Category Archives: 8.04

Signature 8.4

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Sunlight streamed through the windows where curtains hadn’t been drawn.  Probably intentional on Sandra’s part – an unobtrusive alarm of sorts to ensure the guest wasn’t up too late.

The girl in the checkered scarf -she did still wear the scarf, having fallen asleep in the armchair- was already wide awake.  A blanket had been draped over her, tucked in at the shoulders and by her hips, and she left it where it was, joining her scarf in half-covering her face.

Her eyes were fixed on her knees, her mind as active as her body was still.  Her thoughts walked the razor’s edge of inspiration and there wasn’t much footing to be had, if any.  A misstep meant succumbing to panic.

Through the kitchen doorway, she could see Sandra walking through the kitchen, and raised her head a bit to get a better look.  A portion of the blanket fell aside as she reached up to push a lock of hair out of her eyes.  She didn’t fix it.  Out of sight, plates clinked.

That ferret-thing passed across the narrow slice of the kitchen the girl could see, running along the edge of the counter.

A moment later, it passed the other way, roughly half of a package worth of bacon clasped in its jaws.

All of the remaining bacon, Hildr?” Sandra asked.  Her voice was barely audible.  “Give me half of that and I’ll get the sausage out for you.”

A pause.

Sandra stepped into view, meeting the weasel and collecting the requisite bacon.

The woman’s head turned toward the armchair.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll cook it in a separate pan from yours.  Hildr and I are practically family – a little bit of troll spittle won’t kill me.”

“Uh, sure,” said the armchair’s occupant.  She stood and stretched, unwinding her scarf a bit where she was too warm.  After a moment’s consideration, she took off her winter jacket.

“The bathroom is that way,” Sandra said, pointing.  “Do you have a preference for what you drink with your breakfast?  Tea?  Coffee?”

“Do you have cranberry juice?”

“Yes.  I’ll get it out.”

“And, uh, I don’t know what to do about clothes.”

Sandra gave her a once-over, a careful, searching look, before deciding, “Wear what you have for now.  You won’t be too badly off if you wear those clothes for one more day.  When you’re done eating, you can use my shower and dry off before you set out.”

“Thank you,” she replied, laying her jacket over the arm of the chair.  The plate and glass from last night were already gone from the little table.

She took her time going through the bathroom, her mind still darting through possibilities.

Go to Toronto?  No.  Padraic was right.  A bad idea on a number of levels.  Padraic could return, and she needed to look after her dads.

She washed her hands and then her face, using her wet hands to push her hair back.  As usual, it immediately rebelled against her attempts to get it in order.

After sniffing her clothes to judge her body odor and resigning herself to a maybe, she headed to the kitchen.

Hildr was devouring a raw sausage roughly a third her size, while Sandra was setting the table.

Croissant, crepes with blueberries and strawberries, bacon and a glass of juice.

“You didn’t have to do this,” she told Sandra, sitting down.

“I didn’t.  But I like to eat well, and it’s hardly hospitable to give you gruel while I prepare this for myself,” Sandra said.  She tapped the spoon of icing sugar to lightly dust her crepe.  “While you washed up, I was thinking about the clothing situation.  I do have clothes from when I was about your age.  I grew up in this house and left it behind when I moved to Toronto.  I’ve never had cause to get rid of it.”

“That could be good,” the girl replied.  She took a bite.

“I’m not sure it would be.  You’re coming unraveled, so to speak, and you’ll want to hold tight to those things which tie you to your identity.  Physical objects or otherwise.”

Like going to see Molly?  She made a note of that.  She also noted that she still had her scarf on – she had been wearing it for a large portion of the winter.   She downed a mouthful of the cranberry juice.

She sputtered, covering her mouth before she could cough it out on the table.  That only served to get it in her nose.

Her hand pounded the table a few times while she fought to regain her composure.  The ferret thing was hissing at her, baring vicious looking teeth.

Sandra barely flinched.  “It shouldn’t be off.  It’s fairly fresh.”

“Bitter.”

“Oh.  When you asked for Cranberry juice, I thought you meant real cranberry juice.  The stuff you usually find in stores is primarily apple or pear juice, with a bit of cranberry added.”

The girl with the checkered scarf sputtered a bit.

“You can get used to it,” Sandra said.  “I prefer it mixed with a bit of orange juice.  Should I get you a glass and orange juice?”

“Please.”

While she did so, Sandra said, “I’m assuming you don’t know how to put together a model?”

“Depends what kind.”

“It’s a technique enchanters pick up when first learning.  Sometimes you try to manipulate a connection and it goes poorly.  When that happens, it can help to have a sense of what exactly has happened.  I’ll show you after.”

“Thank you.  Kind of going above and beyond the call of… well, it isn’t even your duty, is it?”

“No.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch.  Please eat.  Rules for the hosted are simple – that you graciously accept what is freely offered.  I didn’t poison anything here.”

The girl in the checkered scarf ate.

“Laird, as I told you last night, went to Toronto.  He’ll be one of the champions opposing Mr. Thorburn.  Opposing Mr. Thorburn and Maggie Holt, that is.”

The girl in the checkered scarf nodded slowly.

It felt weird, hearing the name spoken like that.  It should have felt weird because it was familiar to her, but it wasn’t.

“I’m not quite sure how to phrase this without missing the mark.  Need?  Wish?  Desire?  Not quite any of those.  I would very, very much like to be lord of Jacob’s Bell.”

“No offense, but this isn’t exactly news to me.  I’m a little out of the loop, but I’m not that out of the loop.”

“Let me continue.  I once wanted to be Lord of Toronto, but things didn’t go the way we’d hoped.  I made a bid for power, I lost, and I hoped this would be my consolation prize.  Then Laird made it clear he wanted it.”

The girl nodded, eating.  The cranberry juice in orange juice was just barely drinkable.  She didn’t complain.

Sandra continued, “We fought, then we struck compromises, to keep things in balance.  The marriage was one such compromise.  Laird hopes to go to Toronto, put himself in the good graces of the lord of the city, and leverage that when he returns here.  I’m suspicious that won’t happen.”

“How come?”

“Laird has a very particular personality.  He comes from a particular lineage.  I grew up a number of years behind him, and he was always someone I paid attention to, because of his position in his family, the favor that the head of the Behaim showed to him, and because my mother told me to.  I know him fairly well, all things considered.”

“My condolences.”

“The knowledge is a good thing.  That it’s Laird… I don’t think it’s a bad thing.  He was groomed from a young age.  Less able practitioners in his general age group were punished by having to give him power as penance.  He was tutored, even sent away to the United Kingdom for a time.”

“Lucky guy, getting all the breaks.  A little spoiled, a little messed up because of how one dimensional his social circles were?  I think I get it.”

“I don’t think he was lucky at all,” Sandra said.  “Others in his family have to pay a share of their power, and are restricted in what they can do, as far as the practice goes, but they are free.  Laird has had firm hands gripping him by the arm every step of the way.  Even now, he’s bound and shackled, playing his role in schemes that were set up before he was born.”

“So he convinces me that Molly Walker is an inhuman monster and gets me to sic my goblins on her?”

“Yes.  And he’s done several other things, some recent, some not.  He puts on a good face and smiles, he sees to his duties as a police officer and a keeper of the peace in town, but I wonder sometimes if he isn’t screaming inside his head.  That’s why I gave him a nudge, prompting him to go to Toronto.”

“I just woke up, I’m not exactly on the ball.  I might have missed something you said, or I didn’t catch the logic there.  Don’t get it.”

“The Lord of Toronto is an entity that doesn’t live or die, but ebbs and flows in power.  As of right now, he ebbs.  He’s fighting for a foothold.  Laird, by contrast, is fighting the course of his own destiny.  In the doing, he might be adhering to it, like an animal that struggles against the net that binds it might only trap itself further.”

“Uh huh.”

“Did you know he gave up a share of his lifespan to his children?”

“No.”

“I believe he’s been setting his affairs in order.  The tone of our last conversation suggested it.  It didn’t take much of a push to get him to go to Toronto.  He asked me to look after the Behaim family in his absence.  Are you seeing where I’m going with this?”

“You’re talking about the Lord and Laird in the same breath.”

“Which is amusing when you think about the link of his name to the title.  Maybe Destiny has her way after all.”

“One and the same?” the girl asked.  “Oh.  Oh.  You think he’s going to sacrifice himself to give the Lord of Toronto a foothold?”

Sandra put down her fork, meal finished.  “Yes.  His personality would fit, and maybe he’s been thinking about this for some time, altering his own perspective, preparing for this.  An Incarnation is a representation of that which it represents, in a circular fashion, but it builds its image from pieces given to it.  Men that sacrificed themselves, as Laird may hope to sacrifice himself.  Laird would give the Lord a more modern perspective, clearer knowledge, and freedom to act outside the confines of its being.  In the long term, he would be trapped, largely dead, but in the now, well, he might shake himself free of Destiny’s firm grip.”

“He’s going to become an Incarnation?”

“Who knows?  I do suspect that he won’t return, one way or another.  I doubt Blake Thorburn will either.  Where does that leave us?”

“Well, I’m still here, nameless and kind of screwed.”

“And I’m still here as well, very, very much wanting to be Lord, with one potential rival potentially out of the way, and one dangerous element pinned down in Toronto, with signs and portents saying he’s unlikely to return alive.  I have to deal with Johannes, as well as other locals.  I might need help.”

“Ahhhh.  You must be desperate if you’re coming to me.”

“There are very few pieces on the board here.  I can call in favors from branches of my family, but that draws attention, and we aren’t at a stage yet where drawing attention would be good.  Understand?  I could twist your arm, make demands, and extract oaths from you, but I don’t know what specifically I would ask for right now.”

The girl in the checkered scarf put down her utensils, chugged the last of her juice, and then leaned back.  Try as she might, she couldn’t think of anything to add.  All of the gears that were turning in the back of her mind were presently busy trying to find solutions to her own predicament.

“There isn’t a catch, not really,” Sandra said, “My niece called you a wild card, didn’t she?”

The girl in the checkered scarf nodded.

“You could side with anyone here.  You could very well side with Johannes, if he has a solution.  I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have any clever ideas on how to salvage your Self, and I wouldn’t blame you.  But if you do side with Johannes, I’m hoping you won’t side against me in the process.”

“I can sort of see that.”

Sandra collected the dishes, rinsing them off in the sink before putting them away.  She didn’t turn around as she said, “He could and may well force you, if he has a solution.”

“Maybe.  Is that your subtle way of reminding me that you could have forced me to turn on Blake in exchange for sanctuary?”

“Yes.  In fact, as I first spoke to you, I was already working out this conversation for this morning.  Bookending ideas.”

“Clever.”

Sandra half-turned, revealing a slight smile.

“Here’s my chance to be clever – I think you said that the people that were strong enough to help me should know that it’s a bad idea to?”

“Yes.”

“Johannes is one of the exceptions to that rule, I take it?”

“Yes he is.”

“Is this a nudge?  Is this one of those nudges, like you gave Laird?  To go see Johannes?”

Sandra smiled, picking up Hildr.  The girl in the checkered scarf could see how the fur at one side of the ferret’s head had been braided and clasped in place with a tiny metal clip.  Sandra said, “It could be.  Nothing mystical about it.  The question would be why.”

“Yeah,” the girl in the checkered scarf said.  “I guess so.  Would I upset you if I said I don’t want to go see him just yet?”

“No.  Can I offer you anything else?”

“I’m done,” the girl replied.  And the juice sits heavy in my gut.  “Thank you.  I haven’t eaten a breakfast that good in a while.  One of my dads is on this health kick.”

And I might never get to eat a crappy vegan tofu salad or granola-milk slop breakfast if I can’t get my name back.

“Are you okay?” Sandra asked.  “All things considered?”

The girl looked up.

“You were somewhere else for a moment.”

“I’m… yeah.  Like I said before, I’m not so functional when I’ve just woken up.  I’m ready to get down to business.”

“Use my shower.  I’ll get things ready so I can teach you what you need to know when you’re out.”

She decided to pull on clothes rather than use the offered bathrobe, feeling fabric stick to skin where she hadn’t quite dried off enough.  For much the same reason, she hadn’t used the offered shampoo and conditioner.  Shampoo tended to leave her hair more unruly, so she tended to do one day on and one day off.  Her hair going unwashed a day was more her than it was smelling like the wrong products.

She donned the hairband, pushing her hair away from her face, and stared at herself in the mirror.

Was it just the more intense lighting above the bathroom mirror that made her look paler, her eyes lighter, her hair darker?  Starker?

She wound the scarf around her shoulders, loose.

When she emerged and stepped into the living room, she saw a sheet of parchment had been laid out.  Not paper.  Old fashioned stuff, a little uneven at the edges.  Another scrap sat at the base of the coffee table, mostly rolled up.  Thin ink marked it.  Lines and scribbled words.  Testing pens?

Sandra didn’t look up as she drew a circle in the middle.  “Write all personal details you can inside.  Everything about yourself you can think of.  You can’t include your name, but you can and should include other things.  Try to think of things that Padraic wouldn’t necessarily know about.  Things he wouldn’t have taken or claimed for himself, as part of his identity, that make you unique.”

I have three parents, but I think Padraic thinks it’s just the two.  I don’t sign my name with a heart over the ‘i’, but I do a little squiggle at the middle part of the M to make my signature mine when I’m signing something like a cheque.  I like salty foods way too much.  I don’t actually love regular pizza, but I’ll eat anchovy pizza and I’ll tolerate other stuff.  Both of the boys I’ve really liked much at all turned out to be gay.  It’s very rare for me to cry or sob when I’m upset, though I might get tears in my eyes but sometimes after a really long day, I’ll just break down and cry into my pillow for no reason, like I save it all up for that.

“More?” she asked.

“All you can,” Sandra said, eyeing the list.

It bothered her that Sandra was reading these small, personal things, but she wasn’t in a position to complain.

I’m pretty sure I’ll die young.  Polar fleece fabric gives me the heebie jeebies so bad I can barely sit still after touching it.

She hesitated.

I love my parents more than anything, and they’ve done better jobs than most.  I mean it.  But sometimes I wonder if the reason my priorities and feelings are messed up are because my surrogate mom wasn’t around enough and my dads just aren’t that emotionally sensitive.  I know it’s stupid, I know it’s wrong, and I tell myself every time that I’m just looking for a broad-strokes answer to it all, but I still think it sometimes.

She stared down at the words, pen still in hand, for a long minute.

“A little bit of blood,” Sandra said.  “I have a needle-“

The girl was already biting the end of her thumb.

“Or you can do that.”

“Used to it,” The girl said.  “Center circle?”

“You have the right idea.  Good.  Now draw more circles,” Sandra prompted her.  “Around that one.  Things you’re connected to that are important to you.”

Dad.  Father.  Mom.  Home.  The house.  My room.  My title as a goblin queen.

She paused at that last one.

“That’s fine,” Sandra said.  “Being a student?”

“I’m not much of one.”

“Okay.  Anything else?”

She wrote Blake, then Molly.

“Good.  This is something you can do again when you feel the need, to figure out where you stand.  When we do it, we use a board, pins and threads, so we can practice illustrating webs of connections and manipulate things more.  That isn’t what you need, so we’ll take the simpler road.  Draw lines from you to each of these things.”

The girl in the checkered scarf did, drawing a line between the circle with the confession, little secrets and blot of blood, to the circle with ‘goblin queen’ within.

The pen was nearly out of ink.  The line came out spotty, half of it was just the pen nib digging a groove into paper.

“That’s supposed to happen?” she guessed.

“Yes.  Keep going.”

Between herself and her parents.  Worse.  Two thirds of it was only scratches.

Herself and the house?  Worse still.

Mom?  Better again.

Dads?  The worst yet.

Her room?

She suspected she knew the answer before she tried.  The pen scratched paper, but no ink came out.

Padraic had made his claim to it.

Blake?

The sole bit of line was so short she could cover it with her fingertip.

Molly?

One of the stronger connections.

“If these were threads, and we were applying stress, you would be seeing how frayed they were.  You could gauge the health of the connections.  Keep this in mind.  Check again later today.  Figure out how this condition of yours is progressing.”

“Okay.”

“You have options.  There’s one obvious one I can’t and won’t outline to you, out of concern that Padraic would be upset with me.”

“And you need all the friends you can get, with so few pieces on the board.”

‘Yes.”

“I’m assuming that one option is that I have to go head to head with Padraic.  Take it back.”

“You said it,” Sandra said, smiling a bit, “Not me.  Another option would be to draw things out.  Faerie get bored, and if you can survive in the meantime, it’s possible he would take pity on you and return the name.”

The girl stared at the woman, unimpressed.

“Possible, but not likely,” Sandra amended.

“How do I survive, though?”

“Forge new connections, hold tight to the connections that do exist, tenuous or otherwise.”

“Oh god.  You’re telling me that I have to work for my salvation by making friends?”

“That’s one way to forestall the inevitable,” Sandra said.

“I’m liking the first option more,” the girl said.  “It allows for shoving of a stick up one of Padraic’s nether orifices and attaching it to a lathe.  I don’t make friends easily.”

“Other connections, then.”

“Other connections.  Making a mental note.  Got it.”

“The third option… well, I suppose it isn’t easy either.”

“Third option?”

“Accept that he’s won.  Make peace with it.”

“Oh helllll no.”

“Yes,” Sandra said.  “There’s a running theme in dealings with Faerie.  Trust me, I’ve dealt with them enough to know.  As a general rule, it’s not worth it.”

“What’s not.”

“It.  Whatever you’re striving for in dealing with them?  Whatever they’re offering?  It isn’t worth the trouble.  Rescue someone from Faerie clutches, and they’ll play along, acting like everything’s good, only to go back to their old masters.  You can win, but you might well fall prey to a trap in the process.”

“Blake kicked a Faerie’s ass the day he invited me into my house.”

“Yes he did.”

“So… that rule has its exceptions.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.  I don’t know the particulars, so I can’t comment.”

The girl in the checkered scarf narrowed her eyes.  “So I’m supposed to give up?”

“It’s a possibility.”

“Yeah.  Right.  I’m not about to lie down and get replaced, thank you.  Not my style.”

“Of course.”

“Anything else?”

“Not so much.  There are other tricks, but everything has its own gravity, and so long as he has your name, there will be a natural pull, drawing that which is Maggie’s to him.  If you were to reclaim your name, I’d think a confrontation would be inevitable.”

“What if he bites it in the meantime?”

“You would have to be careful with the timing and mechanism, lest you inherited a name with the notion of death attached to it and took that death for yourself, but I would be surprised if it even came to that.  I’d sooner expect him to simply get bored with this game and return your name to you.”

“You’d-” the girl in the checkered scarf started.  “Fuck, really?”

“Careful with the swearing, remember.”

“Swearing in very particular circumstances that call for it.  How is he not going to die?”

“He’s been around for centuries, leading an exceptionally interesting life.  Add up his experience, and he’s developed a degree of familiarity with most types of Other that are close to the sixteen or seventeen years you’ve spent getting to know your own family.  He’ll avoid situations where victory isn’t in the cards for him.  Faerie like to pick easy fights for themselves, but impose challenges on themselves to keep it interesting, always holding on to the idea that they can abandon the challenge and cut loose if the situation calls for it.”

“So that’s it?  No chance?  If it even comes down to a contest-”

“If it were Essylt?  She’s more one-dimensional.  Padraic?  I would consider your loss a foregone conclusion.”

The girl looked down at the map of connections, fists clenched at her sides.

“What happens?” she asked.  “Later on?”

“He’ll take and borrow to create his new identity.  Connections will find less traction with you.  Even simple connections.  The ability to open a door involves a connection, however basic.  In the end?  It depends on what the two of you do.  You might be reduced to a glimmer, held together by the little that Padraic didn’t take, unable to act or even function.”

“An echo.”

“Close enough.  More likely, you’d start coming to pieces.  You might find that spirits occupy the hollow spaces that are created, which would accelerate the decay.  You might go out in a blaze of spiritual activity.  Conversely, your body might simply be ground down into your constituent elements, the spirits would nibble on the exposed edges of the girl who was once Maggie Holt, and gravity and connections would pull the half-eaten, half-faded husk to pieces.”

The girl in the checkered scarf felt her heart pounding as if she’d just run around the block.

“I should go,” she said.

“I think you should.  That line connecting to Blake looks less solid than it did a minute ago.  While you’re here, I can help reinforce things, but I can’t stop Padraic from taking things from his end of this struggle, leaving you less to work with.”

The girl grabbed her coat, pulling it on.

“Where are you going?” Sandra asked.

“Don’t know.  Maybe the Briar Girl.”

“If she were strong enough to do something substantial, I would be very surprised,” Sandra commented.

“Maybe that’s true.  But she and Blake had a connection, and maybe I can establish one with her.  She doesn’t seem like she’d be impossible to get along with.  And I can ask.  Get more info on where to go next.”

“Maybe, instead of doing that, you should tackle the more dangerous possibilities while you’re still strong enough.”

The girl in the checkered scarf paused midway through doing up her buttons.  “You’re trying to nudge me to Johannes again.”

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

“Maybe, maybe not.  And I do owe you one… but… what about her?”

She is… not your best bet.”

“She could have an answer.  She’s been around for a freaking long time.”

“True on both counts.”

“So?”

“I suppose if you’re going to talk to her, you should be as strong as possible.”

Great.  Unless there’s something I should know?”

“You know who she is?”

“Yeah.”

“You know what she is?”

“Pretty sure.”

“So long as you go in armed with knowledge.  She can’t hurt you unless you give her the chance.”

The girl with the checkered scarf nodded.  “Just in case, could I- do you have a weapon I could borrow?  I know it’s more valuable and permanent than food, but…”

“I have a number of weapons.  Metal?  I assume you’re still worried about them?”

“Not unworried.  They’re impatient, not exactly the type to wait all this time, lurking outside and attack me in broad daylight.  But one of them did promise to come after me, so…”

“Any preference in terms of what you’d want to wield?”

Bigger and sharper the better, the girl thought.

Then she reconsidered.

“My implement is a knife.  I’ll take something in that vein, if that’s okay.”

Sandra walked over to a bookshelf.  She withdrew a case and opened it.  Three knives sat within.  She placed the knife on the arm of the armchair.

The girl picked it up.  A stiletto, long and narrow, with a sheath.  “You sure?”

“As with my childhood clothes, it’s one of those things that’s been around for some time.  I have no particular attachment to it, and I’m happier it’s seeing use.  You’ll find Mara’s place due west, after the buildings give way to forest.  Stick to the hardest path.”

“Cool,” the girl said.  She paused.  “I won’t say thank you.  That’s sort of useless.  You helped me out.  I’ll… I’ll try to thank you with deed, not word.”

“I appreciate that.”

The girl nodded, then opened the front door, took a good three steps back from the force of the wind and snow, then plunged into the elements.

Take the hardest path.

Story of my freaking life.

The hardest path, as it turned out, meant not walking down the path people and their dogs had carved into the woods.  It meant going uphill, through snow that soaked her jeans in an instant.

Pushing through the thickest growths of branches, rather than walk around.

Maybe Sandra was nice to me just so she could get me to buy this crummy advice and laugh to her creepy children of the corn family about sending me off to stumble through deep woods.

Even as she mulled over the idea, entertaining the surprisingly infuriating mental image of Sandra and her ferret-troll both laughing with one hand over their mouths, she had a sense that this was a bit too troublesome.

There was always an easier option.  Always a seemingly valid route around that outcropping of stone with a tree growing out of it.

Was this a spell of sorts?  A way of turning ignorant people away, keeping one patch of wilderness in a reasonable walking distance from town away from prying eyes?

Or, given that Mara had been around for a while, was it by design?

Had Mara planted and cultivated trees or moved stones to generate this effect?  A simple, steady, relentless building of this discouraging barrier over the years?

The girl in the checkered scarf pressed on.  She told herself that the resistance the branches gave to her pushing hands was another design.  Branches left scratches on her hands and face.  One copse of trees tried three times to scrape her hairband away from her head, then snagged on the button-hole of her jacket.  Not actually moving, but simply happening to catch her clothing.

She couldn’t see any rune or trick, but maybe it was a harder thing to see.  Maybe the tree had been planted in the middle of a rune, so it manifested certain snatching, scratching qualities as it grew.

Maybe every tree this deep in the woods was like a full-sized bonsai tree, guided by Mara’s hand.

There were probably a lot of really cool things one could do when they were effectively immortal and largely removed from everyday human concerns and habits.

The cottage, as it turned out, looked fairly normal, if old fashioned.  Over one rock, and there it was.  Squat, probably no more than four rooms, all wooden logs, planks, and stones with a coarse looking mortar.  A fire somewhere within gave the thick, dusty glass a faint orange-yellow tint.  Thick smoke rose from the chimney at one side.

It wasn’t made of gingerbread, at least.

“This was probably a really bad idea,” she told herself.

Her voice didn’t help to reassure herself as much as she might have hoped.

A vague sense of danger made her double check where she placed her feet, every place where there was a gap in the branches.  No traps, no dolls or totems, no apparent runes or anything of the sort.

No options left, she knocked on the door.

She heard metal scraping on stone.  It reminded her of the goblin with the tools.  A shiver ran up her spine.

The door opened.

Not Mara.

A child, maybe twelve, aboriginal, with a chain shackled to her wrist.

The child didn’t meet her eyes.  Her shoulders were drawn in, eyes fixed on her feet.

“I’m looking for Mara?”

“Crone Mara doesn’t like the white people,” the child said, in an accented voice.  “I do not like the white people.”

“I’ve always cared less than most people do when it comes to being liked,” the girl in the checkered scarf said.  “I’m interested in dealing.  Negotiations.”

“Then come in and wait.  Crone Mara will speak to you very soon.”

Again, that vague sense of danger, a trap.  The metaphorical lion’s den.  “I have safe passage?  You can give me permission to enter?”

“Yes.”

She’d halfway expected the interior to be a demesne, but there was no guarantee that Crone Mara would hold to any recent traditions.  The notion of the demesne had come over from Europe with the settlers.  Crone Mara predated them.

No, the interior was cramped.  Warm, with thick walls and no leaks, but cramped, with a floor of stones that fit together like jigsaw pieces, grooves worn along the most traveled paths.  She suspected it predated the log and wood construction of the walls themselves.

The two bedrooms to the one side had no doors, only a bed and just enough space to stand between bed and wall.  Shelves above the bed held clothes.

It was all so utilitarian.  Only that which was absolutely necessary was within the building.  Of those necessities, the kitchen stood out as the largest room in the small building.  Containers held food, reeking of meat, and a fire burned under a large pot of stew filled with large chunks of vegetables.

There was only one nod to anything resembling entertainment.  All around the uppermost edge of the kitchen, high enough up that one would need to stand on a table or box to reach, were dolls.  Crude, made of raw materials, features made misshapen by the damage done to leather and woven grass by age.  There was no organization.  The very oldest stood beside more recent creations.  The newest dolls were crafted of reed and hide.  The oldest had started to come apart, hide degrading, reeds long since eaten away, revealing slivers of bone within.

The girl in the checkered scarf took a seat at the kitchen table.  A tree had been cut straight down the middle, flat end turned up.  The table was three such half-trees.

The chain at the younger girl’s wrist dragged on the floor as she made her way to the pot, stirring slowly.  Each motion of her arm made the chain tap against the stone housing of the broad fireplace.

Minutes ticked on, and the girl in the checkered scarf became acutely aware of the passage of time, the lack of time she had before she became some kind of glimmer or husk.

“What do you do here?”

“I am cooking blood stew.”

“When you aren’t cooking, I mean.”

“I will chop firewood.”

“Okay, sounds like indentured servitude.  Let me rephrase.  What do you do when there aren’t chores?”

“There are always enough chores to fill the day.”

“Always?” the girl in the checkered scarf asked.  “Every day, it’s just waking up, doing chores one after another, until you’re ready to go to bed?”

“Every day.”

The rhythmic clink of chain against stone continued, alongside the scrape of the large wooden spoon against the bottom of the pot.  The child’s flesh was raw around the shackle.

That looks like it hurts like crazy.

This sounds like it would drive anyone insane.

“It sounds lonely.  Never having fun.  Do you talk, at least?”

“There are lessons.  Basic things.  How to do this or how to do that.  How to maintain the hut”

“Uh huh.  And games?”

“No games.”

“Stories?”

“Few stories.  Only sometimes, to remind of why we are to fear and distrust the white people.  Better to be in here.”

“Um, okay.  What about singing?”  How bad can singing be?

“Crone Mara does not sing very often.  They sing when the quiet is too deep, or when I ask.”

The girl in the checkered scarf followed the pointing finger.

The dolls.

“Oh heck no,” she said.  “Point taken, no need to demonstrate.”

But the dolls were already singing.

Faint at first, like rustles through the trees, whispering, reedy voices, they found the high notes.

Children’s voices.

A foreign language, some voices better at the singing than the others, some halting, creating a vaguely discordant sound, like a children’s choir where there hadn’t been enough practice.

“Alrighty,” she said.  That does nothing to convince me you wouldn’t absolutely lose your mind in here.  “Can we stop?”

“They will stop when they are finished.  It depends on their mood.  They sing more when they are sad.  Lately they sang more than they have been silent.”

“Great, great.  Any idea on when Crone Mara will return?”

The little girl shrugged, giving the door a momentary glance.

Discordant voices, scraping spoon, clink and scrape of chain against stone.

The chain was fat, coarse, old fashioned, a little rusty.  It might well have predated Jacob’s Bell.

Her eye fell on the point where it had been banging the stone.

There were flecks on the ground.

The chain was being worn down, as was the thick stone that bordered the fireplace.

No way the chain had been that worn down in this generation alone.

The scraping of the spoon had stopped.

The little girl was looking her in the eyes for the first time.

The little girl looked old.  Weary.

“Can you break the chain?” the child asked.  “Crone Mara has the key.  For you to free me, you would need to break the chain.”

“I’m really not looking to make more enemies,” the girl in the checkered scarf replied.  “You’re putting me in an awkward position.”

“Can you break the chain?  It is damaged, you see, right here.  Can you show me that the white people are not so bad?”

“You’ve got to give me a chance to answer before-“

The child stepped closer, and chain scraped on floor.

The singing of the dolls grew louder.

The child’s hands clutched at the end of her jacket.

“Will you help me, white girl?  You can, if you act now.”

“I’m thinking.”

There were tears on the girl’s face.  “Please tell me you will help me.  Please.  Just say it.”

“I-“

“Please!”

The word was ragged, as if the child wasn’t used to anything but a dull monotone.

It was too much, the smoke in the hut, the singing, the pleas-

“I think-“

The girl’s hands clutched tighter.

“-That I’ve read too many fantasy novels to fall for this,” she finally managed to say.

A moment passed.

The singing quieted.

“Crone Mara,” the girl in the checkered scarf said, meeting the child’s eyes.

Crone Mara stood a little straighter.  Tears still marked her cheeks, but there was a flinty look in her eyes.

“What would have happened if I’d said yes?  How would I ‘help’?”

“You would be compost,” the girl said.

“Got it.  No.  Bad.

The child reached into her shirt for a key on a string and undid her shackle.

“Will you negotiate with me?” she asked the child.  “I need a hand with something.”

Never.  Not ever,” the child said.

“Got it,” the girl with the checkered scarf said.  She stood from the table.  “Had to ask.”

She stepped out into the cold.

One down.

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