The first time she woke, she could feel the sun on her face so she knew she’d managed to sleep through the trip and the night. Her eyes remained stubbornly closed but the cool air told her it was early morning…or perhaps she’d slept through the day too and it was evening. She smelled wood smoke and something she couldn’t quite place, burning herbs or some sort of incense. Dr. Hunt’s voice, a soothing, lyrical backdrop to the warm sun soon lulled her back to sleep.
The second time she woke she couldn’t feel the sun and her eyes opened enough to let her see that it was dark. She could also see Alex. He sat cross-legged beside a low fire, chanting in Cherokee. When he sprinkled something on the flames, they blazed high and he nodded his head. Her stomach grumbled and he glanced over at her.
“Ah, you’re awake and from the sounds of it you’re hungry. I can give you some water, but like I told you, it’s best if you don’t eat anything before you go in the lake. Fasting will sharpen your senses and allow the water to do its work more effectively.”
Oh, okay, well then, a drink of water would be great.
He smiled as he rose to his feet in one fluid motion. Her mouth watered. Maybe she didn’t need a drink after all.
She closed her eyes. What in the world was happening to her? She’d never drooled over a man before but one look at this guy and she was salivating and dreaming of happily ever after. That wasn’t a possibility for her. She’d resigned herself long ago to the fact that she would never marry, never lead a normal life, never find a man who accepted her for what she was and loved her in spite of it.
Except now if the waters of the lake cured her of the curse she’d lived under all her life, perhaps she could have a normal life.
“Here’s your water, Lyssa. As soon as you’re finished we’ll leave for Atagahi. I’m not sure how fast you can go or even if you’ll be able to walk the entire way so it’s probably better that we leave soon to give us plenty of time to get there before the sun comes up.”
She opened her eyes—was it her imagination or did they seem to open more now than before? I can walk. I’ve still got three good legs.
“Yes, you do, but you lost some blood and haven’t eaten in over twenty-four hours so you may be a little weak. I don’t mind carrying you if you need me to.”
You may not mind, but I do. You haven’t eaten in over twenty-four hours either. I’ll pull my own weight.
He shrugged then stood up. “Have it your way, but if you can’t make it, tell me. There’s no shame in being carried to this lake. I’ve done it in the past for animals a lot bigger and stronger than you.”
She didn’t have an answer to that so she lowered her head and drank some water.
“You know, when I brought Miss Marcilene up here that time, I carried her the whole way. She even thanked me for it afterward even though she was annoyed with me for seeing her naked.
She opened her eyes. Speaking of naked, did you bring a robe or something I can put on after? I don’t exactly have any clothes on under this fur coat.
He laughed and her heart did a funny little dance in her chest.
“I did bring a robe and a couple of towels too. And I promise, I’ll keep my eyes shut when you get out of the water.”
I don’t care about that but that lake water’s bound to be almost frozen and it’ll be darned cold after we get out.
“You’re right about that but don’t worry, I’ve got you covered and I promise I won’t peek.”
Uh-huh, that line might work better without the smirk.
He smiled. “Finished?”
Picking up the bowl, he tossed the remaining water on the fire then walked over beside her and reached down to help her up. When she’d gained her feet, he held her steady for a moment before he took his hands away. He kept them close enough that he could catch her if she fell.
She took a few limping steps and found it wasn’t as bad as she’d feared. Which way do we go?
“Hang on, Speedy, let me make sure this fire is completely out and get the towels and your robe.”
She stopped and waited for him. How far is it?
“I can’t rightly say but it shouldn’t be far. I brought us as close as I could last night, or I guess I should say this morning. Are you sure you can walk? I don’t mind carrying you.”
I can walk. You don’t know where we’re going?
“Of course I do, we’re going to Atagahi, the Enchanted Lake.”
Ha-ha, very funny. How are we going to get there if you don’t know the way, smartass?
“I know the general direction but we won’t see the lake until it wants us to see it.”
Oh boy, that makes me feel a lot better. So we just walk until we run into the lake?
“Well, there are a couple of things we can watch for, signs that will guide us.”
What, like a trail marker that says Prepare to be Enchanted, Atagahi, one mile on your left?
“Now who’s being a smartass? Keep your ears open, Lyssa, and you’ll know we’re getting close when you hear a whirring sound.”
A whirring sound? You mean, like a blender or something?
“No, it’s the sound of thousands of birds flying. That’s always the first indication that you’re near Atagahi, the sound of the wild ducks flying around the lake.”
“No, there are other birds too, all different kinds of them but there seems to be more ducks than any other kind.”
Then what, after the whirring, I mean?
“The lake will appear suddenly, almost as if it had been conjured out of thin air.”
What does it look like?
“It’s beautiful and usually appears as a deep purple span of shallow, rippling water. It backs up to high cliffs which is where the water comes from. You can see the water pouring from waterfalls that come from springs in the mountain.”
She stopped and looked off into the distance. All she saw were trees, trees, and more trees. No cliff anywhere around, we must not be very close.
“You won’t see the mountain behind it until shortly before you see the water.”
I don’t think you’ve thought this through very well, what’s going to keep us from falling in the lake and drowning?
“If we can’t see the lake, there won’t be any water so there’s no chance of falling in and drowning.”
Uh-huh, if you say so. I should probably tell you I’m not a very strong swimmer.
“You can dog paddle, can’t you?”
Well, of course, but I’m weak. You said it yourself, I lost some blood and I haven’t eaten in over twenty-four hours.
“Do you always worry so much?”
Yes, I do, it’s one of the things that has kept me alive for this long. Most people, if they see a wolf, will shoot first and ask questions later, if they bother to ask questions at all.
“Like Officer Donner, you mean?”
Yes, he’s a perfect example. He saw a wolf, pulled his gun and shot me, the jerk.
He chuckled. “Well, Officer Donner isn’t the brightest star in the Asheville PD’s sky.
She snarled. He’s not anywhere near a star, more like a dead planet, if you ask me.
“Oh, come on now, Lyssa; don’t be so hard on him. What would you do if you saw a wild animal bearing down on you?
I wasn’t bearing down on him, I was running away. Never mind, I most certainly wouldn’t shoot it. Don’t they train those guys on how to deal with wild animals? I mean, surely I’m not the first that’s ever been spotted in the city. The mountains around here are crawling with all kinds of wild creatures so you’d think the police would have some sort of training on how to handle them.
“I guess you’re right but I think even if Officer Donner had been trained, he still would have shot first and asked questions later, as you said. He’s just a good ol’ boy and probably had a gun shoved in his hands before he could walk.”
Well, all I’ve got to say is he’s lucky I got hit by that car or I might’ve gone back and taught him some manners.
“Shh, hear that?”
She stopped, cocked her head and listened. The whirring sound was faint, as if coming from a distance, but she could definitely hear it. Is that what I think it is?
“Yep, that’s the sound of birds flying around the lake.”
It sounds like it’s still a long way away.
“Not so far really, I think we’ll be seeing Atagahi any minute now. Are you okay, do you think you can make it?”
Yes, I’m—oh my God, would you look at that? It’s beautiful. She could see the mountain now. The sun hadn’t cleared the highest peaks yet but its light traced their edges with a silvery glow. From the side of the mountain, multiple waterfalls spouted, some running in trickles down the side and others pouring out with enough force to fall to the ground below without touching a single tree as if fed by a forceful inner spring within the mountain. She couldn’t see the lake yet but she could hear the water as it hit.
“It is beautiful. They don’t call this place enchanted for nothing.”
And you can just come here whenever you want? Shoot, I think I could live here, right here where I could watch the sun come up over that mountain every day.
“You’d have to fight off the wild animals when they came to be healed.”
Yeah, but the only ones who come here are injured, right?
“Look at the ground. Do you think there are that many injured animals in the Smoky Mountains? And this is nothing compared to the banks around Atagahi, there seem to be millions there.”
The ground was covered with the paw prints of various animal; bears, wolves, deer, rabbits, and a few that had to have been made by a cougar or a wildcat; even though the common belief was that they’d died out a long time ago in the Smoky Mountains.
She walked over to one of the prints and sniffed the ground. Is that a cougar’s print?
He walked over to her and crouched down to get a closer look. “Looks like it to me.”
But I thought they were extinct here.
“Most people believe that but I think it’s more a matter of caution on the cougar’s part than it is them being extinct. I know of a privately owned mountain to the north of here where there are several wildcats living.”
A privately owned mountain, I didn’t know there were any of those around here anymore. How can anyone afford a whole mountain?
“It’s been in the Tassel family for years and years, since back when the Cherokee were the majority here in the mountains, long before most of them were driven to the west.”
And they were able to hold onto it when the rest of their tribe was forced to leave?
“Yep, of course it helps that no one knew about the mountain back then and it was fiercely guarded by the Tassel brothers. I’d like to see anyone try to take it away from them, even today. They’d fight to the death to protect their mountain.”
She shook her head. Why in the world would someone risk their life for a mountain? Men are strange creatures.
He laughed. “And women aren’t?”
Well, yeah, I guess they are, but men are stranger. Not that I’ve ever been that close to one, that’s just one other thing I don’t have much experience with.
“There’s never been a man in your life?”
Not really, not for any significant amount of time anyway and never long enough for me to figure one out.
“Why is that?”
Being a shape-shifter is not exactly the ideal situation when it comes to men. It’s kind of like that old television show about the woman who was a witch; you know how her husband was when it came to her powers, he didn’t want her to use them and he watched her constantly. She had to restrain herself for him and I’m not willing to do that for anyone.
“But you’re not a witch, you don’t have powers beyond the ability to shift—do you?”
No, but think about it, if I’d gotten involved with a man, involved enough that I fell in love with him it wouldn’t be fair if I wasn’t honest about who and what I am. He’d have to know and I’m not very good at deception so I’d have to tell him.
“I’d say you do all right with deception, you fooled all those people at the nightclub into believing you were a so-called ‘normal’ person and also that you were a man.”
Yeah, but that’s different. I don’t know those people and don’t really care about them the way I would if I was close to them. I just don’t think a person should lie to the people they love.
“Fair enough and really quite admirable but after you take a dip in Atagahi you won’t have to worry about that anymore, will you?”
She looked up at him. Do you really think it’ll work?
“Don’t see why not, it worked for your grandmother and it worked for me too.”
What’s it like to be a normal person?
“You’re going to find out in a few minutes. Look.”
She followed his pointing finger and saw the lake for the first time. It took her breath away. The rising sun had painted it a glowing amethyst and it seemed to stretch for miles. Away from the waterfalls that fed it, the water was calm, like a sheet of glass, and she could see fish swimming just beneath the surface. Ducks and geese floated on the water and she realized the whirring sound she’d been hearing for some time now had stilled.
It’s huge, I can’t swim that.
“Sure you can. It isn’t as big as it looks. It’s sort of like a mirage in the desert where you see water but when you get to it, there’s nothing there. And remember, once you start swimming you’ll also start healing which means you’ll get stronger as you go.”
Do I swim directly to the waterfalls? What if I get caught in a hidden current and it sweeps me under? I’ll drown.
“No, you swim parallel to the falls, from south to north and you stay as close to the middle as you can. It’s calmer there and there’s no real current to worry about.”
She kept her eyes on the lake, wondering if she could do it.
“You can do it, Lyssa.”
Looking up at him, she actually believed she could but when she looked back at the water, her confidence faltered.
Dr. Hunt, Alex, would you swim it with me? As much as I hate to admit it, I’m scared.
“All you had to do was ask. Hang on and I’ll go set these things on the opposite bank from where we’ll start. That’ll give you a focal point, something to shoot for if you get tired or confused, just look for the red towels. Stay here, I’ll be back.”
Don’t hurry on my account.
Smiling, he took off at a jog toward the north bank. He dropped the towels and robe then took the time to shuck his boots, socks, jeans, and sweatshirt. It didn’t take him any time at all to run back to her—wearing only his boxers, God help her.
She swallowed and forced herself to quit looking at his body. No, but I’m as ready as I have any hope of being so let’s do this thing and get it over with.
He led her to the south bank. “Okay, the water will be cold at first but it’ll warm up as you go and by the time you come out on the other side, you should have shifted so as soon as you get out, put the robe on.”
What about you, didn’t you bring a robe for you?
“I’ll dry off and then put my clothes back on. I’m hot-natured anyway. Cold doesn’t bother me.”
Well, it does me but a little cold air never killed anybody. At least I don’t think it did.
“That’s the spirit. Go ahead and get in, I’ll be right behind you. I won’t touch you unless I see you’re having trouble but I’ll be there just the same.”
Okay, here goes nothin’. See you on the other side.
She walked down the gentle slope of the bank and slipped into the water. It surprised her that it felt more buoyant than other lakes she’d swum in, like maybe it had a higher salt content or something.
Once she started dog-paddling, she warmed up quickly just like he’d said she would. Keeping her eyes trained on the bright red towels on the opposite shore, she could feel her muscles loosening up and started moving faster through the water. About halfway across she felt the shift start and in a matter of seconds, the fastest she’d ever shifted, she could feel the water glide over skin instead of fur. She ducked under the water to wet her hair, coming up so that it slicked back from her forehead, and then she set her eyes on the towels, kicked her legs and swam for the other shore.
Her strength grew with every stroke and it didn’t take her long to get there. Behind by only a second, Alex laughed as he gained the bank.
“So much for you not being able to do it. How do you feel?”
She slipped into the robe, hugged her waist as a chill raced up her spine. “I’m a little cold but other than that, incredible. You can open your eyes now, I’m decent.”
He looked her up and down as he wrapped one of the towels around his waist. “I probably should take a look at your leg to make sure everything’s all right.”
“Okay.” She pulled the robe aside so he could see her leg. “Wow, it feels so good to be able to talk again.”
He knelt in front of her and gently prodded her leg where the bullet had gone in. If she hadn’t known she’d been shot, she’d never have guessed. There wasn’t even a bruise, much less a scar.
When Alex looked up at her and met her eyes, her blood heated. It was similar to the feeling she got when she shifted and she stilled, waiting to see what would happen.
Nothing did, even when she tried to shift, she remained a woman, a human woman. When Alex stood up she threw her arms around him and hugged as tight as she could.
“I don’t know how to thank you. You’ve given me the greatest gift ever by bringing me here to Atagahi and curing me.”
“Much as I’d like to, I can’t take credit for healing you, the lake did all the work.”
She pulled back. “Maybe, but it wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you. You saved me the night before last in Asheville and then you saved me again when you brought me here.”
He shrugged as if he hadn’t just opened up the entire world to her. “So, Lyssa, will you have dinner with me tonight?”
She smiled. “What I’d really like is some breakfast. I’m starving.”
“If that’s all I can get then breakfast it is.”
“And maybe while we eat, we can talk about dinner.”
“Breakfast sounds like a good start. Are you up for the hike back? I brought everything we need for breakfast, if you don’t mind eating outside.”
“Some of the best meals I’ve ever had were outside. Alex…what if it didn’t work, what if my not being able to shift is just a temporary thing, I mean? I feel different, but what if next month, it happens again?”
“You are a worrier, aren’t you? What if it doesn’t?”
“Yeah, but what if it does?”
He sighed. “Trust me, Lyssa, it worked. And before you ask how I know, I know because you went in during a Black Moon, just like your grandmother and I did. Any magic performed during a Black Moon is more powerful.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
He laughed. “Don’t hurt yourself with all that celebrating. What are you going to do with your life now, Alyssa Constance Bergin?”
She smiled at him and took his hand. “I’m going to have to think about that. First, I want that breakfast you promised me and then I’d really like to go see Nana. After that, who knows? The possibilities are endless.”
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “That’s my girl.”
Her heart did that funny flip-flop thing again. The charmed waters of Atagahi had healed her bullet wound and possibly taken away the curse she’d lived under for her entire life…and maybe they’d enchanted her heart too.