Butter Him Up

Authors’ Note: It just wouldn’t be Fic-mas without a visit from Krampus. This year we look back into his past, along side Ben’s, back when they were still on Hell’s payroll. This one came from a reader prompt about the jul tomte and it was a ton of fun to write. Enjoy!

Butter Him Up

Remind me how this asshat wound up in charge of handing out assignments, Ben grumbled entirely to himself. He might have said it out loud, and possibly even to Alloces face, but the time of year had Reaping working overtime. 

The office was crowded enough that he hadn’t been able to move in the line leading to Al’s desk without bumping into, or being stepped on, by a demon waiting in one of the other lines for the expected paperwork.

Most of the crowd here appeared in their demon form. Ben could never figure out why anyone would do that willingly. Especially given what some of them looked like. Hideous

Ben shivered when Botis jostled his arm. If he were honest, Botis wasn’t as overtly disgusting as some of the other members of the assemblage. But there was something about his oversized teeth and twisted horns that Ben found especially disquieting. A tussle by the Spells, Potions, and Transformations desk caused a shift in the crowd that distracted him from his disgust. 

“Hey!” he exclaimed, almost involuntarily when a demon from the periphery accidentally stomped on his foot to avoid a broken flask of some sort of supernatural poison, unless he missed his guess. And when it came to magic, Ben had become remarkably astute. He caught her elbow though and steadied her before she could fall over and knock him into the half lion, half hyena behind him.

The other demon turned. He recognized her. At least her top half looked human so the eye contact didn’t make him immediately uncomfortable. He chose to ignore the fact that her lower half seemed to be some sort of horse or donkey … something with hooves, anyway. Which explained how unhappy his foot was at the moment. “Look out there,” Ben said. “There’s a dybbuk around here somewhere. You definitely don’t want to bump into him.”

“Thanks,” she said pleasantly enough, considering. “Hey … I know you. You’re that guy who kicked half of Hell’s teeth in when you got here … Ronoven, right?”

He cleared his throat. Almost two thousand years and demons were still on about his arrival. “Since we were just about joined at the feet a second ago, you can call me Ben,” he said instead of acknowledging her allusion to his past.

“I’m Nef,” she said, scrutinizing his face. “It is you. I was there, you know. I do some organizing of spectator events here when I’m not working an assignment above. A lot of demons would pay good coin to see you fight again. You were impressive, to say the least.”

“Yeah, well, it was a long time ago. I’m not really especially interested in fighting these days.”

She gave him a speculative smile. “To look at you, I have no doubt you could still take down all comers. And even if not, you’re certainly not hard on the eyes. None of our fights risk Final Death. It could fill your purse quite handily.”

He shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m not interested. Like I said, all that was a long time ago. I’m content to work in Reaping. At the moment, I’m mostly busy studying spellwork under Prince Stolas.”

“Ah,” she nodded as if suddenly his reaction made more sense. “Ole Stoli is quite territorial. Wouldn’t want to cross swords with him, I suppose.”

“Indeed,” Ben said, relieved to be off the hook, although ‘busy’ was a wild exaggeration for him lately. 

She turned away, now more interested in the paperwork she was carrying than in a demon she stood no chance of recruiting into Hell’s underground fight club.

Ben took another step forward in the queue, relieved he was almost at his bureaucracy-dictated destination. Not that he especially wanted to get sent up on another soul collection. But he did want an excuse to go to Earth. It had been too long.

Finally, he stepped up to the desk and Alloces brick red face split into a devilish grin. “Ronoven! Fancy seeing you here.”

“Hey, Al.” 

“I thought you were off the duty roster at the moment. Working with Stolas aren’t you? An apprenticeship of sorts?”

“Yeah, well … He’s … ahem … busy at the moment.”

“Ah, another trist has pried his attention off what he’s supposed to be up to, I take it.”

Ben shrugged. “All I know is he rented a villa in Limbo and told me he’d see me … eventually.”

“But still,” Alloces frowned. “You aren’t required to be here. What did you do, lose a bet?”

“Not exactly.” Ben rolled his eyes. Then he cleared his throat. “I owed Forneus a favor….”

“Lose to him at Scrabble, did you?”

“Pffft, no!” Ben lied. Then he smirked to cover his annoyance. “You know, instead of collecting souls, maybe I should go on up and introduce that game to the humans. Then they’d find their way here all on their own.” He laughed, but by all the gods that ever were, he hated losing a game of words almost as much as he hated being a demon.

“Not a half bad idea, if Balphagor will let go of the patent. Perhaps in a few decades when it runs out, I’ll snap it up myself,” Alloces said with a chuckle.

“Why not?” Ben said with a pointed lack of interest in his supervisor’s business endeavors. “What was it Forneus wanted to avoid?” he asked to move things along and get out of the crowded office.

Alloces shifted some papers around. “Ah, here it is … Nothing complicated. A simple collection. Right on the verge at the moment. You’ll have to hurry.”

“Are we expecting a Shepherd?” he asked, mentally crossing his fingers that an angel would be involved so he could simply claim Heaven made a stronger case.

The other demon shrugged and passed Ben his assignment. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“Wilmer Gusstafsson.” Ben looked over the paperwork quickly. “What did the old fellow do? Commit atrocities during the Spanish-American War?”

“Not even close. Nothing especially remarkable about him as far as I know. Should be right up your street though. The old fellow’s ninety.”

“Why are we even dispatching anyone then?” he asked, trying to sound just curious as opposed to annoyed.

Alloces leaned a bit closer and gestured for Ben to do the same. “I’m not supposed to say anything, but since I’d like to continue being included in your weekly card games….”

“Of course, Al. You know you’re always welcome to come over and lose some of your ill-gotten gains to me,” he said with a grin.

“Very funny. Anyway … Our numbers are down. To the point that Lucifer noticed. The king is furious. Especially with Reaping.”

“Great,” Ben groaned with a deep roll of his eyes. He stood up straight again, really regretting betting on that game and pretty sure now that Forneus had cheated. Which explained a lot, actually. “What am I supposed to do if instead of some milquetoast like Hariel, I show up and there’s some fiery-eyed avenging type there to collect this guy? You know getting physical with the angelic and annoying isn’t really my style.”

“Do what you want up there, Ronoven. But I’d suggest coming home with a soul in chains.”

“I don’t know what you think I’ll–”

“The only thing I think is that if you’re not prepared to go toe to toe with one of the halos, maybe you should consider a vocational paradigm shift. I hear Interrogation is looking for some demons to practice on.”

“Very funny,” he said sarcastically. 

“I wasn’t trying to be. Now, get your ass to Wisconsin and bring us back that old man, would you?”

“Wisconsin? In December? Are you serious?” 

“Have fun, Ronoven. Dress for the weather.” Alloces made a shooing gesture and called, “Next!” effectively dismissing him.

Ben made his way to the next line, got quickly tired of waiting, and pulled rank to get to the front. He presented his paperwork to the bespectacled demon behind the desk and took the cover ID package and bundle of clothing with a grimace. “Is the weather that bad?”

“Wisconsin in December? You tell me.”

Ben just took his materials, got changed, and left the building, avoiding conversation with anyone else on his way out the door. He wouldn’t have minded a trip to the Northeast to collect someone. Aife was running a small Office in Buffalo. If he was going to be closer, he could have stretched the assignment to visit her for Yule. As it was, he probably wouldn’t see her this year. Again.

He approached the nearest Gate, and stepped across the threshold. He twitched his shoulders, hating the heavy wool and million buttons that characterized the fashion of the times. But, he had to admit, the clothing was more functional than that of his few forays into the more formal Northeastern U.S. and leaps and bounds more comfortable than anything he’d had to wear in Europe when he couldn’t avoid assignments there. He halfheartedly performed the Gate Activation and found himself standing in the middle of a dirt road in a medium sized village, if the few lights he could make out were any indication.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t make out much through the apparent blizzard he’d just teleported into. “Of course. Of course that’s what I walk into.”

Ben had never seen so much snow in all his life … or afterlife for that matter.

He looked around for a minute and headed toward the house a few doors down from where he stood. The faint glow his demon’s eyes picked up told him that was the place. He stretched out his other senses and detected an old soul on the second floor.

He was about to let himself into the dark house when he heard a familiar clanking of chains and a heavy, cloven-hooved step. Ben spun around with a grin and his assumption was confirmed by the red glow lighting up the silhouette of another denizen of Hell. “Krampus! How’ve you been?”

“Ronoven!” The approaching creature’s face split into a terrifying grin. “Can’t complain. But what are you doing Up Top? I thought you were taking a leave from Reaping to work on another magic apprenticeship with Stolas.”

Ben shrugged. “He blew me off for another of his torrid affairs.” He frowned, looking around. “What are you doing around here? Your night was a couple of weeks ago.”

“Well,” Krampus chuckled. “I’m not really here on official business. I’m doing a favor for a friend.”

“Yeah?”

“My buddy Ollie is one of the jul tomte and–”

“The what?”

Krampus looked thoughtful. Or at least Ben thought he did. With such a terrifying visage, it was hard to tell. “Maybe a bit like one of the Elfhame? But for Christmas in the Nordic countries.”

“Ah. So … Good or evil?”

“Your black and white thinking about these things really is charmingly naive, Ronoven.”

“Says the demon charged with whipping the ‘naughty’ and stuffing them in sacks.”

“So judgemental.” Krampus clucked his forked tongue. Then he laughed. “In any event, it’s tradition to leave out a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve for the tomte to eat. The young lady in question, that is, the one Ollie asked me to pay a visit to, just to give her a scare mind you, hit the butter under the porridge last year. Then he couldn’t track her down this year. Apparently her family immigrated from Sweden recently, came to live with her grandfather. It was nothing for me to find out where she’d gotten to.”

“Your friend sicced you on some little girl for hiding butter?”

“It’s quite the offense to one of his kind. Asking me to correct her behavior is a much more pleasant response than the tomte have taken for such an action before. It can be quite gruesome.”

Ben shook his head, turning up his collar against the cold. “Well, then, I’m glad it’s you and not a bunch of vindictive elves slashing her whole family to bits or whatever they do.” He shivered. “I better be going. Apparently, old Wilmer Gustafsson is on death’s door.”

“Oh, you’re going to the Gustafsson’s, too?”

“Um….”

“Well, Sigrid will be having a bad time. A visit from me, losing her grandfather. That does not a merry Christmas make. What a shame. Makes me inclined to take it easy on her. I’ll just have to embellish a bit when I tell Ollie about it.”

“Let’s get on with it then,” Ben sighed. “At least inside won’t be a howling nightmare.”

***

Ben was surprised to find Wilmer’s spirit hovering over his body looking clear-eyed and apparently awaiting his arrival. 

“Well, hullo there, young fellow. You’re not nearly the terror I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ben asked, plainly curious about the old man’s response.

“Oh, you know, the dark shroud, scythe, an air of impending doom.” It was said with an amused twinkle Ben didn’t know quite what to do with. “I suppose sort of a Christmas Yet to Come type fellow. An appearance and demeanor more befitting Death, as it were.”

Ben couldn’t help but smile a bit at that. The man was a reader. And while Ben didn’t necessarily enjoy Dickens’ work, he had liked A Christmas Carol. A fellow lover of words deserved better than this. “Well, I’m not exactly Death. You may have noticed, you’re already dead and I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“So, who are you then?”

Ben flushed. He couldn’t help it. He had to speak his least favorite sentence in any language. “I’m actually a demon.”

“Ahha, so I’m going to Hell then? That is disappointing.”

Ben didn’t sense any particular fear from this soul and found it both intriguing and a little depressing. He let himself access the powers that would let him see the man’s soul. It didn’t have the acuity of an angel’s insight, but it served his purpose.

Well, there is absolutely no way I am dragging Wilmer back to Hell. No fucking way.

“I … um … No, you’re definitely not doing to Hell, Mr. Gustaffson.”

“You’re very polite for a demon,” the man chuckled.

Ben resisted the urge to ask him how many demons he’d met and instead took a minute to try to figure out what to do about this soul he had no intention of collecting. He nodded to himself, only half aware that he was doing it. “Okay. So here’s the thing … No angel showed up to make a bid for your soul, but that doesn’t mean Heaven doesn’t want you. They’re just a lot lazier than Hell, in my experience. So … what you should do is …. maybe just hang around here and haunt the place for a little while. Eventually someone will show up to lead you toward the Light, or whatever they call it.”

“That might be nice. I hate to miss Christmas by leaving right now.”

Ben smiled. “I’m fond of this time of year myself, sir.”

“I could pretend to be surprised, but I’m not at all. You look like someone who would enjoy Christmas.”

Ben didn’t correct the man by telling him he was more of a Yule sort of guy. He just offered another smile. “I better be going. I’m sorry you’re going to be dead for it, but I hope you have a merry Christmas anyway, Mr. Gustafsson.”

“Thank you, young man. I don’t know if such a thing is possible for a demon, but I hope you do, too.”

“I’ll try, sir,” Ben said, and slipped out the door.

About halfway down the stairs, he bumped into an unexpected angel. “Hey, Sariel. This one’s all yours.”

“Really, Ronoven? You aren’t even going to stay for the formalities this time?”

“Sorry, Sar. You were running late, so I went ahead and had a look. Lovely old fellow. You guys’ll love him.” He jogged past her down the steps.

“Ronoven, get back here and do your job!”

“I gotta go! I’m on the clock. Merry Christmas!”

He turned down the hallway that led to the front door and snickered when he heard her exclaim, “Oh, for Heaven’s sake!”

He let himself out and was surprised to find Krampus waiting for him outside. “How’d it go with the kid … Sigrid, or whatever her name was?”

“Fine. She’ll remember to butter the porridge properly tomorrow night no matter what else is happening, I’m quite certain. But no real harm done either way.”

“That’s good,” Ben said noncommittally, drawing his coat closer around himself.

“How about you?”

“Oh, Heaven showed up. You know how it is.”

“I believe I do,” Krampus said with a knowing lilt.

Ben shifted uncomfortably, wondering exactly what it was that Krampus was picking up on. He’d kept up a pretty good front  with the glitterati of Hell. Or he was pretty sure he had anyway. “So … Um … The night’s nearly over. What’s next for you?”

“Hawaii.”

“What’s a Hawaii?”

“Hawaii is a where not a what. I think I’ve earned a little vacation.” Krampus laughed. “As someone whose jurisdiction is mostly America, you’ll find out about it in a few years; more’s the pity for the people who live there, I think.”

“What’s so great about this Hawaii?”

“The food. The weather. The music. The company. You’d love it.”

Ben chuckled ruefully. “Sounds nice. I wish I could afford to fuck off out of Hell for a minute.”

“Need a little getaway yourself?”

“I wouldn’t hate one after this.” He gestured at the pelting snow, piled in drifts almost as tall as he was.

“So, come with me.”

“I’m already gonna catch no end of shit for showing back up without a soul in tow. Unauthorized leave on top of that? I like my finger and toenails right where they are, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.” Krampus headed back up the street to catch up with Nicholas. “See you around, kid,” he called over his shoulder.

“Have a nice vacation,” Ben shouted over the howling storm.

Krampus turned around. “Hey, if you ever get tired of the prince blowing you off and you want to learn some real magic, drop by my estate. I think you’d find my tutelage quite helpful.”

Ben grinned. Learn magic from Krampus? Hell, yes. “Thanks! I’ll do that!”

Krampus waved and faded into a swirl of blowing snow.

Ben stood in the middle of the dirt track that he couldn’t make himself think of as a street, icy flecks collecting unpleasantly in his collar, wind biting his face. He couldn’t decide which was worse: going back to Hell empty handed, or standing here freezing his ass off.

A gust of wind hit him hard enough to make him drop back a step. Yeah, no. At least Hell is warm, he grumbled to himself. But I definitely need a vacation.

Before he could get any colder or wetter, he uttered the appropriate incantation to return to his place Below and disappeared with a hiss of steam.

Where There Are Sheep

Authors’ note: It wouldn’t be Fic-mas without a story from Ben’s human past. As a boy in ancient Scotland, Ben often found himself in trouble. Fortunately, he also always found his way out. The title of this story comes from a quote by Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. However, the idea that sparked the story happened because I (Jess) was listening to Alt Nation on Sirius XM and Missio’s song Wolves came on. I’m a huge fan of Missio, and Wolves might be my favorite song of theirs. It gave me this picture of a dark wolf with glowing amber eyes that remind little Ben of his own. It was a short trip from there to Google where I learned some pretty interesting Scottish folklore that inspired what you are about to read. If I were you, I’d listen to Missio while I read this, but as we say in the Flaherty household, you do you!

Where There Are Sheep

“Where’re ye off ta, Beanie?”

He rolled his eyes at the nickname but didn’t say anything about it. He had eight summers behind him now. His father promised that after Yule he could start hunting with the men. He might even be able to go fight with them, if he could carry his father’s shield by the time he was needed. The childish nicknames would stop then, he was sure. 

“Nowhere,” he said, unconvincingly as he inched toward the door.

His mother’s eyebrows disappeared into her hair. “An’ I suppose tha’s na half our feast stuffed in yer pockets?”

He let his eyes go wide and innocent. “I dunno wha’ yer….” 

Of course that was the moment an apple fell out and rolled across the floor to her feet.

“Bean.” 

He tried to think of a convincing falsehood but nothing came to mind. “It’s for the fair folk,” he confessed.

“Beathan, ye cannae go wastin’ food.”

His face flushed with a flash of temper. “I’m not wastin’ it! If ye don’ share they–”

“Aren’ goin’ to have our harvest feast,” his mother interrupted.

“It’s the second one a the season!” he protested hotly. “Ye dinnae wanta share the firs’ harvest either! Daira says–”

“If Daira wants ta feed them, ye can go help her do it,” his mother said, clearly annoyed. “Get on wi’ ya, lad. I’m busy.”

He huffed a sigh and awkwardly emptied his pockets on the table. He held up a single apple. “What if I–”

“Put it back,” his mother snapped. “Go feed the goat!”

He groaned. “Ach, I cannae do it wi’ only one hand.” He waved his splinted, bandaged arm at her.

His mother gave him a very pointed look. “Ye shoulda thought a tha’ before ye climbed tha’ tree.”

“I was after eggs for ye!” 

Her stern expression slipped into a fond smile. “Tha’ ye were.” Then she frowned again. “Did Daira say ye dinnae need the sling?”

He shifted from one foot to the other. “Uhhuh.” 

“Yer blushin’, lad. Ye know tha’s a dead giveaway, don’ ye?”

“I….”

“Go get it,” she ordered. “Then go feed the goat.”

He stomped over to the hearth, snatched up the twist of fabric Daira had fashioned to keep his broken arm out of his way, and wrestled himself back into it, swearing softly when his arm reminded him it still hurt if he moved certain ways. 

Once he had it situated, more or less, he side-eyed his mother. It seemed she was busy with stirring the big pot over the fire, so he sidled up to the table again, and slowly put the apple back in his pocket.

“Beathan,” his mother warned without turning around.

He scowled at her back, and slunk out the door. Without the apple.

Daira had made a real point of teaching him about the fair ones after his strange encounter a couple of winters ago. She’d said if you didn’t want them bothering folk, you had to leave gifts, especially food.

“You mean make friends?”

“Ach, no!” she replied with a serious expression. “You buy some peace is all. But no safety. Never think yer safe with the fair folk. Na fer a moment, Ben.” 

He grinned. He loved how she always called him Ben. It was how he thought of himself after his strange encounter with the woman he and Daira were certain was the Cailleach Bheur. She usually called him that now. Unless he was in trouble.

“Are they all dangerous?” he asked, eyes wide. 

Daira shrugged. “No … but ye musn’ take chances, Ben. Some … and ye know from the egg on yer head … some’ll take yer life without blinkin’. An’ if they’re hungry….” 

He nodded solemnly. He’d nearly been a meal for one of them. Fortunately, Caraid made a meal of the faerie before that could happen.

He’d been leaving little dishes of food outside since then. At least he had until his mother caught him at it recently. So far, this had been a lean year for crops and the weather hadn’t been favorable for foraging either. Even though the leaves hadn’t fully colored yet, there was a chill in the air. The men didn’t seem especially bothered because hunting had still been alright, but his mother worried about getting the clan through the winter. He’d caught the back of her spoon more than once for trying to sneak off with food over the summer. 

He’d learned his lesson for the most part. And Cinnie let him have scraps often enough. But he thought feast days might be different. Something told him that if he put out nothing but scraps on a feast day, the fair folk might take it personally. Besides, as far as he was concerned, if there was a feast, everyone should get some. So he’d left a good portion of his own meal out when his mother refused him any extra.

He heaved a sigh. He was in no hurry to go wrestle with the goat’s food one-handed. Instead, he wandered around looking for Caraid. He hadn’t seen her today. She always turned up, but he worried when she wasn’t on his bed in the morning, keeping watch. 

He looked longingly up at their roof. That’s probably where she was. But he couldn’t climb with one hand. Or can I? 

He glanced around to be sure no one was looking, then he slipped free of the sling again, stuffing it into his pocket. He got a running start and hopped up on their covered rain barrel with his usual weightlessness. He squinted up at the thatch bundles. Then he flexed his hands, wincing at the sharp twinge it caused in his splinted arm. He figured this wasn’t one of his best ideas. But, then again, it probably wasn’t one of his worst ones either. 

He prepared to make the jump to catch the edge of the roof, which really wasn’t all that high, no matter what his mother said, but a sharp, “Bean! Get down from there!” startled him into nearly falling.

“Ach, Cinnie, I’m na hurtin’ anythin’!” he complained, but jumped down anyway.

 His brother Drustan’s wife smiled at him with a combination of affection and exasperation. “Exceptin’ yerself, most likely, Bean.”

He dug a bare toe in the cool dirt. “I was jus’ lookin’ fer Caraid.”

“Don’ go climbin’ up there lookin’ fer yer mad cat with that arm. Ye’ll wind up more hurt and fevered again,” she admonished. He didn’t bother to conceal the deep roll of his eyes, but it was cut short when she added, “I saw yer girl out back by Nanny on my way over.”

He huffed another irritated breath. “Course she’s by the damned goat.”

“Who yer supposed to be feedin’ from the sour look ye’ve got.”

He shrugged. “Ma said ta, but….”

“But yer feud wi’ Nanny is the stuff o’ legends.” Cinnie smiled again. “Here, Bean. I’ll an’ help. Then ye can come inside to help. The feast is only a day away. The more hands the better, lad.”

He fidgeted.  

“Did she chase ye off again?”

He nodded, blushing. “She dinnae wan’ me te take anythin’ fer the fair folk.”

“Ach, well. She’s been worried we won’ have enough. C’mon. Le’s go find yer Caraid.”

She took his good hand and led him around back. She didn’t so much help him feed the old goat as she talked to him while she did it herself. By the time they finished, Caraid appeared, just as Cinnie predicted she would, and contented herself with trying to trip her human by affectionately rubbing against his legs as he paced around telling Cinnie about his latest adventures, lamenting his mother’s stinginess with the food, and complaining about the sling Cinnie made him put back on.

When they finished tending the goat, who, predictably, tried to knock Ben down every time he got anywhere near her, Cinnie coaxed him back to the front of the house with the promise to help with his mother, too.

“She’s not gonna let me ha’ anythin’ though,” he protested.

“Ye le’me worry about tha’, Bean,” she replied as she headed inside.

After a while he peeked around the edge of the open door. Cinnie was talking to his mother as they dumped some things in the big pot. Cinnie caught him looking and tipped him a wink right before she pointed out something on the far shelf. Once his mother was engaged in conversation with her beneath it, Cinnie waved at him.

He grinned and dipped back inside to quickly stuff his pockets. 

Then he and Caraid headed for the wood. 

***

By the time the Winter’s Sleep was drawing to its end, things had improved a bit, to Ben’s way of thinking. And he didn’t necessarily credit the meals he left out for the faeries who might live nearby. But he didn’t discount it either.

The weather had turned fair after the lean meal that marked the clan’s second harvest celebration, and in addition to a fine end to the harvest season, the local game practically walked right in the front doors of the hunters, fish nearly lept into their boats, and foul might as well have dropped out of the sky right onto the dinner tables of his people. It had also been a warmer winter than any of them could remember.

His arm was still in a splint, but it was no longer bandaged up. He’d left the sling behind as well. And while he thought that between Daira, his mother, and Cinnie, he’d never been so fussed at in his whole life as he had since he’d broken it, he could finally use it without much pain. He’d climbed up on their roof that very morning, to talk to Caraid. Not that he’d admitted to it when asked where he’d been. 

“Oh, ye know … aroun’.”

“Alrigh’, Bean,” his mother said to his vague answer. “I need one of ye lads te go to Moibeal’s. Balgair got more birds than they can use. She offered some already plucked for the soup for the feast.”

He grinned. “I’ll go!” he replied quickly.

“Are ye sure ye can carry things, Bean?” she asked. “It’s bound ta be heavy.”

“Ach, I’m fine! I keep tellin’ ye.”

She gave him a piercing look. “Maybe ye should find Osheen….”

He pretended like he hadn’t heard her. “Be back soon!” he called and dashed out the door. 

After the way she’d been about his broken arm, he didn’t even want to think about what she’d be like once he went off on a real hunt, and he most especially shuddered to think what she’d be like once his father started taking him along to fight. She was going to have to get used to the idea that he was going to get hurt sometimes. Besides, he wasn’t about to let Osh take on the job of going to Balgair’s. 

Aila might be home.

His face felt suddenly hot, though he couldn’t have said why. 

When he approached their doorway, he saw Balgair’s youngest daughter, who was a bit older than him, brushing dirt out their door with a straw broom. Her dark hair fell in tight ringlets over her shoulders and her bright blue eyes sparkled when she glanced up. “Beathan!”

His neck and ears heated.

“Aila,” he said with all the dignity he could muster. He drew himself up to his full height, too. He’d been smallish for his age only last year, but since the spring he’d, as his mother liked to say, shot up like a sprout, and now he’s was as tall as Osh, and he was rapidly catching up to Angus. 

Aila beamed a sunny smile at him and his face split into a grin of his own. “How’ve ye been?” he asked, suppressing the urge to fidget with the edge of his tunic.

“Good.” For some reason entirely mysterious to Beathan, she giggled. “Tired of cleanin’ up for the feast.”

“Mmm,” he said with a sage nod, because he couldn’t come up with anything else. 

“What’re ye doin’ here today? I haven’ seen ye in ages.”

He mentally cursed the boots his mother had made him wear because he really wanted to dig a toe in the dirt. “I … um … Mam sent me ta see abou’ some birds, I guess.”

“She’s gone off to Enaid’s. She’ll be back in a bit though.”

“Oh. I … I’ll come back then.”

She smiled shyly at him. “Do ye still need to go get the mistletoe for yer hearth like ye always do?” 

“They wouldn’ let me.” He shook his head. “Alastair thought he saw one o’ the big cats in the wood an’ she still thinks I cannae use both hands.”

She pointed to his splint. “Does it hurt much?” 

“Ach, no.” He waved dismissively with his splinted arm to make his point. “All of ‘em put up a stink or I’d a gone anyway.”

She smiled again and stepped closer. “Yer so brave.”

He didn’t think his face had ever been so warm. But he grinned anyway. “I try ta be.”

“I wish we had some mistletoe.”

He squared his shoulders. “I could go get some.”

“Won’ yer mam get after ye?”

He waved his hand again. “Ach, she won’ know.”

Aila giggled again. “Only if yer sure….”

Ben was already headed in the direction of the forest. “I’ll be back before yer màthair! With the mistletoe!”

***

The best place to enter the wood happened to be near Daira’s cottage and he’d nearly gotten caught by the wisewoman before he could disappear into the underbrush. But one of the things Ben had learned in the last few months, as he’d done his best not to be slowed down by his injured arm (or his mother and the rest who kept after him about it), was stealth. 

She’d heard something though, because she peered at the forest’s edge for a few moments. Daira took a step in his direction, but stopped abruptly. “Caraid!” she exclaimed. “Come to chase some squirrels, have ye?” She stooped to pet the cat. “Ye stay outta the wood. I heard the howl of the cù-sìth las’ night.”

Caraid simply meowed and got up on her hind legs, offering her head for more petting.

Ben grinned. He could always count on Caraid to know when he needed her. He was also pretty sure, tales of a faerie death dog or not, Caraid approved of this excursion, because if she didn’t, he knew full well that, instead of helping, she’d be chasing after him and tripping him up. He crawled along on the ground until he was far enough away that his blond hair wouldn’t be seen through the branches. 

Once he was sure he’d avoided detection, he got to his feet and used his good hand to brush himself off. It was strange that it was warm enough that there was no snow clinging to the ground, even here in the shade of the wood, but it was nice, too. 

He squinted up through the treetops to get an idea of how much time he had to get what he came for and get back to Aila with her mistletoe. His face pulled immediately into a frown. It had taken him longer to sneak over here and get into the woods than he’d thought.

There was nothing for it now. He’d promised mistletoe and he aimed to deliver it. He peered around at the trees, frown deepening. He loved that it wasn’t as cold as it usually was this time of year, but the trees hadn’t even shed all their leaves. It was going to make finding the sacred plant even harder than usual. 

He combed through his most recent memories of excursions to find various plants for Daira and recalled seeing some mistletoe in the grove near his favorite fishing pond. Pleased he had a place to start, he got his bearings and headed confidently into the deeper part of the forest.

As Ben meandered through the familiar trees, he found himself glancing over his shoulder more than usual. It was almost like he wasn’t alone. But he didn’t see so much as a finch or squirrel.

He slowly noticed that his feet crunched over the leaves too loudly. The trickle of the stream that emptied into his pond reached his ears as well, even though he was still a good bit away. 

He tried to tell himself it was the time of year. Winter was always quieter. But.… 

Something felt … off.

He stopped abruptly. He caught the barest sound of velveted paws off to his left and his head whipped in that direction in time to see a sliver of movement … something like sun dappling that disappeared behind a deadfall. 

Ben held his breath, listening.

When his chest strained with the need, a sharp chilling bark split the air. He gasped and took off in the opposite direction of the sound. 

He leapt over downed trees, dodged huge rocks, brushed off the whipping he took from sapling branches, and went sprawling in an icy patch the shade allowed to hide in wait for him.

Using both hands to gain purchase, Ben scrambled to his feet, momentarily grateful that his arm was mostly healed and had the strength to aid his escape from the beast whose bark had frozen his blood.

He pelted through the forest, his thundering heart the only sound until another thunderous bark shattered the silence of the forest. Daira’s voice came to him suddenly: I heard the howl of the cù-sìth las’ night.

The hammering in his chest stopped for a split second as his heart squeezed with real fear. Every tale Daira had ever told him of the dangers the faerie realm posed played through his head. He should have run toward the village. You had two warnings from those creatures to get to safety. If it barked again it would take him. 

He glanced around the copse of birch trees he found himself in, frantically searching for any sign of the dark wolf with glowing eyes Daira had warned him about.

A branch snapped behind him. He pulled his hunting knife from where he kept it strapped by his hip and spun to face it, just in time to be caught in the back of the legs by a log he’d failed to see in his mad dash away from that harbinger of certain death. 

This time when he went sprawling, it knocked the breath from his lungs and the knife from his hand. It also set a cascade of stars in front of his eyes. 

A shadow fell over him.

He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his field of vision. If death had come for him, he planned to meet it glaring.

Instead of the wolf of legend, a wildcat perched on the log above him. When he met its eyes, it opened its mouth in a blood-curdling hiss. 

Ben forced himself to stay still, though what he wanted to do was run away as fast as his long legs would carry him. He took a slow careful breath and eased his hand away from his body to try to recover his knife.

The wildcat tensed like it would pounce, but didn’t. It opened its mouth again.

He expected another menacing hiss, but what came out of the creature was a scream, so high, so loud, and so unlike anything he had ever heard, he thought it must not be a regular woodland cat. It had to be another creature from the fair realms, even more deadly than the cù-sìth. He took a slow breath. Angus had told him about the scream of a wildcat. This wasn’t some monster from beyond the veil. If he stayed calm, he could make his family a gift of it’s pelt. He might catch trouble from his mother for having gone into the wood, but if he came home with this creature’s fur, she could hardly pretend he was still too hurt to do so much as carry some birds. And maybe she’d stop trying to talk his father out of letting him go with the men. He didn’t think his father took her fussing too seriously anyway, but a victory here would surely put an end to it. Besides, he had no interest in having being a meal for anything in this wood, from the faerie realm or otherwise.

His fingers brushed the handle of his knife and he had a momentary surge of hope that he could defend himself. The hope was short lived though. The cat wiggled its hindquarters, just like Caraid when she was about to pounce on some hapless squirrel, and screamed again.

So quick, he didn’t even see it move, the creature was on top of him, huge paws on either side of his slender shoulders, before he could get his fingers to close on his knife. Its breath was hot and fetid, like the smell of the end of the world. But no part of him was going to be its meal without a fight. 

He got his hands around its neck, the only thing he could think to do. But he’d hurt his arm again in his fall, so he didn’t think he could choke it. It confirmed his fears by pushing closer to his face. It screamed again, jaws snapping so close its teeth caught his hair. 

He pushed against it with all his might, but was sickly certain he wasn’t going to keep it from taking him for long. His bad arm started to give out and he screamed back in its face because it was all he had left. 

Hot saliva dripped on his face and another snap pulled his hair so hard his head jerked, and he cried out. Blood pounded in his ears, fueled by struggle and stark terror, but another rumbling bark pierced it. He knew he was as good as dead then, even if the cat didn’t finish him. 

Suddenly, a dark green blur barreled into the cat, knocking it off him with a heavy thump.

Ben didn’t pause for the space of a heartbeat to be relieved. He scooped up his knife and skinned up the nearest tree as fast and as high as he could. 

When he could go no further without bending the top of the slender silver tree over, he wedged himself against the trunk and tucked his knife back into its leather sheath so he could hold his throbbing arm against his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut until the worst of it passed. Then he looked down at the ground far below.

The blur that saved him from death-by-wildcat was most certainly a wolf, but bigger than any wolf Ben had ever seen or heard of, at least as big as the pony Drustan had picked up from traders last summer. The wolf was also the same color as the evergreen boughs that adorned their mantle and sills at home. It could only be the cù-sìth

But it had barked three times.

Ben’s stomach dropped at the momentary flash of horror that he must be dead, that the wet smacking sounds he could hear below weren’t from the beast eating a wildcat, but must be from it devouring his flesh, while his spirit simply hovered above the forest floor. 

Then his arm throbbed in time with the steady, if too quick, beat within his chest. He thought he might have rebroken it a little. He patted his good hand all over to assure himself he was still, in fact, solid. He patted the tree trunk for good measure. Once he’d assured himself that he hadn’t dropped dead from the faerie wolf’s bark, he angled himself forward to get a better look at it.

The gruesome stain on the forest floor, combined with the sounds of the wolf feasting on the remains of the wildcat, caused Ben’s stomach to do a slow roll. He leaned back against the tree trunk and closed his eyes. It seemed like forever before the slurping, crunching meal came to a close.

“Hullo, up there!” called a pleasant, gravelly voice.

Ben pried his eyes open and looked down. 

At the base of the tree, stood a man. Well, that was the best word Ben could come up with to describe the fellow with wild dark hair, and an even wilder beard, dressed from head to toe in leaves and moss. He couldn’t have been any taller than Ben, but he stood resting a small hand on the back of the horse-sized wolf now resting on its haunches beside him. 

“You’re the ghillie dhu,” Ben blurted.

The small man grinned up at him. “You can call me Barclay, laddie.”

“Hullo, Barclay,” he called down politely. “I’m Beathan.”

“Are ye, now?” The man seemed amused, though he wasn’t laughing. “I thought yer name was Ben. Or is that some other reckless young man I’ve heard about from other dwellers o’ the wood?”

Ben liked that Barclay called him a young man and not a child. He also wondered who might have told anyone his name, or how Barclay recognized him. Of course, he supposed he was the only person in the whole clan with blond hair. Other than Cinnie. And she was from Away. “No, tha’s me.”

“It’s gettin’ on toward dark, lad. Why’n’t ye come down so ye can get yerself home?”

Ben hesitated. “Um … because….”

“Don’t ye worry abou’ Maddy. She hasn’t got any mind to hurt ye.”

“Daira says … Daira’s our wisewoman and….”

“I know Daira, Ben. And she’s most wise. But ye needn’t worry about ole Maddy.”

“So, she doesn’t bark death for people?” he asked, starting to climb down. If the gillie dhu said he was safe, he was. He protected children in the wood, or so Daira had told him. And while he liked being called a man, he knew he wasn’t one. Not yet. If he’d had his first whisker, he’d have been off with the men today instead of sent on a kitchen errand by his mother.

Barclay chuckled. “She does. But na fer you, Ben. Your road ends far from here.”

Ben frowned, but didn’t ask what Barclay meant. He was too busy trying to get back down without losing his one-handed grip on the branches. He dropped back onto the ground right in front of Barclay and his giant pet, who now looked at Ben with glowing amber eyes that reminded him of his own.

He wanted to ask Barclay why her eyes glowed like that, but he was distracted by her surging forward and covering him with sloppy dog kisses that almost knocked him over. “Quit it!” he laughed, throwing up his hands. “Maddy stop! That tickles!”

“Let him breathe, Mads,” Barclay laughed.

The wolf obediently sat down next to her master, but looked very much like she’d like to slobber all over Ben some more. 

“Thank you,” Ben said, relieved the wolf was as obedient as she was enormous. He looked up at the darkening sky. “I should get home, I think.”

Barclay nodded his agreement. “We’ll walk you out, young Ben. That lynx isn’t the only one nearby.”

“Lynx?” he asked, falling into step between Barclay and Maddy.

“Tha’s its name. Ye won’ hear it spoken aroun’ these parts, but I know the names of all the creatures in the wood.”

As they walked along, Barclay talked of the many names of creatures, showed Ben all manner of herbs and mushrooms that were good for medicine or to eat, and smiled slyly whenever Maddy would lap Ben’s splinted arm.

When they arrived at the edge of the wood near Daira’s cottage, Barclay took a small cloth-wrapped bundle from a pouch amongst the moss and leaves that made up his tunic. “This is fer Daira. Tell her Barclay says hullo, will ye?”

Ben accepted the bundle. “I will.” He turned to go, but Barclay stopped him.

“Hold on, young Ben. I’ve gifts fer ye as well.” Barclay took a beautiful cutting of mistletoe from the same pouch and handed it to Ben. “This is fer you. You’ll also be happy te know tha’ Maddy healed up yer arm.”

Ben accepted the mistletoe with his good hand and flexed the other a few times, grinning when he realized it didn’t hurt one bit. He knew dogs licked wounds to heal them. But apparently a giant magic dog could take it to another level. “But why…?”

Barclay smiled. “Any lad who’d share his own feast wi’ my people, an’ daily risk his màthair’s wrath, is a friend to me an’ all the good fair ones who live in this wood.”

“Thank you, Barclay.” Ben started to reach his hand out, then pulled it back.

“Go on, lad. Maddy won’ mind.”

Ben grinned and scratched the cù-sìth behind her ears, though he had to stretch to do so. 

By the time he stopped, Barclay had disappeared back into the trees. Maddy gave Ben one more sloppy kiss up one side of his face, then turned and galloped back into the wood herself.

Ben secured the mistletoe in the pouch he kept tied to his belt for collecting herbs, pleased he could keep his promise to Aila, even if it was a bit later than he’d planned. Then he caught sight of Caraid and Daira standing in her well-lit doorway. He took off across the last stretch of grass, calling to both of them, excited to share his latest adventure, and to begin preparations for the holiday in earnest.

He was going to leave a proper feast outside for Barclay and his friends tomorrow.

No matter what anyone said about it.

The Direction of His Dreams

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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. 

*****

 

The Taste of Fear

Author’s Note – This is another little fiction from a one word prompt over on Instagram. The word was taste. I saw a lot of responses that were either foodie or sexy. And I was tempted. But Ben was feeling chatty. He shared a dream with me. He does that. Let’s me have his nightmares sometimes. So this is what we got instead. The Taste of Fear. ~ J

Copy of Taste

The blackness was total.

It went past mere idea or circumstance.

It was physical.

First it was an enemy. It left him flailing, yelling, then finally panting and sweating.

After a while when it was all there was, he tired of that.

Then the dark around him, so smooth, so complete, so constant, was almost a friend. But the kind you knew would stab you in the back eventually. You just couldn’t prove it.

He didn’t remember it, but they must have grabbed him at that last stop.

Why leave him like this? If he was caught, why not just get it over with? 

He shivered. 

Over probably wasn’t on the docket. Not any time soon. But even torture might be preferable to this unending, muffling, blanket of dark silence. 

Okay, maybe not. 

But the nothingness was a torture of its own.

He wasn’t restrained or hurt. He felt around carefully. Nothing near him but the ground beneath him. So smooth, he wasn’t sure what it might be. Not earth, not pavement. It was strange but it was solid. Probably.

Stay calm. You have nothing to gain by losing your shit right now.

He rose carefully. One hand above him in case there was a low ceiling, the other protectively in front of him, for no particular reason other than reflex. Once he was upright, he reached out to explore, slowly at first. It seemed there was truly nothing around him. 

“Hello?”

Not even an echo. His voice sounded like something meant to be experienced in three dimensions squashed onto a piece of paper.

He swallowed hard. 

Oblivion.

This is oblivion.

They found you.

And instead of revenge or torment, they put an end to you. 

That’s why I don’t remember anything.

The final death.

But it’s even worse than you thought.

Because I’m still here.

In the dark.

Alone.

Forever.

An insidious, familiar, unwelcome, long despised voice whispered in his ear, “I can taste your fear.”

Panic came then. 

Ben bolted upright in bed, half falling out of it before Mal caught his arm. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” she soothed in familiar tones, gathering him close. “You’re okay. Just another dream.”

Ben lay back down next to her for a while, letting his breathing return to normal, appreciating that she didn’t ask about his nightmares.

When faint grey light peeked in the curtains, he leaned in and kissed her cheek. She was almost back asleep. “I’m going for a run.”

“‘Kay,” she murmured.

Ben got a couple of miles in before he had to stop, leaning against a tree, gasping.

Almost like it was real, he heard the voice in his ear again.

“You’ll never be able to stop running.”

Ben gasped and looked around. There was no one there.

Still, the whisper came again.

“And I can still taste your fear.”

*****