Edition 23: The Guardian of the Mountain by Erin Gitchell
Hanza makes a little girl’s mistake on the mountain and pays for it with her life. Being a monster is a lonely life, and eventually even the adventurers forget her. A poignant exploration of the intertwining of nature and myth. SY
“One berry for you, two berries for me, three berries for the one nobody can see,” the little girl sang.
Plop, plop, plop, answered the plump, red berries as they landed in her pail.
“Four berries for Mama, five berries for Da, and six berries for Nana so she won’t be sad.”
Plop, plop, plop.
The little girl, called Hanza, brushed a long golden braid over her shoulder and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. It was a good day, with a warm, bright sun and a gentle breeze, and Hanza was happy to be in the forest picking juicy berries, since no one was there to stop her from putting a berry in her mouth for every three that went in her pail. By the time her pail was heavy, Hanza’s sweet mouth begged for a cool drink, so she searched for a stream.
On this mountain, in a seemingly ordinary part of the forest, there is a short stretch of stream that emerges from a cluster of black rocks and dives back into the earth not a hundred feet later. All in the village knew to avoid this stream, the Black Stream, the Cursed Stream. But, all young Hanza knew that day was her thirst, so in innocence she dipped and drank three times using her hands.
Once her thirst was quenched, she looked up and met a pair of red eyes hidden deep within a hooded cloak, resting above the long, orange snout of a fox, or a creature very much like one. He stood on two legs, which would’ve been enough to stay Hanza, but then he spoke, drawing circles in the air with one furry claw:
“Poor babe, thrice drank from this stream—
Three horns shall sprout from your crown
Six claws shall transform your perfect hands
Nine poisoned spikes shall emerge from your tail.”
She looked at her hands, red with berry juice, horrified, and barely heard the rest of what the strange fox-creature said:
“Easy child, this curse shall wait,
For your innocence protects you.
Only once you’re a woman grown
Shall this change occur, inevitable.”
Hanza ran home as fast as she could, berries forgotten, and arrived with burning legs and lungs. Somehow, the townsfolk knew what had happened to her, for as soon as Hanza relayed the story to her parents, there came a pounding at the front door.
“Let us in, Sven!”
And her Da, dear Da, told Mama to take Hanza to the fishing shack on the mountain while he dealt with the townsfolk. He said he’d come after them, but he never did.
Ten fingers, good, she thinks, they are still my hands.
Each day, there’s a moment of icy terror between the time she opens her eyes and the moment she focuses them on her hands. All too soon, they will change.
Time is short.
Hanza thanks someone, not the gods, but maybe Time if Time can be thanked. Soon enough she will curse him instead. She draws a circle in the frost on her window, giving into the daily compulsion with no resistance, at least not anymore.
“Hanza!” her mother barks from below. “The wood.”
She nods quickly, though her mother cannot see her in the loft, and gets out of her bed. With deft fingers she fastens her buttons and laces her boots, barely losing the warmth from her bed in the process.
“Hurry, the fire’s dying.”
Her mother barely spares Hanza a glance as she grabs a shawl and opens the door, and instead stares at the sharp boning knife mounted on the wall before stirring a pot on the small, old stove. The same unspoken message, every morning: When you change, I’ll stab you through the heart myself.
More than once Hanza has woken in the night to find her mother standing above her, the knife flashing in the moonlight. The loft, once meant for drying fish, is a small space—there is nowhere for Hanza to run.
“I should just do it now,” her mother would say, “And save us both the trouble.”
There would be a few moments of pinched silence, during which Hanza would blink slowly and breathe carefully to avoid startling her mother. Finally, her mother would come to some kind of realization and lower the weapon.
“I should do it,” she’d say, “Gods know you deserve it. But I can’t do it while you wear the face of my child. Mark my words, demon; once you change, I will end you myself.”
This is what Hanza recalls while piling firewood onto her arm. Daily, she considers running away, and today is no different.
What’s really staying her feet and preventing her from dropping the wood and melting into the forest? Surely not love for her mother, which has worn away over the years since the night her father was killed. How could anyone love a mother who has nothing but blame and hate for her daughter? Still, there must be some kernel of feeling lodged deep within Hanza, planting her feet and preventing flight.
Hanza carries the armful inside, shaking off the light layer of snow in the doorway, careful not to get any on the floor. She’d just have to wipe it up when it melts.
“There,” her mother says, nodding to a spot by the stove, but not too close.
They do not eat meals together, and no more is said between them than necessary. They go about their separate chores, designated long ago, in silence; Hanza’s mother keeps as much distance as she can between them at all times. Now, Hanza prefers it.
It could be any day, Hanza thinks as she sweeps the floor.
When she began her moon bleeding five years before, Hanza thought it would be then, for what other sign could there be that she was a woman? But, the curse waited. Hanza’s mother grew more restless every year, almost eager for the change. Both of them expected some kind of drastic ceremony—smoke, wind, magic lights in the sky—that would mark the moment, but that’s not what happened.
No, it was during the summer of Hanza’s seventeenth year that she woke silently in the night, crept out of the house on two feet and ran into the forest on four, six-claws each.
Twelve years shimmer on her pale arm. Every year on the anniversary of her change, in the light of the full moon, Hanza carefully digs a line in her flesh with the single claw that never changes with the rest of her. Twelve years, twelve scars.
A glance at her reflection in the mountain lake yields the same result as the month before: a pale, hard woman with a perfect face pierced by golden eyes, eyes glimmering with fire inside.
There are no markings on her woman’s skin but for the ones she inflicted upon herself. The spear that slit her hide, or the arrow that glanced off her brow, left no mark on either her beast hide or any she could see now. Hanza is suspicious that she cannot be killed, but hasn’t yet summoned the bravery required to test this suspicion.
Instead, she dives into the lake and scrubs her skin and hair in the only ritual that ties her to humanity. She grabs a handful of sand from the bottom and rubs it on her arms, repeating the process with her legs, stomach, face, and hair until she feels like a woman again. She knows by now that she can never be a woman again, not truly. This single night every year is only meant to restore her sanity. It’s a gift as much as a curse and she’s not sure how it happens, but she is fairly sure why—it’s a reminder. Though, how could she ever forget?
Dragon, some have called her, Demon, Gryffon, or even Harpie. But Beast is her usual name. Occasionally, a man who thinks himself brave enough will scale her mountain and hunt her. Hanza hides and evades, usually successful in deterring the would-be-hero so he leaves her mountain with his life, convinced she’s a myth after all.
Not all are so willing to believe.
Too many men have become obsessed with the hunt, spending weeks or months on the mountain and memorizing every hiding spot, every track Hanza has made while she’s called this place home. They stake out her cave and prevent her from resting, so eventually Hanza grows tired and weary and gives the men what they want—a fight. But, they are pitifully weak against her and none have survived.
Of course, she’s tried talking to them; that was the first thing she tried. But, even if she could manage human speech with her long, forked tongue, none would likely listen.
Beast, they would say, Liar. Monster.
Many of the men who’ve met their death at Hanza’s claws and teeth spent the entire fight muttering prayers meant to protect them against evil. Oh Mother, have mercy! they’d shout, Shroud me in your embrace, protect me from the Eternal Night! Empty words that no more lessened the force of her blows than a puff of wind could weaken a giant oak.
I am not evil, she thinks to them as the light leaves their eyes, but it does nothing for them or her. They are dead and she lingers on.
She doesn’t eat them, though it occurred to her once that the townsfolk probably think that’s what she does. Instead, she lays each broken body into a cairn she built, covering the opening time and time again with stones to protect the bodies against animals that would eat them—the bears and wolves that live here, who leave Hanza well alone.
One full moon night on the shore of the lake, Hanza attempted to count all the white scars that formed neat rows all along her left arm, legs, torso—anywhere she could reach with her claw—but she lost track. Hundreds, a thousand…too many years to count.
This realization neither distressed nor amazed her—she accepted it, just as she had come to accept her fate as the beast on the mountain. But soon she’ll have to think of new ways to keep track, new designs to slice into her skin. She considers, briefly, what eternity would look like carved into her skin, but decides there’s no sense in imagining that now.
In her time on the mountain, she had seen the village at the base—Kitski? Katsjo? Hanza cannot recall—become a city, a city that relied on the riches of the mountain to grow. Men from the city would venture up the mountain to cut the sound, vibrant timber and kill plump animals for their luxurious furs, for the trees and animals flourished under Hanza’s guardianship and became the finest in her part of the world.
It was during that time hero after would-be-hero attempted to kill her, so that the men might farm the riches closer to her home at the top, without fear for their lives.
Eventually the city fell, too bloated to sustain itself, and the mountain flourished with Hanza’s care once more. Now, perhaps a handful of the houses are occupied, and their inhabitants leave Hanza well alone.
The time after the city fell was the loneliest time of Hanza’s existence. Heroes forgot about her mountain, and the few people who lived at the base left it alone out of sheer habit. The creatures of the mountain, who had come to respect Hanza as their protector, never came close enough for her to try and communicate with them. They kept their distance, and so Hanza’s loneliness grew.
She took to drawing her favorite animals in the cave, carefully scratching lines into the stone the same way she carved lines into her flesh. Owl, deer, bear, and hawk. Chipmunk, wolf, badger, and hummingbird. Hanza could scratch such detail into the stone, for she had seen these creatures thousands upon thousands of times and knew each one’s face better than her own. When she was done, she’d lie in her cave and gaze at her handiwork.
At first, she tried talking to the drawings, but the accompanying feeling of shame was worse than the loneliness, so instead she stared at the lines, satisfied.
In time, she thought, I will add the forest, and the clouds, and the sun.
She had come to love her mountain, though she hadn’t quite realized just how much yet.
On a spring day like any other, Hanza roamed her mountain, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her back. She stopped to drink from the cursed stream, for she had no reason to fear it now. As she drank her fill, she sensed a man making his way up the mountain. Water dripped from her chin as she focused on the man, who was still too far away for her to see him. It had been a few decades since someone came this far, and Hanza felt excitement puzzlingly coupled with her usual sense of apprehension.
The man’s journey was slow, and his intentions unclear. Usually, Hanza could detect determination and violence in the would-be-heroes’ hearts; this time, she could feel nothing but calm curiosity. She waited and watched as the man meandered across the mountain, in a generally upward direction, but seemingly in no hurry to reach any destination. Did he not know where he set foot?
For weeks, Hanza watched him as he studied the plants and animals of her mountain. Both his careful exploration and attention to detail fascinated her. This was the first man who hadn’t treated her home like a battleground; no, he treated her home with an almost tangible reverence.
When she could, she’d steal glances into his books—books filled with his renderings of her plants and animals. The detail and sparing use of precious color awoke in Hanza feelings of remorse and awe, for how could a stranger discover the secrets of her home in such a short time? It had taken her many lifetimes to learn those same details, to appreciate their intricacies.
But what really intrigued her, she eventually realized, was his lack of interest in her. Had he really not heard of her, the beast on the mountain?
For the first time, Hanza was content to leave him and roam mostly free, taking care to avoid him but not obsessing over the tracks she’d leave behind. In her heart, she knew neither she nor her mountain were in any danger from this man. She felt at peace, which was such an extraordinary sensation to her.
Months passed and Hanza’s curiosity grew. The man ate nothing but vegetation and nuts, and for some reason the mountain predators left him alone. His swarthy skin grew darker and Hanza realized that she’d never seen a man quite like him before; his skin and black hair were not shared with the fair and ruddy warriors who had challenged her in the past. He must be from the south, she thought, which is why he never heard of me.
A few weeks later, Hanza was watching the man through the brush. She was so sure she had been silent while settling in between the nettles and briars, but a couple hours later the man spoke to her.
“I know you are there, I sense you,” he said, not looking up from his drawing. The charcoal scratched on his notebook page. “I am not afraid of you, and…if you are not afraid of me, why not come out from your spot and let me draw you?” He spoke softly, carefully, and Hanza realized he was trying not to frighten her.
Surely he does not expect something like me! Hanza thought, amused. She briefly contemplated ignoring his request, but rashly decided to heed it instead. If he’s the kind of man she expects, he would not run away in fear.
Slowly, she raised her head above the brush, until she met the man’s dark eyes.
“The Guardian of the Mountain,” he said, nodding deeply.
Guardian? Hanza thought, Not Beast? Confused, she lowered her head and slunk away, tail flicking the bracken on her way to the cave. After spending a few days considering his words, Hanza set out to find the man again. Maybe he would tell her more.
He was easy to find, for he did not try and hide his presence. This time Hanza did not sneak—she walked right into the clearing and slowly lowered herself to the ground across from him, trying to let him know she would not harm him. But, he knew that. He nodded deeply in respect again, though he finished his drawing of a beetle before speaking.
“I thought you would come back,” he said, shutting his book tenderly. “I’ve been hoping you would make yourself known to me, in time.”
Hanza said nothing, for she couldn’t, but even if she had the power of speech she would still see what the man had to say first.
“This mountain is magical,” he began, gesturing to the forest with an open hand. “I journeyed far to study it, though many called my intentions mad.”
He smiled, and Hanza realized she hadn’t seen anyone smile like that since before…since long before she changed. A mixture of sadness and relief washed over her, and she almost missed what the man said next.
“You can understand me, yes?” This time it was Hanza’s turn to nod. “But, you do not have the power of speech?”
She shook her head gently, so that her horns did not disrupt the delicate lavender flowers to her right. Then, she hissed with her forked tongue, growled deep in her throat, and roared as softly as possible to illustrate the extent of her abilities.
“Hm. I admit a little disappointment; I was hoping to be able to communicate with you somehow, so that I might learn your story. I don’t suppose you know letters?”
In answer, Hanza scratched one of the runes she knows into the bare dirt between them, the rune for peace. The man’s eyebrows furrowed together as he bent his neck to study it, and then he shook his head.
“I’ve seen that rune here on the mountain, by the stone cairn. It looks like something from the Old Tongue, the language my people used centuries ago, but I do not know the meaning.” His face changed from fierce concentration to compassion as he sensed Hanza’s distress. “Do not despair, Great One. I will find a way to get the answers I seek.”
An idea came to Hanza then, an idea so outlandish she almost shied away from it. Instead, she wiped out the rune in the dirt. In its place, she drew a circle and pointed to the sky with an extended claw.
“Sun?” he asked, and Hanza shook her head. “Moon?”
Hanza nodded and drew the shape of her lake, with wavy lines to indicate water.
“Moon on the lake? Night by the lake?” Hanza cocked her head to the side and pointed to the full circle with her claw. “Ah, full moon on the lake.”
Her full moon was just a few weeks away. Hanza nodded once more, and, before she could change her mind and scrub out the drawing, she got up from her spot and left the man in the clearing. Out of his view, she ran through the forest, jumping off the larger trees that could bear her weight, all in attempt to rid herself of the strange feeling lodged in her chest…no, not strange. It was simply a feeling that she hadn’t felt for centuries: hope.
Hanza’s heart pounded with anticipation as she watched the sun set over the lake. Usually, she felt at peace during this time, knowing she would change soon. Tonight, with the man watching from nearby, Hanza was impatient. For the very first time, she’d be able to talk to someone!
As soon as the sun set and the moon rose, Hanza could feel the rip of her skin as she shed her beast form. The pain did not bother her, not anymore, she just felt relief as she stood up on two legs and stretched her arms towards the moon.
The man watched silently from the edge of the forest. Once she finished stretching, he slowly made her way toward her across the sand.
“Who are you?” he asked, no more concerned or embarrassed with her nakedness than she was.
She thought she might understand the question, but doubt silenced her tongue.
“I am Zayn,” he said, placing a hand on his chest. Then, he gestured to Hanza. “Who are you?”
“I am called Beast,” she said, for she believed she had forgotten her true name. She hadn’t heard it in such a very long time.
“Beast? No, that can’t be right. Surely you had a name once, long ago. Try and recall it; try and remember what your mother would call you.”
Perhaps speaking aloud for the first time in centuries restored some of her memory, or the suggestion of her mother awakened enough resentment to trigger a long-forgotten sound—ansa! The sound echoed around her skull—ansa! Ansa! Ansa!
No, that wasn’t quite right, but it was close. Ansa, the wood! Almost…
“Ansa, Onsa, Ansla, Hansa…” Hanza muttered, then, “Hanza. My name was Hanza.”
Once the name settled, it felt true. Hanza was who she had been, so long ago.
“It is Hanza—that is who you truly are,” Zayn said. “Do you make this change every full moon?”
Hanza could hear the hope in his voice, and she was sad to disappoint him.
“No, just once a year, on the anniversary of the curse. You may ask all the questions you wish, but I must attend to something first.”
“Please, take all the time you need.”
Zayn settled onto a rock on the beach and got out his book and charcoal. He sketched Hanza carving a line into her leg with her claw and drew her bathing in the moonlight. His heart caught in his throat; he could not recall seeing anything more beautiful.
True beauty, he thought, not the false beauty of painted ladies and molded figures.
His fingers moved fast to catch image after image of her, so that he might make a better, more worthy illustration with his meager stash of inks and pigments. Anything to help remind her of who she truly is.
Once she was done with her bath, Hanza left the lake and sat on her knees near Zayn, who stayed on his rock to take notes and make even more sketches.
“Do you not feel the night chill?” he asked, and she shook her head, sprinkling droplets onto her lined skin.
“I haven’t felt cold for a long time. Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t even realized.”
“How long have you been the Guardian of the Mountain?”
Hanza smiled at the title before sighing deeply. She held out her left arm and cocked her head delicately to the right.
“Perhaps you could help me count, though it might take most of the night.” She tenderly stroked her scarred left arm, careful of the claw on her right hand.
“Each scar represents one year in this form?” Zayn’s eyes grew wide, the moon reflected in them.
Under his intense gaze, Hanza averted her eyes.
“Then…I see.” He tried to estimate the number of tiny lines that decorated almost every inch of her skin, except for her unmarred right arm. That’s the only place she couldn’t reach with her claw.
They talked until the sun rose. By then, Hanza’s voice, long unused before her night with Zayn, was hoarse. They talked of everything—the curse, the mountain, the many heroes who had tried to slay her, and a bit about things Hanza would rather not speak of. She hesitantly shared her feelings of loneliness, the desperation that sometimes plagued her, and how at the time, the change had been almost a relief after a decade of icy tolerance from her mother. She could laugh about the span of a decade now, and did.
While Hanza told her story, Zayn worked hard to keep his face as neutral as possible. Pity, compassion, and admiration threatened to well up inside and burst out of him, interrupting her story, but he held his tongue. Instead, those feelings flowed out of his hand, through the charcoal and onto the page.
As he drew the curve of her face with the gentleness of a caress, he made a quiet promise to restore her to her true form, at any cost.
Not long after the full moon, Hanza came to the dwelling that Zayn had built for himself out of fallen wood and bracken. It was damp, and surely cold in the mountain nights. Now that summer was fading, it would get colder still. Zayn’s books were wrapped tight in skins to protect them. Carefully, she grabbed one of the bundles in her mouth and made her way to her cave, gesturing with her head for him to follow. He grabbed two more bundles before hurrying after her, matching her long strides.
The cave was plenty big enough for the both of them. Hanza set Zayn’s belongings in an alcove, indicating that he was welcome to make his home in this part of her cave. He set his bundles down and looked around, gasping when he saw the scene on the wall.
“You made this?” he asked, voice soft with awe as he tenderly traced the carvings. She nodded before nuzzling the wall with her cheek. She was proud of her work and felt a warm wave of pleasure at Zayn’s delight.
She helped him make a home in the alcove by gathering moss for a bed, carrying stones to make a table and chair, and gathering wood for his fire near the cave’s entrance. Unlike Hanza, Zayn could feel the chill, and he could not see in the dark as she could. When he was putting his books on a stone shelf Hanza placed for him, one fell open onto the ground. Hanza stared, entranced by a drawing of her on the beach in the light of the full moon.
Zayn’s cheeks grew dark, but he showed her the next page, and the next, and soon Hanza was warm with pleasure again. The same attention and care he had used to draw her beloved creatures he had used on her, and she felt special.
Thankfully, Zayn understood her interest in his work, so they spent many evenings together with him seated on the floor against her side. While she looked over his shoulder, he would turn the pages of every single book he had crafted in his time on her mountain, telling her what he thought about the creatures. Hanza would gently bump his head with her own when she was ready for the next page, and he’d oblige with a chuckle.
Her only sorrow in seeing his work was being unable to tell him more about the creatures, which she’d learned over centuries of observation.
They passed the winter in this way and, for the first time, Hanza was sad to see the arrival of spring, for it meant Zayn would spend more time outside and less time curled against her. When the last of the snow melted, Zayn told her he had to leave. Hanza’s heart sunk in her chest, and in that instant she realized how deeply she had come to care for him. Bitter thoughts threatened to overwhelm her, and she almost missed his reason for leaving.
“I promised myself the night I saw your true form that I would do everything in my power to break your curse,” he told her, “and I can’t do that here. I must journey to my home country, to my former teacher, who has an entire library I can search through. The answer has to be there!”
Hanza hung her head for a few moments as she took in his words, but then she nuzzled him gently with her cheek. Zayn wouldn’t lie—he would do his best to keep his promise. But…his homeland had to be very far away. Hanza knew it wasn’t likely he’d ever come back, even with the strongest promise of them all.
“I will find a way to end your curse,” he said a few days later, resting his hand on her crown, just below her center horn. Hanza closed her eyes to cherish the closeness, knowing it would likely be the last time she’d ever see him. His bag was bundled on his back, filled with most of his books and a few essentials. He had left her a few of his precious books, even though Hanza tried to find a way for him to take them. Finally, he gave her a colored drawing of herself, in her woman’s skin.
“This says ‘Hanza’,” he had told her, running a finger over the symbols at the bottom. “Remember: this is who you truly are.”
The drawing was safe in her cave.
Gently, she set a claw on the back of his hand and waited, asking his permission. A moment passed, and he nodded. After he took a breath to brace himself, Hanza quickly, delicately carved a rune into his hand. Love. She would not have chosen this word if she thought he could understand it, but once he looked at the bleeding lines he let out a chuckle.
“I do recognize this one!” he said, eyes and smile bright, and Hanza’s heart stopped in fear that her feelings had been betrayed, but she needn’t have worried. “This one means ‘Beauty’ in the Old Tongue. It is…perfect for me. More perfect than you could know. Thank you.”
He wrapped a length of cloth around his hand and stroked her scaly cheek once more before turning away. He walked down her mountain the same way he came up it—slowly and methodically, but perhaps less full of curiosity than the year before.
She watched his path long after his form disappeared between the trees. Even when the moon rose, she kept vigil at her spot, wondering if he would stay the night in the village below or press on. Finally, Hanza could bear it no longer and returned to her cave, alone.
To mark the first year of Zayn’s absence, Hanza carefully carved a line in the flesh below her left eye. Until now, she’d never marked her face, but it felt right to do so this time. She knew by now Zayn would probably not return, but she could not deny the hope that he would. As the sun rose and a second year without Zayn began, she decided she would wait for him until she no longer could.
The feeling of loneliness that plagued her heart was so familiar, it was mostly easy for Hanza to try and forget, or, rather, forget without trying. She kept watch over her mountain, noting the passing of each season with acquiescence, and soon it was time to mark her face again. This time she carved a short diagonal across the vertical scar, which transformed it into the rune for Red. She did not notice that the trees were less full of leaves than the year before, or that the animals were a little skinnier.
Three years, three lines. Red became Blood. The songbirds were a bit quieter and their songs less bright, though Hanza took no notice.
Four years, four lines. Blood became Heart. The animals’ coats gleamed a little less and matted a little easier, though Hanza took no notice.
Five years, five lines. Heart became Life. The flowers would barely peep out of their buds before withering and falling to the ground, and again Hanza took no notice.
As the rune on Hanza’s cheek garnered more of her focus, the forest around her faded. With it, she faded. Her hide was losing its luster, and the fire in her eyes smoldered lazily.
Hanza would come to her senses staring at the drawings in her cave, curled in the alcove Zayn had used as his home. She had to resist the urges to scratch them out with her claws—Zayn had loved them so much. Instead, she’d stand on her hind legs and pull her claws loudly down the blank sections of stone, filling the cave walls with deep, vertical furrows.
Six years, six lines. Life turned into Love. This was a bittersweet year. Hanza spent hours recalling the rune she had left on Zayn’s hand, how it now matched the rune on her face. A part of her thought this would bring him back to her, but by the next full moon she chided herself bitterly for thinking she had such power.
Seven years, seven lines. Hanza stroked the scars with tenderness, relieved she could still recall Zayn’s face and voice. The latest line transformed the rune yet again—now it meant Hope. Hanza had laughed a little after adding the last line, for the irony, but also because she still felt hope inside.
“I will find a way,” he had said, and Hanza wanted so desperately to believe that.
Hope and despair warred within her, as they had every day since he left her mountain. Even if he never came back, the memory of him, someone who treated her like the woman she had been instead of the beast she was, might be enough to give her the courage she needs.
Courage for what? she asked herself, knowing the answer.
Soon it would be time for another change, for Hanza was growing weary and she was getting ready to test the suspicion she’d had so long before—could she really not die?
By now the forest and creatures on the mountain looked ragged, but still Hanza could not see the difference. In her heartbroken eyes, the forest looked as it always had. So, she spent her time between languishing in her cave, gently turning the pages of Zayn’s precious books, and padding lazily through the bracken when she thought she should.
She was lying in the forest, flicking her tail at a clump of dead grass and staring at a withered blossom, when she felt something stir. Her tail paused as she waited for it again, convinced it was nothing but hoping it wasn’t. Just when she lifted her tail to let it fall, she sensed it once more. This time, she raised her head and concentrated.
A man was making his way up the mountain.
Hanza leapt to her feet with a surge of excitement. The flowers around her burst open as she ran down the mountain, leaving a trail of bright color in the sea of grays and browns. When Zayn caught sight of her, he started running, too.
“Oh, Hanza,” he cried, dropping his bundle and rushing to her. “You thought I wouldn’t come back.”
And because it was true, Hanza let her head drop onto his shoulder. Her eyes closed with relief, and her heart thrummed with joy. She could feel his heart pounding, too, and Hanza couldn’t remember feeling happier than in that moment.
“I’m sorry it took me so long,” he said as they made their way up, “but for the longest time I couldn’t find anything useful. Now I know what I need to do. Tonight is your full moon, is it not? I made it in time? Good. Then please, take me to the stream you drank from. I need some of the water to make the remedy.”
Hanza, in her joy, didn’t question his motives. She led him to the stream, not noticing how small Zayn’s pack was, or his look of intense determination. All she believed was that tonight would be the last time she would change back into a woman, and it would be permanent.
“Please, wait there,” he said, pointing to a spot away from the stream.
Hanza obeyed and settled into the flowers that blossomed around her. As the flowers grew, she lost sight of Zayn.
A sudden pang of anxiety caused her to raise her head above the flowers, where she saw him lower his hands into the stream. She pounced, but it was too late—the fox creature appeared.
Hanza was frozen. She stared, fiery eyes wide, as the fox creature bowed deeply to Zayn. Zayn nodded in return. Then, the fox creature drew three circles in the air with the same furry claw, and in an instant Zayn transformed into a creature very much like Hanza.
Hanza took a step back, alarmed, as Zayn shook his head, disoriented. Then, Hanza heard his voice in her mind.
There never was a remedy, not for you to change back for good. For that I am sorrier than you can know. But, I thought if you weren’t lonely any longer, and I was brash enough to think you might be content with me…
In a single leap, Hanza landed in front of him and nuzzled his neck, unafraid that she would hurt him in this form. He nuzzled her back, igniting a deep purr in her throat.
Around them, the mountain exploded with life—flowers blossomed in vivid colors, trees sprouted strong, bright leaves, and the animals chirped, howled, twittered, and yipped their pleasure as the great revival swept over their home.
Content? Hanza thought to her mate. You are a fool indeed if you think I’ll be merely content with your company. I will love you until this mountain crumbles beneath our feet, and then I’ll find another way to love you more. Now, let’s go home.
Hanza and Zayn walked slowly up to their cave, enjoying the hum of life and beauty their union brought to the mountain. Though over a thousand years separated their lives, it was a new beginning for both of them.
And in their own way, they lived happily ever after.
Erin Gitchell is the author of The Feast, the first book in the fantasy series Tales from Delaterra. She has also written zombie satire and advice books under different names. Erin has a BA and MLIS, and currently resides in Iowa, USA. Find out more at www.eringitchell.com or tweet @erin_gitchell for a virtual high five.