Gift of the Holly King
By Maura Anderson
Publisher: Aspen Mountain Press
Genre(s): Contemporary Paranormal
Recovering from a near-fatal accident, wiccan priestess Kayleigh Brennan has taken a leave of absence from her job to focus on recovering her health and rediscovering herself. When she discovers an ancient holly tree in a clearing behind her rented bungalow, she catches the full attention of Ilex, the Holly King. As his reign ends for the year and an ice storm moves in, will they lose each other again to the cycles of the year and of life?
What a beautiful day.
Already chilly, the lack of any cloud cover was a certain sign that it would get far colder overnight. The weather had been unpredictable and there were already dire warnings that this winter would be a record breaker.
She made her way down the wooden stairs from the deck to the ground, keeping a tight grip on the railing and testing each step carefully before putting her full weight on it. The mere thought of getting hurt again made her stomach churn. She wasn't about to risk a tumble down the steps.
The carefully groomed gravel path started at the base of the wooden stairs and meandered in swoops and curves toward the woods, following the slight contours of the yard on its way to the woods. Its organic flow made it seem like it might have always been there, despite the fact it was clearly manmade.
The crunching sound of her footsteps drew her to the brink of a different state of awareness. Her stomach gradually relaxed and her hands unclenched. Her mind stilled as she focused on her feet and the path, each slow step taken with care. Each deliberate stride pulled her deeper into her light trance.
At the edge of the grass lawn, she seemed to cross from one world to another in the space of a few steps. The light breeze rustled the few remaining leaves on the branches of the maples and oaks. The gravel path changed to a rougher trail of packed earth with a layer of leaves and needles. The trees grew thicker, larger, and nearer to the small path. The scent of the cedars was both sharp and comforting, overlying the musty and rich smell of the thick layer of decaying vegetation that filled the floor of the woods. Screened by the woods, the breeze was replaced by a quiet stillness, not even broken by the sound of birds or squirrels she'd heard in the yard.
The path was well-defined and Kayleigh continued along it, sinking a little deeper into her trance. She loved the feel of nature and the trees around her. Alone in the woods, she could have been the only person in the world, at home with the Goddess and the sense of impending Yule.
Though not a major sabbat, she'd always had a special place in her heart for the Winter Solstice and the trappings of Yule. The knowledge that she was witnessing the longest night of the year always gave her hope. The adage that tomorrow would be a sunnier day was really true.
Tugging off her gloves, she reached out to caress the wide, craggy bark of a pine tree that had to be a hundred years old. She wouldn't even be able to get her arms around half the trunk. Fingers quickly growing cold, she stuffed them and her gloves into her coat pockets.
Her steps took her further down the path, touching bushes and dodging the few spider webs that impinged on the trail. It seemed like she walked forever — away from the loud modern world and into a timeless, primeval realm.
Her breath caught, a sense of excitement flooding through her newfound peace. A shiver traced down her spine and goose bumps rose on her arms. A presence, an ancient, inhuman sense of wisdom and power, flooded over her mental shields. It seemed somehow masculine, deeper and rougher than the feminine Goddess energy she usually felt. And it was very close.
What is out here?
A blind turn in the path, around a large maple, brought her to the edge of a clearing. The crowded woods abruptly gave way to a grassy open space with a huge holly tree in the center, flanked by two smaller holly trees.
"Goddess, where have you brought me?" Her own whispered, reverent words seemed to flow out into the still otherworld of the clearing on the fog of her breath, twisting and turning as she stood in awe of what she saw and felt.
Every instinct and training told her this was no ordinary landscape feature.
This was a sacred place of some sort and it belonged to the presence she felt.
The huge, ancient holly tree in the center seemed to be the focus.
The longer she looked at the tree, the more she felt a need to touch it, to be near it. The smooth bark almost glowed in shades of tans, browns, yellows and golds. The spiky leaves were a glossy, dark green and created a lush canopy that overshadowed two smaller holly trees.
The overgrown grass, yellowed from the cold fall weather, was wet. It seemed deeply wrong to just walk into the clearing. That space belonged to the presence and no matter how much she wanted to get near the huge holly, she needed to remember she was only a visitor — an uninvited one at that. A wave of tingling electric sensations ran over her skin and just under it, an eerie sensation made it clear that whatever lived here had noticed her.
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