With a slight inclination of her head the dark-haired maiden indicated the low arch through which the blood-stained stream left the hall. Without a word my friend and I stepped down into the water and followed it into the shadows. Ducking beneath the mossy stonework of the wall, we stepped out into the cold.
The snow was flying thick and fast when we emerged among the heavily frosted trees of the orchard. Squinting ahead, I saw the stream go flowing straight as an arrow down an irrigation ditch between two rows of yellow pear trees. Above our heads the branches were alive with the silver wings of a thousand wood pigeons that cooed and clucked softly among the snow-covered fruits.
Glancing upward I realized that the Firebird had reappeared in the sky. I saw his flaming eye fix itself upon me as, stooping in flight, he dispersed the darkness with a single downward sweep of one flaming wing. Joining hands, my friend and I followed him out of the orchard and up the wooded slope beyond. Despite the cold and the snow, the water through which we waded (it never rose any higher than our knees) was as warm as a bath.
Soon we found ourselves once more among the wonders of the Christmas forest. The Firebird’s red-gold glare filtered down through the decorated pine boughs on every side. Snowflakes danced and glittered in the intermittent beams, illuminating the surface of the water. Multi-colored gemstones flashed among the pebbles beneath our feet.
But these marvels soon gave way to others. For we had not gone far before the richly ornamented evergreens gave way to a stand of towering oaks, elms, and alders, their twisted branches clothed in a light green mist of freshly budding spring leaves. The snow ceased. A light breeze caressed my cheeks and tangled my hair. The banks on either side of the stream changed in a moment from frosty white to velvety green, and the spaces between the tree boles burst into a profusion of color as primroses and asters poked their heads up from beneath the ground.
My friend squeezed my hand and I turned to look up into his face. What was my surprise to see that he too was undergoing a transformation! He had grown taller, his hands and arms more sinewy and muscular, his hair darker and thicker. On his chin appeared a faint shadow as of the first downy growth of beard. I touched his face, staring with wonder into his deep blue eyes. He gazed back at me and smiled.
Then we pressed on through the warm spring air.