Zelda opened her eyes, her long hair resting all around her head. Instead of feeling a blanket, however, Zelda felt her body resting against and within a sheet of snow. She was also, as she sensed and confirmed when she raised her head and looked down, completely naked. Despite all this, Zelda felt not a twinge of cold.
Where… where am I? She thought groggily, pushing herself up on her hands and knees and scanning the area around her. Zelda had been sleeping in a wide clearing in a forest draped in snow. All around her were trees for as far as she could see, all of them tall and looming in the darkness of nighttime. The moon hung high and full in the sky, illuminating the forest wherever the dead, frost-covered branches didn’t obscure the sky, such as the clearing in which Zelda slowly rose to her feet, her arms covering herself sub-consciously.
Where are my clothes?
Zelda recognized this forest, although she’d never been inside it, off the trail to and from her village. It had surrounded her and her neighbors’ homes, sheltering them but not welcoming them. Now, she didn’t know how far she was from anything, and she decided it was time to figure out how to get home. She turned slowly in circles, hoping no one would see her naked but also hoping someone would find her and help her get home.
The last thing she remembered before waking up here had been falling asleep along the trail while traveling with her husband from their village to the town to sell the furs he’d hunted.
Where is he? She wondered, her expression growing more concerned. Where is my Ardal?
Zelda didn’t see a trail anywhere nearby, but she spotted a ravine not far away, a deep cut into the forest floor that seemed to yawn open like a hungry maw of rocks, the roots of the trees that lined it hanging out of the frozen soil into empty space above the darkness. Zelda decided to get a closer look, see if there was anything useful inside or if she could shelter in there, but as she took a few steps closer, she saw something else in the darkness and froze:
It was a very smiley smile, the kind of smile that doesn’t need teeth to tell you how happy it is to see you, and why. The smile belonged to a face unlike any Zelda had ever seen, but not unlike any she’d ever heard of. As it became clearer in the dark, she recognized the yellow coloration, red leaking from the eyes and nose, and the mouth that was open in a way that suggested a grin except it had no teeth.
It was a Summer Ghoul. And if it was showing its face in winter, that meant it was hungry. Extremely hungry. Zelda could practically see the drool leaking from its masked face as the rest of its pitch-black, spindly figure emerged from the ravine.
Zelda started to back away, her hands lowering to her sides from her privates as she prepared to run. Her heart began pounding, and her breathing accelerate. The creature sensed her fear, and if it had a tongue, it would have slid over its lips as it took a few more towering steps towards her. The thing was tall, at least three times as tall as Zelda, and one of the most disturbing things about it was that it didn’t make a single sound. It had no voice, and when its limbs touched the ground or rested against the trees beside it, not the tiniest noise resulted. If the stories were true, and Zelda was at that moment very inclined to believe they were, the ghoul could make your body and voice just as silent as its own, and not only would no one hear you scream, no one would hear you struggle.
Zelda bolted away, not waiting for the ghoul to take another step. Another thing she hated about ghouls; they almost never, ever ran, rarely moving faster than the ominous walk it had just approached her with after exiting the ravine. Her soft feet pounded the snow, and she prayed she didn’t step on any rocks or sticks the white cover was concealing. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that the thing wasn’t even halfway across the clearing by the time she’d left it, running at full speed through the trees and under the moon.
She’d thought Summer Ghouls were made up, simply stories, and she hadn’t taken them very seriously. Now, she frantically tried to recall how you defeated one before it ate you. She’d thought that they only hunted the wandering souls of the dead, but Zelda felt very much alive. What was she supposed to do then, if the Ghoul wasn’t even following the rules given in its tales?
Zelda’s breathing started to labor; she hadn’t been the most athletic woman, that had been her husband, a hunter and tracker of game. Where was he? She needed him now more than ever. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that the Summer Ghoul was still a good distance away. She let herself slow to a fast walk, keeping an eye on her pursuer while scanning the forest around her. She wanted to call out for help, but in her current state, being completely naked and already hunted by one creature who’d spotted her, she felt it more likely to get her deeper in trouble than out of it.
The ghoul wouldn’t stop coming. It wasn’t mechanical in its movements, it was very organic, but the unrelenting slow walk it did with those tall legs made Zelda swear it could catch up to her instantly if she stopped for just a moment to rest. She was still trying to think of how to beat it, but her mind was too busy remembering what it did when it caught you. The screams not even you could hear, the sound of your ectoplasmic mass being torn and bitten away until there was nothing left, not even bones. What was even the point of having bones if you were that dead?
The ghoul seemed to move like an unattended baby, slow and easily controlled when you watched it, but the moment your eyes came off of it the ghoul could cover incredible distances before you saw it again. As she glanced at it once more, that was exactly what happened, and she gasped in terror as she saw it was almost within its long arm’s reach of her.
Zelda realized with a sinking feeling that she couldn’t recall a single story of someone, even if they were dead, getting away from a ghoul once it had targeted them. Why did she think she’d make it away, just because she was alive? She couldn’t even phase through trees or run as fast as ghosts could. She was as good as eaten.
Zelda didn’t let that stop her from running, though; if this stupid Ghoul was going to eat her, he was going to have to earn it. She’d run and run and run, maybe even get out of the forest before it caught her. She’d never known for sure that this snowy forest even had an edge, but she would run for it anyway. At least she wasn’t freezing, although she didn’t know why that was the case, given that she was naked and literally running her bare feet through the snow.
It felt like time slowed down, for just a moment, before Zelda felt the first cold she’d felt that night: the cold of the black hand that wrapped around her waist. It wasn’t reaching for anything in particular, just as long as it had a tight enough grip that it could lift her into the air, with a slowness that exuded confidence and surety that it had secured its meal. Zelda struggled, but not very hard; that cold made her clench her body into a neat little ball. Zelda couldn’t scream, so she didn’t try. All she did was shiver and curl up, and as the ghoul’s mouth expanded with the sound of creaking wood to the size of Zelda’s bed back home, it looked certain to consume her in a single close of its jaws.
And that’s exactly what it did.
Zelda opened her eyes, yet again. And in the same place. Now, however, it was morning.
What in the world? She wondered, standing up slowly in the snow yet again. It wasn’t the same clearing, but it was a clearing just like the last one, except there was no ravine nearby. She was still naked, too, and she was getting very frustrated with it. She ran a hand down her arm. How was she still alive?
“There you are!” came a familiar but nonetheless startling voice.
“Ardal!” Zelda cried as she turned to see her husband approaching, with a clean set of clothes in one hand and a bow in the other. She ran to him, and he dropped both to hug her tightly. They shared a well-deserved kiss.
“I missed you,” he whispered.
“I missed you too,” she whispered back. “Where were you?”
“Where was I? Where were you? I’ve been looking for you all night!” Ardal replied, leaning over to pickup the clothes he’d brought and giving them to her grateful hands. He grinned at Zelda as she put them on hastily.
“What’s the rush? You look beautiful.”
“Ha-ha.” she said with a roll of her eyes, pulling down her tunic. “I can look beautiful later. For now, we need to get back on the trail. What on Earth happened? I woke up naked in the middle of the forest, then I got eaten by a Summer Ghoul, and now everything’s normal again. Was it a dream?”
“A Summer Ghoul? Damn.”
“Watch your mouth.”
“Sorry.” Ardal said sheepishly, then sighed heavily, sitting down in the snow and gesturing that she do the same.
“I can explain.” he said. “I know what’s going on. Come, Zel, let me hold you.”
Zelda smiled and settled down against him in the snowy clearing, looking at his kind face and the land around them.
“Where’s our other supplies?” she asked. “I’m hungry.”
“I left them at the trail, surrounded by traps. Let’s hope something smells our food. Would you like to come back with me while I talk?”
Zelda pressed her head against his shoulder, shaking her head. “I want to rest here with you first.”
“Now tell me what happened after I fell asleep next to the trail with you.”
Ardal sighed heavily at the memory. “Alright.”
The thug that slit her throat did it like he was cutting open a bag. The sleeping woman didn’t even make a sound, didn’t even wake up before she was dead. What had she been doing traveling this forest road alone, the bandits did not know, but the two knew free food when they saw it. Now that she was dead, they threw caution to the wind, rifling through the contents of the cart, ignoring all the furs and taking every foodstuff they could find.
Their search abruptly ended, however, when two arrows, loosed in quick succession, struck one in the neck, and then the other in the eye as he turned in surprise.
“Zelda!” Ardal shouted, running out of the darkness of the trees he’d hidden himself in, sliding to his knees beside her bedroll in the snow. His heart had been pounding, but it stopped when he turned her over.
Silence for a minute, as Ardal’s mind, which was not very good at recognizing impossibility, scrambled for a way to heal her, even though she was already dead. There had to be a way. There had to be. He hadn’t listened so closely and avidly to all of the elder’s tales of mythical beasts that prowled this forest for nothing. Ardal wasn’t about to sit down and accept this, not after how much he’d loved Zelda and respected the gods.
There has. To be. A WAY! He pounded the snowy ground with his fist, letting his growing rage hide the tears threatening to dominate his eyes. Where were the gods? Where were the spirits? He was a man with nothing to lose, and he demanded the universe fix that immediately.
“Who’s there?!” Ardal demanded, coming to his feet at once, his hunting knife ready in the blink of an eye.
Before him stood a man, a man who had no feet and instead seemed to float with a large, blue robe surrounding him and trailing along on the snow without leaving a trace. The robe was patterned with clocks and roman numerals. The man’s face was old, in a way that seemed more appropriate to measure in winters than summers. He didn’t care much about the knife Ardal held, but he did care about the woman in his other arm.
“I’m sorry for you loss.” he said, in a heavy accent Ardal didn’t recognize. “Do you recognize me me?”
“Of course I do.” Ardal nodded, lowering his knife. “If I didn’t recognize the Merchant of Time, he wouldn’t appear.”
“Good.” the Merchant nodded. “Well, you know the stories. You know what I charge to bring her back.”
“I do.” Ardal said, already taking off his hat and lowering Zelda and his knife to the ground. He knelt before the Merchant of Time, and opened his hands.
“Start with my oldest years, and count down.”
The Merchant nodded. “The exchange rate is a year for a day.”
Ardal didn’t even blink. “Do it. All of my years. Leave me as many days as you give her.”
Ardal did blink, however, when the Merchant only did three transfers of time from the palms of Ardal’s hands to the palms of his arms that emerged from the robe. The years of time shrunk in his hands down to days, and he stepped past the shocked Ardal.
“Only three?” he asked in disbelief. The Merchant of Time nodded.
“Zelda was dead. You should know why you only had 3 years after that.”
Ardal went silent. He glanced at his knife lying in the snow once again. He did know why.
As the days fell out of the Merchant of Time’s hands, and down onto the still form of Zelda, Ardal’s vision started to fade. He knew why; selling time was a very exhausting experience. He probably wouldn’t wake up till morning, so he quickly rushed past the Merchant and retrieved several traps from the cart, laying them around the parked cart and the bedrools alongside the road. As his arms and legs started to go weak, he dragged the bodies of the bandits away into the trees, and hurried back in time for the Merchant to have finished the transfer and to pass out alongside the sleeping Zelda.
Zelda was as quiet now as she’d been then, staring at her husband with wide, horrified and at the same time smitten eyes. It was a strange mix, but Ardal didn’t mind, stroking her hair and waiting for her to take all that in and speak.
“…uhm…” she managed after a minute or so, staring at the ground now. Like her eyes, she decided to focus on something else while the rest of her caught up. “How did I end up naked in the middle of the forest? Why can’t I feel any cold?”
“I think that’s where he took you to finish the process after I fell asleep. You know you can’t be wearing any clothes, or they might absorb some of the time. And he couldn’t have you freeze to death; the Merchant of Time’s not that sloppy.”
“Yes, of course, I knew that.” Zelda said sarcastically, then sighed. “Fair, but what about the Summer Ghoul? Why’d it come after me if I was still alive?”
“You’re alive in a weird way, right now.” Ardal explained. “We both are. I’m not surprised that a houl, especially one so hungry it came out during winter, got a little confused.”
Zelda leaned against him again, and he held her close.
“I love you.” she whispered.
“I love you too.” he answered.
They shared another kiss. Ardal held his wife close, and in the snow, without any of its chill, the two were as comfortable as they’d be in their own house.
After a while, the two laid down in the snow together, looking up at the brightening sky through the canopy of trees sleeping through winter. Zelda squeezed her husband’s hand.
“Hey.” she said quietly.
“Hey.” he replied.
“So, we have three days together?” she asked, in a tone that told Ardal she was getting at something.
“Yeah?” he said uncertainly, sitting up.
“Not a week? Not a few months?” she went on, sitting up with a wide smile on her face.
Zelda leaned forward, sitting in her husband’s lap. “Not even… nine months?”
Ardal grinned and hugged her again. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” Zelda answered, before she kissed him again.
The three days passed in warmth beneath the trees, and between one another’s arms. At one point, when Zelda complained about being hungry again, Ardal and Zelda fetched the cart and dragged it through the trees to another clearing, where they resumed. They ate together, talked together, and slept together, all in the snow, all beneath the branches of the countless winter trees. As the sun set on the third day, Zelda and Ardal were lying together in her bedroll, soundly asleep and intentionally so. Zelda had preferred dying in her sleep, and Ardal wasn’t going to watch her do it.
So, having said their goodbyes, having shared their last few days in the world together, the sun rose the next morning to illuminate a clearing with a cart, a small bundle of supplies, and an empty pair of bedrolls, only one of which had been freshly used.