Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

There’s Always Tomorrow

80889754_2525274944380658_4230101019108835328_n

Authors’ Note: We hope Christmas finds you well, celebrating the holiday with happiness and peace, and the love of your friends and family. This story was born out of the knowledge that no matter how much we hope for it, that’s just not true for everyone. Mental health struggles are a part of our lives, our family, and our jobs. There’s Always Tomorrow is deeply personal for us.

This story is about a young woman named Mary, alone on Christmas, who just doesn’t see a way out of the crushing depression and anxiety that fill her life. 

If you know someone who you think is struggling, reach out. Just ask them what they need, check in, let them know someone cares. If you’re concerned they are going to hurt themselves, please don’t stay silent.

If you’re alone and in need of help please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. And you can chat online right now at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/ You can also connect with a crisis counselor in under five minutes by texting HOME to 741741. A crisis doesn’t have to be someone ready to end their life. There’s help working through troubling emotions, help getting connected with assistance close to home, help knowing you aren’t alone.

You’re important. You matter. 

There’s Always Tomorrow – 

Trigger warning for suicidal ideation with a plan and intent.

The soft steady lights from the Christmas tree cast strange, sharp shadows in the otherwise dark room. The stillness encroached. Like the darkness, it seemed to grow, the longer she sat there, rocking back and forth, cradling her father’s service revolver.

The front of her shirt clung uncomfortably to her chest and neck, damp as it was from the tears streaming down her face. She sniffled, but could no longer clear her nose like that. Her shoulders stiffened. This time she’d just get it over with.

She raised the gun and pressed it into her temple, finger tensing on the trigger. 

“Alright. This is it,” she sobbed to the empty room.

Her hand started to shake and another bout of full force crying shook her whole body. She dropped the gun to her lap.

“Goddamnit, I can’t even kill myself right!”

She reached for the tissues on the lampstand next to her couch and blew her nose. She wanted to die, but not covered in snot. She sat looking at the gun for a while. Finally, she picked it up again. She thought perhaps she’d finally worked up the courage. 

“Okay. Third time’s the charm.” 

Her voice still shook, but her hand was steadier this time.

“It’s the only way out.”

“Is it though?” a deep voice asked from the shadows.

She jumped, dropping her gun to the floor.

Standing next to her Christmas tree was a tall young man, broad shouldered, and under different circumstances she’d have thought he was cute as Hell, as far as men went. As it was, she recovered quickly from her surprise and scrambled to pick the gun up from the floor, stood, and leveled it at the intruder. “Who are you and what do you want?”

He held up his hands, showing her open palms, and made no move to get closer. “I’m Ben, and right now what I want is to not get shot, if it’s all the same to you.”

“You know what I mean,” she snapped. “What are you doing here?”

He shrugged a little. “Well, I mean, yeah, I figured that’s what you meant, but …You’re not gonna believe me anyway.”

Her momentary fear, quickly turned to anger at the interruption. “Try me.”

Another shrug, “Hokay. I warned you though.”

“Now!” she snapped, checking to be sure the safety was really off.

“I’m here to collect your soul, or … I guess, to see about collecting it.”

She frowned. “My soul?”

“Yeah. I mean, somebody’s got to, what with you being ready to kick it out of your body and all.”

“Okay, so you’re nuts.”

“I told you you wouldn’t believe me, but I…”

“I’m calling the police,” she interrupted, keeping the gun pointed at him with one hand and reaching for her phone with the other. 

“Sure. You could do that. Or we could talk a little. You seem like you could use it.”

“Talk? You want to talk? You broke into my house to talk?”

“I didn’t break in. I materialized. It’s an important distinction. I mean picking locks is cool and all, and I can definitely do it. But magic from other realms to just appear with an honest to goodness body to have a heart to heart is so much cooler.”

She shook her head. “You really are crazy.”

She finally blindly found her phone, and started to dial, taking her eyes off the clearly insane blond guy in her living room.

“911. What’s your emergency?”

She looked around and was momentarily struck dumb. She was alone. Completely.

“I … um … There was someone in my apartment. An intruder.”

“Are they still there, ma’am?”

“I … no … I don’t think so. They must have left when I called.”

“Ma’am, are you safe?”

A lump formed in her throat. It was a common enough thing to say. It made perfect sense in this situation. But … for her … she knew she wasn’t safe. She was the opposite of safe. And lying did not come to her easily. She cleared her throat so she could speak. “I … Yes, I think so. I guess I’m not sure. I don’t know how the man got in.”

“I have uniforms in your area, ma’am. I’m dispatching them to your location.”

“Um … okay. Thanks.”

“I’ll stay on the line with you until they arrive.”

She waited for the police. After a minute or two of stunned silence, she had the presence of mind to put her gun under the couch cushion. She turned on all the lights, too. Soon she could see the blue strobes from the street below and a knock came at her door. “They’re here now. Thank you.”

“Very good, ma’am. Happy holidays.”

“Um, yeah, thanks, you too.”

She ended the call and let the two uniformed cops in. They took her statement and did a walk through of the apartment. 

“All clear, ma’am,” the younger of the two assured her.

“Don’t hesitate to call if he comes back,” said the older officer.

“Of course. Thank you. Merry Christmas,” she said stiffly as she showed them out.

She locked the door behind them. Then she followed in their footsteps, going through the whole place, checking and rechecking the locks on all her windows, the door to the fire escape out back, the one to her patio, too. No more interruptions.

She went back to the living room, determined to finish what she’d started earlier.

“Finally. I thought they’d never leave.”

She jumped again at the deep voice. In the same spot, this time with his hands jammed into his pockets, stood her intruder. She ran over to the couch, reaching under the cushions.

“Don’t bother. I’m not a big fan of guns. So I got rid of it for you. I don’t much like the idea of a hole in either of us.”

“Goddamnit!” She started searching for her phone. She’d left it right on the coffee table.

“Um … I’ve got your phone, too.” He took his hands out of his pockets and held them up in a placating gesture at the furious look she shot him. “I mean … I’ll give it back, but I’d really like a chance for us to talk.”

She was flushed and visibly shaking. “You’re not here, you’re not real. I’m having some sort of breakdown.”

He shook his head. “Only one out of three. I’m definitely here and I’m a hundred percent real. As real as you are, Mary.”

She sat down on the couch, dropped her head into her hands. “I’ve never seen you before tonight. If you’re real … How do you know my name?”

“You mean other than you saying it out loud to the 5-O?” he asked. She looked up and he tipped her a very charming, very sympathetic smile. “It’s my business to know, Mary. You’re my assignment tonight. I told you, I’m here to collect your soul.”

She sighed. If he was a hallucination, he was a damned convincing one. “Alright. Lemme guess. You’re an angel,” she said mockingly.

He smirked and shook his head. “As a matter of fact, I’m from a lot further south.”

“Huh?”

“I’m a demon.”

“Yup, it’s a breakdown.”

“That, I’m not going to argue with. But I’m not part of the breakdown.” He stepped toward her hesitantly. “Would it help if you touched me?”

She frowned. “If you’re a demon, how could I touch you? Aren’t you just, like a spirit or something?”

“Well, not everybody bothers with a body for the job. But I like mine.” He offered another charming smirk. “Can you blame me?”

One of her eyebrows went up. 

“Sorry. I have a really bad habit of being kind of a smart ass when I’m scared.”

“You’re scared? Of me?”

He swallowed hard. “No. But I’m honestly scared for you.” He paused. “So, like I said, would it help you believe if you touched me?”

Finally she nodded. He moved over to the couch and sat carefully down beside her. She reached out, hand still shaking, and laid it on his arm. Her eyes went wide and she stared into his face. “You really are real. But how? Why?”

He offered a kind smile. “Magic. And I probably shouldn’t have just shown up in your living room, but you seemed like you could use a friendly ear. I’ve been told I’m a good listener when I want to be.”

Her hand tightened on his arm and he saw real fear light her eyes. “Wait. If you are who you say you are, that means I’m going to Hell?”

He put his other hand over hers and shook his head, making sure she was still making eye contact so she’d know he was telling the truth. “Not necessarily. Sometimes it just happens. Other times we get dispatched to do the job. See, there’s almost always a question about what direction a soul will travel. Heaven sends an angel, and the other guys send someone like me … We do a thing, and evaluate the soul and settle the question. Sometimes, if it’s close, there’ll be a fight about it. It’s not usually close though.”

“So where’s this angel?”

Ben shrugged. “Heaven probably. You’re not due to call it for another hour or so. It takes time to work up the … whatever it takes to end it.”

She frowned again, but she still hadn’t let go of his arm. “I could go to Heaven?”

He made a gesture somewhere between a shrug and a nod. “Yeah, but at best it’s like 50/50.”

She peered more intensely into his eyes. “Since I’m a suicide, does that make my odds worse.”

Ben looked almost offended. “No! I mean, no. Suicide isn’t a factor either way. Nobody gets punished for being sick and overwhelmed, Mary.”

She thought about that for a minute. Then she looked almost angry. “And I’m gay, so … Hell, right?”

“What difference would that make?” He frowned this time. “Okay, I know what all the modern big religions say, but … come on. Like anyone is gonna get punished for being born and just living their life as who they are.” He sighed. “It’s more about the choices you make, the exercising of your free will. The ripples of that, so to speak.”

“Okay, well 50/50 aren’t bad odds … Ben, is it?”

“It is. And sure, if you’re hitting a casino, 50/50 isn’t a bad bet. Nobody is going to give you those odds in Vegas either though. And we’re talking about eternity here, Mary. The thing about gambling is, the House almost always wins.”

“This is a lot,” Mary said, shifting uncomfortably.

“It is. But I didn’t show up early to give you the rundown on the hereafter, to be honest.”

She finally took her hand away from his arm and looked away. “Well, why did you?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know.

This time, he reached out to her, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Mary, why do you want to kill yourself?”

Her eyes, that once again held tears, flicked to his. When they started running down her cheeks again, she looked down at her feet. “Does it matter?”

“It does to me.”

She continued to stare at the floor. “I’m just so tired,” she whispered. Ben passed her a tissue with his free and and she attempted to wipe her face. Then she started twisting it up in her hands. “Um … my wife left me a couple of months ago. Said she couldn’t watch me keep digging myself into the hole I was going down … My dad died … Really aggressive, invasive cancer … I didn’t even recognize him by the end … And now … work … They’re laying off. And I know I’m on the block, with all my absences, and my performance hasn’t been great and …” He simply squeezed her shoulder gently. “This is where you tell me life is precious and there are people worse off than me, right?”

“Well, from my point of view, every life is precious. I had to get thrown out of mine or I’d have never let go.”

“You were alive?”

“I was. A long time ago. But Mary, I’m not going to feed you some crap about other people … Your pain is yours. And it’s real. Suffering is suffering. It’s not positional. Okay?”

“So what?” she began bitterly. “Am I supposed to just keep on living through it all while my life crumbles around me?”

He squeezed her shoulder again. “I’m not here to pretend this isn’t all crushing you under its weight. I’m not much for bland platitudes or tired cliches either.” She looked at him again. “Have you tried getting help?” She shook her head, just enough so he saw it. “There’re crisis numbers, therapy, counseling, peer support groups, medication … All kinds of ways you can…”

She shook her head firmly. “No,” she interrupted. “I never. I don’t think…”

“Look, Mary, you’re a strong person. So the fact that you’ve reached your limit makes it feel even worse. Because you have always been told that even having a limit is a weakness. But it’s not. Everyone has a limit, Mary.”

She started to cry again, her whole body shaking. He put an arm around her. “It’s okay to need help.”

“It’s just too much,” she sobbed softly.

“I know. And I’m sorry. But you really don’t have to do what you planned on doing tonight. You don’t have to carry this weight alone.”

“What do I even do?”

“Calling a suicide hotline would be a good first step.” He pulled Mary’s phone from his pocket. “I’ll dial it for you if you want.”

“No,” she said, reaching for her phone. “No, I’ll do it.”

She opened her browser and looked for the number to call. She wiped her tears with a fresh tissue he passed her, and she dialed. Ben sat there quietly, his arm still around her as she talked to the crisis counselor. When she hung up, she turned to look at Ben. “They think I should go to the hospital.”

He nodded. “And what do you think?”

“I think maybe I should.”

He smiled gently. “I’m glad to hear it. Is there anything I can do?”

At first she shook her head, then she stopped herself. “Will you sit with me, until the cab gets here?”

“Of course.”

*** 

Ben sat out on the patio for a while, enjoying the cold night air. He felt the shimmer behind him that told him his company had finally arrived. 

“Ronoven.”

He glanced at the angel. “Hey, Sariel. How’s it hangin’?”

“I thought you quit doing this.”

“Well, I was already up doing another thing. The local agent thought I might want this one.”

“Speaking of, where is she? The human, I mean.”

“At the hospital. I guess she changed her mind.” He smiled, and didn’t bother to hide it. He and Sariel went way back.

“And I’m sure you had nothing to do with it, did you Ben?”

“Who me?” He put a hand on his chest. “You wound me with your lack of faith in my ability to be a dick … I mean demon.” He grinned.

“I swear, every time I run into you, I’m shocked you still exist.”

He grinned again. “I’m like a bad penny, I guess, Sar.”

“You’re going to get in trouble again.”

“Nah. Besides, what’re you worried about? You’re on the other side anyway.”

Her wings ruffled. How was this creature a demon? He made no sense and he never had. “I suppose I’ll be going back then.”

He nodded. “You do that. Merry Christmas, Sar.”

“Oh, for the love of…” She winked out of existence.

Ben sat there for a while, alone with his thoughts. He stretched his senses to assure himself that Mary was safe.

He knew it wasn’t magic, knew she had a long road ahead of her. But Mary had fought and won another day, another day to get well, another day to live, and maybe to overcome her troubles enough to want to. Ben knew all too well, one day could change everything. Maybe in her case, it would be for the better.

After a while, he spoke softly.

“Merry Christmas.”  

*****

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Christmas Presence

christmas-1786558_1920

Authors’ Note: “It’s Christmas Eve Day. Both an eve and a day. It’s a Christmas miracle.” (Couldn’t help myself. It’s a thing I do every Christmas Eve. Pop culture references are my weakness.) Here we are at Day 12 of the Twelve Days of Fic-mas 2019. This is a pre-series story from The Arbitratus Universe. Wee baby Mal and her loving parents getting ready for Mal’s first Christmas. And an off camera sort of cameo from one of our favorite side characters. You can read Ari and Maggie’s origin story in Crimson Endings

Christmas Presence

“Ari! Can you get the door?” Maggie called. “My hands are covered in cookie dough!”

“I’m on it!” Ari hollered back, from his spot on the family room floor. 

Mal’s eyes followed his every move and she tried once again to push up to her knees from her spot on the blanket. At not quite five months, Ari didn’t think there was much danger in her figuring out how to crawl in the space of time it took him to get to the door and back. But since she was already sitting independently and seemed very determined to get mobile, he wasn’t taking any chances. 

He lifted her up and placed her in the nearby pack-n-play. She righted herself into a fairly confident sitting position against the nursing pillow they’d stashed in one corner earlier. She picked up one of the brightly colored teething rings recently added to her repertoire of playthings and started gumming it enthusiastically. 

“Be right back, Baby Girl.”

She gave him a huge, drooly baby smile in return, already confident he’d be there if she needed him. Other parents in their play group said their babies howled the second they were out of sight. Not Mal. She just seemed to trust life would be good. He hoped her infant optimism would survive teething.

Ari could see a delivery truck in their driveway. He checked the peephole. Standing on their steps was a man in the ubiquitous brown uniform, clipboard in one hand, and rather large package under the opposite arm.

“Hi there,” Ari greeted as he opened the door.

“Afternoon, sir. I have a package for you. Just need a signature.” 

The man seemed impatient, but Ari imagined he had a lot to do during the holiday season, and probably got very little in the way of gratitude for it. Ari took the clipboard and signed. “There you go.”

“Thank you, sir.” He handed Ari the box. “You have a Happy Holiday.” 

“You, too. Thank you!”

Ari closed the door. He hefted the package, heavy for its size. He looked it over carefully as he headed into the kitchen with it. No return address. Weird. 

“Who was it?” Maggie asked, not turning away from what she was doing. 

He put the package down on the kitchen table. “Delivery guy. Were you expecting something from your family?” 

“Not that I know of. But you know Daddy.” Maggie went to the sink to wash her hands. “He’s so excited to have a new grandbaby to spoil. I keep telling him if he keeps it up, we’re going to need a bigger house.”

Ari grinned. “And what’s he say to that?”

She shook her head, chuckling affectionately. “That there’s plenty of room at the main house now that Bethany has gone off to Loyola.”  

“That sounds like Paul alright,’ Ari laughed. He fished a utility knife out of their junk drawer. “Well, let’s see what we’ve got.”

Maggie joined him at the table and helped him move the packing materials out of the way.

Inside was a festively wrapped present, festooned with ribbons, a card tucked in on one side. Maggie frowned. “This can’t be from Dad. Everything he wraps looks like a kid did it.

Ari picked the card off the package. Scrawled across the envelope in a flowing, archaic hand was simply, “Merry Christmas.” 

Ari sat down. He didn’t know why a holiday card should give him such a sinking feeling in his stomach, but it did. Perhaps because the handwriting looked all too familiar. And with the familiarity came some unpleasant memories. He desperately hoped he was wrong.

“Are you going to open it?” Maggie sat down across from him, her brow furrowing. Clearly his emotions were apparent to her.

“Um…Yeah.” Ari slit the envelope and drew out a traditional Nativity printed card. He opened it and the writing inside matched the envelope. As his eyes scanned the text, his jaw tightened.

“What’s it say?”  

Ari cleared his throat and swallowed. 

Dear Sinclair Family,

Congratulations on the birth of little Lady Christ. I’m a little late with my felicitations. I’m sure you’ll forgive me. Or not. It really makes no never mind to me. 

Anyway, I hope this here Christmas present makes up for my oversight. Well, not really an oversight. I tried my best, of course, just the moment I heard. But, it’s almost like you folks don’t want to be found. 

Despite the challenges, I think I found the perfect gift. It was no easy task either, mind you. I mean, what does one get for the heir apparent of our good buddy Yeshua Ben Yosef? Yes, sir; it definitely was a challenge. Well, don’t want to keep you all from opening this up and sharing it with the little Miss. You all have yourselves a Merry Christmas and all that.

Warmest regards,

Cain

P.S. Tell Lady Christ Senior I love the new hair. It really works for her.

Ari set aside the letter. He was breathing too fast and his face felt hot. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly through pursed lips.

“I take it he’s not a friend of yours.” Maggie’s tone was the sort of worried saved for middle of the night fevers. 

“He’s no one’s friend.” Ari eyed the package warily, looking like he was expecting it to start ticking.

Maggie picked up the card. “Funny name, Cain. That’s an unusual Bible name to go for.” 

“No, Maggie, it’s not like a name from the Bible. This is like actual Cain from the Bible.” 

Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in a perfect surprised ‘O’. “Wait. Cain is a real person?” 

Ari nodded slowly. “He is.” Mal started to fuss softly in the other room. It sounded like maybe she’d tipped over and was frustrated with her efforts to right herself. “And he has no love or even respect for anyone from the Line. Probably especially you and Mal.”

Mal fussed again, louder. That meant she was sleepy. Ari rose and started down the hall to the family room to pick her up. He suddenly wanted to hold her anyway. Maggie followed, still holding the card and glancing at it with something like horror peppered with disbelief.

“Do the Knights know about him?” she asked, now genuinely distressed.

Ari scooped Mal up out of her playpen and her tears stopped instantly. He held her protectively to his chest. 

“They do. The Church actually shelters him now from what I understand.” He sighed. “Afraid he’ll cause trouble if he’s unsupervised, I expect. Although seems to me like they need to keep a better eye on him.”

“I guess maybe they should!” Mal whimpered at her mother’s anxious tone. “Here give her to me. She’s ready for a nap.” Maggie stretched out her hands to take their daughter. “Who’s Mama’s hungry girl?” 

Ari retrieved the nursing pillow from the playpen and helped the pair settle in the rocking chair by the Christmas tree. “All set? Want some tea?” Ari asked, hoping to ease some of Maggie’s anxiety by doing something comforting from their usual routine.

She shook her head, chewing her lip. “Ari, how did he find us?”

He sighed. “Who knows? But it’s not good. I’m going to go call the Templars.” 

“Do you think we’ll need to move?” Maggie’s worried look deepened. 

“I don’t know. Let’s see what the Knights think. You know they’d love to move us anyway.”

“I know, that’s why I hate involving them. But I guess we have to.” Mal was starting to doze already, but wasn’t quite out enough to move. Ari offered a reassuring smile, and started back toward the kitchen to make the necessary phone calls. Maggie stopped him. “Should we open the box?” 

“Knowing Cain? Almost definitely not.” 

“Okay. Let me know what they say.”

“I will.” 

Ari went to the kitchen, finally allowing some of the anger and fear he’d been trying to keep a lid on show on his face now that it wouldn’t worry Maggie more or upset Mal.

He started to pick up the phone, but set it back down almost immediately.

He picked up the box instead and walked it out to the container at the curb, dumping it in, and shuddering a little at the noise it made when it hit the bottom of the barrel. 

By the time he got back inside, the cool air had helped settle his mind, and he dialed the number to make arrangements to keep his family safe.

His anger and frustration grew as he listened to the ringing. He knew she wouldn’t remember it, but Ari hated that simple family associations might ruin his little girl’s first Christmas. 

Things went from bad to worse once the call was picked up. 

“We’re aware of the delivery, Mr. Sinclair. A security team has already been dispatched to your location to evaluate the situation.”

“Thanks.”

He hung up, dreading relaying the conversation to Maggie. 

“Merry Christmas, Cain,” he growled as he headed back down the hall, trying to regain his composure. 

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

The Fire of Hospitality

79970719_478468469527388_145091455617073152_n

Authors’ Note: If you’re here, you likely know Teddy and Petra from Always Darkest. This story takes place a few years earlier. It’s another in a long line of moments that bound them together as best friends. If you don’t know them yet, it’s a story about how a good friend can turn just about anything around.

The Fire of Hospitality

Petra sat in the back of the Range Rover, arms folded, unable to keep a sullen pout off her face. Her whole body felt like an overstretched rubber band and it had taken all morning to get to sullen. The crying on her bed was her private personal business and she didn’t want them to know that’s really how she’d started the day. What she wanted to do was yell. Angry was easier than what she really felt about this deep down. She huffed a short sigh.

She saw her father’s eyes flick to her in the rearview mirror, and narrow. “Honeybunny, don’t be that way. We’re almost at the Sullivans.”

She hated being called honeybunny, she always had. In all honesty, she also kind of hated her parents at the moment. And she had no intention of ‘keeping up appearances’, which was really what her father was worried about anyway. 

She plastered on her nastiest fake smile. “Be what way, Father?”

Her mother huffed, but didn’t turn to look at her. “You know quite well to what your father is referring. Drop the attitude.” Another irritated puff of breath. “I swear it’s like the minute she hit her teens, the bitchy switch got flipped.”

Petra’s eyes went wide. She was bitchy? That’s what her mother called her not just putting up with being ignored unless they wanted to show her off for some of their nose-in-the-air work friends? Bitchy!?! Because she didn’t want to be dumped off…

“Honestly, Petra, your mother has a point. We’ve spent the last year tolerating nasty for nastiness sake. Cheer up. It’s Christmas.”

Oh, that does it.

“Cheer up? I’m supposed to be happy about spending Christmas alone while you guys take off for the Caymans and Alex goes skiing in fucking Switzerland!”

“Petra, language!” her mother snapped.

“Oh, yeah, because my language is the problem. Not that you and Dad are dumping me off with the Sullivans while you guys are all off having fun without me!”

“Your father and I have a life outside of you and your brother, young lady.”

“Why couldn’t I at least go have Hanukkah with Ded and Baba?”

Her mother detested being reminded about her family’s immigrant roots and that her parents still clung so strongly their heritage. Naming the children after her grandparents had been her only nod to it at all, and she’d only done that because she’d been fairly certain it would result in extravagant gifts from the extended family, many of whom had done as well for themselves and her parents had. “You know full well they’re spending time with relatives.” 

“I still don’t see why I couldn’t go with them. I’d love to meet all the Kramarov relatives.”

“I’m not putting you on a plane for half a world away with…”

“Alex is on a plane for Gstaad!”

“It’s his birthday present!”

Petra felt like tears were close and that made her even angrier. “But it’s Christmas!”

“And we’ve already told you, we’ll celebrate together when we get back.”

“That’s not the point, Dad!” Her voice caught and she bit her lip so hard she tasted blood.

“We’ll continue this discussion when we get back,” her father said with finality as he pulled into a free parking space in front of the Sullivans’ building. “Besides, we’re hardly abandoning you to be alone. You’re getting to spend the holidays with your friend.”

Petra forced a smile back on her face and met his eyes in the mirror. “Whatever you say, Father dear.”

“Watch your tone,” her mother chided as she got out of the car.

Petra grudgingly opened her door and stepped out into the chilly December air. Teddy’s place was right on the waterfront and the wind was icy enough to take her breath away. 

Her father climbed out of the car and took her bags from the back. As the three of them made their way into the building her father remarked, “I’m really thinking we should move into the city. The apartments downtown are lovely.”

“I could see myself living here,” her mother agreed.

Petra rolled her eyes at their backs. Only her parents could think living in an apartment was an upgrade from a house with a yard.

“Or one of those townhouses up past the park,” her father said thoughtfully. “Then we’d still have all the advantages of a house, but we’d be closer to work.” Petra rolled her eyes again. “Not to mention we’d be closer to Saint Augustine’s. When Petra starts high school, she could walk.”

They continued the conversations all the way to the Sullivans’ door. Maybe highschool would be better, Petra thought. At least she’d probably have friends with cars instead of having to depend on Alex for rides, or worse, her parents. Because once Alex went off to college it would be just them. Ugh.

Her father knocked on the door. They waited for a minute and Petra thought maybe nobody was home. She wondered if her parents would just leave her here anyway. Just as the thought actually started to worry her, the door swung open and Mr. Sullivan was standing there in a flour-coated apron, which explained the wait. “Merry Christmas!” he greeted with a beaming smile.

Her parents answered in unison, “Merry Christmas!” 

So fake, Petra grumbled to herself. 

Hugs and handshakes were exchanged and Mr. Sullivan helped her father get her bags inside. Mr. Sullivan waved toward the kitchen. “Do you guys have some time? I have coffee on and we could help Petra get settled.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t,” her father said, trying to look regretful, but not exactly selling it as far as Petra could tell. “We have to be getting to the airport. Petra was a little difficult to get moving this morning, so we’re a bit behind.”

“That’s too bad. But we’ll make sure she feels at home.”

“Thank you so much for having her,” Petra’s mother gushed.

“Don’t mention it, Samantha. We’re happy to have her.”

“Where’s the missus?” Petra’s father asked. Mrs. Sullivan had been the one to make the offer after church last week and he wanted to make sure she knew they were properly grateful.

“Still in surgery, I expect. She had a full day already and some sort of emergency this morning. Once she’s done today though, she’s off until after the new year.”

“What about you? Taking any time off?”

“A few days. I have to go back on the 27th. I’m in the middle of a big project. I’d love to be home with these guys. Maybe if I ever have the courage to start my own firm, I’ll have a proper holiday break.” Petra thought he sounded disappointed to not be spending more time with his family. Wonder what that’s like. 

“I know how that is,” Petra’s father said. Petra rolled her eyes.

“Chad, honey,” Petra’s mother chimed in. “We really need to get going if we’re going to make our flight.”

Chad glanced at his watch. “Oh, wow, we do need to get on the road.”

They exchanged goodbyes and Petra made herself be polite, but she could hear the tears in her voice, even if her parents acted like they didn’t. The door closed, leaving her there with Mr. Sullivan looking down at her kindly.

“Um … Thank you for having me,” Petra mumbled, looking at her shoes.

“You’re always welcome here, honey. I hope you know that.” He patted her on the shoulder and she looked up at him, just barely. She managed a wan smile and nod. “Teddy’s in his room. Want me to go get him?”

She shook her head. “That’s okay, Mr. S. I know the way.” She took a deep breath meant to steady her nerves, but she felt herself smiling a little. “Oh, boy, it smells good in here!”

He grinned. “Thank you! I hope so. I’m baking pies for the shelter. What’s Christmas dinner without a good pie?”

“You’ve gotta have pie,” she agreed. 

Her parents reaction to the notice coming home asking for donations for the church’s shelter had been a lot less charitable. Holiday travel plans aside, she’d been upset at how they’d refused. They’d been less than kind. In fact, when Petra said she wanted to make cookies to give them, her mother had laughed. Not a lot. But enough that Petra realized something. Her parents didn’t view poverty as a problem with a system, or with society. They viewed it as some sort of character flaw, even a moral failing of the poor. She’d spent a lot of time angry with them over the last few years, a lot of time feeling ignored and unimportant. But she’d always continued to love them. When her mother laughed, she realized something. She didn’t like them very much. And she didn’t want to be anything like them. At all.

Mr. Sullivan gave her kind of a funny look, so she figured some of what she was feeling must be showing, but he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he offered another kind smile, and said, “But don’t worry; I’m going to bake us one, too. For after dinner tonight. Can’t smell that all day and not have a taste!”

She grinned, finally making real eye contact with her host. “Well, if it tastes half as good as it smells, maybe you should make two!”

He laughed. “As always, flattery will get you everywhere around here. I was just thinking I might throw in an extra one to hold us over until the Christmas goodies get made.” He started to reach for her bags. “I’ll put these in your room, and you can go find, Teddy.”

She grabbed the bags before he could, hefting them with a real effort. “I can take my stuff, Mr. S. It’s on the way.”

“Alright. Then it’s back to the kitchen with me.”

Petra took her bags and headed toward the guest bedroom. She had to sort of use her feet and legs to kick along her suitcase. She wasn’t very big and it was pretty heavy. The room was right across from Teddy’s but it seemed like he was busy playing a video game. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see him, she just needed a minute. She shoved her bags inside, closed the door, and flopped down across the bed.

Tears started and she ground her eyes into the back of her arm. There was no reason to start bawling like a little kid. Her parents had never been especially attentive. But this was a new low. They waited until after her grandparents were out of the country to announce their plans, too. Plans to take off and leave her with people they really only knew in passing from church, even if she did spend half her life here. Them taking some all inclusive resort island vacation, and sending Alex to Europe. Christmas was only three days away! She sighed and managed for it to not be a sob. It’s not like I don’t know my family is fucked up, but Christmas? Like they couldn’t have booked different dates to be away. 

Then she remembered how excited Teddy had been that he’d have company for the holidays. Most of their friends had big families. He didn’t really love being an only child. She thought she understood. She didn’t know what she’d do without Alex. When he’d said goodbye before getting in the cab for his trip, he’d cried. Not that Teddy’s parents weren’t amazing. But siblings were different.

She got up and blew her nose. She caught a look at herself in the mirror and decided to go splash water on her face. Once she looked less like she’d been sobbing on the Sullivans’ spare bed, she went and knocked on the door frame outside Teddy’s room.

“Hey!” Teddy greeted, putting down his game controller. “I didn’t know you were here!”

“In the flesh.”

“I should probably apologize in advance for Mom and Dad. They go nuts at Christmas. Like really off the deep end. Can you even believe the living room?”

She shrugged. She hadn’t really noticed. She’d been too busy trying not to bawl before she got some privacy. She found it hard to look at Teddy for a minute. “Least you know they aren’t gonna ditch you for some “us” time,” she grumbled.

Teddy got up off his beanbag. “I’m sorry, Petra. That sucks.”

She shrugged again. “Nah, I’m sorry, I’m in a mood.”

He grinned and punched her lightly on the arm. “You are a mood.” She managed a small smile. “You have every right to be upset. I’d freak if my folks left me at Christmas.” He pulled her into a hug and her smile became more fully realized. She and Teddy had known each other since they were little kids. Most of her happiest memories had him in them. Maybe this would be one, too.

“Come on,” he said, releasing her and digging around in his night stand for a beat up Avengers wallet. “I’m taking you to lunch.”

Suddenly, she wanted to cry again, but not in the same way. She just nodded, because if she opened her mouth she would cry. And if she cried, Teddy probably would, too. It had been that way between them, since kindergarten.

On their way toward the front door, Petra finally got what he meant. A huge tree took up half their living room. But that wasn’t all. There were lights everywhere, and an evergreen bunting, garlands, kissing balls, and wreaths. It looked like a movie and the air was filled with a fresh pine scent that somehow just made the smells coming from their homey kitchen even nicer.

Teddy stopped. “Hang on. I need to check with dad before we go. Can’t just leave the house without asking. Until I’m fourteen. That’s the rule.”

“Sure. Of course.” Petra waited in the foyer, taking note of all the decorations she’d missed when she first arrived. So many of them were handmade. Not like Martha Stewart handmade either. She saw things she knew Teddy had made in school over the years. She’d made them, too. But school ornaments didn’t get hung up at her house. They had this big fake tree, and all these sterile white and bloody red ornaments all bought from some high end catalogue with no thought whatsoever … Well, usually. This year they hadn’t decorated at all. Why bother? her mother said.

A single tear snuck out of one eye and Petra wiped it away with her sleeve. Teddy came back into the foyer just then and pretended not to notice. He pulled on his coat. “Dad says it’s cool if we go. He even gave me some extra money. So we can go literally anywhere for food. What’re you in the mood for?”

She shrugged. Her family went out to eat so often, she really didn’t care for restaurants all that much, or at least they all seemed pretty similar to her. “I’m not super hungry. So it’s on you.”

He grinned. “There’s this new place on Church Street called Queen City Buzz. It’s like a little coffee shop place. Mom loves their pastries. And she’s brought them home a couple times. They’re really good. So if you want to eat your feelings in a chocolate flavored way, they might be a good spot.”

“I like chocolate flavored feelings,” she said with a relatively sincere smile. “I wouldn’t hate a coffee anyway.”

Teddy’s grin grew. “I’ve actually still never had coffee. The parentals have never let me at home.”

“You gonna get in trouble if you do?”

“Nah. I mentioned QCB and Dad didn’t say no.”

She took his hand. “Cool. Let’s go. I love being a bad influence.”

By the time they reached the street, Petra started to really relax. The air was no less bitter, but somehow, with Teddy pulling her along through the crowds as they made their way to the pedestrian mall, it was pleasant and festive rather than cutting like it seemed before.

The outdoor marketplace was awash with lights and colors, bustling and crowded with holiday shoppers. It was spitting snow, but in a pretty way. Street performers and musicians of all sorts completed the scene, which seemed, to Petra at least, to be straight out of a quaint holiday movie. 

Teddy led the way through the throng of bundled up and busy people toward the new coffee shop. “They look really busy,” Petra remarked as they entered.

“It’ll be worth it,” Teddy assured her. “I’d walk barefoot over broken glass for their napoleans I swear.”

Inside, the place had a homey sort of feel. In a modern way, but not the cold modern her parents preferred. It was all clean lines, and inviting colors. Tasteful decorations denoting various holiday traditions dotted the tables and windows, and some pleasant nondescript music provided a calming undertone to the festive chaos of the crowd. 

They waited in the long line, chatting. Teddy wanted Petra to think about something other than her family ditching her, so he steered the conversation to what she thought about going to Saint Augustine’s next year after spending the last nine years in the same building.

Once they had their order in hand, they managed to find a small table, way at the back, in the corner. Teddy immediately took a sip of his beverage and his eyes rolled back in his head. Petra grinned. At her suggestion, he’d ordered a caramel latte. “See, I told you,” she laughed.

“I think I’m mad at my parents,” he said, laughing a little, too. “I had no idea what I’ve been missing! Lemme try yours!”

Petra smirked, but slid her cup across the table. It was a double espresso. Teddy took a big gulp, expecting something like his own drink. He cringed and had to fight to keep from spitting it out. “Ugh. Gross. How do you even drink that?”

She took her cup back. “I like it. Bitter is kind of my thing.”

Teddy took a big swig of his own sweet drink to wash away the taste. “Good thing I already love you, ya weirdo,” he teased.

She just laughed and took one of the dark chocolate biscotti from their shared plate, which held an assortment of sweet treats Teddy had picked based on what he’d gotten to try from his mom bringing things home.

They talked about school some more, talked about plans to go skating this week, drank their coffee, and both carefully avoided what was bothering Petra. After the third time he caught her staring out the window at a happy family out for some holiday fun, Teddy decided it was time to, as his dad liked to say sometimes, “get down to brass tacks.”

He met her eyes. “Look, I know this sucks. You know I’m always here to listen.”

She looked away. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Petra, come on. You’re just gonna … be a mood … if you don’t get it out of your system.”

She shrugged again. “Fine. I’m pissed. My parents have once again prioritized anything but me. It’s like my seventh, eighth, and tenth birthdays all had a baby and named it Christmas.” She sighed. “And I could cope with that. But this year it’s Alex, too. I mean, he felt bad once it finally came down to leaving. But it’s not like he felt bad enough to refuse his goddamn boarding pass, is it?”

“Ah, dude, I’m so sorry,” Teddy began.

Now that she’d started talking about it, she really did need to get it out of her system. “My whole family is off having this cool holiday adventure. And I’m here spending Christmas as a third wheel to an actual family holiday!” 

Teddy frowned. “You’re not a third wheel! We’re all seriously happy to have you with us!”

“If you say so,” she said sullenly, although she almost believed it was true.

“I do say so! I’m finally not gonna be the only kid opening presents at Christmas! Like we’ve been saying we’re sibs from separate cribs forever. Now we get to be that for Christmas. That’s like the best time to have your honorary sister around!”

She smiled for him. She supposed it was true. She did kind of have a brother around for Christmas after all. “I know you feel that way, but…”

“You should have seen Mom and Dad,” he interrupted. “They were so excited talking about it on the way home from church. And then they called to make sure it was really happening. You should have seen Mom’s face when she got off the phone with Chad.” Teddy said the name in a mocking tone, and Petra felt a little brighter. They hadn’t said yes because they were actually friends with her parents. They’d said yes because they cared about her

“Okay, I can totally see that,” Petra said. “But welcome or not … It’s Christmas. And as weird and dysfunctional as my parents are … Christmas is usually different. Like sometimes, even with the gross designer tree and fake holiday parties … Sometimes it’s almost like we’re a real family and not just two adults babysitting a couple of kids they aren’t getting paid enough to really give a crap about. Which is honestly how most of the rest of the year feels.”

“Oh, Petra.”

“Like most of the time, I feel like a prop my parents need around to … I don’t know … You know like the displays in store windows that always look nicer than the stuff you find inside?”

“Yeah.”

“I feel like that. The stuff you put in the window. But … at Christmas … Not always … but a lot of the time. It felt … different. Like we were a real family. Until now.”

Teddy reached across the table and took her hand. “That sucks. But you still have a family. Sibs from another crib, right?” She nodded, looking away again. “And Mom and Dad would totally adopt you. You practically live with us anyway.”

She looked at him again, not quite smiling, but almost. “I kinda do.”

“You’re an honorary Sullivan now. And we do the holidays right.”

Petra Sullivan and her brother Teddy. The idea of the two of them in family photos, looking literally nothing alike, made her smile for real. “Okay. Take me through this Sullivan family Christmas thing.”

“You’re gonna love it,” Teddy said earnestly. “There’s like an insane amount of food around all week. Which you could totally already see, right?” She nodded. “And on Christmas Eve we go caroling with a bunch of families from our building and some people from church.”

“I’ve never been caroling,” she said softly.

“When we’re done with that we go home for dinner. That’s usually pretty light because there’s so much cocoa and cookies and stuff with the caroling.” She smiled, remembering Teddy mentioning all the cocoa and cookies before. Teddy was a real cookie enthusiast. “We spend the evening at home, just playing board games and listening to Christmas music. Mom always sings along and she has literally the prettiest voice. She could have a record deal if the whole cardiac surgeon thing ever falls apart.”

Petra laughed and Teddy warmed to his story even more. “Then around eleven, we all get changed, you know real Sunday best stuff, and we go to Midnight Mass together.”

“We did that one year. I was pretty little but I remember it. It was really kind of cool.” Petra wasn’t especially into church most of the time, but she did like the ritual of it. Especially on the rare occasions she’d gotten to go for High Holy Days.

“It’s the best,” Teddy enthused. “I love the singing and the incense and everything. It’s so beautiful.” She nodded for him to go on. “Then when we get home, we get to open one present and we drink some eggnog, and we go to bed. Spoiler alert, the present is new pajamas.”

“Only one present?”

“The rest always get put under the tree after I go to bed. I haven’t believed in Santa Claus in a long time,” Teddy said, in what Petra found to be an odd combination of defensiveness and sadness. “But they still always do it like that. It’s more fun.”

“So presents Christmas morning. What else?”

“Oh, like they let me sleep in and what usually gets me up is dad cooking brunch. It’s always amazing. Don’t tell him, but I kind of like my mom’s waffles better than his.” She giggled. “But his pancakes are hands down the best pancakes in the world. And his cinnamon rolls are better than anything from a bakery.”

“After smelling that pie, I can only imagine.”

“So we eat, and open presents, and we spend the day watching Christmas movies and playing games. Sometimes we go down to the park and have a snowball fight if the weather is good, and … Hey, are you okay?”

Petra had started to cry quietly. What Teddy described seemed impossible. Like some Hallmark Channel made for TV movie imaginary holiday. “Um…”

“Oh, Petra, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“No.” She sniffed. “It’s fine. I’m fine.” She wiped her face on her napkin. “Okay, risking more tears,” she said with a slightly forced smile. “What’s for dinner?”

“Dad makes his prime rib and yorkshire pudding. Mom likes to make the sides so that kind of depends on what weird stuff they all talk about over somebody’s open chest cavity.” She laughed. “But the prime rib is an always. And it’s another barefoot broken glass situation.”

Petra laughed again. It didn’t sound imaginary anymore. It sounded magical. “And I’m gonna guess, after dinner, it’s more games?”

“You bet.” Another crowd of people headed out of the shop causing Teddy to notice the clock over the door. “Crap. It’s getting late. We better head home. I don’t want to lose my brand new wandering around privileges already. I’ve got a new coffee habit to feed.”

They took care of their trash and headed out into the cold embrace of an early dusk. Petra looked around thoughtfully. “Hey, do you think we have time to make a stop?”

“I told Dad we’d be back by five. It’s only a little after four. Where do you want to go? Christmas shopping?”

She shook her head. “I want to stop by the shelter.”

“What for?” Teddy asked.

“I’d rather not say. Not right now anyway. Still cool?”

“Of course. But let’s walk fast. It’s getting colder by the minute.”

They made it to the shelter in no time, since most of the traffic was concentrated by the shopping centers. “Wait here. I won’t be long.”

Petra left Teddy on the sidewalk. 

She went into the building and found the collection box.

She fished a wad of cash out of her pocket. It was guilt money from her parents, shoved into her hand that morning with the somewhat stinging suggestion that perhaps she should buy herself some new clothes for Christmas. 

Hush money was how she thought of it. Like a payment of dirty money in a bad movie that wouldn’t bring the recipient anything but pain.

She hesitated, then shoved most of it into the collection box to make up for her parents refusal to give anything. 

She saved a little out for herself for the end of the week. There was a tattoo parlor up the street that didn’t ask questions. She was going to get her nose pierced. 

Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad, she thought to herself. Then she amended it. Merry Christmas, Samantha and Chad.

She went out and rejoined Teddy, this time pulling him along. She was ready to head home for a real family holiday. 

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Covenant, Light, and Oath

80961488_504142477115268_3022130081150533632_n

Authors’ Note: Asher has appeared in numerous stories in The Arbitratus Universe, and remains, even to us, something of a figure of mystery. He was inspired by the myth of Ashor, the Black Knight, a story that continues to intrigue us. In this instance, our Asher, works to usher in a new age, important to the Balance he serves.

Covenant, Light, and Oath

Mithra paced. 

Then he paced some more, tugging on the hem of his robes. 

His followers were growing quiet in their devotions.

With the Solstice fast approaching, the opposite should be true. 

He stopped to chew his thumbnail for a moment. Perhaps he should perform some sort of miracle, send some sign … Or a plague. That ought to get them in line again. 

He started pacing again. 

“Tough day?”

He jumped at the sound and turned to interloper behind him.

An unassuming man, dressed in black offered a sympathetic half smile. “Want to talk about it?”

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, furious at the interruption of his contemplations. “I was clear in my command to be left in peace!”

Another half smile. “Don’t take it out on your servants. I let myself in.”

One fist slammed into the opposite palm. “Who are you and what are you doing here?!?” Mithra roared.

“Calm yourself, Mithra. Your anger is misplaced.”

Without another word, Mithra closed the distance between himself and his uninvited guest, drawing a blade from within his robes. The man in black took a graceful step to the side, grabbing the god’s wrist, and effortlessly flipped the furious deity onto his back. “Keep this up, and it won’t end well for you.” Mithra continued to struggle. The man in black twisted the god’s wrist. “Calm yourself. We need to talk.”

“Fine,” the god bit out angrily. The man in black released him and he leapt to his feet, knife held in front of him. “I’ll have your head for this!”

“Doubtful.” The man’s smile became a shade less sympathetic. “If you’re done with all this needless bravado, I am ready to forget these aggressive acts and talk.”

Mithra’s face went red, but he held himself in check, unnerved by this intruder and how easily he’d been physically subdued by him. “Who are you?”

“I am Asher,” he said simply.

Mithra snorted. “You can do better than that. Asher is a myth.”

“And yet, here I stand.” The man’s lips quirked in a wry smirk. “The man, the myth, the legend.” 

Moving faster than any mortal’s eye could follow, Mithra again lashed out with his knife.

And he once again found himself on his back.

“Really, old boy, I can do this all day. But I’d much rather have the talk I came here for before you hurt yourself.” 

He released the god’s wrist, and took a step away, hoping Mithra would use the space to rise with dignity and be reasonable. Mithra climbed to his feet, eyeing the man with apprehension and continued anger. He looked at his knife longingly, but put it away. “Fine. We will talk. But only because I wish it.”

“As you say,” the man agreed with a polite nod.

“First I will have your name and title.”

The man in black shrugged. “I’m still Asher. But if the title will help, Keeper and Humble Servant of the Balance.”

“More mythological nonsense.”

“Said a minor god who is bleeding followers as we speak.” Mithra reached for his knife again, but Asher made a gesture that said if the god did so, he would draw his own. “I am who I say,” he affirmed calmly. “But if it makes it easier for you, you can call me Bob.”

“Bob? That sounds ridiculous!” Mithra scoffed.

The man in black smiled. “Then let’s just stick with Asher, shall we?”

The god shook his head. “Fine. I will call you Asher. But I don’t believe in you.”

“Fortunately, you belief is not required. Shall we begin?”

Mithra scowled. “Speak your piece, then leave me.”

“Very well. Why don’t we sit down?” Asher inclined his head to the large, nearby table taking up much of the room.

“I prefer to stand,” Mithra said, the sullen note unmistakable.

“As you like,” Asher said with a shrug. Then he paused, considering his next words. This wasn’t a particularly pleasant task, and Mithra’s response so far didn’t bode well for its outcome.

Mithra didn’t care for being toyed with and the silence felt intentionally unsettling. “Don’t play coy, Creature Who Cannot Possibly Be Asher. This is a busy time for me. The Solstice approaches.”

Asher shook his head. “As you may have noticed, the time isn’t as busy as you’d expect, is it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mithra took up pacing again.

“I thought perhaps you’d already come to the appropriate conclusion.” Asher paused. When Mithra darted a murderous look his way, he sighed, and went on. “That the time is no longer yours.”

Mithra stopped pacing suddenly and faced Asher fully. He looked angry, but the glint of fear was now in his eyes. “Explain yourself.”

“I thought I was quite clear. Your time has passed, Mithra. You’re being replaced.”

Mithra let out a boisterous laugh. “Replaced by whom? Odin with his sad little bag of gifts. Ridiculous!”

Asher shook his head. “No, not Odin, I’m afraid. The news I have for him is no more auspicious for him and his line than that which I bring to you. This time is being claimed by Jesus of Nazareth.”

Mithra started to laugh, more genuinely this time. He made several attempts to speak, but couldn’t get his mirth under control. He gave up and sat down, trying to get enough breath to respond. Part of him was convinced this man in black was here to play some ridiculous prank. Maybe Odin’s adopted brat was trying to be funny again. Finally he managed, through tear-soaked laughter, “So, you mean to tell me, the Cult of Christ is usurping my day? Oh, oh that’s too funny.”

Asher grew serious. “They are hardly a cult at this point. His words will come to dominate your world. Your people especially are primed to accept Him. As I said, your time has passed.”

The expression on the so-called Asher’s face brought Mithra’s laughter to a halt. “That’s not possible. I … I was here first.”

The sympathetic smile was back. “That’s certainly true…”

Mithra interrupted. “I was born on the Solstice … I … I was slain, but I rose again on the Spring Equinox. I … It’s my day.”

Asher shrugged again. “All that’s true. But it’s true for Christ as well. Or at least it’s what his followers believe. Your followers don’t seem to believe much anymore. And that’s the important point, you see.”

“So … he copied me and I’m just supposed to … what? March off into oblivion because …”

“Not necessarily oblivion. Many of your fellows have chosen rather pleasant retirements.”

Mithra shook his head in utter disbelief. “I’m supposed to just accept that?”

“How you choose to proceed is up to you. But I’d recommend taking the retirement package.”

Mithra pushed away from the table, his face reddening. “Retire from being a GOD! Outrageous!”

Asher rose as well, sensing this was not going to play out amicably. “I get it. Change is hard. But you had a good run.”

“A good run?” Mithra sputtered.

“Yeah, but let’s face it, your faithful have been going over to Jesus for a while now. Even the Romans are getting on board these days. As goes Rome, so goes the world, at the moment anyway. Their leaders are starting to embrace this new faith.”

“Baaa! It’s not a new faith. It’s just repackaged.” Asher sighed, but let Mithra rail for a bit. “A savior, born of a virgin on the Solstice, grows up to be killed as a sacrifice, to rest in his tomb three days, and be resurrected to least his people … It’s been done. By me!”

 “And my others before you, Mithra. Surely you remember Horus.”

“Horus had no sense of style.”

“Perhaps, but his story was no less compelling than yours.”

“So people are just going to swallow this Jesus’s story because … what? It’s comforting and familiar?”

“That’s the beauty of it. It resonates with people. Say what you like about Jehovah, love Him or hate Him, but he’s the master of the long game.”

Mithra sighed and came back over to the table. He sat down heavily, and placed his head in his hands. He could see the truth in Asher’s words. Each year he had noted fewer and fewer of his faithful attending to his worship. And many who still did, did so halfheartedly and without zeal. “So … What now?”

“Now you step aside, go experience the universe. When’s the last time you took a vacation? And I don’t mean lurking in some grove somewhere to get a minutes peace from the petitions of your followers. When’s the last time you left Earth and had some fun?”

Mithra shook his head. “Not since the Dawn Wars, I suppose.” He sighed again. “And to think I fought on his side. This is the thanks I get.”

“Don’t look at it like that.”

“And exactly how should I look at it?”

“As an opportunity! Go enjoy yourself. Explore. You’re not being stripped of your powers, just being asked to make way. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find another planet, one that needs a god. If you play your cards right, that god could be you.”

Mithra’s brow furrowed. “No … You don’t think … That’s not possible. Earth is the only place where man exists.”

Asher shrugged. “Well, sure. Humans are Earthbound. But it’s a great big universe, Mithra. And believe me, it’s populated. Earth is but a speck in the grand tapestry of existence. There’s room out there for plenty of gods. Just not here.”

He seemed to think about that for a while. He sighed again. “Why can’t things just remain as they are?”

“Because a time of prophecy has arrived. Actually I’ve been working out some things to make way for it for a while. Making sure certain other players are in place. This prophecy is important to the Balance, which I serve and maintain above all else in the universe. Therefore that prophecy is of utmost importance to me. And it requires a dominant religion.”

“But why Christianity?”

Asher smiled almost sadly. “Because from the fruit of that faith will rise the instrument of prophecy. My purpose here is to clear the way.”

Mithra nodded, thinking. “But what of the other gods?”

“I will visit them each in turn, just as I came to you. I will offer them a choice as well. Support the Balance or don’t.”

“What if I refuse to go?”

Asher’s jaw hardened and his shoulders squared. “Well, then … Things may become unpleasant.” His eyes were hard as flint. “You may doubt my identity, but trust me when I say, do not test me.”

Mithra considered his words carefully, then he rose and faced the man in black. “I have no interest in leaving. And I … I will not accept … I don’t believe you have the power to make me leave.”

“You’re right. I don’t have the power to make you leave.” Asher shook his head, almost imperceptibly. A shining sword materialised in his hand. “But I do possess the power to end you.” Mithra eyed the blade, but stayed silent. “I ask you not to demand that of me. You can have an existence far beyond what you’ve ever imagined on this tiny backwater planet. Believe me when I say your death will bring me no pleasure.”

Mithra’s eyes narrowed. Images of Solstice past came unbidden into his mind. The feasts. The sacrifices in his name. The sweet, heady scent of burnt offerings. The pleasures of the flesh taken in his name. The bodies offered up for him to enter so he could partake himself. “No. I won’t do it. My faith will rise again. I refuse to cede my place.” He drew his dagger from the folds of his robes. “I am prepared to fight.”

“As you wish.” Asher stepped forward, raising his sword. The movement was so swift, no one but a god could have seen it. And no one but a very powerful god, in the full flower of his faithful’s attention could have countered the blow. Asher shook his head and wiped the blood from his blade. “Such a waste.”

He turned to go, mumbling to himself. “I hope things go better in the North.” He left Mithra’s home by the front doors, noting the god’s servants already trickling out themselves, sensing the god’s absence and looking for a place to go. “Thank the Balance I don’t have to work my way through the Hindu pantheon.”

He headed out for his next stop. His work was in the West, making room for this new faith, so that one day a girl would be born, and upon her shoulders would rest the fate of all mankind. And, more importantly to Asher, the fate of the Balance itself. 

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

The Direction of His Dreams

79773400_543957136335066_1405537754242088960_n

Authors’ Note: By now, most readers know how much we love our Ben from Always Darkest. Exploring his human life has become my (Jess’s) favorite part of Fic-mas. You can read more about his youth here and here. This Fic-mas meets Ben in his ancient homeland as Chris will one day describe him, “only barely a man, with plenty of boy left over.” Dreams are a funny thing. It was long ago, but sometimes, in that place between asleep and awake, Ben remembers this, and it gives him a sliver of hope. Happy Solstice, friends. 

The Direction of His Dreams

He twitched in his sleep as she leaned in the bedroom to check on him. He moaned softly. “Oh, Beathan, hin, not again, love,” she whispered. She thought perhaps memories of battle invaded his dreams, but she never asked. He hated when anyone heard his nightmares. 

The moan became a whimper. 

He sounded so lost. 

Instead of stepping out, she moved closer. His brow creased. The whimper solidified into a pained mumble.

“Not again,” he pleaded, almost too low to hear. “Don’t!” came out louder.

Flames all around, burning, but not consuming him. 

Pain. 

Blades. 

Torment. 

Teeth.

“Please!”

Cinnie sat down on the edge of his bed, and rested her hand gently on his bandaged shoulder. “Ben, hin, wake up.”

His eyes snapped open and his arm wrapped around his middle as a ragged breath pulled at his injuries. “Damn.”

That dream kept coming back. And it felt … real. Sleep was more exhausting than being awake lately. He wished Daira was still alive. She would know what it meant. 

His head dropped back onto his pillow. He closed his eyes and willed himself back toward calm. When he felt most of the way there, he pried his eyes open, and started to shift himself to sitting. He got about halfway there before her glare, along with a stern, “What’ve I said, Ben?” stopped him.

His heart was still beating too fast. At least moving was getting easier. But only by degrees.

Still the last day or so … half a day, anyway …  had been better. He remembered most of it clearly at least. Prior to that was a bit of a painful, feverish haze. By comparison, he felt great. 

He resettled himself with a smirk. 

“So, I’m Ben, to you, too, now, am I?” he asked, doing his best to sound like everything was fine. 

She smiled, her knowing, big sister’s smile.

“We don’t have Daira ‘round anymore to call ye yer funny names. And they do seem to make ye less like te argue wi’ me.” 

She smoothed his hair off his forehead, like he was still a boy, and not the warrior who’d led men into battle since he was fourteen. 

His father had stepped aside to make room for his youngest son’s strength and leadership in the field. And, though he’d admitted it to no one but Ben, he couldn’t physically do what needed to be done anymore. Ben had happily thrown himself into the role, leaving his father free to focus on the other aspects of leading their people. At the time, Ben couldn’t understand the toll years of fighting had taken on his father’s body. He thought he understood it better now.

Ben didn’t protest Cinnie’s soothing touch. Under normal circumstances he might have. But not today. Letting his sister-in-law treat him like he was still the child who spent most of his time nicking extra food out of her cookfire was far more appealing than contemplating the road back to battle-ready. 

“No fever now,” she smiled, more truly pleased and less indulgent. 

So, that’s what she was up to. 

“Told ye las’ night,” he said, thinking he sounded a bit petulant, and not caring much. He was tired of being fussed over. Tired of needing it even more so. “I’m alrigh’.”

Her eyebrows went up.

After the last skirmish, the men brought him here rather the cottage he’d claimed as his own when Daira passed. He’d stayed with her during her final illness last Spring, and after she was gone, he just couldn’t make himself leave. 

He was too badly injured to do what he usually did. Normally he’d patch himself up, go off into the woods for a night or two and speak to the spirits Daira had taught would help him heal, maybe speak to her spirit a bit, too. Then he’d go right back out to get in more trouble. Er … protect his people. 

He’d been in no condition for any of that this time.

They hadn’t wanted his mother to see the state he was in, either. Drustan wisely suggested they bring him to Cinnie. And she’d taken care of him with the same affectionate firmness as always, though it had been coupled with more real worry than he’d ever seen from her before.

But he was fine now. 

Well, maybe not fine, but well enough not to need a nursemaid from dawn to dusk, and the stretch in between as well.

He’d been at their house for at least a quarter moon. He was fed and rested and wanted to get himself ready to fight again as soon as possible. He could at least gather the men and talk it over. The foreigners didn’t do well with the element of surprise or the ambush tactics he preferred. There were still very few of them. Just scouting parties it seemed. Ben wanted to use that to his advantage before any more arrived. 

The problem was Cinnie. She wouldn’t let him go off and fight in his present state, and he didn’t think she’d let him bring the warriors together to talk tactics either. She appeared disinclined to let him move. 

She still saw him as her darling rascal, her little boy, and had a motherly protective streak even his actual mother couldn’t match. Part of him loved that about her. The rest of him was sick of this bed. 

Of course, all of him understood. She’d been beside herself when they’d dumped him on her kitchen table and she’d gotten a good look at his wounds. He vaguely remembered her tears as she’d stitched him up, her saying to Drus and Osh who’d held him still that she hoped against hope she was adequate to the task, and that she didn’t believe she could be. He couldn’t deny her initial reaction had been fair. He’d been … not in great shape. 

But he healed fast. He always had. 

Not that his frequent reminders of that had yielded any less hovering. 

She unwound the bandage high on his arm, where an infection had a strong hold for a few days. “Tha’ looks better tonight, too.” She wrapped it back up, satisfied.

He pushed himself up on his elbows, pulling the blanket up over his bare chest a little awkwardly. “Does tha’ mean ye can stop fussin’ an’ lemme get home then?”

“Yer stayin’ right there.” She pointed at the bed he currently occupied, with another, more disapproving, raise of her eyebrows. “At leas’ until after Yule.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she talked right over him with a wry grin. “I’ll not have ye yankin’ out all those stitches. Not after the fuss ye kicked up gettin’ put back together!” 

He started to spout off something indignant. But he only got as far as, “I dinnae kick up any kind a…”

“Besides,” she interrupted, smiling sweetly. Time for a distraction. “Ye can’t take off out of bed. Or at least I doubt ye’ll want to. Shay took your clothes.”

This time Ben sat up all the way, grimacing as it pulled on some of the many stitches Cinnie just reminded him about. “That little … Make ‘er bring ‘em back!” 

Cinnie just laughed. Worked like a charm. She wasn’t going to tell him the whole family agreed if he went off in his current state he’d get himself killed. And none of them could accept that. She also couldn’t tell him they had news for him. That was for the feast. 

“Shay!” he called like all he wanted was to see his favorite niece. He heard a giggle, and the patter of feet outside his room. “Shay-shay! C’mon in ‘ere, lass!”

When the affectionate nickname yielded no results, his brow creased into the expression Cinnie learned meant trouble before the boy had ever gone on his first hunt. “She’s not comin’ back, lad.”

His eyes flashed with a bit of real temper. He’d set his sights on his own bed and the stubborn streak that ran deep and wide all through him was not going to let go of that easily. 

“Teasag!” he yelled, hoping to summon his niece back from wherever she’d run off to with the serious use of her rarely spoken proper name.

Cinnie shook her head and smirked. “Yer actin’ like I didn’t send ‘er away with ‘em.”

Ben growled in frustration. 

She probably had, too. 

Cinnie knew he wouldn’t just run off wrapped in barely more than a blanket. She also knew he couldn’t really be angry with Teasag. These days she was more young woman than little girl. But Ben hadn’t noticed yet. 

He was still her self-appointed big brother. She really was his favorite, with the exception of maybe Angus and Enaid’s daughter Fee who he felt sort of responsible for since one of his strange dreams had pretty much saved her life at her birth. 

“Ye di’nt need te do that,” he grumbled.

“Because yer always such a sensible lad.” She patted him gently, smiling a little when he flushed at her amused observation. 

“I wouldna gone far,” he insisted. “I need to go see to Sioda, and te make sure the lads didna shut Caraid out. She’s too old te jump up te the window and paw her way in.”

“I told ye before. Osh is lookin’ after Sioda for ye.” 

Cinnie fluffed his pillows and arched an eyebrow, managing an affectionate glare until he settled back onto them. She was glad he was well enough now to be worried after his animals. But she wasn’t about to let him go care for them himself. 

“I’ve made sure he knows how to make up the poultice for her leg. He cares more for tha’ horse than he does for his missus, I think. Certainly more’n’e thinks a ‘is brother.” Ben snorted a brief laugh. “Yer lucky he didn’ let ye bleed ta death out there jus so he could have ‘er.”

“Tha’s a fair point.” He smiled fondly. “I know I been tellin’ ye for goin’ on three winters now, but thanks. Ye’ve always made Yule a special thing, but tha’ … She’s a fine animal. An’ braver than ten of the men.”

“Ye cannae lead our lads on foot agains’ our enemies now can ye, Bean?”

He blushed. She hadn’t called him that in a long time. He gave her an affectionate shove. “Lay off tha’.” He winced and adjusted the pillows. “I wouldna hate some of Daria’s special tea jus’ now. I know ye ran out yesterday. If ye got Shay to bring back my things, I  could go get it a’ the cottage an’ be back before my spot here cooled.”

Cinnie chuckled. “An’ he finally admits he’s not some warrior god of the wood!” She patted his hand. “I went an’ got more this mornin’, lad. I’ve some in the kettle on the fire.” She raised an eyebrow again. “So there’s no need for ye to limp halfway ‘cross the village. An’ if it’s yer cat yer worried about…”

She made a gentle clicking noise with her tongue, and the ancient black ball of fur, now marked with strands of silver-grey, waddled into the room. 

“Caraid!” he exclaimed in genuine pleasure. 

He patted the bed next to him and, though it took two tries, she managed to get up and wedge herself in between Cinnie and Ben. She curled up against his hip, closed her eyes, and started purring contentedly. He petted her head with a gentleness and affection Cinnie wondered at. How could someone with such a soft heart, such a tender soul, be the strongest, most skilled warrior in their clan? 

Momentarily distracted from both his physical misery and his desire to get out from under his family’s watchful eyes, Ben truly relaxed. He supposed there were worse ways to spend a couple of days leading up to the Yule feast than in a comfortable bed being looked after by the woman who was basically his second mother. Not many. But he could think of a few. He laughed quietly when her back was turned to rewrap his stitched up leg.

She was glad he’d given up on his most recent push to go off on his own. Even if he was sure he was ready, she couldn’t quite let go of keeping watch over him. She finished checking over his bandages and went to get him some tea. 

When she returned, he accepted a cup of the almost unbearably bitter brew Daira taught him to make when he was still little more than a toddler. It always took the bite out of the various hurts he was all too prone to even then. Daira said he had an abundance of brains and courage, just not much in the way of sense or caution. 

He tentatively took a drink, knowing it would bring relief, but knowing just as well he hated the flavor, and always had. Then he smiled. Cinnie had stirred in an appropriately excessive amount of honey to cover the objectionable taste.

“Thanks,” he said, hoping the sweetness held to the end.

As he sipped the tea and stroked Caraid, it became clear Cinnie had either stirred in something else, too, or he was still worse off than he’d thought. It always made him relaxed, but not to this degree. He could barely keep his eyes open by the bottom of it. 

“Bit strong,” he grumbled as she took the cup from him. 

She heard the accusation in his voice but didn’t bother dignifying it. She set the cup aside and covered him with an extra blanket. She chuckled, shaking her head. “It’s just proof your strength isn’t yet what it ought to be.”

“Humph,” he grumped. But he clearly didn’t mean it, since he hid a small smile as he rolled onto his good side, wrapped an arm around an unresisting Caraid, and drifted back into a restorative sleep.

Cinnie watched him for a bit, hoping her presence would keep away whatever kept troubling his dreams. Once his breathing was slow and even, she got up to get back to the business of running the household. 

She paused at the door again, glancing back, just to reassure herself he really did look better. Caraid cracked one eye open and the expression on her feline face said all was well. 

Cinnie decided to take a walk and let Bean’s mother know he’d turned a corner for the better. They’d already lost three of his brothers in the last year. That was hard enough on her, but Cinnie didn’t think she’d take losing her youngest well. She’d be relieved to hear he was improving. Cinnie slipped out of the house with a word to Shay to keep an eye on her uncle.

***

When Ben woke again, it was dark, and the house was quiet. Mostly quiet. He could hear Drustan’s snoring from the other side of the cottage. He’d always been a loud sleeper. Ben was glad it had been a good long while since they’d shared sleeping space. He didn’t know how Cinnie tolerated it. Of course, with six girls running around, the youngest of which was only just off the breast, she probably didn’t sleep soundly anyway. He wondered how often she’d been checking on him. 

He shifted slightly. For the first time since he’d woken up here after that fight, the movement didn’t set off a cascade of aches. Caraid picked up her head, her eyes glowing green in the moonlight. She stretched and hopped down off the bed, walking out the door with a single backward glance. 

She liked to hunt at night. He’d have bet his best knife she was going looking for mice. He thought maybe he should get up and let her outside so she could go to their house. She could get after the mice there, or squirrels, of which there always seemed to be an abundance near the edge of the wood. She still loved hunting the squirrels.

He loved their cottage. He missed Daira, of course. He would have traded the house for his small corner in his parents’ busy home to have her back in a heartbeat. But the place was perfect for his preferences. Cinnie often pointedly remarked to his parents that it was too big for a man alone. If he was going to go off into battle time and again for his people, he ought to have someone to come home to. Perhaps a few wee ones who bore the stamp of his features in the bargain. He’d blush and avoid everyone’s eyes when she said so. But they knew he thought so, too.    

He didn’t dream badly when he was home. He no longer had a fever from his injuries and this time the relief he’d gotten from the tea seemed to be holding. Surely, no one would object to him sleeping in his own bed a bit. He started to get himself up to do just that, swearing softly when he remembered he was in a fairly advanced state of undress. He couldn’t go home wearing just a cloth and bandages. 

His eyes adjusted to the low light and he squinted around in the darkness. If I were my imp of a niece, where would I have hidden my clothes? 

He wanted to be annoyed with Cinnie and Shay for trying to trap him in bed like that, but he had to admit, their experience told them he would probably try to act like nothing was wrong well before it was even close to true. Most of the time that wasn’t a big problem. He’d managed to not get hurt too badly in countless battles. This time though… The way Cinnie had been sitting next to his bed when he remembered waking for the first time… He might have given them enough of a fright to justify going a bit far. 

An idea came to him. He wrapped himself in the blanket and levered himself out of bed. “Ow.”

He crouched down carefully to look under the bed. He chuckled softly. Shay really had picked up his sense of humor. Folded neatly, right in the middle of the floor under where he’d been sleeping, were all of his clothes, washed and mended. Even the boots he had no intention of wearing anywhere other than into battle were there. 

He picked up the pile and stood, groaning softly as he did so. Maybe home was a bit further than he ought to go. But dressed sounded too good to resist. He sat back on the bed and slowly, carefully regained his dignity. Just those small movements set him sweating again, but once he had his clothes on, the appeal of his own bed was too strong to resist. 

He got almost as far at the front door. 

“Where’re you goin’ then?”

He jumped in surprise. “Fer feck’s sake, woman! Are ye tryin’ te scare me ta death?”

She laughed softly. “More like I’m tryin’ te keep ye from yer death, ye silly boy.”

He sagged against the wall for a second, then waved dismissively. “Ach, I’m fine. I just … I want te go home fer a bit. See Sioda, let Caraid in the house, like I said before. I’ll come back.”

Cinnie rose from her seat and lit some candles. She took him by the elbow and pulled him nearer the fire. “It’s a howlin’ storm out there, lad. Sit here by the fire or go back te bed.”

Ben sighed. Now that he was listening, he could hear the wind outside. He shivered. 

“Bit drafty. Drus’ should see te the roof,” he said casually, though how heavily he sat down on the stool next to the hearth probably gave away how he actually felt.

She laughed lightly. “Drustan? On the roof? That’ll be the day. That’s why I need you aroun’. Yer my little squirrel.”

He grinned and shook his head. There was nothing little about him. And there hadn’t been in a long time. But he had always been a climber. None of his brothers had much of a head for heights. His expression sobered. Alastair had. But he was gone. 

“I’ll see te it as soon as the storm clears.”

“Ye’ll not be doin’ any such thing, lad.” She moved to sit next to him. “It’s not the draft.” She rested her wrist against his forehead for a moment. “Yer warm again.”

He ducked his head away from her cool touch. “That’s a grand fire ye’ve built is all.”

“Mmm,” she observed wryly. “Ye have te decide, is it cold an’ drafty, er too hot from the hearth? Ye can’ have it both ways.”

He managed a small smile. “Why not? Things can be more than one thing at a time.” He laughed softly. “That made more sense before I said it out loud.”

“It makes perfect sense. Take you, as an example. Yer still my darling boy who’d do anything te spare me trouble, and the one man I know more stubborn than the old goat out back who likes to cause me nothing but.”

She spoke in a lighthearted teasing way, but he looked wounded nonetheless. “I dint mean te trouble ye.”

She switched seats to be close enough to put her arm gently around his shoulders. “Yer not really trouble, lad. An’ I’m not sayin’ things te make ye feel bad. I jus’ wan’ ye te take a moment te heal.”

He sighed. “I keep tellin’ ye,  I’m alrigh’.”

“I hear ye. An’ I’m sure ye believe it. But it sounds to me like those tall tales ye used to come home with about faeries an’ the like.”

He opened his mouth to respond, to perhaps defend his younger self in some way. He stopped. He wasn’t even half sure any of that really happened anyway. Besides, with Daira gone, there was no one he could really talk it over with. Just like there was no one he could tell his terrible dreams. No one he could tell they felt like a warning of things to come. He decided to say something honest about the present instead. 

“Cin … Yer right. I push too hard. I know it. But ye haven’ seen what we’re up against. An’ I…”

“Can’t take the fate a the whole lot of us on yer shoulders, lad.” 

His brow furrowed and his eyes searched her face. “Then who will? Da’ cannae do it anymore. An’ Angus probably won’ ever get rid a tha’ limp. An’ Osh is … Osh.”

She shook her head. “Drus’ is the oldest, an’ he can lead them when ye can’t.”

Ben shook his head. “Drus has you an’ the girls, an … I’ve just got me. It has to be me, Cin. Whether I’m busted up er not.”

She squeezed his shoulders again. He shifted a little, reminding both of them he was still hurt. “Ye get te take care of yerself, same as any of them. An’ ye have as much te live for, too.”

“Like I said, it’s just me,” he said with a slightly listless shrug. 

“Not fer much longer,” she said. Her hand went to her mouth with a little gasp.

He turned on the stool to face her fully, his eyebrows drawing together in a look somewhere between amused and suspicious. “Say again?”

She bit her lips together. “I shouldna said anythin’.”

Ben was not much for keeping secrets. And he hated when other people did. This was a good one, too, because Cinnie was positively squirming. He flashed the charming grin he was used to using to get his way. “How can ye torment a man in my condition like tha’?”

“Yer condition? I thought ye were fine.”

He laughed. “F’I admit I’m maybe jus’ shy a fine, will ye tell me?”

She shook her head. “I cannae tell ye, Bean. Yer mother’ll kill me.”

“Ach, she won’ know.” 

He chuckled softly. How often had he said those exact words? He had to admit, secrets weren’t all bad. If his mother had known half of what he’d gotten up to when he was a child, she’d have killed him

“But … I’ll understand if ye want te keep it te yerself. She’s a right terror when she’s angry.”

She considered him for a long quiet moment. Perhaps knowing what was on the horizon would make him a shade less reckless. She chewed her lower lip. “Ye cannae tell them I told ye.”

He grinned. “I’ll not give it away, Cin.”

She took his hand and squeezed it. “It’s … well, I think it’s what ye’ve wanted.” 

She stopped, chewing her lip again.

“Go on then!”

“Yer father’s been … and yer mother…”

“Cin, just spit it, would’ye?”

“They’ve found a bride fer ye, Bean.”

He blinked several times and swallowed hard. “I … Oh.”

He appeared stunned rather than happy. Cinnie got up to tend the fire to give him a minute. When she sat back down, his whole face had become a confused frown. “Are ye alrigh’, lad? I thought ye’d be pleased.”

He didn’t answer right away. Finally his bright eyes found hers. “I … I s’pose I am. I just thought … I knew Daira said it wouldna be up te me … I always thought that was jus’ talk. I thought I’d meet someone and we’d decide … I…” He trailed off.

She thought she understood. She took his hand again. “I never met Drus’ face te face before we married. An’ look at us. Never have two people loved each other more. The same goes fer yer parents.”

He nodded slowly. “I know tha’… But … Drus’ is oldest. He’ll be chieftain one day. The others chose…” He stopped, his frown deepening. 

“Ye don’ like all tha’ talk from when you were born followin’ ye aroun’ still. Is tha’ it?”

“Maybe,” he hedged.

Ben hated the idea such a fuss had been made about his birth, that predictions and plans had dictated the direction of his life in so many ways. He’d had several brushes with infatuation when he was younger and something had always put a stop to it. In retrospect, it had mostly been his parents and Daira. 

All that talk about Daira’s vision the first time she’d held him, and the vision of the woman he’d marry, had prevented a lot of things. In fact, now that he thought about it, his most serious case of nearly falling for someone had been interrupted by his father asking him to lead the men. He wanted to be angry about it, could feel his temper starting to heat. 

Still, he’d always wanted a family. Since before he could really remember. Who knew if those youthful blushing meetings would have ended like he might have hoped. He never had a plan for much of anything. He supposed it was good someone did. 

His expression softened. “Do ye know anything about her?”

“She’s Argyle’s niece.” Cinnie proceeded to tell him about the chieftains coming together to talk of an alliance against the foreigners, about Argyle’s own daughters all succumbing to a sickness that took many of their people including his clan’s previous leader early in the fall. About him coming to Donal to broker peace a few weeks ago. 

Ben shook his head. “So now I’m a peace treaty.” She looked like she’d say something, probably to rebuke him in some way for his slightly resentful tone. But she stopped when his face slipped into a shy sort of expression. “I meant do ye know about her? Herself, I mean.”

Even in the dimness, she could see his cheeks had colored and she didn’t think it was the fever this time. “Well, I understand she’s been apprenticed to their wise woman since she could walk.” When he didn’t say anything she went on, teasing just a bit again. “An’ she’s a healer. Seems like that ought te come in handy fer ye, Bean.”

He rolled his eyes at her. “I need somebody else fussin’ a’ me like I need a pack a hungry wolves at the door.”

“I think you need at leas’ ten more somebodies to fuss at ye!” she laughed. “But I also don’ think ye’ll mind. I hear she’s very kind.”

“Well, tha’s good, I suppose.”

Cinnie remembered nearly everything her lad had said about his ideal mate when he was growing up and smiled. “I don’ know if she likes to hunt or fight, but I do hear she’s very pretty. And tha’ she very much wants to start a family.”

He flushed crimson then, but he grinned broadly. He hesitated for a moment, before asking, “Is she … Does she want te do this though?”

“Tha’s important to ye.”

“Course it is. I won’ go through with it if her people are makin’ her do it.”

“From what I hear, Bean, it was her idea. She saw ye in a vision.”

“I’ve had enough a visions,” he said with a dismissive wave. He’d had a few himself. Cinnie knew about it; she’d been the first one he’d told about his dream before Fee was born. 

He was grateful she didn’t bring that up now, just patted him on the arm. “I know, lad.”

“I s’pose if it’s really her idea, it’s not up te me to worry about why.”

“They’ll make the announcement a’ the Feast. Her people’ll do the same at their own celebrations. She’ll be here after the first planting if everything goes as planned. Is tha’ enough to send ye back to bed to let yerself knit back together, lad?”

He swallowed hard against a dry mouth a couple of times and ran his hands through his hair, wincing when the movement pulled at his wounded shoulder. Cinnie concealed a smile at the nervous gesture. “I think,” his voice cracked and her smile bled through. He cleared his throat and rose slowly. “I think it is.”

She watched him go back to the small room she’d set aside as his years ago. He was moving better. But he was a long way from healed, she thought. He stopped in the doorway and cast a tentative smile back over his shoulder. “Do ye think she’ll be happy with me?” he asked softly.

“Oh, mo a bhobain, how could she not?”

His smile faltered for a moment. “Are ye sure it’s really her idea?”

“Te bed with ye!” she ordered with a smile of her own that brought his back.

He chuckled, shook his head, and did what he was told.

***

By the time the Feast came around several days later, Ben was managing to move with the slightly coltish grace everyone was familiar with. He’d wince or catch his breath if he moved certain ways, but Cinnie didn’t think anyone but her noticed. He ate the expected ridiculous amounts of food, toasted their successes, remembered their losses, and called for a prosperous year, welcoming back the sun with copious amounts of every available fermented beverage. 

Their people had taken heavy losses all around over the last few months and their leader being brought home bloody and unconscious had caused an uneasy silence to fall over the preparations for the holiday. 

Ben’s hale and hearty appearance seemed just what the clan needed. Although, the expressions on the faces of the young women soured somewhat when his father announced his betrothal to Argyle’s niece, Elara. 

Cinnie laughed softly to herself at the way he blushed when he noticed their expressions. He never let on that she’d told him. His knowledge was well hidden behind his shy embarrassment over being the center of attention at the Yule feast, his thanks to his father, his grateful acceptance of offers from his family to help him prepare his little home to grow.

He’d slipped out the door on the early side, admitting quietly to Cinnie he was worn out and sore. She offered to walk back with him or to get Shay to go and make him some tea. He shook his head. 

“I’m goin’ home tonight. I … I need te be alone for a bit. This was … I need some quiet is all.”

“I could send Shay over there with ye, too. She could get yer fire goin’ an’ stay in case ye need anythin’.”

“Cin, I’ll be fine. I love her more than my own life, but Shay is anythin’ but quiet.”

Cinnie laughed. “Alrigh’. But I’ll be over to check on ye in the morning.”

He just smiled and shook his head. “Course ye will.”

***

Ben had slipped out of the party to gain some time to think. But by the time he made it to his small cottage near the wood, the reasons he’d given Cinnie were more honest. He almost wished he’d let her send Shay along, at least to start the fire.

But, there was nothing for it now. It was too cold to just go to sleep without one, and he was much too tired to either go ask for help or admit defeat and go back to his bed at Cinnie and Drustan’s. 

He moved through the dark with the confidence of memory. He hadn’t moved a single thing here since Daira had … “Ow!”

He barked his shins on a stool that wasn’t where he’d left it, and cursed the rest of the way to the hearth. Cinnie must have moved it when she came over here to get ingredients for tea. He flushed when he had the fleeting thought someone was probably going to move stuff all the time soon and he definitely wouldn’t mind. But he smiled, too. 

He crouched by the hearth and started building a fire, hopefully one big enough to take him through the night since he had no desire to get up and tend it. 

Once he had the fire roaring pleasantly, he lit a few candles. He half smiled and moved one to the window to encourage the sun’s return, just as Daira always had. It was her favorite Yule tradition.

He looked around. He’d hate to leave this place. He hadn’t thought he ever would. But if he was to build a family, the small cottage wouldn’t hold up for long. He’d been resistant to the idea of the marriage at first, not that he’d really said so out loud. But the more he’d sat with it, the more his brothers and their wives had talked about their own unions, the warmer the idea made him feel. 

Perhaps he’d see her for the first time and feel the giddy elation he’d always imagined. Falling for someone when you just laid eyes on them was a terribly romantic notion for a warrior to have, he supposed. But it didn’t stop him from having it.

The room was warming nicely. He could, and probably should, head to bed and get the rest he’d promised Cinnie. He did have something other than more warfare to motivate him now. He stooped to add some more wood to the fire and groaned. 

He stood slowly. He was moving like an old man. He felt like he imagined one must, too. His father wasn’t really so very old, but Donal moved like he was older than the rocks. Such was the fate of a warrior who made it home past his usefulness in the field. He was still an excellent chieftain though. Measured, calm, diplomatic. Traits Ben envied when he was at his most impulsive, hot-tempered, and quick-tongued.

He should just do what he planned to, and get some sleep. That would help. It always did. 

But suddenly he didn’t want to. Suddenly coming to be in this house alone felt like a terrible idea. Those dreams … Even unformed memories of them made his stomach drop. He really didn’t want to wake up alone from that. 

He smiled a little when he reminded himself he wouldn’t have to for much longer. Soon he wouldn’t have to take up space at Cinnie and Drus’s when he needed someone. 

Still, he was in no hurry to fall asleep. Those dreams fought for his waking attention in the quiet of his cottage. He tried reminding himself he didn’t usually dream badly, or much at all, when he was here. It helped some, but his reluctance to go to bed in the house alone made his various pains all the more noticeable.

He fed the fire for a while, called out the door to Caraid with no success, and changed out his day clothes for his nightshirt. He wouldn’t admit to himself he was stalling.

Eventually, when he’d run out of other things to do, he decided there would be no sleep without some tea. And maybe a few drops of the dark liquid Daira had never shown him how to make, or even told him much about. That would almost definitely knock him out. Better than a barrel full of mead. Even if the nightmares tried to come for him here, he doubted they could find their way through the deep purple haze of that elixir. 

He didn’t know enough about it that he’d ever dare share it unless someone was absolutely dying anyway. But he knew he tolerated it. It was how Daira had set his badly broken arm when he was eight. He was contemplating the pots of herbs and the dark little bottle. 

“Ach, lad, ye don’ need any a tha’. Not here.”

The voice was almost as familiar as his own, but Ben jumped. He blinked a few times, but Daira still didn’t disappear. Once his initial shock wore off, he realized she was glowing faintly and as she settled into the chair next to his, he could see through her to the room beyond. 

He cleared his throat. He felt his face slip into a wry grin, accepting the visitation for what it was quite naturally. “But apparently the charms you made to keep spirits out aren’ worth a damn.”

She chuckled. “This is my house. Ye can’t charm a lady out of her own home, no matter how dead she is, my boy.”

“I hope ye don’ mind tha’ I’m here,” he offered respectfully. He thought perhaps anyone else might be afraid right now. But he’d seen stranger things than the ghost of his friend, and he was suddenly quite sure all those things had been real. “I did go to the wood to ask, but I’ve never been much good at readin’ signs.”

She smiled, a rather indulgent smile he remembered from his childhood. It meant she was pleased with him. “I’d be more upset if ye weren’ here, lad. I heard ye ask. You were always so polite.”

“Ye’ve not visited me before.”

“I have, just not while you were awake. Why do ye think those terrible visions don’ trouble ye here.”

“Here I’ve been wishin’ I could tell ye about ‘em, an’ ye’ve known all along.” He didn’t ask, but the question hovered between them.

“I wish I could tell ye they’re just dreams, lad, but …” She looked toward the door, tilting her head like she was listening. “Caraid wants to come in,” she observed. 

Ben started to push himself up out of his seat. “Ah,” he groaned softly. 

“Ye stay righ’ there, lad. I’ll get ‘er.”

He frowned. “Don’ take this the wrong way, Daira, but ye look more like ye’ll pass through the door than be able te open it.”

She laughed and went to the door anyway. “I tol’ ye. My house.”

Surprising him completely, she opened the door with no trouble. Caraid zipped around her like she could see her, too. “Can she…?”

“Course she can, ye silly boy. Cats can always see spirits. And your particular cat has one foot in another world anyway.”

He wanted to ask what she meant, but was distracted by a snow-covered Caraid leaping into his lap with surprising agility. Of course, he was on the low stool, close to the fire. If he’d been in his chair, he doubted she’d have made it to his legs. 

“Snowing again, is it?” he asked her, brushing her off.

Once she was free of snow, Caraid jumped down and curled up on the hearth. Daira sat back down next to him. He turned back toward her, his expression both hesitant and curious. “What about my dreams?”

She chuckled fondly. “An’ here I thought ye might jus’ let tha’ go.”

“Daira.” One of his eyebrows went up and a stubborn line formed across his forehead.

She smiled at him, but there was a sadness behind it, Ben noticed. “I cannae tell ye.”

His face creased, and he leaned forward, his whole manner morphing into a frown. But when he spoke, his tone was light, familiar, almost teasing. “Ye wouldna said anythin’ if ye weren’ gonna tell me.”

“Ye cannae charm ole Daira, lad. I know ye too well.”

He sighed. “Spose ye do.”

He looked so dejected, Daira reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up when he felt its comforting weight. Despite being able to see the room beyond right through her, her eyes had the old familiar warmth they always had. “Alrigh’ ye can charm me a little.” He smiled hesitantly. “There’s truth in those visions,” she said simply.

He swallowed hard. “But what…?” He trailed off. “The foreigners. War’s comin’. Real war.” He looked to her for confirmation of his interpretation.

She shook her head, but whether in denial of his guess or as a refusal to answer was unclear. “I cannae say. But I can show you what lies beyond those visions, lad.” 

He tilted his head. “How?”

She rose and moved to the hearth. Then, surprising him again, she added a log to the flames, sending them higher. “Come. Look.”

Ben obeyed, sitting down next to her on the warm stones. He peered into the fire. “I don’ see anythin’.”

“Look with the eyes that see me, Ben.”

He thought he knew what she meant. 

He forced himself to relax, his gaze to soften. This time, as he stared into the heart of the fire, the shifting embers, an image began to emerge. 

He could make out himself, smiling broadly. He looked different, not quite right, though he couldn’t have said why. His fire-self reached out his arms and was handed a bundle. He couldn’t tell for certain, but he thought the package might be a child. 

The bundle was given to him by someone with a dazzling smile, a beautiful bow shaped mouth. He couldn’t see the rest of her face, but the curve of her jaw, her slender, graceful neck, a profusion of curls flowing over her shoulders … she was beautiful, even made of fire. Her arms went around him and the bundle, and Ben felt like the warmth of it encircled him even in his place on the hearth. 

“Daira … is that…?” An unnatural roaring interrupted him, and he gasped as one of the horrible faces from his nightmares erupted, destroying the peaceful vision of his future. The flames burned so high and so hot that for a moment they seemed like they’d engulf the house

“Be gone, ye foul thing!” Daira commanded. “Ye’ll not trouble him here!” 

She stirred the fire and the beast disappeared. She smiled at Ben gently. “Tha’s on yer mind a great deal, is it?”

Ben tried to slow his breathing and answer her, but his voice had left him. He nodded.

“That wasn’t really here. It came from yer mind.”

Finally, he was able to swallow and open his mouth past the twisting fear that image had wrapped around his neck. “Are ye sure?”

“I am. Ye have a hard time lettin’ yerself accept that there’s anythin’ good beyond the battle in front of ye. Don’ ye, lad?”

He closed his eyes briefly. “Maybe.” He opened his eyes again and looked at her, his expression serious. “How sure are you tha’ there is?”

She smiled. “Just as sure as I was the first time you opened those golden eyes o’ yers a’ me, Ben.” She put her hand on his shoulder. He was once again startled by its weight. “An’ there’ll be times ahead tha’ll make ye forget such things are possible, love. But they aren’ jus’ possible. They’re certain. Alrigh’?”

He managed a small smile then. “If ye say so.”

“I do.”

He stared into the fire again, willing it to give him another glimpse of that momentary happy vision, but nothing appeared. The warmth and the lulling shifting of the flames made his eyes want to close.

“I’ll make ye some tea, lad.”

He just nodded, and gave in to the impulse to rest his eyes.

When he opened them some time later, he was curled on his side on the hearth. The fire had burned low, but was still warm. He stretched, and pushed himself up to sitting. “Tha’ was quite a dream,” he said aloud to the silent house.

He must’ve fallen asleep feeding the fire. He decided he should should restoke the fire and try calling Caraid again. 

He got up with a groan and bent to scratch at his leg. Whether Cinnie liked it or not he was going to sharpen a knife in the morning and pick out all those stitches. He was more worried about scratching himself to death than he was about his insides leaking out at this point.

As he laid wood onto the fire, Caraid twined herself between his feet. “Ahhh!” he shouted and dropped the log he was holding almost on his foot, and narrowly missed her. “How’d you get in here?” he asked, recovering from the momentary fright she’d given him.

She looked up at him placidly and meowed. He started toward the window to see if she’d actually jumped up and pawed the shutters open but she tried to hop up onto the stack of blankets on one of the chairs and couldn’t quite make it. He stopped and boosted her up onto her preferred spot. “Huh.”

He tended the fire for a few minutes. He wasn’t nearly as achy as he’d been a few days ago, or even as much as when he’d gotten home from the feast a few hours ago. But he hadn’t done himself any favors falling asleep on the hearth. He decided to follow his earlier impulse and make some tea.

He turned for the pot of herbs on the nearby shelf, but it wasn’t there. “Huh,” he said again. 

He searched around and found it on the edge of the hearth. He also found the pot full of a perfectly steeped pot of the medicinal brew. He was suddenly certain his late night guest hadn’t been a dream. “Well, now,” he murmured as he poured himself a cup. He raised it to his lips. “If it’s already sweetened too, I’ll eat my boots.”

It was so bitter he nearly spit it out. “Well, o’ course she dinnae sweeten it,” he chuckled fondly. Daira always seemed to think making him drink it straight might knock some sense into him.

He put what anyone else would have thought an offensive amount of honey into the cup and sat next to Caraid, stroking her fur as he sipped his tea. Finally he said, “Did we really have a visitor tonight, girl?”

Caraid purred contentedly in answer. He smiled and shook his head. He thought about his talk with Daira, which he had to admit he remembered too much of to have been a dream. The promise of light, of love, of hope was such a perfect Yule gift, he was almost ashamed he’d questioned the reality of it. 

“Thank you, old friend,” he whispered, hoping, and being very nearly certain, Daira was listening.

Eventually, he felt as though he could go back to sleep. He thought perhaps he’d get up early, and instead of calling the men together to talk about fighting, he might visit his mother and ask what she thought he ought to work on to make the cottage more welcoming.

He went to bed and burrowed under his blankets and skins, confident that his nightmares wouldn’t come for him here. Daira would keep them away. 

He closed his eyes and drifted off. Something told him his feet were finally on the path that would lead him to happiness. It might feel like forever before he got there, but he could hardly wait for the journey.

The vision of the woman’s bright smile, of the child in his arms, came back to him with vivid warmth. 

In his sleep, as the earliest rays of the returning sun brushed the eastern sky, Ben smiled. 

*****

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

80760460_582871692524571_4107838268152741888_n

Authors Note: Here we have another look at a solstice from Ben’s past, this one as a demon. In traditional Norse mythology Loki is the blood-brother of Odin. In most modern literature, not just the MCU (although, who doesn’t love Marvel?) Loki is Odin’s adopted son. That’s so much more fun. Odin is also pretty much ancient Norse Santa. He had to make an appearance. 

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

Barely fed and rested from the Wild Hunt, Allfather made his way to the great stable. He smiled despite his weariness, listening to the Yule songs carried on the winter winds from his people in the mortal realm all the way to his ears here in Asgard.

He hadn’t yet laid eyes on his steed, but he could hear Sleipnir pawing at the ground impatiently. He chuckled to himself, his warm breath frosting in the frigid air on this, the longest night of the year.

“Patience, Sleipnir! We’ll ride soon enough and you’ll feast on the gifts of the children!”

The horse neighed softly in reply. Allfather laughed to himself. There were few things his eight-legged companion liked more than riding out with him on this night, the eve of the Solstice, as they did each year, and had since time out of mind. He looked forward to distributing gifts to his faithful, especially the children.

Sleipnir preferred receiving rather than giving. The offerings of straw the children left in their boots to be replaced by the bounty that would signify a prosperous year to all were probably an explanation for his friend’s impatience.

It was a night the two of them looked forward to, perhaps in some ways more than the Wild Hunt itself.

He paused to look up at the sky, his anticipation marred by something that had concerned him for some time. For weeks a star burned in the sky, bright and cool and unfamiliar. A portent of some sort, of that he was certain, but of what he had been unable to even conjecture. He supposed it didn’t matter. The Heavens could fall around him and he would still fulfill his promises to those he watched.

He pushed through the last of the knee deep snow to open the stable door. “I’m coming, old friend,” he called out, gathering what he needed. He patted Sleipnir’s neck before he harnessed him up to his flying chariot that would carry gifts to every home that kept his name and ways close.

He threw the doors wide and led Sleipnir outside. He looked up at the strange star again. Sleipnir snorted and pawed at the snow. “Nothing for it, noble one. Tonight we ride.”

Sleipnir snorted his agreement and his master moved to climb aboard his chariot.

From behind him, he heard a throat clear nervously. “Um, Odin, isn’t it?”

Odin stopped what he was doing and turned to see his questioner, a tall young man, with an unruly mop of blond hair, strongly built, and wearing only a simple tunic and dark kilt against the icy Nordic air. Odin took his measure.

No, not a man. Well, not a man anymore, he amended.

“You show either great stupidity, or great bravery, to face me like this, Demon.”

He raised Gungnir. The runes on his magical spear glowed blue, red, and a burning black, as soon as he held it aloft.

The demon dropped back a step, holding up his hands. “I don’t want any trouble.” He appeared unafraid, but was cautious. “And I’ve been told I’m stupidly brave once or twice,” he added with a slight smirk. “So, let’s call it a little of both.”

Odin advanced on the demon a few steps. “Your tongue is glib.”

“I’ve been told that, too.” His hands opened just a little more, raised just a little higher so he could be sure Odin could see he was not making an aggressive move. “Look, I’m not here to fight.”

Odin brandished Gungnir again. “Boy, you don’t have a choice!”

The blond danced back out of his way. “I’m here to help! Give me a chance to explain!”

Odin stopped advancing. This man, this demon, truly wasn’t afraid of him. He wasn’t backing off out of fear, but rather because he was intent on talking. However, Odin could not excuse a demon boldly roaming the streets of Asgard, even walking up to his own stable. He took a belligerent stance.

“I am not interested in talk. Your actions beg for a fight.”

The demon’s hands came up again. “I’m unarmed.” Gungnir dipped fractionally, and he took a step toward Odin. “I really am here to help. If you let me speak, you’ll have cause to thank me and my glib tongue. I promise.”

“What good is the promise of a demon?” Oden laughed with exaggerated derision.

“Not much usually.” The blond shrugged. “But mine is.”

“Why is your promise a good one when others are not?” Odin asked with skepticism.

“You see all, or so I’m told. You at least see the hearts of those who walk and who have walked the Earth.”

“That is so.”

“Alright, then. You know my word is good.”

Odin’s eyes narrowed. “I also know that with demons, appearances can be deceiving, might even be capable of deceiving me.”

The demon ran a hand through his hair, a disarmingly human gesture. He met Odin’s cold blue eyes with warm amber ones. He felt Odin reading his very soul. “I swear on my family, I’m here in good faith.”

There was a sincerity in his words, a huskiness that came into his voice, that Odin found intriguing. “Alright.” The god lowered his spear. “First, I will have your name.”

A smile flashed, there and gone almost before Odin could mark the humanness of that, too. “You can call me Ben.”

“Ben is sort of an odd name for one of your kind.”

The smile was back. “Well, I’m an odd sort of demon.”

Odin finally gave a grudging nod. “Speak your piece then, demon. Ben. If your words displease me, you will be rewarded with the final death.”

“Oh, they’ll displease you alright.” Ben puffed out a breath, shaking his head. This wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped. “But it’s not me you’ll be displeased with. You know, unless you’re a kill the messenger kind of god.”

Ben hesitated to go on and Odin snapped, “Enough! I grow impatient and I have much to do this night. Speak.”

“Okay … It’s um … It’s about your horse.”

Odin gestured to Sleipnir. “What about my horse?”

“Um … That’s not him.”

“Of course it’s my horse!” The horse snorted his agreement and pawed at the ground again. He almost seemed to be nodding his head. “I know Sleipnir better than I know my wife, my children!”

“Um … about that…”

“Spit it out, boy!”

“Well, he looks like your horse, but…”

“Nonsense!”

Ben sighed. “Just … Look into his eyes, just like you looked into mine a few moments ago…”

Sleipnir clomped forward and pawed at the ground, nearly stomping on Ben’s boot clad foot. He tossed his mane, neighing his displeasure.

“Look,” Ben repeated. “You’ll see.”

Odin growled, “I’ll see you’re a deceitful beast straight from the Pit of the Damned. And then I’ll kill you.”

“Please,” Ben said calmly, or at least appearing calm. “Just look.”

Sleipnir puffed and stomped and tossed his head, glaring at the demon and attempting to step on his feet again. “Calm yourself, Sleipnir,” Odin coaxed.

When the horse continued to toss its head, Odin reached into his pocket and held something up near the horse’s nose. “I said, calm yourself. Come on now.”

Like he was powerless to do anything else, the horse sniffed at whatever was in Odin’s hand and took it in his mouth, chewing happily. Odin took advantage of Sleipnir’s distraction and grabbed hold of the horse’s bridle, stilling his head. The horse went completely motionless as Odin gazed into his large brown eyes.

“Bah!” Odin released the horse’s head in frustration. “I should have known. Change back at once!”

The air shimmered and Odin’s son stood where Sleipnir had been a moment before. “Father, I can explain,” he began with a charming smile.

“You’d better!”

Ben concealed a smile as Loki’s own faltered a bit. “Yeah, Loki, go ahead. Explain what happened.” Odin shot him a look and Ben bit his lips to keep from laughing. “Sorry.”

“Go on,” Odin said with tightly concealed fury. “Explain yourself.”

Loki’s hands opened and his smile fixed back into place. “Well, you see, I was only trying to … I know how important this day is to you … And…”

“Loki,” Odin warned.

“I, well, I rather misplaced your horse and…”

“Misplaced?” Odin asked, his irritation only barely held in check.

“Lost,” Ben interjected. “The word you’re looking for is lost, Loki.”

“We’ve heard quite enough from you, Ronoven,” Loki spat.

“As in, at cards,” Ben managed, before Odin cut him off with a wave.

“Do you know this demon?” Odin demanded.

Loki swallowed hard. “Uh … we’ve met.”

“Met?” Ben laughed. “You were just at my estate. For the weekly card game.”

Odin seemed to ignore him. “So you’re consorting with demons now. Weekly. I shouldn’t be surprised. Well, then…”

Ben cleared his throat. “Look, I’m glad I could help you guys start to sort this out, but I’ve got to be going.” He started to turn away.

“You stay right where you are, Demon!” Odin ordered. “Where is Sleipnir?”

Loki stammered, then regained his composure. “Well, you see, Father. That’s actually a rather funny story…”

“Oh for the love of…” Ben threw up his hands, interrupting Loki before he could implicate Ben in his family squabble any more than he already had. “Your horse is back in your stables, Odin. I led him there before I came to speak with you … He’s a biter, by the way.”

Ben’s exaggerated wince and rubbing of his forearm surprised Odin into a chuckle. “And how,” he glared significantly at Loki before looking back at Ben, “did he come to be in your possession? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Some light cheating of me at cards. And getting caught at it. In my home.” Loki shot him a murderous look, but Ben continued. “It was a rather considerable bet. And there’s obviously a penalty involved.”

“For cheating?” Odin asked, ashamed that anyone who could be called Odin’s son would cheat, not to mention be sloppy enough to get caught at it in Hell of all places, but entirely unsurprised that Loki was guilty of it.

“Nah, people try to cheat all the time. It’s Hell.” Ben grinned. “Just, getting caught got him into a kind of double or nothing situation. Then, when he couldn’t pull it out with all eyes on him, he offered Sleipnir as payment.”

Odin shot Loki a withering glare. “A bet, was it?”

“Father, I only thought…”

Odin waved him into silence and returned his gaze to Ben. “And why are you here?”

Ben might have blushed, Odin couldn’t be sure. “I’d never take another man’s … er … god’s … You know what I mean. I’d never take someone else’s horse. I knew Sleipnir wasn’t Loki’s to lose.”

“You speak as a man who understands the bond between a horse and his master.”

“I do.” Ben swallowed. “Look, you obviously have some family issues to work out. I took the horse as payment to begin with so Loki could save face in front of the crew. I’ll lose some myself if I don’t get back before my absence is noticed.”

“Very well,” Odin said with a solemn nod, and extended his hand. Ben hesitated, but took it. “I thank you, Ben. Should you ever need to call on me or my house, I hope you will not hesitate.”

Ben nodded, it was almost a bow. “Thank you, Odin. I will if the need arises.” He tipped a wink at Loki. “Good luck.”

He walked away, puffing in the cold, to get to a place where he could open a portal and travel back to his estate, leaving the Allfather to deal with his mischievous son.

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Self-Possessed

Fantasy WIP December

Authors’ Note: Readers of this blog should remember Caleb Saint-Claire from tales of Fic-mas past. If you’re new to The Arbitratus Universe, Caleb is a member of the Order of the Temple of Solomon, or Knights Templar. In this world, the Templars are kind of like supernatural secret agents. And Caleb is their James Bond. Only, cooler. You can read more about Caleb in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas Volume I and Volume II. This story finds him a little older and wiser than past Ficmas’s. He’ll need all of this experience when he meets his cousin Mal.

Self-Possessed

Caleb put the car in park and pulled at what currently felt like a noose around his neck. He despised the Roman collar, and was grateful, for perhaps the hundredth time since he got dressed for this assignment, it was not part of the Order’s normal attire. But, like it (he didn’t) or hate it (he did), he had to look the part.

“You ready, Jim?” he asked the man fidgeting in the passenger seat.

The younger man ran his hands over his pant legs, trying in vain, once again, to dry his palms. “Ready as I’m gonna be,” he answered, nervousness now not just apparent in his gestures, but in his tight, higher than normal voice as well.

“Relax, you’ll be fine,” Caleb said in an attempt to reassure his inexperienced partner. Only barely out of basic training, Jim had been a wreck the entire flight in. “You’re mostly here to learn, kid. I’ll take care of the real work today.”

“I know. And everybody says you’re the guy … Well, you’re kind of the guy to learn everything from, but especially this.” Jim’s hands ran along his dark pants again. “Just … this is my first possession. I didn’t even really believe in that stuff until I got recruited.”

Caleb grinned. “Good Catholic kid like you didn’t believe in possession? I don’t buy it.”

Jim laughed nervously. “I mean, I didn’t not believe in it, I guess. Just never thought I’d see one, say nothing about being expected to do anything about it.”

“Like I said, Jim, you’re gonna be fine. I’m going to do the heavy lifting.”

Caleb shut off the car. The bright southern California sun overcame the remnants of the air conditioning before they’d even gotten their doors open. “Hard to believe it’s Christmas Eve,” Jim observed as they climbed out into the oppressive heat.

An early season warm front had pushed temperatures back into the upper 80s. It was unusual for the time of year, but not unheard of. Given his most recent assignment north of Moscow, Caleb might have actually enjoyed, it if not for the black wool his cover identity imposed on him. Still, even sweating already, Caleb turned his face to the sun and drank in the warmth and light for a minute.

“Yeah. No chance of a white Christmas here.”

“I’d say that was too bad, but I’m kind of looking forward to a morning run that doesn’t burn my lungs,” Jim admitted. “Assuming we’re finished here and can catch that afternoon flight back tomorrow.”

“We will be,” Caleb assured him, opening the trunk to gather his supplies. “Maybe you’ll even bump into a celebrity before we fly out.” Jim grinned, shaking his head. “Briefing has this as probably a pretty minor demon.” Caleb wasn’t worried.

“Yeah?”

Okay, so the kid clearly was.

“I’m not worried,” he said out loud for Jim’s benefit.

It did seem to relax his apprentice. On their few other assignments together, Jim had struck Caleb as the sort of operator whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt it. But then again, their other work so far and been of a much less metaphysical nature. More to give him something to do than because he needed the assistance, he handed a case to Jim and picked up the other one for himself. He nodded toward the house.

“C’mon kid. We’ve got this.”

“Yes, sir,” Jim agreed, his game face sliding firmly into place, despite his lingering nerves.

They made their way over the crushed stone walk of a cute pink stucco house with a red Spanish tile roof. It was a nice home, but not ostentatious. The door had an ornate knocker in the middle, but it opened before either man could use it.

“Thank God you’re here, Father!” the large man who swung open the door exclaimed in greeting.

Caleb stepped forward and the man gestured for them to come in. “Mr. Meyer?” The man nodded, closing the door behind them. “I’m Father Saint-Claire and this is Father O’Malley. Father Edmunds called us. How can we help?”

“Well, as I’m sure Father Edmunds told you, it’s our daughter…”

A harried looking woman entered the foyer. Without waiting for any introductions, she gripped Caleb’s arm in desperation. “Our poor Molly. She’s possessed, she must be. Father, you have to help us. She’s only a little girl and … It’s Christmas!” Emotion choked her voice and Caleb patted her shoulder with calm reassurance.

“I see. Yes, Father Edmunds does seem certain she is suffering from possession,” he said evenly. The child was around the usual age as well, not quite adolescent, but no longer quite a child either, though Caleb had seen people of all ages suffer at the hands of denizens of the Pit. The season was irrelevant. “Unfortunately, these beasts care nothing for the time of year.” The woman dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Caleb found sharing mundane details was usually calming for civilians. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Meyer, I’ve talked to practically every official in the Diocese and I don’t recall your first name from my conversation with your parish priest.”

“I’m Amanda,” she replied. “Everyone calls me Mandy.”

“Well, Mandy, I wish we were meeting under better circumstances.” Caleb nearly smiled. One of his first encounters with a demon during the holidays had involved a Mandy. Considering how that turned out, he had a good feeling about this night. He wasn’t superstitious, but as a man of faith, he did believe in signs. “And you, sir?” he asked her husband.

“Karl. I’m Karl.”

Before he could add anything to that, his wife spoke again. “You can help us, can’t you?” Mandy pleaded, tears beginning to flow again.

“That’s what we’re here for, ma’am,” Jim offered this time. Caleb noticed Jim’s voice sounded totally steady now that he was faced with the victims of this infestation.

“You’ve got to!” Karl said, tears now coming into his eyes. “Molly is just upstairs, if you’ll follow me.”

“We will help your Molly very soon,” Caleb said. “I’ve read the local church authorities’ report and spoken to Father Edmunds at some length, but I would like to ask you a few questions before we begin.”

Jim pulled out a small notebook to record their answers as Caleb took the parents by the elbows and led them further into the house, out of view of the stairs. Mandy resisted walking away from the hallway.

“Why? Shouldn’t you just … Do an exorcism? That’s what Father Edmunds…”

“We will,” Caleb interrupted. “We absolutely will. But this is a dangerous undertaking, for all of us, and most especially for Molly. Something you know may be helpful.”

“Alright. That makes sense,” Karl nodded. “Come into the living room. We can sit and talk. Of course we want to help in any way we can.”

The room was decorated for the holiday, right down to fragrant garlands on the mantle and a fresh tree, brightly lit, dominating the room with its presence. Gifts that would likely remain unopened tomorrow unless he was able to do what he came here for were stacked up underneath it.

Caleb and Jim exchanged a look.

They were never interested in letting the forces from Below win in any situation. It went against both their faith and their training. But something about the time of year and the poignance of those brightly wrapped packages strengthened their resolve. Jim found it was just what he needed to shake off the last of his pre-mission jitters.

Jim sat down with his notebook ready, and Caleb joined him on the sofa, facing the distraught parents. Caleb offered a subdued, kind smile of reassurance. “I’m not going to rehash my conversations with the Diocese, or with Father Frank. Their reports were most helpful and complete. But I do have a few questions.”

“Of course, Father,” Karl replied, having mostly mastered his emotions for the moment. “Whatever you need.”

“Have you spoken to this entity since Father Frank was last here?”

Mandy shook her head. “We’ve tried, but it doesn’t really…”

“Has the entity identified itself to you at any time?”

Karl answered this time. “No, it just keeps growling and mumbling the most horrible things.”

“Anything like a name in any of these mumblings?”

“I’m afraid not, Father. It … It just keeps asking to be set free, saying terrible things about where it’s trapped.” Karl’s voice shook again, but there was a spark of anger this time.

“Has it threatened Molly with trapping her there as well?” That was pretty much SOP with these assholes, and Caleb was curious how far the demon had tried to push the parents to get them to interact with it. Possessing demons loved a little begging and pleading.

Karl faltered. “I … No. No it hasn’t. But of course the threat is there. Isn’t it?”

“You’re a man of faith, Karl. You know Molly bears no responsibility for what’s happening right now. You know it. And God knows it,” Jim said gently.

Caleb nodded. Misleading those surrounding the victim was pretty standard for these types of demons, too. Caleb hated possession. It was such an insidious thing to do. He’d take some honest cursed objects over this any day. But he was good at this. He was this little girl’s best chance.

“Has your daughter had any moments of lucidity? Any moments where it appeared she was in control?”

Mandy shook her head, fresh tears spilling. “No, not since it started.”

Karl frowned. “There was a day last week, just for a few moments, mind you, where I thought … at least it seemed like … I believe she was trying to come through.”

“When was this?” Mandy snapped, upset this was the first she was hearing of it.

He sighed heavily, but Caleb offered him an encouraging nod. “I’d gone up to try to get her to eat something and she looked up at me and said, ‘Daddy?’ It was just that, but it … It sounded like her. And her eyes were clear.” His head dropped into his hands.

“That’s good!” Jim interjected, wanting to do something to ease the parents’ misery. “It means she’s still fighting. It means she will be able to help us help her.”

“Yes,” Caleb agreed. “That is indeed good news. And she is young, strong by all accounts I’ve heard. Do not lose hope. We will help her and she will recover, have no doubt of that.”

A deep guttural howl bellowed down the stairs. The lights on the Christmas tree flickered and went out. The sconces with their little flameless candles rattled on the wall.

For the first time since they’d come inside, Jim looked nervous again. Caleb could see a fine sheen of sweat on his partner’s forehead. “Let’s…” Caleb began.

“Bring the priests to me!” boomed down the stairs in a voice that should never have been able to come out of an eleven year old child’s mouth.

Caleb stood. “Well, it has sensed our presence. Best not to keep it waiting.”

Jim rose as well, tucking the notebook into his pocket. He picked up both of the cases and nodded his readiness. He didn’t speak. He knew at the moment his voice might quaver and he didn’t want to undermine Karl or Mandy’s faith in them.

“I’ll take you to her,” Karl said, gesturing for them to follow him as he headed back toward the foyer and the board staircase off from it.

Mandy got up to follow, and Jim found his voice. “You wait here, ma’am. It’s better if it can’t speak to those who know her.”

Caleb gave him an approving nod, and the three men proceeded up the stairs. Karl stopped and put his hand on the handle of the door at the top of the stairs. Caleb stopped him. “Thank you, Karl. It’s better if you wait downstairs with your wife. As Father O’Malley said, it’s better if it can’t manipulate you. No matter what speaks the words, what you will see is your daughter.”

“I … Alright.” He turned to go.

Caleb’s voice stopped him again. “I have to warn you, you may hear some terrible things, but it’s vital that you and your wife do not enter once we begin the rite.”

Karl opened his mouth to speak, but a banging came from the bedroom and he paled. He closed his mouth and nodded, turning to make his way down the stairs.

Once he was out of earshot, and out of view, Caleb loosened the accursed collar biting into his neck. “Okay, Jim, your job is to just read the Rite of Exorcism. Reading is your only job. You are not to engage this demon or demons. Just read. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Jim answered, the slight quiver back in his voice. He cleared his throat. “Absolutely, sir.”

Caleb clapped him on the shoulder. “Just do what I say, and remember your training. You’re gonna be fine.”

“Follow orders, fall back on training. Got it.”

With one last encouraging nod at his young partner, Caleb opened the door. The room was dark; the blinds were drawn and the lights lay broken on the floor. Caleb tried the wall switch with no result.

From deep in the dim room, a low voice purred, “Welcome, Priest.”

Caleb turned to Jim. “Go ahead.”

Jim closed the door behind them. He started reading the Rite of Exorcism from the book he held in hands steadier than he’d expected them to be.

Caleb uttered a simple spell for light and the bulb overhead finally came to life, albeit dim and flickering.

On the bed sat a girl, just as she’d been described in the report. Young, even younger in appearance than she actually was, and pale, the pallor highlighted by her dark hair. But she didn’t look like a child who’d been suffering possession for weeks. She was small and slight, but not gaunt or malnourished as he was used to seeing such victims. She was clean, and someone had brushed her hair. Her skin was clear, too; no sores, or cuts; no gouges, nor burns, nor blisters.

That was unusual. The flesh of the possessed were almost always desecrated by their invaders. Her eyes gave away the presence of one of the damned though. Lit with demonic energy, they followed him as he set his case down on the white and pink dresser nearest the door.

Caleb watched her watching him as he removed what he needed from the case.

He closed his eyes and took a moment to center himself, uttering a brief prayer for protection and Heavenly aid.

He opened his eyes and turned to face the child, brandishing a gilded cross, and raising a bottle of holy water. He took a breath, ready to engage the creature. A small voice stopped him.

“No, wait,” it pled quietly. It wasn’t the gravelly voice from Below that spoke before. It was light and musical, a child’s voice. Molly’s voice.

Caleb clenched his jaw. That was the worst ploy, all too often used for him to be unfamiliar with it. Reminding the exorcist that a child was at stake, that it had the power to harm that child, had led to the fall of too many priests and warrior-priests alike. Ignoring the tiny plea, Caleb splashed the bed with the holy water.

In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”

He made the sign of the Cross.

Molly’s head tipped in the charming way children sometimes use to get what they want. “Aw, come on.”

He didn’t care for how it didn’t recoil from the symbols of the Church. He tried again to get a reaction. “Behold the Cross of the Lord, flee bands of enemies.”

Molly’s head shook. An almost friendly smirk curled her lips. “No, come on, man, I’m just here to talk.”

Caleb ran down the list of standard phrases, hoping to trick the being into revealing who it was, and making it a simple matter to send it back to where it belonged. After several frustrating minutes, during which Caleb could feel sweat pooling in the small of his back from his intense efforts and the black wool he was wearing in the overly warm room, he finally became impatient.

“The Most High God commands you, He with whom, in your great insolence, you still claim to be equal, give me your name!”

“Dude, seriously though.”

Jim’s chanting prayer became slightly more audible. He was clearly a little rattled at the demon’s lack of reaction. Caleb wondered if his curiosity about the being’s atypical behavior was making him less effective. He was fascinated. He clamped down on his natural urge as an investigator and brought his full focus to eradicating the beast as expediently as possible. He splashed it with holy water again. His powerful voice reverberated in the cozy room.

“Fiend from the Pit, I will have your name!”

The form on the bed flinched, just a little. Jim continued reading behind Caleb, some confidence returning to his voice. Caleb spoke again, quieter this time, but more firm, determined. “I said. Give. Me. Your. Name.”

“Fine. But in exchange, I will have yours.” Caleb glared in return. “Speak, Priest,” it ordered, once again using Molly’s own voice, but this time it held none of the little girl in it, only an irritated command.

He stepped toward the bed, holding the cross out in front of him. “I am Father-Captain Caleb Saint-Claire of the Order of the Temple of Solomon.”

“Whoa, no way! Seriously? I rated Caleb Saint-Claire. No shit.”

“Your name, foul creature,” he demanded.

“You know, I imagined you as taller.”

This time he splashed the holy water directly on the girl. “Give me your name, now!”

There was a hiss of steam and angry eyes met Caleb’s. “Fine. Jeez. I’m Brakken.”

“Who?”Jim said from behind Caleb, earning himself a look of rebuke. “Well, I’ve never heard of this one.”

“Seriously, O’Malley?”

“Sorry, sir.” Jim lifted the book to begin reading again, but was interrupted.

“I’d be surprised if you had heard of me,” the demon said. “This is my first trip top side. And it ain’t exactly authorized.”

Against his better judgement, Caleb’s curiosity overcame his training for a moment. “Come again?”

“I said this is my first trip. Possession has never been my thing. I was afraid I’d get some piss-pants kid like your buddy there and I’d never get a word in edgewise. I’m honestly glad it’s you.”

Caleb shook his head. “A sentiment you’ll soon regret.”

Some minor demon on their first forway to Earth wouldn’t give him much trouble. He doubted it would give Jim much trouble even if he were alone.

Molly’s hands opened in a placating gesture. “Look, Caleb … Can I call you Caleb?” Caleb’s mouth snapped shut in mild surprise. “I’m sorry to meet you like this and I gotta tell you, it’s not great for me either. Wearing a body like this is kind of gross. But you gotta be able to tell I’m not here on assignment. As you can see, I haven’t hurt the girl.”

Caleb raised his tools again, no longer even curious, and reminded once again that a child was caught up in this. “You’ve hurt her, demon. Plenty. And that ends today.”

“Come on, don’t you care why I’m here if it’s not for the Boss?”

“Not especially, no.”

Her hands came up again. “But you should. This could be a big deal for you and the Order.” Brakken could see that he had the priests’ attention. “I want to defect.”

Jim stepped forward. “The who with the what now?”

“Defect,” Brakken repeated.

Caleb put out a hand to keep Jim back, but was eyeing the creature with interest again. “That’s a new one,” he observed, gesturing for more information.

“Look, dude, Hell sucks. And I want out. I’m gonna need somebody with some juice to help.”

Caleb nodded. “I see. And you thought possessing a child was the way to go about getting that.”

Jim could see which way the winds of this conversation were blowing, and he was probably going to be filling out incident reports in triplicate for speaking to the creature at all, so he took up his recitation again, looking at the pages rather than the child and the creature inhabiting her. Molly’s face made a disappointed frown, but returned its attention to Caleb.

“Look, the Church is obviously not going to listen. I knew the holiday would get you guys out here faster than any other time of year. The hero complex you all have is legend. The Order is the only place I can get help.”

Caleb shook his head. “Help to which I’m not inclined. Helping demons is not my business. Getting rid of them is.” He stepped closer to the bed, cross held aloft.

“Oh, don’t be so high and mighty. Like you know which direction you’re headed when you finally bite it doing their bidding.”

“I have dedicated my life to the service of the Lord. I have faith. And that is enough.”

“Yeah, well, I had faith, too. Fat lot of good it did me … Does he seriously need to be doing that?” Brakken nodded toward Jim.

“Yes, he does. I’ve heard enough. It’s time for you to go.”

“No, wait, I can give you guys…”

Caleb didn’t wait. The demon would try all the usual tricks. He’d trafficked with it enough already. More than he should have. He joined Jim’s chanting of the Rite of Exorcism, a ritual he knew by heart.

In nómine Pátris, et Fílii, et Spirítus Sancti. Amen. Exsúrgat Deus et dissipéntur inimíci ejus: et fúgiant qui odérunt eum a fácie ejus. Sicut déficit fumus defíciant; sicut fluit cera a fácie ígnis, sic péreant peccatóres a fácie Dei.

Brakken was thrown back on the bed, losing control of the girl as the words ripped into him with the strength of Caleb’s faith and determination behind them now. He began to growl, the body around him to writhe. One last attempt was all he had.

“No! You can’t! It’s Christmas…”

***

A short time later, Caleb and Jim were back at their cheap motel, having called in their successful mission. Caleb was sitting on his bed filling out some requisition forms to restock his kit. Jim was sitting on his filling out an incident report for breaking protocol and speaking with the demon without the sanction of his superior.

After a while, Caleb thought Jim had been punished enough. At least until after the holiday. “Wanna go grab a beer, kid?”

“I … Are we allowed to do that?”

“Why wouldn’t we be?”

“It’s Christmas Eve and…”

Caleb shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe the number of bars I’ve wound up in on Christmas Eve, Jim.”

Jim set aside his paperwork. “I think I’ve heard about at least one of those times, sir.”

Caleb chuckled. “I imagine you have.” Jim had the clearance. And it was a good story. “Let’s go get some food.”

“Yes, sir!” Jim was on his feet almost immediately.

Caleb slipped into his light jacket even though it was too warm. It was meant to conceal what he carried not provide any comfort. They headed out the door to go find some place that was open. Caleb knew only too well they’d have to be careful about their choices.

“I’d just wrapped up a portal activation, and I was waiting out a storm. I was still a kid on one of my first solo assignments. It was Christmas Eve, and I found a bar that looked like exactly what I was looking for.”

“Was it?”

“Well, that depends on your point of view I guess.”

*****

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

A Work of Art Dies Not

80756445_617585169064403_3179391124737359872_n

Authors’ Note: The Chris who you’ll see in this is the same Chris from the pages of Always Darkest. Once known as Cartaphilus, cursed with immortality for striking Jesus, Chris has roamed the earth for a long time. You can read about how he came to be on that path in Volume I of The Twelve Days of Fic-mas. The story that follows has been in our personal canon for Chris for a long time. What follows is less a Christmas story, and more a story that takes place at Christmas. Still, we think it has a place at Fic-mas. And we hope you enjoy. 

A Work of Art Dies Not

Chris woke up feeling refreshed despite the various indulgences last night offered. The wine flowed freely, and the food, the food was superb. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten so decadently. Though not a scrap of meat could be found on the table, or in the house, Chris thought he’d never had a lovelier meal. Nor could he place the last time he’d drank his fill of such exceptionally fine wine absent concern or constraint. Neither could he remember the last time he’d been in a place where the fulfillment of any desire had been so freely available. 

He had to stretch his memory back to Saturnalia celebrations during his youth in Rome, hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, to find a comparison for the holiday he’d been a guest at last night. Well, for the last several days. His host didn’t believe in limiting celebrations to one day if there was good food, and wine, and company.  

Chris rolled over and the aftereffects of the drink made themselves known. He’d need a hearty breakfast and probably a long steam in the baths before he really felt like himself. Nearly every muscle was sore, too. After dinner, the celebration turned more … athletic. The bath sounded better and better. 

He was lucky to be in a home with such luxurious accommodations. Few places he’d been bothered with bathing at all, say nothing about a room for heat, and one for cold, and another for a vigorous massage before. His mind strayed again to his boyhood. If he hadn’t been so reminded of the Roman he once was, perhaps he would not have dived so fully into the festivities. But dive he had. With reckless abandon.

As sleep was swept more surely from his mind, Chris began to feel the twinges of guilt. The time of year wasn’t about feasting, or anything else he’d spent the night doing. It was about celebrating the birth of the Savior. 

His guilt quickly faded in a heady haze of memories of last night. Regardless of what the current establishment was imposing on the faithful, Chris was there for the beginnings of the faith and knew it to be one of rejoicing rather than mourning, of embracing the gifts the world had to offer rather than thinking only of Paradise to come. 

It was strange, but meetings in catacombs with other believers from all walks of life from nobles to prostitutes, full of singing and breaking bread together, was somehow more in keeping with what Chris saw as what the Lord intended than the rather joyless obligatory gatherings he’d witnessed more recently. 

Of course, Chris had to admit, since his last run in with the Church a couple decades ago, over a book of all things, he hadn’t set foot in a church. His heart ached for the fellowship, but he didn’t feel he could trust the wealthy nepotistic organization that claimed to be acting for Christ these days. The last few weeks here harkened back to the early days of song, and celebration, and love. 

Rising slowly so as not to disturb his host, Chris made his way to the baths to take care of his morning ablutions and perhaps heat some of the stiffness from his bones.  

As soon as he stepped out of the bedroom he was startled by a servant. “Good morning, sir. Do you require any assistance this morning?” 

Chris stopped, his face flushed. He stammered a quick no thank you and made his way down the hall. Damnit. He’d forgotten about the servants. A momentary fear gripped his heart. The servants here seemed very loyal. He certainly hoped they were discrete. He assumed they must be. 

His host had assured him that many “good friends” had come and gone from this place, but no word of it was ever heard outside these walls. There’s been a bit of unpleasantness with the law over a model back during the apprenticeship days, but none since. That experience had made his host much more circumspect about private dealings. 

Still, as Chris made his way to the baths, he worried. No one could find out about how he had spent his time here in Florence, especially not last night. It would be scandalous. Potentially fatal, even. Well, not so much fatal for him, but still no good could come of it. Frankly, he wasn’t sure he could trust the Church here in Italy to be of any help. And the Templars had to be very careful these days.

Chris felt his anger grow, railing against the small minded nature of the times. Of course when something of great power and influence like the Church falls into the hands of small minded people out to employ their families and line their pockets, no good could come of that either. He should be able to keep company with whomever he so chose, and not have to worry about the opinions of others. 

Europe at the moment was too much like being back in his father’s house for comfort. Chris continued to fume through his bath, but found his mood lifting as the hot water soothed his muscles. He knew where he stood with his faith, and with the Lord, and no amount of legalism or interference from the powerful would change that.

On his way back to the bedroom, he stopped to admire the various paintings and sketches that adorned the walls. He breathed deep. He rather loved the smells of the paintings, and especially of the oils to both cover the canvas and clean up the brushes. He was appreciating those when another deep breath drew him along the hall. A haunting aroma filled the hallway. He decided his host could wait. He needed to find the source of that smell. 

Chris followed his nose to the kitchen, where a small staff was hard at work. 

“Good morning sir, can we help you?” 

“Yes, what is it I’m smelling?” 

“Well, we have bread in the oven.”

“No, not that something … I’ve never smelled anything like it.”

The young man smiled. “We are making coffee.” 

“Coffee?” Chris had heard of it, when he’d been doing missionary work in Istanbul, but never had the opportunity to try it. He hadn’t thought it would have made its way here. “I didn’t know one could get it here.”

“The master of the house has many friends, sir. One of them is a merchant. He travels to the East often. He’s very quiet about this discovery just now. Things from that land are seen as suspect by the Church you see.”

“I have felt the suspicion of the Church myself. Simply for reading. So I understand.” The open questioning of conventional wisdom relaxed Chris even more than his long bath had managed. 

“You won’t find it anywhere else in these parts, sir.”

“Well, regardless of what anyone thinks of its origins, it smells divine.”

“Yes, sir, it certainly does. Would you like a cup?” 

“Yes please.” Chris was never one to pass up a new experience. 

“How would you like it, sir?” 

“Um, well how does one normally have it?” 

“I usually prepare it with honey, sir.” 

“If you had anything to do with the meal last night, I feel I could trust you with my very life, and will most certainly trust you with me first coffee.” 

A bright smile flashed. “Very good, sir.” 

That was something else about these place. The servants behaved like family. They were attentive, good at their work, but there was no obsequiousness, and certainly no fear. 

Chris found the beverage to be to his liking, both sweet and bitter at the same time. Chris stood near the hearth and enjoyed the warmth, slowly sipping the hot liquid. 

“Oh, there you are, Christoforo,” came the pleasantly husky voice of his host from behind him. He liked the sound of the name he’d chosen as his traveling identify this time. He found of all the names he’d wandered by, it was the one he liked best to return to. He especially liked it as it was spoken here.

“Good morning, Leo. I trust you slept well,” Chris said, turning. 

“I should think so. I am not as young as I once was, certainly not as young as you are, my good friend. You are a man of singular skill and energy.” 

Chris blushed and shot a look towards the kitchen servants. 

Leonardo laughed, a deep rich laugh. “Don’t think twice about them, Chris.”

“I…”

The older man patted him affectionately on the shoulder. “I’ve told you, these are my people. They are nothing if not discrete.” 

He was unaccustomed to such openness and the fearful fluttering in his chest from earlier returned. “I hope your trust is not misplaced.” 

“Come now, Christoforo you are not the first man, or woman for that matter, to share my bed. And you won’t be the last.” 

“I will trust in your good judgement then.” 

“And well you should.” Leonardo chuckled. A servant handed Leonardo a steaming cup. “Thank you, Giuseppe.” 

Chris took another sip of the wonderous beverage and Leonardo smiled. “I’m afraid that will be hard to come by unless you go wandering as guard for missionaries for the Church again.”

Chris shook his head. “It is unlikely that I will find myself in the Church’s employ any time soon. So I will be sure to savor it while I’m here.”

A lovely servant girl came to take Chris’s empty cup and he found it impossible not to smile at her. 

“Think you’re likely to have trouble finding work with them, a man of your varied tastes, do you?” Leonardo’s eyebrows raised in amusement. 

He cleared his throat. “Not for that reason, no. As you are, my friend, I am a man of discretion. I find I’m capable of carrying many secrets.”

“I sense that is true. They do show on your face from time to time.”

“I imagine they do. Sometimes secrets do become heavy.”

Leonardo frowned at the thoughtful expression on his young friend’s face. “Now, Christoforo, before you become too serious, there is something I’d like to show you.”

“Really?” Chris beamed. 

He was envisioning a sneak peak at some new invention. He and Leonardo had known each other for several years, and in all that time he’d never gotten a look behind the curtain. Perhaps now that they were “good friends” as Leo liked to put it, he would finally be taken to the brilliant man’s workshop. 

“One of the traveling machines we’ve talked about? I confess I keep hoping you’ll take those more seriously. A man tires of going everywhere by horse.”

“I’m afraid not,” Leonardo chuckled. “But nevertheless, this, I think you will like.” 

Chris followed Leonardo down a long hallway that ended with a heavy door. Leonardo produced a key and opened the door. 

“This is my workshop. I must ask you not to talk about what you see.” 

“You have my word.” 

The room was filled with all kinds of apparatus and easels. Windows set high in the wall cast a dim light from the wan December sun. The fireplace sat cold, leaving the room with a sharp chill. 

“Can I trouble you light some candles while I kindle a fire?” 

“Of course.” 

Chris set to work moving from sconce to sconce, while Leonardo built a fire. When the room was brighter and starting to warm, Leonardo motioned Chris to a medium sized easel covered by a cloth in the corner. 

“Now Christoforo, you remember the sketches you helped me with?” 

“Yes. For a medical text if memory serves.” 

“Those are the ones.” He grinned, and despite his greying hair, the mischievous smile and twinkling eyes made the man look young. “I confess, you are such a handsome fellow, I used them as a subject for a painting.” 

“You painted my portrait?” Chris asked, flattered by the idea, but strangely apprehensive, too. Portraits had a way of following a man, especially one painted by an artist as illustrious as Leonardo. In a hundred years or so, a resemblance to a painting might prove annoying.  

“Well, yes and no.” Leonardo recalled Christoforo’s apprehension at posing for the sketches at all. It’s what had given him the idea for his little experiment to begin with. “I remembered that you didn’t want a picture of yourself, so much. So I only used the sketches for inspiration. You gave me an idea to challenge myself.”

“Was making me presentable a terrible challenge?” Chris asked with a chuckle, wondering what Leo could have done to those sketches that represented a challenge.

“You know full well that there is nothing challenging about your appearance,” he laughed. “But enough talking.” 

Leonardo removed the cover from the easel revealing a complex portrait on wood underneath. 

“Um…”

“You look confused.” Leonardo chuckled. 

“Well, it’s just, That’s a woman. I know you have broad tastes, Leo, but I should probably tell you that no matter how you imagine her, my sister passed away years ago. And we looked nothing alike.” 

“Not your sister, not even any other woman. I wondered how you would look if you were a woman, Christoforo. I wondered what your reaction to it would be, too, I must confess.” 

Chris took a moment, taking in the picture. “Well, I am flattered. Though I don’t think I make a very pretty woman.” 

“It’s not anyone’s job to be pretty, man or woman. We are who we are. That is part of why I paint. One need not be pretty to be beautiful. You see?”

Chris nodded, still staring at the picture. “It’s really quite good.” 

“I’m glad you like it. I may play with it a bit more. Now that you mention a sister, I wonder if I could make your features more distinctly feminine. I’m in no rush to call it done.” 

“Well, my sister had brown eyes and hair to match,” Chris said encouraging an alternative interpretation of those basic sketches now that they’d made their way onto canvas. Chris decided he’d feel more comfortable with this picture looking a little less like him, as a woman or not. 

“I’m not going to change everything, Christoforo. I rather like your expression. It speaks of those secrets we’ve discussed.”

“Alright, but Leonardo…?” 

“Yes?” 

“Of all the expressions I … that is she … That is me … What’s with the smirk?”

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Every Time A Bell Rings

79853238_463725694338565_5050834591808487424_n

Authors’ Note – All I can do to introduce this one is to quote Doctor Who. “There is, surprisingly, always hope.”

Every Time a Bell Rings

The angel sat on the first park bench he came to with a heavy sigh. 

“Want to talk about it?”

He looked up with a start. He’d been so wrapped up in his thoughts, he hadn’t noticed he wasn’t alone. “I … You…” he stammered.

“Didn’t mean to scare you,” said an old man with a friendly smile. 

The angel found himself smiling back, despite his dark mood. “No, it’s fine. You didn’t really. I’m sorry if I disturbed you though.”

“Not at all,” the man chuckled. “Don’t usually get company out here this time of year.” His breath sent up a frosty plume in the late December cold.

“I’ll bet.”

“I certainly don’t mind,” he said, smiling again. Then he held out his hand. “I’m Cyrus. My friends call me Cy.”

“Nice to meet you, Cy,” he said, and reached out and took the offered hand. “I’m Chamuel.”

“Pardon, there, young fella? I didn’t quite catch that.”

With the barest smile and a little head shake at his carelessness, he amended, “You can call me Clarence.”

“I had a brother named Clarence,” Cy replied. 

The old man had a firm grip, despite his age and slight appearance. Chamuel looked into his eyes, beyond the surface, with his angelic gaze. Cyrus had lived a good life, but he could see a deep and profound sadness there. He released Cy’s hand and relaxed against the park bench.

“You must be freezing without a coat,” Cy prodded with gentle concern.

“Oh, I’m fine,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “I … um … I run hot.” For all his time on Earth, his many visitations among the humans, Chamuel always seemed to forget the little details that helped his kind blend in. Like wearing a coat in winter.

“If you say so.” Cy’s voice and expression were somewhat skeptical, but not challenging. 

Despite being unaffected by the cold, Chamuel gripped his elbows. Then he sighed. 

“What’s got you so down, young Clarence? That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”

“Oh, it’s nothing. Really,” the angel said unconvincingly. 

Cy made a show of looking out over the park, rather than at his companion. He casually offered, “Sometimes talking helps.”

The angel sighed again. “It’s my job, I suppose.” He glanced over at Cy and into his kind eyes. He decided to actually admit what was bothering him. “And the time of year on top of it.”

Cy nodded. “I get that. Christmas can be hard.” Clarence didn’t seem inclined to go further, so he offered up a little something of himself to make it easier. “Before I retired, I worked helping people sort through those sorts of problems. I’m a psychiatrist … well, I was, once upon a time.”

“Busy this time of year, were you?” Chamuel asked, actually curious. The idea behind this time was to uplift the humans. But thus far, he hadn’t observed it serving its purpose especially well. Not in a very long time, anyway.

“Oh, I was always busy,” Cy said softly. “But it was often this time of year when I saw many of my patients struggle to most.”

Chamuel chewed his lip. “I suppose the season causes us to pause and reflect. Perhaps that’s it.” He looked down at his feet, distracted for a moment by how strange he found shoes to be. Well, that, and contemplating their strangeness was easier than meeting Cy’s gaze at the moment.

“Burdens often feel lighter when they’re shared,” Cy said.

The angel took a deep breath. “I don’t know that what I do matters,” he said bluntly. “I often think that if I didn’t exist, it wouldn’t make a difference.”

“I see,” Cy said soberly. “Tell me more about that.” When the young man didn’t go on, he prompted, “What is it you do, Clarence?”

A long breath was puffed out through overly inflated cheeks. “That’s … kind of complicated.”

“Complicated was my bread and butter for over thirty years, son. Try me.”

Cy wasn’t going to drop it. “I guess you could say I work in human services, too.”

“Kind of a broad field.”

“Tell me about it.”

That elicited a warm chuckle from Cy. “So in what capacity do you work?”

Chamuel paused. “I work with children.” The short admission had a bleak sound.

“Foster care?” Cy guessed.

“Not exactly.” He shook his head. “It’s hard to put into words.” He stopped, trying to decide if he should say more, or more accurately, what he should do. The easy answer, the one he knew his superiors would prefer to more dangerously honest interaction with a human, was to excuse himself, and go find a more private place to sulk.

“I don’t mean to pry, Clarence,” Cy said carefully. “But what you said concerns me.”

He frowned. “How so?”

“I’m worried you may be thinking of hurting yourself.”

“Oh, no, nothing like that!” He shook his head for emphasis. “Just feeling sorry for myself is all.”

“You don’t have to minimize what you’re feeling for me, Clarence. I want to help, if I can.”

Chamuel offered a wan smile and shook his head. “I’ve taken up enough of your time.”

He started to rise, but Cy put a hand on his arm. “Please. Stay. At least until I know you’re really okay.”

“I’m not going to hurt myself.” 

Cy raised a single eyebrow. He didn’t need to say that he didn’t believe the statement. It was pretty clear from his expression. Chamuel sat back down. He was inwardly a little grateful Cy had protested. He really did want to … what was it the human’s said? … Get this off his chest. That’s it. 

“Okay. You really want to know?”

Cy nodded. “I really do. If you feel talking will help you.”

“But it’s bad.”

“That’s alright, Clarence. Listening, no matter what it’s about, is probably my most valuable skill.”

Chamuel nodded. “Okay … There was this kid.” He stopped. Saying this out loud was more difficult than he’d anticipated. Cy didn’t say anything, just continued to look interested and concerned. “Sweet kid.” He cleared his throat. “About ten. And better than … better than he had any right to be, considering.”

Cy thought he knew where this was going, especially given the sadness Clarence could no longer keep out of his voice. “Abusive home?”

“And then some. Bullied at school, too. But … you’re right. Home was the problem. Dad was a real peach …” He trailed off again.

This time Cy thought he needed a little help to get going again. “Tell me more about that.”

“He was always using the kid as a punching bag when he was upset anyway, and couldn’t seem to buy clothes or food before he bought cigarettes or booze. No matter how badly the kid needed them.” He grew quiet again, staring off over the park.

“What happened, son?”

“Um … Dad got real drunk. Pissed off about the size of his Christmas bonus, I guess. Beat the boy so bad … He’s in a coma.” He felt close to weeping. He was ready to get up and leave. But now that he’d started telling it, he also wanted to finish. “He was mad he wasn’t going to be able to … whatever … so he took it out on his son. I saw it coming. But I couldn’t do anything to stop it.” His voice cracked. He couldn’t tell if he really was going to cry, or if he was just that upset and frustrated.

“And how do you feel about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do. And I think it will help you immensely to say it.”

This time, Chamuel got up and stalked away a few steps. He turned back to Cy and threw up his hands. “Fine! Pissed off! And maybe a little vengeful!” He flopped back down on the bench with a heavy sigh. “But also … like it should bother me more.”

“You seem pretty bothered, Clarence.”

He shook his head. “Not enough to act. I … I feel so jaded. The Hell of it is, this isn’t the first time … or even the worst I’ve seen. Just another in a long line of senseless violence, of atrocities, I’ve been forced to witness. And witness is all I’ve done. It’s so…” He sighed, leaning forward to put his head into his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. “I feel impotent.” 

Cy patted Clarence’s back. “I’m sure you’ve done more good than you realize.”

He didn’t look up, just shook his head, still resting it in his hands. “Not enough.” He sighed heavily. It was almost a sob, but he bit it back. “There is so much evil in the world. And I could stop it. If my hands weren’t tied by …” He almost stopped himself. The human phrase felt so mundane. But in a way, that’s what made it perfect. “If they weren’t tied by bureaucratic bullshit.”

“So, you tried to have the child removed from his home?”

“No.” Chamuel shook his head. “Even that would have broken the rules. And it’s … It’s so much worse.” He shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t be saying these things. But Chamuel felt if he didn’t, they would tear him apart. “I could have stopped the beating. I was there. I saw every punch, every kick, heard every terrible thing the man said to that little boy. But I wasn’t allowed to intervene. Couldn’t so much as lift a finger to dial the phone. That would be against His rules. All part of the Divine plan. No matter how my superiors dress it up, it’s bureaucratic bullshit, just like I said.”

Cy’s eyes had grown wide, his expression confused, but also deeply worried. “You’re saying you were there, Clarence?”

“I was. For that beating, and every other before it. And now I don’t know what’s going to happen to Daniel. But there didn’t seem to be much point sitting by  his bed holding his hand. At least the other times he could sense that there was someone who loved him nearby. But now…”

“I … I’m…” Cy cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Chamuel shook his head. “You understand just fine. You think I’m crazy is all.” The angel gnawed on his lip. Fuck it. In for a penny, in for a pound. “Cy, I’m not crazy. Well, maybe a little after the last few days. But not in the way you think. I’m an Angel of the Lord, what you’d call a Guardian. But that’s a misnomer. I don’t guard I watch. But we can’t call it that anymore. The Guardians were disbanded after the nonsense they got up to with Noah’s kids.”

“Clarance … You … You think you’re an angel? Am I hearing you right?”

Chamuel smiled a little and shook his head. Can’t leave this nice old man hanging, right? He rose and assumed his angelic form, in all its glory.

For a moment, Cy’s face froze. Then a look of wonder spread over it. He stammered unintelligibly for a minute or two. Chamuel resumed his human form and sat next to Cy, patting him lightly on the shoulder. “By all that’s holy. I just … I never … I mean … I thought…”

Chamuel shrugged. “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have done that. But, I feel like after all your listening, you learned the truth.”

Cy shook his head, and Chamuel got the impression that the old fellow didn’t know he was doing so. “I’ve always believed in God, I suppose. But angels … Angels always seemed…”

“Imaginary.” 

Cy couldn’t deny the evidence of his own eyes. The existence of God and angels was overwhelming, but he reminded himself he’d always been a man of faith. This should be good news. “I suppose so. The idea of someone watching over me all the time is a bit fairytail for someone like me, I guess.”

“If it makes you feel any better, we don’t spend all our time watching. We’re sent when we’re needed … But even then we’re not usually permitted to interact, or act at all. Divine plan bullshit. Like I said,” Chamuel said bitterly. Then he sighed. “I guess that’s not fair to Him. We can act sometimes.”

This time Cy was the one who patted his companion. “Can you give me an example? Please?”

Another sigh. “Have you ever needed to get out of the house and you reach for your keys and they’re just not where you left them at all?”

“More often than I’d like to think of, to be honest. This morning I was starting to worry that perhaps some things were going soft upstairs, if you know what I mean.”

That seemed to give his companion pause for a moment. Then he managed a half smile. “But when you went back to the same place five minutes later, were they there?”

“They often are. Although this morning I finally gave up and left the place unlocked. Not much there worth stealing, I suppose. Then I had the Devil’s own time with the elevator.”

Chamuel paused again, thoughtful. Finally, he went on. “More often than not, that’s one of us. Like maybe you needed to leave five minutes later to avoid something bad that was set up by a chain of events that weren’t meant to interact with your thread in the grand tapestry at all. Or perhaps you needed to meet someone to put you where God meant for you to be, or avoid someone that would keep you from it. We do that sort of thing all the time.”

“Seems a bit mundane,” Cy said, sounding a bit disappointed. “And also a little mean,” he added with a wry smile. “I really thought I’d lost my marbles earlier.”

“It’s one of the ways we can accomplish our mission to guide and protect, but without doing what I just did and breaking the Rules of Revelation. We can keep our charges safe or at least on the path. In small ways.” He sighed again, no longer distracted with his explanation. “Sometimes.”

Cy thought he understood. At least a little. “In the case of that child, Daniel … Nothing you were allowed to do …”

Chamuel nodded. “In his case, yeah, I couldn’t lift a finger. Still can’t. Even if I went and healed him … What good would it do? His father will just … It wouldn’t matter.” He couldn’t make himself say ‘his father will just beat him again,’ because he really couldn’t face the idea of it again. Mostly because he knew the boy would likely wake up in a day or two, and the odds were that even if he was removed from the home, it would be temporary. He shook his head. “It’s not even close to the worst I’ve seen.”

Cy’s hand rested on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I’m so sorry, Clarence. I can’t even imagine how hard that must be. Having the power to change something, but being utterly powerless to intervene.”

Chamuel glanced at him. “I think you can. As a psychiatrist, I’m sure you heard things that made it hard to let people leave your office.”

“Well, that’s certainly true. But at least I could offer them options, or I could contact the authorities if they were being hurt or hurting themselves.”

Chamuel nodded. “It wears on me … And I swear to you, if I hear one more of my brethren say, ‘Trust His plan’ I’m going to … Well, I don’t know. But it won’t be good.”

Cy wanted to help, but this was a bit outside his professional experience, to say the least. “Is there any way … That is … Can’t you know what the Divine plan is? Maybe knowing the reasons would help you cope.”

“No.” His voice was bleak and tinged with anger. “We are not all knowing. Any more than you are. We are creations, just like you. And like humans, we are meant to trust in God.”

“You are doubting this trust.”

“That’s one way to put it.” He dug in the dingy snow with his shoe, not looking up.

“Trusting in something you can’t see certainly isn’t easy,” Cy said with genuine empathy. “But surely it hasn’t been all bad?”

“No … You’re right. I’ve had my moments. But … This kid … I was there for all of it. I watched him take all the bad shit life could throw at him. He always kept his head up. Always had some little act of kindness for others. Now he’ll get to spend Christmas on a ventilator and I …”

“Will he wake up?” Cy asked suddenly.

Chamuel nodded. “That’s why I’m still here. So I can go back and watch more.” His fists clenched and unclenched on the park bench. He’d never been closer to no longer caring about the consequences of disobedience. Even last night. “I could have stopped it,” he whispered. “I was so close.” He hung his head. “But I’m a coward.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to Fall.”

“What is … I don’t follow.”

“An angel that goes against His will will fall from Grace. The Fallen live in Hell, separated from God’s love. And that separation causes them to do all manner of evil things. I … I don’t want to live in Hell.” A tear fell this time and no amount of lip biting or stubbornness could keep more from joining it.

“You feel guilty for putting your own interests ahead of the child.”

“Yes,” he said in a barely audible whisper. Then he sat up straight, no longer caring if the whole damned world saw his tears, his anger, his despair. “Yes! And it’s eating me up.” He realized something. “I don’t know if I can do this work any more. Whether it’s what he wants of me or not.”

Cy was thoughtful. “Would you tell me the child’s full name?”

Chamuel wiped at his face with his sleeve. “Why?”

“I know it’s only the one child. But I have a friend who’s a judge, you see … Children aren’t always sent back if there are good reasons to keep them away, Clarence.”

Chamuel swallowed hard. He didn’t know if this constituted disobeying an order. How was this any different than moving a set of keys? “I don’t …”

“I don’t suppose you can quit your job?” Cy asked, sensing Chamuel’s hesitation.

“No. I could be reassigned. I’ve petitioned a number of times. But those sorts of transfers have to be approved by Him. And He hasn’t been hearing those sorts of cases in some time.” He thought for a minute. “And … it’s not just Daniel…” He took a breath. Then he squared his shoulders anyway and told his companion the boy’s name and what hospital he was in. A heavy weight that had settled on his heart seemed to lift then. Since no one appeared in front of him to cast him down and the only change he felt was a good one, he guessed perhaps it would be okay. 

Cy got out a small pad of paper from his pocket and made a note. “I’ll call as soon as I get home, holiday or no. Does knowing that help at all?”

Slowly, the angel nodded. “I can watch him be okay … I think I can keep on. For a bit anyway. Daniel is such a good kid.”

“Speaking of Daniel … I don’t suppose Clarence is your real name?”

Finally, the angel smiled. “No … But my angelic name is kind of a mouthful. They all are … And, it’s Christmas. I was sort of trying to be funny.”

Cy smiled back as the context for the name dawned on him. “Classic defense mechanism.”

“I’d tell you not to analyze me, but that’s really what you’ve been doing since I sat down. And since I can face another day now, I can hardly be upset with you. I needed a win. And you’ve given me one.”

“I’m glad to have been able to help.” He looked out across the mostly empty park. “I want you to know you’ve been a help to me, too.”

“How so? All I’ve done is sit here and complain.”

“Well … It’s been hard for me since Margaret died. Most of my friends have passed, too. We never had children. And the holidays … I’d begun to doubt my faith.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Cy.”

“I don’t see it as a loss so much. Not now that I’ve met you. More like a break. If I’ll see them all again one day …”

Chamuel hesitated, then figured he didn’t really have much to lose. If he hadn’t gotten fired over Daniel, no one could possibly be paying attention. “You will.”

“Well then, you’ve restored not just an old man’s faith. But his hope as well.”

Chamuel smiled, this one truly touching his eyes. “I’m glad. You’ve eased my burdens greatly. I wish I could do more.”

“I … I don’t suppose you’d …” He trailed off.

“What is it?”

“I usually spend Christmas with my brother. Or I had since Margaret … He passed over Thanksgiving and …”

Chamuel interrupted. “I’d be honored to spend Christmas with you.”

Cy cleared the lump in his throat. “I’d like that very much.” 

Chamuel clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s get you home. The temperature is dropping like a stone.”

They rose and started down the path to the bus station. Chamuel stopped when he saw one of his brothers across the frozen park. He felt like the Earth might fall out from under him. But Anael just offered a small smile, nodded, and waved a small set of keys at him. Then the other angel disappeared.

Chamuel put a hand on Cy’s arm and started off again. They sat on another bench to wait for the bus. Concerned that Clarence might be getting into his own head again, Cyrus spoke, “Well, you’ve certainly cheered this old man today.” He smiled. “Does that mean you get your wings?”

Chamuel laughed and shook his head, then he grew thoughtful. “We angels are created with all our attributes. I once thought that meant we were as unchanging as the Almighty. But, just like you … humans, I mean … We can grow, better or worse, with every soul we meet, every decision we make.”

“And so…?”

“I believe I have grown better, Cy. Today at least.”

“May it always be so.” 

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Sugar and Spice

baking-2589517_1920

Authors’ Note: Here’s another missing scene from Christmas in Always Darkest. 

Sugar and Spice

Chris let himself inside the apartment to a delightful aroma for the fifth day in a row. Also for the fifth day in a row, he found Ben in the midst of bowls, cups, pans, general stickiness, and culinary disarray, frowning at the result of his messy efforts.

Chris chuckled softly as he dropped his messenger bag full of papers to grade on their table. “What’s wrong with this one?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not right.” Ben shook his head and cut a slice of the still slightly warm cake, put it on a plate, and handed it to Chris. “You tell me.”

Chris took the plate over to the table and dug into Ben’s latest effort at recreating the chocolate spice cake he liked so much from the bakery around the corner. He chewed and swallowed, smile spreading as he did so. 

“Ben, I don’t know what you’re agonizing over. This is wonderful. And I honestly think your citrus frosting is better than theirs.”

Ben smiled at that. “Yeah, I’m happy with the frosting.” He shrugged, taking another bite of it himself and chewing it thoughtfully. “But the cake still isn’t where it needs to be. It’s not chocolatey enough. All I can taste is the spices.”

“Since you’re making it for the Sinclairs, maybe you should get Mal’s opinion.”

Ben shook his head. “It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

He finished his disappointing piece of cake, proving himself immune to Chris’s encouraging words about how good it was. 

It was good. 

But it wasn’t good enough. 

Mal had tasted the bakery cake and loved it. He wanted the one he made for her and her family to blow the bakery out of the water. He couldn’t have really said why it was so important to him, but it was. 

When he finished his slice, he sighed. “Will my music bother you if I crank it while I clean up all this garbage?”

“Not at all. I’m going to head into the living room and grade these papers. They’re my last batch to hand back before Saint Auggie’s goes on break.”

Ben pulled up the Celtic punk station on his music app, cranked it full blast, dropped his phone into a clean coffee mug as an impromptu speaker, and put the cake away. Then he started digging himself out of the mountain of dirty dishes with methodical intensity, while half singing along to Flogging Molly’s If I Ever Leave This World Alive. He was lost in his task, and in the music.

A little later, as he finished drying the last of the dishes, and was getting ready to wipe down the counter, Mal’s hand on his elbow startled him into almost dropping a pyrex measuring cup. 

“Hey!” he grinned, recovering quickly. “I thought you had to work at the gallery this afternoon.”

She smiled, picking up the damp cloth he’d dropped and wiping the counter down for him. “Dad’s on a maniacal cleaning spree at home because my uncle’s coming for the holiday, too, so he let me off the hook. Figured I’d surprise you and maybe we could walk up to the bookstore and do a little Christmas browsing.”

Ben started putting away the dishes. “Sure. Lemme just finish cleaning up my mess.”

Mal leaned against the counter. “Whatcha making?”

Ben didn’t look at her, just kept doing what he was doing. “Nothing really.”

“Liar,” she teased. “You’re up to something.”

He put away the last bowl and turned. “You’re spooky good at that, you know.”

“What?” she grinned. “Knowing when you’re up to something?” He nodded. “I’m not really that good. You just can’t look me in the eye when you’re not being honest and when you’re doing it because you’re being sweet, you blush. A lot.”

He pulled an indignant face. “I wasn’t even looking at you! How do you know if I blushed?”

She grinned mischievously. “It hits the back of your neck and your ears first.”

He laughed, and this time he knew it was obvious he was blushing because he could feel the heat of it. 

“Can’t keep anything from you can I?” 

And I’d really rather not. 

Like she could read his thoughts, she said, “Why would you want to?”

It was said with a smile, a light teasing tone, but it made his stomach drop a little. He had to tell her the truth of himself soon. He should really buckle down on his research about how to defend her from the Fallen so he could finally be really honest. He met her eyes and made himself smile. “I guess I wouldn’t. But it was supposed to be a surprise for Christmas.”

She took the few necessary steps to wrap him into a hug. “I do love surprises. Early surprises even more so.”

He hugged her back, then pulled the cake out of the fridge. “I was trying to make the spice cake we like. I keep screwing it up though.”

“It looks pretty great to me,” she said honestly.

“Yeah, looks aren’t the problem. You want to try it? Then you’ll see.”

“I never don’t want cake, Ben. It’s one of my primary character flaws.”

He laughed and cut her a slice. “You want some coffee, too?”

“I better not. I haven’t been sleeping well. Don’t want to make it worse by being dumb and overcaffeinating.”

She got a fork out of the drawer and scooped up a bite while they stood right there at the kitchen counter. Her eyes rolled back in a look of pure bliss. “Oh. My. God. Ben, this is soooo good.”

That she liked it made him smile, but still, he shook his head. “I think it’s not chocolatey. The spices come on too strong. The one from Buttercup’s is like a really good bar of dark chocolate, plus the spiciness. That’s part of what makes it good.”

She took another bite of the cake, thinking she could personally eat her weight in what he’d made. But if he wasn’t happy, she wanted to help. “What kind of recipe did you use?”

Ben dug out the cookbook he’d borrowed from the library from the drawer under the microwave. “It’s a red velvet cake. I just left out the food coloring. I figured it’d be good with the cream cheese frosting.”

“It is good.” She looked over the recipe, chewing her lip in what Ben already thought of as her ‘thinking’ expression. “But that’s probably why it’s not as full of chocolatey goodness as you want it to be.”

“Huh? There’s loads of cocoa powder in it.”

“Well, yeah, but natural cocoa powder is still pretty acidic. So it’s more like coffee. Sort of fruity and earthy, but not really deep down chocolatey. You want to use a recipe with Dutched cocoa.” She started flipping through the book. “Here’s one. This one ought to be perfect for you.”

He nearly laughed when he saw she’d landed on a recipe for devil’s food cake. Then he frowned. “How do you know? You can’t even boil water! Or have you been fibbing to me?”

“Oh, no, no fibbing here. I suck at cooking. But as you may have noticed since I’ve been helping you pass your class, I kick ass at chemistry.”

“You do at that.” She was eyeing the cake next to him, so he cut her another piece. “Why is this one going to be different?”

She got a giant forkful of more cake. If he didn’t want this one, she was going to take it home with her for sure. “Dutched cocoa is processed with alkali. It makes it darker and richer and more what you’re thinking of as chocolatey.”

He laughed a little. “And you know this because…?”

“The process was invented by a Dutch guy named Johannes van Houten in 1828. I read about him in a science text a long time ago in a unit on acids and bases. I thought it was cool.”

“It is cool,” Ben said almost skeptically. “If it works.”

“Oh, it’ll work.”

He grinned. “I’m used to being the history nerd in this relationship, you know.”

“It’s science history. And we both know that’s not exactly your thing.”

He laughed. “I guess not. But…”

“Look, what have you got to lose by trying it?”

“Nothing I guess. The worst it can be is terrible.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Spirit of what? Murphy’s Law?”

“Independent scientific inquiry.”

“Well, if it’s for science, I’ll have to find time to try it.” 

“I’ve got nowhere to be. You’re always telling me I need to learn to cook. Let’s give it a shot.”

An excuse to spend the afternoon in close quarters, working side by side, sounded like Heaven to Ben. If it fixed his chocolate problem, more’s the better, he thought.

***

Several hours later, the two of them sat in a half doze on the couch, full of cake. And victory.

“You’re going to put Buttercup’s out of business, Ben.”

“I don’t need to put anyone out of business. But I’m not gonna lie, I feel better about having something impressive to bring over to Christmas at your place. Especially now that there’s going to be extra family there.” 

He laughed like it wasn’t a big deal, but she heard the slight nervousness in it.

“I keep telling you, they’re gonna love you.” He shifted slightly next to her, but didn’t contradict her. “But if bribery is needed to make it happen, that cake definitely seals the deal.”

“So long as it’s the holiday you want, Mal, I’m good with anything that happens.”

“It will be, Ben.”

She twined her fingers with his as she picked up the remote.  

***

As always, it wouldn’t be a Demons Run Lit Christmas without some holiday goodies. Here’s the recipe that Ben was hoping would keep a couple of angels from smiting him on the spot Christmas morning. Readers of Always Darkest know Mal was right, Ari and Davi liked Ben just fine. But we’re not going to pretend this cake didn’t have something to do with it. 

Chocolate Spice Cake

Ingredients

1 cup boiling water

⅔ cup Dutch-process cocoa, plus extra for dusting the pan

1 tbsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp ginger

⅛ tsp clove

1 ¼ cups packed dark brown sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup vegetable oil

½ cup sour cream

2 large whole eggs

2 large egg yolks

Directions

Prepare a regular sized bundt pan (you can use any pan you like, but we think this one looks the most festive). We like using shortening to thoroughly grease the pan, and then we dust it with cocoa powder instead of flour so it doesn’t leave weird white marks all over your cake.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Combine the boiling water and cocoa powder in a small bowl. 

Whisk until smooth.

Set aside.

Combine your dry ingredients in the bowl of your stand mixer (if you don’t have one, use a bowl that will be big enough for all your ingredients to come together in). Dry ingredients include spices, baking soda, and flour.

Whisk to combine.

In a separate bowl or pitcher (to make pouring easier), combine your wet ingredients. Wet ingredients include brown sugar, oil, eggs, egg yolks, and sour cream.

Whisk to combine.

Turn your mixer on low and slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Once combined, slowly add the cocoa mixture until that’s fully incorporated, too. Scrape down your bowl as needed. 

Pour the cake batter into your prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the thick part of the cake comes out clean. 35 to 45 minutes.

Cool for about ten minutes in the pan, then turn it out onto a cooling rack or plate to cool completely.

Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients

8 oz unsalted butter, softened

8 oz cream cheese, softened

4 cups powdered sugar (give or take)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbsp orange extract

Zest and juice of 1 orange

(If you want, you can add cinnamon to this as well, or use cinnamon and colored sugar to decorate)

Directions

Sift the powdered sugar. Set it aside.

Using your electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat butter and cream cheese until thoroughly creamed together. Add the orange zest and blend it in. Turn your mixer to low, and add the powdered sugar a ½ cup at a time until your frosting is smooth and creamy. Blend in the vanilla and orange extract. Thin the frosting to your preferred consistency with the orange juice, adding a little at a time.

Frost your cooled cake with as much of this decadent mix as you like. 

If any angels show up, feed them some to make up for your misdeeds. 

*****