The sun peeked out over the south-east horizon and cast its golden hue across the frozen expanse. Maria stopped to pull the insulated canteen from the side pouch of her backpack. She took three generous swallows, chasing the granola bar that had served as her breakfast.
She continued her brisk pace. With each step, the snow complained, emitting a deep squeak as it was compressed under her boots. She had been walking for over an hour and had another three hours to go, at least, but it would be worth it. She hoped.
If you gaze into the cavern, as the sun reaches its apex, what you’ve lost will be returned to you — or so the myth said. It was also said that it had to be done today, when the noon sun was closest to the horizon.
The legend was mostly built on tales passed down through the families of the miners whose descendants still lived in the area. Though they claimed its origins went back much farther than that. Most of the locals dismissed the stories as the ravings of men who had spent too long in isolation.
Maria had never put much stock in myth or legend either, but something had sparked in her when she heard the story of the cavern. She had to see for herself if it were true, if he could really be returned to her.
She and her guide had left the city hours before sunrise to make their way through the mountains’ foothills. There were few people still familiar with the old access roads left behind after the mine had closed almost a century ago, but she had managed to find someone willing to take her as far as the edge of the flats and wait for her to return.
Lost love. She scorned herself for the cliché, but when he died the loss had hit her so hard she couldn’t breathe. Two years later, she still couldn’t breathe.
By the time Maria arrived, sweat was pouring down her back, and the blisters forming under the arches of her feet were becoming difficult to ignore. Breathing heavily, she looked at her watch. She’d made it with only twenty minutes to spare.
It didn’t look like much. A hole in the cliff face, hollowed out by water that had long since ceased to flow.
As the sun reached its summit in the southern sky, its light turned the murky cavern into a lustrous portal. Maria stood on the threshold, mesmerised by the glittering stalagmites that rose from the floor like living sculptures, reaching to meet their stalactite counterparts jutting from the ceiling.
Noon came and went. Shadow crept across the cave entrance once more — a door closing — and Maria continued to stand there, waiting. She began to shiver. Then, she began to cry.
Nothing had happened. The cavern was beautiful, but that’s all it was, a cavern. No magic awaited her here. Finally, tears frozen to her eyelashes, she began the long walk back.
She didn’t say a word to her guide during the drive back into the city. She felt like such a fool.
That night, Maria stood under her hotel shower until her skin was bright pink. However long she stood there, the hot water failed to remove the chill. The soles of her feet — tender from a full day of walking — stung as she stepped out onto the bathmat.
She dressed in jeans and her most comfortable sweater, and, despite her heavy eyelids and aching muscles, made her way to the hotel restaurant, where a rowdy party was going on. Some company’s Christmas party, most likely. The place was plastered in gaudy lights and decorations for the holidays.
Maria had no interest in the party, only in escaping the emptiness of her hotel room. She sat quietly at the bar sipping her drink.
“Happy Winter Solstice!”
Maria couldn’t help but look up when the jovial man plunked himself onto the stool next to her. He was slightly dishevelled, but attractive just the same with light-brown hair, and eyes that came off as electric blue in the artificial light.
“Don’t you mean Merry Christmas?” she asked.
“That’s not politically correct.”
“How about Happy Holidays, then?”
Maria smiled a little in spite of herself. “Okay, you win,” she said, shaking her head. He was clearly enjoying the party, maybe too much so.
“You don’t look like you’re having much fun.” He waved the bartender over and ordered another drink.
Maria shrugged and studied her glass.
“You know, they say there’s magic in the air on the solstice,” he said.
Maria’s chest tightened. She said nothing.
He didn’t relent. “Do you believe that?” he pressed.
“No, I don’t,” she said sharply — and cringed, inwardly, at her tone when she saw the abashed look cross his face.
He recovered quickly. “Well, that’s a shame,” he said with a good-natured smile. He gave her a little wave, took his drink, and headed off towards his group of friends.
After a moment’s deliberation, Maria picked up her own drink and followed him into the crowd. She owed him an apology.
Maria opened her eyes when the sunbeam hit her face. She got out of bed and crossed the tiny hotel room in two strides. Before pulling the curtain closed, she looked back at the tousled bed, and the man sleeping soundly there.
His previously dishevelled hair was now a tangled mess. He was adorable. Maria restored darkness to the room and climbed back under the covers. Snuggling into the warmth of his naked body, she took a deep, easy breath and smiled. For the first time in two years, her skin tingled in anticipation of the possibilities that lay ahead.
K. Esta is a fan of Sci Fi in all forms, but has been known to dabble in other genres also. After studying mechanical engineering and geology, and working as an aerospace engineer for a few years, K has decided that writing is much more fun. K’s serialized novel Dosterra can be found (free) at the serial fiction site JukePop Serials: www.jukepopserials.com/home/read/111, and other works can be read at www.writingbykesta.wordpress.com.