For September, it’s stories about dragons and trolls (although not necessarily at the same time).
In Fire and Ivy, bargains have a way of backfiring.
Ivy Bremer stood at the edge of Merryside Township, shotgun in hand. Behind her, flags from the Fourth of July celebration fluttered. Pollen hung in the air, casting everything in a yellow glow.
Her arms ached from gripping the shotgun, her hip protesting the weight of the revolver strapped there. Both weapons were heirlooms, handed down from generation to generation until they sat in the town museum, displayed in shadow boxes, their purpose forgotten. That morning, Ivy had smashed the glass and freed them both.
Mayor was a thankless job—interim mayor even more so. It served her right for skipping that last city council meeting. Or maybe not. Maybe it was because she’d been standing in this very spot twelve months earlier. She’d seen him first. Either way, she was here now.
He was coming. The breeze shifted, lifting sticky strands of hair from her neck. A buzzing filled the morning, the sound like the drone of a prop airplane. Each approaching footfall shook the earth, a reverberation that traveled up her legs, captured her limbs and wrapped around her heart.
Ivy glanced behind her, at the town too quiet to be a real town, and caught the menacing shadow of the catapult. Silver pails glinted, and hoses coiled like snakes, strategically placed for the fire brigade.
As if that could stop the burning.
When had she known? Certainly not that first day, when she’d nearly drowned in the depths of those amber eyes, his gaze alight with the heat of flame behind it. Amber eyes! Why hadn’t she thought to question that?
The breeze picked up. The footfalls remained ever steady, and the buzzing seemed to penetrate her eardrums. In the fields bordering the road, cornstalks quaked. To Ivy, it looked as though they trembled with fear.
When had she known? Not at that first city council meeting, when they unanimously voted him mayor. She’d only felt hopeful. Not when he’d taken her under his wing—how apt—a month later. She’d only felt protected. Not when he proposed. She’d only felt cherished.
Was it the record profits for every business in Merryside? The flood of scholarships for their graduating seniors, the grants to improve the schools, the roads, the infrastructure?
They’d basked in the bounty, never thinking of what it might cost.
So, when had she known?
After the warmest January on record?
After surveying the charred remains of the winter wheat?
Now she stood at the edge of town, the only one who never took coin, the only one who gave, the only one who could stand there. She widened her stance. The shotgun, heavy as it was, reassured her. The revolver at her hip felt right, like she was born to wear it.
He would not pass.
A thin column of smoke rose from the horizon. His footfalls shook the ground so much that her knees buckled—certainly, that wasn’t from fear. At first, all she saw was his head and the misty smoke issuing from his nostrils. The tip of his tail flicked into view. Had he been a dog—which, of course, he wasn’t—Ivy would’ve said he was happy to see her.
Then all of him came into view. His bulk cast a shadow along the road, shading her from the sun long before he took his final step.
“Ivy.” Her name from his mouth was both sulfurous and sensual. “Did the cowards send you to stop me?”
“I came on my own accord. I’m the mayor now.”
A laugh burst forth, one filled with brimstone. “A thankless job, is it not?”
His scales glinted in the summer sun, throwing rainbows across her vision. His talons sunk into the ground rhythmically, as if he were a cat kneading its owner’s lap. The claws churned up asphalt and dirt. Despite herself, Ivy calculated the repair costs and weighed them against the town’s diminishing budget.
But his eyes. Those amber eyes. Those were the same. She recognized herself in their reflection.
“Do you bar me entrance?” he asked, the question issuing with a stream of smoke.
She hesitated for a mere fraction of a second. “I do.”
He bowed his head as if in defeat. “Do you love me?”
This time, she spoke without the hint of a delay, her heart answering for her. “I do.”
Something crackled then, like a fire coming to life. Behind her came a whisper of sand and the sound of bows being pulled taut. She held up a hand, and both sounds ceased.
“Then grant me entrance,” he said, voice low, melodious, almost human. “Let me collect what’s mine.”
With deliberation, Ivy set the shotgun on the ground. She unbuckled the holster from around her waist and placed that next to the shotgun. She felt suddenly lighter without the weight of either, like she might step off into the air and float away.
Instead, she took a single step forward. Waves of heat washed over her skin. Her lungs struggled for oxygen, and sweat coursed down her spine.
“This is what’s yours.” She placed her hands on either side of his muzzle and kissed him.
The earth trembled. Ivy squeezed her eyes shut, but that didn’t stop the single tear from slipping down her cheek. In an instant, the dry heat stole it away.
The sizzling started near his tail. It traveled along his spine, the scales falling away in ones and twos, and then faster, their clatter like rain on a tin roof. Then her world imploded in a cloud of acrid smoke.
The wind picked up again, chasing away the clouds of smoke and revealing a man crumpled on the road in front of her. There he was, that same dark-haired stranger who had strolled into town a year ago.
Ivy crouched next to him, eased her thigh beneath his head, cradled his face with her hands.
His eyes locked onto hers. “Why?”
“They would’ve harnessed you, used you—or killed you in the attempt.”
“Or I, them. That’s the way it is, the way it’s always been.”
“Not now. Not anymore.” A tear wove a track through the grime on her cheek. “I had to stop this … them, and I’m … sorry.”
He shut his eyes, bliss washing across his face. He had the look of a man finally free. “I’m not.”
Another teardrop slipped from her cheek and hissed against his skin. His eyes—those amber eyes—flew open. He brought his fingertips to his mouth and then pressed them against her lips in a dry and dusty kiss.
“Goodbye, Ivy.” He smiled at her. In it, she caught the feral glint of teeth and tender mouth that had so willingly kissed her own. “And thank you.”
The fire that consumed him burned cold. The smoke was thick but sweet. One moment, his weight was solid against her thigh. The next, it was as light as the pollen in the air.
Then, he was gone.
All that remained was dust and ash. Something shimmered there among the specks of gray and black—a single scale. Ivy held it between her finger and thumb, turning it this way and that. Its surface shattered the light, threw a rainbow of color so bright it might blind. She let it rest in her palm before tucking the scale into her pocket.
Ivy stood. She didn’t bother to strap on the holster. She simply pulled the revolver from it. A single shot incapacitated the catapult mechanism, its net hanging loose and now useless. With the shotgun on her shoulder, she marched into town.
No one said a word as she returned the weapons to the museum. They were heirlooms, certainly, with their own sort of magic. Ivy licked the dust from her lips and regarded the relics, locked away in their shadow boxes once again. With luck, that was where they’d stay.
After that, all she had to do was point. Without a word, children collected the buckets. The volunteer fire brigade rolled up the hoses. Members of the city council dismantled the catapult, destroyed the arrows, filled in the trap.
Ivy surveyed the work. Behind her, the cornstalks whispered in the wind. On the breeze, she heard the echo of his promise.
I give you one year and one year only.
Everyone had wanted more, her heart included. She pulled the scale from her pocket, and it glinted in the sun. She held it aloft and let it cast a rainbow across the entire town of Merryside.
Everyone froze in place, like they had that first day a year ago. For a moment, her heart leaped; something that felt like hope filled her chest. Ivy glanced behind her, willing him to step into view.
What she saw instead, through that prism of light, was what could be—if they let it. That was its own sort of hope.
Ivy pocketed the scale. Decision made, she walked toward the town hall and the mayor’s office. The breeze dried the last remaining tear on her cheek.
Yes, she thought.
She’d give it a year.
Fire and Ivy is another story exclusive to The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.