Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Alliance Atlantis, CBS, Anthony Zuicker and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All other characters are my invention, and if you want to play with them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
Spoilers: general seventh season
Yeah, this one's weird--total AU. Many, many thanks to Cincoflex for her superb beta work and her encouragement, and to CSIpal for telling me what she liked! You're both wonderful and kind!
Once upon a time...for all the best stories begin so...there was a woodcarver who lived deep in the forest, away from ordinary people and their cares. And if the forest wasn't as big as the ones in the tales you know, and the people and their cares not as simple as they used to be, the trees still whispered piney secrets to one another, and the woodcarver preferred the wordless song of the wind to the babble of cities.
He had a house he had built himself, with a high peaky roof and a big open room, decorated with the works of his own hands. It stood in a clearing among the firs, with a sturdy little stable built right up against the house. His two mules, Apollo and Artemis, lived there when they weren't hauling wood for his work or pulling the little cart he used to fetch supplies, and the woodcarver had put in a clever split door into his home. Sometimes in the long winter nights they would scrape with a patient hoof until he would shake his head, and get up and open the top half. They would put their heads over it to look in, no longer lonely, and he would be content with their company.
The woodcarver preferred the forest, yes; it gave him the solitude he desired and the materials with which to create the beautiful carvings that were housed in museums and admired in mansions around the world. But every so often he had to leave the trees behind and go among people, either to sell his work or to buy the things he needed to live.
It was true, he could have had someone come to his home. But the woodcarver prized his privacy above all else, and would chase away any village children who ventured into the forest near his house. The adults knew better than to try.
So the woodcarver had a reputation as a sour old man, and at least the sour part was deserved, for he grumbled and scowled whenever he came among people; the old was less true, for while his hair and beard were salted with silver, age had not bent him yet.
It was only natural, therefore, that when he did come to town the children would run alongside his cart and jeer; cruel, but natural, alas. They called him names and made up rude rhymes, and the woodcarver would snort and ignore them, and shake the reins to make Artemis and Apollo stride faster. And if the hurled words stung a little, he never looked inside to find out.
The woodcarver would visit his broker, a fawning man who never understood how to treat his best artist, and deliver his latest work with a few curt sentences; or he would stop at the general store and collect the supplies and mail waiting for him, frowning all the while. He never shorted the postmistress or the grocer, they were first to admit, but as the postmistress said, his gold wasn't sweetened by his temper.
The truth was, the woodcarver could hardly wait to get back to his wild forest and its solitude. People made him prickly as a hedgehog, all spines and annoyance, and only alone could he relax and smile at the nodding ears of his mules, the song of the birds. The villagers would watch him go, and shake their heads at a man who wouldn't even coo at a baby, and forget him until he came again.
Every so often some curious child would ask where the woodcarver came from, why he chose to live in the deep forest, but no one really knew; a few of them could remember when he'd first come to their lonely northern province, but none could say why.
And as so often happens, they would never have believed the truth if he'd told them.
Once upon another time, the woodcarver had been a bright-eyed young man full of promise and pride. The only son of his mother, he was her hope and her joy, and if that burden weighed a little heavily at times, he shouldered it willingly, because he loved her as she loved him. His father had died when he was small, and they two were all the world to one another.
He had a brilliant mind and proved a brilliant student, preferring the intricate structures of science to the flowing beauties of the arts, though he appreciated both. He brought home grades that made his mother smile, and then as he grew older he brought money to make her comfortable. He was clever with his hands even then, and he used their talent in his work, pursuing truth through thickets of lies and deceptions.
He went to work for the law, wielding his skills and his mind to find evildoers and trap them in snares of their own making. As he saw more and more of the pain of the world, his laughter grew less frequent and his face more thoughtful, but he loved his work and never dreamed of doing anything else. When his mother grew feeble, he cared for her; when she died, he closed the hole in his heart by throwing himself even deeper into finding truth.
But there was always more to do, iniquity piling on horror, and his eyes lost their sparkle and his step its spring. Over the years, as his hair began to silver, the heart went out of him...slowly, like the creep of frost on the ground when winter begins. He passed into shadow, and never came out.
One day it was simply too much. He who had never shirked a responsibility in his life laid down his tools and walked away. He left behind friends and colleagues and even his home, and vanished.
For a while he traveled the world, seeing many marvels and beauties. But because his heart was still in darkness, they paled beside the evil he saw as well, and nothing comforted him.
Finally he went in search of a place where he could be alone, far from the hurts people deal each other, and found his forest. He began carving to pass the time, but a skill he had not used since childhood returned to his fingers, and he discovered that the hands that could measure and manipulate so precisely could also create beauty of their own. And so he lived, content if not precisely happy, for long enough for his name to pass from the ranks of those who knew the law, and long enough for his fame as a woodcarver to spread. But since he cared nothing for fame, it did not touch him, and in the village they only knew that he made pretty things and sold them. The woodcarver, who had once unraveled mysteries, became one.
So he was, and so he might have continued until the end of his days, guarding his imperfect peace. But the imp of Life does not care for contentment, and when its mischievous gaze turned his way there was no escaping.
It was the darkest part of winter, when the sun peeped out for only a few hours. The woodcarver was snug in the big bed he'd built for himself, four spiraling posts and a headboard carved with tiny cunning rabbits, when he heard Apollo and Artemis stirring uneasily. Since they should have been asleep in their snug stable, the sound brought him fully awake and out of bed. Wolves were rare even in those northern lands, and the stable door was too stout for them anyway, but the big deadly bears did roam close on occasion. If one had woken from hibernation out of season, it could break down the stable door with one blow...and it would be hungry.
The woodcarver owned a rifle for just such situations. He took it down from its place, checked it to make sure it was loaded, and walked silently to his own door, wondering if the disturbance was not bears but men. The moon was close to full, giving more than enough light on the snow to permit all kinds of mischief.
But when he eased open the door the sight beyond stole his breath in awe. Standing on the snow crust was not bear nor brigand, but a deer with branching antlers; a reindeer, the woodcarver realized, such as were rarely seen in the forest any more. It stood proudly, head high and fearless, and as it shifted a faint chime reached his ears. Something flashed in the moonlight pouring down, and the woodcarver saw that the creature's antlers were woven with ribbons and bells--silver bells.
For a moment he felt a stirring of superstition, old stories of forest deities and deer gods rising in his mind. He shook them off, but could not quite rid himself of wonder. The animal had to be tame, to allow someone to adorn it so, but to his sleepy brain it seemed almost a symbol of the season--the cold, the turn of the year, the celebration of the birth of Christ.
The reindeer lowered its head to snuff at the snow under its hooves, and then straightened and spun, leaping into a graceful run that took it into the trees and out of sight in seconds.
It wasn't until his toes were numb that the woodcarver came back to himself, letting out a long cloud of frosty breath and closing the door. If he had been a man given to fancy, he might have imagined that the reindeer had been a dream, but he knew himself to be awake and sober. Slowly he hung up the rifle and returned to his big bed, part of him wondering who had tamed such a creature; but a greater part was simply remembering its beauty and grace, and smiling.
The next night, and the next, the woodcarver slept lightly, listening for bells, but there was only the hush of snow outside his windows. The third night there were bells in plenty, but it was Christmas Eve, and he had put on his skis and gone into the village for the midnight service. On that night even the woodcarver's locked heart loosened a little, and he sat in the back pew and lit his candle from his neighbor's, and remembered the Christ Child. And when the basket came 'round, he laid a generous handful of coin in it, for he had never been a stingy man.
But there was no Christmas feast for him, no small pile of gifts, not even any cards. If he had been the least bit friendly, someone in the village would have asked him to their table, but he did not want to be asked. He spent Christmas Day by himself, cooking a fine meal and adding sweet dried apples to the mules' feed, and cared not at all that others were gathering together.
He hung no boughs or holly, brought in no green tree; but he did have one tradition. Each year he would bring out the Nativity set he had carved himself, and each year he would add one figure. He had started with only three, Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus, but now there were shepherds and lambs, an angel, a wide-horned cow, a plump dove, and two mules that looked suspiciously familiar. There was even a sheepdog, his eyes fixed adoringly on the Baby but one folded ear still cocked to guard his woolly charges.
This year, the woodcarver took a small knob of golden, fine-grained wood, and gradually a cat took shape beneath his fingers and blade; a comfortable cat, one with paws tucked in and tail wrapped neatly round, a cat that could curl up in lap or straw with equal ease, that could tickle with its whiskers or purr a baby to sleep.
The Nativity scene was spread out on his table; each year the woodcarver considered building a small stable, and this year again he discarded the idea. A few more years, and a stable would be too crowded anyway. He set the cat down near Mary, considered, and then moved it around to Joseph's side--a little further away from the dove.
Perhaps a tree, next year, a place for the dove to roost. And then he could do a lark as well.
He was so absorbed in the tableau that he started when Artemis brayed. He had turned her and her brother out into the little fenced pasture that morning to get some air; the snow was deep, but there was no wind and his little mules were shaggy and tough. They seemed to enjoy the snow, kicking at it and chasing each other through the drifts, but this bray was not the happy sound of fun--it was a call.
Puzzled, the woodcarver caught up his coat and gloves and thrust his feet into boots before tramping out into the glittering day. When he came around the side of the house to the pasture, he halted--for there, poised just inside the fence, was the reindeer.
It was more solid by sunlight, but just as puzzling, for now he could see that the ribbons 'round its antlers were green and red; the bells chimed as it raised its head. The reindeer fixed its eyes on the woodcarver, but didn't seem afraid. Artemis stood nearby, snuffling as though in greeting; her brother, always shyer, hung back a little.
The woodcarver found himself with a dilemma. Should he try to catch the beast? Obviously it was tame. This was a creature built for cold, but the woods were not its natural territory, and there were wolves, though they preferred the wildest places.
Someone must be looking for it, he thought. Surely whoever had wound the ribbons with such care did not let the reindeer roam at will.
Pursing his lips, the woodcarver decided that guile would serve better than trying to chase a creature that could outrun him in a blink. Ducking into the little stable, he opened the oat bin and filled a small bucketful, wondering as he did so if reindeer ate oats at all.
The sight of the bucket brought the mules at as fast a trot as they could manage in the snow, eager for the treat. The woodcarver gave them handfuls, talking to them softly but watching the reindeer out of the corner of his eye.
The beast snuffed the air, raised its jingling head, walked forward cautiously...and then shoved in between the mules as though they were long friends, and buried its muzzle in the bucket at the woodcarver's feet.
Artemis and Apollo objected, loudly. The woodcarver raised his brows, then looked at the mules.
"Get it inside, and it's oats all around," he told them.
It was absurdly easy. The lure of the bucket took them all into the stable, and the woodcarver shut the door behind before crossing to open the half-door for more light. Keeping his promise, he put a generous scoop of oats into both mangers before approaching the reindeer cautiously. Its head when raised would come only to his shoulder, but it could still kick.
However, the beast seemed to be merely interested in the oats. The woodcarver held out the bucket, and ran a tentative hand over the glossy neck as the reindeer munched. A twitch of an ear was the only response.
Shaking his head, the woodcarver slipped through the inner door and into his home, wondering what exactly he was going to do now that he had the reindeer contained. An animal built for traveling over snow could have come a considerable distance, and he had never heard of anyone in the village owning such a creature.
Before he could decide what to do, however, he heard another sound--this time a human voice, shouting in the distance but coming closer.
The woodcarver sighed, and went to the door to see who was tramping through the forest on a holy day and further disturbing his peace.
The scarf-muffled figure pushing through the trees had no skis or snowshoes, but was making decent speed nonetheless. The woodcarver closed his door behind him and waited, only slightly surprised to see that the caller was a woman. Tall and thin, with brown hair flying out from under her cap, she came to an abrupt halt as she saw him.
The woodcarver took her in at a glance. Young--well, younger than he--cheeks flushed red with cold and exertion, wide-set dark eyes and a wide mouth. Green scarf and mittens, boots that climbed almost to her knees.
He said nothing, merely waiting for her reaction. He didn't recognize her, but the villagers all knew about the mean old man who lived in the forest. She would run, or edge uneasily away.
But the woman surprised him by doing neither. Instead, a curling grin spread over her face, one that invited the viewer to return it, and an odd little tightness gripped the woodcarver's chest.
"I know this sounds strange," the woman said, and her voice was husky and breathless. "But have you seen, um, a reindeer, pass by recently?"
"It's yours?" the woodcarver asked involuntarily. He had thought the creature the pet of some rich farmer, perhaps, or a traveling show even. This woman didn't seem to fit either notion.
"Oh, he's mine, all right. Unfortunately, we have different ideas of 'a little exercise'." She blew out a breath and looked around. "Which way did he go?"
"Around the side and into my stable," the woodcarver replied dryly.
Her brows went up. "You have him?" she asked happily.
"Yes." He couldn't place her at all. She'd come from the direction of the village, and really it was the only place near enough to travel from in this snow without equipment of some sort, but she didn't act like a villager.
The woman sighed in relief. "Oh, thank you. I'll take him off your hands then, Mr..."
She trailed off, waiting, and the woodcarver reluctantly gave her his name. "Grissom."
"I'm Sara. Sidle, that is." She flushed a bit more, laughing at her own awkwardness, and held out a hand.
No one but his unctuous broker had offered to shake the woodcarver's hand since he had come to the northlands, and even that man had only tried it once. If it had been anyone else, he would have ignored the gesture, not caring for his rudeness.
But somehow he couldn't refuse this young woman. His mother's admonishing voice seemed to echo in his ears, telling him to remember his manners.
So he took her hand and shook it once, letting go quickly. Her mittens were clumsy things, but he could feel the strength of her grip beneath, and it unnerved him somehow.
"This way," he said gruffly, and walked around the house, hearing the crush of her boots through the snow behind him.
The reindeer was standing quietly opposite the mules in the dim stable, munching idly. Apollo was kneeling in the straw, Artemis standing, but all three seemed content and without enmity.
"Reynard, you bad deer!" The woman's voice was laced with laughter, but she put her hands on her hips and glared at her pet. The reindeer lowered his head with a tinkle, but the woodcarver got the impression that the beast was not at all repentant.
She walked forward, fishing in her coat pocket and pulling out a bridle. "How many times do I have to tell you--there are dangerous things in these woods. Do you want to end up a meal for a pack of wolves, or a hill troll?"
"There are no such things as trolls," the woodcarver objected automatically, and the woman sent him a merry glance over her shoulder.
"You know that and I know that, but I doubt he does," she pointed out with irrefutable illogic, slipping the bridle easily over Reynard's muzzle and buckling it around his antlers. The deer nuzzled the front of her coat affectionately, apparently used to the binding.
She sighed. "I wish I had my sled, but it was too much to bring along on a tracking expedition."
It was obvious what she would have used such an object for, and while the woodcarver thought that riding behind a swift-moving reindeer would be more...adventurous...than he would like, it wasn't that odd an idea.
"You come from the village?" he asked abruptly.
The young woman's expression rather questioned his sanity. "Yes, I'm the new science teacher."
Much became clear at her words. Obviously no one had told her about the grumpy old hermit in the woods, the woodcarver thought; he was sure that would be remedied as soon the villagers learned where she'd found her reindeer, and refused to wonder why the thought made him feel so sour.
If it had been possible, the woodcarver would have hitched the mules to his little cart and taken her back to the village himself, the reindeer tied behind, but the snow was far too deep for that.
"You could borrow my sled," he said, then wondered where on earth the words had come from. Lend this vivid young woman a possession? Do anything besides shooing her from his property as quickly as possible? What was he thinking?
She shot him an uncertain glance. "Are you sure? I mean, of course I'll return it, but you don't know me."
"I'm sure," he grunted, lying through his teeth. Stepping forward, he unlatched the bottom of the split door. "You'd better come in while I find it."
For a moment he thought that she would refuse his ungracious command, but after a long moment she stepped away from Reynard with one last pat, following the woodcarver into his home.
It was the first time that anyone but himself had been inside. The woodcarver directed her irritably to hang her coat on one of the pegs by the front door, and went to put on the kettle in his small kitchen area.
He would have given her merely tea to take the chill from her bones, but his mother's voice prompted once more, and he reluctantly added a plate of biscuits to the tray. When he carried the tray out, he found to his dismay that his visitor had pulled one of his two chairs up to the dining table, and was sitting with her arms folded on the edge and her chin resting on them, examining the Nativity.
He set the tray down on the other end with a snap, and she straightened, her eyes still big but now serious. "I didn't touch," she said quietly, without apology.
Faint shame trickled through the woodcarver's heart, and he dropped his gaze, pouring tea from the pot. The scent of orange peel and spice sweetened the air, and he handed the teacher the mug and sat down himself, pushing the plate of biscuits past the Nativity.
She took one with a murmur of thanks, but didn't bite into it at once. "They're magnificent," and her tone carried respect. "I've never seen any so fine."
"They're nothing," the woodcarver said in dismissal. "Just something I do to occupy myself." Which was not the whole truth, but he did not like to hear himself praised.
"I've seen your work in museums," the teacher added, and his brows went up with surprise. It took a discerning eye to recognize his style from just the example of the Nativity.
He waited for her to ask why he buried himself in the hinterlands, but instead she nibbled the biscuit. He took a scalding mouthful of tea, and cleared his throat.
"I...why do you have a reindeer?"
The teacher let out a low chuckle. "Most people ask where I got him. Reynard was a bequest, actually--before I came here I was a private tutor for a young man whose grandfather owned a small herd of reindeer. Reynard and I became friends, and when the old man died I found he'd left the nuisance to me in his will." She shrugged, not looking at all put out. "I suppose I could give him to a zoo, but we're buddies, Reynard and I. And he keeps me on my toes."
"He certainly seems...lively," the woodcarver said truthfully.
She laughed again. "He's a pain in the ass," she said frankly, "but I love him."
That odd tightness rippled across the woodcarver's chest again, and he took another drink. As though sensing his mood, the teacher fell silent, finishing her biscuit and sipping tea with an air of courtesy.
She wasn't staring, he gave her that; she must have been curious, but her eyes rested on her cup, or drifted back to the Nativity, and the admiration in them warmed him slightly. It was true that the figures were only a whimsy, but he was fond of them.
Returning his cup to the tray, he rose. "There's more tea if you want it," he said brusquely, and pulled on his gloves.
The lean-to next to the stable held the mules' cart, his axe and other heavy tools, and the long sled he used to haul supplies in the winter. It had steel runners, and metal hoops for straps; it would be a little heavy for Reynard to pull, the woodcarver judged, but the teacher was slender and the path back to the road level.
He went over it quickly to make sure that it was still in good condition, then carried it out to the stable yard and left it there.
The tray had been returned to the kitchen, he saw when he went back in, though the teacher had resumed her seat at the table. "It's ready," he said, and without a word she rose and put on her coat and hat.
Her reserve faded slightly when she saw the sled. "Did you make this as well?" she asked, and the woodcarver shrugged a yes. It was a tool, nothing more, but his evenings were long and quiet, and he'd taken his time with it. The front curved up in a graceful scroll, and he'd planed the boards silky smooth; the sled had a certain elegance despite its plebian use.
The teacher bent and ran a hand over the front, long fingers still bare to the cold air. "It's beautiful too."
The woodcarver cleared his throat, feeling more tangled by the minute. "Do you need something to serve as reins?"
"What? Oh--no." She straightened and reached into her pocket, pulling out two long straps. "This'll do."
The teacher must have felt his doubt, for she smiled at him. "Reynard's trained to pull, and he knows the way home. All I have to do is hang on."
The woodcarver found himself doubting that as well, but it wasn't any of his business. Together they went back to the stable, and the teacher put a hand on Reynard's head. The reindeer followed her without protest; the woodcarver handed out one final handful of oats to the mules before following and closing the door after himself.
The teacher had already fastened the reins to Reynard's bridle and was threading them through the pull rings on the front of the sled. The reindeer had his head up, the bells chiming faintly with each flick of his ears, and he looked alert and ready to run.
The teacher wrapped her scarf securely, drew on her mittens, and settled herself on the sled, bracing her feet and wrapping the reins around her hands. "Which way is the road?" she asked humbly.
The woodcarver pointed, and she nodded. "I'll bring it back as soon as I can." She smiled at him, or at least he thought she did; her mouth was covered by the scarf, but her eyes crinkled.
He made a vague motion with his head, torn between telling her he'd pick it up on his next trip and wanting her to bring it back tomorrow so he wouldn't have to anticipate her visit, and stepped out of the way.
The teacher tugged lightly on the reins, turning Reynard in the direction she wanted him to go, then shook them. "Let's go home, boy!"
The beast broke into a heavy run--heavy, but fast. The sled jolted forward in a cloud of snow, and the woodcarver heard the teacher whoop as Reynard ran. Within moments they had careened down the path to the road and vanished, leaving behind just the tracks in the snow.
Silence descended. The woodcarver blinked, sighed in relief, and went back inside.
But the teacher's presence seemed to linger beyond his washing the cups and pot and eating the last two biscuits. The faintest trace of her scent hung in the air; the woodcarver couldn't quite name it, but it reminded him of summers he'd forgotten, sunlight and heat and green life.
Tightening his lips, he brushed crumbs from his kitchen counter and went to his bench to lose himself in his craft.
It wasn't until he had climbed into bed that night that he realized he'd forgotten to ask why she decorated her reindeer.
Grissom...for so we shall call him, now that there is someone to speak his name...didn't know when to expect the teacher to return his sled, but the day after Christmas brought heavy snow that turned into a two-day blizzard. He settled into his home like a badger in a comfortable burrow, spending the short daylight hours at his workbench and the evenings reading. The mules, used to storms, drowsed most of the time, saving their energy for when the skies would clear and they could trample down the snow in their frolics.
By the fourth day he had almost forgotten the teacher, lulled into his easy winter routine by the storm, but just after ten o'clock of the blindingly sunny morning, he heard someone outside.
He opened the door before his visitor could knock. It was the teacher again, this time on skis, towing his sled behind her. There was no sign of Reynard.
"Hi!" she said cheerfully, gliding to a fairly expert stop and ducking out of the strap that pulled the empty sled. She wore a pack, and the green hat again.
Grissom felt another surge of that tangled, uncomfortable emotion, part displeasure at being disturbed, part a shy pleasure at seeing this fearless young woman again. "Ms. Sidle."
She grinned at that, the engaging smile that made him want to smile back. "Sara. I insist." She saved him the trouble of coming up with an answer by waving a ski pole at the sled. "Where do you want it?"
Grissom stepped forward. "I'll take care of it." And then listened, in a sort of wondering horror, as his mouth kept going. "Come inside; I just made a pot of coffee."
The teacher...Sara...shrugged, still cheerful. "Okay, thank you." She bent to unsnap her skis, and Grissom caught up the sled's lead to take it around to the shed, scolding himself all the while. Was he mad, to ask her in again? There was absolutely no reason for her to stay, and a whole host of reasons to speed her on her way, and yet he couldn't bring himself to rescind the invitation.
The sled was easily put away; Grissom returned to his door, stamping the snow from his boots before stepping inside. Sara had hung her jacket and scarf from the same peg as before, and was standing in front of his table. Grissom kept the Nativity set out for the twelve days past Christmas as well as before, and she was bent slightly, examining them again.
"You may touch," he said gruffly, knowing it was silly to forbid her; the figures weren't fragile, and she was no careless child.
Sara sent him a quick shy smile over her shoulder, and lifted the Mary figure with great care, making a small sound of delight when she discovered that the infant Jesus in the figure's lap was its own separate piece.
"Oh, this is clever," she said, cradling the tiny wooden infant in her palm. "No manger?"
Grissom shrugged, hanging up his own coat and heading for the kitchen and the coffee. "My...mother never liked them. She said that no true mother would leave her newborn in a manger and then just stand over it."
Sara chuckled. "Very true." She set down Mary and put the Baby in her lap with a delicate touch. "Oh, I brought you something. As a thank-you, for Reynard and the sled."
She bent to rummage in the pack at her feet, coming up with a cardboard box that she handed to him with another smile. Apprehensive, Grissom lifted the lid, to be confronted with a pile of sugar cookies in the shape of...reindeer.
"I didn't make them," Sara added, blushing slightly. "I mean, I cut them out, but I'm hopeless at baking anything. Mrs. Branes at the manse mixed them up for me."
Grissom stared down at the little confections, their antlers and edges brown and crisp, and felt his chest tightening again. He literally could not remember the last time anyone had brought him a gift, let alone one that they had made. Not since his mother's death had anyone cared enough to bother.
He looked back up at the teacher, who was looking uncertain, and slowly a smile crept over his face, rusty and shy. "Thank you," he said.
Sara smiled back, her full-blown inviting grin, and the sight made him dizzy and light.
The woodcarver's life changed with the turn of the new year. The teacher came back again and again, ostensibly to bring him something or ask a question, but soon they left off the excuses and she just came to visit. Grissom found himself opening slowly up to her, a woman who was not puzzled by him like the rest of the villagers, someone with as sharp and hungry a mind as his own. She would ski out to see him as long as the snow held, or ride behind Reynard on her own little sled, uncaring of the snow in her face; and then as spring advanced she would walk into the greening woods and find him.
He grew to anticipate her visits; they were not frequent, as she had many duties at the school, but they were all the sweeter for that, and sometimes he would even come out to look for her when she was due to arrive. She always smiled at him, pleased and thoughtful and full of energy, and occasionally Grissom would wonder why he liked her so much, but he didn't ask himself too many questions.
Gradually, as spring became summer, she coaxed him into coming to the village on occasion, to help her with the astronomy and biology classes she was teaching. Under her eagle eye, the children were respectful, and Grissom found himself relaxing, showing them how to set up a telescope to climb to the thickly strewn summer stars. Reynard would prick up his ears when he saw Grissom, knowing that a good scratch was in the offing. And if any of the villagers thought it strange that the surly hermit of the forest was becoming almost ordinary, they had the grace to say nothing, at least within his hearing.
Thoughts of Sara started to creep into Grissom's hours, but they were good ones; he worked as he always did, read and cut wood and tended his mules, but the creations that blossomed under his fingers seemed more graceful to him, more filled with life. He had always appreciated the beauty of the forest, but he began to see it elsewhere also--in the trim and tidy houses of the village, the sound of comfortable laughter coming from the coffeehouse, the clasp of hands as an older sister guided a younger brother across the street.
And, as the summer waned towards autumn and Grissom learned to smile at the villagers almost as he smiled at Sara, he began to have thoughts of her that he had not had of any woman since he had walked away from his old life.
They frightened him, and he grew gruff again, retreating back to the cool green depths of his forest and wrestling with the idea. He didn't want to need anyone; he was terrified, and he didn't like it.
Sara saw the change in him, and grew quieter, but she did not turn away, even when his words were hard. One day, in a fit of temper, he almost shouted.
"Why are you here? Didn't the village warn you what a sour old man I am?"
She merely blinked at him. "I didn't believe them," she said.
"You should have," he said bitterly.
She surprised him with a laugh--a quiet one, but still a laugh. "They were wrong," was all she said, but it silenced him. And that evening, after she'd gone, he thought back to when they'd first met. He'd been gruff then, certainly, but she had never expected it of him, never been anything less than friendly.
As though the villagers' tales had meant nothing to her at all. She had merely expected the best from him...and he had gradually supplied it.
It took him until the next day that he realized she hadn't answered his question, and that only made him wonder more.
It was a few weeks later, as the broad-leafed trees were flaming into color, that he asked her casually whether she was settling in the village.
Sara shrugged, stretching her arms over her head. "I don't think so," she said, a little restlessly, and Grissom's heart quailed. "I love it here, and it's perfect for Reynard, but...I think I'm looking for something. I don't know what it is, but when I find it I'll stay there."
Grissom nodded, and changed the subject, and when he walked her home in the swift-falling twilight he was quiet, but then so was she.
The woodcarver returned to his forest home that night, under a waxing moon, and decided that perhaps coming out of it in the first place had been a mistake.
He made all sorts of plans, wrote notes in his head to leave her for the next time she would come and when he would be conveniently out in the deep forest. He knew that if he left no word she would come look for him, and his sore heart wanted no further sight of her.
But a cold rain fell the next two days, and while Grissom didn't venture out any more than he had to, still his throat grew rough and his bones began to ache. By the third day he could barely drag himself from his bed, and only tea held any appeal.
By the fourth, he was raving.
There followed a long time of confusion, when nothing seemed real and his dreams pursued him down the corridors of his mind, dragging up horrors from his past and making him live them. He tossed and twisted in his sheets, by turns freezing and burning, For a long time he could do nothing but suffer, worrying about Apollo and Artemis but unable to stand long enough to get across the room.
And then his dreams turned sweeter somehow, though they were still strange; Sara came into them, her cool touch soothing him, her voice calling him back from the nightmares. She held water to his parched lips and smoothed the blanket over his shoulders, and he caught her hand and begged for her promise to stay.
He couldn't hear her answer, but it felt as though rain fell on his fiery skin, and it let him sleep and heal.
Waking from the illness was a relief. Grissom felt as though he had been wrung out and left in the sun to dry, but his mind was clear and fever no longer lashed him. The room was dim, only one light on against the night, and for a while he thought he was alone, but then it came to him that his sheets were clean and his house smelled like soup and herbs, not sickness.
And then the double door opened, and a low voice spoke to the mules as a slim figure slipped inside to shut it. Grissom let out a long breath, one worry relieved--someone was looking after his charges.
Then the figure padded silently to the kitchen, turning on the water in a low stream to wash, and of course it was Sara. Who else would come to tend him? he thought. Who else would even notice?
He was too weak to even sit up and every fiber ached, but Grissom watched as she moved gracefully around his home. When she came to his bed and laid a long hand on his forehead, he wanted with all his heart to reach up and grasp it in his.
"I'm awake," he said instead, surprised at the hoarseness of his voice.
The light was behind Sara, so he could not see her expression, but she let out a long breath, and her shoulders dropped as if a burden had been lifted from them.
"Good," was all she said, her voice low, but it was heartfelt.
"How long--" he managed, before his throat scraped the words to nothing, and Sara reached to the little cabinet beside his bed for the pitcher there.
"Four days," she said, over the plash of water into a mug. "Apollo and Artemis miss you."
Grissom would have snorted if he'd had the strength. Sara slipped a strong arm behind his shoulders and lifted him enough that he could drink, and the water was cool and sweet and a blessing to his parched mouth.
"Thank you," he muttered when she let him lie flat again. Sara turned to put the mug back on the cabinet, and there was just enough light for him to see the curve of her smile.
Grissom's recovery was too slow to suit him, though when he complained Sara merely grinned at him. She stayed a little past what propriety might allow, but there were none to disapprove, and Grissom had moments when he was tempted to feign a relapse that she might stay longer.
But eventually he could walk across his home without feeling dizzy, and lift the buckets to water the mules, and Sara packed up her things to take her leave. As she buttoned up her jacket, Grissom took a firm grip on his courage, and reached out to close his fingers around one slender wrist.
"I don't want you to go," he told her, hoping that his words would carry all the meanings he couldn't speak out.
Her hands paused, and her eyes rose to his. "I know," she said quietly.
Grissom didn't release her. "What are you looking for?" He knew she had no answer, but he couldn't keep back the question.
She bit her lip, and he felt a tremor quivering under his fingers. "Grissom--"
"Gil," he corrected, giving her the one thing he had left to give. "When you find it, Sara, tell me."
He kept his voice gentle, biting back the pleading that wanted to take it over.
She seemed about to say something, but in the end Sara only smiled, small and wry, and twisted her wrist until she could clasp his fingers with her own. "I will."
For a moment their hands lay warmly together, palm against palm, and then she was opening the door.
"Goodbye, Gil," she said, and then she was gone.
And with that he had to be content.
Autumn whitened into winter; Grissom regained his strength, and without a word resumed his visits to the village. The children greeted him with enthusiasm, a novel sensation, and he returned their smiles with a sort of shy reserved pleasure. Sara too smiled when she saw him, and Grissom found his heart trembling once more on the edge of something unnamable.
He began work on a new project, much larger than most of his work--a little sleigh, light enough for Reynard to pull but set high on its runners so that the snow thrown up from his hooves would not reach the driver's face. Into it Grissom put all his skill, giving it a swanlike line and carving tiny flowers along every edge. He hid it in the shed so that Sara wouldn't see it when she came, and hoped forlornly that he would see her ride in it, not only that winter but for many to come.
The week before Christmas Sara went to adorn Reynard for the holiday, and Grissom followed her out to her small stable to hold the scissors and ribbon as she worked. The reindeer stood patiently as Sara wound and tied; Grissom watched and handed her bells when she asked for them. Before she finished, however, he dug in his pockets.
"Here," he said, laying the tiny wooden stars in her palm. "I thought he might like a few new ones this year."
Sara turned them over, admiring the delicate points and the filigree work, and gave him a blinding smile. "They're beautiful, Gil. Thank you."
She threaded them onto the ribbons, letting them dance above Reynard's ears. When she finished, she patted the reindeer's shoulder, and he shook his head to make the bells tinkle. "Beautiful," she repeated with satisfaction.
They swung wide the door of her stable, to let Reynard out into the paddock. The reindeer paced regally past them, and stopped in the new layer of snow to snuff the air. His breath puffed on the air, and Sara and Grissom looked on in admiration.
Then with one bound he was over the paddock fence and running gaily into the forest. Sara threw up her hands. "Reynard! You bad deer--!"
Grissom burst out laughing, doubling over and roaring, and barely feeling Sara smack him lightly on the shoulder. He hadn't laughed so hard in years, but the sight of Sara's amused aggravation as her pet vanished into the trees was too much.
"Just for that you can help me find him," she snarled through her grin, and as soon as he could breathe Grissom agreed.
They found their skis and went out, following Reynard's tracks into the woods. The reindeer had obviously gone wherever his fancy took him, for the hoofprints wandered in no straight line. But it was only midmorning, and they had hours before the sun set, so they took their time, sliding atop the snow and talking of stars and trees and the intractability of reindeer.
"Won't he come home eventually?" Grissom asked, as they paused for a breather in a small clearing hung about with snow-dusted pine.
Sara rolled her eyes. "Eventually, sure, if he doesn't get himself in trouble first." She tugged her hat a little lower. "I can't help worrying, though."
"There are no such things as hill trolls," Grissom reminded her as they pushed off again, and Sara laughed.
"Are you sure?"
The trail wound on, leading them thither and yon, until they broke into another clearing...one holding a familiar high-peaked house.
Grissom groaned. Sara shook her head. "I guess he did come home after all," she said in a peculiar voice, and skied ahead to the little stable.
Grissom's heart gave a peculiar lurch. He followed, wondering if he had his answer.
Sure enough, Reynard had leapt the fence and gone in the open stable door, and was kneeling in the straw with the mules. Apollo was hip to hip with his friend, and Artemis was nibbling on one of the ribbons.
Sara shut the door with a moue of amused disgust. "Wretched animal," she said, her voice full of affection.
Grissom chuckled. "You might as well come inside," he said. "I think I have some biscuits somewhere."
He found them, and the coffee, and Sara built a fire in his little hearth as he assembled the snack. They sat on the rug in front of the fire, munching in amiable silence, a little tired after their exercise and half-mesmerized by the leaping flames.
It was after the biscuits were gone that Grissom looked over at Sara, at her flushed cheeks and dreaming expression, and dared. "If I kissed you, would you run away?"
She turned to him, her eyes twinkling. "That's funny...I was just thinking the same thing about you."
The conclusion was inevitable.
So the teacher found what she was searching for, and the woodcarver found his heart once more. That Christmas Eve he added another figure to his crèche, as always; but this year it was a reindeer, graceful and sleek, with slender ribbons wound around his antlers and gemmed with the tiniest of silver bells. His head was not held proudly up, but bent humbly over the Baby in Mary's lap, so that the fairy tinkle might make Jesus smile.
And Reynard shared the stable with the mules as Sara shared Grissom's home. For as Sara said, the reindeer had found his way home for the both of them.