He hadn't realized so much time had passed.
He walked lightly over the snow, barely leaving a footprint as he headed down the path he had once walked so often, his green cloak fluttering behind him. New buildings lined the road, and trees that hadn't been saplings the last time he came this way now overhung the way. At the end of the road, after the last field, though, he saw what he was looking for. As he neared it, he realized he had been holding his breath, afraid he was too late.
But there it stood. Time had not treated it well. The cottage at the edge of the wood had grown ramshackle, with gaping boards and a roof in need of thatching, nothing like the last time he had tread the path to its door. For a moment, he wondered anybody still lived there, but there was still smoke coming out through the smoke hole, so, scratching a bit on the door frame to let anybody know he was there, he stepped into the house.
The room was dark, except for a dying fire in the hearth. It smelled sad, of age and neglect and sickness.
"Is that you, Biddy?" asked an old, reedy woman's voice. "Did you remember your granny today?"
Turning towards the sound, he saw a woman, old, and gray-haired, laying on a bed covered with a ragged quilt.
"Maire?" he said, ignoring the smells and the dirt as he walked to the bedside.
Rheumy eyes looked up at him. Once they had been a brilliant blue, but time and care had taken its toll. Slowly, she took in his face, and as recognition dawned she gasped.
"Tam," she said, and tried to sit up, but couldn't. She raised one thin and bony arm up in greeting, then letting it collapse, as if the effort was too much for her. "You've come back."
He noticed how blotched her skin was, how swollen her fingers, then swallowed. "I told you I would."
"You were always a person of your word. Ah, Tam, my beautiful Fae man, still as fair as the day I first saw you," she said. "How I loved your bright eyes and black hair. There's not much here to come back for. A memory of a midsummer's night, and the shell of an old woman."
He reached over and gently took her hand. The skin on it was paper thin, and dry."How long has it been, Maire?" he asked. "I never meant . . . "
"I know," she said, smiling softly.
He gave her hand a delicate squeeze. "Time . . . Time between here and Faerie, it does odd things. I was only gone a month, like I said. You know I wanted you to come with me."
"I know," she said. "I chose. But the winter is nearly over now. I saw the snowdrops pushing through the snow yesterday. Tomorrow it will be spring, and the sun will warm the earth, and I . . . well I will soon be free of this old shell. Perhaps you will dance with my spirit around the midsummer's fires."
Her breathing was labored, and the talk had tired her out. She closed her eyes and fell silent. Tam suspected she had fallen asleep, and moved his hand away.
She opened her eyes. "I never gave up hope, you know. I held on, waiting for you to come back. Now I can let go in peace. Remember me, the silly girl who let a beautiful man of the Fae sweep her off her feet one summer's day, and then chose to cling to the world she knew. Remember . . . "
Her voice drifted off, and her eyes closed once again. He bent over her, kissed her forehead, and once, lightly on the lips.
"I will remember," he said.
As he left, he saw the snowdrops growing by the cottage door, the little flower that pushes up through the snow to bloom, and taking one, he walked back the way he came, wondering about hope and choice, and the fragile ways of human life, and how he, tied to the ways of Faerie would never quite understand it.