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A Frosty Tail

By Dawn Sister





Copyright © 2018 Dawn Sister

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the author, nor be otherwise circulated without the author’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

Cover Design: Roe Horvat

Picture: courtesy of Aaron Burden via Unsplash.com



dawnsister.wordpress.com









Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank the usual people for helping me with this story, especially Suki, who is always there to beta, and Roe, who designed this amazing cover. Also, Alex, who runs the Rainbow Advent Calendar for which this story was written.

Thank you. You are all awesome.







Contents



Prologue

Chapter One: Frosty Encounters

Chapter Two: Frosty Gardens

Chapter Three: Frosty Stories

Chapter Four: Frosty Feet

Chapter Five: Frosty First Aid

Chapter Six: Frosty Promises

Chapter Seven: Frosty Evenings

Chapter Eight: Frosty Mornings

Chapter Nine: Frosty Lakes

Chapter Ten: Frosty Memories

Epilogue



About the Author

Other Books by Dawn Sister

Acknowledgements





****







Prologue



When I was a child, I recall being told a story about how the foxglove came to be so called.



The Fox and the Fairy Queen



The fairy queen had taxed her fairy subjects to tidy up the forest, sweeping up all the leaves and debris and leave everything sparkling clean.



She loved how beautiful her forest looked in summer and autumn but disliked the amount of leaves that fell from the trees to litter the forest floor. She also disliked the idea that eventually winter would come. She thought that she could cheat or at least hold back the winter by ordering all the fallen leaves to be fused back into the trees therefore tricking them into thinking it was still autumn.



The fairies, despite disagreeing with their queen, followed her orders and spent all day tidying and replacing leaves. By the end of the day they were exhausted, but the queen kept finding fault with their work and made them sweep the floor several times over before she was satisfied.



Just as they were finally finished, and the fairy Queen was satisfied, a wandering fox appeared. All around the edges of the forest there were signs of winter but the forest itself remained untouched. Being a curious sort, the fox began to explore the very tidy forest floor, leaving foxy footprints everywhere. Out from each of his footprints spread tendrils of frost. The first signs that winter was encroaching on the forest despite all the efforts of her fairy folk.



The fairy queen was incensed and ordered the fox captured and hung upside down by his feet to prevent him from walking on her perfect floor or spreading the cold of winter through her forest. She did not wish the trees to sleep, nor the colours of summer and autumn to be leached from the land. She ordered that the troublesome fox be imprisoned that way forever.



The fox argued and pleaded with the queen, telling her that he had special work to do and that if she kept him from this work, there could be dire consequences for her precious forest home.



“You cannot halt the passage of time, your Majesty. Winter must follow Autumn as sure as night follows day.” He told her. “Mess with the balance here and the equilibrium of the entire world is at stake.”



She would hear none of it, so obsessed was she over how her forest should look.



“No winter will come here to spoil the beauty of my forest.” She scoffed at the fox. “Especially not spread by a lowly, trickster of a fox.”



The fairies once more, reluctantly followed the orders of their queen, but had heard the fox’s pleas and arguments. They had listened with growing concern, because they believed that this fox was special. He did not look like an ordinary fox. His eyes were as blue as ice crystals. His fur, as pure and white as new fallen snow and the frost-sparkled tips glistened like diamonds in the moonlight. He was indeed a special fox. He was, in fact, the spirit of winter, and his imprisonment could spell disaster for their forest home.



The fairies understood that the trees needed to sleep, or how could they wake in the spring, stronger and more beautiful than the year before?



Once their queen had gone to sleep that night, the forest fairies rescued the fox, giving him four trumpet-like flowers from a digitalis plant to wear on his paws as gloves so that he could move silently and not disturb the queen or to leave any tell-tale fox prints as he escaped from the forest.



At the edge of the forest, he thanked the fairies for their help and warned them to prepare for the imminent winter. He took off the flower slippers and disappeared into the night, leaving sparkling patterns of frost everywhere his paws touched the ground.



Winter finally arrived in the forest that night. The carefully replaced leaves fell from the trees and were covered by a blanket of soft white, sparkling snow.



The fairy queen, though she had been rather silly to try to stop the passage of the seasons, was not punished, but just to make sure she didn’t try to interfere again, the fox cast a spell that would keep her asleep until the first day of spring.



When the fairies picked up the discarded flower gloves in order to get rid of any evidence that they had helped the fox, they saw inside that they had been marked with the delicate paw prints of the frosty fox.



The flowers have born the fox’s mark and name, ever since.









****



A Frosty Tail



Frosty Encounters



The icy wind took Liam’s breath away as he rounded the corner of the lane and headed for home. It was only five o’clock, but darker than pitch. There was supposed to be a full moon tonight, but it hadn’t yet fully risen.



Liam tugged his knitted beanie hat further down over his ears. He pulled the fur lined hood of his parker over his head and brushed his dark hair out of his eyes. The wind was bitter, nipping relentlessly at his exposed cheeks and fingers. His final act of protection from the cold was to fold over the mitten tops of his fingerless gardener’s gloves. His fingers had grown numb from the cold hours ago, but he’d been unable to cover them and continue to do his job. They’d take an age to thaw out. That was the downside of having a career that kept you outside in all weathers and all seasons. The life of a professional gardener was not for those that couldn’t cope with the cold.



The weather had grown steadily wilder as Liam had finished his last but few gardening jobs of the year. Tomorrow would be his last day before he took a well-earned break. Tomorrow would also be the twenty first of December. Winter Solstice; the longest night. He always took time off during the darkest part of the winter. He felt a gardener’s job was to sleep along with the trees and plants they tended. He worked long hours in the summer, so he could take his break now. From tomorrow, until mid January, he was planning to hibernate.



The tarmac road gave way eventually to gravel and finally became dirt track. The trees and hedgerow that lined this stretch of the track leading to Liam’s cottage grew in a dense tangle, their branches entwining above his head. Even in the winter, when the branches and twigs were bare of any foliage, they formed a dark, forbidding canopy.  Liam was prepared. He’d walked this track almost every day since he’d moved into the village of Kirk Alton four years ago. He took out his torch, his numb fingers fumbling to find the button to turn it on. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the way home like he knew the back of his hand, but with the weather so wild and the ground frozen, he didn’t want to stumble over any branches or slip on any ice.



He shone the torch along the path in front of him and gasped as the beam caught movement: a flash of frost-sparkled silver in the shadows of the tree-lined track.



The white fox was back.



Liam had seen the beautiful creature several times over the last few weeks, each time on his way home, mostly at twilight. The fox was becoming a creature of habit, because he’d seen it every night this week so far.



Tonight, it didn’t follow its usual course of action, which was to run as soon as Liam’s torch beam caught it. Tonight, it did something different. It sat on its haunches in the middle of the track as if waiting for him, and Liam had to remind himself to breathe when he realised he was holding his breath. He switched off his torch, and allowed his eyes to adjust, focusing on the white fox, now bathed only in the rising moonlight.



“Hello.” He huffed out the word softly. “What are you up to then?”



The fox tipped its head to one side, as if listening to him. Its fur was whipped by a wind that Liam couldn’t feel as he stood in the shelter of the trees, the white tips glittering, like frost-covered cotton grass.



“Frosty the fox.” Liam whispered as he took a few tentative steps forwards. How close could he get tonight? He was never certain when it was going to run. Usually, when it caught sight of Liam. Tonight, however, it was waiting. For what, Liam couldn’t fathom.



Again, the fox tipped its head to one side, cocking its ears, studying Liam with an intense, vulpine stare.



Liam was close enough to see its eyes now and although he could not see the exact colour, they were bright and light, crystal clear, standing out like beacons in the dim light.



“Wow. You are stunning,” Liam whispered.



Before one breath and the next, the fox was gone, a flash of white disappearing into the undergrowth as silently as it had appeared, leaving Liam breathless and elated.



“Incredible.” He shook his head, smiling as he continued his journey home.



Liam had counted himself fortunate to see the fox once, but to have seen it every night this week was unprecedented. Country foxes, unlike their brazen, urban cousins, were usually so elusive. You could have a fox living in your back garden and never see it. You’d know about it, because they were messy creatures, and noisy, but you could go years without ever seeing one. And a white fox, that was even more extraordinary.

****





Frosty Gardens



“A white fox, you say?” Mrs Appleby, Liam’s first gardening client the next day, mulled over his question as she hovered in her doorway.



He’d spent almost an hour clearing the last of the autumn leaves from her lawn and front path. For some reason, her garden seemed to accumulate more leaves than anyone else’s.



Liam didn’t want to keep her outside too long. It was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and Mrs Appleby might like to think she was energetic and full of life, but she was ninety-five and needed careful handling or she’d be outside helping Liam in the garden. He’d already refused her help twice in the hour he’d been there.



She’d called him over and handed him a steaming mug of tea which had been most welcome, so he’d taken the opportunity to ask her about the white fox.



“Can’t say I have seen a white fox.” She told him. “Well, not in this country, anyway. In Canada, yes. Arctic Foxes. Beautiful little things. But not here. Interesting. Perhaps it’s albino, darling.”



“Nope. Doesn’t look it.” Liam told her, knowing she would be even more intrigued.



“You’ve seen it up that close, have you?”



Liam nodded. “I’m not trying to get too close, obviously, but its always on my way home, on the track. I can’t help it if it sits and waits for me.”



Mrs Appleby laughed, clapping her hands in delight. “I envy you, really I do. Seeing such lovely things while I’m stuck inside. Everyone seems to think I’ll shatter into a million pieces if I so much as set foot outside when it’s so cold.” She sounded rueful and Liam sympathised.



For someone who was usually so active, being stuck indoors because of the bad weather must be very constricting. Liam wondered how he would feel, if in the same situation and didn’t really want to think about it. He spent his life outside. How would he make a living if he couldn’t garden?



“Although,” Mrs Appleby continued with a slightly disapproving frown. “If that white fox is the menace that’s been pilfering the apples from my storage box overnight, then, I’ll have its guts for garters.”



“Mrs Appleby,” Liam exclaimed. “I know you’re annoyed by the raids on your storage box, but I suspect local kids rather than animal interference. A fox certainly wouldn’t be able to undo the catch. Besides, you give away all your apples for free anyway.”



“Oh, I know, I know. Pay me no mind.” She chuckled. “I’m just a grumpy old woman.”



“Grumpy, maybe, but old? Never.” He smiled at her and winked.



“Oh, you charmer.” Mrs Appleby blushed. “I’m too old to be flirting. Now get yourself away so you can be finished before it gets too cold. There’s snow forecast for tonight.”



“Thanks for the tea, Mrs A.” Liam handed her his empty mug. “Have a lovely Christmas, and call me if you need anything, even if it isn’t garden related. You know I’m just up the hill.”



“You’re a good lad, Liam. You have a lovely Christmas too.”



Liam urged her back inside and left her garden to make his way to the garden next door. He only had two more jobs before he was finished for the winter and both were close by. With any luck he’d be finished before it got dark.



“Have you asked Father Jacob about the white fox?” Raphael, his next client, and Mrs Appleby’s next-door neighbour, suggested.



“I’m off to the vicarage after I’ve finished here.” Liam told him as he leaned on his spade, wiping his brow.



This job had taken a little longer than he’d anticipated due to Mrs Appleby’s leaves clogging up the narrow little stream that ran along the bottom of both gardens. He’d found a load of rubbish too, plastic bottles and drinks cans, much to his disgust and frustration.



“Why do people think it’s better to throw them in the stream than to recycle and save the planet?” He’d muttered to himself as he’d soaked his gloves dragging more and more from the water. Conservation and recycling, or rather the lack of enthusiasm for them, was a massive bug bear of his.



Raphael had arrived home just as Liam was finishing so he’d asked about the white fox. He hadn’t heard of any sightings in the area either. Liam was beginning to wonder if he had imagined it, or if, perhaps, a trick of the moonlight had made the fox appear white. He’d seen the creature at least a dozen times, however, and not always when the moon was out. Surely it was real.



“Your garden is very dry, Raphael.” He commented. He needed to change the subject because thinking that he might have imagined the fox, or that his eyes had been tricked, made him feel a bit sad. “That means it probably drains really well. That’ll be a blessing in the Spring floods.”



Raphael rubbed his chin as he glanced about his garden. “Do you think I should water it then? It hardly seems worth it in the winter, and I’m only here for the weekend and then I’m off into the city again. I’m not planning on moving in properly until the spring. Besides, gardening isn’t really my thing, especially not in winter. I got this thing stuck in the mud last time I ventured down to the stream.” Raphael lifted his right leg, reveal a colourful, plastic prosthetic limb.



“Well, yes, I can see why that would be a bit of a problem.” Liam nodded, trying not to stare at the limb.



Raphael didn’t often draw attention to his disability, and it never seemed to stop the man from doing what he wanted, in fact, sometimes it made him more determined to prove he could rather than admit he couldn’t. It was a testament to their friendship that Raphael felt comfortable enough around Liam to be showing his leg at all.



Raphael had only just finished renovating his cottage. Most of the work, he’d done himself, but gardening, he admitted, was beyond even his abilities as an architect. He’d asked Liam to design it and had given him a free hand in deciding what to plant. He loved this sort of job.



“There’s snow forecast for later, so I wouldn’t bother with the watering. Everything will just freeze anyway.” Liam smiled at him. “Don’t worry. We’ll sort it in the spring. Find some plants that don’t need as much water or much attention.”



“That’ll be great Liam, thanks. You’re finished for the year after this aren’t you? Have a great Christmas if I don’t see you before then.” Raphael waved him goodbye and disappeared into his cottage.



Liam left Raphael’s garden with mixed feelings. He was looking forward to his time off, but Christmas always came with the expectation that you should spend it with someone. Raphael wasn’t one to interfere, but others in the village often did, and Liam always received several invitations to Christmas lunch which he knew he should have been grateful for, but he could never decide who to go to, so he inevitably ended up making his excuses after church and spending the rest of Christmas Day alone.



He was fine on his own. It had been that way since he was eighteen and he didn’t see a need to change any time soon. Occasionally, when he fancied some company, he would travel to the city. He rarely brought anyone home to his cottage in the hills. He wasn’t inclined to share it, except perhaps with a white fox that kept turning up on the track outside.



****











Frosty Stories



Liam’s next and final job of the season was at the vicarage. The local priest, Father Jacob was a good friend of Raphael’s. Together they were perhaps the closest Liam had to friends in the village, even though he got on with everyone else well enough.



Liam pushed open the vicarage gate and walked beneath the neat rose arch, giving it a critical once over, as he always did to something he’d cultivated. The roses were long gone now, and the arch was trimmed and dormant for the winter, as was everything else in this garden. There was still beauty to be found, however, even in the depths of winter.



How did the quote go? “One is nearer to God’s heart in a garden”? Very apt considering this one belonged to the vicarage. Liam could well believe it here, especially on a day like this, when the frost covered everything in a silvery blanket, and crystal-tipped every branch and bare twig with a pretty, magical lacework of ice.



The sight took Liam’s breath away. He’d never get tired of seeing how different his gardens looked at different times of the year. The last time he’d worked in here, there’d been damp moss greens and dull browns. Today it was transformed into a magical winter wonderland.



“Good morning, Liam.” Father Jacob appeared at his conservatory door. He was dressed in his usual black with white collar showing beneath a thick black, hand-knitted sweater. Liam rarely saw him wearing anything but black, except in the summer, if it was really hot, he occasionally wore colourful, Bermuda shorts in place of his black trousers.



Father Jacob swept his hand across the garden as Liam approached him.



“Are you enjoying Jack Frost’s handiwork on this lovely Winter Solstice?”



Liam chuckled. “I’m surprised that you of all people, would put this down to the work of a mythical sprite, and not the hand of God.”



Father Jacob smiled broadly, his merry hazel eyes crinkling. “We should be able to accept that even the mythical sprites are God’s creatures, Liam. Even if they don’t realise it themselves.”



Liam nodded, thinking back to his encounter with the white fox the night before. He could well believe there had been a divine entity involved in the creation of such a beautiful creature.



Liam accepted an invitation for some mulled wine in the vicarage conservatory once he’d finished for the day. Father Jacob had grown up in the next village, so knew this part of the world very well. When Liam asked him about the white fox, he was only too happy to tell everything he knew.



“Hmm, a white fox? Very interesting.” Father Jacob rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he settled in a comfy chair opposite Liam. “My grandfather used to tell a tale about a white fox and a fairy queen. The queen tried to hold back winter in her forest, by gluing the leaves back onto the trees. The white fox in that tale, was the spirit of winter, come to make sure she didn’t interfere with the natural order of things. She tried to imprison him, but he escaped by wearing four foxglove flowers as slippers. That’s apparently how the foxglove got its name, you know.”



“This fox is hardly the spirit of anything.” Liam chuckled. “He’s real enough, and I’ve seen him plenty of times. It can hardly be the same fox your Grandfather spoke of either. Perhaps the white fur is a genetic trait, like the blackbirds you sometimes see with white feathers.”



Father Jacob smiled, topping up Liam’s mug with more mulled wine.



“The appearance of a fox in a dream often symbolises loneliness, and sometimes a way of pointing you in the right direction.” The priest continued. “Of course, a white fox could be emphasising that symbolism, or in fact could mean something completely different. I’d have to look that up. The Celts respected foxes for their cunning and intelligence. They believed the creatures were the guardians of the gateway to the underworld.”



“Right.” Liam leaned back in his chair, cradling his mug of wine, frowning thoughtfully. “Except I didn’t dream this fox, and I very much doubt there’s any gateway to the underworld on the track that goes past my cottage.”



“I should hope not.” Father Jacob chuckled. “There is also the ancient belief that seeing a fox near a homestead is a bad omen.”



That little snippet did not make Liam smile.



“A bad omen?” He asked, surprised that Father Jacob, of all people would give such stories any credence.



Father Jacob shrugged. “I’m not saying we should believe these superstitions, but my Grandfather used to tell such stories. That white fox featured in a few of them. He told me he’d seen the creature up on the hilltop lake once, dancing on the ice, making patterns with its paws. He also used to tell me that every time the white fox was spotted, something happened in the village: an accident, a bout of extreme weather, a loss.”



“A loss? You mean like a death?” Liam gasped. “Father Jacob, that’s hardly a comforting thought when I have to walk up to my cottage in the dark, on my own. As a priest, aren’t your words are meant to bring comfort, and not scare me witless?”



“Pay it no mind.” Father Jacob told him, chuckling. “You know how I love to tell ghost stories.”



That fact was certainly true. Father Jacob was a wealth of information when it came to myths and legends and local tales of the supernatural. Some thought he had an unhealthy interest in the occult, for a priest. Liam found the subject fascinating, except when it involved him directly, and then it scared him a little too much.



He didn’t believe in ghosts, or spirits, or even God, for that matter, although he did go to church on Christmas Day, but that was out of a respect and support for Father Jacob, rather than a belief in some all knowing, all seeing Deity. Hearing that a fox he had been looking forward to seeing again, on his way home, might be foretelling some disaster, was not really something he felt very happy about, even if he didn’t believe any of that stuff was true.





****







Frosty Feet



The weak winter sun had fully set when Liam bid Father Jacob goodnight and left the vicarage. He made his way up the dark track and away from the village, cursing that he’d stayed so long, and had drank rather too much mulled wine.



As he stepped onto the dirt track that led past his cottage, he felt his heartbeat quicken just a little, in anticipation of seeing the fox again, and with anxiety over what Father Jacob had told him.



Could the fox’s appearance really be foretelling some unfortunate event? He hoped not. He wanted to see the fox again, but hoped whatever it was up to, that fortune telling wasn’t part of its plan.



He’d quickened his pace, wanting to get home, out of the cold, biting wind, but when he reached the darkest part of the track, where the trees formed their tunnel, he slowed down. It wouldn’t do to slip on the ice that had formed there. He’d managed to avoid slipping on the way down that morning, but that had been in daylight when he hadn’t had three mugs of mulled wine. Now all he had was a torch and a slightly fuzzy head.



Liam hadn’t realised just how oppressive this tunnel of trees was, and just how intimidating it could be until now, when his imagination was running away with him. His head was filled with Father Jacob’s stories and he felt his heart pounding as he made his way beneath the dark branches.



The air stilled as he entered the natural tunnel. The silence was oppressive and sinister. Liam felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck and an unpleasant shiver ran down his back.



For a moment he hesitated and considered turning and running back the way he’d come, but that wouldn’t accomplish anything. He might be made welcome for dinner in at least a dozen homes in the village, but he would still, at some point tonight, have to negotiate this dark track alone in order to get home. Better to do it now and get it over with.



With a determined roll of his shoulders he shone his torch straight ahead and began to walk. The torch beam caught movement at the far end of the tunnel and Liam gasped. Sitting in the middle of the track, bathed in moonlight, was the white fox. Liam froze, his breath making opaque clouds in the torch beam. The white fox made no attempt to move. It simply sat on its haunches and waited.



Was it waiting for Liam?



That was a ridiculous thought. Why would a wild creature wait for him on a country track? Father Jacob’s anxious warnings filled his head. No matter how hard he tried he could not get out of his mind the thought that this fox was here to warn him. Of what, though?



An accident, a bout of extreme weather, a loss”



Liam gave a shudder, feeling the hairs rise on the back of his neck.



“Dammit,” he grumbled discontentedly. “Damn foxes and Father Jacob’s spooky tales have got me half scared to death.”



Somewhere behind him a twig snapped. He whirled around in fright, his heart pounding in his ears. Adrenaline fed his fight or flight reflex, making simple shadows look like dark, menacing horrors. Branches became arms and twigs became ominous fingers reaching out to grab him.



Liam took a deep breath and calmed down. He was angry with himself. He’d walked this track in the dark many times before and never felt scared in the slightest. He listened to one supernatural tale from Father Jacob and he was quivering in his boots. How stupid!



And now the fox was gone. Probably scared off by Liam’s startled movements.



Grumbling to himself, he took a step forward and his boot slid on the surface of a solidly frozen puddle. Liam’s feet flew from beneath him and he fell backwards, his head hitting the ground with a resounding and sickening crack.



Liam’s vision blurred and blacked out and he saw stars. His ears rang, and his entire body shuddered with shock and emerging pain. For longer than a moment he lay very still, unable to gauge just how badly he’d hit his head. The sickening crack still resounded in his ears and would probably haunt his nightmares as would the realisation that he had surely hurt himself quite badly.



Could this be the accident the fox had been predicting? If Father Jacob was to be believed, that is?



Liam considered his options, because staying where he was not one of them. No one used this track at night time except him. It was entirely likely no one would use it tomorrow during the day either. He’d freeze to death long before anyone found him. He couldn’t use his phone to call anyone, because there was no mobile signal. It was a notorious signal black spot all along this track and well past his cottage. He had a landline for that very reason. Not that a land line would do him any good if he didn’t start moving. Shouting for help wouldn’t do him any good either, there was no one nearby to hear him. He was going to have to move. He needed to get to his cottage, even if he had to drag himself there on his hands and knees.



Bracing himself for pain and dizziness, Liam tried to sit. The pain that erupted in his head, followed by the nausea was enough to make him regret moving at all. He was beginning to think that freezing to death was perhaps a better option after all as he lay, sprawled on his back on the cold, hard ground.



He gingerly felt the back of his head and grimaced when his hand came away wet and sticky. He couldn’t see the colour, but he could see the dark stain on his fingertips and smell the slight tang of blood. He’d probably need stitches.



Once more he attempted to move. The ground tilted alarmingly and dizziness, followed by more nausea, forced him to lie back down, this time curled up on his side, just in case he did vomit, which was now a real possibility.



Finally, he managed to force himself into a sitting position, with his head between his knees until another wave of nausea passed. He then attempted to get to his feet.



His legs felt weak and his head pounded. Dizziness threatened to topple him again and in desperation he reached out for something solid to hold onto, hoping he’d find a fence post, or a tree trunk. Instead he found an arm.



“Woah, there, big feller.” A cheerful, male voice called in a lilting Scottish accent. A hand grabbed his and held it fast. The other arm snaked around Liam’s waist to stop him from falling. “I got you, don’t worry. Of course, I can’t guarantee we won’t go arse over tit anyway. I’m only just getting used to these legs myself.”



“W-what?” Liam asked in confusion, trying to focus on his rescuer.



“Legs.” The voice by his side repeated. “And feet, really? How do you cope with just two?”



“I-I don’t….” Liam put a shaky hand to his head. It hurt when he spoke. He had no idea what the man was talking about, but because he had mentioned feet, and Liam didn’t feel confident enough to lift his head and look at the stranger’s face without vomiting, he looked down, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.



For a moment his vision blurred, and he saw only flashes of white before his eyes finally focused and he did indeed see feet.



“Oh my god.” He gasped weakly. “You’re not wearing any shoes.”



His head began to spin in earnest and he blacked out.





****







Frosty First Aid



Someone had placed a bucket over Liam’s head and was hitting it with a spade. At least that’s how it felt. Liam tried to remember why, moving his hands to try to stop the assault.



That’s when he realised his arms hurt, and shoulders, neck and hands.



“Easy there, big feller.”



Liam froze, a gasp catching in his throat—which also hurt. There was someone else there with him and that wasn’t right, was it?



“W-who? W-what?” He managed to croak, grimacing because even his teeth were hurting.



“The name’s Jack.” A pleasant-sounding male voice replied. “You fell.” The man went on in that lyrical Scottish accent that set butterflies fluttering in Liam’s stomach. “Ye slipped on the ice, big feller. Good job I was there, otherwise you’d have lain there all night. Sorry I took a bit of a while to get to you. I had to change, see and I’m a bit out of practice—well to tell the truth, I’ve never actually done it before. Thought about it plenty of times, but never actually—you know.”



Liam didn’t know, nor did he understand, but the man’s voice washed over him like a balm. He’d always been a sucker for Scottish accents. This one was west coast, if he wasn’t mistaken, with a Gaelic twang. If the man could truly speak Gaelic Liam would be his forever.



He chuckled at his shameless thoughts. The action made his head hurt, setting off a cacophony of pain throughout his body like a chain reaction.



“Fuck,” he gasped trying to place his hands on his head and do—something.



Cool, soothing fingers gently curled around his. Another cool hand was placed on his forehead, and the man hummed something musical and silky smooth. The sound sent cool shivers down Liam’s spine.



The pain seemed to dull and after a few moments, Liam felt brave enough to open his eyes, lift his head and look around.



Getting his bearings, he realised he was lying on one of the sofas in his front room. Standing over him was perhaps the most striking looking young man he’d ever seen, with short, messy, white-blonde hair. He was watching Liam with bright, crystal clear, light blue eyes framed by thick, blonde lashes. His skin had a soft glow, as if it was bathed in moonlight, which was possible, because Liam noted that there were no lights on anywhere.



“How did I get here?” he asked, feeling more than a little confused. “Last thing I remember I was lying on the track. You were there, but then, I think I must have passed out.”



Jack nodded, smiling. “You did, so I carried you,” He explained. “Out cold you were. I was worried for a little while there, big feller. Can’t tell you how relieved I was when you started to stir.”



Liam tried to speak but talking had never been such an effort before. He was exhausted and that was without even attempting to sit up. He took a deep breath and tried again.



“Why is it so dark? Has there been a power cut?” He slurred the words, his voice cracking and hoarse.



“I don’t know what you mean by that, big feller. It’s night time, it’s meant tae be dark.” Jack smiled and tipped his head to one side, his white blond hair moving to cover one clear blue eye. The action was strangely familiar.



“You could switch a light on.” Liam suggested, pointing towards the light switches by his living room door. “Just those switches over there.”



He dropped his hand and closed his eyes, groaning. The action of pointing had taken more of an effort than it should have. He felt terrible, and a little insecure, having a stranger in his house, but also very glad there was someone there, because otherwise he’d be in real trouble.



He listened as Jack moved across the room. The man was muttering to himself and at first Liam thought he couldn’t make out what it was because he was whispering, until he concentrated a little more and realised the man was muttering in another language that sounded very much like—Liam’s heart gave an excited flip—Gaelic.



“Ah, this thing on the wall you mean.” Jack called before the room was flooded with light.



Liam cried out as the brightness hurt his eyes and sent sharp spikes of pain shooting through his head.



“Liam!” Jack was by his side in a flash, his cool fingers brushing over Liam’s forehead, soothing and dulling the spikes of pain. Liam opened his eyes again to see the look of concern on Jack’s face.



“All right there, big feller. Sorry if that hurt. I didn’t realise it would, or I wouldn’t have done the light thing.” He smiled apologetically. “Clever though, to have light on a switch like that. Works like magic.”



Liam wanted to think a little more about the odd things Jack was saying but he was distracted by the man’s dazzling smile and brilliant blue eyes. There was a spattering of freckles across the bridge of Jack’s nose that made him look much younger than he sounded, and his smile revealed sharp white teeth, that, for a moment seemed to sparkle.



The phenomenon made Liam blink and his vision blurred again, his head spinning alarmingly. With a groan he closed his eyes, leaning back into the cushions.



“Oh, God.” He groaned. “I think I might have hit my head a bit too hard.”



Jack gave a low chuckle that Liam felt in his chest.



“You just think so?” He laughed. “I know so. I saw you fall. Gave me quite a turn, you did. And when you just lay there….” Jack stopped, his breath hitching, shocking Liam into opening his eyes again. Jack had moved closer, kneeling on the floor close to Liam’s head. His eyes were wide with concern and he was biting his lip. His cool fingers had moved to lay gently on Liam’s cheek. “I’m glad I didn’t run away this time. Where would you be now if I had? The change was a bit of a struggle. I’d have liked a bit longer to practice.” He ran his fingers through his hair, tugging at the soft, messy curls. “I don’t think I quite got the hair right.”



Liam wanted to say Jack’s hair was perfect, but he didn’t trust his voice. Besides, where the hell could Jack have run to? He wasn’t wearing any….



“Shoes!” Liam exclaimed as he recalled the last thing he’d noticed before he’d blacked out on the track. His exclamation caused Jack to widen his eyes in shock. “You weren’t wearing any shoes.” He added, to clarify his statement.



Jack chuckled. “Och, shoes just get in the way.” He explained, dimples showing on both cheeks as he smirked. “I never wear anything on my feet. Except…” Jack rolled his pale blue eyes and held up one, slender, elegant finger, “…there was that one time when the, er, well, you know, I was trying to be quiet, so I had to wear—slippers—or was it gloves?—to get away, but that was just a misunderstanding.”



Liam let the words wash over him again, enjoying the lyrical accent, his head hurting too much to be able to fathom any meaning to anything Jack said.



“Thank you, for helping me,” he whispered, wishing he didn’t sound so weak and wishy washy.



“You’re very welcome, big feller.” Jack’s eyes twinkled and sparkled as his smile broadened. Liam felt his heart skip a beat.



Jack was stunningly beautiful, and when he smiled, it felt like the sun had broken through dark clouds, filling the room with more than just the artificial electric light.



Liam was struck by the sensation that he had seen this man before, but that wasn’t possible. If he had met Jack before, he’d have remembered. Someone as striking looking as Jack was not easily forgotten.



“Can I get you anything, big feller?” Jack asked.



Liam did not want Jack to feel obliged to stay, or to do anything else. However, he also didn’t see any other option but to allow this man to help. Every attempt he’d made to sit so far had just ended in him feeling worse. He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, it felt as dry as the sandy ground in Raphael’s garden.



“Could you get me a glass of water, please. If it’s not too much trouble.” Liam whispered.



“Of course I will, big feller.” Jack jumped to his feet, looking about. “I’ll get you a cool cloth as well, just as soon as I locate your well.”



“My what?” Liam tried to sit up but fell back again with a groan. “Jack, I might live in the back of beyond, but I happen to have all the usual amenities, and I don’t have a well. Just get some water from the tap in the kitchen. The glasses are in the cupboard above to the right of the sink.”



“Huh.” Jack gave a dismissive snort. “A tap, and glasses. How quaint.”



He disappeared into the kitchen leaving Liam to wonder about the conversation he’d just had. Where the hell did Jack come from if he thought Liam would draw his water from a well and didn’t know about light switches, or wear shoes, or anything else the man had said that was completely and utterly unfathomable? Liam sighed. Was he doing Jack a disservice? The man had helped him after all, and he seemed mostly harmless, even if he did say some strange things.



A stream of curses from the direction of his kitchen had Liam trying to sit up and giving up when the pain and dizziness caused a wave of nausea.



“Oh god.” He moaned, his hands rubbing at his aching temples.



Should he be asking Jack to call an ambulance? He felt the back of his head. There didn’t appear to be any blood, or even any scabbed over cut. Perhaps what he’d thought was blood, when he’d first fallen, had just been water.



Jack returned, helped him to sit, packing some cushions behind his back for support and handed him a glass of very cold water. The water was so cold it stung his lips and teeth and froze his tongue, but he was so thirsty he drank anyway, careful not to tip his head back too much. Some of the water dribbled down the side of his chin and Jack wiped it with a corner of his t shirt.



“I think you might need a nurse.” He chuckled before rolling his pretty eyes. “Although, I haven’t ever done this sort of thing before, so I might not be very good at it.”



“Not that I’ve had much experience of being nursed, but you seem to be doing okay.” Liam smiled, his gratitude growing. Who else would be willing to give up an entire night to nurse a complete stranger? “You don’t have to stay, though.” Liam lifted his head and regretted the movement almost immediately as the nausea returned and he fought to keep down the water he’d just drank. “Oh dear.”



He felt helpless and frustrated. He didn’t want to be an inconvenience. How could he ask this of Jack? But he really didn’t see any other course of action. He could ask to go to hospital but that would not be a very pleasant trip, the nearest hospital was thirty miles away. The thought of being left alone was even less attractive, but he did feel he had to at least try to give Jack a choice.



“You don’t have to stay.” Liam repeated. “You must have plans with your family. It’s the holiday weekend and you’ve already done so much. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.”



“I don’t need repaying, big feller. It was my pleasure.” Jack had placed his cool, soothing hand back on Liam’s forehead and almost instantly the pounding had dulled. “And I think I do need to stay.” He said in a gentler, almost tender tone. “I’ve heard head injuries can be pretty tricky. If you want me to leave, I will, but I’d rather stay and help. I really don’t mind, and I don’t have any plans, family or otherwise.”



Jack seemed to be genuine. Besides, why would Liam say no to such an offer from such a man? It wasn’t every day he got the opportunity to spend an evening with someone so stunning. Those cool fingers were very soothing, and that smooth, lyrical, Scottish accent was relaxing and reassuring. Liam felt safe.



“Perhaps you’re right.” Liam agreed. “I could have concussion. And you seem to have a magic touch.”



“You’d better believe I do, big feller.” Jack grinned, the sight filling Liam with unexpected joy, as did the nickname he appeared to have been given, although he was aware that he may not have actually introduced himself.



“My name’s Liam, by the way.” He chuckled.



“Oh, I know your name, Liam.” Jack whispered, as he fussed about on the sofa at Liam’s feet now. “But you’re quite a bit taller than me. Big Feller fits you perfect, but I’ll stop calling you that if you want.”



“No.” Liam felt sleepy, and warm, and, wherever Jack touched him, strangely cool as well. The sensations lulled him, and he yawned as Jack finally stopped fussing with extra blankets and settled at the opposite end of the sofa, pulling Liam’s feet onto his lap. He met the man’s eyes and gave him a sleepy smile. “I quite like the way it sounds when you say it.”



“Good.” Jack smiled back. “Now sleep, Big Feller. That’s the best way tae heal. I’ll stay until you wake.”



Jack’s words lulled him to sleep. The last thing he saw was Jack’s white blond hair seeming to glow, as the light in the room gave him a glittering halo.



“You look like an angel, Jack.” Liam whispered.



Jack grinned, showing a row of sharp incisors and canines that made the man’s face look like that of a fox. A white fox.



Liam’s dreams were filled with snow, and a white, frost-covered fox dancing on a frozen lake, making patterns in the ice and grinning at him as he said. “Alright there, big feller?”





****







Frosty Promises



Liam woke alone. A confusing situation, since he hadn’t fallen asleep alone, nor had he fallen asleep in his bed, which was where he appeared to be now.



He sat, slowly, fully expecting his head to start throbbing the way it had the night before. When it didn’t, he was a little disorientated and then relieved. He gingerly felt the back of his head. There should have been at least a killer headache and a large bump with a cut that would probably need stitching. Instead, all he appeared to have was a slight bruise, with no swelling and no discernible laceration. The headache was all but gone.



That was odd. It was true that head wounds bled quite a bit more than others, making them seem worse than they actually were, but he was sure there’d been a cut there the night before and had been convinced it was a bad one. But now it was gone.



And so was Jack.



“So much for staying until I wake.” Liam muttered, immediately feeling bad because Jack hadn’t needed to stay at all, and if he’d had to leave before Liam woke, then so be it. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful, because he was far from it, but he was disappointed. He’d have liked to have thanked Jack properly for everything he’d done, but such was life.



There was a noise from the living room. Liam froze. Perhaps Jack wasn’t gone after all.



Another noise, some shuffling and a muttered curse had Liam jumping out of bed, smiling to himself. Jack was still there.



He opened his bedroom door and scanned the living room: no Jack. Liam frowned. If Jack hadn’t made that noise, then who had?



Liam had, on occasion, been visited by Mrs Appleby’s cat, who sometimes followed him home hoping for tuna. He didn’t want to think this could be one of those occasions, because he very much wanted Jack to be still here, not some cheeky little cat that shed its long white fur over everything it so much as looked at. Besides, cats did not usually curse, out loud anyway.



“Jack?” He called, feeling hopeful.



“Yeah!” Jack appeared suddenly, looking a little dishevelled, jumping up from the floor in front of the sofa as if he’d been stung by something. He straightened out his rather short t shirt and ran his fingers through his ruffled white blond hair before regarding Liam with a broad, impish grin. “Alright there, big feller? How you feelin’ this mornin’?”



Liam was so mesmerised by the sound of this man’s drawling Scottish accent that he could almost forget that he’d just watched Jack pick himself up from the floor.



“I’m feeling fine, thanks.” He said in quick reply to Jack’s inquiry. “Were you sleeping on the floor?” He frowned, stepping over to the sofa and looking down at the floor where he suspected Jack had been lying.



“No.” Jack chuckled, a little insincerely. “Why would I do that? That would be stupid, when there’s a perfectly good, warm—er—soft thing, right here.” He indicated the sofa.



“It’s a sofa.” Liam provided the word for him and Jack nodded.



“Yeah, that.” He grinned. “That’s where I slept, all night.” He met Liam’s gaze with wide, earnest eyes. “Didn’t move.”



Jack sidestepped to a spot on the floor, and surreptitiously rubbed the area over with his foot. Liam frowned even harder. The action made his head ache a little more, reminding him that he might not be suffering too much of a fallout from his accident the night before, but that was just down to luck and good aftercare.



He looked up to meet Jack’s eyes. They were as blue as he remembered, so his memory hadn’t been affected by the bump to his head. He was a bit confused though.



“How did I get to bed?” He asked. “The last thing I remember was you massaging my feet while I lay on the sofa.”



Jack grinned. “I didn’t want you get a crick in your neck, big feller, so I carried you to bed.”



“Carried me?” Liam exclaimed. There was a reason Jack had nicknamed him “big feller”, and not because Liam was particularly tall, but because Jack was tiny. The height difference was far more noticeable now they were both on their feet. “You must be at least five or six inches smaller than me and quite a bit slimmer.” Liam pointed out. “How the hell did you manage to carry me and not wake me up?”



Jack shrugged, looking a bit defensive as he continued to rub over the spot on the floor with his foot. “Same way I carried you from the track to your den. I’m stronger than I look?”



“You must be.” Liam gaped, and then was distracted by the movement of Jack’s foot. “What are you doing?” He asked.



Jack stopped, looking a little startled. Liam hadn’t meant to sound so irritated.



“Nothing.” Jack swallowed, his eyes wide and innocent.



He bent down, and retrieved something from the floor, never taking his eyes off Liam as he did so.



This man had said some unfathomable things the night before. Now he was doing unfathomable things as well. Liam also reminded himself that without Jack’s help, things could have gone a whole lot worse, so he decided he was willing to forgive and forget any amount of oddness. He let the matter go. Whatever Jack had dropped on the floor was no business of Liam’s anyway.



“Thank you, for everything you did for me last night.” Liam changed the subject, realising he’d sounded just a little bit ungracious at first. “And for staying when you really didn’t have to. Sorry if I seemed a bit grumpy just now. I’m not at my best first thing in the morning.”



“Och, think nothin’ of it, Big Feller.” Jack’s smile was warm, as he took a few steps towards Liam, pushing his hands into his pockets. “You’re not exactly seeing me at my best either.” He glanced down at his worn clothes and bare feet.



“Did something happen to you?” Liam asked.



He felt as if he was waking from daze. How could he have forgotten that Jack had just appeared from nowhere on the track, wearing nothing but jeans and a t shirt on one of the coldest winter nights?



Jack tipped his head to one side, regarding Liam with one raised eyebrow.



“What do you mean, Big Feller?” He asked.



“I mean—” Liam waved his hands up and down to indicate Jack’s clothes and lack of shoes. “Last night, you weren’t exactly dressed for the weather, were you?”



“No.” Jack frowned. “Although, I did tell you I had to change in rather a hurry when I saw you fall. Did I get something wrong?” He glanced down at his clothes and then his hands went up to his hair with a gasp. “It’s the hair, isn’t it? I knew I hadn’t got it right.”



“No, not your hair.” Liam wanted to laugh except it was all a bit too weird really. “Your hair’s perfect. It’s just that….” He hesitated. He’d told himself he was willing to forgive any amount of oddness in gratitude for the help Jack had given him, but there was odd and there was really odd.



“Just what?” Jack asked, his hands now on his hips, his blue eyes narrowed.



“Well, people don’t usually galivant about outside in the winter in just a t shirt and jeans with no shoes on, do they?”



“They don’t?” Jack continued to look a little confused. He tipped his head to one side. “I told you last night, I never wear shoes.”



“Yeah, but don’t you feel the cold?” Liam didn’t want to push the subject, but he couldn’t drop it either. Jack might insist he never wore shoes, but what had happened to the rest of his clothes? For all his sass and confidence there was a vulnerability about the man that Liam couldn’t ignore. Liam wanted to help and not just to repay Jack’s kindness to him. There was something about Jack that made Liam want to protect him.



“I don’t feel the cold, Liam. Stop worrying about me, when you’re the one that needs the help.” Jack’s smile continued although there was an uncertainty in his eyes now. “Well, you needed the help last night. You seem a lot better this morning. I should be getting away now. I’ve got work tae do, y’know? Some things can only be put off so long.”



Liam hadn’t wanted to drive Jack away with questions. He felt bad for asking so many.



“Look,” He rubbed his hand over his hair and gave a frustrated grunt. “I’m sorry if I seem a bit too nosey, I’m just concerned, and you can’t go without some breakfast. You must think I’m an ungrateful sod. I could cook you something. Make you some coffee.”



“I don’t think you’re an ungrateful sod at all.” Jack reassured him. He bit his lip, looking indecisive as he glanced from Liam, to the door and back again. “Breakfast is tempting, but I really do have tae go, I’m sorry, Liam, and it’s no’ your questions that have driven me off. I do have tae get back tae work.”



“Forgive me.” Liam nodded, his shoulders drooping in defeat. “I shouldn’t keep you any longer. I’m just thinking of some way to say thank you.”



“Och, think nothin’ of it, big feller.” Jack waved his hand in dismissal, holding Liam’s gaze. “It was my pleasure, and I’m just glad I was there to help you. There’s nothing to repay, really.” He glanced down at his feet, looking a little awkward. “Well, I suppose I should get a move on. The season turns, and the world won’t wait forever.” He looked up, meeting Liam’s eyes, his crystal-clear gaze doing all sorts of things to Liam’s insides.



Jack turned towards the front door and Liam wracked his brain for something else to say. He didn’t want things to end like this. If he wasn’t careful this man was going to walk out of his life and Liam would never see him again. He didn’t want that to happen. He had a sudden inspiration. Jack had to leave for work, so he couldn’t stay for breakfast, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t come back.



“Jack.” Liam called.



Jack’s hand hesitated as it reached towards the door handle. He turned to face Liam once more.



“Yes?” He asked, in anticipation perhaps? Did he even look a little hopeful?



“Y-you could come back, after work?” Liam made it into a question but realised it had sounded more like a demand than a request. “I mean, could you? Come back here? I’ll make you dinner. As a proper thank you for last night.”



Jack’s expression changed from hopeful to joyful, as if Liam had just suggested the best thing he could ever have wanted.



“Do you really want to make me dinner?” Jack asked, sounding incredulous.



“Of course I do.” Liam chuckled, unable to hide his amusement. Jack’s raw, vulnerable, honest reaction had touched Liam to his very core.



“I’d like that, Liam. Very much.” Jack nodded as he took a few steps closer. “I will come back. That’s an amazing idea. I can do my work today and come back tonight. Thank you.”



Liam couldn’t recall a time when he’d smiled so much. Jack’s acceptance felt like he’d been given a lifetime of Christmas presents all in one go.



“Great.” Liam took a step closer to Jack. “What sort of food do you like?”




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