As soon as the print proof is approved, it will be available in paperback as well.
If you read it and enjoy it, I would love it if you could put up a review (at whatever site you prefer), as it will help me reach a wider audience.
As soon as the print proof is approved, it will be available in paperback as well.
If you read it and enjoy it, I would love it if you could put up a review (at whatever site you prefer), as it will help me reach a wider audience.
Stupid forest. Stupid right of passage requirements. Stupid bow and arrow.
So I’m not your typical elf. Yes, I’m tall and can pretend to be a willow tree if I really try. And it’s dark. And you’re half blind. I can stomp through the woods without making the kind of noise that draws attention, even if I want to call attention to myself. I’m pretty smart, though I don’t think I’m really old enough to be considered wise. I mean, who’s wise at nineteen?
My people have a rich culture mired in our history, and no one clings to tradition and history like elves. I mean, I have some cousins, on my dad’s side, who still work for Saint Nicholas, despite the fact that their great, great, great, great grandparents fulfilled the terms of that indenture contract. This might sound great, if you’re the sort of person who prefers stability to uncertainty, and custom to progress.
I’m a philosopher by nature. My brother would say I’m argumentative, but that’s just not true. I feel it’s healthy to question everything. I mean, just because something worked well five hundred years ago, doesn’t mean it’s still the right choice today. But nobody listens to me.
So here I am, tromping through the forest trying to kill some poor defenseless animal to prove myself a contributing member of society. I proposed the much harder, and more interesting, coming of age challenge of creating and maintaining a garden for an entire summer, but the elders completely shot that down. I don’t even eat meat. This whole thing is barbaric. Ugh.
Through the trees I see movement. Great. It’s a deer. Rolling my eyes in disgust, I knock an arrow and pull back, aiming down the shaft. I feel sick. I let the string slide off the tips of my fingers and the deer bounds away into the low shrubs.
“Holy fuck!” My eyes widen as I hear the loudest, and most interesting string of profanities echo through the trees.
Have I mentioned that I’m an impressively awful archer?
“Oh Aelfwaru,” I whisper, wincing. I’ve hit someone. And she’s really unhappy about it. Instead of running away, which is what most of my kin would do, I dart toward the shouts. “Are you okay?” I call. I shake my head as I realize she won’t hear me anyway. Stupid magic. “Oh my alder, I am so sorry.” I push my way through the sumac to find my unintentional victim.
She’s bent over to the side, clutching at her upper arm, her eyes pinched tight and her breathing shallow. I see my fletching protruding from the back of her shoulder. I drop my things and rush to her side. “It’s going to be okay,” I whisper. “Here, sit down.” I have no idea what to do about this, but I have to make it right.
Her head snaps up in surprise, and the front of my jerkin is clutched in her fist before I have a chance to step back. “Who the bloody blazes are you?” she demands, giving me a rough shake.
“I’m Högni,” I answer automatically, which is weird, because I’m never that forthcoming with strangers. I reach out and try to peel her hand off my clothes. “Let me help you, please.” She’s older than me, but not by as much as I would have expected. But then again, she could just look young. If her face wasn’t contorted in rage and pain, she’d be very pretty. Who am I kidding? She’s pretty even with her twisted expression. Her skin is the red brown color of oak leaves in the fall, and her eyes are almost black. Then I catch sight of a necklace peeking out from under her tunic. She’s a wizard. I am in so much trouble.
“How do you propose to do that?” she demanded, giving me another shake.
I can no longer meet her eyes. “In any way that you wish. I’m so sorry. Please don’t turn me into a beast. I wasn’t trying to shoot you. I didn’t even know you were here.” Aelfwaru, my mouth runs over. “Please let me make this right,” I beg.
She releases me and I flinch, expecting the worst.
“You shot me?” her voice is quiet now. Somehow reminiscent of a deadly snake.
I reluctantly nod. “I’m supposed to be proving myself a capable adult, but it’s barbaric. And I’m terrible at archery. I swear I was aiming for a deer, and I didn’t really want to hit her either, but I missed anyway, and I guess I hit you. Because that’s definitely my arrow, and I’m really, really sorry.” I only stop when forced to take a breath. “Please sit down. You’re in pain, and it’s my fault, and I want to help.”
Prompt: I’m an elf with really bad aim, so while hunting I accidentally shot you in the shoulder with an arrow. I’m so sorry, can I make it up to you in any way? Oh shit. You’re a wizard. Please don’t turn me into a frog; I’ll do anything you want me to.
“Do you want to play with us?” Rellin asked, his voice gentle and slow, as if he thought Shya might not be able to understand him. An eager wind pulled at the long white fringe dangling from his coat sleeves and pants, fanning it out behind him.
Though she would have loved to join the other children, she shook her head and looked away from the pity on his face. The branches below her were full and lush, and only a few patches of ground were visible through the gaps when the boughs danced with the weather.
“Leave her alone, Rellin,” Bexa chastised, her blonde curls bouncing in a playful breeze. She was Shya’s sister and protector, although all her siblings watched out for her. It was utterly humiliating that Shya’s staunchest defender was two full years younger. “You know she doesn’t fly well.”
Shya turned her back on them, in part so she wouldn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but also so she wouldn’t have to see them soar easily into the sky, where a group of children waited. Unlike the birds, sky folk didn’t need wings to fly.
She made slow but steady progress along the wide branch, toward the three-level tree house where she’d been born. It was a cool day, which meant she wouldn’t be able to save herself if she fell, but she’d lived all of her thirteen years with the same danger. She had fallen out of trees more than once, and still, she liked heights. If she could fly, she wouldn’t be afraid of going up higher than the birds did. If she could fly.
“Shya Skychild, what are you doing out there?” a woman demanded, her voice issuing through an open kitchen window. “Come in here this instant.”
Shya sighed as she felt gentle breezes nudging her toward the door. “I’m coming.” If her mother had her way, Shya would never leave the safety of the house. The door blew open before she could reach for the handle. She took her time hanging her coat on its peg, hoping she might be able to sneak through the kitchen without a reprimand. Her soft leather boots made no sound as she crossed the hardwood floor, and for a moment she thought she might make it.
Hop on over to my Curious Fictions account (where longer form stories will reside) to read the whole thing free.
She looked down into the swiftly flowing water of the tiny stream, imagining her troubles flowing away with the water. If they bumped into a couple of rocks and cracked along the way, so much the better.
“Excuse me –”
She shrieked in surprise, turning so fast her feet slipped on the gritty limestone. Her arms pinwheeled desperately in an attempt to catch her balance. She felt her hand hit something, then everything stopped for just a moment.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “You’re not going to fall.” Though a Germanic accent colored his speech, his English was perfect.
She was leaning sideways over the stream, her right arm stretched toward the rippling water. An arm was around her waist, and she slowly turned to see who held her. She gulped as her glance turned into a stare. He was a tall man with the clearest blue eyes she’d ever seen. His hair was very light blonde, almost white, and it hung past his shoulders. He looked about her age.
“Are you all right?” he asked, eyebrows furrowing in concern.
She nodded, unsure if she could even talk just now. Where had he come from? How had he sneaked up on her so easily? Was she really that distracted? Though she probably should have been a little worried about his proximity, she somehow felt he meant her no harm.
“Here, why don’t you sit down.” He slowly backed up a step, pulling her more upright with him. Once she was no longer in danger of falling, he withdrew his arm and gestured to the nearby park bench.
“Uh, I can’t.” She winced at how stupid she sounded. “I’m… um…. allergic to most metals. I can’t sit there.” But the idea was sound, so she carefully lowered herself to the ground.
He smiled, just showing a hint of his top teeth. “I can relate.” He sat across from her, his long legs folding up more tightly than she expected. He obviously did yoga. “I get the worst rash if I touch it.”
“Really?” she blurted, as surprised by her question as his statement.
He nodded. “I can’t even ride the bus,” he admitted. “It makes me sick.”
“Me too.” She leaned forward, eagerly.
“It’s a bit ironic,” he said with a shrug. “I live in a city, and can’t touch metal, can’t even get too close to it.”
“I’ve never met anyone else with the same allergy as me.”
“Really?” His eyebrows went up slightly. He clearly had an expressive face. “I know quite a lot of people with it. Of course, none of them are here in St. Paul at the moment.” When he looked into her eyes, he felt familiar. “I’m so sorry I startled you.”
“Oh… that’s okay.” Normally it was something she said without thinking, but this time, she meant it.
“My name is Earl.” He placed a large hand in the center of his chest, his long fingers splayed. “I’m an artist.” He pulled a leather strap off his shoulder and over his head, to reveal a worn brown satchel.
“What kind?” When he looked puzzled, she elaborated. “What kind of artist?”
He smiled and opened the flap on his satchel, drawing out a large sketchbook. He hesitated a moment, then handed it to her. “These are… just my ideas.”
She carefully turned over the cover, to be met with a pencil sketch of a fox. The next few pages had a variety of drawings of children in a fountain. She thought the fountain might be downtown, but she wasn’t a hundred percent sure.
“I make paintings from them,” he added.
“They’re amazing.” They looked like photos that had been converted with fancy software. She gazed in awe as buildings, trees, boats, and people came alive on his pages.
“I… I was wondering if you would let me draw you,” he said, uncertainty creeping in to the end of his sentence. “I swear I’m not some freaky stalker or anything,” he added quickly. “But…” pink blossomed on his high cheekbones. “You’re really beautiful, you know? Just looking at you gives me ideas for paintings, and I was hoping you’d let me do that.”
Prompt: “Hey, can I draw you?”
There was nothing more perfect than gliding through the water at two in the morning, under a cloudless sky with a sliver of a moon. This was when everything was calm. The annoying mosquitoes and even more annoying drunks had all gone to sleep or passed out. The bats, who were active early on, had settled in for a few hours. The surface of the lake was still, glassy, with the exception of the small ripples spreading out from her body.
Having a restaurant and bar right on the edge of the lake was a novelty, though it had worn off after the third or fourth karaoke night. It wasn’t that she minded the music. She was all for expressions of happiness. But the off key howling of hammered patrons hurt her sensitive ears. Her evening swims had moved later and later. And it seemed she had finally stumbled upon the perfect time.
She rolled, belly up to gaze at the stars, allowing her momentum to slow, but not stop. She had a long way to go to complete her circuit, but she had plenty of time, and there was no need to rush. Her eyes caught the dim glow of a satellite tracking quickly across the sky, and she smiled.
Without warning, her head rammed into something firm yet yielding. It was immediately followed by an inarticulate shout and a great deal of splashing.
Fearing the worst, she twisted her body to tread water and look around.
A man stood about six feet away, the water just reaching his lower ribs. He was shirtless, and water dripped from his dark hair to shoulders. She couldn’t help following the little rivulets of water down his pale chest, wishing her hands could do the same. Though she was sure the water temperature hadn’t changed, she suddenly felt warmer. He held his arms out, hands open and extended as if he feared he might need to fight something off. He was breathing hard, obviously more startled than she was.
“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly. She didn’t want to disturb the silence of the night needlessly, but she felt bad about causing his panicked state. “I should’ve watched where I was going. Are you all right?“
He blew out heavily, lowering his arms. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay. You?”
She nodded, her lips curving into a small smile. “I’m Luria.“
“Luria? Hi. I’m Krish.” there was a trace of uncertainty in his voice. “So… what are you doing out here this late?“
“Swimming,” she said with a giggle. “Isn’t that obvious?“ She thought he might have blushed, but it was hard to tell in this lighting. “What about you? What are you doing out here?”
“Uh… couldn’t sleep, actually,” he said. He took a couple steps closer. “I’m on vacation.“ He pointed over his shoulder toward the little cabin behind him on shore. “But my brain hasn’t realized it yet.” He had a nice smile, friendly. “So… do you… live around here?“
“I do.” She grinned at the accuracy yet misleading nature of that statement. “Would you be interested in a local tour guide?“ This time, she moved closer.
“Is that an offer?” he asked, delight clear in his wide eyes.
“It is.” She reached a tentative hands toward him, hesitating and pointing to his left shoulder. “You have a bit of lake weed.“
He stared at her for a moment, slightly befuddled as his brain tried to put together her actions and words. “I… what?”
With a little laugh, she let her hand finish its trajectory to pluck off the scraggly green strand and hold it up for him to see.
Prompt:I’m swimming laps in a lake alone at night and I thought no one else was here, but I just swam writing to you, and uh? You’re not wearing a shirt, and your hot as hell. Please take me right here.
Modifications: She’s not human
Bee was a vampire teddy bear. While his plush siblings clamored to frolic with children in the sun, he preferred the shadows and shady areas. It wasn’t that he was in danger of bursting into flames or abruptly deteriorating, because that’s one of those vampire myths that just isn’t true. He was simply of a darker nature and preferred a habitat to match. He often found himself grossly misjudged by his appearance. Baby blue fur and a pelt-matching satin necktie did not fit the stereotype of a vampire. Sharp functional fangs didn’t fit the expectations of a teddy bear.
No other vampires were produced at the facility where he was made, and it seemed his state was accidental. Still, quality control had passed him through, possibly because a despondent man was responsible for ensuring that each plush animal, of the type produced that day, was as free of flaws as the next. The man never had his own teddy bear, and had since been conditioned to believe he didn’t need one. Despite his on-site training, he was not an expert on appropriate features for stuffed animals.
Other teddy bears found his fangs, and the lisp they caused, a bit too creepy for their liking. He worked hard to limit his accent, practicing in private since he’d decided it was best to keep his fuzzy muzzle shut as much as possible around others. He often found himself the recipient of unsolicited advice.
“Go back to the manufacturer,” they said. “They can repair your defects. Do it now, before you have to endure the humiliation of a recall.“
Bee didn’t want to be recalled, but he couldn’t bring himself to seek a change. What if his vampirism was merely a difference without a defect? He was just as cheerful and friendly as the other stuffed toys. And he couldn’t help but fear what would happen to him back at the factory. If he weren’t merely discarded as unsalvageable, would he come out of the repair changed beyond all recognition? Would he lose himself?
No. Despite his loneliness he would not go back to the factory. Not without a stake driven through his plush little heart (contrary to media indications, this merely transfixes vampires, rather than killing them).
So Bee sat on a shelf in the toy department at Target, crammed in with other soft animals who constantly fidgeted to avoid touching him.
“It’s not contagious,” he insisted, marveling at the irony of judgmental stuffed animals.
He heard the grumbling of the other toys in their secret club meetings well before the threats started appearing. Instead of learning to accept him when it became clear that he wasn’t evil, they seemed to believe he was merely waiting to launch some vicious attack. One day he woke to find a collection of candles from the home decor department beside him. The wicks bore evidence of applied heat without successful ignition. A disposable lighter from the checkout lay out of its packaging on the floor as though dropped in haste (vampires can be injured by fire, like anyone or anything else, though it is not the cure-all some might expect).
“It will end badly for you,” a plastic fire truck muttered in passing. “You should leave. Now, before something worse happens.“
Both terrified for his life and horrified by the actions of those who should have been his friends, Bee considered leaving. But he knew he was ill prepared to face the outdoor world. He’d be lucky to last a season. And he still clung to the hope that he might be seen as an appropriate toy for some child. He kept his fur clean and fluffy, checked his bow tie daily, and made sure to look cheerful during business hours, for all the good it did him. Parents and children alike mocked him, recoiling from his fangs.
“This one’s creepy,” a woman said with a shudder, shoving him aside.
“What a weird looking bear, I can’t imagine who’d want it,” another said.
The plush animals who had attempted to murder Bee in his sleep were taken home to be cuddled and played with, while he stayed on the shelf. He feared he would never be bought, never be loved. He worried that if someone did buy him, it would be for some unpleasant purpose, possibly involving large dogs with serviceable teeth.
Bee was feeling rather glum the day he was finally picked up off the shelf. “Check this one out,“ a woman said, frantically waving him at a man wearing a stylish sport coat and brightly artistic tie. “It’s perfect!”
At last, he was perfect, but for what? He was duly scanned and paid for. Tucked into a plastic bag, he traveled blindly away from the store toward his destiny. The crinkling of the bag obscured the conversation of his new owners, though he strained his white satin-lined ears. Before long, they arrived at a party, where he discovered that he was not alone.
At night Bee is now tucked snugly into a toddler bed with a three-year old vampire who periodically hugs him with all his might. He is both friend and nighttime guardian. He doesn’t mind the occasional teething nibbles on his neck, after all he heals quickly (as all vampires do) and tolerance is easy to come by now that he’s found his place.
It was quiet in the big woods these days. From atop her great pine, Zenza could see over most of her neighboring trees. Holding two branches for support, she leaned out, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She smiled as fallen leaves, wet from a recent rain, filled her senses.
“Don’t do it!”
The horrified shout broke her out of her reverie and she looked around for the source.
“For the love of maple sugar, don’t do it!”
She knew that voice. She looked down into a young maple that had barely begun to change color despite the season. Darja stood on one of the uppermost branches and, even from the distance, Zenza could see fear on the girl’s face.
“Oh Zenza, it’s only autumn.”
“What are you talking about?” she demanded. Why did she always have to get the nervous neophytes?
“It’s not worth killing yourself,” she said gently. “You’d be missed far too much.”
Zenza rolled her eyes. “Darja, hasn’t anyone ever told you that dryads can’t fall to their death?” Apparently not, she thought when the girl’s expression changed to one of surprise. No wonder she’d had trouble with heights once her tree reached a reasonable size. Gripping her branches more tightly, Zenza pulled herself back and quickly climbed down to a branch level with Darja’s. The maple would never reach the stature of her great and beautiful pine, few trees ever did. She’d learned to be accommodating in associating with her neighbors. When you lived as long as a tree, it made sense to be friendly.
“Are you sure?” Darja asked uncertainly.
Zenza smiled when she could have taken offense. She was willing to ignore the young one’s skepticism for now. “I have been around the forest a time or two.”
Darja blushed with embarrassment. “Oh, of course you have… I didn’t mean… I’m so sorry.”
“Do try to think before you speak, dear. A polite dryad will get a lot farther with those of us who’ve been here a while.” She stretched, letting the pine needles caress her skin. They must surely be the softest in the forest. “And what are you still doing up?” The young dryad’s honey colored hair hadn’t begun to change tone, which meant she hadn’t even started preparing her maple for the long sleep.
“I wanted to see autumn.” She lifted her chin in a defiant pose. “I’ve been hearing about it for years and have never seen it.”
“Your kind aren’t meant to see autumn but once. You know that.” She let an edge of authority creep into her voice.
“Everybody else is doing it,” Darja complained. She gestured expansively toward the forest, where there were other trees whose leaves had barely begun to turn.
“Red maples are notorious for cutting it close,” Zenza said, disregarding many of the unchanged trees. “Their leaves rarely change, and they hold on to many of them until the first snowfall.” She quickly swung down to the next branch. “Come with me, I want to show you something.” Her bare feet hit the ground so lightly they hardly made a sound. Dryads were naturally able to walk through dry leaves and pine needles without making much noise. Some were better than others, and she was proud of her silent step. It had taken decades to perfect, but was well worth the effort. She’d been able to sneak up on more than one man that way, and by the time they saw her, she’d already woven her magic around them.
Darja dropped down out of her tree, making considerably more noise. She patted the sugar maple’s trunk before approaching Zenza. “What is it?”
Zenza grabbed the younger one’s hand and pulled her through the woods. “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
Darja squealed in delight. “I love surprises!”
Zenza grinned at her. “All dryads do.” The trees swayed in the gentle breeze, sending leaves in varied shades of red, gold, and rust floating and spiraling down to the forest floor. It was her favorite time of year to run through the forest. So many dryads were already into the deep sleep, and many others were preparing their trees for the cold to come. As an older, wiser dryad, Zenza kept her tree ready most of the time. And she managed to do it without missing a single party.
The deciduous dryads often complained about not getting to see the splendid autumn colors that her kind was privy to. Zenza had always believed in balance, and she suspected that autumn was compensation to her kind for the disrupted winter sleep they endured. Winter was not necessarily a joy to be awake through, although it also had its advantages. Perhaps if the weather was right this year, she could catch a man for solstice. What a lovely gift to her tree.
Darja’s hand was clammy despite their exercise. “Are you all right?” Zenza slowed down and looked at her companion.
Darja nodded. “I didn’t realize how cool it gets this time of year.”
“Autumn’s the transition to winter, which is cold enough to kill. Of course it’s chilly now.” They were nearly to the place.
“Do you have many parties in the winter?”
Zenza laughed. “Afraid you’re missing out on the fun while you sleep?”
Darja blushed but didn’t answer.
“We’re dryads, of course we have parties. They’re not as big as the summer parties, and we don’t have them as often.” She wouldn’t mention the dancing or the songs to the winter stars. Darja didn’t need anything else to add to her indecision about the deep sleep. “We’d get pretty lonely if it weren’t for the parties and occasional travelers.”
“Humans travel in the winter?”
Zenza giggled. “They’re not like us. They can’t sleep through the winter. They’d starve.”
“Ever seen a human?”
“Well yes,” Darja said quickly. “They look a lot like us.”
“But they age,” Zenza said. “And they have such short lives.” She’d stopped counting the years at 300. Appearance was irrelevant when gauging a dryad’s age. It was all in the attitude, which seemed to grow as the trees did.
“Age?” It was clearly a foreign concept.
“Their bodies change over time, becoming fragile after only a few decades,” she explained. “You know there are two kinds of humans, men and women?” At Darja’s nod she continued. “The women are a little like us.” She ran one hand down the side of her body, emphasizing the swell of her breasts and curve of her hips. “The men make good lovers, though you’ve got to catch them first.” She grinned in delight. Men were almost better than parties.
Darja froze and tried to pull her hand away. “Are you crazy?”
“You’ve got tree-love,” Zenza replied with a laugh.
“Don’t you love your tree?” Darja looked horrified, as if Zenza’s words were blasphemy.
“Of course I do,” Zenza said. “But I’m not blinded by his beauty anymore. We all go through it, so don’t think I’m teasing you.” She squeezed the younger one’s hand. “But when you grow beyond that, you’ll see that there are many ways to help your tree.”
“Doesn’t he get jealous?”
It took all her effort not to laugh out loud at the girl. “Oh goodness no. He likes anything that makes me happy. Besides,” she continued with a shrug. “With no other pines nearby it’s one of the few ways for us to propagate.”
Darja just stared, her face a mixture of horror and awe. She’d evidently never been told this either.
“You won’t be interested in humans for a while, I think,” Zenza said gently. “But believe me, they can be very nice.”
“But aren’t they dangerous?” Darja whispered. “I’ve heard they kill.”
She sighed. “Sometimes they do. And some are very dangerous.” In her youth, several dryads had been captured and taken away by humans. They must have been treated quite badly, although they clearly weren’t killed outright. The tree was the reflection of the dryad, and the reverse was also true. One could not survive if the other died. Those trees had languished for years with no one to care for them. Zenza had been required to cut one tree down to end his suffering. It killed his lost one wherever she’d ended up, and he wanted to end her misery. It had been very difficult, but a dryad couldn’t refuse a tree’s request, even if it wasn’t her own. She shoved the memory back down where it had come from.
“I only go after the ones who travel alone, and I always bind them first. Our magic works well on humans.” Zenza tugged on Darja’s hand to get her moving again. “We’re almost there.” She tightened her grip all but hauling the young dryad into the grove. “Here we are.”
Darja shrieked and tried to pull away.
“Oh, now stop that!” Zenza snapped. Young ones were so flighty and quick to panic, but this was a lesson she needed to learn if she wanted her tree to live to fifty.
Scattered about the grove were a number of maples, all stunted and badly damaged. Great sections of the trees were dead, while other parts continued to live. Dead branches hung loosely by the fibers of the bark. Others rotted in their original positions on the tree, as if the dryads had been unable to perform appropriate maintenance to remove them.
“Zenza, take me home!” Darja wailed as she slapped at the older dryad’s hand.
Zenza grabbed the scruff of the girl’s neck and gave her a shake. “I’m your elder and you will behave yourself.” She released Darja once she stopped struggling. “This is very important, and you’d do best to pay attention.”
“This is a terrible sickly place,” Darja whimpered. “What happened?”
“Four years ago the dryads of this grove decided they needed to see the leaves change.” She pulled Darja over to the nearest tree and gently lay her free hand on the trunk. “It takes time to prepare a tree for the deep sleep, and they waited too long. The frost came hard, and the dryads were hurt as much as their trees. Some died outright.” She glanced over her shoulder to one of the unlucky ones. Or perhaps it was lucky to have been spared this continued misery.
“But some lived,” Darja said quickly. “These trees are still alive.”
“Yes, some lived.”
“Why don’t they take care of their trees then?”
She met the girl’s eyes. “How well could you trim your tree’s damaged limbs with only half your fingers or one hand?” She let go of Darja’s hand, certain she wouldn’t bolt now. “They do the best they can, and for the stronger ones there will eventually be recovery, but the scars wihttp://s-n-arly.tumblr.com/Fictionll always be there.”
Darja sniffled. “Why doesn’t anyone help them?”
“Some of us do,” Zenza said with a nod. “But there are others who feel it is not their job to look after foolish dryads who make decisions that threaten their trees.” She turned and climbed one of the damaged trees. She reached into a hollow of a dead branch and pulled out a bit of honeycomb. She dropped to the ground and held the sweeting out to Darja. All sugar maple dryads loved sweet things. The sweeter the sap, the happier the tree, the more vibrant the leaves would be.
“Oh, I couldn’t take their honey.” Holding up both hands, she shook her head.
“It’s all right, really. I put the bees there last spring so they would always have sweet things nearby.” She put the honeycomb in the younger girl’s hand. “Besides, these dryads have all gone to sleep for the winter, and honey doesn’t last long in the forest.”
Darja nibbled at the honeycomb as she continued to look around. “I should get back,” she said after a long pause. “I’ve so much to do.”
“Yes, you have.” She turned to guide the younger one out of the grove. “I’m sorry if it upset you, but this is something we all need to face sometime.”
“You’re right of course.” They walked in silence a few moments. “Thank you.”
Zenza turned to her and smiled. “If I won’t teach you, what good am I as an elder?”
Despite the heat of the day, the forest was cool. It was truly the only place to be, if one had any choice in the matter. Kevesh waded through the shallow stream, his great taloned feet sinking in the soft mud and sending out eddies of cloudy water behind him. Although he was one of the largest creatures in the forest, he watched where he walked. He carefully stepped over a painted turtle peering up at him with some concern.
“I see you, little shell-friend,” he called softly, not wishing to disturb the forest with his usual booming voice.
Though most of the water in the slowly moving stream was stagnant, it was cool. Kevesh held his wings flat against his back as he pushed headlong between two pines at the water’s edge. His scales protected him from the worst of the prickly branches, but it hurt to catch a wing that way. Yes, there it was. The hollow he’d dug into the side of the hill had grown thick with moss since his last visit. It would be a comfortable place to wait out the heat of the day. As he took a deep breath, nearby branches and fronds wafted toward him. He loved the smell of the forest in the summer. The only way he’d ever been able to describe it was ‘green,’ like wet ferns. But then, dragons weren’t fond of fancy descriptions and gold-plated words.
As he settled himself on his bed of politrichum moss, he recognized the distinctive rounded leaves of wild mint. He grinned, then rubbed the side of his muzzle through the plants, smearing himself with the juice. It was turning out to be a perfect day.
He’d chosen this particular place because it was comfortable, yet it provided him with a variety of things to watch. At a hundred and fifty, he was too young to sleep a whole day through the way older dragons might. Water bugs skated across the surface of the stream and small pools of standing water. The thick full plants shook from the passage of a muskrat who occasionally stopped to snack on the varied flora. Every once in a while a bird would sing out, or squawk in protest, but this appeared to be a time of inactivity for them. A low bridge connected the well-worn dirt path that reached the stream on both sides. In the past he’d gotten to watch, unseen, as humans used the little bridge in their travels through the forest. He couldn’t see the two frogs carrying on a conversation on the other side of the bridge; it was as well he wasn’t a gossip. A red squirrel, chirping in alarm, ran partway up a nearby birch, turning to continue his harangue at an unseen opponent below.
Kevesh had just settled his head on his forearms when he heard the approaching hoof-beats of a horse. He grinned again. Humans were peculiar and fascinating creatures, and he’d spent a great deal of time trying to figure out just what they were all about. How he’d love to write a paper on their culture. He sighed. They spooked easily, making them difficult to research.
“Let me down!”
The sharp voice pulled Kevesh out of his contemplation. A delectable looking white steed paused at the edge of the bridge. Naturally, his master was a knight in shining plate armor. The protest had come from a young maiden squirming in the knight’s arms.
“I said, let me go!” she shrieked, struggling against his hold. Most of her sandy hair was pulled back in a braid, although some had come free to hang about her oval face.
The man laughed. “Do you think I care one way or the other what you say?” He tightened his arms around her. “You belong to me now, Mirabelle. The sooner you accept it the easier it will be.”
“Belong to you?” she demanded. “I don’t belong to anyone!” She pounded on his hands.
He laughed again.
Kevesh watched the man dismount, pulling the maiden with him. He’d never seen anything like this, but he’d always known that knights were despicable sorts and not to be trusted for an instant. There was a dull clank as the knight pulled off his helmet and dropped it nearby. His beard and mustache were blond, as was his cropped hair, and a ring of sweat circled his face. Holding Mirabelle by the back of her head, he kissed her. Although for a moment, Kevesh thought the man was trying to eat her face.
Mirabelle started to cry. “Leave me alone.”
“You’re mine, Mira. And you’re far too fine to leave alone.” He ran his dagger through the laces of her bodice, and with a swift jerk, the blade cut through.
“But, you’re a knight,” she protested tearfully.
He grinned at her, the kind of grin that raised the spines on Kevesh’s back. “Of course I’m a knight.” He kissed her again. “What did you expect?”
“You’re supposed to help people,” she insisted, pushing at his armor-clad chest.
“And I am.” There was that grin again. “I’m helping myself.”
She managed to get a hold of her emotions for a moment. “I’ve no wish to marry you, Sir Lavine,” she said, managing to sound very formal and self-assured.
He laughed, and Kevesh had to stifle the low growl he wanted to let out. “I’m not going to marry you Mira. But if I like you enough, I may keep you a while.”
“My father will kill you!” She batted at his hands as he worked the fastenings of her light blue skirt.
“He’ll do no such thing,” Sir Lavine corrected her quietly. “I resolved his little sheep theft problem and he owes me. He knows it.” He chuckled at his success, and her skirt slipped to the ground. He placed a heavy foot on it, preventing her from pulling it back on.
Her face was twisted in anger. “The thieves were a couple of starving children.”
The knight shrugged. “That doesn’t matter. I caught them, and when he finds you gone, he’ll know I’ve taken my reward.” He took advantage of her shock to loosen the tie of her full-length chemise, which slipped to her waist as the sleeves caught on her hands.
She belatedly tried to cover herself as Sir Lavine fought her quick hands. In the struggle, Mirabelle lost her chemise, but Sir Lavine lost his hold on her, and she scrambled toward Kevesh’s forest resting place.
“You can’t run away from me Mira. Where will you hide in the big dark forest?” He followed, not quite at a run.
Mirabelle nearly ran into Kevesh before she saw him, and he abruptly sat up. She stood frozen with fear.
“I won’t hurt you,” Kevesh whispered.
“But you’re a dragon,” she protested in a whisper, her earlier plight momentarily forgotten.
“I suppose you think dragons eat people,” he said. “That’s about as accurate as knights in shining armor rescuing the weak and downtrodden out of the goodness of their hearts.” He got to all four feet and pulled her toward him. It was to her credit that she didn’t scream or faint. “Stand behind me, and I’ll see what I can do about this knight of yours.”
Sir Lavine pushed through the trees and stared at Kevesh for a moment, completely stunned. “Run Mira!” he shouted. Trained reflexes springing to action, he jerked his sword from it’s scabbard. “It’ll eat you!”
Kevesh let out a deafening roar, and the entire forest seemed to go silent. Sometimes it was nice to be a dragon. “The lady Mirabelle will not be taking any more of your advice, Sir whatever you call yourself.” He casually batted the sword out of the knight’s hand. As the knight ran toward his horse, equally panicked by the sight of a dragon, Kevesh followed, stomping his feet in an excess of draconic glee. Yes indeed, these were the times when it was terrific to be a dragon.
Once he was sure the man was gone, and not likely to come back with one of those stupid poking sticks, which could be quite a problem if one wasn’t careful, Kevesh carefully picked up the discarded clothes. He brushed them off as gently as his claws would permit, and turned back toward his hollow. Mirabelle was peeking out from behind the trees, watching him. Her eyes were a lovely green, and he was surprised to see the color in a human face. Perhaps they weren’t so different after all.
“I imagine you’ll want these back,” he said, holding out her clothes. Humans were exceedingly odd about concealing their bodies. Kevesh had often wondered if it was a necessary adaption to protect what appeared to be very thin skin, or if it was the result of one of their bizarre religions.
She stepped forward, still timid, and took her clothes. She quickly pulled on her white chemise, all the while thanking him profusely for his assistance. “I don’t know what I would have done if not for you…” she paused suddenly. “You do have a name, don’t you?”
“I’m Kevesh,” he said with a nod.
“Well, Kevesh, I don’t know that a dragon has any use for the aid of a human, but is there anything I can do for you?”
“You mean that?” he asked. On his few close encounters with humans, most couldn’t wait to get as far from him as possible.
She nodded, smiling.
Kevesh thought about his paper. “Would you come home with me? I’ve a research project I could really use your help with.”
“Go home with you?” she asked hesitantly. “You mean, to live with you?”
“Oh yes. For a little while at least.”
“I don’t know. It isn’t quite what I had in mind.”
“We could have lots of fun, and I’d get to do my research. The elders have been telling me for years that there’s no way I’ll finish my project. If you’ll help me…” Just considering the implications made him shake his head. “I have some very good ideas, and I suspect it could be beneficial to people too.” He refrained from using his normal persuasive expression. She might just run off to find that stupid knight, thinking him less frightening.
She thought about it “I can’t really go home. After the way I disappeared, what would they think?”
“Please come with me, lady Mirabelle?”
Swallowing the last of her hesitation, she gave him a low curtsey. “It would be an honor to assist you in your research.”
“Well then, why don’t you hop on?” He looked pointedly to his back.
She stared at him a moment. “You mean, ride you?”
“It would take a long time to get to my home if you were to try it on foot. The mountain would surely be impossible.” He crouched down. “Flying’s fun, Mirabelle. You’ll like it.” He let his enthusiasm creep into his voice. Flying was another great thing about being a dragon.
He directed her to use his front leg as a step up to his back, just to the front of his wings. Although she seemed a bit unsure of the concept, she was very cooperative. He was a little more than twice the size of a good war horse and he suspected she was used to riding horses.
“What do you eat?” Kevesh asked, wondering if they would need to stop somewhere on the way. “I’ve never had an occasion to dine with a person before.”
“Oh, I’ll eat most any vegetables, fish or meat…” She paused. “What do you eat?” her voice was uncertain.
His graceful neck allowed him to look at her even as she sat astride him. “Certainly not people.” He made a face. “Too many small bones to get stuck in your throat. And it’s a long throat to have things stuck in. Besides, I hear humans cause bloating, and it’s a bad idea for a fire breather to get gas.”
“Oh,” she looked surprised.
“I eat a lot of meat though. I’m a pretty good hunter,” he said with a bit of pride. He began walking them out of the forest then.
“So you don’t eat people, but you do breathe fire,” she said, as if trying to reconcile fact with myth.
“Can you really see halfway across the planet?”
He hadn’t heard that one before. “Oh no. Dragons are actually quite nearsighted.”
“But… I thought flying predators had to have good eyes for hunting.”
He paused and flashed her a look. “You think I could make a meal out of a mouse?” He twitched his tail, a good length away, to indicate his size. “I just need to be able to spot a cow, or a sheep, and they’re plenty big enough for me to see.” He smiled.. “I think we have a lot to learn about each other. I hope you’re up for the task.”
“Oh, I am,” she insisted quickly.
He brought them out of the forest then. “Hang on Mirabelle. Time for your first flying lesson.” He could hardly wait to show her his home, and he was glad he’d tidied up earlier. He wasn’t sure what humans were used to, and he hoped they could make some sensible compromises. The chance to have a human room-mate was just too fabulous to pass up. His neighbors would be so jealous.
“Are all knights like Sir Lavine?” she asked as they took to the air.
It was the perfect time to dispel myths. “Trust me. I’ve seen my share of knights, and they’re no good.”
“Dragon Tale” appeared in the DragonCon chapbook Do Virgins Taste Better, edited by Celia L. Badon and published by 7-Realms Publishing Corp in August 2000. This was my first sale.
This story was written while sitting on a wooden bridge over a stream in the north-woods of Wisconsin, which ended up giving me the setting. It shows my penchant for both fractured fairy tales and turning the traditional hero into the villain