Winter had come to the Highlands by the time Gant had reached them. The wind and rain attacked him with unrelenting fury as he trudged through the green highland hills. The sky was black cloud and he bent himself over as he walked, pulling his cloak up around him in a futile attempt to gain some warmth. The wind howled in his ears, welcoming him back home. Twenty years it had been since he had left, running away like a coward. Looking up into the rain, he saw the village in the distance. As he drew closer, he passed the old oak that edged his father’s farm. Pausing, he reached out and touched the rough old bark and looked up into the tall branches that reached high into the sky, defying the storm. A crow landed on a branch and regarded him with an accusing look.
The tree has strong roots, he thought, smiling and ignoring the crow. If he was as strong, then perhaps today he would live. Of course, he could always turn his back and walk away, but he was tired from running. Slumping down in the wet grass, he rested with his back to the tree and pulled his hood tight over his head. With his mood as grim as the weather, he remembered that long ago time when he had sought out forbidden love.
Twenty years ago he had not known her name when she had taken that short cut across his farm on a warm spring day. He had been repairing the fence towards the back of the field when a woman in a blue dress with white flowers in her hair had approached from the woods. At first he had thought it was the goddess Heruna come to see in the spring and he had put his hammer down and watched her. Her hair was loose about her shoulders, spilling down in blonde curls. As she neared, he noticed how her eyes were as blue as the dress that hung down to just below her knees. His eyes travelled to her bare feet that sank into the lush grass.
“Are you Heruna?” he stammered.
The woman laughed softly. “Do you think I look like a deity?”
Embarrassed, Gant shrugged. “I never saw one before, but I imagine they would be as beautiful as you.” The words had come easy, which surprised him. Not one for village life, he remained a recluse with his father on the farm
“You are making fun of me now,” she giggled. “How come I never saw you in the village before?”
Gant looked up into her eyes, his heart thumping wildly. Now he was unsure how to continue the exchange. Growing up with just his father, there had been little talk beyond work. But he managed to smile at the woman, hoping he did not look like an idiot. Thinking quickly, he said, “I’ve been travelling around. I went south to the sea.”
The woman looked impressed. “What’s the sea like?”
Gant regretted having said the lie, but while it was out there, he had no choice but to go with it. “Would you like to see it one day?”
Her eyes wide, she nodded eagerly. “Oh, I would love to leave this place. Is this your farm?”
Gant looked behind him at the field. Desperate to impress her, he said, “Aye, my dad left it all to me when he died.”
The woman touched him lightly on the arm and he felt his body tingle. “What about your mum?”
“She died when I was born.” That was at least the truth. His father would not even talk of her and he could see the upset and guilt he carried over her death. “Where are you heading?”
She pointed across the field in the direction of the village. “Back home. I’ve been picking flowers in the forest. It’s quicker crossing your field. Do you mind?”
Gant shook his head. “I can walk you back if you like?” Please say yes, he thought, looking at her eyes.
“That would be nice.” She climbed over the low fence, hitching her skirt up to her thighs. “Do you have a name?”
The sight of her pale legs hanging over the fence made him yearn for the woman. Feeling his face go red, he looked at the ground. “Gant. What’s yours?”
“I’m Caris.” She jumped over the fence and stumbled into Gant’s arms. He caught her and held her close for a moment, feeling the press of her breasts against his body, the smell of the flowers in her hair. It made his head light and he reluctantly let her go. They crossed the field, walking slowly. Caris pointed to flowers as they went, bending down to smell them. The day was the best he had ever had in all his twenty years. They came to the front of the field, by the old oak and Caris jumped over the fence.
“Will you visit again?” he asked as she headed down the path.
She turned to him and smiled. “Maybe I will.” Gant watched her go until she disappeared.
The memory was so clear in his mind, even now as the storm raged around him. For the few moments he had spent day dreaming about Caris, he had forgotten how cold he was. He wondered how the farm was, but part of him wanted to stay away. When he had left, he had abandoned his father and all the years after he had carried the guilt that perhaps he had died alone, unable to keep the farm going without him. There had been no chance to say goodbye as he had left in a hurry. Back then he had decided he would head south, to go to the sea and ride on one of those boats Caris had mentioned.
With his teeth chattering, he cursed himself for remembering those times he had tried to block out. Returning was bound to bring memories to the surface, but he had no choice. The rain eased to a fine drizzle and he yearned now for that fine spring. Miserable and soaked to the skin, Gant found he had no energy to continue. Despite the discomfort, he rested his head against the tree and remembered the times that Caris had visited him on the farm.
He had spent every day heading down to the lower field at the same times, hoping she would pass through again. For the rest of the spring he had been lucky as Caris appeared on the edge of the forest, clutching flowers within her hands. When she saw him, she smiled and waved, hurrying over to greet him. He had thanked Heruna for such a gift and had kept the meetings secret from his father.
“Why have you never visited the village?” she asked one day as they lay upon the grass looking up at the passing clouds.
More relaxed with her now, Gant sat up and looked down at her. “Do you not prefer it out here, free and open?”
Caris laughed. “You have no idea how free I feel out here. Back home, I sometimes fantasise about running away.” She looked sad, as though there was something heavy on her heart; how it pained him to see her unhappy.
“Why don’t we run away together?” Suddenly, it seemed like a very tempting thing to do. A shadow passed over Caris’s face and she sat up, pulling her knees up to her chest and hugging them. He took her hand in his. “What’s the matter?”
She looked at him and drew close, her lips inches from his mouth. When they pressed against Gant’s, he pushed back and their mouths opened over each other. Her hands wrapped around his head and they fell back onto the grass, lips locked together. Hands explored each other and they rolled around in the grass. Pulling away from him, they both gasped for air. Gant went to lean in to kiss her again, but she pushed her hand into his chest, holding him back.
“We should not have done that,” she said breathlessly.
Confused, Gant grabbed her hand and held it. “But we both wanted to.”
Caris shook her head. “Aye, but it was wrong. I should never have let this go on, Gant, but...” She trailed off. Breathing deeply, she looked away from him. Her hand covered her mouth. “I am promised to another. Please do not hate me.”
The words shot through Gant like a sword had rammed into his guts. The day appeared to grow dark and he shivered, sickness filling his stomach where the sword had lodged. His mouth opened and closed as he tried to form words. The woman sat before him was a stranger in that instant and he realised that he did not really know her at all: she was the girl who had chosen to take a short cut across his farm. Finally, he managed, “But we are falling for each other.”
Caris got to her feet, tears streaming down her face. “Did you hear me? I am promised to another man, to be joined this summer.” She bit her lip. “This has to end.”
Gant went to her, but she pushed him back. Then her face streamed with tears and she ran away. Looking over her shoulder, she shouted, “I’m sorry!”
“Caris!” He took a few steps after her, but she was already climbing the fence by the oak. A mixture of anger and sadness fused within and caused a storm. He sat down on the grass and began to pull up clumps in his frustration. A large crow landed next to him and watched him with interest. Waving his arms at the bird, he shouted at it. With a squawk it soared into the sky and vanished. Nothing mattered now. He wandered across the field, climbed the fence and stood on the path by the old oak. He stared up the path towards the village and contemplated looking for Caris.
“She will never be yours,” a voice said from behind.
Spinning round, he saw the old witch, Larna, staring at him and a chill ran through him. She rarely left her hut in the forest and people kept their distance, calling on her services only when they had to. She was a tall woman with long hair as black as the dress she wore. A river of grey ran through her hair, her face etched with age. She stood tall and stiff, a woman that intimidated with her dark eyes and cold glare.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he stammered.
“Do not think me a fool, Gant. I know everything that goes on and I know you have been seeing Caris. If you go after her, you will do more harm than good.”
Forgetting who she was for a moment, Gant strode towards the witch. “Who are you to say that?”
Larna snorted. “You are both young, foolish children.”
“Were you never young and foolish?”
Larna was silent for a moment and Gant backed away, fearful he had angered her. Instead, she smiled. “Once, but it was a long time ago. But the past is the past. Heed my words, Gant: stay away from Caris.” With that, she turned and headed down the path, taking the longer route towards the forest. Alone, Gant sat down against the old oak and waited until the sun sunk low. For the next week, he waited down at the lower field for Caris to return, but summer came without an appearance from her. As hope failed, he saw her on midsummer. He was out in the early evening on a stroll in the hills. Over at the old standing stone he saw a woman knelt in front of it, her body shaking as she cried.
The woman looked round, wiping her eyes. “I was praying to the Gods that you would come.”
Gant knelt beside her and put his hand on her shoulder. “Why are you so sad?”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “I do not want to join with the man I am promised to. I want to be with you. I know it sounds silly, but I feel there is something that runs deep between us. Without you, I do not feel complete.”
“Aye, I have the same thoughts. I have missed our afternoons together.” As he cradled her in his arms, a crow landed on top of the stone, pecking at it. It spread its wings and squawked, watching the two lovers. Gant stared at it, a sense of foreboding within him. They said a crow came when death was near.
Caris raised her head and looked at the bird. She tensed within Gant’s arms. Getting to her feet, she pulled him away from the stone. “Stupid crow!” she cried out, swiping her hand at it. They ran down the hill, towards the farm and away from the crow. Only when they were at the farm did they stop running. Caris looked up at the hill, a haunted look within her eyes. The sun dipped down to the horizon and the sky was lit a brilliant red, pushing the hill with the stone into black silhouette. The crow flew up into the sky and headed out towards the sun.
Realising he was holding Caris’s hand tightly, he relaxed his grip. “Why did you not tell me about this other man?” It was difficult to hide the anger in his voice.
Caris pulled her hand from his and wrapped her arms around her body. “Why did you tell me you owned this farm and your father was dead? Or that you’d been to the sea?”
Gant froze. “How did you know?”
Caris turned her back to him, looking out to the sinking sun. “Everyone in the village knows about old farmer Jayda and his son. They say he went bitter after his wife died and refused all help.”
Gant took a step towards her, reaching out a hand that hovered by her shoulder. He was unsure if he should reach out and hold her. “I wanted to impress you.”
Caris turned and looked at him with a smile. “You don’t have to lie to impress me, Gant.” She stroked his face with her hand. They kissed and embraced, unable to keep their hands from each other. As the sun sunk low in the sky and a crow cried in the distance, they made love in the long grass until the moon was full and high in the sky. Their clothes were cast aside and they explored each other. Caris guided Gant, and he allowed her, unsure what he had to do. But he was a quick learner and was soon leading Caris in the dance. When they had finished, they rolled onto their backs and looked up into the clear star filled night, the air heavy with summer heat.
“So what do we do now?” Gant asked, turning to look at her.
Caris sighed. “No one can ever know. The other I am promised to is the son of the village chief.”
Angry, Gant sat up. “Then break the promise and come away with me.”
Laughing, Caris got to her feet and began dressing. “And where would we go? To the sea?”
“You’re mocking me.”
Caris leaned down and kissed him gently on the lips. “I would never mock you. We will meet in the fields each morning on the rise of the sun, if it pleases you. Then we shall meet at the setting of the sun by the old stone.”
Now Gant shivered under the oak as he recalled that summer long ago that had been the best summer of his life. Thunder lit the sky and the rumble rolled down from the hills with great vengeance towards him. The crow flew from the branch and into the storm and he watched it vanish as the rain came down harder. He tried to get to his feet and follow, but the strength had gone from his legs and he slumped back down. The trek into the Highlands had been long and difficult in the winter months and he tried to imagine he was somewhere else, but his mind always settled back onto that long ago summer. They had met each day as Caris had suggested and made love in the fields by the old oak.
Then one day Caris stopped meeting him. After a week he began to worry about what had happened to her. The night Larna the witch came to him again, he was up by the standing stone upon the hill at the setting of the sun. A bitter wind blew across the hill and he shivered. Summer was fast ending and he knew that Caris would be joined before the end. Perhaps that was why she had stopped coming? He got to his feet and strode down the hill, but a voice called to him.
“You must leave this night, if you value your life.”
Gant turned to see Larna stood before him. Caris was at her side, her eyes red from tears. He went to go to Caris, but Larna held her hand to him and pushed him away. “Let me see Caris!” he shouted to her and pushed against her hand. A sudden pain broke in his chest where her hand rested and he recoiled in shock.
“You will stay your distance!” she shouted. “You think your affair could go on unnoticed?”
Caris pushed by Larna. “Gant, please, you have to leave tonight. The chief is gathering men to bring you back for execution. You have to listen to Larna.”
Looking to the witch, he asked, “Why do you involve yourself in this?”
Larna shook her head, scowling at him. “The girl has begged me to save you. I will take you the secret paths of the forest and to safety, but you must come with me now.”
“I’ll not go anywhere,” Gant said, keeping his gaze with Larna’s.
Caris went to him, threw her arms around his shoulders. She kissed him on the lips. She looked up at him, tears streaming down her face. “I do not want you to leave, my love, but I also do not want you to die. We were seen together and it was reported back. The chief will not see his son shamed and will have you dead by the morning.”
Gant stroked her long curls from her face and kissed her. “Then come with me, Caris.”
Larna pulled Caris away and loomed in front of Gant. “Her path is different to yours.” She pointed behind Gant, down the hill to the farm. Gant turned and saw burning torches as men circled the farm. They spread out through the field, moving close to the hill.
Gant’s heart thumped in his chest. He looked to Caris and saw great despair in her eyes. “I will come back for you,” he whispered.
Larna took Gant by the arm and pulled him down the hill towards the forest. “Aye, you will come back one day,” she said. Gant turned to watch Caris who stood by the standing stone, watching him go in silence. And then you will have to face your accuser.” There was a hint of anger within her voice, but Gant did not care. The figure of Caris faded into the night and he heard her cries carried on the wind. That was the last time he had seen her.
Now twenty years had passed and he sat cold and wet beneath the tree of his youth. Just what did he expect returning? Was Caris still alive. Was she joined? It sickened him to think of her with many children, for he had dreamt of her one day having his. She would be too old to bare his children now and he sighed. His accuser would be waiting for him, Larna had told him. If only he had faced him back then instead of running away. Perhaps things would have turned out differently.
“It is not good weather to be out in,” a woman said. Gant looked up and saw a figure dressed in black, walking through the rain towards him. Her hair was more grey than black now, but she was still just as intimidating. She knelt down by him and regarded him with cold eyes. “You look a lot older than when I last saw you.”
Gant smiled, looking up at Larna. “You’ve not exactly stayed young yourself.” He began to cough, feeling the beginning of illness. His head spun, and his body shook with cold. He had not eaten for two days, but the thought of returning and seeing Caris after all this time filled him with a simmer of hope. What if she was waiting for him? But as he looked into the stern face of Larna, he knew the news would not be good. “How is Caris?”
Larna’s face remained cold. “We should go somewhere warm before you die of this cold.”
Gant tried to get up, but slid back down, coughing and wheezing. “I am too weak to continue, I am afraid.”
Larna reached out her hand and laid it upon his chest. “You’ve come a long way, Gant.” Heat flowed from her hand, warming his body from his heart and spreading out until the cold had gone. His body felt stronger and his head cleared. “You just have to end your journey now.” She got up and walked towards the old farm, climbing the wooden fence.
Gant got to his feet and followed. The field was overgrown, full of twisted weed and brambles. The old farm house stood at the top, a light burning in one of the windows casting a welcoming glow in the gloom. Larna headed towards it. Surely his father was not still alive? He would never have allowed the farm to run to ruin like this. The grass was waist high and the farmhouse looked lost and alone in this wilderness. It soured the memory within Gant’s mind. Larna went to the door of the house and pushed it open, gesturing to Gant to follow.
“Where is my father?” he asked as he came in from the cold into a warm living room. A fire blazed and kept the cold winter outside. Larna lit some more candles and told Gant to sit down at a chair that had been left by the fire. Gant settled into it, enjoying the warmth and the old memories of home. Again he asked where his father was.
“Your father is dead,” Larna said. She went to the kitchen, returning with a cup of hot broth she handed to Gant. “Drink this, it will warm you.”
Gant took a sip. It tasted foul, but sent a warm glow through him. “How did he die?”
Larna settled into a chair opposite him, taking her black cloak from around her shoulders off and casting it aside. “He died a broken man. When you left, he was shamed for your actions. Without you to help the farm, it fell into this state you see now. No one from the village would help.”
Gant rubbed his eyes as tears swelled there. The old man had been cruel at times, but he was still his only family. He took another sip of the drink and found himself relaxing. But the pain of loss was strong within him. The next question he was too scared to ask and he stammered to get his words out.
Larna sighed. “You wish to know about Caris, do you not? She was joined to the chief’s son after you left. But her heart was heavy with the loss of you. She spent the days wandering the hills until she returned to her new husband, worn and broken. The life just drained from her until the day she was found dead in the forest, he wrists slit. She died upon the spring flowers of the next spring, her favourite white ones.” Larna’s voice wavered for a moment and she looked away as a tear fell down her cheek. She wiped it away with a flick of her hand and looked back at Gant. “You broke her heart.”
Gant dropped the cup and threw his head into his hands and cried. The memory of her walking to her on that spring day with white flowers in her hair came to him over and over and he sobbed. He had hoped after all these years that she would embrace him again and they could continue their love. He had imagined that over and over until it was a certainty within. Now she was gone and there would be a dark future ahead of him.
“I told you to leave her a long time ago,” Larna whispered in his ear. “If you had sent her away from you, then she would be alive now, looking after her grandchildren. That night she came to me in tears, demanding I help you. Of course, I would have seen you dead.”
Gant sat up and slumped back in the chair, suddenly unable to move. “Then why did you help me, Witch?”
Larna stood and walked over to him. “I could never refuse my daughter anything. I told you that you would return one day and face your accuser; well here I am.”
Gant tried to sit up, but his body was numb. “You were her mother? I had no idea.” At the window a crow landed and began to peck at the glass. Gant looked from the crow to Larna and understood. “The crow is yours.”
Larna nodded. “She is my eyes, my soul twin. Do not try to get up, for that drink I gave you has numbed your body. For a long time I have wondered if my hate towards you would lessen, that perhaps I would forgive you after all these years. They say that time will change a heart over time, but tell me: do you still feel love for Caris?”
“Yes, of course I do!”
Larna placed her hands against his cheeks and held his head. Tears ran down her face. “And I still hate you for what you did. Time changes nothing and I cannot forgive.”
Fear gripped Gant and he tried to get up, but his body would not move. “I’m sorry!” He truly meant it, but he could see the cold, hard hate within Larna’s eyes, the look of a mother who had lost her daughter.
Larna removed a dagger from her dress and brought it towards Gant. She looked at the dagger. “It is the same dagger Caris had used.”
Drowsily, Gant looked away from Larna towards the window where the rain lashed against it. The crow squawked at the window. As the lightening forked in the black sky, it spread its wings and flew away into the storm as though the message had been delivered and it was free from the long burden. Flicking his eyes back to Larna, he saw a figure in the shadows move towards them. The figure glowed faintly casting an eerie glow about them. The figure approached Larna who spun round, dagger held tightly in a raised hand.
“My daughter,” Larna whispered. “Why do you come now after all these years?”
Gant tried to call out, but his voice was gone. The woman moved in close to him, her face as young and beautiful as he remembered from dreams. She glowed like moonlight. The white flowers in her hair smelt of spring and the room warmed. Larna dropped her dagger as Caris turned to her. She backed away from her daughter with a wide eyed look. “For years I tried to speak with your spirit!”
Caris reached her hand out towards Larna, her words coming out from a distant place. “You were to keep him safe.”
Larna dropped to her knees and wept at the feet of the ghost of Caris. Gant fell into a deep sleep. When he woke, it was morning and sunlight filtered in through the dusty window. The witch had gone and the fire had burned down to a few embers. Shakily, he went to the door and looked out to the field and the twisted weeds that choked the once fertile land. There was some blue in the sky, but clouds already gathered to block it. Upon the ground in front of him, the body of the crow lay still.
Gant returned to the house. He would stay, he decided. It was time to stop running. Slowly, Gant worked the farm on his own. The old village chief and his son had died some years ago in battle with a neighbouring tribe and no one remembered why Gant had left. They were grateful someone had decided to take over the farm, for the land they thought had been cursed. Larna became a hermit, never uttering a word to Gant. Then, ten years later, she came to Gant as he was repairing the fence at the lower field. He looked up as she approached from the forest upon a warm spring day. Within her hand she carried a white flower.
“It is the first spring flower,” she said, holding it out to Gant.
“It was Caris’s favourite flower,” he said, taking the flower from her.
Larna nodded. “Words need to be said between us. I blamed you all these years for the death of Caris. My daughter wanted me to make peace with you, and I am sorry.” She turned to go.
Gant smiled. “Caris still visits.” He handed the flower back to Larna. “She is the first flower of spring.”
Larna took the flower and a smile broke her face. She smelt it and headed back into the forest. In the distance, a crow cried out and Larna was never seen again.