Non-Binding – Part 6

“Hey, you look really happy today,” Simza said as she paused by Adric’s chair before first hour.

His smiles were coming more readily now, and they didn’t feel so out of place. “Yeah. I worked really hard over the weekend, and I’m finally caught up on everything.” He held out his hands as if to demonstrated their emptiness. “So now I’ll only have regular homework.”

“That’s wonderful!” She bent down to give him a quick hug. “Does this mean you’ll be able to hang out when Zin or I ask, now?”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “I was actually wondering if you guys might want to come over and play video games this afternoon. My cousins have a really nice set up with the biggest TV I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m in,” Zindel said. “But a word to the wise, Cat’s wicked good at first person shooters.”

The bell cut off further conversation.

It wasn’t until lunch that it became clear Laurel hadn’t given up her complaint about having a vampire in her core block. Adric was sitting next to Simza, which had somehow become the default, with the rest of her circle around them. Everyone seemed pretty excited about going home with him after school, and they were discussing what game systems and games they wanted to try.

Adric hadn’t even noticed his friends getting distracted until the lunch room went oddly quiet. It wasn’t silent, by any stretch, but a lot of kids had clearly stopped to stare. A line of students led by Laurel were marching into the lunchroom, carrying posters with anti-vampire messages.

No blood suckers in my school!

Vamps go back to Europe!!

UNdead and UNwelcome

EVERY vamp is a killer!

They want you’re blood!

Kick ’em out!

A wave of garlic-scented air washed over him, and Adric doubled over, gagging. He couldn’t help but recall the last time he’d smelled it. The touch of the carpet under his fingers. His parents’ blood all over the living room.

The cafeteria was suddenly too loud, too crowded, too hot. Someone tugged on his arm, but he pulled away with a moan. Leaping to his feet, he ran blindly out of the room, crashing into several protesters without even slowing down. His vision was distorted, reduced to a sick combination of red and blue. He only stopped when he hit a wall solid enough to knock him down.

Back hunched, he pressed his face to his knees and huddled close to the wall. His whole body shook hard enough to render him useless. Mindless rage pushed at the edge of his consciousness, and it was all he could do to keep it from breaking through and taking over. His hands grasped fistfuls of his hair and pulled, trying to force himself to focus on something physical and isolated.

After what had felt like an eternity, it suddenly became easier. He was abruptly aware of his sharp uneven gasps, and moved his attention to steadying his breathing. It was quieter now, though life had surely continued around him. After all, if it hadn’t stopped for his parents’ death, why would it pause for his meltdown? After another unmeasurable time, he realized there was a voice, soothing and gentle.

“It’s okay, Adric,” Simza whispered. “You’re safe. Nothing’s going to hurt you. And you aren’t going to hurt anyone else. I’m here with you, and you’re safe. We’re both safe.”

He moaned and yanked at his hair.

“Oh!” It was a sound of dismay. “No, don’t hurt yourself,” Simza begged, her fingers ghosting over his head without really touching him. “Let me help you Adric. Please.”

She could force her magic on him. He was sure he was no match for her ability to incapacitate him, but she hadn’t. She’d shielded him in a magic bubble, and when that wasn’t enough she asked for consent. Still curled in on himself, he released his tangled locks with one hand and reached toward her. Even with his senses on overload, he knew where she was.

Her fingers slipped between his, and her magic washed over him like a warm wave. He trembled once, then stopped, relishing for a moment in the stillness. With a nudge of her free hand, he unfolded and allowed himself to be pulled against her, his face pressed to her neck. Her fingertips caressed his cheek a few times.

“Doing a little better?” she asked.

He nodded, not sure he could talk yet. He felt limp and exhausted.

“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Don’t wanna.”

“Yeah, I’m not surprised,” she murmured. “But I think I need to know what made you react like that. I know you don’t have the benefit of a bond, so I get that you’re more sensitive. But this was more than that. You don’t have to be too specific, if that helps.”

He twisted so he could more fully lean on her, his free arm slipping around her. She was warm and safe and strong. She was so kind. She’d rescued him twice, even though she didn’t know him well. She deserved to know. “It was the garlic,” he finally whispered. “On top of the hate, it was too much.”

Her hand made its way into his hair, soothing his scalp where he’d yanked at it. “I thought garlic was just an annoyance to your people.”

“We have a… history with it,” he explained. “On it’s own, it’s nothing. But people have used it for centuries in misguided attempts to kill vampires. The association is pretty awful at this point.”

“That’s disgusting.” Her hand squeezed his firmly.

He nodded. “Almost two months ago, I came home from school and…” His voice caught. He took a breath. “My parents had been murdered.” He hadn’t spoken to anyone about this once the emergency response team had shown up. He was surprised he managed to get the words out.

“Oh god, Adric,” she whimpered. “I’m so sorry.” She moved so she could press her cheek to his. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to,” she reiterated.

He wanted her to know, it was almost a compulsion. “I’m the one who found them, and it was…” He gulped. “It was horrible. Whoever did it was afraid they’d recover, so they used almost all of the myths about killing us.” The wooden stakes, iron nails, and odd burns in the upholstery and carpet still showed up in his dreams. “There was garlic, and… I guess the smell just… it was like finding them all over again. It was like being alone in the living room with my dead parents, and waiting for a warlock to show up and lock me down.”

She turned toward him so she could hug him with both arms, rather than the odd hug and snuggle hybrid she’d been maintaining. “I’m so sorry Adric. You don’t deserve any of this.”

He clung to her and the sense of peace she gave him.

“I think I understand why you haven’t bonded with anyone else.” Her fingers smoothed his hair away from his face. “I can’t imagine having it ripped away from you like that.” She sighed.

“Yeah, but I’m going to have to do it… probably before I’ll be allowed to come back to school.” Just when he’d gotten all caught up and seemed to be fitting in.

“Hey, it’s going to be all right,” she promised. “You don’t really think you’ll get kicked out for this, do you?”

Adric shrugged, finally opening his eyes. He could see someone outside their bubble, and they were holding an opaque purple curtain of magic around Simza’s translucent bubble.

“That’s Master Lemire,” she explained. “He’s the school nurse and an amazing warlock.”

He groaned. It made sense that he’d been called in, but it felt like another strike against him.

“You’re not going to be suspended for having a panic attack,” she said with a snort. “You didn’t hurt anyone, and you actively removed yourself from a situation before you could lose control. Those are all points in your favor.”

“I feel like a disappointment,” he said. The energy of his freak out had dropped him into a hole of self-loathing.

“I have a suggestion, if you’d be open to it,” she said quietly.

He nodded. She’d helped him, and she knew so much.

“I think you need your new bond to be as different as possible from your old one, then it won’t feel like you’re replacing it.” She hesitated, then loosened her hold enough to lean over and look into his face. “I’d like you to bond with my circle; instead of an individual binding, you’ll be connected to every member of the circle. We’re friends, not family, and none of us are vampires.”

“It would definitely be different,” he agreed. He took a moment to consider it, surprised to find that it didn’t cause the strong revulsion the idea of bonding with his aunt and uncle did.

“Once you’ve settled into the circle, I think you should bond with some of your people again,” she suggested. “Because that’s probably important, too.”

She wasn’t wrong. “Okay.”

“Okay? Like, you agree or like you’ll do it?” A half smile crept onto her face, and he suspected she knew the answer but was just verifying.

“Both.” He snorted and slid one hand down to grasp hers. “You’re right, about what I need to do. And yes, I’ll join your circle.”

Non-Binding – Part 5

The first day of school established a pattern that worked nicely for Adric for the first few weeks. As soon as he arrived, he met up with Zindel before heading to class. Laurel was absent for a couple days, and when she returned, she went out of her way to ignore him. He walked to journalism with Catriona. He had lunch with Simza’s circle, where he felt welcomed and comfortable. As Zindel shared stories of his art class clay-tastrophes, Adric realized he was smiling for the first time since he’d lost his parents.

Somehow he managed to have one member of the circle in his last three classes of the day, so he was never on his own. Sure, the friendships were new, but they were a start. After school, he settled in at the gate-leg desk that had been hastily assembled in his room, with a promise of something more appropriate as soon as there was time. He spent a few hours on the day’s homework before dinner, and a few hours on catch-up work after.

“Adric, I got a call from your guidance counselor today,” Auntie Sage mentioned one evening as they were finishing up dinner. “She’s really impressed with how well you’re fitting in and catching up.”

Adric nodded, a little relieved even though he’d known there couldn’t be any complaints. “It’s going well.” His cousins went quiet, and while they weren’t staring, he could feel them listening intently.

Auntie Sage beamed at him. “I’m so happy to hear that.”

“You’re obviously working hard,” Uncle Patrick said as he plucked the napkin from his lap. “And that’s good to see, but we don’t want you to overdo it. Down time is good, too.”

Adric nodded. “Yeah. I just kind of want to get caught up. I’m getting close, so things should ease up a little soon.”

“Are you making some friends?” Auntie Sage asked, hopefully. “I know you mentioned there were some nice kids in your core block.”

He felt the smile on his face again. “Yeah. They are pretty nice. They’ve helped me out, a lot.”

“How’s your control feel?” Uncle Patrick finally asked the inevitable question.

“It’s okay,” Adric insisted, a little to quickly. “I mean, there’ve been a couple of rough moments, mostly the first day, really. Overall it’s been fine. And I’m being careful not to push it.” The last thing he wanted was for them to think he was irresponsible.

“Do you think you’re up to trying a bonding ceremony?” his uncle wanted to know.

Adric forced himself to take stock and think before answering. There was still a flash of revulsion, but it wasn’t the near panic he’d felt before. “Not… not yet,” he said quietly. “But… I think I’m getting closer.” He stared down at his hands. “Could you ask again in another week?”

“We’re not trying to push you, if you aren’t ready,” his uncle insisted. “We just want to keep you safe.”

Adric nodded, feeling like a huge disappointment. Tricia’s hand unexpectedly reached over from her spot beside him and squeezed his wrist.

“He has a good safety net at school,” his cousin assured her parents. “Simza’s circle is super strong, and they’re like the most positive people on the planet.”

“Simza’s circle?” Auntie Sage asked, her interest definitely piqued.

“My friends,” Adric explained. “There’s seven of them, and they’re all bound to each other to help with their control.”

Nate snorted. “You should let her adopt you.”

Adric’s face heated up, and he wasn’t quite sure why.

“It’s obvious she wants to,” Nate continued. “Sure, she’s as kind-hearted as they come, but I’ve seen the way she looks at you.”

“Ooooh.” Auntie Sage leaned forward in interest. “How does she look at him?”

Adric lurched to his feet. “Oh. Wow. Is that the time? I still have a ton of work to do.” He snatched his dishes off the table and headed for the dishwasher. “Talk to you later.” He bolted for his room.

Non-Binding – Part 4

After his three-hour block of core classes, Adric had a journalism elective before lunch. It turned out that Catriona shared it with him, and she designated herself his guide and mentor. They were wrapping up a feature writing unit, and his western European witch teacher shared a couple of online folders with readings and past assignments as catch up. It was a good thing he didn’t have any after school plans, and wouldn’t for a while. He was going to be spending hours every night on homework, probably for the next month.

Catriona walked him to the cafeteria and pointed out the table Simza’s circle usually occupied before heading to the lunch line that met her needs. As he crossed the room, loud with chatter and clanking cutlery, he hesitated when he heard his name.

“How was your morning?” Tricia asked, catching his elbow under her hand. She was doing her best to sound casual, but he could see her underlying concern.

“It was good,” he insisted, but frowned when he recalled his hostile fae classmate. “Mostly.”

Tricia’s blue eyes narrowed. “What do you mean mostly?”

He shrugged. “I have a first generation fae integrator in my core block, and she’s…”

“A bitch?” Tricia suggested.

He wasn’t able to squelch the smile. “Yeah. That’d be about right. I’m the only vampire in the class, and she was pretty unhappy about it.”

“Did she do anything inappropriate?” Tricia asked quickly, her forehead wrinkling the way it did when she was worried. “If she did, you can and totally should report it.”

“Already done,” said a voice at Adric’s elbow. He twitched, surprised anyone could get that close without him realizing it. Simza stood slightly behind him and off to one side. “We don’t tolerate ethnocentrist bullying, and administration takes it very seriously.”

“Uh…” He felt stupid again. What was it with this girl shutting down his brain? He’d kind of hoped ignoring Laurel would make the problem go away. If he proved himself not a threat, wouldn’t that carry more weight than detention, or whatever they did here? He glanced at Tricia, who was now grinning at him. “Tricia, this is Simza, she’s in my core block. Simza, this is my cousin Tricia, she’s a sophomore.”

“Nice to meet you,” Simza said, happiness radiating off her. “Aren’t you on student council?”

Tricia nodded and grabbed the offered hand. “Are you going to adopt him?”

Adric felt his face heat up as both girls looked at him before turning back to each other. What were they talking about?

“That’s up to him,” Simza replied with a wink. “Do you have any objections?”

“None.” Tricia hopped up and down and clapped her hands in glee. “I’ll let you guys get to your lunch.” She patted Adric’s arm twice. “See you later, cuz.” She jogged back between the tables to the group she’d been sitting with earlier.

Puzzled, Adric turned to Simza. “What was that about?”

“We’ll talk about it later,” she said. “But I promised you’d meet my circle, so let’s do that.” She led him over to the end of a table where Zindel already sat. There were several empty seats between him and the next group of students.

“So what is your circle?” Adric asked, hoping to get some insight to his new classmate. “Is it, like, a nickname for your friend group?”

She gestured for him to take a seat across from the werewolf. “Zin, you want to explain?”

Zindel snorted. “Are you familiar with chovihani?”

Adric shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “We didn’t have any Romani in Madison, so I guess it didn’t get covered.”

Simza shrugged. “We’re not a huge ethnic group, and we… we haven’t been the most popular, historically. So there really aren’t a lot of us anywhere anymore. Not even back in Europe.” She pulled a red reusable lunch bag out of her backpack. “Chovihani are essentially the Romani equivalent of a warlock.”

“Magical heavy hitters,” Zindel added. “Their principles of magic reflect other users, but are actually completely different.”

“So, no coven?” Adric asked.

Most work best as solo practitioners,” Simza said, emphasizing that first word.

“But not you?”

Zindel laughed as if it was the most hilarious thing in the world.

“Zindel.” There was a definite note of warning in her voice.

“Come on Simza,” he pleaded. “It’s not often that your reputation is this untarnished. And even you have to admit, it’s pretty funny.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She waved the back of her hand at him, encouraging him to continue.

“Simza’s probably the strongest chovihani in the history of our people,” Zindel explained. “All that power comes with a really sensitive control system, which means it’s easy for things to go wrong. Young magic users make a lot of mistakes. It’s just part of the package.”

“Oh.” Adric suddenly understood. He glanced down at her, surprised to see pink in her dark cheeks, far more than a hint. “So you had a few accidents, then?” he asked, determined not to tease, because loss of control was a scary thing.

Zindel let out a bark of laughter before slapping his hand over his mouth and ducking his head to hide his expression.

Simza scowled at her friend, but something about it seemed affectionate. “Few is not how I’d describe it.” She let out a sigh and a half-embarrassed smile made its way onto her face. “Constant train-wreck is more accurate.” She shook her head. “I was home-schooled until seventh grade because I was,” she raised her hands to provide air quote assistance, “too dangerous to be integrated with other students.”

Adric gawked at her. He didn’t even know that was possible. “How… how did you get control of it?” She obviously had; her demonstration in the classroom had been finely nuanced.

“With my circle.” She gestured to the students who had settled around them while she and Zindel spoke. “Historically a chovihani would protect an entire caravan, so she was magically tied to those families, that group, and most of them were regular humans. Something about that connection also served as a fuse or surge protector.” She shrugged. “And I knew that western witches worked best in a group, so I thought I’d see if that helped me.”

“I will never forget all the damn magical theory you made me read,” Zindel growled, though his expression was soft.

She pulled a face at him. “I didn’t want to kill you. Or anyone, really.”

Adric felt a sudden kinship to her. Sure, she could joke about it now, but he could see in her eyes that she remembered what it was like to have no control, to be afraid of what she’d done and could do.

“Anyway, the circle is a little like having a coven, in that it gives me a boost, which wasn’t exactly my goal, but it’s part of the package.” She tilted her head. “But it also gives me control, which is not something that other magic users usually get from a binding.”

“And there’s a joint benefit for the rest of us,” Zindel explained. “I needed a pack, something that served that purpose when I was away from my family for so much of the day. While no one else in the circle is a werewolf, it fills that need.”

“Oooh,” Catriona said, taking the last remaining seat next to Zindel. “Are we explaining the circle?”

“Are you part of it?” Adric asked in surprise. At her nod, he added. “I thought fae magic couldn’t work with other types, like they’re opposites and cancel each other out.”

Catriona shook her head. “That’s a carefully propagated myth, started and maintained by the fae who don’t want to work with others.” She pointed the handle of her bamboo spoon at him and waved it about. “I’m a shape changer, but I couldn’t stay balanced enough to keep to a form.”

Simza giggled. “It was cute.”

“It was distracting.” Catriona let out a huff, making her bangs scatter out of her face. “Having your lab partner randomly cycling from human to peregrine does not create an environment of focus and inquiry.” Her affected tone made it clear that these words were used against her in the past.

“Ah,” Adric said in understanding. The scent of fae and feathers made sense now.

“All of us in Simza’s circle have kind of crazy talent, and none of us are the same,” Zindel picked back up. “On our own, we’re each an uncontrolled mess. With our potential connected, we make each other stronger, and we have an anchor that lets us master our power.”

“I like to say we’re like a tapestry,” Simza added. “On our own, we are loose thread that spills off the loom and blows anywhere. Interwoven, we keep our distinctive color, but we’re contained, held fast, cohesively supported.”

Non-Binding – Part 3

Go back to part 2 if you missed it.

The St. Paul Academy for the Mythically Gifted was only five blocks from his aunt and uncle’s house. It wasn’t a private school like his old one, but there were more similarities than differences. His new classmates came from the full range of human subspecies, though the vampire population was a lot smaller in Minnesota. The uniform was less formal, navy bottoms and red polos instead of sport coats and ties. It was nice to have the comfort of a uniform, but the casual nature was a subtle reminder of how out of place he was.

Adric followed the assistant principal to his first class, still marveling over the buffering spells that calmed down his powers the moment he walked through the front door. It wasn’t the same as being bound, but it was the best he’d felt since his parents were murdered.

“We use a European teaching model for our core classes,” Ms. Bierman explained, as she lead him down a hallway lined with lockers. They had waited until after the first bell, to avoid the crowds. “Your morning classes will be held in the same room, with the same students. Teachers will rotate through during the morning, covering your history, English, and math courses.”

“Did my aunt explain the English and math I was taking at my old school?” The last thing he wanted was to repeat material he’d done last year or the year before.

Ms. Bierman nodded. “Yes. All the students in your cohort are taking AP English and college level calculus.” She smiled, seeming pleased with the question. “We find that we have enough students in each grade to assemble your core class by skill level, with very few exceptions.”

Adric was surprised by that. Part of the reason he’d attended private school was that his parents supported tracking, and most public schools were adamantly opposed to it. Of course, a lot of public schools were poorly equipped to handle the needs or deal with the racial issues that came with having subspecies mixed with regular humans on top of differing skill levels and natural aptitudes.

“I have informed your math teacher that you’ve been out of school for a few weeks, so I expect you’ll have more homework in that subject until you’re up to speed. Your aunt was confident you’d be better served by catching up than switching to a lower level math.”

Adric bobbed his head a few times, mentally reminding himself to thank Auntie Sage for that. “Yeah. I’m good at math, so, yeah.” He felt his nerves bubbling up, starting with colder fingers than usual.

“Your electives start fourth hour, and run through the afternoon. You’ll have students from other core classes and other grades in those.” She held out a single white piece of paper. “Here’s a map in case you have trouble finding those rooms. Your teachers will be understanding if you are tardy to classes this first week, as you find your way around.” She stopped and reached out to knock firmly on a closed door. “Please feel free to come to my office if things get to be too much or you need to talk.”

“Come in,” a woman called from the other side of the door.

The room was quiet as Adric followed Ms. Bierman in. He felt the eyes of his new classmates on him as he stood at the front and met his English teacher. She was a faun who wore a brightly patterned dress and an even brighter smile.

“Welcome to class 11-A,” she said. “We’re so glad you could join us, Adric.” She sounded eager but sincere as she glanced out at the students. There were probably twenty-two other students, seated two to a table, with a few empty spaces. “I’m going to have you sit here with Zindel,” she gestured to an empty chair at a table on the side of the room away from the windows. The boy sitting at the table had shaggy brown hair gathered into a ponytail that cascaded down between his shoulders. His eyes were very dark and his skin mid-brown.

Zindel hastily straightened his pile of notebooks so he wasn’t sprawled over more than half the table. He offered a brief wave of greeting as Adric took his seat. “Hey.”

“Hi.” Feeling awkward, Adric rifled through his backpack, quickly pulling out the laptop he’d been issued, as the rest of the class waited on him. He was here to stay, and he knew he needed local friends, but he wasn’t at all confident in his ability to make a good impression right now.

When the teacher flipped on the Smart Board, he was relieved to see they were in the middle of Huck Finn, which his previous class had completed just days before his abrupt move. Because the information was familiar, he didn’t need to dedicate his full attention to the front of the room. He inhaled slowly through his nose, picking up the scents of those around him. His sense of smell was good enough to give him a rough idea of the class makeup, and he was surprised to realize he was the only vampire. He’d already suspected Zindel was a werewolf, likely Romani variant, and his scent confirmed that. There were at least two of the fae folk within twelve feet of him, and a magic user he couldn’t fully identify.

A little more settled by this knowledge, he redirected his focus to his new teacher.

When the end of class bell rang, he caught himself as he moved to shove everything in his backpack and leave. Staying in the same room with the same people for the first three hours of his day was going to take some getting used to. Hopefully it meant he’d get to know a few other kids pretty well. As the teacher gathered up her materials, his classmates started talking to each other.

“So, Adric, right?” Zindel said. “Where are you from?”

“I grew up in Madison,” Adric said, turning sideways to face his table mate. “I’ve been in St. Paul about a month, but I haven’t really gotten out much.” He hoped his new classmate didn’t ask why he’d moved. He’d tried to prepare responses good for deflection, but he wasn’t convinced they’d work.

“Cool. If you have any questions on the homework or need me to e-mail you my notes, just let me know,” Zindel said, turning his laptop to show meticulously organized notes from English. “My family moved around a lot when I was younger, so I know it can be hard to get your bearings.”

Adric felt himself smile. “Tha-” The sound of a hand coming down hard on his desk cut him off. He looked up into the angry blue eyes of a blonde fae teenager.

“I don’t care who you have to suck up to,” she snarled, “but you need to march yourself down to the office and get transferred out of 11-A.”

Adric stared at her in shock. What the hell?

“It’s bad enough that I have to be integrated with filthy werewolves and common witches, but I will not tolerate vampires in my core block.” She crossed her arms over her chest and glared down her nose at him.

There was a moment of silence before the room exploded in an uproar of raised voices and obscenities. It was hard to tell, but Adric thought he had more support than the fae girl, though it was clear she wasn’t entirely alone in her sentiment. With no bond to buffer him, the hostility was nearly overwhelming. Heat filled his face. His breath caught, going uneven. Fabulous. He was going to end up in the nurse’s office before second hour. Such a great first impression.

As quickly as it started, it stopped. Rather, the external trigger was blocked. The girl behind him had launched herself over her own table, then up onto his in a bizarre form of classroom parkour, leaving her crouched between him and the angry fae. Her right hand was open, palm out and fingers stretched wide, and a wave of magic poured off of her, pushing away sound and emotion.

Zindel leaned close enough to Adric to whisper. “Dude, you gonna be okay? You got anxiety or something?”

“Eh,” Adric replied, feeling like an overwhelmed character from Tricia’s favorite manga.

As soon as the rest of the class realized they weren’t going to be heard anyway, and that the powerful magic user was now in control, the shouting stopped. “Laurel, you know you have no right to make such demands,” she chastised. “And that’s just rude, not to mention bigoted.”

The fae scowled, but none of her emotion projected through the magical barrier. “Vampires are disgusting and dangerous. I shouldn’t be forced to interact with one.”

“Well if you’d paid any attention in biology last year, you’d know they’re not really that different from you and me.” She shook her head, making her twin black braids sway and flick down her back. “He’s no more disgusting than you. In fact, odds are that he’s less so.”

Laurel stomped her foot, like a toddler having a tantrum, and pointed at him. “He has no bond! Don’t tell me you can’t feel that. He’s dangerous!”

From the other faces around the room, most of them had no idea what that meant, but some of them were obviously afraid. He hadn’t bonded with his aunt and uncle yet, because he’d thrown up when they tried it two weeks ago. He’d only ever been bonded to his parents, and losing them the way he had made it especially hard for him to rush into a new one. He knew he’d have to do it eventually, but he needed to heal a little more first.

“You don’t know that,” his defender declared, dropping her spell and planting both fists on her hips. “Instead of accusing him, maybe you should talk to him first.” She pushed herself off the table, forcing Laurel to back up a few steps. “And you know as well as I, that administration wouldn’t let him attend if he were any more dangerous than any of the rest of us.”

She turned to Adric with a smile and an extended hand. “Hi. I’m Simza. I’m chovihani. I sit behind you, and I’ve been going to school here since seventh grade. I’m class 11-A’s representative to the student council, and I want to make sure you feel welcome.”

“Trying to pick up another stray?” Laurel sneered, but Simza didn’t acknowledge the comment.

“Uh… thanks.” Adric felt terribly stupid as he enclosed her hand entirely in his for a moment. This adorable tiny Romani girl stood up for him, a complete stranger. She wasn’t working any obvious magic, but he could feel how powerful she was even after he released her hand.

“If you have any questions or need any help catching up, just let me or Zindel know.” She tapped at her bottom lip with several fingers for a moment. “How about you join us for lunch,” she suggested. “I can introduce the rest of my circle to you, and we can see if any of us have overlapping electives, just to make sure you’re covered.”

“Uh, Simza, you might be coming on a bit strong,” Zindel said in a low voice. “Maybe dial it back a bit, yeah?”

“Oh. I’m sorry, Adric.” A hint of pink filled her dark cheeks. “I kind of get a little…”

“Enthusiastic,” suggested the sandy haired fae girl who sat behind Zindel.

“Uh, yeah,” Simza agreed. “That.”

Zindel snorted, before hastily rubbing one hand over his mouth. “That’s one way to describe it.”

“I’m Cartriona,” the fae girl said, waving from her seat. “Most people call me Cat, but I answer to either, and I’d like to assure you that not all of my people are ethnophobic snobs.” Now that he was looking at her, Adric thought she smelled of an odd mix of fae and feathers. “I’m a third generation integrator, so my family abandoned the old conflicts long ago.”

“Pleasure to meet you.” Adric paused to look at Zindel and Simza. “All of you.” He met Simza’s dark eyes. “And I really appreciate what you did for me. Just being here is… it’s kind of a lot for me right now, and… I’m really not able to deflect negativity as well as I normally would.”

Simza beamed, showing off slightly crooked front teeth. “If you need help, just let me know.” The door closed behind a short squat man with a long braided beard. “Oops. Time for history. We can talk more later.”

Non-Binding – Part 2

Go back to part 1 if you missed it.

A hand on Adric’s shoulder shook him awake. “Come on Adric. Time to get up.”

He resisted the urge to hiss at his aunt and burrow back under the covers. It was a close thing. Instead, he groaned and blinked blearily at her. It had been nearly a month, and he still wasn’t used to his new room in his new house. The extended family he previously only saw on vacation and during holidays had become his primary family, and he didn’t quite feel like he belonged.

Auntie Sage smiled down at him. “There’s a good boy.” She ran her fingers into his wavy blond hair, pushing it out of his face. “Hmmm.” She held out a few strands checking for length. “You growing this out for a ponytail?”

He shrugged.

She straightened up, her wide smile displaying her inhumanly sharp teeth. “Breakfast is ready, sweetie. Normally you’ll walk with Tricia and Nate, but for your first day, we’re going to bring you in to make sure you get oriented all right.”

Adric nodded. His aunt and uncle had decided it was doing him no good to mope at home, and maybe it was time to start school. He’d kept in touch with his friends back in Madison through e-mail, text, and Skype, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing was.

“Get dressed and grab your backpack,” Auntie Sage said. “Join us in the dining room as soon as you can.”

During breakfast, his cousin Nate gave him another run down on the teachers on his schedule, many of whom Nate had the year before. As Adric cleaned up his dishes, his cousin Tricia reached out to lightly touch his wrist, her fingers resting over one of his sun protection charms.

“The school nurse is a wickedly powerful warlock,” she said quietly. “He’s really nice, and he’ll help you out if it’s too much.”

Adric smiled. “Thanks, Tricia. That’s a relief to know.”

“He’ll summon us if you need him to,” she added. She shrugged and rolled her eyes, looking a bit embarrassed. “It’s just… I know this is a lot. And I know you’re better than you were when you got here, but…”

Adric caught her brother’s frantic warding off hand gestures out of the corner of his eye. “We’re there if you need us,” Nate interrupted. “We’ll try to check in with you at lunch.” He caught his sister’s arm and dragged her out of the room. “I need your help on something…”

Sighing, Adric brought his dishes to the kitchen. His discomfort had nothing to do with his family. They had done everything they could to make him feel welcome. They were more understanding and loving than he had a right to expect, but he was a damaged puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit.

Check out part 3.

Non-Binding – Part 1

Adric notched his key into the lock, surprised when the light force pushed the door inward. He stared at the widening gap in confusion. It wasn’t like his parents to leave without latching the front door. He stepped over the threshold, his step faltering when the scent of blood hit him.

Normally it would be appealing, maybe even triggering a hint of hunger, but this blood was wrong. It was strong enough that he should have picked it up from the sidewalk. It smelled of family and magic. He gasped, his keys clattering to the wood floor as he clutched at his chest.

He’d been uneasy since second hour, his usually docile powers sloppy and on edge. So much so that he’d decided to skip cuisine club after school rather than risk something going wrong. His safety-conscious parents were staunch supporters of initiatives promoting a peaceful image of their people; messing that up would be unacceptable. He’d hoped his dad could help him trouble-shoot the problem.

He closed his eyes and grasped for the magical bond they shared, the enchantment that ensured he had complete control over his power and his nature despite the volatility of youth. He lurched against the wall when he found nothing of the familiar magic. He knew what waited in the other room and was vaguely aware of his fingertips sinking into the gypsum wall as he gathered strength for what had to be done.

Shaking and queasy, he pushed himself away from the dented wall and took slow steps down the hall to the living room entrance. His breath stuttered as he took in the scene. Papa’s newspaper had fallen to the floor, open to whatever page he’d been reading. Mama’s teacup lay on its side, its contents spilled over the table and mixed with her blood. There was so much blood, seeping into the couch, congealed on the floor, spattered across his parents’ waxen skin.

The next moment, there was a buzzing in his ear. He was crouched just inside the living room, half behind a chair, with no memory of having moved. He shook his head, trying to clear it.

“-dric Herzmeister?”

He stared at his cellphone wondering when he’d pulled it out and who he’d called. “Uh… sorry. What?”

“This number is registered to an Adric Herzmeister. Are you Adric?” the woman asked. Her voice was unfamiliar, but calming.

“Yes. Yes, I’m Adric.” His head felt cobwebby, like waking from a long sleep.

“This is 911 emergency, Adric,” she explained. “Is there a reason you called? Are you all right?”

He moaned, realizing they needed complete information so they came prepared for everything they were going to have to deal with. But he wasn’t sure he could say it out loud. “It’s my parents,” he forced out. He took a steadying breath and realized there was garlic in the room, probably stuffed in his parents’ mouths. His suddenly shaking hands gripped the phone to avoid dropping it.

“Is there something wrong with your parents?” she prompted.

“Uh-huh.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “They’re dead. Uhm. Permanently dead.” He gasped and let himself slide fully to the floor, curled on his side around his phone.

“Permanently… Adric, are your parents a human subspecies?”

“Yeah,” he mumbled, drawing his long limbs in tighter. “Vampire, western European variant.”

“Okay,” she said. “Can you tell me if you’re bound to anyone other than your parents?”

“Not bound,” he whispered, his throat tight. “You need to send someone who can control me if…”

“It’s okay, Adric,” she interrupted, businesslike. “You’re not going to lose control.”


“I’m sure this is scary. But I’m going to send a team out to help you,” she said, her voice optimistic yet firm. “Can you tell me where you are?” When he didn’t respond right away, she prompted again. “Adric, are you at home?”

“Yes,” he whimpered. “I’m in the living room.”

“And your parents, where are they?”

“On the couch.” He was barely audible. “Mostly.”

“Can you tell if there’s anyone else in the house?” she asked. “I want to make sure you’re safe.”

He shook his head, his canine teeth digging in to his bottom lip. “No one’s here.” He hesitated. “It… it smells like it happened hours ago. And my powers got touchy this morning when I was at school, so… it was probably… then.” He felt hot, and wet tears were drizzling across his face.

“It’s okay, Adric,” the 911 operator murmured. “The team is on their way, and they have a warlock to help you. I’m going to stay on the phone with you until they get there. Just try to focus on my voice and remember we’re here to help you.”

Check out part 2.

Tulgey Wood

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsey were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”

“Is that all she says?”

“Yes. Over and over. Same thing.”

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!”

“What sort of rubbish is that? It doesn’t even sound like English.”

“Well it is, and it isn’t. It’s Jabberwocky. You know. The poem by Lewis Carroll?”

“That the guy who wrote about the magical wardrobe?”

“Not even close. What the hell kind of childhood did you have anyway? Didn’t you ever read Through the Looking Glass?”

“Irrelevant. Does she say anything else? Anything at all.”

“Well… not really.”

“You hesitated there. What is it?”

“Sometimes it’s as if she’s gotten stuck. She’ll repeat the same word over and over like she can’t remember the next line.”

“And then?”

“After a while she just kicks back in as if she’d never hit a glitch.”

“And what is this Jabberwocky…”

They think I can’t hear them, they think I don’t see what’s two feet away. Catatonic, they say. But I’m just ignoring them. They don’t know anything, and they’ll leave the room eventually. They always do.

I’m safe inside myself. No one can reach me here and there’s nothing that can hurt me. I don’t have to feel anything this way. I don’t have to fear anything. I’m disconnected from my body, and though I can’t exactly get around, that’s okay. I don’t need a change of scenery. I don’t need a change of pace. I like it just fine here inside myself where it’s safe.

“Beware! Beware! Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”

They think I’m crazy. They think getting lost in the basement during a power outage was too much for me. They claim I freaked out; short-circuited, or something. Deep seated fear of the dark, they say. They’re so full of shit they wouldn’t recognize the truth if it showed up and bit their heads off in the middle of the night.

“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame…”

There really is a Jabberwock. I’ve seen it. I’ve fought it. I thought my life was as good as over. But if I told them that, they’d still think I was crazy. So it’s better to hide inside myself, where it’s safe. Not even the Jabberwock can get me.

As a child I never had irrational fears of monsters or things that go bump in the night. Now I know better.

It was a stormy summer evening, and I’d tried to keep busy. There wasn’t much to do. The cable had been knocked out and the TV reception was crap without it. I couldn’t risk the computer to a power surge, it was too valuable. So I made myself productive. There was a lot of house to clean. I’d been sick all week and my husband was down with what he’d nursed me through. I let him rest on the couch with a book, occasionally bringing him something to drink.

I admit I’ve never been a fan of the dark. I’m a klutz. The basement’s always been a bit creepy; but in a centipedes’ and spiders’ playhouse sense, not in a monsters’ feeding ground kind of way.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”

I went down to check the laundry. I’ve always been obsessive about getting the clothes out while they were still hot. I avoid a lot of ironing that way. I’m not particularly good at ironing. Never was.

I folded the laundry in the basement, using the chest freezer as a table, and dropping the folded clothes into a basket for my husband to lug up the stairs. I’m also not particularly strong. You might call me a full-grown ninety pound weakling.

“The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head he went galumphing back…”

I was in the basement when our block lost power. I was more annoyed than scared. I knew my own house well enough to find my way out of it in the dark. And really, what’s to fear of the dark? If I didn’t come up soon enough, my husband would be down with a flashlight.

The basement in the dark is a terrible horrible place. It’s something all children seem to know. Parents dismiss it as a silly fear, but I think it’s an ancient instinct. Parents think they know best. Fools. They don’t like things that defy their neat and tidy logical world. In the dark, a basement becomes another realm; a maze populated with all the horrors of ancient epic, and a host of others never dreamed of. Ishtar’s wild bull can’t touch it. The Minotaur is a plaything. Grendel is nothing on the Jabberwock.

“Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came…”

I don’t know how long I stumbled around in the dark. My husband didn’t respond to my calls. My shouts. He blames himself for my condition. If I dared come out, for even a moment, I’d tell him it’s not his fault. He didn’t hear me because I wasn’t in our basement anymore. I was in the place where darkness was born. I was in the Tulgey Wood.

I stumbled into a hard wall, slick with the cool dampness of a limestone dungeon. The surface felt rough, nothing like the sheet rock we’d hung last spring. That should have warned me. But I told myself I was too dependent on my sight and didn’t know what I was feeling. I reminded myself of the old Halloween gag where peeled grapes pass for witches’ eyeballs. I tripped over obstacles that shouldn’t have been there. Instead of understanding, I cursed our tendency to let things go for too long before cleaning them up.

“So rested he by the Tumtum tree, and stood awhile in thought…”

I eventually sat down on the damp and lumpy floor to wait. There was no point in continuing to bumble about in the dark, blindly walking into walls.

I felt a tickle as if light hairs were sweeping gently over my arm. I froze, hardly able to breathe. I was sure my heart would stop when the first spider was followed by others, all running across my bare skin. I tried to tell myself it was just my hair dangling down onto my arms, or brushing against my legs where I sat hunched up. But I knew better. It was the centipedes and other multi-legged creatures come to claim their domain. In the dark they have no fear. In the dark they can be as small as a broken pencil lead, or as big as a horse. They live with the Jabberwock. They share the spoils.

“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch…”

It wasn’t until I heard the louder scuffles, the slithering noises and rustlings of larger things, that I realized something was wrong. That’s when I began to feel fear. You don’t really know what fear is until you’ve faced your basement in the dark.

The rough floor trembled slightly and I heard something approaching with great heavy steps. I called for my husband, thinking it was him. I saw the orange glow from around the corner and got up, virtually running to greet him.

No light burns quite like the fire in Jabberwock’s eyes. It’s red. It’s hot. It sears its imprint on your retina as you try to see. Never meet the eyes of a Jabberwock. In an instant you can know its mind, but it’s very like standing on the lip of an erupting volcano.

Jabberwock knows your fears; any and all of them. It’s been around longer than we have. It can’t come into our world except in the dark. It needs a basement, as a demon needs a gate.

“Long time the manxome foe he sought…”

Its mouth makes up a full two-thirds of its head and its eyes are the other third. Its nose seems to have been added as an afterthought, and I don’t think it relies on smell for much. For a beast the size of a hippo, it moves with the speed of a cheetah. Perhaps the laws of our world don’t apply to Jabberwock. Then again, the perfect conditions for it to come into our realm may align so rarely that it has to be fast if it wants time to toy with us. Jabberwock likes to play with its food.

It grabbed me in its two huge claws before my brain could even register surprise. I’ve never been a screamer. But I was that night. I shrieked until my throat was raw. I screamed until all that came out was a forced hoarse exhalation. It roared its triumph. It stomped its four great feet in celebration. I struggled. I kicked and squirmed. The logical part of my mind had been reduced to a quivering mass of incomprehension while I fought for my life.

“The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

When it tried to put me in its mouth I must have triggered a long dormant berserker gene. My father hasn’t traced the family back to Norway yet, but I suspect he’ll find that link soon enough. I kicked and bit and scratched and howled in protest all at the same time. I somehow broke loose. The fight itself is still a blur. It grabbed me and I got away, again and again. It knocked me against a hard stone wall, but I refused to pass out. I refused to lay still and die. I ran behind it and grabbed its pathetic string of a tail and sank my teeth into it. Bit it right off.

“He took his vorpal sword, vorpal sword, vorpal sword in hand…”

Jabberwock’s blood is foul beyond the most noxious sewer sludge. It smells of a hundred rotting corpses sitting in the summer sun two weeks after they should have been buried. It burns like acid that peels the skin right off your body. But I had no vorpal sword. No magic blade to chop off its head and be done with it. I had to endure the sickening stench and wretched pain, and even seek it out if I wanted to survive.

Jabberwock howled in rage. It grew less interested in playing and more intent on killing me and eating me. Not necessarily in that order. It grabbed me by the hair. I bit its nose. We fought in a haze of teeth and feet and claws. I poked its fiery eyes. It slapped me across the room. I broke an arm. Jabberwock lost a tooth.

“Beware the Jabberwock…”

When the lights came back on, Jabberwock vanished with a screech of protest. It had not conquered me. It was sent home unwilling, but I knew it would be back, looking for me and the opportunity for revenge.

I collapsed in a daze; the adrenaline crash was phenomenal. There wasn’t a piece of me that didn’t scream out in pain. I hurt so much I wanted to die, but I hadn’t the means or the energy. I couldn’t move. My throat was too raw to cry for help. I lay there until my husband woke from his nap hours later and came looking. By then I’d retreated to the safest possible place. I’d followed that recessive berserker gene to its little hidey hole for safe keeping. Nothing can hurt me here.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?”

They think I’m crazy, but I’m not. They don’t know what lives in the dark. And they wouldn’t believe me if I told them. I’m not ready to face the Jabberwock again. Not just yet. So from my place of safety I whisper the charm that keeps the Jabberwock away. But I haven’t been idle. I’ve found the vorpal sword and can claim it as my own. Someday when I’m strong again, I’ll take up that sword and finish the job.

Inspired by my basement, irrational fear of the dark, and the poem Jabberwocky.

Teeth in Soft Places

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 wi 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?”