"Come along now," said the small, bundled-up figure. Behind her, stretching into the ash gray gloom of the blizzard was a string of twenty-seven little beings, small sheep to match the girl's own stature, the same white as the snow, strung together with a red rope. She tugged, and the first sheep in line clambered onto the snow's crust, broke through, sank, and bleated with the cold pain.
"We have to get to grandmother's before night," she said.
"Ma-ah-ah-ah," said the sheep.
"I know, I know," said the girl. She stroked the sheep's wool, palpating the clods of hard snow caught up in the hair. "I know," she sighed.
The girl adjusted the black scarf that shielded her face against the agressive weather, and as she did she saw a dark blur in the distance. It wobbled and disappeared. The girl pulled the sheep forward another step. She looked ahead and the blur was there again, larger, closer. She waited.
It was a man walking, a man in black. He walked in long strides, tall, unaffected by the depths of the driven snow. The girl wrapped another loop of the rope around her hand tightly. The man stopped a few feet from her. He breathed in and out, his breath lingering in a cloud in front of his mouth. He had long, sideburns, gray and unkempt. His eyes were hollowed, and he had a ravenous demeanor.
"Preacher man," she said in stiff acknowledgement.
"Giselle. I'm surprised to see you out in this weather," said the man, in a low voice that was almost a growl.
"You're out here."
"Yes, I am." He breathed in deeply, satisfactorily, and continued, "I find this sort of weather...invigorating."
"That's uh...interesting," said Giselle. She put her head down and urged the sheep further along, on a heading around the place where the preacher stood.
"May I ask, what you are doing?" He looked skeptically down at the line of sheep.
"I'm taking them for a walk," she said quietly.
"Why?" he asked pointedly.
Giselle sighed deeply.
"For the exercise of course."
"They're freezing! Look at that," he pointed, "they're positively shivering. Don't you have any sense?"
"I guess not," she said to him, and to the sheep, tugging again, "come on!"
"Let me help you," he said, placing long lanky fingers on her shoulder and pressing down. His chin quivered.
"You don't want to do that," she said quietly, looking down, fixated on an imaginary spot in the endless snow. "You really...do not want to do that."
He removed his hand slowly, licked his lips, and laughed nervously.
"But we are neighbors," he said. "It is a kindness."
"We both know it is not."
The man chuckled again, and clasped both hands to his mouth, warming them with his hot breath.
"I want one," he said with a hiss, bending down to the girl's height. His skin pulled taut against the bones of his face, his eyes sinking even deeper and darker into his skull.
"No," said Giselle.
"Just one," he said.
"I will tell your grandmother what you have done, if you do not give me one of your sheep."
Giselle looked up at him, and narrowed her eyes.
"She already knows...what you did to me. So does the axman. He will find you one day, I know it. You cannot lurk here forever. You will be purged."
"Gaaahhh!" hissed the man, the steam from his breath acrid and foul. He crouched down on the ground and extended a finger towards the the thick red cord that bound the line of sheep to Giselle. His yellowed fingernail scraped against it, and it was as if two pieces of steel abraded each other.
"Go back to your hole, preacher man," she said, shaking.
"You must give me one, willingly."
"You must..." he pleaded. He blinked slowly, and his cheeks became fuller as a rose hue bloomed on them. His eye sockets lightened and filled and in a matter of seconds he looked twenty years younger. "Please, Giselle..."
"No. You cannot tempt me again."
He grew younger still, muscled and elastic, hair dark, his eyes dewy, his voice nearly an octave higher. He smiled at her beneficently.
"Just one," he said, stroking her cheek with a soft finger.
Giselle brought about her fist, and shoved the coiled up rope into his face. He recoiled, hopping backwards in the snow. He came to rest, glaring at her, in a heap of his dark clothes.
"You cannot harm me as long as I hold this rope that my grandmother wove, dyed with the essence of the roses of summer. It is the thorn that will prick you if I let it. You will bleed your inky blood into the snow and you will become weak. So don't come near."
"You don't have the strength to kill me," he said.
"I do have the strength to do it...but I won't. I want the axman to find you, to dispense judgement on you as it ought to be done. For you to bleed is not enough."
"It is not a crime, what happened between us--"
"It may not be, but it should be. For you to not even see that what you did was wrong--"
"What you wanted me to do, don't forget."
"You lie!" yelled Giselle. The man laughed. She shook her hand at him, breathing hard, about to come to tears.
"The axman can't chop me up if he can't find me," said the man. He stood to his full height, turned, and walked off.
Giselle stood breathing hard for several minutes after his figure disappeared. The sheep looked at her expectantly. Then she continued towards her grandmother's house, tugging the flock along.