She could swear.
Maggie Holt had made the deal. Maggie Holt was bound to it.
Maggie isn’t my name anymore.
The cold was a bit more bitter than it should have been. Wind that had barely caught her notice earlier was now making her stumble.
The clumsiness had nothing at all to do with the tears that insisted on sitting at the corner of each eye, not large enough to come free with a blink, yet re-emerging if she scrubbed one away with her hand. She set her jaw, clenched her fists, and marched.
Jacob’s Bell was easy to navigate. There were three major roads, Harcourt running from North to South, dividing the city in half, while the other two ran from West to East. Sydenham ran parallel to the highway, curving only to avoid the marshland near Hillsglade House, while King George ran through downtown.
While the smaller stores and restaurants sat on King George, deep within Jacob’s Bell’s downtown area, essential institutions like the hospital and the school sat up on or near Sydenham. One such building served double duty as a train station and bus station, and could be referred to as one, the other, or simply ‘the station’, depending on need or preference. While the train’s horn could be heard a half-dozen times a day, it only stopped twice in a given day. The buses were more frequent.
Padriac, she was almost positive, didn’t have a car. It wasn’t like a Faerie to grub under the hood and keep the thing running, it was even less like a Faerie to take a car into a shop for general maintenance, forking over hundreds of dollars or wasting the time to get around the repairs. Besides, being an exile meant Padraic couldn’t go anywhere.
If he was heading to Toronto, and he wasn’t using her parents to get a ride, there were really only three options. Bus, train, or walk.
Walking would take too long.
Only one destination made sense. The station. The train schedule had been timed to allow for commuting to and from Toronto, arguably the minor tweak that had enabled Jacob’s Bell to start growing, prompting this war over the Lordship, but the returning train would be gone, this late in the evening. Only the latest bus to Toronto would get him out of here in any reasonable span of time.
“Padraic,” she said. “Or Maggie Holt, if you insist on using that name, you pricklet. Fucker. Where the dog-diddling fuck are you?”
As if by answer, she heard a scuffling noise behind her.
A shadow moved in the darkness, dodging out of sight, as if barely staying out of her field of vision. That would be design more than it was luck.
The wind wasn’t even blowing her way, but she still scented the faintest whiff of something rancid. Not even the good kind of rancid, where it started off savory and went bad. This was the kind of smell that started off as something offputting and went worse. Like… ball sweat or that black mucky crap she’d once horked up after a really bad sinus problem, a few years back. All wrapped up in a bouquet as though said foul-smelling object had spent far too long dwelling amid bathroom smells and warm garbage.
Or, to put it in simpler terms, it’s a bad smell that’s finding me despite the wind direction.
“Hey, goblin,” she said. “It would not be in your best interests to mess with me tonight. I’ve got places to be and Faerie to-”
A loud bang made her spin in place. The ice tried to catch her foot as she moved it, but she caught a crusty bit of snowbank with her hand, instead. Soaking her hand with bits of ice and snow to keep from falling over… hard to say it was good, but it was better.
Hissing cut through the quiet as a car across the street resettled at a slight angle. one back tire thoroughly deflated.
Her heart pounded. The noise had been large enough for her to feel it, like a surprise attack.
Goblins were always easier to deal with when she had the advantage of the first move. She really only had two experiences to date, in dealing with goblins without that advantage. One where she’d fucked up, a clever little bastard of a goblin had slipped out of her trap, only to come after her with a vengeance. It had been cunning more than it was capable, being no bigger than a bar of soap, possessed of more animal instinct than actual wit, but that hadn’t been a fun week.
The other instance had been the first instance. Her hometown. Her home, she still thought of it sometimes. Even if she’d left it behind, unsalvageable, thoroughly ruined.
Being able to swear wasn’t nearly as fun or relieving as she might have hoped, considering the cost.
Even though she wasn’t entirely sure what the full cost would be, the cost was too high.
She had to get there before the bus left.
The one eye that appeared beneath the car with the popped tire was a yellow slit, just barely catching the light. It was wide, focusing on her, then narrowed, as if the face was contorting with emotion.
The wind blew with enough force to make flecks of snow break loose from snowbanks, and the glimmer of light from the eye joined the flecks of snow in drifting away. It was gone, slipping away by some angle she couldn’t track.
She picked up her pace, moving as fast as she could without risking falling.
Another shape to her right, lower to the ground, moving on all fours for more speed and stealth. This one had lanky hair and tiny sagging tits on a scrawny frame, a scrap of bright colored cloth clutched in hands too small for its body. The overlarge claws on its feet were long and strong enough to scratch through the snow and catch on pavement, as the goblin dove into the snow that covered the expanse of lawn in front of an old house. There was a cloying smell like blood and black licorice.
The girl in the checkered scarf felt an ugly feeling stirring in her gut.
She recognized that one. Appearance and smell both.
Without slowing, she spoke loud enough for each of the goblins to hear, “What’s up?”
She was glad her voice hadn’t betrayed her nervousness. She couldn’t even clear her throat without the possibility that one of the goblins would hear it.
“You told us the game,” a voice sounded, from higher up. There, a tree not far away, further up the road. The voice was high, with a ragged edge, like it belonged to some rejected chain-smoking muppet.
It wasn’t a voice that would belong to the goblin she’d seen beneath the car, nor the one in the snow.
That makes three.
“Let’s go over the rules one more time, or are you so stupid you’ve forgotten already?”
“Fuck yourself bloody,” the words were spat, virtually a growl by the time the final word was spoken.
She couldn’t see the source of the voice, but she saw branches bob as the goblin in question leaped off. Ice broke away and fell in jagged clumps, disappearing into softer snow below. Snow fell from the edge of one garage, knocked loose. Then, one half-story up, more from the roof of the house.
She wanted to run now, but she’d already picked her pace. Showing fear would be a mistake.
The only option was to keep moving forward.
The sound of her feet crunching in the snow was joined by the sound of something dragging behind her.
One was across the street to her left, if it hadn’t circled around, the tire-popper. The female one would be in the midst of the snowbanks to the right, another atop the houses and garages, staying ahead, ready to trip her up if she tried to make a break for it.
And one behind her made four.
Every afternoon since Molly Walker had died, without fail, she’d made one trip to talk to the girl’s ghost. The idea was to confess, to tell stories about stupid day to day stuff, to lay herself bare. Every day, she’d made a point of reminding herself of what she’d done. What she’d helped bring to pass.
In the process, she’d reminded herself of what goblins were capable of. That wasn’t wholly unintentional. It meant she wouldn’t let herself forget about home, about Molly. About these creatures she was dealing with every single day.
It meant, unfortunately, that the memories weren’t easy to shake. The knowledge of just what the goblins had done to Molly Walker.
The scraping, dragging noise made her think of tools. Corkscrews, spoons, doorknobs taken apart into their constituent pieces. Strips of wire that had been cut free from older chain-link fences, coarse enough with age to saw, flexible enough to wind around a body part and cut off circulation.
Was this divine retribution? She wasn’t one to believe in god. Less so since learning about the existence of gods, odd as that might be.
But the god-bothered were pretty good at the whole guilt schtick. That whole eye-for-an-eye deal.
Her fingernails very nearly dug crimson crescents into the skin of her palms. The only thing that stopped her from puncturing the skin was the knowledge that the goblins would smell the blood.
Being surrounded meant that no matter which way the wind blew, she could smell some trace of them. Sometimes it was faint, sometimes it was almost a slap in the face. The wind was blowing in her face, which slowed her down and made her scarf whip behind her. The cold gust threatened to make her eyes tear up, so she squinted.
Squinting meant she didn’t have quite as good a view of the ground in front of her. One hump of snow caught the underside of her foot mid-stride. She stumbled a little.
There. Fermented testicle sweat, fecal matter and hot garbage, right in her face, in the moment she looked down to catch her balance.
The wind direction and smell combined-
Yes. Buttsack stood in the middle of the sidewalk. He looked like a cross between the worst features of a small child and a very old man, simultaneously lumpy, misproportioned, hairy, wrinkly, gnarled beneath his too-loose skin.
He was bigger than most of the local goblins, tougher. He didn’t shiver, despite the cold, even though he had only coarse body hair, a pair of shorts that reached his ankles, a pair of panties on his head, scrunching up loose flesh around the elastic. A scrap of paper in his hand, fluttering in the wind.
His face was bulldoggish, his one visible eye a yellow slit, brimming with simmering emotion.
For all the drama he’d displayed on their first meeting, where she’d caught him with the chain, Buttsack’s face didn’t twitch. He stared at her with a degree of emotion that she couldn’t even identify.
She’d never really seen someone’s expression distill hate before. Not real hate. Not like this.
It unsettled, seeing him like this. Even with a pair of underpants pulled tight over his head, the crotch covering one eye.
Her underpants, as it happened.
As if he’d noticed her noticing, he used his one free hand and reached up to grabbed one side of the undergarments. He pulled them down further, as if giving himself a reverse wedgie, his asshole of a face contorted into something uglier in the process.
The front of the fabric bulged as his tongue traced a line down the front, slow, from top to bottom, then back again.
When he let go, the elastic snapped back into place with a force that made her flinch just a bit.
“Do you really want to go for a round two, Buttsack?” she asked. “I seem to recall you begging and pleading. Shall I tell the others here just how you sounded?”
“Paper,” Buttsack said.
He let go. The wind carried the paper to her, too low to the ground.
He wanted her to reach for it. She could either let it go or she could risk falling, or failing.
Simply failing here could be disastrous. If they were dogs surrounding her, one moment of weakness could be like a snap of the fingers or an order, bidding them to close the distance and take her to pieces.
She reached with her foot instead, with no time to even make sure if her other foot had any traction.
The paper was caught between her foot and the ground.
She bent at the knees to collect it, and saw the shadow of the goblin with the sack behind her. Squat, neckless, bug-eyed.
She recognized it as one of the ones she’d directed at Molly Walker.
Unnerved, her hands shook as she unfolded the paper. Two papers, as it turned out, folded twice over so they formed a neat square, kept tidy with a simple paperclip. Buttsack’s greasy fingerprints marred the outside.
The writing was florid, complete with a stylized capital letter starting each paragraph. It was easy enough to read in the clear moonlight.
How odd, I don’t believe I’m certain who I should name in the salutations. I trust that if it’s found its way to your hands, the letter is intended for you.
Don’t stop your reading once you’ve begun it. I did make these foul little beings promise to deliver the letter and refrain from interfering until the reading was finished one way or another. It’s part of the terms for a game I’ve set up, you see. But I shouldn’t digress. Everything in time, for niceties’ sake and for dramatic effect.
The boxes stacked in the bedroom said ‘Maggie Holt’ on them, so I went on to assume it’s my room. A brief word with the two gay gentlemen who own the house helped clarify the matter, with both assuring me that the room was mine and it was mine for keeps. I thought I would make sure that my room was properly aired out before I made any return. That isn’t to say that I’m planning on coming back any time soon, or that the bindings didn’t look sufficient to keep the smell contained, but I like to be sure. I’ve had words with the other occupant of the room and I’ll be shooing him off as soon as I’ve finished this letter, handed it to him with further instructions and gone on my own merry way.
I realize I’ve left you in dire circumstances. As I said, no hard feelings are intended. In the interest of fairness, I’m thinking I might flip a coin. Heads, I’ll come back before you’re completely gone, to give you a sporting chance. Tails, I’ll wait long enough. Yes? No?
I have heard the Fair Folk do like their lopsided deals, which is surely in the realm of your imagination, so you might naturally conclude that I have spent the last two centuries or so practicing the flipping of coins in such a way that I almost always get the result I want. No, I suppose a coin flip doesn’t count for much in the spirit of things. Let me think, let me think.
What if I were to say I will return to Jacob’s Bell, albeit with no warning, and promised that if I did, and you were still present in some capacity, I would present myself to you for a conversation? Of course, it would be ever so tragic if I were to arrive when you were out of town. I’d say it was inevitable, even, that the one time I returned, it would be while you were away.
I think, in the end, that I will ignore small graces and give you a gift instead. Two, hints as a matter of fact, in this very letter, about how you might escape the predicament with the goblins. Taking and using the hints would mean you couldn’t meet me before I departed, which might leave you feeling chagrined. I do suppose you could follow me soon after. But wait! Leaving the town would mean you weren’t around in case the goblins came after your fathers. How tragic a thing is that? It seems you just can’t win!
I seem to be going on and on. I’m just so very excited! You might even say I’m as giddy as a schoolgirl! Ha ha!
I did claim a set of gremlins bound in papers as I passed through the bedroom. The others were unusable. I’m not quite a practitioner, you see, and certain deals and powers afforded to mortals aren’t for my like to claim. Certain tricks, yes, but there are rules to be observed. Give me time to get more settled into this skin, and that may change.
Buttsack watched as she turned to the next page, her face blank.
In the meantime, Maggie Holt has formally relinquished all goblin bondage and bindings. Any promises that goblins made to remain hands-off or leave certain individuals alone are now undone, the goblins freed. Two goblins were bound in or near the Holt household, and I was sure to pass on instructions for our little game. They’ll be gathering their fellows, I imagine, before they bid you hello and celebrating their liberation.
On to this game I mentioned. I had to be clever with my wording, but goblins are stupid little things, by and large. I had to offer something to ensure they would give you distance while you read, so I simply distributed the clothes in Maggie Holt’s dresser and laundry hamper to the goblins as a means of guiding them to their target. They’re to find their fellows and spread the word and scraps of clothing. They’ll be able to find the person who wore those clothes, by scent or the ties that bind. They were a little muddled by the fact that different parts of the same threads pointed in two different directions, but they do tend to be stupid little creatures, don’t they?
They’ll be after both of us, it seems. Not to worry! I suspect I’m rather more elusive than you are, and the threads will largely lose their tie to me once I’ve left. In short, you need not concern yourself with my welfare. As for you, dear girl, rest assured, the prize we agreed on for winning this little game here is limited only to bragging rights. I’m hardly a barbarian or blackguard in this.
As to the nature of the game itself, it is exceedingly simple. If their quarry is able to walk, hold pen or parcel, speak or see by sunrise, the goblins lose. If none of those things are possible, bragging rights abound for these little pests and buggers!
How interesting, don’t you think? I know the goblins seemed eager, and I wouldn’t have you getting bored in my absence. Rest assured, I didn’t want you to feel like it’s a priority to see me before I take my leave from this little town.
I do believe you are at the door downstairs, and I do believe there are a small few of Maggie Holt’s goblins that must be personally sprung from their more secure confinement before I catch my train. I’ll cut myself off here.
I must be away! I leave it to you to decide whether to curse me for the length of this thing or to forgive me for the brevity of it. I do know the reading of it postpones the contest.
“He signed the name with a heart over the ‘i’,” she commented, staring at the page. “What the hell is wrong with him?”
“Doesn’t matter,” a voice whispered from her right. Not one she’d heard before. “You’re done reading, and-”
“It matters,” she said.
She wanted to continue speaking, but she went too fast, and her voice caught. Three or four thoughts were snapping together all at once. The hints. Stated twice.
In the search for the hints, she found the answer.
Her hand trembled enough to make the page shake.
“Yeah?” Buttsack asked.
“Yeah,” she managed. “That goblin is wrong, he’s lying, because this does matter, and I’m not done reading. I’m commenting on the reading.”
“Commenting?” Buttsack asked.
She turned back to the first page, and she started reading again. “There’s a lot to read in the midst of this. Details to be picked out, clues that might inform…” she stumbled, trying to scan the page and speak at the same time, “…inform my strategies against him. For example, I can read each sentence here and try to divine if he was lying, if I can call him forsworn.”
“Who’s him?” the high, ragged voice asked.
Right here, this was the trick.
She took a step forward, eyes still on the page. She could tell that Buttsack hadn’t moved out of her way. “You promised not to interfere with the reading.”
“You’re walking, not reading,” Buttsack growled.
“I’m doing both. Will you move out of my way or will you be forsworn?”
He didn’t respond.
She kept walking, even though the position of the page blocked her view of the goblin. The smell of him was thick in the cold air.
If she happened to trip over him, there might even be a solution in that. The question was, how fast could she name him forsworn, demand he obey her and sic him on the other, smaller goblins?
Was it faster than another goblin would reflexively respond to her weakness and attack her?
Her hands were cold, and the edges of the paper crumpled a bit as her grip grew tighter. If she lost hold of the page, she was dead.
She walked past the spot where he stood. He’d shifted position, perching atop a snowbank, where the snowplow had driven the snow high.
“Hey Scuzz,” Buttsack said.
“This isn’t going to work. She’s going to walk to sanctuary.”
“Maybe a cloud will pass over the moon?”
“Useless fuckspittle. We can do better than maybes.”
She continued walking. Her eyes scanning the words. Continued dragging sounds told her that the goblin with the tools was following behind her. Slow but steady, matching her pace.
“Arsedrip!” Buttsack shouted, loud enough to startle her. “Up there, go!”
“Which, the sigh-”
“Don’t say it, you pustule! You’ll clue her in! Both!”
They were plotting.
“Go,” Buttsack ordered. “Figure it out or I will fucking eat your genitals raw and regurgitate them into birdy mouths and-”
“You’ll feed the birds to cats and the cats to dogs and so on, until my genitals are shit nine times over,” Arsedrip said, “Am I on the right track?”
Keep reading, don’t get distracted. He grabbed my gremlins. The fucker…
“If you get it, you better go!”
Arsedrip ran past her, forward, further up the street.
“Cumnugget, you- yeah, just like that! Nice and thick! You aren’t completely retarded!”
She couldn’t read and run at the same time. If she tried and failed, then one of the goblins could call her on it, and this would go from bad to worse.
Just as ‘Maggie’ had said, she couldn’t give chase now.
No, she wouldn’t call him that. Padraic was still his name, and thinking or speaking the name would maybe help hammer at the trickery and put cracks in it.
Couldn’t hurt, and she wasn’t quite willing to forfeit her old name in that sense, either.
Padraic had arranged this. He had putting her in a situation where she couldn’t chase him. Where she was sufficiently distracted, pinned down in Jacob’s Bell, unable to leave out of concern that he would return, or that her fathers would fall prey to the goblins.
They weren’t quite innocent of Other things, but they did have protections.
She had to wonder if it was enough.
A distant crash and the sound of metal creaking marked goblin activity a block away.
She forced herself to return to the reading. Her eyes fell on the line, ‘It seems you just can’t win.’
She reached an intersection. Buttsack’s yellow eyes were on her, dancing in her peripheral vision as she strained to see the crosswalk sign without taking her eye off the page.
No crosswalk sign.
A shadow moved. A goblin was perched on the crosswalk light, blocking her from seeing the ‘walk’ or ‘don’t walk’ signs opposite her.
The same was true on her left hand side.
She couldn’t see the light either. She knew goblins could produce opaque bodily fluids in great quantities. Shit, vomit… They could break glass.
If she just looked up, she would see the light peeking through the smears or past the goblins.
She kept her eye on the page, and she took a leap of faith, stepping out onto the street, her attention on cars and their headlights instead. Traffic was light in this town, with as much traffic on the main roads as there was traffic on side roads in other cities. There was one car two blocks over. Too far away to be a problem.
Except it didn’t stop at the one intersection. The sigh? The sign. The goblins had taken down a stop sign, or enchanted it, or both.
She paused in the middle of the street as the car skidded to a stop. The driver hadn’t seen her, and the hard packed snow wasn’t so different from ice. Wheels skidded, and the rear end of the car wavered, fishtailing slightly.
The car stopped at the intersection with the blacked-out lights, nose jutting through the passenger crossing. If she hadn’t stopped, it would have knocked her over, maybe broken her legs.
She walked around the nose of the car, reading. The goblins were chattering, setting up the next bout of interference.
“Can’t stop her reading, but we can make someone else stop the little bitch from walking. Good enough. Um, um. Hey, Cumnugget! Get over here! Even half a brain can help brainstorm!”
Celebrating their liberation…
Where the hell was she supposed to go? She had no home to go to.
No friends, not really.
The closest things she had to friends were Blake, who wasn’t even here…
Padraic came to mind, which would be a laugh if it wasn’t so fucking tragically sad.
Who else did she have a connection to?
Molly’s ghost? Did the mute, unresponsive creature even count as a friend?
That thought led to another. There was a protective circle around Molly’s shrine.
But what happened after that? She’d die all the same if she stayed out in the cold all night, standing there.
No. What other options were available?
She couldn’t say yes, not in good conscience, not so soon after thinking of the ghost as something resembling a friendly face.
Not with everything else the ghost represented.
“Wait, wait,” Cumnugget said. “Why can’t I attack her? I didn’t swear nothing.”
“You swore implicitly,” Buttsack said. “You took the clothing we used to find her, after hearing the terms of this game.”
“What if we get some jerkbutt that didn’t swear nothing?” Cumnugget asked. “Who isn’t playing the game?”
She felt a chill.
“That’s interfering,” Buttsack said. “Isn’t it?”
“What if- what if I just happen to walk by some place near here where some horny suckerbutts hang out, on my way to scout the way, and they just happen to follow me back? I’m not doing nothing ‘cept walking.”
“I think it sounds like you need to go for a walk, doesn’t it?” Buttsack said.
“Think it does.”
Her eye found the line, ‘they do tend to be stupid little creatures, don’t they?’
Where was she going?
There weren’t many options remaining. She turned left.
Harcourt ran North to South, dividing the left half of the city from right. Half the streets in the city transitioning from ‘Street Name West’ to ‘Street Name East’ as they passed the dividing road, or the other way around, depending on the direction in question.
The houses in Jacob’s Bell ranged from ‘shitty and dilapidated’ to ‘used to be really nice and are currently alright’, and Danvers Avenue West was one of the areas which tended to the latter. Houses here were old houses, dating back as much as a hundred years, suffering from less than perfect maintenance and all the vagaries that old buildings were prone to.
She didn’t know the streets exactly, but she was fairly certain she was in the right area. These houses had more presence, being larger. They loomed shadowy and grim like tombstones dwelling at the edge of her vision.
Her eye tracked the page, barely taking in the words, even as her mind turned over her options.
She didn’t know exactly where she was going. If she spoke in an attempt to find a connection to follow, this fat wrinkled goblin that followed her might accuse her of being finished.
Each footstep was careful. Her feet and hands were cold and numbness was seeping in. It might have been the cold, true. Still, there was a connection of sorts between that chill and the quiet horror that had seeped into her the moment she’d lost her name, yet to leave her.
Buttsack moved suddenly, waving.
Cumnugget was here with the other goblins in tow.
The girl in the checkered scarf ran, the reading abandoned.
Her focus was warped, after so much attention given to the page a matter of feet from her face. The world appeared distorted, darker in contrast to the paleness of the page under the strong moonlight.
The houses all looked the same.
She could have kept running, maybe continued down the block for another minute or two, but the house to her right had a wrought metal railing.
She grabbed the railing, using it to arrest her forward momentum, turning to face her assailants.
Buttsack moved faster than he should have, given his bulk. A trick, maybe. Something.
Teeth found her shin, hard against bone, and teeth found her calf. Nothing hard there.
She fell backward, and she twisted over, falling on her back.
The pages fluttered free of her hand as she reached out to try and grab at his eyes. Too far down, the narrow eyes too recessed.
Buttsack grabbed at her leg, trying to find a grip. He was heavy, large. Bigger than he should have been. But in that scrabble for a grip, he gave her one chance.
She didn’t kick so much as she levered him back, like one might balance a baby on their shins, holding the infant’s hands.
She didn’t hold Buttsack’s hands. The wound in her leg screamed at her as she half-twisted, driving him into the railing.
Something hard in the goblin met the hardness of the railing. Metal sang its sweet song.
She reached into her pocket and found her keys, saw the goblin’s bulldoggy face, and realized there wasn’t a weak point to strike at, then thought twice about it.
Precious seconds disappeared as she used the railing to find her feet. Buttsack recovered just as quickly.
Other goblins closed the distance.
One, squirrel-sized, pounced onto her shoulder, a fork in each hand.
Small as he was, he was strong enough to drive the tines into the edge of her chin and through her jacket, into her shoulder.
She shrieked in pain and grabbed him, tearing him away, and jammed him through a twist in the railing, then wrenched him, so the inflexible metal twisted him the wrong way. Back or neck broken, easily.
She pulled one fork free of her shoulder. The one that had scraped her chin had fallen free and disappeared amid snow.
Half the tines had been broken off, giving it more penetrative power.
She held it out, threatening, her wounded leg nearly buckling as she put weight on it.
The goblins approached.
Half had scraps of her clothing. They wore them as trophies or clothing, or had desecrated the items with filth, or largely destroyed them.
If Padraic had been done this to make her feel more violated, it worked.
They weren’t approaching any further.
A sneak attack?
A hand settled on her shoulder.
The girl in the checkered scarf looked up at Sandra Duchamp.
Her relief was powerful enough to wipe out the brief surge of strength adrenaline had given her. Her leg did buckle.
Sandra helped keep her from falling, two hands catching her around the middle to prevent both knees from cracking against frozen-over sidewalk.
“Sanctuary,” the girl in the checkered scarf said, her voice low, eyes on the ground. She was close enough to kneeling for it to count.
“She’s our quarry,” Buttsack growled.
“I could ask for concessions,” Sandra said. “Blake Thorburn-”
“Shh,” Sandra cut her off, the sound surprisingly sharp. “I could, but I won’t.”
“Because you’re leaving her for us?” one goblin asked.
“No,” Sandra said. “I’ll grant sanctuary to this stupid little girl. You goblins will either disappear promptly or you’ll become troll food.”
Her weasely familiar unwound itself from around her neck, darting along one arm, stepping on the kneeling girl’s back-
“Oof,” the girl in the checkered scarf grunted.
The familiar hopped down to the ground, and the resulting sound resembled a falling sack of potatoes more than a large rodent dropping to the ground.
“I’ll be looking for you,” Buttsack said.
That was answer enough.
The goblins disappeared.
For long moments, the scene was still. Sandra bent down and collected her familiar from the ground before helping her supplicant stand.
“I don’t have to swear anything?” the girl asked, wavering on her feet.
“No,” Sandra said.
The girl nodded slowly. “I… I didn’t know where to go. I thought about asking Laird, but-”
“Laird is gone.”
“Then it’s an extra good thing I didn’t go to his place. Ow, frick- fuck, hurts. Would’ve died.”
Sandra put one hand on the girl’s chin and used the leverage to turn the girl’s head, peering at the wound at the corner of her chin. “Oh my. What did you do to yourself?”
“I got forked.”
“Not what I was talking about, but yes, we’ll need to clean that promptly. Goblins like to taint their weapons. We’ll hope it’s only feces.”
The statement only got a weary nod by way of response.
“Rest your weight on me. My house isn’t far. Just over there. The smaller house.”
They limped on for several seconds, spending more time working out a rhythm and figuring out how to progress than they did covering any ground.
“You know who I am?”
“I can put the pieces together.”
“Oh. Well yeah. Doesn’t look pretty, does it?”
“When I was teaching my nieces to drive, I told them they won’t learn proper respect for the road until they had an accident of some sort. Maybe that’s silly, but I think the notion applies to the practice, too.”
“‘Accident’ sounds like it’s too mild for this degree of fuck up. Oh god, ow, shit, my leg hurts.”
Sandra offered a look of surprise. “I didn’t think you could swear.”
“I can now. Silver fucking linings.”
“I’d strongly suggest you keep to old deals and promises. Negative or not, you’ll want to hold on to what you can. You’re coming apart at the seams.”
They made their way to the front door.
“Lean more heavily on me there,” Sandra said, “I need one hand free for the key… here.”
The door opened, and they made their way inside.
“Why help me?”
“You might call it an urge to express a frustrated maternal instinct,” Sandra said. “Have a seat in the armchair there. I don’t have a couch for you to sleep on. This is my refuge, so to speak, from incessant company, and couches only invite company to stay.”
“I didn’t take you for a loner.”
“Not a loner, exactly. I revel in politics, in family business. Dwell too long on such things, however, and I risk losing perspective. I have to step away from it all. The only company I would comfortably invite here is temporary company, like yourself, and one man who is presently in Toronto.”
“Blake’s in-” the girl started, before she stopped herself.
“I know exactly where he is, not to worry. Not the man I speak of.”
The house was smaller than most on the block, and there was a kind of elegance to the setup. Everything was narrow, everything had a place. An old fashioned cornucopia took up space between sets of books that were pressed to either side of the shelf by bookends.
Books on herbs, cookbooks, wine guides, Tantric sex guidebooks, books on weaving and threads.
Spellbooks. Two matching tomes, one in some Nordic language, the other apparently a translation, reading ‘Trollkind’.
A small glass of wine and a plate of bread and cheese were placed on the stand by the armchair, eliciting a look of surprise.
“While you’re present, you have my promise of safety. You may take of my food, water and wine with no expectation of repayment,” Sandra said.
“I don’t know the proper response. But… I won’t betray this hospitality.”
“One night, for the time being. Faerie are dangerous business. A bad kind of accident to decide to have. If I give you more shelter than this, I risk getting on the bad side of their plots.”
“He’s gone too. With my name and a glamour that makes him look like me.”
“He’ll return. When the court gets wind of this… escapade, they’ll step in.”
“Could I reach out to the courts? Get their help? If I turned him in, I could f- mess with him. Throw a wrench in the works.”
“Oh,” Sandra said. It sounded like pity distilled. With one hand, she brushed at the girl’s hair.
The girl stared down at the ornate rug in the middle of the living room. “Yeah, frying pans and fires. That was a stupid idea.”
“You have a hard road to travel, and it’s one I can’t and won’t help with, except for what I’m offering tonight. Most individuals strong enough to help know well enough not to. The exceptions to the rule… well, you’ll find out.”
“I imagine I will.”
“Let me get the first aid kit, and you can explain what happened tonight.”
“Oh, I can explain right now.”
Sandra raised an eyebrow.
“I earned my bragging rights.”