I found myself on the same stretch of forest road I had left some time before. We had not moved at all. Turning about, I could see the front door was one and the same as the golden carriage door. The driver remained on duty up top and the pale horses stood as still as statues. He followed through and joined me on the road in the wood.
Nearby bellowed a desperate roar. The sound of anguish and anger hollering through the trees threw me into a shudder. I looked at the man in green, his arrogant smile ever upon me. Tilting his head, he indicated I should follow. I considered running but getting far enough away would be impossible. I was content to acquiesce…for the moment.
A short span away we came to the tree I had hidden beneath when he found me. He reached down and picked up the lone item left among the cedar’s bulging roots: the knife I’d taken from my father’s house.
I now knew to expect the worst. My mind fluttered with the images of the other desperate women who died in this wood. Their pale, delicate frames splayed upon the bedding of the tiny, sloughed cedar branches littering the forest floor. It seemed my turn had come.
Instead, he walked onward. I followed him into a clearing where before us was an enormous brown bear. Roaring at us in his pain, I could see the fear leaking through the hulking animal’s eyes. His front paw was snared in a massive, iron, toothy trap cutting through flesh to the bone.
The man looked at me now, holding up the knife. “The second option is before you. Should you so choose, you will wander the world for seven years with no home to call your own. You cannot bathe, trim your nails or cut your hair. Yet you will want for nothing,” he said and took off his beautiful green coat, placing it around my shoulders. “In any pocket of this coat you will find gold in continual supply. Every time you reach into the pocket, it will be there for you.”
His gaze never wavered from mine. While watching him warily, my hand slipped into the outer pocket and retrieved a handful of gold coins. I did the same with the other pocket and found the same result.
His mouth now widened into a wolfish grin. Again he held up my knife and ran the blade down his palm, running his own blood along the knife’s edge. Then holding up his palm, as if to display a magic trick, he showed me the cut quickly healing itself. It was as if he declared: I am immortal. Then he took the knife and sank it with ease to the hilt in the nearest cedar, and as easily as cutting soft cheese, he cut around the circumference of the tree. With a single finger he pushed, and it fell crashing through the forest.
The man walked over to the bear and before the sad animal knew what had happened, he dealt a swift incision to the bear’s neck. The beast bled out and collapsed into a final rest. With a quickness of hand and skill I had never yet seen, the man skinned the hulking carcass in a matter of minutes. Then taking the pelt, he shook it out, like when I would clean the rugs of father’s house. The bear’s pelt transformed into a large, brown, furry cape and cowl that he now latched around my shoulders.
“You will sleep every night in this bearskin for the next seven years. Should you die in this time, you will lose this challenge…and belong to me. Are we agreed?”
I stood fixed to the spot. Words refused to escape my lips as my tongue quit cooperating.
“Are we agreed, Athena?”
My eyes met his again and tumbled into their hypnotic azure void. I gave a single nod and affirmed with a single word.
“Good,” he said with a jovial tone and began to walk back toward the road before stopping and turning. “One last thing.” He held up the knife, which had now turned to gold in his hand, and gave it back to me. “For your protection.”
He turned once more and I followed him to the road. Climbing inside the carriage, he faced me once more to say: “You have gold aplenty but your time runs short. Spend both wisely.”
The driver atop cracked his whip. The pale horses reared and lunged forward. They all disappeared in a crackle and peal of blue light.
Although I’m certain he kept his watchful blue eyes upon me, I never saw that man again for seven years.