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The Time Between Times

Short story By: Caitlin Dunley
Fantasy



The ancient Celts had a name for the elusive, watery hours, after moonset but before sunrise, when the world is cool and fresh and furtive. They called it the time-between-times, neither night nor day, and they believed that it held special powers. During this time more than any other, our world draws close to the Otherworld, and wonders may happen in the overlap. A long short-story,following a teenage girl from Wales who is drawn into the countryside during the time-between-times.

(Side note: the picture is one I took of the Welsh countryside near Anglesey, the setting of this story.)


Submitted:Aug 12, 2008    Reads: 95    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


The Time Between Times
The ancient Celts had a name for the elusive, watery hours, after moonset but before sunrise, when the world is cool and fresh and furtive. They called it the time-between-times, neither night nor day, and they believed that it held special powers. During this time more than any other, our world draws close to the Otherworld, and wonders may happen in the overlap.
***
Carys Pritchard was a morning person… but not in the traditional sense. Whenever possible, she liked to stay awake all through the night-gaining a respite from the crowd and noise that was her large family-and step outside, to walk the countryside of Anglesey, north Wales before dawn.
When she was very young, she discovered that if she made it the whole night, she could see the colors of the sky and the strange quality the light would take early in the morning, when the sun had not yet arrived and it looked like the sky itself was diffusing a watery blue glow, and she grew to be very fond of it. As a teenager, she discovered the phrase "time-between-times" in a book, and instantly knew what she had been experiencing.
She began to sit up during school holidays and on weekends, distracting herself with books or music until just before dawn, and then slipping out of the front door, where the wet, chilly air would hit her like a washcloth. The colder the season, though, the more she would pull it deep into her lungs, trying to rapidly adjust as if cannonballing into cold water. Before long she would feel alive and fully awake, and wander through the familiar hills and thickets around her home, wondering playfully if she would meet a brownie, or, even better, a graceful elf. During these times, she felt exceptionally close to her homeland… the mystic, wizened, strange and beautiful place that Wales was when she called the land Cymru, its ancient name, back to itself.
But then, always, the mist would fade, the light would come in proper and turn a resented yellow, and she would go inside, now just a sleepy girl with wet ankles. The enchanted dawn became only morning, time to be active and tackle a to-do list, and a wave of fatigue would engulf her at the prospect of another fifteen hours without sleep. The sun would always came up, and the fields would be only her family's land again, familiar as Mam's voice and only unpleasant in comparison with their secret, pre-dawn selves. And then, after the dawn had faded a few more times, it would be time to return to school, and she never even considered waking up while it was still dark just to take a walk. Carys always slipped back into her schooldays, filled with classes, gossip, football practice, choir, church, dances, college applications, and watching her little brothers and sister. She enjoyed her life, but it was different than the dewy, magical summer and Christmas mornings that belonged just to her and her land. So, near the end of the summer before Upper Sixth, her final year in secondary school, she prepared herself to stow away the memories of those special days and move on, falling into a normal, comfortable, busy school routine. For a few months, she did.
Then she started bursting into wakefulness every day at four am.
***
The first few mornings this happened, she would only give a little sigh of annoyance and try to go back to sleep. But she was only able to lie there, drowsy yet unable to lose consciousness. She saw the blue light outside her window and thought about going out to swim in it, leaving her little envelope of sheets and sleep, but told herself that was silly. It wasn't that time, she wasn't that person right now; she had to go to school and couldn't be bothered. Anyway, what did she expect to find if she did go out? "Elves and fairies in a ring?"
But on the fourth day that she found herself awake, staring at a glowing green four-zero-three minding its business on wall opposite her bed, she decided to get up. It was now November, and the realization that she would soon be leaving her home for good was beginning to dawn on her-she was in her last year of school, about to move to her father's college town, and who knows if she would ever get the chance for such nice country walks again? So she got up, put on a pair of Wellingtons, and slipped out her door and down the stairs, but after stepping out, shyness kept her standing on the porch steps. Enjoying the light and the thick-hanging air, she looked around her, around the house she was born in.
To Carys' left was the worn-in path of tires that lead to the road and her bus stop, but directly in her view, in front of the house and past the short, tidy garden, were acres of Wales' famous rolling hills, divided by clusters and ridges of tall trees and scrubby bushes. The flora of Wales was prolific but patchy; there were few true forests, but many small bunches of a dozen or so tall pines and oaks, huddled together in groups like families or fighters. Between the clusters were a few flat plains, dramatic hills, gorse, and, more often than not, somebody's wandering sheep. Carys realized that she longed to go into the familiar patchwork of hillocks and valleys, plunging through the mist into certain adventure (for how could the world not hold spectacular promise at this hour?), so she made for a favorite tree in a thicket visible from her front door. She heard a bird chirp, and smiled to herself at the thought that nobody else, besides the animals and her, knew that he had trilled just then and just there. Carys strolled across a field, glad for the Wellingtons, and entered the glade where her tree stood. She looked from side to side, enjoying the glow that made everything, even her own skin, seem just a little bit different-like the earth was winking at her, hinting at fantastic secrets that tingled just below the surface of everything she knew.
No particular plan in mind, she put her hand on the trunk of the enormous pine, a gentle giant with low, regular branches that encircled his trunk like stairs. She whispered the Welsh word for "tree" and swung herself up. Steadily she climbed, concentrating on balance and grip and finding the next place to put her hand or foot, until she stopped noticing the cold and the light. Soon she was almost at the very top of the tree; carefully, she held on to a thin young branch by its base and pulled herself up into a crouching position to fit between the willowy, close arms of the pine. Then she had space to stand, hugging its trunk, at the moment that a strong gust of wind bent the top of the tree and lifted both Carys' hair and a cry of surprise from her throat. But her judgment had been good and she stood steadily as the sudden but long wind continued, like the embrace of a relative that had been awaiting her. She gripped the tree with one arm, feeling the muscles in her firmly planted legs and her jubilant heart, and looked out over the valley, still in the grip of the cold passion of that wind. She could see her house, she could see a family of rabbits in the next field, she could see the moon, transparent, moist, and as thin as a communion wafer.
"Diolch yn fawr… thank you," she whispered to the sky, as the time-between-times faded away.
Far in the distance, heard but not seen by Carys, a magnificent stag bellowed. A formation of geese cut through the air, and a jogger pounded down the street, the only other human awake for miles.
***
Carys was late coming in to breakfast that morning, but was cheerful. No porridge had ever, or would ever, be as good and hot and sustaining as the bowl that was waiting for her when she reached the kitchen.
"What on earth were you doing outside?" her mother asked over her shoulder, between giving the pot several quick stirs and pouring orange juice for a yawning son.
"I couldn't sleep, so… I took a walk."
For a few weeks, Carys continued to naturally rise just before the sun and go out walking, weekend and weekday, like clockwork. Just when she began to rely on it, however, her ability to wake up before dawn, her internal alarm clock, simply disappeared. So she started setting her actual alarm clock for the wee hours, which even her accepting parents thought was a little much. Her uncanny levels of energy throughout those days when she was surviving on four or five hours of sleep also left her, and she became short-tempered-although never in the mornings when she came in to breakfast. Her grades started to decline as well.
"I just don't see why you feel the need to wake up in the middle of the night and go wandering about out of doors in the cold! It's no small wonder your schoolwork is suffering!"
Carys and her mother had been arguing while Carys was doing her homework at the kitchen table. Unwisely, Carys had snapped at Mrs. Pritchard several times and Mrs. Pritchard, as was becoming her custom, had brought up her walks.
"It's just a hobby, Mum! Lots of people exercise in the mornings."
Mary Pritchard stopped wiping down the counter top. Her bright brown eyes locked on her daughter, and Carys shifted uncomfortably.
"But whythe sudden health kick? Where exactly do you go to every morning, Carys Morgan?"
"Mam!" Her proud daughter stared at her in insulted disbelief. Carys did not drink or smoke, or do anything worse, and rarely dated. This caused her to take any suspicion personally.
"What-why are you talking like that?"
Her mother put her hands on her hips, and said firmly but evenly.
"Your father and I never gave you permission to leave the house at the crack of dawn for no apparent reason."
"So I like to watch the sun rise! What do you find strange about that?" Carys realized how rude she was becoming and shifted gears, for tactical reasons, before her mother could speak.
"Mam, what if I quit football?"
"Wha-why would you give up football? You've played since you were a little girl!"
"Yeah, and I liked it, but now I have another programme I like more. And I'll be less tired-I'll have more time in the afternoons to do my work." Carys began talking very quickly. "My grades will pick up, I promise, and I can watch Colin and Petey longer. Os gwelwch yn dda, Mama? Please?"
Startled by her daughter's sudden and earnest devotion to sunrise jogging, and her willingness to abandon a hobby she had pursued for years, Mary Pritchard was silent for a moment. Carys' pleading expression did not change, so finally she said,
"Well… I'll discuss it with your father."
Carys bit back an annoyed response-it was her life, why did they need to 'discuss' whether she could leave a schoolgirl football team?-and nodded.
"Okay. Diolch yn fawr."
Mary got up for another cup of tea. Carys could not possibly understand that what was disagreeable to her mother was the idea of not understanding her child. In reality she trusted Carys very much; it was only her age that made her secrecy and her odd habit a bit unsettling. But Mary had two children older than Carys and she was learning how to let go. Anyway, could remember being something of a morning person, before her children were born.
As for Carys, she wasn't sure why she felt the need to be a bit defensive about her predawn ritual. Something she could not explain about the quiet air, the mist, and the subtle communion between her and her country felt private-not shameful, only private. Still, she was a little surprised by how quickly she decided to give up football. Although the choice made sense, it hadn't occurred to her more than a moment before she suggested it to her mother, and she wondered how much she would miss the camaraderie of her team and the excitement of the game. But she put that out of her mind-after what had happened that morning, she was more devoted than ever to coming out, faithfully, into the strange light of the time-between-times. Because since that morning, Carys was beginning-just approaching, without even admitting it to herself-to believe in magic.
***
The morning before she told her mother she would leave the football team, Carys had roused herself around five and bundled up in her thickest, most rustic sweaters. It was not uncommon for her to see snow settling down from the pearly sky these days. She slipped downstairs as usual and quietly let herself out into the frozen, silent yard.
This morning, her wanderings took her along a rock wall built before Carys' grandmother had learned to walk, and into a deep meadow where the Pritchards' neighbor sometimes pastured his scraggly cows. Carys liked this place; its high walls of loam and grass and its distance from the road made it quiet and private, and the woods in the center (a continuation of those sparse pines that grew in front of her own house) looked serene. Carys had never been down to the center of this valley before, so she made her way toward the bare branches in the deepest part of the natural basin. When she was near, she stopped to rest on a large boulder, her breath pooling in front of her face in sudden and short-lived clouds. She knew her cheeks were flushed, and the seemingly unremarkable thought brought forth an unexpectedly powerful emotion in Carys. Out here in the mists of Cymru, in the special time when she could see both the moon and the sun, the young woman could not help but feel that some of the country's beauty, its mysterious, graceful air should be diffusing into her. Surely her un-made-up face was pure and shining, and her hair, not yet brushed for the day, was a thick, cascading halo. She felt, almost with pain, the grace of her own movements and the piercing beauty of her expression when she turned her face to the sky. Then Carys felt vain and silly, and then she felt nothing, and then she felt vaguely lonely. Then something wonderful happened.
A small movement in the woods in front of her caught her eye, and, when Carys turned her head, she realized that she was looking at an enormous stag. Under his great crown of antlers, he looked placidly at Carys from several yards away.
"Oh!" Carys gasped. She had never seen a live stag, let alone on so huge-although she did not have the experience to put this into words, the animal measured nearly eighteen hands. He moved his head a little, pointing his nose to the sky. Carys was as struck by the creature's appearance as if she had seen a griffin or the famed Welsh dragon. What a strange creature-his branching horns seemed as thick and hard as rock but so weightless, reaching from his curly-haired head with a kind of weird grace. She was fascinated by the way they moved when he turned his head, a web of bone hovering over the majestic face.
Expecting the stag to bolt at any moment, Carys rose and started slowly making her way toward the flat bottom of the valley, where he stood. The animal held her gaze, not lowering his head to snuffle for grass or moss, not twitching an ear even once. Breathlessly, Carys advanced, one arm outstretched, pace carefully slow and regular. He was still looking at her, and every second he seemed larger. He was shaggy and strong, with a wonderful fringe trailing down his throat and joining a mane on the center of his powerful chest. Carys thought to make a soothing noise, so she began crooning the word that had been pounding in her brain since the second she saw him: "Carwcarw." This was the Welsh word for stag, familiar to her from coloring books and stories from forever ago.
"Carw!" she called in a light, even voice. Suddenly the stag lifted a hoof, and Carys thought that it was over-but she was wrong. The massive animal did not walk away, but began walking toward her… steadily, fearlessly, not exactly obediently. His movements were slow and controlled, almost regal. Stunned, Carys froze. Suddenly the big animal was a big animal, and he was coming toward her. Then he stopped. They watched each other for a moment, and the stag stamped a hoof-once, twice, three times, all the time staring at Carys. With a sense of surreality she began walking again and stopped at the leveling of the valley floor. He was just twenty or so steps from her, and still looking at her with a calm, almost eerie clarity. Carys thought wildly that she might be able to stroke that velvety nose. She was still watching the animal, still with her tingling arm outstretched, when the stag charged.
Carys barely had time to scream before he was upon her; she heard three, maybe four hoofbeats on the frozen ground-that was how close they were-after he charged, as suddenly as if he were spring-loaded. Carys closed her eyes, too startled to run, and heard a whoosh as if from a breeze, and then a light thud. She whipped around.
The stag had jumped clean over her, and was now cantering behind her, tossing his head and bellowing-a sound that seemed to almost mask quiet human laughter. How had he jumped over her, and from such a close distance? He would have had to go almost straight up into the air!
The stag made an arc that took him back in Carys' direction. Before she knew what she was doing, or wanted to do, she took step in his direction. But this time, the stag did not jump; rearing like a horse, he gave Carys one last glimpse of his powerful frame, his hugeness, and his alien crown, before running into the woods. He seemed to be going straight toward a tree, and seconds before he collided with it, Carys lost sight of him-he was simply gone. A gentle wind, under which soft, friendly laughter was barely discernable, brushed Carys' face as she stood there in the chilly valley.
***
For several mornings after that Carys went into her neighbor's valley, into that fold, in search of the stag. She went, without explicit permission from her parents, but without explicit forbiddance either. Without the physical toll of football practice, Carys' grades (and temper) did improve. Since Mrs. Pritchard congratulated her, Carys took that as permission and continued to look for the stag, faithfully, every morning. She did not see him in the valley, but one day she caught sight of his distinctive form on the crest of a far-off hill-still motionless, and still, judging by his position, looking at Carys. After that, she knew that the mysterious non-stag-he must be something more than that-did not stay in one place, and resumed her basically random wanderings.
She glimpsed the stag a few more times; he was easy enough to recognize as the largest creature around, even without his unnaturally attentive, sentient air. She never got as close to him as she had that first day, even though she wanted to very much… whenever she got close, he would run gracefully away, and vanish into the nearest thicket. But this mission of seeing the stag again came in and out of focus in her mind. As she walked, sometimes she took crumbs to feed the birds, occasionally, she brought a prayerbook or journal. Never did she sleep in-now Carys was again unable to sleep past four o'clock in the morning, so set was her habit.
A new problem presented itself, though, a weighty mist that clung to some of January's, February's and March's most beautiful mornings. Carys was finding new experiences everywhere, during the time-between-times when the world was different. She had been worried about growing bored outside, and losing the magic, but so far nearly every morning had found her in awe of the smells-the air so fresh she felt she could live on it instead of food and drink-the tingling difference and sameness of the earth. In fact, she was almost too much in awe: outside when no one else was, privy to the comings and goings of small things no other human around her could see, alive to the wildness and beauty of the spirit of her country, Carys felt fresh and wise and beautiful every morning... she hoped that she wasn't as vain as she sounded, but she couldn't help but feel that the dewy and dramatic beauty around her was inside her, too-in sweats and unbrushed hair, she felt beautiful; elfin, even. But there was nobody to appreciate this.
At the same time, she didn't think she wanted company. Sometimes a car would pass when she was by the road and she would be self-conscious. Or she would run into a jogger or milkman, and their small talk was always pleasant, but took her out of the spell of her druidic setting. So Carys felt sadness, but didn't understand it.
One Saturday morning, she came in with the sun behind her and went into the bathroom she shared with her sisters. She glared into the mirror, disappointed to see a blotchy face, stringy hair, flat breasts, and a hundred other things that weren't otherworldly or breathtaking, like she thought they should be. She went slowly into her room, walking past a sleeping sister with the stiffness of an old woman. She collapsed into bed, burying her face in a pillow-not the warm, breathing chest of the elf, bursting with life and mystery, that she felt she should have met by now. She must be sleepy-talking about meeting elves in Anglesey… a companion to see her beauty, or to make her beautiful. Someone she could thank for showing her everything….
Carys fell asleep that morning with frustrated, confused tears bathing her face.
***
Carys slept in for a few days after that morning she stood in front of the mirror, trying to connect the face she saw in the mirror with the person that she felt she was outside. But her eyes still opened of their own accord, an hour before the sun rose, and anyway she didn't feel like herself.
The first day she stepped out again, the first thing she saw through the watery haze of cold light and mist was the stag, standing barely outside of her front yard, with his back to Carys' own trees. She smiled.
Before long, she was in front of him again, murmuring in all the Welsh she could muster. As before, she reached a trembling hand to his muzzle, with the strange sensation that this gentle beast was more than he seemed. He turned before she could touch him and cantered off, to Carys' sigh of frustration. Then he turned to look at her.
"Why do you do that?" she snapped (still in Welsh). The stag started to run again. And Carys ran after him.
Soon he looked over his shaggy shoulder, and slowed down ever so slightly. Carys kept running, demanding breath after breath from the soft air. He trotted up a hill, down the other side, and through a flat meadow. Carys jogged, sprinted, and dashed to keep up with his long strides, panting and laughing and cursing, still in Welsh. When she finally had to stop for breath, he stopped too, and reared like he had the first morning. Carys looked behind her. This was further than she was used to going in this direction. The stag tossed his head again, and made for a line of trees.
"No!" Carys cried-it was always into trees that she lost him. The sun would be coming up soon; she had school. But when she saw the dark shape of spreading antlers and massive shoulders hurtling toward the woods, and realized that he wanted her to follow, she stood up and took off after the stag.
Now Carys was crashing through branches, snapping twigs, and stumbling over rocks to keep sight of her quarry, who seemed impossibly far away-but did not disappear. Carys' sides hurt, and she was getting scratched by vines and stray branches. Her legs, unused to such rigorous activity, grew heavy and stiff. Carys felt her hope of ever catching up to this creature slipping away again, and she put her head down in despair, dogged tenacity, or both. But when she looked up, the stag was gone. Again.
And then she felt the ground disappear from beneath her feet.
Carys was too startled to make a sound, but the roof of her mouth thudded wit surprised fear as she stumbled and slid down what she realized was a steep hill. She was almost thrown off her feet completely, but instead fell to her knees before clattering ungracefully to a halt, with growing sensations of exaggerated anger and cautious pain in her ankles from the sudden fall. Looking around, she saw that she was sitting on the new grass of a bank, and that it was colder here than higher up the hill-but, strangely, the light seemed brighter. The fog that had begun to clear on the higher plains was still thick here, so much so that it totally obscured the stream, which Carys was only aware of because of the sound of bubbling water coming from somewhere very close. She stood up and peered ahead of her to try to spot it, and a second later, she realized that she was looking at something through the mist-the wild but sturdy shape of an antler, a straight expanse of neck, a muscled shoulder-it was her stag, standing still by the water, and looking at her. In the same breath, she saw that he was not alone. Close to the magnificent animal's face, stroking his nose and smiling broadly, was a man. He caught Carys' eye.
He was not a man.
What the teenager from Wales saw was a face, a long and straight-nosed and beautiful face like a man's, above a cleanly shaped body in the fashion of a man's… but it seemed more appropriate to say that a man's body was shaped, however poorly and insubstantially, like the one of this being. Every line, every color, every living inch of this creature was beautiful-but it was nothing, nothing like the beauty Carys found in famous actors, or singers, or local boys she would glance at around school. Without question, this beauty was something to be revered, venerated-never desired. It would be a desecration.
How could she describe him… was she even sure it was a him? The being, the elf, the angel had long hair down his back, which was the color of sea-polished wood and was braided with leaves of holly and oak, which were somehow green. It carried a staff, carved with wild Celtic designs and ornamented with a small, perfect replica of the stag's antlers. It had no facial hair, and the eyes beneath straight brows were deeply green. She couldn't even think to realize what It was wearing (although she saw that Its pointed feet were bare), she was so struck Its presence and Its appearance… It was just simply more than everything she was. Its gaze was captivating, but also made Carys afraid-and deeply, deeply ashamed, of something, but she didn't know what. She wanted to look at It, but at the same time, wished It would look away.
After the longest second in Carys' life, after an enraptured second of a thousand years, after a lifetime-second of standing in the bright, soft white light of Its presence, the angel's expression softened. Its smile at seeing the stag had been huge, open-mouthed, and childlike, in fact, Its enthusiasm seemed incongruent with Its impressive appearance, but It now resolved It's expression into a gentle grin. (Carys could have looked for days at just the slight curve of Its seashell lip.) It looked at the clumsy human with tenderness, still stroking the stag, which was moving his nose, almost imperceptibly, toward Its ear. Carys' cheeks began to burn, and she vaguely realized that she was now very warm. Her eyes were watering, and every second It looked at her she felt better and worse.
"…Please…" Carys whispered, with no idea what she was asking for. The angel looked affectionately at the stag, who appeared highly pleased with himself. The angel chuckled, and then looked kindly back at Carys. She perceived that It was speaking; she saw Its mouth moving but did not hear a voice. Then Carys was overcome, and sank to her knees in the soft grass and even softer fog. The noise of the stream filled her ears, but as her stricken eyes closed, words appeared in her mind. Two sentences, detached but plain as if the melodious Welsh were being spoken in her ear…
"This creature is a good friend. He will lead you to something precious."
***
When Carys woke up, she was still buffeted by white mist, but the sun had come up. The light above her was now golden, but on this morning, the brightness was not resented or harsh like most mornings. She sat up. She could see the stream now, a wide, pebbly path through the young spring grass. Then Carys remembered something…school. She had to be in school soon. But she wanted to stay here, in the glorious white and gold, and remember the dream-her dream! The stag, the run, the fall… the angel… Carys glanced back at the stream banks. There were no marks, of hooves or feet, in the smooth cold mud… but she wouldn't think that those beings would leave any. She got to her feet; the scratches and muscle strains were certainly there. Carys looked at the soil, at the trees around her, at the hill she had stumbled down. There was no trace of the fantastic pair, except the voiceless whisper that still lingered in her ear, and the euphoric quality of the sunlight piercing through the piles of wooly fog. Silently, Carys climbed back up the hill and went home.
After accepting a reprimand and a drive to school, the day that she thought ought to change or even define her life did the odd thing of marching on just like any other Thursday. For some reason, the rhythm of her school day continued unbroken, her parents watched the news that evening and reported that world events were unfolding predictably, and Carys had to give her smallest brother a bath. But for her, it was like these ordinary events were parading past a window, and she was still in a little cleft, caught up to the stag, seeing the… whatever It was.
Carys wondered what would happen if she followed the animal again. Would she have another-dream? Would he really lead her to something? This would be, if her life were a story, the part where she doubted her sanity and pretended that the Event had never happened. But in her heart of hearts, she did not doubt. It felt more like she had a promise, a treasure, a glowing secret buried in her like a fixed root in the soil. As Carys lay in bed that night, she smiled.
***
And then she set out with a purpose. Early as always, she rose and set out for the hills. She would see the stag again, and then she would know-forever-that it had really happened. She would chase him again, as far as he would lead her, out of Anglesey of necessary, and he would take her to whatever it was she was supposed to find. She began, for the first time in months, to set her alarm clock again. She also began to get tired again. But she kept at it, pressing herself to get up earlier, as soon as there was the merest scrap of light to see by. Sometimes she overshot it, and got up too early. Then she would feel dead on her feet the next day. Once she accidentally woke up her father, who was understandably cross and made her go back to bed. She lay still for half an hour before slipping out again.
When she didn't see the stag after a week, she was only more determined. She had begun to suspect that he would take her to another angel, or-her heart began to thud whenever she thought of this-even a gateway of some sort. He would take her to meet elves, elves like It. (The line between the two creatures, between the elves of Celtic lore and angles, had become blurry for her.)
When she had spent a month searching, she began to deflate a little. Her sleepiness was getting worse, but whenever she thought about staying in for a morning-recovering from a long school assignment, or a cold, or week with three hours of sleep a night-she would think of the stag. What if that was the morning he had planned to meet her? She imagined him wandering into her yard, waiting by the trees, walking down the driveway, and even (when she was very sleepy) rapping on her front door with one antler-tip, ready to take her to the elves, and her sleeping through it. With a groan, she would drag herself out of bed, splash cold water on her face, and go out, only to go through another morning of searching, trudging, waiting. Then the dewy air would get to her, and make her skin feel fresh, and her body graceful, and she felt that her expression, upon seeing whatever it was she was supposed to see, would be surprised and gentle and perfect, like it must have been when she gazed on the angel. Then she would be disgusted, by her loneliness, her sentimentality, and her narcissism. These aches, for the stag, for someone to see her beauty… to give her beauty to reflect… they got old.
By the time two months had elapsed, Carys was completely Spartan about her morning routine. It was nothing like a walk or a soothing balm, and everything like a search, a job. She followed paths mathematically : a day to the north, then one to the east, then the south, finally the west, and start it all over again. She would spend weeks without visiting the far-flung stream where she had seen her vision, thinking that the stag wouldn't go to the same place twice. If this was a supernatural thing, maybe she wouldn't even be able to find that place again. But one morning she was possessed with a desperate desire to see it-maybe the stag lived there!-and set out, only to find it on her first try. So she travelled there every day for a week, but saw nothing.
Actually, Carys had not seen anything for days and days; not only had the stag not chosen to appear, but she had stopped noticing everything about the land and the sky and the morning that had previously captivated her, and drawn her out without resistance, and kept her energized, happy, alive. She forgot to think about why she had started taking walks in the first place, and thought only of the place the stag was going to lead her-not its qualities, not the reasons she wanted to go there, but only the drive that told her she had to find it. She became gray and tired, and she stumbled and was ill-tempered during the day. In short, she felt miserable.
And then she gave up. Really, she should have done so long before-and she had flirted with the idea. Finally, around mid-May, the morning came when Carys, barely five minutes into her search (today she had gone across the road in a vaguely easterly direction, toward the fading moon), decided that it was time to stop. Once she voiced that thought clearly and definitely in her head, a weight was lifted from her. Instead of heading for one of those numerous empty, hilly expanses, bordered and patched by clumps of trees, she stopped right at the edge of a glade and leaned against a trunk. She would rest here for a few minutes (she was so tired), and then she would go home and climb into her warm bed and slip into wonderful sleep for an hour or so. And then she would be done.
She wondered how disappointed she would be for losing a chance to meet them… the elves. Was she even sure that was what she was looking for? It must be-what could be more precious than seeing more of the terrible, beautiful creatures, like the one the stag had lead her to in the first place? She would be sad… she must be. But for now, with the relief of her promise to herself to end the search, with the calm and beauty of the time-between-times sweeping over her dazed spirit for the first time in recent memory, she was not discontent.
Carys breathed deeply and looked at the moon. It looked like it had that day, that first morning, when she had climbed her tree. It seemed so soft… like mellow white cheese. She wanted to taste it. Carys laughed, then remembered that she had thought, before, that she could have lived on the air of this secret time, breathing instead of eating. How long had it been-she had forgotten what that felt like! Immediately she took an eager, deep breath, and she thought she heard a rush of air, louder than her own nostrils would make. She looked over her shoulder, and there, as if he had been standing by her the whole time, was the stag. She gazed up at him.
And the stag looked back at Carys, lowering his head to see her better. He was very close. Slowly, he raised his head, and began to walk… heart thudding, Carys saw a brief forest of dun-colored legs pass, catching glimpses of white on the insides of the enormous thighs. Then he was in front of her, ambling instead of running. One of his ears flicked. He swung his magnificent head around and gazed at her. Carys hesitated, and then got to her feet.
They walked for a time, and then began to canter gently, and finally Carys was running beside him again. She felt alive-to be in this air, in this light, running, communing with this fantastic creature.
They were now approaching a wooded area. Carys felt apprehension rise inside her. It was always trees that she lost him into, all but the one morning, when she met It. She began to stumble again; the ground was rocky. She kept her eyes on the stag's back, which was arching and dipping like a fish, slowly growing smaller and smaller in front of her.
"No… don't… do… that… again!" she panted. Suddenly the animal put on an unbelievable burst of speed-there was a second of desperate sprinting for Carys, but he jumped, and, almost instantly, was gone again. Carys was left on her knees in the dirt, gasping. She didn't know what to think.
Hadn't she been given a promise? Had she dreamed it-dreamed everything? She stumbled over to a large stone to catch her breath, and realized with some surprise that there was a trail through these woods-some kind of jogging or hiking trail. She kept gazing down the dirt path, wishing that he would come back for her. Were the creature and his master only trying to keep her coming, aware of her freshly minted promise to stop searching for the stag and his "something precious?" Should she continue to drag herself out of bed every dawn… were they encouraging her? Testing her?
Had they betrayed her?
Before she had an answer, movement almost directly in front of Carys arrested her attention. There was, suddenly, a young man before her on the path. This time she was sure it really was a man: he had a mass of curly dark hair, which was currently sweaty, and stubble, not a long mane and an impossibly smooth cheek. His feet were not bare, but encased in running shoes, and he was carrying a water bottle, not a staff. But when he looked at Carys, she saw that his expression was just like the one she had imagined on herself-a look of surprise and wonder-as she wandered the lonely hills, the expression she imagined to be the most beautiful: a look of enchantment. Her heart started to race again. There was a moment of silence in the still of the dawn, and then, trembling, he spoke.
"Hello," he whispered. Carys smiled.
"Hello."




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