The darkness closed around her like a fist. She felt her heart racing, pumping as hard as her legs, as she ran through the woods. Her old leather boots caught on exposed tree roots and low, creeping vines, causing her to trip several times. She wiped her bleeding hands down the front of her ripped skirts as she ran, not stopping to examine them for damage.
Is he still following me, she wondered, tearing through some clustered saplings. Surely he's given up by now.
Just then, over the sound of her heavy breathing, she picked up the noise of someone, or something, thrashing their way through the underbrush and intertwined tree limbs. She dare not pause to listen more closely, but increased her pace, pushing against the implacable wall of trees.
She stumbled nearly head-long, when the black, leafy wall opened suddenly into the small glade she'd run through earlier. The moon lit the grasses and wild Rose of Shannon bushes that ringed the area. These shouldn't be blooming she knew, but this was an enchanted place after all. Even the heavy snow was absent from the rich earth of the woodland.
Her first instinct was to fall face first onto the cushy grass bed and close her eyes against the terrors she knew followed. Instead, she took a cleansing breath of the green smelling air in the garden-like setting and sprinted across to the other side and closer to the forest edge.
She took a backward look into the enchanted clearing to spy who followed. Standing in the middle, was a young man wearing a rich looking garment of velvet. When he called out to her, she scrambled under the sweeping arms of the nearest evergreen.
"Imogene! Cease this reckless dash through this cursed woods. I mean you no harm, my girl. On the contrary, I only wish to offer you a special gift this Yuletide. Won't you show yourself, I know you are listening?"
She heard the strangers words as he called out to her from the glade and crept forward a little ways to take a better look.
He definitely was richly attired and his manner and stance, spoke of a wealthy upbringing. The moon light was directly over the spot where he stood, watching in her direction. His face, being lit from above was mostly in shadow, but Imogene cold clearly see he was tall and well-built, slim of waist and broad of chest. His hair was a lustrous black, its waves brushing his shoulders. He looked nothing Ike the monster she had just encountered.
Her misery began with the day's first cock-crow.
Just shy of the dawning hour that very day, an impish looking man, entered Imogene's bread stall, while she set her loaves out for the day.
He said he was sent to find the fairest young woman, from among the peasants during the village market day.
"My Master has requested I bring him this girl, so he may bestow great wealth upon her, in exchange for one simple kiss under this sprig of mistletoe."
The little man pulled the waxy leaves and red berried bunch from somewhere under his cape, leaving Imogene to wonder if indeed, he was an elf of the woodlands surrounding the village. She was immediately filled with suspicion that he planned on taking her to some Troll.
When he drew near, she recoiled, lest he touch her.
"I will not go with ye, a stranger and then yet again, to another stranger still! Ye mistake me for a fool!" she'd told him defiantly.
The little man again reached back under his cape, this time bringing out a leather bag, tied and bulging. This he upended upon her table, next to her warm breads. Gold coins spilled their rich glow over the brown loaves and sparkled in the light of Imogene's stubby candles.
"Are ye saying this is for me?" she asked drawing a bit closer. The little man smiled, showing his pointed teeth just a little, before closing his mouth.
"Tis all yours, Imogene, the minute my Master is granted his Yuletide kiss."
He temptingly, gathered up the coins and hefted them in his small hand as he exited the booth.
She quickly followed behind, leaving her bread unattended and to the honesty of others.
They arrived at a cottage that looked as if a hermit might live there for all its simplicity and roughness. "Why, tis not the house of a grand man," Imogene said.
Just then, the door swung inward and the little man gave Imogene a great shove inside. She was caught up in the strong arms of a hideous creature. He was greenish of complexion and lumpy in build , with a prominent hump. His eyes were a flat shade of brown, like horse dung.
Before she could protest being restrained, the imp was springing up to the low rafters and hanging the sprig of mistletoe.
The creature leaned in and with his wet, rubbery mouth, planted a kiss on her lips.
Imogene struggled free and dashed from the cottage into the woods and here she lay, hiding for her life. The bag of gold was not worth the feel of that kiss. Imogene knew she was lovely, in fact, many of the handsome young men of the village sought to court her. Why would she allow a hideous creature have her favors when she had her choice of lovers?
Her mind had been wandering over the scene inside the cottage and she almost missed the soft rustle of the twigs and leaves near her hiding place.
A soft voice filled her heart with dread.
"Imogene, you have earned this bag of gold and I am honor bound to give it to you. You have given me a great gift this Christmas Season and I would repay such generosity of spirit. I hope this a gift you desired as much as I did mine."
With that, Imogene heard the heavy bag of coins clink as it hit the hard ground in front of her hiding place. She watched as the well-shod feet of the man, turned and left her, walking back through the woods and disappearing among th shadows.
Scooting out, Imogene was nearly beside herself with joy at this turn of events. Not only was she safe, she was also rich! Taking the bag and securing it to her girdle she returned to the village square and her breads. Entering, she saw her neighbors little boy, who taking one look at her, ran screaming from her stall. This happened again, when the mother came in to investigate her son's terror at Imogene's hands.
Finally, after a dozen villagers she'd known since birth, came and left as quickly as snow on a griddle, she left for her cottage. Running into the tiny alcove that made her bedroom she snatched up the only possession left by her dead mother. The glass was veined and yellowed with age, but showed clearly, the face of the monster that had kissed her under the mistletoe.
After an hour of crying and sobbing and nearly fainting with disgust as she studied her new visage, Imogene opened the bag of coins. On top of the gold pieces was a small square of rolled parchment. Imogene lit the candle on her table and read.
"Be Careful what ye desire this Yuletide Season. Ye may own it forever more."