a slipper to cover her surprisingly clean feet. Her perfume shifted with the changing breeze, at one moment damp and loamy, like the rotting of mulch, and then heady and spiced, like warm pumpkin soup. And her eyes… her eyes were the deep gold of ripe corn, rich and pure, framed by lashes flickering coyly as she watched him watching her.
“Few ever see me,” she said. “You must have a Gift. There is much I could teach you, if you weren’t tethered to the world like the sheep you watch over.”
“Who… what…” Lars licked his lips. Glanced down at the crook, which now seemed such a feeble weapon. This was foolish. He was foolish. She was just some peasant-girl. Just a girl.
The smile that curled her lips was mischievous. Had she read his mind, or simply finished his sentence? The latter, of course. A man’s thoughts were his own. Still, the way that she looked at him, and the way he felt standing before her… naked, yet safe. Exposed, yet protected. He knew, somehow, that as long as she stayed, he would come to no harm.
Her gaze turned West, towards the distant sea. On bare feet she stepped silently through the flock, her attention already focused elsewhere. Lars reached out to touch her shoulder, then quickly thought better of it.
“Do you have to go?” he asked. “Can’t you stay a while longer?”
She shook her head to the sound of birds in flight and the scent of apple scrumpy. “My sister is coming. Wherever I go, she chases me. Her birth is my death, and to stay would be the death of me forever. No, I have to stay one step ahead. Always one step ahead.” From the corner of her eye, she glanced at him. “When you’re ready to learn, come and find me.”
“Where will I find you?” he asked in desperation as her feet carried her ever forward.
But it was too late; she was gone.
Lars opened his eyes and shook his head, ridding his mind of the remnants of his strange dream. The light was fading, the red sun sinking swiftly behind the mountains. Soon it would be dark. Time to go home.
He stood, extracting himself from the pile of leaves that covered every inch of him entirely to his chin. How—?!
The tree had shed all of its leaves while he’d been asleep. They covered him in a blanket, warming him against winter’s crisp chill that was creeping into the air. Nearby, the sheep were silent, and when he realised they were all standing facing the direction that the strange woman had taken, he couldn’t help but shiver.