Tag Archives: Speculative fiction

Free Fiction Friday: The Maze

How can you escape if there’s no way out?

Eppie

On the twelfth day, Cadet Eppie Langtry found the cracks in the wall.

She’d stopped her trek through the maze and leaned against its smooth surface. Exhaustion from the first six hours washed through her, the force of it pushing her into the unforgiving wall. After a few quick breaths, she wiped a hand across her eyes and rolled her shoulder. It was nothing more than a simple push to get going. But beneath her, something shifted.

Eppie sprang back, gulping cold air. She inched closer and probed the crevice with her fingers. The unrelenting and unchanging wall of the past twelve days slid against her skin. She nudged the wall with her shoulder, the way you might a best friend, as if she and this impenetrable white slab had anything in common. The crevice deepened.

Eppie glanced upward. The walls and ceiling were bare, but so bright that some days, she wanted to crouch into a ball, bury her head in her arms, and simply rock the twelve-hour shift away.

She never did. The stories of those who had halted for too long kept her trudging forward through the maze. With her shoulder molding new shapes in the wall, Eppie latched onto the first glimmer of … something. Like everyone else in her class, she’d spent hours pounding the surface, scratching the walls, kicking as hard as she could. Not even blood from torn fingernails was a match for the bright, white glare. Worse, after that first day, everyone’s boots went missing from their lockers, and they now navigated the icy maze in bare feet.

Her toes ached with the cold. Eppie sandwiched one foot on top of the other and inspected the dip in the wall her shoulder had made. She poked at the wall with her fingertips, and the pliant give became unrelenting again. It was as if the maze resented her earlier attempts of kicking and scratching.

Eppie blew out a breath. “I’d be resentful too,” she said, her words barely reaching her ears. It was as if the walls absorbed both the sound of her voice and what she had to say.

She tried her shoulder again, rolling it around, gentle, persistent, but giving it a bit of rhythm, like a dance routine. If the cadre were filming this—and no doubt they were—she must look ridiculous. A giggle escaped her lips, and Eppie slapped a hand across her mouth. She hadn’t laughed in how many days? Certainly not the last twelve.

Beneath her shoulder, the crevice grew into a valley. Since the wall seemed to like her shoulder, what about a hip? Now she was dancing. Hip, shoulder, step. Hip, shoulder, step. Hip, shoulder…

Something solid and warm blocked her progress. Eppie halted, drinking in the first hint of heat in more than six hours. Was this the key, then? Movement? Friction? The wall beneath her still glowed white. It looked deceptively cold, but its warmth was delicious. She turned her face toward the wall, tongue flicking across her lips. What if she leaned forward? What if she let her mouth graze the surface? What then?

She was a mere breath away when the wall beneath her skin coughed.

Hank

Cadet Hank Su stomped through the corridor. No matter how hard he tried, the bright white swallowed the sound of his footfalls until all that remained were small, pathetic steps against the frigid floor. No matter how hard he screamed, the walls absorbed it. By dinner, his throat was so raw, even water scraped on the way down. He crashed from side to side. He kicked until they took away his boots. He gathered up all his strength and bolted down the corridor.

Gentle curves morphed into straight, hard surfaces—almost on a whim—and he slammed into the wall, this time not on purpose. Hank experimented with speed, sprints and slow jogs, but always moving forward. After that first day, when his best friend Ryan didn’t come back, Hank had known this was no ordinary training exercise. Every night, he confronted that empty bunk next to his. To stop seeing the image of the stripped mattress and empty footlocker, Hank bent his head forward and ran with all his strength, grateful for the crash at the end.

But today, day twelve, he walked the corridors, keeping his pace steady. When he stood still, the walls closed in. If he extended his arms, certainly he’d be able to touch both sides at once. Every time he tried? The walls exhaled. There was no other word for it. And they left him standing in the center of the hall, fingertips straining for the cold surface on either side of him.

An illusion. A trick. Something someone was recording. Would the cadre play it back, at the end of the exercise, so everyone could laugh at him? He shook his head, banishing that notion—and the thought that there was no end to this. That was why they punched the walls. That was why they kicked. Didn’t the cadre understand that? Or maybe they did, and that was the point.

Hank inched closer to one wall, letting his fingers trail along its surface. So smooth. So cold. An ache bloomed beneath his fingertips. He moved closer still, resting his forehead against the wall. The shock of cold almost made him jerk back. But as unrelenting as the wall was, it soothed his brow, made his throat feel less parched. Hank inhaled, held the recycled air in his lungs, then blew out a long breath and pitched forward.

There, on the wall—like the indentation on a pillow—was the impression of his forehead. With hands and fingers, he probed the dent. Nothing. In frustration, he leaned his head in the same spot, and the wall gave way again.

This time, Hank stood still. The corridor remained quiet. The lights blared down, like they always had. A dry, stale taste had invaded his mouth a few hours back. But this? This was new. This held hope. He rolled his head from side to side, the motion so gentle, his eyelids grew heavy. It was like an icy lullaby, and after six hours of running the maze, a relief.

The going was slow, but the wall yielded beneath his head. He forgot about running, about screaming, about kicking. He forgot about feeling foolish. Who cared? At last he was getting somewhere.

The giggle stopped all his progress. Hank felt his eyes grow wide. Certainly his mouth hung open. A giggle. A girl’s giggle. He stepped back and surveyed the wall.

“Hello?” His voice sounded rough, so he coughed to clear it.

Nothing. Right. Walls didn’t giggle. That didn’t stop him from trying again. “Hello?”

“Is someone there?” The voice sounded light, but steady, and even better, real. Not some computer-simulated thing—and Hank knew all about those. This was a real girl.

Or, at least, Hank hoped she was. Instead of jumping back, he surged forward and cracked his head against the wall.

“Ow.” His voice sank into the walls around him, and it was almost like he hadn’t spoken at all.

“Are you okay?”

“I head-butted the wall.”

“You can’t do that,” the girl said. “You’ve got to go slow.”

“I know that.”

“And use body parts that haven’t hit the wall, either.”

“I know that too.” Or, at least, he did now.

“Does your head still work?”

What kind of question was that? Hank stared at the wall so hard, the surface blurred red.

“I mean,” she said, “since you hit the wall with it.”

Oh. Of course. He was an idiot. “Let me try.” He eased forward, resting his head against the wall. From one side to the other, he rolled his head, the cold dulling the pain from the bruise.

His feet remained in the same spot, but the wall felt pliant under his forehead. He brought up a hand, testing the surface not with fingertips that had scratched, but with the heel of his hand. The sensation didn’t register at first, but a small circle beneath his palm radiated warmth.

“Do you feel that?” he asked. “The heat?”

“I do.”

“What do you think it is?”

A moment passed, a single heartbeat of hesitation. “Us?”

Was it? The reflex to jerk away nearly had him on the opposite side of the corridor. Instead, he stretched his fingers and pressed them against the wall. Warmth ran along his skin, pooled in his palm. The girl. It had to be, standing like he was, her hand against his.

“What’s your—?” he began.

The claxon alarm rang. The walls faded. The floor vanished beneath his feet. The plummet stole his breath, felt endless until the jolt of hitting the ground. He found himself in the assembly yard, like he had after every twelve-hour shift, along with all the others in his class. Lines formed for the dining hall. By rote, Hank joined one.

“Hey, Hank!” someone called.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he traced patterns across his palm. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel her warmth. When he opened them, Hank realized one thing:

He didn’t even know her name.

Eppie

Eppie scanned the dining facility, gaze darting, hopeful and quick. Too many times, she’d spotted someone, someone like her, someone with a secret. Her heart would speed up. She’d open her mouth to call out, raise a hand to wave, only to have that someone turn away.

Could she find the boy? If so, what then? How would that help them tomorrow, when they both went back inside the maze? She took her seat and pushed her dinner around her plate. Eat, she told herself. Build up your strength. Tonight’s stew was smooth, at least. And hot. The center of the spoonful burnt her tongue, and the heat of it seared the back of her throat.

Eppie clutched her water cup, brought the rim to her lips, and drowned the heat. When she set the cup down, the sharp gaze of a matron fell on her.

“What did you do?” her friend Chara asked.

Eppie shook her head. “I didn’t do anything.” Except make the maze move. Except talk to a boy, who was somewhere beyond the yellow dividing line that ran the entire length of the dining facility.

But what if the cadre had seen Eppie and the boy, heard them talk? Well, what of it? Eppie folded her arms across her chest. She raised her chin and stared back at the matron.

The woman glanced away.

“Eppie …?” Chara said.

Eppie put a finger to her lips. “Not here.”

She was scraping her plate clean when the bell sounded. Normally, they’d be released into the yard for a precious hour of social interaction, but not at this point in their training, not while they were all navigating the maze. Instead, they walked the lines to their separate dormitories, were pushed through showers, and watched the lights flicker above their bunks.

“Wakeup at zero four hundred, ladies,” the matron said. “That comes awfully early.”

“Actually, it comes at the same time every day,” Chara whispered.

Eppie giggled. The feel of it in her throat made her think of dancing with the maze. The boy. His warmth.

“There’s more to the maze,” she whispered to Chara.

The matron’s footfalls sounded in the aisle between the two rows of beds.

“I’m not sure it’s a maze at all,” she added.

The footsteps grew louder, then slowed, then stopped—right beside Eppie’s bunk.

“Cadet Langtry?”

“Yes, Matron?”

“If I were you, I’d conserve my energy by not speaking.”

Eppie stilled her breath even as her thoughts raced. “Yes, Matron.”

So they knew? They must. If the cadre couldn’t use the maze to observe them, then they had planted something in their uniforms, a tracking device, perhaps. A sudden, delicious thought of flinging off her uniform filled her head. Flinging it off and running through the maze naked. Flinging it off and finding that boy. He’d keep her warm.

Now that would be a dance worth doing.

Hank

Hank stood at the entry point to the maze. He was alone in his own little corridor. They all were. If he held still, he could hear the others, their breathing, an occasional shoulder slam against the wall. No one liked going in, but the sooner they did, the sooner the day would end.

Day thirteen.

When his door whooshed open, Hank took soft steps. He let his fingertips skim the wall, the gentlest of touches. He could hold a baby bird and not injure it. Still, the cold against the soles of his feet, and the idea of the girl, urged him forward, faster and faster.

Soft and fast, he chanted to himself. Soft and fast.

Could he find her? He’d thought of her—dreamed of her—all night. Was she thinking of him? Dreaming of him? Did she even want to find him?

In nearly two weeks, what they’d both discovered yesterday was the first thing that hadn’t hurt. He wanted more of that, so after half an hour (by his guess), he decided to cozy up to the wall.

He veered right, simply because he was right-handed. Hank hesitated. Was that predictable? Or maybe no second-guessing? The maze probably hated that. After all, he did.

Hank froze, his palm against the wall’s surface. When, exactly, had the maze started having opinions?

“But you do,” he whispered. Was it sentient? Would it eat them? It hadn’t bothered to in the past twelve days, so he didn’t see why it should start now.

“Do you have a name?” he asked, his face close now to the bright white of the wall. “I was stupid,” he added. “I didn’t ask the girl what her name was. I’m worried I won’t be able to find her.”

He stood now, both hands against the wall, his face inches away, legs spread. “Can you help me?”

Beneath his palms, something shifted, as if a wave deep within the wall itself had rolled past.

“I’m sorry,” he added, “I didn’t know I could hurt you. I only thought they were trying to hurt us.”

The wave surged past again, stronger this time, carrying him with it.

“Got it,” he said, feet scurrying to catch up. “You want me to go that way.”

Hank ran, faster than he could on his own. With that wave beneath his palm, he nearly flew. Cold air blasted him in the face. His eyes watered, and his mouth went dry. But he didn’t care.

He was flying. He was going to find the girl.

Eppie

Eppie kept her uniform on. Tempted as she was to chuck the whole thing, the air was too frigid. Plus, at the end of the shift, did she really want to end up in the assembly yard completely naked? No. No, she did not.

Today, when her fingertips met the wall, the surface gave, just a bit, beneath the pressure. Nothing too hard, nothing violent, but yet, when she pressed her whole hand—not just the palm—against the wall, she felt herself sink into it.

“Do you forgive me?” she asked. “We didn’t know. They never said.” And here she was, talking to the wall as if it were a real living thing. Was it? She pressed deeper into the surface and the wall swallowed her hand, up to her wrist.

“Oh!” It didn’t hurt. In fact, it made her think of what it might be like to push your way into a marshmallow. During her first year at the Academy, they’d had those, complete with a campfire that threw sparks into the air, the sweet smell of burnt sugar filling her nose. Back when things had felt hopeful, the Academy a lucky break.

Eppie eased her other hand into the wall. “What went wrong? Was it always supposed to end this way?”

The surface moved under her touch, like it was melting, except it was still far too cold for that. “You are so cold,” she said. “That doesn’t seem right.”

Could a living thing be so cold, even one from another planet or dimension, or wherever this thing was from? She let herself fall forward, arms spread wide as if for a giant hug. If the maze didn’t catch her, she’d break her nose, maybe some bones. But she closed her eyes, let gravity take her, and fell head first into the marshmallow wall.

Three inches from the floor, the maze caught her.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I knew you would.”

At that moment, something rolled over her. This was less of a marshmallow and more of a thick wave of frosting. With it came a whoop and a flash of heat. Heat. Warmth.

The boy.

“Hello!” Eppie clambered to her hands and knees. She was fully inside the wall now. She slogged forward. It felt like pushing through a meadow of velvet grass with stalks that grew taller than her head.

“Hello!” she called again, louder now. “Are you there?”

“Is that you?”

Of course it’s me, Eppie wanted to say. But she knew what he meant. “From yesterday, right?”

“It is you!” he said. “And the maze, it somehow—”

“Brought us together.” Even the ice cold interior couldn’t cool the blush that flashed across her face. She didn’t know what this boy looked like, didn’t know his name. All she knew was that he liked to head-butt his way into things, that he was loud, that he was trying to find her.

And that made him oh so interesting.

“I’m over here,” she said when he didn’t respond.

“Yeah, that’s just it. I don’t know where ‘here’ is.”

He laughed, and the maze around her shook. Gentle waves made the velvet insides quiver and sent her this way and that.

“The maze likes that,” she said. “It likes to hear you laugh.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m inside it, inside the walls.”

“How on earth—?”

Eppie laughed. “Probably not.”

“You’re right about that,” he said. “But how?”

“Remember the trust falls from first year?”

“I hated those.”

“Same idea.”

“Will you help me?”

“I don’t know where you are.” Eppie held her arms out, fingers investigating the velvet that surrounded her. His heat. She should search for his heat. But all that met her fingertips was more frigid air.

“Hey.” His voice was soft. “Before I forget. What’s your name?”

“Eppie Langtry.”

“I’m Henry, Henry Su. But everyone calls me Hank.”

“Can I call you Henry?”

“Uh, I guess. Sure.”

“I don’t want to be like everyone else.”

Hank

He’d found her! He’d found the girl. Hank didn’t even care that she wanted to call him Henry. No one ever did. In fact, Hank liked that he could be Henry, if just for this girl.

“I’m over here,” he called.

“It’s like you’re everywhere.” She laughed, and the sound flowed through the space, seemed to fill it.

“I think it likes it when you laugh,” he said.

“So you think it’s … something, too.”

“Yeah. But I don’t know what.”

“I almost want to say it’s not here.”

“Oh, it’s here.”

“I mean …” She sighed, and that too, traveled through the walls. “It’s from somewhere else, or another dimension, one that was rolled up small, but now is stretched thin.” She paused, then added, “That’s why it’s cold. That’s why it hurts.”

“Who did the stretching?”

This time, Eppie’s exhale filled his ears. They both knew the answer to his question. Whoever did the stretching also shoved them inside every morning.

“Why did it pick us?” Hank asked, his voice quiet. “I mean, you’re special.” Hank knew she was. The trust fall proved that. “But I’m nobody. Average grades, average test scores, average everything.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I can prove it. On the outside, at least.”

“Maybe it’s not what’s on the outside that counts.”

“So what do we do?” he asked. “How do we help it?”

“I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that I want to feel your hand again.”

Hank swallowed, hard. For a full ten seconds, he quite possibly forgot how to breathe. “Maybe.” He coughed. “Maybe I should hold still, and you try to find me.” He cleared his throat again and added, “It might be easier that way, since you’re on the inside.”

He let himself melt into the wall. The surface grew softer beneath him, more pliant. From somewhere deep inside the wall came a whooshing noise, a sloshing that sounded like someone pushing through knee-deep water.

“Have you ever seen a wheat field?” Eppie asked.

“Only in vids.”

“This must be what it’s like, walking through one, only the stalks are so soft.”

A spot of heat brushed against his palms.

“Oh, I found you!” Eppie cried out before he could utter a word.

They stood like that, palm to palm. A circle of heat bloomed beneath their hands, spread into the wall itself.

“Do you feel that?” she asked.

Hank coughed again. “Yeah.”

“I think it wants us closer together. You know, more points of contact.”

“You okay with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be okay?” she said. “It’s like dancing.”

Well, he wasn’t going to use that word, but yes, like dancing. They eased closer together. Was that her cheek against his lips?

“Why do you think it needs us?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it’s … I don’t know, using us? Not in a bad way. I mean, I barely know you, but I couldn’t stop thinking of you last night. You know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“It feels … right, and yet, nothing makes sense.”

“Nothing about this last year makes sense. Weren’t you excited to get into the Academy?”

He had been, just like his older brothers.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be easy,” Eppie continued. “But even the training that seemed stupid at the time had a point, and you kind of knew what that was, even if you didn’t exactly.”

Hank snorted. That was the Academy, all right. “Both my brothers graduated from here. Frederick never talks about the maze, and all Jon says is don’t stop moving.”

But they had stopped. And now?

“All that training,” she said, “and then they put us in here, and it feels like … it feels like—”

“A mistake,” he finished. “Someone’s made a mistake, and they don’t know how to fix it.”

“Then why are they sending class after class through the maze?”

“Maybe they were hoping for the right combination?”

“Maybe they were hoping for us. Look.”

Shadows played against the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor of the maze. Dark figures ran, punched walls, scratched and kicked. Hank wanted to scream. Stop! You’re not helping.

“More than one dimension, then?” Eppie asked.

“I wasn’t paying attention that day in class.”

“I think this goes beyond anything they teach in class.”

“That’s probably part of the problem.”

The claxon bell blared, echoing through the maze with enough force to rupture an eardrum. Hank felt it shake the walls. The surface beneath his hands trembled, like a wild creature racked with fear and pain. Before the bottom fell out—before the walls melted and his feet slid through nothing—he lunged forward.

Forget trust falls. This was a trust dive. He grabbed Eppie around the waist the same moment she clutched his shoulders. He wasn’t losing her this time.

The second before they hit bottom, Eppie said:

“Don’t let go.”

Eppie

Something about the assembly yard was different, and it wasn’t simply because she was clutching the boy, Henry. They held onto each other, and Eppie took in the grass beneath her, the sky above, a twilight blue with a nearly full moon. And yet, when she stared hard, she saw the maze, or the outline of it, floating above their heads.

Others saw it too. Faces turned skyward. Necks, some long and slender, others thick and sturdy, were all she could see of her classmates. Another dimension? A being? Whatever it was, things were different.

Matrons and wardens converged on the yard, corralling boys and girls, not even caring that they mixed the groups.

“Find them!” someone shouted.

“Eppie!” Chara dashed up, breathless, hair streaming from its regulation bun. “They mean you.”

For the first time, Eppie’s gaze met Henry’s. His soulful dark eyes looked worried. “Us?” he said.

He sprang to his feet and reached for her. Eppie grabbed on with one hand, pushing herself up with the other. Then, still clutching Henry, she ran. Their classmates parted for them, then filled the gap behind, forcing the wardens and matrons to shove, to pull out the tazons. Zaps, sizzles, and the cries of their classmates echoed behind them.

“What are they doing?” Eppie forced out between breaths.

“Something bad.”

“What did we do?”

Henry glanced at her before sprinting harder. “Something bad?”

They raced past their classmates, intent on those last few steps to freedom. The protected forest around the Academy would shelter them. She knew enough, Eppie was sure, to survive for days in there, despite the lack of supplies. The two of them together? They’d make do.

At the very edge, where the scent of pine filled the air, and branches reached out as if to greet them, they slammed into a wall. Not like one from the maze. This wall was thick, electrified. It sent Eppie backward, through the air, her grip torn from Henry’s.

Her hip crunched against the earth first, a sickening sound that made her think of broken bones. She rolled, hoping that would absorb the shock. She rolled and rolled, right into a pair of white, gleaming boots. She stared up into the glowing end of a tazon.

Eppie never raised her hands. Her mouth stayed closed. She held on, held her breath, and braced for what would happen next.

The jolt shot through her entire body, and then her world went black.

Hank

Hank had ended his day surrounded by black. Now, waking, it was all he saw. He reached out a hand, waved it, blinked, and waved it again. Nothing. Either the cell was lightproof, or the tazon had blinded him.

Or both. He’d heard about the cells. They all had. The cadre sent you there when you acted out. You were meant to reconsider your choices in this space, contemplate whether the rules were really that bad, whether the wardens and the matrons truly mistreated you.

Life choices. We all make them, the superintendent had intoned during first-year orientation.

Yeah. What a choice. All he’d done was what? Figure out the maze? Where was the reward for that? The accolades? He pushed himself up, tucked his legs beneath him, then reached a tentative hand above his head.

A meter, maybe a meter and a half. Not enough room to stand and barely enough to turn around. He inched his fingers along the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. The surface snagged callouses on his hands, the texture rough-hewn and unmoving. He scraped a knuckle and warm blood oozed between his fingers.

His head swam, an ache spreading across his skull. A panel slid back. Light flooded the space. He squinted, trying to peer out his cell, the panel, the door—or what he thought was the door—anything to give him more information.

“The prisoner is awake,” someone said.

Prisoner?

“Ah, very good.” A shadow crossed the open panel. “Comfortable, Cadet Su?” a smooth voice said. “I imagine fraternizing with female cadets is a great deal more fun than this.”

What? He never … well, sure, he thought about Eppie, but they’d just met—sort of. Plus, they’d been inside the maze. All rules were off.

Weren’t they?

“Hungry?” the voice asked.

In response, Hank’s stomach rumbled. Stupid, stupid. It made him look weak. Of course, getting thrown into a pitch-black cell didn’t make him appear all that strong, or smart, either.

“Well then,” the voice said, the solicitous tone chilling Hank’s thoughts. “Why don’t we have a little chat?”

Eppie

The straight-back chair was unremarkable except for one thing: Eppie couldn’t move. Her bare feet were flush against the floor. The surface flashed hot, then cold. She jerked against invisible bonds, unable to break contact. Sweat bathed her forehead, trickled down her spine.

“You’re making it too hard on yourself,” the matron said. “Simply tell us what happened. Then you can go back to the dorm, have a nice dinner, see your friends.”

A false promise. She’d been trained—they all had—in resisting interrogation. Why did this matron think such simple offers would work now? The floor flashed again, a searing heat that forced a yelp from her throat.

That. It was one thing to read about torture, quite another for someone to cook the soles of your feet.

“You know,” the matron said. “Cadet Su told us some interesting things.”

The matron was all sly words and looks, playing mostly good cop. Eppie had braced for the inevitable switch—a new matron, or a warden, even. Pretending that Henry had said something might be standard procedure. In this case, it wasn’t logical.

“He told us what you did.”

What she did? Or what they’d done together? Neither of which amounted to much. Or perhaps, it amounted to so much that no one could understand what had happened. Eppie pictured the maze floating above the yard. The cadre wanted to control something they couldn’t comprehend. And good luck with that.

“You can’t hide anything from us,” the woman said. “We have it all on vid, for playback, any time we like.”

Then why bother asking? Eppie clamped her mouth shut. She’d stuck with the canned response, the one the cadre themselves taught. Name. Rank. Serial Number. You open your mouth, you give them an opening. Speak and you’ll eventually say something you don’t mean to—or can’t take back.

“So, you don’t mind that Cadet Su, that Hank, betrayed you?”

Perhaps someone named Cadet Su would betray her. And Hank? Well, how could you trust a Hank? Eppie shut her eyes and pictured Henry, his dark silky hair, his warm hands against her, around her waist, palm against palm as they ran. Maybe the Academy did have vids. But clearly their knowledge didn’t add up to much if they didn’t know the difference between Hank and Henry.

Eppie stared straight at the matron and laughed.

Hank

He knew the beating would come the moment laughter burst from his mouth. Cadet Langtry had betrayed him? Eppie? The few glimpses of the girl he’d had over the past two days told him how rock steady she was—much more than he was, that was for sure. How smart she was. After four years of training at the Academy, couldn’t the cadre see that?

Maybe they did and figured he was the idiot in the equation. Well, that was partly true, because he had just laughed, loud and long, at their ludicrous suggestion. Another round with the tazon? Sure, why not? Tossed, bruised and battered, back into his pitch-black cell? Not surprising.

What surprised him were the questions—not the ones about Eppie, but the others. What was the maze made out of? How did they get inside the walls? (And really, only Eppie had, so why ask him?) The cadre controlled the entrance and exit, herded them through the maze day after day. Yet, they knew so little. Which made him, and Eppie, and their classmates what? Lab rats?

He pressed gentle fingers against his eyes. They were swelling shut, both of them, not that it mattered inside the cell. Still, it was so dark, he was afraid he’d forget whether his eyes were open or closed. He wondered if Eppie were doing the same, testing her own bruised eyes. He hated to think of her that way, hated that maybe it was all his fault. He pressed a hand against the wall, wishing for one intense moment that it was the maze again, that he’d detect her warmth, find her again.

“Henry?”

The soft voice made him bolt upright. He should have smacked the hell out of his forehead and given himself a second concussion. Instead, the rough stone gave way—like in the maze.

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

Eppie

Eppie couldn’t say when the floor beneath her bruised limbs cushioned rather than punished. Her hip stopped aching, then her ribs. She dozed, possibly, before her eyes went wide with amazement.

She was inside the maze again, but it was more than that now. Actually, when she considered it, the maze had always been more than that. It was something unto itself. And it wasn’t tethered to this world any longer. It had broken free. They’d seen that in the yard. But it hadn’t left. It had come back.

For her?

Yes, and not just for her.

“Let’s find Henry,” she told it.

And so they traveled. High above the Academy, Eppie breathed in the panic below. Hovercrafts for on-planet use, space transport, footlockers and bags scattered in the yard, and parents streaming through the halls in search of their children. Her stomach tightened. Her own parents? Had they been notified? Or was she not part of that world anymore?

The maze carried her through the long corridors of the Academy. She eavesdropped on hurried meetings, press conferences cut short. A scandal, with two cadets dead due to unauthorized experiments.

Dead?

“Please,” she told the maze. “Where’s Henry? Is he all right?”

So they floated lower, and lower, beneath the first floor, the basement, into the catacombs that fueled so many rumors among the cadets.

“All true?” she wondered out loud.

They passed her own cell. Her uniform, ghostly white, flat and listless, was crumpled on the floor. Perhaps the urge to lose her uniform had been right all along. She certainly didn’t need it now.

A sob echoed through the dark hall and wrenched her heart, but she was powerless to console the mourner. The maze continued down the hall, down another level. Eppie held up her hand, like she had the first time she’d met Henry inside the maze.

“I’ll know him,” she said. “Just go slowly.”

And so it did.

“There. There he is.” That telltale warmth, the palm that fit against her own. Henry. “He’s never been inside,” she added. Not like she had. She knew the maze, and it knew her, but Henry? They hadn’t gotten to that point.

“I think he’ll trust you now. Will you try?”

And so the maze did.

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

He coughed, and his whole body shook with it. The maze trembled as if it too were in pain.

“Let go,” she told Henry. “Just let go.”

“How?”

“Take my hands.”

Palm to palm, then laced fingers. She pulled him up, the now useless uniform empty and deflated on the floor.

“Where are we?” Henry asked.

“I’m not completely sure, but I think we’re inside a baby universe,” she said. “It was an experiment, here at the Academy, for years and years, and no one knew.”

“Except for the cadets they ran through it.”

“Exactly.”

“So what is it now?”

“Now I think it’s evolving.” Her voice was hushed. “And I think it’s evolving because of us, because we tried to find each other, because—”

“We knew there was something more.”

They floated up, up, up, out of the catacombs, through the Academy, and hovered over the chaos of the yard. Then they went higher, into the stars.

“It’ll need room to expand,” Eppie said.

“Babies can’t stay little forever.”

Eppie laughed and shot forward, her form ethereal now. Henry caught her, and they twirled.

“Someday, we’ll have to settle down,” he said. “All three of us.”

But for now they were simply a boy and a girl, with an entire universe between them.

I first published The Maze as part of a small compilation. It was also this small compilation that ended up getting me an invitation to submit a story to The Future Chronicles. This is my way of say: put your work out there–you never know what might come of it.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: The Mad Scientist Next Door

Wrapping up October with a story about fences, neighbors, and (of course) Halloween.

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That infernal racket

Madam,

I don’t know what possesses you to conduct your experiments at three o’clock in the morning, but on behalf of all our neighbors, I’m begging you to stop immediately.

The solar panels, unsightly as they are, at least provide a function. I concede that the Rube Goldberg machine is educational.

This latest contraption of yours? What, pray tell, is its purpose? Other than to shake my house to its very foundation, I see no reason for its existence. I can’t begin to fathom what you’re doing or what your electricity bill must be.

For the sake of the neighborhood, I implore you to cease at once.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Sir,

What possesses you to be skulking around after dark? I nearly dialed 911 the other night, thinking a prowler was about.

If you must know, I conduct my experiments in the wee hours as a courtesy to the neighborhood, as to not cause a brownout during the summer months. Besides, the Rileys have never complained.

Doctor Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. My electricity bill is none of your business.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Wanda Waverly will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Although a new resident, as owner/manager of the Pick-n-Quick chain of convenience stores, Wanda brings her business acumen to the position of president. We are pleased she has decided to not only call our little community home but has stepped up to serve as well.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Doctor Brandenburg,

The Rileys are far too polite to lodge any sort of complaint. I shall take this to the board and the new president. See if I don’t.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That ghastly eyesore

Really, Doctor? A fence?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That ghastly eyesore

Sir,

My cedar fence is lovely, board-approved, and offers adequate privacy for both parties. Of course, this assumes that one party does not skulk about during the witching hour with his ear pressed against the slats.

Speaking of eyesores, tell me, please, how long that cauldron has been moldering on your front lawn. A few flakes found their way into my yard, and I conducted several tests. My estimate is at least fifty years.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Bylaws

To clarify some points brought up in last night’s association meeting:

  • All structures, temporary or permanent, must not exceed the dimensions outlined in appendix D of the H.H.A. bylaws.
  • Lawn ornaments are limited to three, must be no taller than two feet, and considered generally tasteful.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: You win

Sir,

I cannot believe you are so petty as to lodge a complaint against my fence. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you of some sort of witchcraft. I measured the boards myself, and I know they were in compliance with the bylaws.

But down it goes until next spring.

E. Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Good riddance

Dear Doctor,

It is hardly my fault if you cannot competently wield a ruler.

A.P.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Good fences

Sir,

I always thought Frost was being ironic when he wrote good fences make good neighbors.

Now I know better.

E. Brandenburg

P.S. Your animosity toward me is one thing, but the Riley’s play structure as well? Shame, sir. Shame on you.

P.P.S. Don’t bother to respond. I’ve blocked your email, and any additional missives from you will go straight to spam.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Halloween

To clarify some additional points from the previous association meeting:

  • Due to safety concerns, the annual Halloween parade has been suspended indefinitely.
  • Any structure erected for a holiday event needs approval, in writing, from the H.H.A. board ninety days in advance.
  • All items handed out for trick-or-treat must be wrapped and sealed. The Pick-n-Quick outside the main gate is offering H.H.A. members a 5% discount on all candy.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Wrapped treats

Mr. Payne,

I left some cellophane wrappers on your front porch. I constructed them based on the treats you distributed after last year’s Halloween parade. I think you will find that they will provide adequate coverage and pass muster with the board.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. The eldest Riley child, Alyssa, works as my apprentice, as you may already know. She’s informed me that contrary to my earlier accusation, you have toiled to … modify the Riley’s play structure so it conforms to the bylaws.

I’m not sure how you accomplished this. My own tools are finely calibrated, and certainly, the inspector for the H.H.A. possesses adequate ones. No need to tell me. The squeals and laughter from the Riley’s backyard are all I need to hear.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Wrapped treats

Doctor Brandenburg,

Let me extend my gratitude for the wrappers. While they caused a few raised eyebrows (I thought our esteemed president’s would vanish into her hairline), my treats were—undeniably—wrapped and sealed.

And thus, Halloween—along with the Riley’s play structure—was salvaged, at least somewhat.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. I could explain how the glamour on the play structure works, but that would defeat its purpose.

P.S.S I sorely missed your yearly light show.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Halloween

Mr. Payne,

Well, yes, everyone loves a Tesla coil—or nearly everyone. I find myself nostalgic for previous Halloweens—the parade, the costumes, the children’s cries of delight when you unveil the gingerbread house. I don’t see the point in denying them all that.

I must confess that this year simply didn’t feel like Halloween.

True, my sugar skeletons always pale in comparison to your gingerbread people. I suspect the adults only take my treatises out of pity (and no one thinks “trick or treatise” as amusing as I do). Of course, everyone leaves before the anatomy lecture.

And yet, I’ve come to rely on Halloween, along with the Hemlock block party, as a way to interact with my neighbors. This year’s curtailed celebration has hit me harder than I care to admit.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Halloween

My dear Doctor,

I wish to assuage your melancholy. Trust that I have lived enough years to see more than my fair share of petty tyrants. I predict this Wanda Waverly will move on in due course to terrorize yet another homeowners association.

In the meantime, I will spend the winter working with the beautification committee and planning next spring’s gardens. They will be spectacular.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. Trick or treatise is beyond charming. If I promise no tricks, may I read one of your treatises?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: the gardens

Dear Mr. Payne,

Botany has never been my forte, but I eagerly await the coming spring’s glory that is your garden. How you outdo yourself every year, I simply cannot fathom. The Hemlock Community entryway is the envy of all.

I do, however, have some thoughts on streamlining the irrigation system. Please refer to the schematics in the attached PDF.

Yours truly,

Emilia

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Spring has sprung!

Can you believe winter is finally over? Whew! That was a long one.

In anticipation of spring and all it brings, I would like to announce the following changes, effective immediately:

The beautification committee has been disbanded. Instead, H.H.A. has hired a landscaping company that will take over the planting and care of the foliage around the community’s entryway and main gate.

Regarding the main gate, H.H.A. has contracted with a security company for the front entrance. The gate will be locked at midnight every evening and unlocked at six in the morning.

Happy spring, everyone!

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: The Main Gate

It has come to the board’s attention that locking the main gate between the hours of midnight and six a.m. has put undue hardship on some residents of Hemlock Community.

Rest assured, we only had your safety in mind when we implemented these rules. Our aim was to keep out any undesirables that might threaten the residents.

That being said, this is no excuse for deliberate sabotage! When the perpetrator is found, justice will be swift.

The board can (and will!) revoke membership in the H.H.A. Without membership, the perpetrator can no longer live in Hemlock Community. Further, the board can (and will!) foreclose on the perpetrator’s house and subsequently evict him or her. See paragraph four, sub-paragraph three in the bylaws.

In the meantime, to pay for a security upgrade to the main gate, including keycards for all residents, we will use the funds earmarked for the annual block party.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: last night’s meeting

Alistair,

I thought my heart would burst from my chest during last night’s meeting.

Would they have poor Mrs. Riley wait outside the gate for hours on end? I simply let her inside the development. That’s hardly a crime. And yet, I’m certain this Waverly woman suspects it was me.

Granted, everyone who’s about during the later hours knows that Mrs. Riley and I often share conversation over a cup of tea when she returns from her shift.

Although, really, even with the upgrade, this new security system is laughable. It’s not keeping anyone out, although I suspect it’s keeping many of us in.

Of course, with a little rewiring … nothing a child of five couldn’t do … except for rigging the system to play The Imperial March whenever Wanda Waverly drives through the main gate.

Now, in the light of day, I concede that may have been taking things too far.

And yet, I find that I can’t regret it, either.

Yours,

Em

P.S. The Imperial March is from a movie called Star Wars. I’ve included a link to an article about it on Wikipedia.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: last night’s meeting

Emilia,

Taking things too far? Not nearly far enough. I’ve been offering the landscaping company my expertise, gratis of course. Not that they’ve taken any of my advice. The poor hydrangeas; they may never recover.

Ah, but they’re a loquacious crew, and I’ve unearthed an interesting fact. The owner of this company is Wanda Waverly’s daughter.

What a strange, petty nepotism this is.

Alistair

P.S. You have me pegged. My ignorance of current cultural phenomena provides the Riley children with endless hours of amusement. I no doubt will provide this same service to their grandchildren.

I do, however, have a passing familiarity with Star Wars. The franchise appears to have a number of vocal and passionate devotees.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That hideous sign in your front yard

Emilia,

I could not believe the sight that greeted my eyes upon waking this morning.

A For Sale sign? I’m not certain what’s worse—the garish design or how the support appears to impale your front yard.

Tell me all that’s the matter. Certainly, things aren’t so dire as this?

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That hideous sign in your front yard

Alistair,

Indeed things are that dire. Every time I step off my front porch, there she is, that Waverly woman, clipboard in hand.

In the last two weeks, I’ve received five citations. One more, and I forfeit my home. If I can’t find a buyer, the association can (and will!) foreclose on my house.

Beyond that, I suspect she, or the board, or someone is throttling the power supply into my house. I was conducting a delicate experiment in my third-floor laboratory the other day, one that needed a constant stream of electricity.

Suffice to say that I did not achieve that constant stream of electricity. Suffice to say I no longer have a functional third-floor laboratory—or eyebrows.

Worst of all? I was accosted last night. As you know, it’s my habit to stroll through the development in between experiments. It clears my head and refreshes me. But last night, a security guard curtailed my walk. He said I wasn’t allowed to stroll after midnight.

When did the development start employing roving security guards? Did I miss that announcement? Although he was, to use your own term, rather loquacious. Did you know that the owner of the security company is Wanda Waverly’s nephew?

In distress,

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The gloves come off

My dearest Emilia,

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve weathered my fair share of petty tyrants. Remind me to tell you how I thrice defeated eminent domain claims on this particular plot of land. The Payne residence remains, as it has for … let’s say, decades.

I cannot abide by this treatment of my friends and neighbors. I’m uncertain of what I shall do, but trust me, dear Doctor, I will do something.

Alistair

P.S. Your estimate about the cauldron is correct, or nearly so. It’s been there for a good sixty years. It’s a stubborn thing, and I cannot convince it to move. That it just barely meets the prescribed dimensions for lawn ornamentation no doubt vexes Wanda Waverly greatly.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

My dear Alistair,

So which am I? A friend or merely a neighbor?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

You, my dear Doctor, have the rare distinction of being both.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Worried

My dear Alistair,

I do not like the look of that strange mist that surrounds your house. It feels malevolent to me. As unscientific as that sounds, I stand by that assessment.

I do not pretend to understand your craft. However, I know that any work created in the throes of anger will not have the desired outcome.

Yes, I know you witnessed this morning’s sixth citation. The entire neighborhood was privileged to witness that event. If you truly want to help, perhaps you could make my third-floor laboratory vanish. I’ll never find a buyer at this rate.

Please, my dear friend, I beg of you. Don’t do anything you may regret.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

Have you read that fairy tale? I wouldn’t say our current association president is wandering around naked (certainly there’s a stipulation against that in the bylaws, but I digress). She does, however, have a few transparency issues.

I have an idea, one that does not involve my craft or your discipline. Are you willing to hear me out? I’ll meet you at our adjoining property line at the witching hour.

Yours,

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Alistair,

I am still completely flabbergasted, even after sleeping on the idea.

Do you really think it will work? I cannot possibly be the best choice. After all, you’ve lived here longer than I have. You would hold more sway, would you not?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

I have lived everywhere longer than you have. I am set in my ways, set in my craft. If you were to flip open one of those illustrated dictionaries, you would find my portrait next to the entry for curmudgeon. Were I not to get my way, I’d be tempted to conjure a few special apples or perhaps an unsightly pox.

You, on the other hand? With your keen mind and willingness to take in data, experiment, adjust your hypothesis based on new information? How you eagerly gather input and listen to those around you?

Why, yes, you are obviously the best choice for this endeavor.

I have every confidence in you.

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Curmudgeon

This, from the man who handcrafts a life-size gingerbread house for the neighborhood children each Halloween? And then sends them home with pocketsful of treats?

Oh, yes, you are quite the curmudgeon.

Em

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Last night

Oh, my dearest Alistair, please tell me you did not employ your craft to sway last night’s outcome.

I can hardly believe it’s true. But if it is, I want it to be an honest prize.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Last Night

My dear Doctor, you wound me. Do you think I would employ enchantment to obtain what I want?

Yes, yes, I might. Certainly, in the past, I have. In this case? Other than canvassing on your behalf and ensuring there was no subterfuge from any quarter, I performed no other tasks.

Alistair

P.S. Besides, I can hardly cook up an enchantment with my cauldron on my front lawn, can I now.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Dr. Emilia Brandenburg will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Emilia has made Hemlock her home for the past five years and has—quite literally—brightened the entire development. We look forward to her fresh ideas and vast experience in her new role as president.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Bylaws and Halloween

Effective immediately:

  • The annual Halloween parade will take place starting at 6:30 p.m. on the 31st. Everyone is invited to participate.
  • The beautification committee will reform under the auspices of Mr. Alistair Payne in time to decorate the entryway and parade route. All volunteers are welcome.
  • A belated block party and impromptu association meeting will take place in front of the gingerbread house at the end of the Halloween parade.

Emilia Brandenburg
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Halloween

My dearest Em,

To assuage any doubt you might be feeling this morning: You were simply splendid in your new role, as I knew you would be.

You will make a fine president.

With all my admiration,

Alistair

P.S. Your Tesla coil was magnificent.

This is the second outing for my curmudgeon witch Alistair Payne. He first appeared in Letters of Smoke and Ash.

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Mini-release Monday: Dragon Whispers

Dragon Whispers: Six Tales of Dragon Adventure and Lore

Here be dragons … six of them.

Often mercurial, preternaturally perceptive, always inscrutable.

What if you had to barter for your village while tied to a stake? Or if the one thing you always wanted—a dragon of your own—was forever denied? Where might a midnight chase through a stately hotel lead?

From adversary to lover to devoted friend, from epic to urban fantasy—follow six heroines as they encounter six very different dragons. They’ll barter and bargain, chase and be chased, and in the end, learn the true meaning of dragon’s bane.

Dragon Whispers gathers together the dragon stories from The (Love) Stories for 2020 project:

  • Aleag the Great
  • Knight at the Royal Arms
  • Fire and Ivy
  • Dragon’s End
  • Heart Whisper
  • Dragon’s Bane

Let the adventure begin!

Don’t buy this book!

All right, you certainly can buy this book. I’m not going to stop you.

However, all the stories in it have (or will) appear as part of The (Love) Stories for 2020 project. So you can absolutely read them for free as well (Aleag the Great and Heart Whisper are scheduled for November). Plus, I’ll be releasing a compilation of all the 2020 stories at the end of the year.

So why release this (somewhat) slender compilation and then tell people not to buy it? Reverse psychology?

No, actually, I have a couple of reasons for doing this. As I was working on the project, I discovered I had dragon stories—in my head and on my hard drive—enough to create their own compilation.

These themed compilations sell surprisingly well for me–in markets you can’t really see. Library pay-per-checkout, print library sales, print sales via Ingram, and subscription services like Kobo Plus and Scrib. I have books that don’t sell on any of the e-retailer sites (and have the Amazon rank to prove it, ha!) but sell in print.

Unfortunately, it’s a murky thing. I can’t tell where these books are selling (most of the time), so my only recourse is more = better.

Also, it’s been more than a year since I’ve released something new. It’s always good to practice the steps since things change all the time.

But most of all, it was fun. I enjoy the production side of things almost as much as the writing. And maybe it’s a result of 2020, but it feels good to make something and put it out into the world.

So, sure, go buy the book if you wish, but if you’re in a reviewing sort of mood, I’d love some of those as well. Drop me a line, and I’ll send you an electronic copy.

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Short Story Saturday: Simon the Cold in audio

My story, Simon the Cold, is now out in audio from The Centropic Oracle. This is the third story I’ve had produced by them, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Simon the Cold first appeared in Frozen Fairy Tales from World Weaver Press.

If you’re a writer, I highly recommend submitting to The Centropic Oracle. They’re great to work with, do a thorough editorial review, and the whole process is transparent in their submission manager. So, dust off the reprints and send them in.

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Free Fiction Friday: Abandonment Issues

There are places where you don’t want to wake up.

There are places you don’t want to wake up.

Flat on your back in a plowed-under field, clumps of earth stabbing your spine.

That’s one of them.

A CEO’s office, your own drool defacing the mahogany desk, the room dark, the only sounds the hum of a custodian’s vacuum and your own thudding heart.

That’s another.

Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in the Joint Personal Effects Depot, surrounded by containers that hold so little and yet, so, so much.

That’s a third.

Today, when I wake up, my joints ache with cold. I’m on my back as if I’ve been dropped from one reality into another. Around me, metal ticks and groans. It’s the sound of abandonment. No footfalls. No hint of breathing except my own. Empty places feel empty. This, I’ve learned.

I consider when to sit up. Too soon, too quickly, and I’ll vomit. This, too, I’ve learned—the hard way.

From my vantage point on the floor, I study the space. It looks industrial, with row upon row of control panels with dials and gauges. The layer of grime on the floor might act as insulation—if it weren’t so disgusting.

Despite all this, there’s nothing specific to grasp. No signs with words, no distinct sounds except the rasp of my own breath. No clue as to where I might be.

I press a palm against the cold tile, but before I can sit, I do hear something new.

Slow, deliberate footsteps punctuate the air around me. I bolt upright, scramble to my feet, only to pitch forward into a control console. My head swims. My vision tunnels. A second later, I coat a series of dials and buttons with a spray of vomit.

“Weak,” a voice behind me says. “Always so weak.”

I spin and then regret it as another wave of nausea hits me. I grope the panel behind me, fingers reaching for a dry, solid spot.

“Tell me, at least, that you’ve figured it out.”

The man before me must be at least seven feet tall. He wears a long black coat. The scent of damp wool clogs the space between us while a swirl of smoke rises in the air. His face looks as though someone has carved it in alabaster, all sharp edges and angles—and familiar. I’ve seen him before. I blink. Yes, certainly.

But where?

“You’ve made the connection, haven’t you?” he says.

Stray thoughts fill my mind, the barest tendril of an idea. I consider the trips I’ve taken and the places I’ve landed.

The field, for instance, with its old farmhouse. In the root cellar, I found a lockbox. Inside that, a deed with my grandfather’s name. Evidence of bounty lost in the Great Depression. Moments after my fingers touched the yellowed paper, something whisked me back to my actual life.

The man’s lips curl into a hint of a smile. No, someone whisked me back.

In that CEO’s office, I found a birth certificate, listing my name, my mother’s, and a third—the one embossed in gold on the door. Again, I could only hold the paper for seconds before that particular place vanished as well.

This is why, when I found myself in the Personal Effects Depot, I held my breath. My fingers inched their way through Gabe’s container until I found the one thing I couldn’t bear to leave behind. I gripped the chain of his dog tags so tightly that the tiny ball bearings left welts on my skin. But I had them. They traveled back with me.

I have them now.

But how does this place, with its soot and oil and years of grime, relate? Cold, impersonal, insubstantial. Even this man of smoke and oil could evaporate in an instant.

Assuming he doesn’t kill me first.

My confusion must show on my face because the man shakes his head and makes a tsking sound.

“Weak and slow. I can’t imagine how you’ve made it this far.”

While I don’t know what he means, I can only agree.

He takes a step forward. And I, still clutching the console, take three skittering steps to the side. My mind races. Dog tags and deeds and birth certificates. What does it all mean?

“Of course, you are pretty,” the man says. “The pretty ones are never very bright.”

I stop taking those skittering, hesitant steps. With all my will, I hope he closes those last few feet between us. I have a roundhouse kick I’d like him to meet. Behind me, something drips, the steady plink of a dam about to break.

“Nothing?” the man asks.

My mouth is dry. I long to tip my head back and catch a few drops of that water. Even if I could, it wouldn’t loosen any words.

“Ah, well,” he says. “At least you are pretty. There’s consolation in that.” He grins, and something sparks in his eyes. “For me, at least.”

I grip the console tighter. The man steps forward, raises a hand as if to caress my cheek. I don’t let him. That last step leaves him open. Perhaps it’s meant to intimidate, this stance, to show off his height or that he doesn’t find me a threat.

What it does is give me a target.

My foot ricochets off him three times—knee, groin, jaw. A crack. A thud. A howl. I should finish him off, but perhaps he is right: I am too weak. Instead, I shake out my leg, push from the console, and run.

* * *

A cadence pounds in my head along with my footfalls. Dog tags and deeds and birth certificates, and then, Oklahoma, Chicago, Afghanistan. If I run fast enough, maybe I can catch the connection that eludes me.

Everything is cold and damp and empty. An occasional drip lands on my nose or the back of my neck and sends shivers skittering across my skin.

My footsteps are too loud, my breathing too heavy. It’s all I hear in my frantic charge down this passageway. If someone chases me, I won’t know until too late. With that thought, I spin, search the dimly lit corridor behind me—no impossibly tall man with alabaster skin. I wheel around and continue my headlong dash forward.

The object I crash into is solid and warm. It says, “Oomph,” when it strikes the floor. So do I. The landing jars my wrists, paralyzes my arms. I can’t move them, not to fight, not to defend myself. I kick away from the figure opposite me, legs struggling, hands useless. Then the figure—a man—lunges.

He grabs my feet and nothing more.

“Hang …” His head droops with the effort to breathe, to speak. “On. Won’t hurt you.”

Gradually, I inch into a sitting position, still braced to run. When he lifts his head, I peer into the dark eyes of not the man I dispatched with a roundhouse kick, but those of my brother, Gabe.

Gabe. Who died in Afghanistan. All I can do is mouth his name. No sound emerges from my throat except for one, plaintive croak.

“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

“I … how?” My voice is rough, but the words, at last, are there.

He shakes his head.

The implication—the connection—hits me, sends me reeling backward so I might collapse on the floor again. My arms, still weak, tremble beneath me. I scan the space around me, this here that really isn’t.

“Am I dead?” My question is quiet, and it sinks in the cold air around us.

“I don’t know,” Gabe says.

“Why are we here?”

He shakes his head. “I keep traveling—flashing, really—to different places, then back to Afghanistan. Always Afghanistan.”

“The Army sent someone to the house. They knocked on the door…” I break off, not wanting to narrate Gabe’s death, not now, not here, not ever.

How I knew, even before opening the door, the shadow of a uniform through the etched glass, like smoke and oil blotting out the sun. He doesn’t need to know these things.

“I keep going back to Afghanistan,” he says. “Hell, I wish I wouldn’t. Anywhere else must be better.” His gaze surveys the dark, damp space around us. “Well, almost anywhere.” He climbs to his feet and then offers me his hand.

Despite the cold, metallic air, his skin is so warm.

Even with Gabe at my side, this place is strange and hollow. Abandoned, like that field in Oklahoma, that daughter in Chicago, the soldier in Afghanistan. And yet, different.

It’s missing life or some essential component of life. After all, a plowed-under field has its uses. A birth certificate can list a father who might not live in your life, but at least he lives. The personal effects of a soldier represent a life that once was.

But this place has none of that. It’s too empty, too impersonal to be hell.

“Do you think this might be purgatory?” I ask Gabe.

Before he can answer, sharp, slow applause echoes. It’s a brutal sound that infects the air with cruelty.

“Brava, Miss Malloy.” It’s the impossibly tall man again, all alabaster white and yet shrouded in smoke and oil. “You’re not as slow as I first suspected and certainly not as dimwitted as your … what is he, exactly? Your half-brother?” He casts a look at Gabe. “Honestly, it’s as if you enjoy dying in Afghanistan.”

Behind me, Gabe shifts, his hand resting on the small of my back, a posture that means he plans to take the fight over flight option—and wants me to do the opposite. But I’m pretty good with a roundhouse kick—thanks to Gabe—so all I do is tense in reply.

“Yes.” The man rubs his jaw. “You are fairly competent.”

“Am I also dead?”

“Are you?” And now his voice is laced with that smoke and oil, the sound deep and seductive. It’s enough to make you flutter your eyelids shut, if only for a moment. When I do, I see him, the harbinger of death, standing on my doorstep, wearing—of all things—an Army uniform with chaplain insignia.

“It’s up to me, then?” I say.

“Is it?” His tone matches the single, arched eyebrow.

I officially loathe the man in front of us. An oily smile spreads across his face. He revels in my hate, soaks it in.

“It’s so pure,” he says, “undiluted. Absolute. You don’t often hate, which makes it all the more delicious.”

Gabe bristles and steps in front of me.

“Oh, go on, big brother. Protect her, if you can, and if I don’t dispatch you back to Afghanistan.”

“Run,” Gabe says, the word a growl. “Run and don’t look back.”

“I tried that,” I say. “It didn’t work.” I could run forever.

“And I will always catch you,” the man says.

“Run!” This time, Gabe’s voice cracks.

I see what the man of smoke and oil plans to do. If he can read my thoughts, then perhaps I can sense his intentions. Static fills the air. I smell dry heat. Grit fills my mouth. I work to blink sand from my eyes. I land somewhere real this time.

Afghanistan.

A battle wages, but in this pocket of craggy hills and rock, the three of us stand as if we’re the only people in the world.

The man of smoke and oil raises a hand.

I throw myself in front of Gabe and catch the full blast meant for him, pieces of it like shrapnel. They pierce my chest, my legs, my heart. I think I must be torn to ribbons. The impact throws me into Gabe.

Twin cries of “No!” echo around me.

Gabe gathers me in his arms. “Marta, what have you done?” He looks up, his fierce gaze locked on the alabaster man. “Don’t do this, not to her. Don’t let it happen.”

“It … can’t,” I say, even though my lungs seer with each word. “I never died in Afghanistan.”

I pull the set of dog tags from beneath my shirt. The blast has fused them together. Smoke rises from the charred aluminum. And yet, the chain is cool to the touch.

“Yours.” I drop the chain around Gabe’s neck.

With a single howl, the man of smoke and oil evaporates, leaving behind only acrid air and soot. I breathe in both, and then everything vanishes.

* * *

I jolt awake, and everything is white. For an instant, panic seizes me. But death doesn’t smell like antiseptic, and I doubt the soundtrack for the afterlife contains soft clicks and beeps. I sit up, blink, and stare at Gabe.

His hospital gown is askew, exposing a bandaged shoulder. My fingers itch to adjust the gown, but my hands are clenched in his. Together we hold the dog tags as if they are a string of prayer beads.

At one time, I would have said that a hospital is a place where you didn’t want to wake up. Now I know that isn’t true.

Something teases my peripheral vision. I jerk my head, certain I’ve seen the man of smoke and oil, caught a glimpse of his alabaster face. And while a man does stand in the doorway, he only holds a pitcher of water.

“Sorry,” he says. “I thought you might like something to drink.

I nod my thanks, my heart too high in my throat for words.

“He’s done so much better since you arrived,” the man adds.

I nod again.

“I doubt my sister would fly all the way to Germany for me.” With that, he sets the pitcher on the tray table and leaves the room.

Gabe cracks open his eyes. “I bet his sister wouldn’t throw herself in front of some psycho demon’s death ray, either.”

“You didn’t die in Afghanistan.”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“Why?”

Gabe unfurls his fingers and studies the mangled dog tags. “You changed things when you refused to abandon me, even when I told you to run, even.” He rattles the tags. “Even after I died.”

I nod but remain silent. A glimpse of oily smoke catches my attention. There, in the corner of the room, but the inky tendrils scatter so quickly, I’m not sure they were there at all.

“Here.” Gabe raises the chain. Compliantly, I lower my head so he won’t have to strain. “You wear these from now on.” He pauses, and I wonder if he can see the oily smoke or just senses it. “They’ll keep you safe.”

I clutch the dog tags tight in my palm and know this one thing:

They will.

Abandonment Issues may be the closest thing to horror that I’ve written (clearly, I scare easily).

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: With Hair of Teeth and Claw

This is not your mother’s Rapunzel.

This week’s story is a little bit longer than usual. If you’d like to download a copy for your phone or e-reader, you can do that at BookFunnel (link good until the end of the year).

She caught the thief with his hand wrapped around the stem of a flower, its spike of golden flocked petals sprouting from his fist. The brim of his hat shrouded his features, and the overcast night made it impossible to identify him. Even so, the witch knew a desperate husband when she encountered one.

“Let go of the lion’s tail,” she said, her words crisp as the air, with just enough bite to get her point across, but not so much that she didn’t appear neighborly. She’d always been a good neighbor.

“My wife, Mistress Witch.” The man sunk to his knees. “She is with child.”

“Yes. I know.”

In truth, the entire village knew every time the babe kicked or the woman’s back ached or her ankles swelled. Never had so many prayed for a timely birth.

“She craves all things fresh, all things green, all the things that grow in your garden. Please, Mistress. I will work, split logs, do whatever you ask, but let me take some of your bounty home to her, so our babe might grow strong.”

A first love, a first child, it was enough to make anyone a fool—or a thief. The witch spread her arms wide. “Take, neighbor, take all that your wife craves.” She grabbed hold of his hand. “Except for this.”

Beneath her grip, he unclenched his fist. The plant he held—lion’s tail, as the locals called it—dropped to the ground, stem broken, bright petals crushed.

“Leave the lion’s tail,” the witch said. “She should not eat it while with child, and I cannot be responsible for what happens if she does.”

The man bowed, his movements jerky and frantic. The witch helped him pluck the best greens and place them in a basket. She saw him to the edge of her property, and when he hesitated, she urged him forward.

“Go,” she said, voice gentle. “Take the greens and return to your wife.”

When the man had left, the witch bent and plucked the lion’s tail from the ground. She stroked the petals and wondered if his wife had already tasted of the plant.

That could be very bad indeed.

* * *

The babe was born strong, with a lusty cry and deep blue eyes that peered out at the world around her. Within a week, the entire village predicted she’d be a beauty. Within a month, her golden hair fell to her chin, the strands thick and wild. By nearly a year, the strands fought all attempts to comb them.

It was then that cries emerged from the cottage, by day and night, until the babe’s mother ran from the house. Neighbors peered from their windows and did nothing, but the noise brought the witch from her garden.

The woman trembled, skirts in tatters, arms scratched. Blood oozed from wounds. In her hands, she clutched a pair of shears. She pointed the tip at the house and the infant inside.

“That is not my child. That cannot be my child.”

She stood like that, her arm shaking, the shears more weapon than tool.

The witch examined the woman, gave a curt nod, then proceeded inside the cottage. Scattered strands of gold littered the floorboards from hearth to door. Other than a soft whimper, the room was quiet. She crouched to approach the babe.

“Shh … there you go. You are not in danger, and I will not hurt you.” She gathered the child to her and stroked the remaining tufts of hair.

“See? I’m a friend. Let’s find your mother.”

The child cried out, fists clenched, but the witch hummed a lullaby, one with the power to sedate a charging troll. The babe blinked and then stared at the witch with curious blue eyes. The sight of them transfixed her, and the old witch’s heart caught for a moment before resuming its natural beat. They stepped into the sunlight and into the crowd that now surrounded the cottage.

“She’s the one!” the mother said, jabbing her shears toward the witch. “She poisoned me with the plants from her garden.”

“Your husband stole from my garden to satisfy your cravings.”

The woman’s hand shook, the tip of the shears bobbing. “That cannot be my child. She looks nothing like me.”

Laughter rippled through the crowd. True, the woman was no beauty, and her husband no prince. The woman turned her wrath on the closest bystanders, silver shears glinting in the sunlight. The crowd eased back, catching laughter into cupped hands.

“Oh, then perhaps the child is mine?” the witch asked.

This time, no one held back their laughter.

“So you think I wasn’t a beauty in my day?” The witch scanned the crowd, the babe still secured in one arm. “Master Tailor, I believe you know different.”

The old man shuffled and stammered, a ruddy cast to his weathered cheeks. The witch turned back to the babe’s mother.

“You do not want your child?” she said to the woman.

“That is not my child.”

“Then who will care for her?” The witch held the child aloft for the village to see. “No one, then?”

She considered the quiet bundle in her arms. A beauty, it was true, but those deep blue eyes were uncanny, knowing. No wonder this simple woman trembled at the sight of her own child.

The witch cast a look toward her own cottage and the garden with its walls—ones that kept her tender plants safe from hooves and teeth. They kept the variety of weeds she cultivated from invading her neighbors’ gardens. Walls were handy but not foolproof. Her gaze met the babe’s, and once again, her heart caught.

In this case, perhaps she was the fool.

“I will care for her,” the witch declared. “Please, before I take her with me, tell me her name.”

The woman blinked as if waking from a dream. “She has no name.”

“You have not named your child?” No wonder the babe lashed out. Even now, at the sound of the woman’s voice, those short tufts of hair bristled, and the child cried out again.

“Oh, my poor child,” the witch murmured, “fate has been cruel.”

No one stopped the witch from taking the child. No one uttered a word of protest. When the witch passed the mother, so she might say goodbye, the woman only turned her back on both the witch and her own child.

To the witch’s surprise, the husband followed her home, weighed down by the cradle, a wee table, and a chair.

“Please, Mistress Witch, take these things for the child.”

The witch nodded, held open the door to her cottage so the man might bring the items inside.

“Would you like to say goodbye before you leave?” she asked.

He had none of his wife’s hesitation. His hand cupped the babe’s cheek. The tufts of hair wavered as if blown by a soft breeze, and the babe’s eyes were luminous.

“Goodbye, sweet girl. Goodbye, my Rapunzel.”

“Is that the child’s name?” the witch asked.

“It is what I wanted to name her,” he said, his voice wistful.

“Then Rapunzel she’ll be.”

* * *

With Rapunzel still in the crook of her arm, the witch gazed about her cottage. Oh, it was a poor place to raise a child. Too many dried herbs that, consumed incorrectly, might injure or kill. Too many sharp objects. She inspected the child’s head. Scars from the shears crisscrossed her raw scalp. Clearly Rapunzel was no stranger to those.

She would need to find a grate for the hearth, a cow or goat for milking, soft cloth for diapers, and something other than the stained gown Rapunzel was wearing.

“It’s been many years since I’ve even held a child,” she said to the babe. “And I’ve never had any of my own.”

At the thought, her heart caught once again. Had she ever intended to raise a child? Did she regret the time spent in the pursuit of her potions and spells? No. The village was a healthier, happier place for her efforts, even when its citizens didn’t fully comprehend them.

“We can make do for now.” The witch placed Rapunzel in her cradle. “I can soften bread in weak tea and stew some apples. Does that meet with your approval?”

Rapunzel sat up in her cradle, that unnerving blue-eyed stare never leaving the witch’s face. Then the child clapped her hands together and gurgled.

“Well, I see that it does. Tomorrow we will explore the village, get you some proper things. But tonight? Let’s get to know one another.”

It was late when Rapunzel fell asleep in the witch’s arms. She eased her into the cradle only to be caught short by the babe’s cries moments later.

She knelt at the cradle’s side, cupped a hand against the child’s soft cheek. “We both must get some rest.”

The babe quieted immediately, but the moment the witch withdrew her hand, the cries started anew, stronger, more strident than before.

“Oh, very well, it has been a rough day.”

She scooped the babe up and carried her to the large bed behind a curtained wall.

“I imagine you could use the comfort.”

But when the witch extinguished the lamp and felt the babe curled at her side, tiny fingers clutching her thumb, she wondered which one of them truly needed the comfort.

* * *

It was not the sudden acquisition of a child that shocked the witch. No, she’d come to terms with that during the darkest hours of the night. It was not the surprise of a cow tethered to the cottage gate. This, she suspected, was a gift from Master Tailor.

It was the way Rapunzel’s hair had grown overnight. The strands curled and swirled. They felt like silk flowing through the witch’s fingers, their length already to the child’s chin.

The witch pulled ancient volumes from a shelf and thumbed through them, searching for something, anything that might tell her what manner of sorcery this was.  She thought back to the man in her garden all those months ago. What had she given him?

She peered at the child who sat at her wee table. “Was it a combination of plants your mother ate?”

Rapunzel slapped the wood of the table, blue eyes stormy, hair undulating. It bristled, strands on end like that of a thistle.

“She is still your mother,” the witch said, her voice soft but no nonsense.

Another slap.

“Do you wish to be my daughter?”

Ah, the gurgle again. The hair calmed itself. Rapunzel peered at the witch, her blue eyes dark and serene.

“You shall be the daughter of my heart. Does that suit you?”

Rapunzel stood and toddled over to the witch. She clutched at her skirts with tiny fists.

“I see that it does.” The witch bent down and clutched the child close. When she had Rapunzel nestled against her chest, the witch found herself stroking strands of that hair, much like she’d done all those months ago with the petals of the lion’s tail. The locks slipped through her fingers as if they had a mind of their own.

“Inquisitive little beasts,” she murmured.

And then froze. The lion’s tail.

What manner of sorcery indeed.

“We have all been very, very foolish, I’m afraid,” she whispered into the child’s hair, “and you will be the one to pay for our folly.”

* * *

The witch took Rapunzel with her everywhere. Aside from the father, there was no one she could trust in the village to watch the child and not gossip. And gossip they would. Already rumors flew about the miraculous growth of the child’s hair.

Every morning, the witch worked to contain the strands before leaving the house. In a bonnet. Secured with bows. The strands had a life of their own, flowing through her fingers, curling into points, flicking back and forth, very much like a tail.

“Until we reach the woods, child,” the witch would say. “Contain them until we reach the woods.”

Rapunzel blinked, a frown marring her little brow as if she were trying hard to comply.

Even with the babe in a sling, the witch felt lighter on her treks into the forest. With her age, she knew the senselessness of rushing. Leave that to the young. She’d complete her tasks all in good time. This morning was no different.

In a clearing, she set Rapunzel on a blanket, handed her a crust of bread to gnaw on, and began her work.

“I will teach you this,” she said, flicking a glance and her words over one shoulder. “I will teach you which plants to consume and which ones to avoid. I’ll show you when to cut, how to cut, and when neither of those things matters.”

The witch inched her way around the clearing, always darting a look toward its center, toward Rapunzel. The child seemed content to chew her bread, clap her hands, and track the witch’s progress. Not for the first time, her thoughts drifted to Rapunzel’s mother. How could she abandon such a child? So compliant. So calm.

“We will see how long that lasts, won’t we?” the witch said with a wink.

Perhaps it was that steely gaze or the miracle of the hair that now hid the scars on Rapunzel’s scalp, but the witch swore the child understood more than she ought.

“Which makes me feel less foolish when I talk to myself,” she added.

Rapunzel gurgled.

The witch was near the old willow tree when a cry sounded behind her. Her throat tightened, and she was certain some harm had come to Rapunzel. Or perhaps the mother had a change of heart, followed them this morning, and was intent on stealing the child away.

Instead, when she turned, the witch came nose to nose with a river rat. The thing was large and hairy, its gray fur matted and stinking of stagnant water. This was not the sort of creature that kept the barn cats fat. This was the sort of creature that took whiskers and tails as trophies.

Where there was one rat, there would be another; they hunted in pairs. She’d survive a bite, although the infection would linger, and nastily so. Rapunzel? The daughter of her heart? A child barely bigger than a cat?

The cry went up again. The witch started forward, taking an inventory of the arsenal she had on hand. A pair of shears. Some twine. A handful of willow branches that she might fashion into a switch.

Rapunzel still sat in the center of the clearing. Despite the tears that washed her cheeks and tiny hands clenched into fists, she was unharmed. It was the sight of the child’s hair that froze the witch in place.

The strands had grown, not by inches, but whole yards. They flowed across the clearing as if exploring new territory. They curled and lashed out, the ends sharpening into points. Like teeth. Like claws.

Several locks had already trapped the second rat, bound it neck to tail, so all the witch could see of it was its grubby nose and crooked whiskers. Now several locks worked in tandem, approaching the first rat from two sides and from behind. The creature hissed—at the witch, at its predicament. A predator such as this always knew when it had met its match.

It made one desperate lunge, an attempt to inflict injury before succumbing itself. Claws extended, teeth bared, it launched itself from the branch, its target the witch’s face.

The golden strands of Rapunzel’s hair caught the beast midair. A slashing. A slicing. The carcass tumbled to the ground and landed with a soft thud.

Only for a moment did the witch hesitate. Only for a moment did she consider what the villagers might make of this child. Cries of monster echoed in the back of her mind. But then she rushed to the center of the clearing. The golden strands parted, let the witch through to her child, and she clutched Rapunzel to her.

With that tender embrace and her quiet words, the hair relaxed its guard. The strands softened their points, retracted until their length was a touch longer than earlier that day.

The witch cupped Rapunzel’s face. “Do you know what it is you can do, child?”

Rapunzel stared, unblinking.

“Is it even you who is doing this, or is it your wonderfully monstrous hair?”

At the words, the strands extended, a lock wrapping around the witch’s wrist, none too gently.

“Cut that out,” she said to the golden rope around her wrist. “It takes offense far too quickly. We will have to work on that.”

The hair tightened its grasp, while a separate lock flicked back and forth, once again an angry tail.

“If you are to live in this world, you will need to learn to control your hair.”

Rapunzel stared back, steely-eyed as ever. Then she clapped her hands together and gurgled.

The hair relaxed its grip and flowed into golden ringlets.

The witch released a sigh. Yes, to live in this world. That would not be an easy thing.

* * *

Rapunzel soon outgrew her cradle and wee table and chair. Her hair evaded all attempts to tame or trim it, and the strands quickly traveled down her back to her knees, until it swept the ground. Every morning, the witch would braid the strands, and Rapunzel would loop the plaits around her arms or her waist. She grew into her beauty and her strength, for she did everything under the weight of her hair.

The witch became deft at avoiding the majority of the villagers who might cause problems. The father was kind and no worry. He left Rapunzel all manner of carvings and trinkets. Master Tailor kept them in cow’s milk, although the witch made a point to avoid his wife.

Once, on a walk to the forest, they encountered Rapunzel’s mother. The woman herded two children—twins—in front of her. The girls danced along the lane, skinny arms freckled, red hair thin but flowing down their backs—free of all of the constraints the witch placed on Rapunzel’s hair.

The daughter of her heart halted, her spine impossibly straight beneath the weight of all her hair. She locked her gaze on the trio, strands of hair straining against their braids.

Then one lock escaped, slithered down the lane after the mother and two girls. A few strands wrapped themselves around the woman’s ankle. It was then the witch pulled the shears from her apron pocket and snipped the lock.

The strands released their grip, twitched much like a dying snake, and at last ceased all movement. The woman walked on, oblivious.

“She cannot hurt you, child,” the witch said.

Rapunzel glared, a non-answer if there ever was one. She was at that age—no longer a true child, not yet a woman. And the witch knew she’d spoken a lie.

Of course the mother still had the power to hurt. All mothers did. Try as she might, the witch couldn’t banish the image of the quivering strands of hair, lying dusty along the lane. Try as she might, she couldn’t muster the courage to ask for forgiveness.

But that night, Rapunzel crept into the witch’s bed, curled next to her, and clutched her thumb with long, slender fingers.

* * *

One morning, in Rapunzel’s sixteenth year, they awoke to an odd humming that came from outside the cottage. Rapunzel peered through the shutters, her hands poised to open them to the morning sunshine, her fingers unmoving.

“Child, please, let in the fresh air,” the witch said.

Rapunzel’s hands remained still. “There are many strange men outside our door.”

On the way to the door, the witch secured a broom. She sprang across the threshold, broom handle connecting with a jaw here, a temple there.

“Go, go! All of you. She is too young to marry.”

True, Rapunzel had fully grown into her beauty, and when tame, her hair was a sight to behold, glimmering without the benefit of light. The witch had not anticipated this, however. Not so soon, and not so many suitors.

In retrospect, perhaps she should have.

Rapunzel’s father took to guarding the path to the cottage, but this only worked for so long. Men came daily, hourly, knocks on the door, the windows. More than one man tried the chimney only to find his breeches smoldering from a stoked fire.

After a night of off-key serenading that had left them both bleary-eyed, the witch decided.

“We must leave the village.”

The daughter of her heart peered through the shutters, the tips of her braids twitching. “Why do they want me? They do not even know me.”

“They want your beauty.”

“But my beauty isn’t me. If that is all they want, then surely I will disappoint them.”

“That is something none of them understand.”

Rapunzel’s gaze darted toward the door. Already a fresh crop of men lined the path, their murmurs rising in the morning air.

“But how?” she asked. “How will we leave?”

“Do they make you angry?”

“Oh, they do.”

“Remember that when you step outside, and all will be well.”

Rapunzel’s father packed the wagon and hitched the horses. For the first time since the day he gave his daughter away, he ventured inside the witch’s cottage, cupped her cheek, and told her goodbye forever.

The witch stepped from her cottage for the last time, cries and calls of the men thickening the air around her.

“Going somewhere, Mistress Witch?”

“Can we follow?”

“Is there room in your wagon for me?”

Men lined the path three deep. The witch traveled its center until she reached the wagon. There, she climbed into the driver’s seat and took the reins from Rapunzel’s father. She gave him a reassuring nod before speaking to the men who had chased her from her home.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “if I were you, I’d step back.”

No one heeded her warning.

When Rapunzel emerged, the cries grew louder still. Jeering and whistles and bids for attention. One man and then another blocked her path. Two grabbed her wrists. A third—the tallest and fairest, the only one dressed in nobleman’s attire—pushed the others aside in his quest for her.

But when the last of her unencumbered hair cleared the doorway, a gasp filled the air. The strands whipped and whirled, the ends sharpening into teeth, into claws. The men released her. Some ran, the nobleman among them. Others froze in place. Rapunzel walked, expression serene, hands folded in front of her, while her hair dispatched the men.

The slate walkway ran with blood. Bits of flesh speckled the walls of the witch’s garden. The cries went from jeering to unearthly, the agony sharp in the air.

No one followed them from the village.

* * *

They rode for days, stopping only to sleep. The first night, when Rapunzel wished to keep them dry from the rain, her hair wove itself into a shelter.

“Oh, it can shield as well,” Rapunzel said, her fingers investigating the crosshatch of strands above their heads, her eyes curious once again.

“Indeed it can, my child. Indeed it can.”

At last they came to the borderlands, to a stone watchtower long abandoned. The space around it was vast and empty—only hill after hill that stretched into the horizon. No sign of a village, a farm, or even a hunter’s cabin. Desolate and barren and the perfect spot for the two of them.

“Here,” the witch said. “We can make this our home.”

And yet, as she said these words, the ground shook with the force of approaching horses. In the distance, the standard of the war prince fluttered above a line of soldiers on horseback.

“Quick, Rapunzel, hide. In the wagon. Pull in all your hair.”

The wagon creaked with the weight of Rapunzel and all her hair. The horses whinnied as if they wished to cover the sound. They were good beasts, the witch thought, and they loved Rapunzel almost as much as she did.

When the war prince arrived, the witch bowed low.

“Mistress Witch, may I ask what you’re about?” the prince asked.

He was a powerful man, large and dark, a mask partially shrouding his features. His eyes, black and inquisitive, took in everything. They surveyed the tower, the horses, the wagon, all before returning to the witch.

“But of course, Your Highness,” the witch said. “I plan to use this tower for my home. It is no longer in your use, is that right?”

“That’s true, but the borderlands are dangerous, and my army is small in number.” He waved a hand at the group behind him. They were a motley crew, large and small, green-skinned or not, pockmarked or masked for reasons the witch decided not to contemplate.

“I cannot guarantee your protection,” he added.

“And I do not ask for it. All I ask for is quiet to practice my craft.”

“And if a troll happens by while you’re practicing your craft?” Now those dark eyes were lit with humor.

“Oh, Your Highness, I have lived long enough to know exactly what to do with a troll if one happens by.”

The prince laughed. “I believe you do, Mistress Witch. But be warned, this is a lonely stretch of land. Men seldom travel it.”

“That’s what makes it perfect, Your Highness.”

He laughed again, as if he took her meaning. He bid her farewell and rode away, his soldiers following, their horses kicking up dust that floated on the humid air. The witch tasted that air and licked her lips.

“It shall rain soon,” she declared. “Let’s get settled.”

The watchtower had a single entrance that the witch sealed over once their belongings were inside. It was cozy here, space enough to work and live, and the window let in sunlight and fresh air but would shield them from rain.

“But how shall we leave?” Rapunzel asked.

“I shall climb down the face of the tower,” the witch said. “There are hand and footholds that should not crumble beneath my weight. Or perhaps your clever hair might weave itself into a ladder.”

At the suggestion, the golden strands did just that, the construction so quick it produced a breeze within the circular room.

“But I cannot climb down a ladder of my own hair,” Rapunzel began, then clamped her mouth shut. “Oh, I see. This is to be my prison.”

“Not a prison, child, but a sanctuary.” The witch laid her palm against Rapunzel’s cheek. “If your hair were not so fierce, so untamable, you might seek a quiet life in some faraway village. But when we left, your hair felled two dozen strong men.”

“And no one wants to live near a monster.”

The witch tugged her close, wrapping her bony arms around the daughter of her heart. “You are no monster—”

“But my hair—”

“Seeks out injustice. It always has. Why would it attack the woman who gave you life, but not your father? Why does it lash out at men whose only interest is your beauty?”

“The world doesn’t want that sort of justice, does it?”

“I’m afraid it does not.”

“I will stay, then.” Rapunzel gathered handfuls of her hair. It flowed and swayed and cascaded to the floor in waves. “We shall stay. Perhaps I can teach it to behave.”

The witch spent her days in the forest, gathering herbs and berries. Every fortnight, she ventured to the nearest village for supplies. She traded with merchants there, weaving her deception. Just an old crone brewing potions and remedies. That spring, the lion’s tail grew thick in the woods. Every time the witch caught sight of it, she flinched, only to confront yet another clump a few feet away.

Rapunzel practiced remedies and potions along with the witch. Together they cultivated containers of herbs and small plants so Rapunzel might feel the soil beneath her fingers without leaving the tower. Beneath her touch, the plants flourished. She coaxed all manner of exotic flowers from the soil, even those the witch had never managed to on her own. Their petals brightened the little room and perfumed the air.

At night, she studied history and took a particular interest in the battles once waged in the borderlands and the ghosts said to walk and howl, searching for their old regiments or gutted homes.

“I do not hear these howls,” Rapunzel said one evening. She lifted the heavy locks beneath her hands. “Perhaps my hair is too thick against my ears.”

“Perhaps people search for excuses not to inhabit these lands,” the witch said.

“Perhaps.” Rapunzel remained at the window for a long time, her gaze exploring the borderlands, the very tips of her hair twitching like that of a penned beast.

For eight months, they lived in quiet in their watchtower. The war prince had been right. Few strayed this close to the border. Once, the prince himself rode by on patrol, a small group of soldiers at his side.

“I see you live well, Mistress Witch,” he called out.

The witch leaned from the tower’s window and called back, “Very well and very alone, Your Highness. However, I see you have added to your party.”

The witch inclined her head as the prince’s younger brother rode forward. He was light where the war prince was dark, unmasked and unscarred. Even from a distance, the witch felt those legendary gray eyes taking in everything. In this, he was very much like his brother.

With a hand, she shielded her own eyes and hid her frown. There was something about him that unsettled her. True, she never paid much heed to palace gossip. Even so, she knew that the younger prince preferred the boudoir to the battlefield for his conquests.

With as much stealth as possible, she gestured at Rapunzel, urging the child to conceal herself further, to constrain every last strand of golden hair. Rapunzel merely covered her mouth with a hand so as to not to laugh out loud, her hair rippling across the floor with repressed mirth.

“Perhaps this stretch of land is not so lonely for you now, Your Highness,” the witch said, her voice rougher than she liked.

The war prince cast his brother a look. “Perhaps not.”

As the party rode off, the witch considered that perhaps she and the war prince also had something in common.

They were both liars.

* * *

Later, the witch would admit that she’d grown complacent. Life with the daughter of her heart was more than she had ever hoped for. Her trips to the village grew more frequent. Perhaps those gave her away. Perhaps she called too loudly for Rapunzel to lower her ladder of hair. Perhaps someone followed her, spied on them, although who would be curious about an old crone living alone, the witch couldn’t say.

But when she returned from her most recent trip to the village and saw not the golden ladder of hair but one of wood propped against the tower, the witch knew she’d betrayed Rapunzel in some fashion. She dropped the reins and leaped from the wagon. The horse, so gentle and loving, simply continued forward to meet its sister. The witch scampered up the ladder, her hands catching on the rough grain so much she had to claw her way to the window.

There, in the center of the room, Rapunzel stood. Around her, strands of her hair whipped and whirled, the ends sharp and deadly. Like teeth. Like claws. A monster of a thing. On the floor? A man.

A dead man—a dead nobleman from the looks of his clothes—one who had suffered the death of a thousand cuts, a thousand bites. One whose breeches were around his ankles. One whose hand had torn away the bodice of Rapunzel’s dress.

“He surprised me. I never heard him until he cleared the window.” Rapunzel stared straight ahead, her gaze on the window, not on the man, and not on the witch, a hollow look haunting her blue eyes. “And then … and then … Mother, I’m … I’m …”

“No!” While flight had never been one of the witch’s skills, she flew across the room, cradled Rapunzel to her. “You are not sorry. This is not your fault.”

“But—”

“He is dead. A lone nobleman, venturing out on his own, in the borderlands? This will surprise no one.”

“Turn him,” Rapunzel said, her voice devoid of emotion, a dead thing.

Panic gripped the witch, had her by the throat. With a foot, she complied, heaving the dead man onto his back. Fair hair. Royal crest.

The war prince’s brother.

“He will come searching, won’t he?” Rapunzel said. This was no question. “The war prince will search for his brother.”

“Perhaps. The borderlands are vast. It may be months before we see him again. And by then?” The witch surveyed the man, the window, and considered how they might accomplish this next task.

“If your hair can lower him to the ground, I shall bury him in the woods. I feel winter in my bones. An early snowfall will be welcome.”

Rapunzel nodded. “I shall scrub his blood from our floor.”

Without another word, Rapunzel’s hair wrapped the man from head to foot and lowered him through the tower’s window. When the witch reached the ground, she was surprised to find the longest strands of hair in a dense copse behind the tower, the claws already digging a grave.

By the time the witch found a shovel, the man was deep in the ground. So she took up an ax and splintered the ladder into kindling. And by the time she finished that chore, those beastly strands of hair had scattered dry leaves across the grave, the fresh-turned soil all but hidden.

She eased a hand beneath a lock of that hair. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for protecting her, thank you for being so fierce.”

The strands wrapped and unwrapped themselves around her wrist before caressing her cheek.

* * *

Despite her own words, the witch knew. A dead prince was still a dead prince, and justice would be served. A week later, when the war prince rode up with a contingent of his soldiers, she was ready to face that justice.

“Good day to you, Mistress Witch.”

The witch stood at the base of the tower. “And to you, Your Highness.” She bowed low. She liked this dark and masked prince, even though today he would, no doubt, declare her death sentence.

“I wonder if you can help me.”

“I will try, Your Highness.”

“My brother has gone missing. You met him on our last patrol through these parts. Did you happen to see him or even converse with him?”

Behind the prince, one of his soldiers unleashed a dog. Oh, yes, the witch thought, he knew the answer already. A moment later, so did everyone else. The hound let out a howl before digging at the fresh grave.

“Tell me, Mistress Witch, how did he come to die?”

She drew herself up tall, raised her chin. “I killed him, Your Highness.”

To her surprise, the prince laughed—a dark, somber laugh to be sure, but a laugh, nevertheless. “I doubt that.”

“Doubt what you will, Your Highness, but do you see anyone else here?”

“You have just admitted to murder, and of one of the royal family. Do you wish for death?”

“I am but an old crone, and death does not scare me.”

“I suspect you might scare death itself,” the prince murmured. “But you leave me no choice.” With a sigh, he addressed the soldier next to him. “Arrest her.” He returned his attention to the witch. “Unless you can give me a compelling reason not to.”

“I can give you that reason.”

The voice came from above, and it rang high and clear and unimpeded over the borderlands. The witch whirled, her chest constricting. No. Not Rapunzel. No. She shook her head, but the daughter of her heart paid her no heed.

Without another word, Rapunzel stepped onto the window’s ledge. She jumped, her hair fanning out behind her before rushing to the ground to cushion her fall. She landed on her feet, knee-deep in golden locks.

“Your Highness, no,” the witch began. “Please listen. She—”

The prince held up a hand, silencing her. “Let her speak.”

“I killed him, Your Highness,” Rapunzel said.

“Did you now? And you are?”

“Rapunzel.”

“Rapunzel? With hair of teeth and claw?”

“I … is that what they call me?”

“You are but a legend, a whispered story. I—” He broke off, his gaze drawn to the woods where the younger prince was buried. “My brother spoke of you.”

“I am very real, Your Highness, and I have killed your brother.”

“You confess to murder, then?”

“In self-defense, but yes, I do.”

The prince fell silent. The soldiers behind him shifted in their saddles. The one who managed the dog corralled and leashed the beast. Then with a single, deliberate motion, the prince removed the black leather mask to reveal a face crisscrossed with scars.

“Look upon this face, Rapunzel,” he commanded.

And she did.

“I have lost my only brother.”

“I am sorry for your loss, Your Highness.”

“You must understand that yes, he was my brother, and I confess to loving the boy he once was, but not the man he became.” The prince contemplated Rapunzel as he spoke, as if taking in her full measure, as if sizing up an opponent. “That, perhaps, was unfair of me, unfair to him.”

The prince drew his sword, the metal blade singing out. He aimed the blow directly at Rapunzel. A cry lodged in the witch’s throat, and it took all her strength not to sink to her knees.

Rapunzel’s hair whipped and whirled. When the frenzy subsided, she and the prince stood mere feet from each other, the tip of his sword poised at the hollow of her collarbone, the claws of her hair wrapped around his neck.

His soldiers sprang forward, weapons drawn.

“Stand down!” the prince called. When no one moved, he sheathed his own sword and said, “Stand down. She doesn’t intend to injure me.”

“True. I don’t.” With Rapunzel’s words, her hair unraveled from around the prince’s neck.

“And why is that?” He rubbed the skin of his throat, the move born of curiosity rather than pain.

“You did not intend to hurt me.”

“And your hair.” He gestured to the locks undulating along her back and on the ground. “It knew that.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

A smile lit the prince’s scarred face, then a laugh made it almost handsome. “Then I am lucky, for that was only my guess.” This time when he contemplated Rapunzel, his gaze was lit with interest. “And now I face another sort of dilemma, for I not only lost my brother but my best fighter.”

The witch’s heart caught. The tips of her fingers grew cold, her legs numb. “Your Highness, you can’t possibly mean—”

Once again, the prince silenced the witch’s protest with the barest flick of his wrist.

“I mean everything I say, Mistress Witch.” He directed his gaze toward Rapunzel once again. “Will you join my company and replace the man you have killed?”

Murmurs rose from the assembled soldiers. One stepped forward, probed a lock of hair with the toe of his boot. The strands curled around his ankle, and the man landed on the ground.

“She is but a girl!” another called out.

“I am strong,” Rapunzel said. She hefted her hair in both her hands. “I have been carrying the weight of this all my life.”

“A burden for certain,” the prince said.

“How will she ride?” someone else asked. “We have no cart for all that hair. We travel light.”

Before the soldier even stopped speaking, her hair swirled. It wove complicated patterns, fitted itself to her body until she was covered in what looked like golden chainmail.

“It seems I won’t need any armor,” Rapunzel said. “Or a cart.”

“Any more dissent? Perhaps you’d like to confer with my brother.” The prince gestured at the grave. “I’m certain he has an opinion on the matter.”

With the prince’s words, the witch knew: the matter was settled. Strength returned to her limbs, and a strange, detached determination filled her. She saddled a horse, and the sisters whinnied their goodbyes, tails swishing. She secured a bag of provisions and one of potions and remedies. If she could, the witch would have packed her heart as well, for it was too swollen and sore in her own chest.

“Goodbye, daughter of my heart.” The witch presented the reins to Rapunzel.

“Mother?” Rapunzel’s eyes grew large, as if only now she realized the consequences of her choice. “I don’t want—”

The witch hushed her. “Of course you do. It is right and good for children to leave home, to have adventures. This prince is a good man,” she added. “He will not lead you astray.”

“I can’t promise you comfort,” the prince added. “Or even safety. But adventure? That I can promise.”

Rapunzel’s gaze went once again to the horizon, her eyes lit with the promise of the adventure that it held.

“Go with him, child. Go be free.”

Rapunzel hugged the witch, mounted her horse, and joined the prince’s company. They rode off, and the witch tracked them until Rapunzel blended into the horizon. Even then, the witch stood at the base of the tower. At last she turned and confronted its surface.

“I’m not sure I know the spell to conjure up another entrance, or a staircase, for that matter.” She said these words to the horse, who snuffled and snorted a reply. “I’m not sure these old bones can stand the climb.”

Before the witch could even try, a golden ladder tumbled from the window. She grasped the silky strands, hardly daring to breathe, and climbed up to the ledge. Once she stood inside, the strands returned to the tower. They flowed through the window and into one of Rapunzel’s containers of exotic flowers, where they burrowed beneath the soil.

Then, in a moment that was no more than a blink of an eye, a stem pushed up and through, and the bloom of a lion’s tail unfurled.

With Hair of Teeth and Claw was first published in The Shapeshifter Chronicles.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Dragon’s End

Sometimes the end is just the beginning.

The knock on my door comes before sunrise. Three quick raps that sound sharp and official. When I answer and see Mayor Simos on my stoop, the words sharp and official sear my thoughts.

“It’s time,” she says.

Her face is creased from sleep and the weight of her office. A breeze rustles loose strands of her hair, wisps escaping the coronet braids.

I want to ask time for what, but her expression is cold and foreboding. I know I don’t want the answer.

“Bring your tools,” she adds, and then, almost as an afterthought, “and the book.”

Ah, yes. The book. A simple word that answers all my questions.

I know where it is, of course, locked in the trunk at the foot of my bed. The key, heavy cast iron, weighs down the cord looped around my neck. The cast iron flashes cold, then hot, against my skin.

I’m not certain I remember how to insert the key into the lock, not certain I can lift the lid. I haven’t done so since my grandmother passed the book to me before she passed on herself.

“Miri,” the mayor prompts, and she is all sharp edges with a razor-like gaze.

“Yes, sorry. Just a minute.”

I don’t invite her in. Instead, I shut the door against the protest that’s forming on her lips. I sag against the wood. There are few privileges to being me, but this is one of them.

The trunk at the foot of my bed is ancient and solid. The wood is reinforced with iron bands, the lock larger than both my fists. The key slips into the lock easier than I think it should. The tumblers click with far more assurance than I feel.

When I lift the lid, a fine layer of dust bursts into the air, filling my mouth, grit stinging my eyes. My nose twitches, but I hold in the sneeze.

I stare at the inside of the trunk, at the items I thought I’d never need to use. The saw with its serrated edge. The plane and the awl. The long, elegant pick with the hook at its tip. I pack these into a canvas bag. Next comes the book.

No one has touched it since my grandmother wrapped it in linen and placed it here. The trunk itself hasn’t moved in decades. I now sleep in the bed she slept in, the bed she died in.

The second my fingertips brush the linen, I’m afraid the soft material will crumble in my hands. The book must remain wrapped, at least for the trip to the caves. After that? Well, after that, I guess we’ll see what’s inside.

I open the door on Mayor Simos, her fist poised to knock. The reprimand is sharp in her eyes until her gaze lands on the bundle in my arms.

Even Mayor Simos respects the book.

The sun casts a glow on the horizon. There’s enough light to paint the sky indigo. And enough that I can see the playground where the village children gallop and run with the hatchlings, the earth bare and packed from feet, claws, and the swish and thump of tails.

When I was younger, I sat far back from the playground, up in the tree that shades the house my grandmother—and now I—live in. With my belly flush against a thick branch, my arms wrapped tight, I’d watch, envy fizzing inside me.

I wanted a hatchling of my own. I wanted to be chosen.

I am, of course. Chosen, that is. The book in my arms is proof of that. But I would never choose this path for myself. I would never choose it for anyone else, either.

Mayor Simos leads the way. Her coat, trimmed with gold braid, sways as we trudge toward the foothills north of the village. Cottages give way to pastures until we reach the foothills. The sun crests the horizon. Its warmth touches the back of my neck, almost like it’s urging me forward.

Tendrils of smoke issue from the caves. These caves, the ones closest to the village, are not our destination. This is where the hatchlings sleep. Their gentle snoring makes me think of puppies dozing by the fire. Somewhere, deep down, that envy fizzes once again.

Mayor Simos casts a glare over her shoulder as if my longing is both tangible and unseemly. I will my expression to remain placid, and we continue our trek up the mountain.

The snoring grows deeper, more sonorous the farther up we go. The cave openings are larger. If you were to wander inside, you might be lost for days—or forever. It would all depend on the humor of the occupant.

At last, we reach the final cave on this branch of the path. Dragon’s End, we call it. Nothing but blackness pours from the entrance. Worse is the silence. I strain my ears, hoping for a muted snore, but hear nothing.

“How long?” I ask.

“Five days, we think,” Mayor Simos says. “It’s hard to tell. They don’t need much in their retirement, so the shepherds seldom visit more than once a week.”

I nod as if this is vital information I can use. It isn’t. I have no idea what will greet me when I enter the cave.

We stand at the entrance for so long it becomes clear that Mayor Simos is waiting on something. Profound words? A dismissal? I don’t know. But there is one thing I’m sure of.

I go in alone.

I turn to do just that, but the mayor takes my arm.

“Miri, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“It may have been more than five days.”

“Has no one come around to check?”

I see the answer in her gaze. No, no one has, perhaps not for a very long time.

Instead of envy, anger bursts to life inside me. How could no one check? You could send a child of five up the slope. It isn’t dangerous. They care for our own in the way we do their hatchlings. They would never harm a child.

I clutch the book to my chest, the linen rustling in my hands.

“I’m sorry,” Mayor Simos says again. “I should’ve sent someone around. I simply didn’t think…”

I shake my head and shake away her apology. Maybe it’s her fault. Maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure it matters. No one in living memory has performed this task. Even my grandmother was a small girl when her own grandmother told her of the last dragon tended to in this manner. That tale has been lost over time. No one knows, for certain, what happened.

This is not supposed to be happening. I was never meant to take this trek up the path. I was supposed to live my quiet life. At some point, I’d give birth to a girl, who in time, would birth one of her own. I would pass the tools and the book onto my granddaughter. This undertaking is one that skips a generation.

Dragons live for such a long time. Chances of any of them needing our services are inestimably small. None of us ever thinks we’ll be the one to journey up the mountain, enter a dark and foreboding cave, crack open the book, and read the words inside.

After that? Here’s where the oral instructions become vague. My grandmother wouldn’t—or perhaps couldn’t—tell me.

I go in alone. Without Mayor Simos. Without any counsel. Without any hope of coming out again.

I draw in a breath. The sun has touched the valley below us. If I listen hard, the delicate snoring of the hatchlings fills my ears. I step forward, the cool air of the cave washing over me. Before I can dive in, before I can fully commit, Mayor Simos touches my arm.

“The book,” she says.

Ah, yes. The book. I consider it now, still clutched against my chest.

“In a week,” I say. “Send someone in for it. A child would be best.”

Her grip on my arm tightens.

“They would never harm a child,” I add. No matter what mess is left in my wake, this mountain possesses enough residual enchantment for a child to navigate into and back out of the cave. “A hatchling, perhaps, could go with them.”

Her grasp lessens, but I still feel her fingers against my skin. I don’t know what else she can tell me, but I want to enter the cave before she delivers any additional bad news.

So I wrench free, my arm and then sleeve slipping from her hold. I dive into the cave, committing fully. This is one rule I know, the one rule my grandmother insisted I follow.

Once past the threshold, do not hesitate.

* * *

But I do. I halt several steps inside the cave. Behind me, the entrance is barely a flicker of light. Before me? The cave splits in two, no four, no six directions.

“Which do I choose?” I say these words aloud as if there’s something else in the cave with me, something sentient and far cleverer than I am.

Nothing answers my plea except for the echo of my own voice, tiny and forlorn. I peer down each tunnel, but nothing distinguishes one from the other. Perhaps they all lead to where I need to go. Perhaps that’s why there’s no need to hesitate.

I pick the fourth tunnel, simply because I like the number four, and stride forward. The moment I do, a rumbling sounds behind me.

Rocks tumble and slide down the sides of the cave. I dash forward, pebbles and stones chasing after me. The walls of the cave shake. The earthen floor trembles, my feet skidding on the unstable surface. At last, a final boulder fills the path and blocks the entrance completely.

Yes. Of course. Do not hesitate.

I take quick, shallow breaths in the dust-laden air. The taste of earth fills my mouth. My heart thunders, much like the rocks and stones did. I wait until the dust and my breathing settle.

I peer toward the entrance. “How will they retrieve the book now?” I’m not sure who—or what—I’m asking. The rocks that block the path? Whatever force sent them tumbling in the first place?

As if in answer, a hint of sulfur rides the air.

“I guess that’s their problem, not mine.”

A rumble reaches me. I want to say it sounds like a laugh or, at the very least, a snort. More likely, the rocks are merely settling.

It’s not dark. At least, not as dark as it should be. A thin sliver of light emanates from the depths of the mountain. I’ve already hesitated enough.

I follow the only path open to me.

* * *

The strap of my canvas sack bites into the flesh of my shoulder. My arms ache from clutching the book. My fingers cramp from where I’ve gripped the sides. I can feel the hours I’ve trekked in my legs. My mouth is parched.

The muted light guides me. It’s barely there, this sliver of illumination. I don’t question it. To question it is to lose it, and I can ill afford to lose this one small advantage.

I have no provisions, didn’t think to bring any. Slowly, over the past hours, my anger at the shepherds has simmered into sympathy. How do you care for something can’t find?

And if I can’t find the dragon? What then?

The thought makes me stumble. I reach out a hand, my aim the cave wall, or really anything to keep me from falling, breaking an arm—or worse, a leg. The moment my fingers brush against the cave’s surface, a golden glow fills the space.

I remain there, palm flush with the cave wall, the stone cool beneath my touch. The glow around me, however? That looks warm and inviting. My eyes adjust, and I step closer to inspect the source.

Embedded in the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor are coins, layer after layer of them. Gold and silver shine forth. The coin of our realm, yes, that’s expected, but it’s more than that. I trace my fingers along the bumps and edges, trying to discern the languages written there. They are either from places too far away or too long ago for me to recognize.

I continue forward.

Other hues join the gold and silver of the coins, the walls now studded with gems—rubies and sapphires and emeralds. Some fall as I pass, as if the slight breeze from my movements is enough to dislodge them from their perch in the cave wall.

I wonder at this. Did the shepherds never wander this deep into the cave? A single gem could keep a family fed for generations. Certainly, the dragons allow this sort of barter—a small token in exchange for care.

A wave of dizziness strikes me. The air is, perhaps, a bit thin back here. Still, it would be worth the journey, even without the lure of riches. I don’t understand why no one has ventured this far into the cave. I would gladly tend to a dragon, were I to have one.

Gladly.

The dizziness crashes over me again, forcing me to my knees. Before me, the path is pristine. Behind me, my footsteps are sharp outlines in the dust. No one has been this way for ages. My chest tightens until pain radiates along my breastbone. I’m not truly dizzy. I’m not deprived of air. This is something else, something that’s simmered and fizzed for a long time.

All I ever wanted was a hatchling of my own.

What I have now is someone’s loyal and neglected companion, a creature who, while not dead, is not that far away from death.

Dragons can be killed, certainly. In battle. With the sharp edge of a sword angled just so or with boulders flung with catapults. But they can’t die naturally, not as humans do. As part of our alliance, we offer them this one, final service.

It falls to one family, generation after generation. This family is forbidden any other contact with dragons, from hatchlings to elders. It’s said to contaminate the pact. Often we’re never called upon to complete this final task.

Until we are.

Like today.

* * *

I find my breath. A few moments later, I muster the strength to stand and for the journey still ahead of me. The cave glows blood-red now from the gemstones in the walls. Perhaps this is intentional, meant as a warning, and my pulse beats in my throat.

I round a bend in the cave. And there, just like that—blocking my way forward—is a dragon. Its girth at midsection blocks my view of its tail and the cave beyond. I can only assume there’s a cave beyond, at any rate. Perhaps the cave ends here, and the dragon, grown so vast in old age, can no longer crawl free.

The claws on its forelimbs shine like mother of pearl. Its eyes are closed, mouth as well. If the creature breathes, I cannot detect it. Perhaps someone—a shepherd, maybe—has already done my job.

But there is no stench of death, of decay. The cave is dry, the air scented with a strange mix of brimstone and pine. It is not unpleasant.

I ease the canvas sack from my shoulder. The tools jangle, and I freeze, afraid the noise will wake the dragon.

It doesn’t move.

I place the book, still in its linen wrap, on the floor as well.

I don’t know what to do. It occurs to me that the answers are in the book. That’s why it’s been passed down from generation to generation, cared for, but never read. I’ve never even been tempted before. I only ever wanted a dragon, never to kill one.

With careful fingers, I unwrap the linen. The leather cover is worn, the gold embossed title barely legible. I turn to the first page and find …

Nothing.

I flip to another page, and then another. I tear through the book, unconcerned with its age or condition. Nothing but yellowed parchment greets me. No words, not even barely legible ones in faded ink. All the pages are blank. At last, I stand and shake the book, hoping for a loose page or a note or something to flutter to the cave floor.

“I don’t understand.”

I whisper the words. They swirl in the space around me, their echo soft yet insistent before the sensation of being scrutinized washes over me.

I glance up and find myself staring into the golden eye of an ancient dragon.

* * *

Everything I thought I knew about my task has vanished. I’m to take my tools, the book. I am to perform what amounts to last rites for an ancient dragon. It will be in such a deep sleep that the steps I must perform to end its life won’t disturb it. This, my grandmother assured me.

Now that ancient dragon is gazing at me. A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils. Again, that odor of brimstone and pine surrounds me. I can taste the smoke against my tongue. The book slips from my fingers and crashes to the cave floor.

“I see they’ve sent me a child.”

The voice is deep and sonorous. It rolls through the space and shakes my bones.

“I’m no child.” My voice quavers, but the words come stronger than I expect. I lift my chin. “I live on my own,” I insist, as if this is proof of my maturation.

The dragon snorts a spurt of smoke. “Little more than a hatchling.”

“What am I to do?” I point to the book. “It doesn’t say.”

“Doesn’t it? Are you quite certain?”

Oh, spare me mind games with an ancient dragon. I’m ill-equipped for this sort of sparring. Besides, it must know even if I don’t. But it will no doubt make me work for that knowledge.

“Am I to kill you?” I see no reason not to be blunt.

“Are you? That seems rather rude. We’ve only just met, after all.”

“Then am I your…?” I trail off, a wholly different thought occurring to me.

“Sacrificial lamb, the morsel meant to appease me?” It tilts its head so both glowing yellow eyes can survey me, from the top of my head to the tips of my dusty boots. “You’re rather small for that.”

“Then, what am I?”

Its claws retract and then rake the earthen floor in front of me. “What you are, my child, is very much stuck.”

* * *

I very much am. Stuck, that is. Had the shepherds performed their assigned tasks, there would be provisions in here, a cistern of water at least.

“Why am I here?”

“Have you consulted your book?”

I spear it with a glare. Without water, I won’t live out the week. So I will be fierce in my dealings with the dragon.

The creature snorts another laugh. “Humans, always so inquisitive, and yet, so oddly obedient. Did it never occur to you to have a peek inside? Gird your loins for your one task in life?”

Well, no, it hadn’t. I spent my time gazing at the hatchlings. “I never wanted this.”

“Well, it seems to me you have it.” A sigh rumbles in its throat, dual streams of smoke rising from its nostrils. “A child, and an incurious one at that. What a disappointment.”

“At least it’s mutual.”

“Oh, perhaps this child has some fire, after all.”

The dragon looks not at me, but past me with so much concentration, I must resist the urge to glance over my shoulder. That’s what it wants, of course. But no one shares this space with us.

“We seem to have reached an impasse,” the dragon says. “You have no idea how to complete your task—”

“Do you?”

The dragon regards me with narrowed eyes before continuing. “It’s any guess who will succumb first. I will be reduced to some nether-slumber while you.” Once again, it surveys me from head to foot. “Will eventually shrivel up. Will I be conscious long enough to blow the dust of your bones from this spot? Who’s to say? Shall we place bets? Winner take all?”

My heart thuds heavily in my chest, a slow, painful sort of beat. Perhaps this is why elder dragons are banished to the upper caves. All I ever wanted was a hatchling, a dragon of my own. But this one? It’s an old, bitter, cruel thing, and I want nothing to do with it.

There’s no escaping its girth, but I find an outcropping of rocks on the side farthest from the dragon. I take my tools and the book.

Yes, even the book. The leather is soft enough, and so are the pages. It will make an adequate pillow. Perhaps that’s all it was ever meant to be.

“Ah, yes, and now the poor thing pouts.” Its words are a mere whisper, although clearly, it wants me to hear them. “I abhor tears,” the dragon adds, louder now. “So, if at all possible, refrain from crying.”

This last is the only thing we agree upon.

I comply.

* * *

In my dream, I am a warrior, a dragon as my mount. In my dream, we soar through the air, dodging arrows alight with flame. In my dream, the roar of battle shakes my bones.

My eyes fly open. The roar continues even as my dream fades. The world is dark, my bed like stone, nothing but the scent of brimstone and pine.

Then I remember.

The roaring grows ever louder. In the middle of the cave, the dragon thrashes its head. Its eyes are shut tight. It must be dreaming. The same sort of dream? Of battlefields and fire? Or is this something more, something worse?

It thrashes again. The agony in its cry races up my legs, my spine, settles at the base of my skull. I don’t think. I do not hesitate.

I rush forward, dodging its swinging head, nearly eclipsed by its jaw. I’ve never touched a dragon before. But from my perch in the tree, I’ve watched the village children do this so many times.

I leap and wrap my arms around the dragon’s neck. I hold on with all my strength even as my legs swing beneath me. One foot connects with the dragon’s chest, although I doubt it feels the impact.

“Shh.” I keep my voice low and soothing. There’s a trick to this, to the hushing of dragons. To say I have no training is true. But I listened; I practiced using that same tree branch. “Shh.”

Its head continues to swing, but slower now. My arms ache, but I clutch its neck, my feet scraping the cave floor.

“Evelynne … Evelynne.”

The cry rips through me. I’ve been so consumed with wanting a dragon of my own that I never considered what happens when the human a hatchling first bonds with is killed or dies.

How many humans does a dragon lose during its lifespan?

It could make you bitter. It could make you cruel. Perhaps this is why, at a dragon’s end, they are banished to the upper caves.

“Evelynne.”

The dragon’s swaying comes to an abrupt halt. I dangle from its neck. I cannot see its face, but I suspect those great golden eyes are now open.

I let go and drop to the cave floor.

It takes one look at me and then collapses as if its head is too heavy for its neck.

* * *

I am a bitter disappointment. The yellow gaze the dragon casts tells me that. I remain immobile on the cave floor, palms against the dusty surface.

“You should not know how to do that,” it says.

No, I shouldn’t.

“Lace your hands,” it commands.

So I do. True, it took years to learn the correct placement, of which finger goes where. Incorrect placement of fingers, of hands against a dragon’s neck will enrage rather than soothe. It’s a skill even those with hatchlings find difficult to perfect. Indeed, I had no idea if I was performing it correctly at all.

Until now.

“How do you come by this knowledge, child?” A fiery edge laces the dragon’s words, and its displeasure tastes like sulfur.

“My house overlooks the village playground.” My voice comes out steady and dull. “I would watch the hatchlings and the children. I would practice on a tree branch.”

“There’s more to it than that.” The dragon shakes its enormous head, its jaw whooshing mere feet above me. “There’s the bonding, the spellcasting. You should not … we should not.”

Because it’s forbidden, this contact. No thrill of fear courses through me, no regret. I would gladly calm this creature once again, given half a chance. I would gladly do it even if it meant my death. To prove it, I push to stand and anchor my hands on my hips.

Those great amber eyes blink, a shuttering of its gaze. When the dragon opens its eyes once again, something has shifted in its expression.

“What have they done to you, child?”

I shake my head, uncertain what it means.

“Why sequester the most talented humans like that?” The dragon murmurs the words, the question meant for its own pondering rather than for me.

Despite that, I decide on my own question. “Why do they banish the old ones to the caves?”

The dragon swings its head around so quickly that I’m nearly flattened against the floor. It regards me for a moment before speaking again.

“Forgive me, child.”

“Whatever for?”

“My temper, my rash judgment. Undoubtedly I’ve lived long enough not to give in to either.”

“Or maybe it’s because you have lived so long you gave into both.”

Something sparks in that golden gaze. Its lip curls, revealing sharp and gleaming teeth. “Yes. Precisely. Do you suppose they count on that?”

Do they? I glance back at the way I came. Even if I had strength and time on my side, digging through the debris would be impossible. I peer into the darkness behind the dragon’s girth.

“What is at the other end?” I ask.

“Other than my tail?”

“Yes.” I laugh because its tone is sly and full of humor. “Other than that.”

“A dead end, appropriately enough.”

I turn my gaze upward and follow the trajectory of the smoke that rises from the dragon’s nostrils.

“That is merely a thin layer of rock,” I say.

“Oh, my child, I am old.”

“So old as that? Truly?”

“My wings. I—”

The walls around us groan, and the dragon trembles with the effort to spread its wings.

“You see,” it adds. “I have tried.”

“But, they have given me tools.” I race to the alcove and weigh each tool in my palm, judging the merits of each. I return with the awl.

I hold it up so the dragon can see.

“Indeed,” it intones. “That was their mistake.”

The dragon lowers its head. A thousand times, I have seen the children and their hatchlings perform this maneuver. I step carefully, only lighting a foot on its forehead before settling between its horns.

Something washes over me, that scent of pine and brimstone again, along with something more—the feeling that I belong here.

The dragon raises its head, so my own nearly brushes the cave’s ceiling.

“Close your eyes,” I whisper.

With my first strike, dust rains down, followed by a stream of sunlight. It touches my cheeks and makes the dragon’s scales glow a fiery red. Its power, its strength, rushes through me.

This is why they confine the ancient ones to Dragon’s End. Or perhaps it’s why we’re both here. Together, we are something more, something powerful.

With a final chip at the thin crust, the earth that blocks the way out tumbles down.

“You’re free,” I say.

“No, my child, we are.” A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils, and this dragon reminds me of an old man with a pipe, contemplating a riddle. “I don’t suppose you’ve had a flying lesson, have you?”

“I don’t suppose I have.”

“But you’ve seen how it’s done.”

“A thousand times.”

“Then you should be adequate. But first things first. Go get the book.”

The book? I peer to where it still remains on the floor, leather cracked from where my cheek rested against the cover.

“Don’t you need to return it?”

The slyness in the dragon’s voice has me sliding down its neck, scooping up the book, and then returning to that spot of honor.

“I have no saddle,” it says, “and no reins. You’ll have to hold on.”

“I have years of practice.”

The dragon’s wings tremble and shake. Its hind legs quiver. With a mighty leap, it clears the edge of the cave and unfurls its wings.

“What is your name, child?” The question reaches not my ears, but my mind. Its thoughts touch mine, and the sensation is as intimate as a kiss.

“Miri.”

“I am Mercurial.”

“Of course you are.”

The dragon snorts a laugh and sends sparks into the air. “It is also my name.”

Mercurial swoops toward the village, wings shadowing the earth below. We are close enough now that I can see the chaos erupt on the playground. At the sight of Mercurial, a dozen hatchlings scamper and fling themselves in the air, wings beating furiously until they tumble and land once again. Their children race after them, laughing and crying out.

Work at the mill halts. The village elders emerge from what must have been a meeting, Mayor Simos among them.

“Now, my dear.”

I toss the book into the air. When it’s halfway to the ground, Mercurial shoots a stream of fire at it. The book lands at the mayor’s feet, flames chewing through the parchment.

“What a shame,” I say.

“Yes. All that knowledge, forever lost.” Mercurial circles the village a final time. “Where to, my sweet?”

“The farthest I’ve ever been from home is Dragon’s End.”

“Then hang on. We have the entire world before us.”

So I do. I entwine my arms around Mercurial’s neck. I don’t look back.

Not even once.

Dragon’s End was written specifically for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Miller’s Daughter

Rumpelstiltskin meets Groundhog Day, with a twist.

The part at the end, when I tear myself in half, is the worst. But it’s dramatic, and everyone seems to like it. Besides, I’ve perfected the move.

Mind you, I don’t actually tear myself in half. That would hurt. When I stomp my foot, much like a toddler, it opens a passageway to another forest, another miller’s daughter, another king intent on fortune.

I’m not sure why I slip through this passageway, only that I do. I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does. I leave one life for another, each familiar, but distinct. I’ve done this for so many years that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a life of my own.

The forest around me is still. I breathe in dry leaves. My limbs feel sluggish, my head even more so. When the sky stops spinning, I’ll need to bolt. I might already be too late. Right now, the hangman may be tightening the noose around the neck of the miller’s daughter. That’s happened more times than I care to count.

It’s hard to save someone mid-execution.

I inhale a steadying breath and push from the forest floor only to careen into the first oak I see. Its bark scrapes my cheek, but the thick trunk stops my fall. My head spins. I clutch the tree like a lovesick girl and wait.

When I merely see double, I head for the village.

From a farmer’s clothesline, I procure a shirt with flapping tails and a tattered overcoat. I jam an abandoned straw hat on my head. The oversized clothes make me appear old, shrunken.

As I leave, a billy goat bleats a reprimand at me.

Stalls line the village square with everything from rosy apples to funnel cakes sizzling in oil. Baskets bump my hips and arms as people hurry past. I can’t move. I am a hollow thing, starved, not just for food, but a real meal, a real bed, a real home.

A real life.

When did it all change? When did I change? A curse, perhaps. Or I bargained with the wrong crone. Or perhaps I did nothing, and it’s simply my fate to watch life from the outside.

I shake myself—the miller’s daughter. I must find her.

The tavern. I always start my search there. Nine times out of ten, that’s where I’ll find her worthless father.

Sometimes he’s weeping, it’s true. Sometimes he isn’t even at the tavern, but at home, wringing his hands and concocting foolish rescue plans. Most of the time?

He’s drinking, on credit.

That’s where he is today, surrounded by ne’er-do-wells, a barmaid on his knee. But if he’s here, if he’s drinking, it means his daughter is confronting a room full of straw.

I must wait until dark. Even then, obstacles line my path: palace guards, winding corridors, and any number of locked doors.

But people are creatures of habit and convenience. I’ve crept inside countless castles, pried open dozens of locks, procured keys hanging from the same hook, in the same spot, in nearly identical guardrooms a hundred times over. Tonight is no exception, and I tie the keys to a bit of rope that I loop around my waist.

On the other hand, the miller’s daughter is unpredictable. Sometimes she’s crying. Sometimes she’s resigned or angry. Sometimes she’s both and refuses my help.

It’s better now that I obscure my face, hide my true form. Those first times? My appearance was so shocking that no amount of reasoning could calm her down. Guards poured into the room, followed by the king himself. And I found myself slipping through that passageway far earlier than I had planned.

So it’s with caution that I ease open the door. The miller’s daughter stands in the center of the room, eyes dry, gaze contemplating the truly mammoth pile of straw. This king must be extraordinarily greedy. When she catches sight of me, she nods as if she’s been expecting her supernatural helper—and I’m late.

“The king wants me to spin this straw into gold.” She casts an almost regal hand toward the towering pile.

“That’s quite a task,” I reply. “One I’m well suited for. I could help you.”

She raises an eyebrow. “For a price?”

I execute a low bow. “But of course.”

She tugs a ring from her finger. “Will this do?”

I barely glance at it, because, yes, of course, it will. People are wary of getting something for nothing. I don’t need the ring, can’t take it with me when I travel to yet another miller’s daughter and her predicament, but it always makes this part go easier.

“Rest, my child,” I say, indicating a wool blanket in one corner. “You will wake to find this room filled with gold.”

The miller’s daughter lifts the hem of her skirt and retreats, settling in, her back to the room. She is unusually compliant. I pause, taste the air, breathe in the dry, scratchy scent of hay. The room is as it always is, and yet, I hesitate. But only for a moment. There’s no time to waste.

I return to the farm and lead the billy goat and several of his companions into the room filled with straw. No one ever questions an old peasant herding goats, not even in the middle of the night. I set them to work, and they’ll gladly eat their fill.

It’s not like I can spin straw into gold. That’s ridiculous.

The keys to the kingdom jangle at my side—quite literally—including those that unlock the royal coffers. Rarely do I find them empty.

The greedier the king, the more gold he already has.

This king’s treasure room glows. I pick my way through a maze of coins and jewels, of gold buried beneath more gold, a vast amount to last a hundred lifetimes. I unearth the ancient treasures, the acquisitions long forgotten.

It takes all night to lug enough gold to replace the straw. It always does. By morning, I’m covered in the ancestral greed and grime of this current king. As recompense, before I leave, I slip enough coins into my overcoat pocket to see me through the inevitable wedding and birth of the first child.

Predictably, I receive the necklace for my second night’s efforts, and by the third night, I’m floating with relief. It was so easy this time. All I need to do is extract the promise of her first-born, fill the room with gold, and take a well-deserved rest before my final performance.

I bound into the room, but skid to a stop at her outstretched hand.

“You’re not needed here,” she says.

“But…” I survey the mountain of straw that towers over us—bale upon bale stacked precariously until I’m certain the entire mound will tip over and crush us both.

“If I spin this straw into gold, the king says he’ll marry me, and if I don’t, he will kill me.”

“He’ll keep his word,” At least, he always has—so far. “He’ll marry you.”

“I would marry a man who has thrice threaten to execute me simply because I cannot perform the impossible?”

She shakes her head so hard, her glossy black braid comes undone. Her hair tumbles free. On reflex, I clutch the hat closer to my scalp.

“No, I don’t wish to marry such a man, not even to save my life.” She leans forward as if to peer at me. I shrink further into my coat. “You’ve been more than kind, but your services are no longer needed.”

Stunned, I open my mouth, but no words come out. I grope in my pockets and offer up the ring and the necklace.

“Those are yours,” she says. “They belong to you.”

I try all night long, but she won’t budge. With the first rays of dawn, I leave the room, my eyes prickly and raw from hay and sorrow.

I attend the execution. I owe her that. Upon the scaffold, in the village square, the hangman is shrouded; she is not. Her black braid glows in the morning light, and she surveys the gathering crowd with what looks like pity rather than fear, her eyes sharp and alert.

She scans each newcomer. At first, I think she’s searching for her father. When her gaze touches mine, the miller’s daughter smiles, and I realize she’s been looking for me. My stomach clenches, and I can’t glance away.

The hangman places the noose around her neck.

With her gaze still locked on mine, the miller’s daughter winks.

The hangman releases the trap door. The crowd gasps.

But she doesn’t hang. Her neck doesn’t snap. Beneath her, the cobblestones shimmer. The rope unravels, and she slips through an all too familiar passageway.

I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does.

The village square erupts in chaos, crying and wailing and shouts of witchcraft. My heart pounds so hard it fills my throat. I am frozen in place, hollowed out.

I remain there long after the crowd disperses, and the guards dismantle the scaffold. I stay for so long that the bustle returns, and the stalls reopen. Warm spice and the scent of ale dull the edges of my earlier terror.

It’s only then I pull the hat from my head. My braid tumbles to my shoulder, glossy and black, a mirror image of the miller’s daughter. I stare up at the space where the scaffolding stood.

Did she know from the start?

I brush my foot against the cobblestone. If I stamp hard enough, will I, too, vanish, leave as she did, as I’ve always done in the past?

I decide not to try.

Instead, I pull the ring and necklace from my pocket.

Those are yours. They belong to you.

It’s been ages since I felt the weight of the chain around my neck, but I secure it now and slip on the ring.

I am the miller’s daughter. I cast a glance over my shoulder toward the tavern but decide not to bother with this world’s version of my father.

After all, I have a pocketful of coin. The possibilities of what that might buy loom large: a real meal, a real bed, a real home.

A life.

I turn toward the stall, the one with the funnel cakes sizzling in oil, and decide to start there.

Rumpelstiltskin is another one of those fairy tales that I think deserve a retelling (or two).

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Free Fiction Friday: The Troll in IT

Posey and Luke are back for a second adventure. Miss the first one? Head on over to Knight at the Royal Arms.

I lean across the guard desk as the glimmer settles in the lobby. The whisper of it raises hairs on the back of my neck. The guards’ faces relax in the muted glow.

All is quiet—except for some gentle snoring.

I stretch and switch off the cameras covering the loading dock and the ones in the stairwell. Then I catch a glimpse of myself at the guard desk. Yes, of course, it will be my face the police will scrutinize tomorrow morning.

Decorative plants cast shadows in the dim light, their leaves wavering in the breeze from the ventilation system. Chin lifted, I gauge the air. Now that the glimmer has fallen completely, I can taste the shadow creature that lives here. The space is full of that anticipation before a hunt and the promise of treasure at the end.

But is it a troll? I’m not convinced. I’m a damsel in distress, after all. I know trolls.

The sound of boots thudding pulls my attention to the large double doors that lead to the loading dock. One door creaks open as if the person on the other side doesn’t trust that I’ve cut the feed to the cameras.

Granted, all four of them are shadow trackers, like I am. The five of us together?

Well, we have trust issues.

In the center of the lobby, I stand, hands on hips. The rest of the team emerges with painfully slow steps. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. The glimmer only lasts for so long. We don’t have all night. Or rather, that’s all we have.

This office building houses not only a software company but also a law firm and a yoga studio on the mezzanine. The moment the sun crests the horizon, and the glimmer lifts, someone is bursting through the front doors. I don’t want to be around for that.

I tap a foot clad in a steel-toe boot and wait.

“All clear, Trombelle?” comes a voice from those double doors.

“Of course, it is.” My sigh echoes in the quiet of the lobby.

The leader of this little expedition is Parker Pankhurst. He’s a pain to deal with and has the bad habit of grabbing his share of the treasure and running. According to him, he’s turned over a new leaf. These days, he specializes in ridding places of malignant shadow creatures (trolls would be among those) for both a fee and any treasure found in their lair.

As business models go, it’s not a bad one.

“We don’t have to bring you along,” he says to me now.

That’s the thing. They do. Nothing happens without a damsel in distress to lure a shadow creature from its lair. True, we often end up bound, ankles and wrists, eyebrows singed. But if a creature has no reason to leave its lair, it won’t.

No unguarded lair? No treasure. It’s that simple.

Trust me, nothing’s venturing out for the likes of Parker Pankhurst.

“Stop being such a knave, Pankhurst.” A new voice joins the conversation, this of Luke Milner.

In truth, the criticism is a bit harsh. Parker Pankhurst is a knave; he can’t help his DNA the same way I can’t.

The same way Luke Milner, knight in shining armor, can’t.

It’s who we are and why we’re able to track the shadow creatures to begin with.

Pankhurst casts Luke a dour look before nodding to the stairwell. “Let’s go,” is all he says.

The IT department is on the third floor. Even so, I feel the climb in my thighs. I’m glad we’re not trekking all the way up to the executive suites. Although maybe we should. I’m still not convinced there’s a troll here.

On the other hand, a crafty sort of shadow creature—say, a dragon—would make its home on the top floor, where it would have a spectacular view, not to mention the run of the executive washrooms.

On the third floor, we emerge to a forest of cubicles. Pankhurst leads us through the rows, each turn taking us deeper into the maze. When we reach what looks like a collaboration area, he holds up a hand, and the rest of us halt.

“Here,” he says. “Here’s where we set the trap.”

Yes, and I’m the bait.

“Do you sense a troll?” I whisper to Luke. Maybe my instincts are off, and I’m simply not detecting it.

“Not at all,” he says.

“Then—?”

He shrugs. Luke is all angles and planes, chiseled good looks. Shrugging just makes him appear elegant.

“We should at least be able to smell it,” he adds.

“Trombelle, over here.” Pankhurst barks the order. Next to me, Luke bristles.

I comply since it puts me front and center, and I can make my case. Pankhurst takes me by the wrists and tugs me toward a whiteboard on wheels. He secures me to one of the supports before locking each wheel in place with a solid click.

“Do any of you smell a troll?” I say. “Because I don’t smell a troll.”

The other two in our party—a blacksmith and her apprentice—exchange glances.

“Trust me,” Pankhurst says. “It’s here.”

“We should be able to smell it,” I insist. “This place should reek.”

And reek so badly that even when the sunrise banishes the glimmer, the stench would linger. Just how badly? Take a pair of old sneakers, simmer them in dog pee, and toss in a couple of rotten eggs for good measure. Inhale deeply and multiply that by a thousand.

That’s a troll.

“I’ll level with you.” Pankhurst turns, addressing us all. “I got a tip from a reliable source. There’s a troll. It’s making its home back in the server rooms. That’s where the rest of us are headed.”

I’m less than reassured. Luke’s mouth is a grim line. The blacksmith blinks a couple of times, shakes her head, and then secures her long black hair into a ponytail. Her apprentice looks bedraggled. They could probably use their portion of the treasure.

“You okay with this, Posey?” Luke’s at my side, a hand on my bound wrists.

“I guess I have to be,” I say. “It’s what I do, right?”

He’s wearing a pink bandana tied around his upper arm, my token from our first outing together. Since then, we’ve partnered a couple of times. Typically, knights in shining armor are all too little, too late.

Not Luke. If anything, he’s too scrupulous.

“If things get … bad, I’ll double back and get you.”

I nod, and as much as I want to trust Luke, I’ve heard this promise from other knights far too many times before.

“But just in case.” He slips something cool and metallic into my hands and leaves me with a wink.

I’ll grant you that winking is in the knight in shining armor skill set. Still, I’m pretty sure Luke must practice endlessly in front of a mirror.

They head off, through the maze of cubicles. I wonder if rather than a troll, there’s a Minotaur hiding among all those twists and turns.

If so, we may all end up as a midnight snack.

* * *

Only when the scuffling of boots on carpet fades do I investigate the object in my hands. My thumbnail finds a metallic groove. There’s just enough give in the ropes around my wrists that I can spring open the pocketknife.

The barest hints of the workaday world hang in the air—burnt microwave popcorn and room-temperature lattes all mixed with starch and sweat. At least this isn’t my world. Sometimes it is better being a damsel in distress, the occasional singed eyebrows notwithstanding.

I get to work sawing my way through the rope. I don’t dare cut all the way through. The troll—or whatever shadow creature is here—will know. Never mind that they can’t tell steel-toed boots from dainty satin slippers or practical canvas pants from flowing gowns. They’ll know the second I’ve cut the last thread of rope.

And if they know, they won’t venture from their lair to investigate. Never mind no treasure, Luke and the others could end up as that midnight snack.

I can only imagine Parker Pankhurst’s wrath if I botch this hunt—and what it might do to my standing in the tracker community, and Luke’s as well. Not that I’d mention his part in this. Still, knaves have a way of finding things out.

So I saw at the rope and wait, saw and wait, holding my breath each time the knife slips in my fingers. When I notice the shift in the air, I can’t say. The glimmer glows brighter, enough to make the whiteboard shimmer behind me. A clattering comes from several rows away. It’s a light tap-tap-tap of a noise, almost joyful.

It’s certainly not the sound of a troll dragging its knuckles across industrial-grade carpet.

My heart kicks up a notch. I scan the workstations, but nothing looks out of place—just endless rows of chairs and monitors. There’s a rustling and then a decided chomp. All at once, something leaps from one cube to the next, clearing the five-foot-high wall with ease.

Then the creature—or whatever this thing is—bleats.

It sounds like it’s laughing, or more precisely, laughing at me.

This is no troll.

I don’t bother with the pocketknife. Instead, I yank my wrists apart and break the last threads of rope. I rub the tender, red marks around my wrists and consider my next move.

The bleating echoes down one of the many cubicle aisles.

I decide to follow.

* * *

The twists and turns are endless; truly, there can’t be so many employees in this company. I suspect a combination of the glimmer and the shadow creature itself. This is an illusion meant to throw me off its tracks.

I creep past cube after cube, taking each opening with caution because there’s always the chance that this creature is leading me into a trap.

In fact, I’d bet my share of the treasure that it is. Even so, I trail after it. Luke would advocate caution. I know he would. Again, blame my DNA. I’d rather run after a creature, get myself into a tight fix, take the chance that this time it won’t end in a damsel-in-distress grab and dash.

I reach the end of a row and halt. The space in front of me is so dark and vast that it resembles the opening of a cave.

The creature slips inside with a playful kick of its hind legs. There’s that clattering again, like the sound of something hard striking stone. Then nothing but a gentle thud, thud, thud.

I pause outside the entrance. Dark shapes loom from either side. The scent of burnt popcorn is stronger here, as is the aroma of charred coffee. Blinking lights come from one corner, and it’s then I know where I am.

It’s the kitchen break area for this floor, lit by the numbers on the microwave ovens.

The thump, thump, thump continues. The sound is headache-inducing. I wince and rub my temples.

The creature pauses in its relentless battering to let out a plaintive bleat.

Trap, I tell myself. This is just the sort of trap someone—or something—might set for a damsel in distress. But the crying is too real, the creature’s distress palpable.

I decide to take it by surprise. I leap into the kitchen area, pocketknife at the ready. I slap my free hand against the light switch and confront the creature.

There, by the garbage, a microwave popcorn bag in its mouth, is the world’s most adorable baby goat.

* * *

The baby goat drops the popcorn bag and lets out a tremendous bleat. I stash the pocketknife and then drop to my knees so we’re on the same level.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I say, my voice as soft as I can make it.

It stops bleating, but eyes me, the look in those strange, rectangular pupils wary and full of stranger danger.

“You know I’m not going to hurt you.”

It must, simply because, at the moment, my DNA is kicking in but hard. I want to give it a bath, tie a ribbon around its neck (although it would probably eat that), and give it lots of hugs and kisses. Or maybe pose it for some cute Instagram photos.

I’m a damsel in distress, after all.

It bleats again and bumps its head against the side of a cabinet.

“Do you need help?”

Now it jumps about, its little hooves clattering against the linoleum tile.

It has already amassed what amounts to a goatly treasure. The microwave popcorn bags, of course, but also a stack of paper to-go cups, a bag of Jolly Ranchers with only the grape ones left, and five greasy pizza boxes.

The cabinet it keeps bumping its head against?

The mother lode, also known as the kitchen garbage can.

The cabinet is one of those new models. The slightest pressure of your hand opens the door. As long as you press in the right spot—and not endlessly knock your head against its center.

I pull out first one and then another sack, both brimming with apple cores and grease-soaked paper towels. The plastic is translucent, and the baby goat dances with glee at the sight of Lean Cuisine packages and giant filters filled with soggy coffee grounds.

I knot the sacks so they won’t disgorge their contents all over the floor.

“Where to?” I ask the baby goat.

With a wag of its tail, it tippity-taps toward the entrance.

I swallow back a pang of guilt along with stale air and a hint of rancid butter. I’m not tricking it, not really. If there ever was a troll in IT, it’s long gone—as is its treasure.

Still, I’d like to know what this little fellow is up to.

Also? I really want to tie a bow around its neck.

* * *

We are deep in the bowels of the server room. My skin puckers from the chill, and my breath emerges in great clouds of fog. The baby goat leads the way, its hooves a light tapping on the elevated floor. I follow, the slosh and scrape of the garbage bags in my wake.

The glimmer is thicker here, like stardust. The air sparkles, but it’s a cold beauty. In all my years of tracking, I’ve never encountered a glimmer quite this strong.

A prickly sensation crawls up my spine. I glance over my shoulder, but if something’s spying on us, I can’t see it. I also can’t see my way back out of this forest of servers. It’s icy and dark, and the sort of spooky that makes me think of goblins, orcs, and especially trolls.

Not for the first time, I wonder who is playing the trick here.

If you were a goat and had a troll problem (as goats so often do), you might lure a damsel in distress into its lair as a way to appease it. Yes, this baby goat is adorable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a crafty little bastard.

And yes, I know. I didn’t just walk into this.

I volunteered.

Worse, I left Luke behind. He doesn’t know where I am. Then again, I have no idea where he and the rest of the group have gotten themselves to. The IT department isn’t as vast as all that, not normally anyway.

With the strength of this glimmer? That’s another matter. The glimmer can bend to a shadow creature’s will and create a world for it, one free of annoying trackers like Parker Pankhurst. There’s a good chance Luke, Pankhurst, and the others are wandering through the maze of cubicles no closer to the creature’s lair than when they first started.

The goat leads me around a final corner, and there, standing in the center of the space, a club raised in one meaty hand, stands a troll.

The garbage sacks slip from my grip and land with a splat on the floor. I choke back a scream on the off chance the troll hasn’t seen me yet. I’m about to dash back the way we came. There might be no end to the server room, but this particular spot is definitely a dead end.

I don’t move.

Neither does the troll.

We stand like that, both of us like stone until I realize that there’s a good chance one of us actually is stone.

The air is a bit ripe—all coffee grounds and barnyard—but not troll-level ripe. Nothing emerges from its mouth. No roar or howl or the truly strange obscenities trolls favor. I inch forward, the baby goat dancing about me, and swipe a finger along one bulging arm.

Stone—from its hairy toes all the way to its bald, wart-infested head.

“How did you do that?” I ask.

The goat springs and kicks its hind legs. It bleats what must be a tremendously funny story judging by the tone.

“So, there really was a troll in IT.”

“Indeed, there was.”

The voice freezes me in place. The baby goat halts its scampering and ducks its head as if it’s been caught skipping school.

A ponderous clacking sounds against the floor. The steps are serious, and I resist the urge to straighten my shirt and retie my bootlaces. From one of the rows of servers, a second goat emerges.

It’s wearing a pair of rimless glasses and a black turtleneck sweater. The goat gives me a brief once over before taking a knee and inclining its head.

“William Gruff the Third, at your service,” he says.

I bob a curtsey. “Posey Trombelle.”

“Posey?”

“Short for Poinsettia. I was—”

“A Christmas baby, no doubt.”

I raise an eyebrow. Usually, I have to explain my name. This is one clever goat.

William Gruff turns a disapproving eye on the baby goat at my side. “And you led her here?”

The baby goat bleats and stamps its hooves. Then it scampers around the overflowing sacks of garbage, both bags threatening to burst.

“It seems,” William Gruff says, turning back to me, “that in all our precautions, we overlooked damsels in distress.”

“Everybody always does.”

It’s all sorry about the goblins or what do you mean, you didn’t get your cut of the treasure.

“Now that you’re here, why don’t I show you around?” William Gruff nods toward a room shrouded by a glimmer so thick it looks like a curtain of golden beads.

Without recourse, I heft the garbage sacks and follow both goats inside.

* * *

“Here’s where the magic happens,” William Gruff announces.

And yes, he means that quite literally.

The space hums, not so much with industry, but the activity of a single goat working on a desktop computer. I’m not sure how, exactly, its hooves hit all the right keys, or any keys for that matter. Again, magic.

The baby goat bites open one of the garbage sacks and scurries to bring its compatriot a series of treats: an oily bag of microwave popcorn, the Jolly Ranchers, and a dripping filter filled with coffee grounds.

William Gruff chews a to-go cup contemplatively. “We need to keep our programmer happy after all.”

I count the goats once, twice, and a third time. Yes. There are only three of them. Of course there are. And they’re doing what, exactly?

“Are you running a … startup?”

William Gruff plucks a business card from nowhere and shoves it along the floor with a hoof.

Gruff Cyber Security
Industry Leader in Eradicating Trolls

Because of course they are.

Again, I peer at William Gruff, at the turtleneck, the glasses, the distinct tuft on his chin that could best be described as Jobsian.

“How—?” I begin.

“You’ve met our angel investor, I believe.”

The troll in IT. I can’t help it. I laugh. The baby goat bleats its approval. Even the second goat lifts its head in acknowledgment.

Then all hell breaks loose.

* * *

The claxon is zombie-movie loud and obnoxious. The glimmer around us shudders. William Gruff charges forward and crashes into me.

“Who did you lead in here?” he demands. “Who? Who? Is it Pankhurst?”

“Pankhurst?” I stumble backward under the onslaught. “Oh, no.”

William Gruff pauses, but I suspect that’s only to gather steam for another attack. “Yes or no? Is it Pankhurst?”

“Yes, it’s Pankhurst.” I raise my hands, hoping to ward off another jab from those mean-looking horns. “But I didn’t bring him here, not on purpose.”

But maybe he used me. Oh, no maybe about it. I’m the overlooked precaution, after all. And Parker Pankhurst—that knave—knew that all along.

“Didn’t you?” William Gruff swipes one hoof and then the other across the floor, gearing up for a colossal attack.

“He tied me up and left me for troll bait.” I hold out my hands and point to the faint red marks around each wrist.

William Gruff turns to the baby goat. “Is that true?”

The baby goat scampers about, bleating and stamping hooves in what sounds like a drawn-out explanation. Then it comes to stand by me. Oh, I love it so much. When this is over, I plan to bathe it, brush out its hair, and dress it in little outfits—with its consent, of course.

Pankhurst bursts through the glimmer. “Get them! Get all of them.” He whirls and points at me. “Get her! She’s conspiring with them.”

The blacksmith leaps onto a desk, but stops when her gaze lands first on the goat and then on me. Luke skids to a halt. The apprentice, wisely, chooses to hang back.

“Posey?” Luke’s brow clouds with confusion and what might be hurt. “What are you doing here?”

“There’s no troll, not anymore. There’s no treasure.” I want to explain about the startup and cyber security, but I can’t put it into words because I don’t have the whole story.

“They stole my treasure.” Pankhurst jabs a finger at William Gruff.

“You left us for dead.” William Gruff takes a ponderous step forward. “You tethered this little one in a conference room, left him with no chance of escape. We were nothing but bait to you.”

Pankhurst’s entire face turns red. “You lie.”

“And then you ran.” William Gruff looks serene, but there’s a terrible glint in those rectangular pupils. “We cleaned up your mess. We reaped the rewards.”

“You’d believe them.” Pankhurst gestures, a dismissive flick of his wrist toward the goats. “Over a human.”

No one speaks. The glimmer vibrates a warning. Daybreak is imminent. We’re all in trouble if we’re still here when the sun rises.

I glance down at the little goat at my feet. Its expression is both soulful and hopeful.

“Yes,” I say. “I would.”

Parker Pankhurst whirls then and charges not at William Gruff, but at me.

The baby goat leaps, one of those feats that can take him over those five-foot-high cubicle walls. But he’s so tiny and no match for the combined muscle and beer-gut girth of Parker Pankhurst.

Frantic, I race forward. I’m not fast enough; I’m not strong enough. The second before the collision, the baby goat is plucked from the air and cradled in the capable arms of Luke Milner, knight in shining armor.

He tucks, rolls, and deposits the baby goat safely beneath a desk. He springs to his feet, ready to take all comers. Instead of charging again, Parker Pankhurst shrugs, palms skywards, and shoots us all a slimy smile.

Then the bastard turns and runs.

It’s then I notice the blacksmith and her apprentice have already vanished. It’s then I notice the glimmer fading into nothing. The sun must be up, and that means we have no way out.

“Hurry, both of you.”

The order comes from William Gruff. The baby goat darts from beneath the desk and butts the back of my legs, urging me farther into their room. With a solid kick of a hind leg, it shuts the door.

“Spend the day with us,” William Gruff says.

“But—” I scan the room. I can’t see the glimmer, but it whispers against the back of my neck, caresses my cheeks in a ghostly kiss. “How—?”

Luke looks as perplexed as I feel. He reaches out a hand as if he might touch the glimmer that isn’t actually there.

“You’ve heard of artificial intelligence, haven’t you?” William Gruff says.

“Of course,” I say, “but this isn’t—”

“Possible?” He forages around in a garbage sack and plucks out another to-go cup. He gives it three thoughtful chews. “Are you certain?”

A computer-generated glimmer? Really? No wonder Parker Pankhurst was so interested. Access to the glimmer, day or night? You could do anything with that.

Like launch your own tech startup.

“So this room.” I turn in a slow circle, taking it all in. “It’s protected by the glimmer.”

William Gruff gives a nod.

“And we’re safe?”

“As long as you don’t stray from here. Once the sun sets and the glimmer returns to the rest of the building, you may leave. I’ll grant you safe passage through the server room.”

“My face is all over the security footage,” I say.

William Gruff nods at the second goat, who clatters the keyboard with its hooves. “Not anymore, it isn’t.”

Luke and I exchange glances. He gives me another of those elegant little shrugs. I pluck at the bandana tied to his arm.

“Mind if I borrow this?”

He gives me a tired smile. I don’t know if that’s from this long night or me in general. I suspect the latter.

“Not at all,” he says, and that smile turns indulgent.

I tug the bandana free and, in a matter of minutes, have it fashioned into the cutest bow. I hold it out for the baby goat’s approval. He doesn’t eat it, which is good enough for me.

From the depths of my cargo pants, I pull out my phone and hand it to Luke.

“Take our picture?”

* * *

When you’re a shadow tracker, most nights end without any treasure. This isn’t one of those nights—or days, as the case may be. Both Luke and I leave with shares in Gruff Cyber Security.

I join the yoga studio. Since goat yoga is a thing, no one questions me when I show up with an actual baby goat.

My #goatsofinstagram posts keep racking up views, and I have hundreds of new followers.

Sure, somewhere out there, Parker Pankhurst has a poisoned arrow with my name on it.

But I have something he doesn’t.

A knight in shining armor and three devoted attack goats.

The Troll in IT is another exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: Fire and Ivy

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?

Perhaps.

After surveying the charred remains of the winter wheat?

Definitely.

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.

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