Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Covenant, Light, and Oath

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

Covenant, Light, and Oath

Mithra paced. 

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

His followers were growing quiet in their devotions.

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

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

He started pacing again. 

“Tough day?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am Asher,” he said simply.

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

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

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

And he once again found himself on his back.

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

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

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

“First I will have your name and title.”

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

“More mythological nonsense.”

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

“Bob? That sounds ridiculous!” Mithra scoffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A good run?” Mithra sputtered.

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

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

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

“Horus had no sense of style.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t look at it like that.”

“And exactly how should I look at it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But why Christianity?”

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

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

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

“What if I refuse to go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

A Work of Art Dies Not

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

A Work of Art Dies Not

Chris woke up feeling refreshed despite the various indulgences last night offered. The wine flowed freely, and the food, the food was superb. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten so decadently. Though not a scrap of meat could be found on the table, or in the house, Chris thought he’d never had a lovelier meal. Nor could he place the last time he’d drank his fill of such exceptionally fine wine absent concern or constraint. Neither could he remember the last time he’d been in a place where the fulfillment of any desire had been so freely available. 

He had to stretch his memory back to Saturnalia celebrations during his youth in Rome, hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, to find a comparison for the holiday he’d been a guest at last night. Well, for the last several days. His host didn’t believe in limiting celebrations to one day if there was good food, and wine, and company.  

Chris rolled over and the aftereffects of the drink made themselves known. He’d need a hearty breakfast and probably a long steam in the baths before he really felt like himself. Nearly every muscle was sore, too. After dinner, the celebration turned more … athletic. The bath sounded better and better. 

He was lucky to be in a home with such luxurious accommodations. Few places he’d been bothered with bathing at all, say nothing about a room for heat, and one for cold, and another for a vigorous massage before. His mind strayed again to his boyhood. If he hadn’t been so reminded of the Roman he once was, perhaps he would not have dived so fully into the festivities. But dive he had. With reckless abandon.

As sleep was swept more surely from his mind, Chris began to feel the twinges of guilt. The time of year wasn’t about feasting, or anything else he’d spent the night doing. It was about celebrating the birth of the Savior. 

His guilt quickly faded in a heady haze of memories of last night. Regardless of what the current establishment was imposing on the faithful, Chris was there for the beginnings of the faith and knew it to be one of rejoicing rather than mourning, of embracing the gifts the world had to offer rather than thinking only of Paradise to come. 

It was strange, but meetings in catacombs with other believers from all walks of life from nobles to prostitutes, full of singing and breaking bread together, was somehow more in keeping with what Chris saw as what the Lord intended than the rather joyless obligatory gatherings he’d witnessed more recently. 

Of course, Chris had to admit, since his last run in with the Church a couple decades ago, over a book of all things, he hadn’t set foot in a church. His heart ached for the fellowship, but he didn’t feel he could trust the wealthy nepotistic organization that claimed to be acting for Christ these days. The last few weeks here harkened back to the early days of song, and celebration, and love. 

Rising slowly so as not to disturb his host, Chris made his way to the baths to take care of his morning ablutions and perhaps heat some of the stiffness from his bones.  

As soon as he stepped out of the bedroom he was startled by a servant. “Good morning, sir. Do you require any assistance this morning?” 

Chris stopped, his face flushed. He stammered a quick no thank you and made his way down the hall. Damnit. He’d forgotten about the servants. A momentary fear gripped his heart. The servants here seemed very loyal. He certainly hoped they were discrete. He assumed they must be. 

His host had assured him that many “good friends” had come and gone from this place, but no word of it was ever heard outside these walls. There’s been a bit of unpleasantness with the law over a model back during the apprenticeship days, but none since. That experience had made his host much more circumspect about private dealings. 

Still, as Chris made his way to the baths, he worried. No one could find out about how he had spent his time here in Florence, especially not last night. It would be scandalous. Potentially fatal, even. Well, not so much fatal for him, but still no good could come of it. Frankly, he wasn’t sure he could trust the Church here in Italy to be of any help. And the Templars had to be very careful these days.

Chris felt his anger grow, railing against the small minded nature of the times. Of course when something of great power and influence like the Church falls into the hands of small minded people out to employ their families and line their pockets, no good could come of that either. He should be able to keep company with whomever he so chose, and not have to worry about the opinions of others. 

Europe at the moment was too much like being back in his father’s house for comfort. Chris continued to fume through his bath, but found his mood lifting as the hot water soothed his muscles. He knew where he stood with his faith, and with the Lord, and no amount of legalism or interference from the powerful would change that.

On his way back to the bedroom, he stopped to admire the various paintings and sketches that adorned the walls. He breathed deep. He rather loved the smells of the paintings, and especially of the oils to both cover the canvas and clean up the brushes. He was appreciating those when another deep breath drew him along the hall. A haunting aroma filled the hallway. He decided his host could wait. He needed to find the source of that smell. 

Chris followed his nose to the kitchen, where a small staff was hard at work. 

“Good morning sir, can we help you?” 

“Yes, what is it I’m smelling?” 

“Well, we have bread in the oven.”

“No, not that something … I’ve never smelled anything like it.”

The young man smiled. “We are making coffee.” 

“Coffee?” Chris had heard of it, when he’d been doing missionary work in Istanbul, but never had the opportunity to try it. He hadn’t thought it would have made its way here. “I didn’t know one could get it here.”

“The master of the house has many friends, sir. One of them is a merchant. He travels to the East often. He’s very quiet about this discovery just now. Things from that land are seen as suspect by the Church you see.”

“I have felt the suspicion of the Church myself. Simply for reading. So I understand.” The open questioning of conventional wisdom relaxed Chris even more than his long bath had managed. 

“You won’t find it anywhere else in these parts, sir.”

“Well, regardless of what anyone thinks of its origins, it smells divine.”

“Yes, sir, it certainly does. Would you like a cup?” 

“Yes please.” Chris was never one to pass up a new experience. 

“How would you like it, sir?” 

“Um, well how does one normally have it?” 

“I usually prepare it with honey, sir.” 

“If you had anything to do with the meal last night, I feel I could trust you with my very life, and will most certainly trust you with me first coffee.” 

A bright smile flashed. “Very good, sir.” 

That was something else about these place. The servants behaved like family. They were attentive, good at their work, but there was no obsequiousness, and certainly no fear. 

Chris found the beverage to be to his liking, both sweet and bitter at the same time. Chris stood near the hearth and enjoyed the warmth, slowly sipping the hot liquid. 

“Oh, there you are, Christoforo,” came the pleasantly husky voice of his host from behind him. He liked the sound of the name he’d chosen as his traveling identify this time. He found of all the names he’d wandered by, it was the one he liked best to return to. He especially liked it as it was spoken here.

“Good morning, Leo. I trust you slept well,” Chris said, turning. 

“I should think so. I am not as young as I once was, certainly not as young as you are, my good friend. You are a man of singular skill and energy.” 

Chris blushed and shot a look towards the kitchen servants. 

Leonardo laughed, a deep rich laugh. “Don’t think twice about them, Chris.”

“I…”

The older man patted him affectionately on the shoulder. “I’ve told you, these are my people. They are nothing if not discrete.” 

He was unaccustomed to such openness and the fearful fluttering in his chest from earlier returned. “I hope your trust is not misplaced.” 

“Come now, Christoforo you are not the first man, or woman for that matter, to share my bed. And you won’t be the last.” 

“I will trust in your good judgement then.” 

“And well you should.” Leonardo chuckled. A servant handed Leonardo a steaming cup. “Thank you, Giuseppe.” 

Chris took another sip of the wonderous beverage and Leonardo smiled. “I’m afraid that will be hard to come by unless you go wandering as guard for missionaries for the Church again.”

Chris shook his head. “It is unlikely that I will find myself in the Church’s employ any time soon. So I will be sure to savor it while I’m here.”

A lovely servant girl came to take Chris’s empty cup and he found it impossible not to smile at her. 

“Think you’re likely to have trouble finding work with them, a man of your varied tastes, do you?” Leonardo’s eyebrows raised in amusement. 

He cleared his throat. “Not for that reason, no. As you are, my friend, I am a man of discretion. I find I’m capable of carrying many secrets.”

“I sense that is true. They do show on your face from time to time.”

“I imagine they do. Sometimes secrets do become heavy.”

Leonardo frowned at the thoughtful expression on his young friend’s face. “Now, Christoforo, before you become too serious, there is something I’d like to show you.”

“Really?” Chris beamed. 

He was envisioning a sneak peak at some new invention. He and Leonardo had known each other for several years, and in all that time he’d never gotten a look behind the curtain. Perhaps now that they were “good friends” as Leo liked to put it, he would finally be taken to the brilliant man’s workshop. 

“One of the traveling machines we’ve talked about? I confess I keep hoping you’ll take those more seriously. A man tires of going everywhere by horse.”

“I’m afraid not,” Leonardo chuckled. “But nevertheless, this, I think you will like.” 

Chris followed Leonardo down a long hallway that ended with a heavy door. Leonardo produced a key and opened the door. 

“This is my workshop. I must ask you not to talk about what you see.” 

“You have my word.” 

The room was filled with all kinds of apparatus and easels. Windows set high in the wall cast a dim light from the wan December sun. The fireplace sat cold, leaving the room with a sharp chill. 

“Can I trouble you light some candles while I kindle a fire?” 

“Of course.” 

Chris set to work moving from sconce to sconce, while Leonardo built a fire. When the room was brighter and starting to warm, Leonardo motioned Chris to a medium sized easel covered by a cloth in the corner. 

“Now Christoforo, you remember the sketches you helped me with?” 

“Yes. For a medical text if memory serves.” 

“Those are the ones.” He grinned, and despite his greying hair, the mischievous smile and twinkling eyes made the man look young. “I confess, you are such a handsome fellow, I used them as a subject for a painting.” 

“You painted my portrait?” Chris asked, flattered by the idea, but strangely apprehensive, too. Portraits had a way of following a man, especially one painted by an artist as illustrious as Leonardo. In a hundred years or so, a resemblance to a painting might prove annoying.  

“Well, yes and no.” Leonardo recalled Christoforo’s apprehension at posing for the sketches at all. It’s what had given him the idea for his little experiment to begin with. “I remembered that you didn’t want a picture of yourself, so much. So I only used the sketches for inspiration. You gave me an idea to challenge myself.”

“Was making me presentable a terrible challenge?” Chris asked with a chuckle, wondering what Leo could have done to those sketches that represented a challenge.

“You know full well that there is nothing challenging about your appearance,” he laughed. “But enough talking.” 

Leonardo removed the cover from the easel revealing a complex portrait on wood underneath. 

“Um…”

“You look confused.” Leonardo chuckled. 

“Well, it’s just, That’s a woman. I know you have broad tastes, Leo, but I should probably tell you that no matter how you imagine her, my sister passed away years ago. And we looked nothing alike.” 

“Not your sister, not even any other woman. I wondered how you would look if you were a woman, Christoforo. I wondered what your reaction to it would be, too, I must confess.” 

Chris took a moment, taking in the picture. “Well, I am flattered. Though I don’t think I make a very pretty woman.” 

“It’s not anyone’s job to be pretty, man or woman. We are who we are. That is part of why I paint. One need not be pretty to be beautiful. You see?”

Chris nodded, still staring at the picture. “It’s really quite good.” 

“I’m glad you like it. I may play with it a bit more. Now that you mention a sister, I wonder if I could make your features more distinctly feminine. I’m in no rush to call it done.” 

“Well, my sister had brown eyes and hair to match,” Chris said encouraging an alternative interpretation of those basic sketches now that they’d made their way onto canvas. Chris decided he’d feel more comfortable with this picture looking a little less like him, as a woman or not. 

“I’m not going to change everything, Christoforo. I rather like your expression. It speaks of those secrets we’ve discussed.”

“Alright, but Leonardo…?” 

“Yes?” 

“Of all the expressions I … that is she … That is me … What’s with the smirk?”

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Sugar and Spice

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Authors’ Note: Here’s another missing scene from Christmas in Always Darkest. 

Sugar and Spice

Chris let himself inside the apartment to a delightful aroma for the fifth day in a row. Also for the fifth day in a row, he found Ben in the midst of bowls, cups, pans, general stickiness, and culinary disarray, frowning at the result of his messy efforts.

Chris chuckled softly as he dropped his messenger bag full of papers to grade on their table. “What’s wrong with this one?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not right.” Ben shook his head and cut a slice of the still slightly warm cake, put it on a plate, and handed it to Chris. “You tell me.”

Chris took the plate over to the table and dug into Ben’s latest effort at recreating the chocolate spice cake he liked so much from the bakery around the corner. He chewed and swallowed, smile spreading as he did so. 

“Ben, I don’t know what you’re agonizing over. This is wonderful. And I honestly think your citrus frosting is better than theirs.”

Ben smiled at that. “Yeah, I’m happy with the frosting.” He shrugged, taking another bite of it himself and chewing it thoughtfully. “But the cake still isn’t where it needs to be. It’s not chocolatey enough. All I can taste is the spices.”

“Since you’re making it for the Sinclairs, maybe you should get Mal’s opinion.”

Ben shook his head. “It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

He finished his disappointing piece of cake, proving himself immune to Chris’s encouraging words about how good it was. 

It was good. 

But it wasn’t good enough. 

Mal had tasted the bakery cake and loved it. He wanted the one he made for her and her family to blow the bakery out of the water. He couldn’t have really said why it was so important to him, but it was. 

When he finished his slice, he sighed. “Will my music bother you if I crank it while I clean up all this garbage?”

“Not at all. I’m going to head into the living room and grade these papers. They’re my last batch to hand back before Saint Auggie’s goes on break.”

Ben pulled up the Celtic punk station on his music app, cranked it full blast, dropped his phone into a clean coffee mug as an impromptu speaker, and put the cake away. Then he started digging himself out of the mountain of dirty dishes with methodical intensity, while half singing along to Flogging Molly’s If I Ever Leave This World Alive. He was lost in his task, and in the music.

A little later, as he finished drying the last of the dishes, and was getting ready to wipe down the counter, Mal’s hand on his elbow startled him into almost dropping a pyrex measuring cup. 

“Hey!” he grinned, recovering quickly. “I thought you had to work at the gallery this afternoon.”

She smiled, picking up the damp cloth he’d dropped and wiping the counter down for him. “Dad’s on a maniacal cleaning spree at home because my uncle’s coming for the holiday, too, so he let me off the hook. Figured I’d surprise you and maybe we could walk up to the bookstore and do a little Christmas browsing.”

Ben started putting away the dishes. “Sure. Lemme just finish cleaning up my mess.”

Mal leaned against the counter. “Whatcha making?”

Ben didn’t look at her, just kept doing what he was doing. “Nothing really.”

“Liar,” she teased. “You’re up to something.”

He put away the last bowl and turned. “You’re spooky good at that, you know.”

“What?” she grinned. “Knowing when you’re up to something?” He nodded. “I’m not really that good. You just can’t look me in the eye when you’re not being honest and when you’re doing it because you’re being sweet, you blush. A lot.”

He pulled an indignant face. “I wasn’t even looking at you! How do you know if I blushed?”

She grinned mischievously. “It hits the back of your neck and your ears first.”

He laughed, and this time he knew it was obvious he was blushing because he could feel the heat of it. 

“Can’t keep anything from you can I?” 

And I’d really rather not. 

Like she could read his thoughts, she said, “Why would you want to?”

It was said with a smile, a light teasing tone, but it made his stomach drop a little. He had to tell her the truth of himself soon. He should really buckle down on his research about how to defend her from the Fallen so he could finally be really honest. He met her eyes and made himself smile. “I guess I wouldn’t. But it was supposed to be a surprise for Christmas.”

She took the few necessary steps to wrap him into a hug. “I do love surprises. Early surprises even more so.”

He hugged her back, then pulled the cake out of the fridge. “I was trying to make the spice cake we like. I keep screwing it up though.”

“It looks pretty great to me,” she said honestly.

“Yeah, looks aren’t the problem. You want to try it? Then you’ll see.”

“I never don’t want cake, Ben. It’s one of my primary character flaws.”

He laughed and cut her a slice. “You want some coffee, too?”

“I better not. I haven’t been sleeping well. Don’t want to make it worse by being dumb and overcaffeinating.”

She got a fork out of the drawer and scooped up a bite while they stood right there at the kitchen counter. Her eyes rolled back in a look of pure bliss. “Oh. My. God. Ben, this is soooo good.”

That she liked it made him smile, but still, he shook his head. “I think it’s not chocolatey. The spices come on too strong. The one from Buttercup’s is like a really good bar of dark chocolate, plus the spiciness. That’s part of what makes it good.”

She took another bite of the cake, thinking she could personally eat her weight in what he’d made. But if he wasn’t happy, she wanted to help. “What kind of recipe did you use?”

Ben dug out the cookbook he’d borrowed from the library from the drawer under the microwave. “It’s a red velvet cake. I just left out the food coloring. I figured it’d be good with the cream cheese frosting.”

“It is good.” She looked over the recipe, chewing her lip in what Ben already thought of as her ‘thinking’ expression. “But that’s probably why it’s not as full of chocolatey goodness as you want it to be.”

“Huh? There’s loads of cocoa powder in it.”

“Well, yeah, but natural cocoa powder is still pretty acidic. So it’s more like coffee. Sort of fruity and earthy, but not really deep down chocolatey. You want to use a recipe with Dutched cocoa.” She started flipping through the book. “Here’s one. This one ought to be perfect for you.”

He nearly laughed when he saw she’d landed on a recipe for devil’s food cake. Then he frowned. “How do you know? You can’t even boil water! Or have you been fibbing to me?”

“Oh, no, no fibbing here. I suck at cooking. But as you may have noticed since I’ve been helping you pass your class, I kick ass at chemistry.”

“You do at that.” She was eyeing the cake next to him, so he cut her another piece. “Why is this one going to be different?”

She got a giant forkful of more cake. If he didn’t want this one, she was going to take it home with her for sure. “Dutched cocoa is processed with alkali. It makes it darker and richer and more what you’re thinking of as chocolatey.”

He laughed a little. “And you know this because…?”

“The process was invented by a Dutch guy named Johannes van Houten in 1828. I read about him in a science text a long time ago in a unit on acids and bases. I thought it was cool.”

“It is cool,” Ben said almost skeptically. “If it works.”

“Oh, it’ll work.”

He grinned. “I’m used to being the history nerd in this relationship, you know.”

“It’s science history. And we both know that’s not exactly your thing.”

He laughed. “I guess not. But…”

“Look, what have you got to lose by trying it?”

“Nothing I guess. The worst it can be is terrible.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Spirit of what? Murphy’s Law?”

“Independent scientific inquiry.”

“Well, if it’s for science, I’ll have to find time to try it.” 

“I’ve got nowhere to be. You’re always telling me I need to learn to cook. Let’s give it a shot.”

An excuse to spend the afternoon in close quarters, working side by side, sounded like Heaven to Ben. If it fixed his chocolate problem, more’s the better, he thought.

***

Several hours later, the two of them sat in a half doze on the couch, full of cake. And victory.

“You’re going to put Buttercup’s out of business, Ben.”

“I don’t need to put anyone out of business. But I’m not gonna lie, I feel better about having something impressive to bring over to Christmas at your place. Especially now that there’s going to be extra family there.” 

He laughed like it wasn’t a big deal, but she heard the slight nervousness in it.

“I keep telling you, they’re gonna love you.” He shifted slightly next to her, but didn’t contradict her. “But if bribery is needed to make it happen, that cake definitely seals the deal.”

“So long as it’s the holiday you want, Mal, I’m good with anything that happens.”

“It will be, Ben.”

She twined her fingers with his as she picked up the remote.  

***

As always, it wouldn’t be a Demons Run Lit Christmas without some holiday goodies. Here’s the recipe that Ben was hoping would keep a couple of angels from smiting him on the spot Christmas morning. Readers of Always Darkest know Mal was right, Ari and Davi liked Ben just fine. But we’re not going to pretend this cake didn’t have something to do with it. 

Chocolate Spice Cake

Ingredients

1 cup boiling water

⅔ cup Dutch-process cocoa, plus extra for dusting the pan

1 tbsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp ginger

⅛ tsp clove

1 ¼ cups packed dark brown sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup vegetable oil

½ cup sour cream

2 large whole eggs

2 large egg yolks

Directions

Prepare a regular sized bundt pan (you can use any pan you like, but we think this one looks the most festive). We like using shortening to thoroughly grease the pan, and then we dust it with cocoa powder instead of flour so it doesn’t leave weird white marks all over your cake.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Combine the boiling water and cocoa powder in a small bowl. 

Whisk until smooth.

Set aside.

Combine your dry ingredients in the bowl of your stand mixer (if you don’t have one, use a bowl that will be big enough for all your ingredients to come together in). Dry ingredients include spices, baking soda, and flour.

Whisk to combine.

In a separate bowl or pitcher (to make pouring easier), combine your wet ingredients. Wet ingredients include brown sugar, oil, eggs, egg yolks, and sour cream.

Whisk to combine.

Turn your mixer on low and slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Once combined, slowly add the cocoa mixture until that’s fully incorporated, too. Scrape down your bowl as needed. 

Pour the cake batter into your prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the thick part of the cake comes out clean. 35 to 45 minutes.

Cool for about ten minutes in the pan, then turn it out onto a cooling rack or plate to cool completely.

Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients

8 oz unsalted butter, softened

8 oz cream cheese, softened

4 cups powdered sugar (give or take)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbsp orange extract

Zest and juice of 1 orange

(If you want, you can add cinnamon to this as well, or use cinnamon and colored sugar to decorate)

Directions

Sift the powdered sugar. Set it aside.

Using your electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat butter and cream cheese until thoroughly creamed together. Add the orange zest and blend it in. Turn your mixer to low, and add the powdered sugar a ½ cup at a time until your frosting is smooth and creamy. Blend in the vanilla and orange extract. Thin the frosting to your preferred consistency with the orange juice, adding a little at a time.

Frost your cooled cake with as much of this decadent mix as you like. 

If any angels show up, feed them some to make up for your misdeeds. 

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Ninth Day of Fic-mas …

donkey-1674937_1920

No Room at the Inn

Authors’ Note – Those of you familiar with Always Darkest have already met one of the important characters in the following story. He also appears in our short novella Fare Thee Well. And we have a feeling you haven’t seen the last of him. 

 

CLANG. CLANG. CLANG. The bell echoed through the courtyard.

“Was a time people respected a closed gate,” grumbled the innkeeper, as he made himself presentable.

The bell clanged several more times, sounding like whoever was ringing it was starting to get testy. “Well, at least they know how I feel,” he grumbled under his breath.

“Alright! I’m coming!” he called, letting his voice be its most cantankerous.

The Census had been good for his purse, but not his patience, which was, on its best day, usually worn thin by hard work and lack of sleep.

He stomped across the courtyard, beginning with the intention of letting them have a piece of his mind for ignoring the late hour, but memories of lean times tempered his irritation somewhat. He still had several rooms left empty when he’d closed up shop for the night. The prospect of more coin brightened his mood considerably by the time he got to the gate.

Opening the small eye-level door in the gate, the innkeeper peered through. Standing outside, looking right back at him from the back of a well-bred and stunningly outfitted horse was an imposing man. It wasn’t his size that made him imposing, even on horseback. His eyes twinkled with what first looked like amusement, but after a second’s contemplation looked almost … dangerous.

This man was a Roman … No, not necessarily, the innkeeper thought. He didn’t look like the other Romans he’d met. His eyes were a striking blue and his hair was a sandy yellow. But he was certainly dressed like a Roman. A successful one, too. The innkeeper was immediately adding a hefty “tax” to the rate. Served the goyim right, marching into their lands and acting like they owned the place. And their money was as good as any of his own people, the innkeeper reasoned.

He opened the gate to negotiate. “Good evening,” he greeted. “I am David, the keeper of this humble inn. How may I assist you this late evening?” Might as well let the Roman know he’d come later than he normally did business. Then the price tag wouldn’t come as such a shock.

The man flashed a charming smile as he dismounted his impressive steed. “Good evening, sir. I represent Titus Flavius and his party. They are on their way here and I’ve ridden ahead to procure rooms for them.”

“Titus Flavius? Was it not your party who bought up all of Chaim’s rooms this morning?”

“Coulda been.  Titus Flavius doesn’t travel light. I’ve been riding all over town buying up rooms all day. So, do you have any rooms or what, there, David?”

“How many rooms does your party require?”

“How many have you got?”

“I … well, I have three rooms available.”

“I’ll take ‘em,” the man replied without even pausing to think. “Any extra rooms you maybe haven’t mentioned, that you’re maybe saving for somebody important? Because I assure you, Titus Flavius is the most important person who’s going to be asking.”

“There’s room in my laborers’ housing for any servants if that’s …”

“I’ll take those, too.”

“How much space would you like to reserve?”

“Well, son, all of it that you’ve got. The Census has made rooms scarce ‘round here. You may have noticed.”

David forced a smile. “Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Will the party be requiring refreshment?”

It wasn’t a usual offer, but he’d heard the name Titus Flavius, and understood him to be a generous man to those who pleased him. Roman or not, David planned on doing just that and reaping the reward.

“If you would be so kind,” the Roman said with a wolfish grin. “This group tends to eat a great deal.” he paused. “If you ensure there’s plenty for them, I am sure you will be well compensated, good sir.”

David was struggling not to rub his hands together with anticipation at fattening his purse. Their inn often struggled to keep his family fed, given its location, and the idea of collecting enough to keep them afloat for longer than a week or two was extremely attractive.

“Shall we discuss our rate?” he asked, as though it was a matter of little consequence, not realizing his newly blooming avarice was shining in his eyes. “So as to avoid confusion later when I am busy meeting the needs of your party.”

Another grin from the fair-haired Roman. “I’m sure you’ll come up with a fair price.”

“Wonderful.” He listed an exorbitant rate for the rooms, and an astronomical one for the food. The Roman didn’t even blink, just nodded agreeably. “We can settle up on the morrow if that’s convenient to you, sir.”

“Oh, I’ll pay now. I don’t want someone coming along and making you a better offer and finding my Lord Titus without a place to lay his head.” He paused. “I’d like to reserve room in your main stable for six horses as well, if you’d be so kind.”

David calculated the total in his head and gave it to the Roman. Reaching into a heavy looking satchel, the Roman handed him two denarii and three sesterces, as if they were nothing. David was suddenly even more inclined to keep the party happy. “Um … what time can I expect the party? I’d hate to leave your lord waiting at the gate.”

“Oh, by midnight or so I’d say. He’s in a hurry and we’ve been pressing past the point of reason. Our mounts could use a day of rest.” He patted his own horse and remounted it.

“Perhaps he’ll stop over for a few days,” David said greedily. “Our accommodations are most comfortable, sir.”

“Perhaps so,” the Roman agreed. “I’ll return before long. I thank you,” he said as he started to trot away like he was in a bit of a hurry.”

“No, sir, thank you!” he called at the rider’s back. “If you could stay a moment to talk specifics about your party, I could make the most comfortable arrangements possible!” The Roman just waved. “I didn’t even get your name!” David tried in a last-ditch effort to glean any information that might ingratiate him to the wealthy group.

The man glanced over his shoulder with a strange knowing smile. “I’m not able, sorry.” He urged the horse along with his knees, making the familiar clicking sound of a slightly impatient rider, and rode off, leaving a confused innkeeper in his wake.

∞∞∞

When the bell rang later that evening, David hurried outside, nearly tripping over his own feet to get there as quickly as possible.

He’d already woken his wife, his children, and his mother to prepare the rooms for their important guests. Their kitchen smelled of baking bread and roasting meat. The other guests had begun to stir, and all were happy to pay for an unexpected meal, so David had his family working to feed them all. The coin had already more than made up for the loss of the fat goat that had stopped giving milk some time ago.

He swung the gate wide in a grand welcoming gesture, expecting a party of smart but tired Romans. What he was faced with instead was a dusty exhausted looking man holding the rope of a donkey, upon which was a woman, large with child, clutching her belly and grimacing with discomfort.

The man was wringing his hands in worry. “I’m sorry to trouble you this late, good sir. But … my wife … her time has come ‘round, you see, and … we desperately need shelter for the night.” When the innkeeper frowned elaborately at the road-dirtied, weary pair, the man took out a money pouch. “I can pay … Whatever you ask.”

David sniffed disdainfully. He was quite busy enough without some nobody who’d planned their trip poorly wasting it. That money pouch looked heavy enough, but it was tiny compared with that of the nameless Roman who’d visited him a few hours ago. “No room,” he said curtly. “Try the next town over.” He moved to swing the gate closed.

The woman stifled a small whimper of discomfort and her husband put himself in the way of the gate. “There are no other rooms. Not anywhere. Some Roman has bought up every vacant room between here and Jerusalem, I think.”

“Sorry to hear that,” the innkeeper said, not meaning it, and not sounding like he did.

“Please,” the man pleaded. “We’ll take anything. Servants quarters would be fine. I’ll pay the full room rate. She just needs somewhere to … to …” She whimpered again, and the man’s eyes bored into David’s. “Please,” he said, and it was no longer a plea. It had an edge that told the innkeeper he was desperate enough to not be rational. The man had the deeply muscled arms of a laborer, but the sharp intelligent eyes of a scholar. A dangerous combination if pushed past his limits.

“There’s no room in the servant’s quarters either. You can stay in the small barn out back. The straw is clean and there’s plenty of it.”

“Fine,” the man agreed, casting a concerned glance at his wife whose eyes were closed and whose breath was coming in little panting gasps. “How much?”

“Two shekels.”

The woman’s eyes snapped open. “Two shekels to stay in a barn? Are you mad? Joseph, we can’t …”

“Mary, love, it’s alright. We need to get you inside somewhere.”

As if to prove him right, her whole body seemed to tighten in pain, she wrapped both arms around her middle, her eyes squeezed shut again, and she nodded emphatically. The man handed the innkeeper the coins hurriedly and moved himself out of the way of the gate to the main inn. “Thank you,” he said, grateful just to get his wife off the street.

Having already lost interest in the pair already, David moved to close the gate. “I think there’s a horse blanket out there for bedding.” He closed the gate and headed inside to prepare for his important guest.

Joseph started leading the donkey up a well-worn track on the property toward the smallest, furthest barn. Mary puffed out a long breath as her discomfort passed for the moment. “I suppose a barn is the best we can do.”

Joseph kept his current thoughts on that subject to himself. When they got to the barn, Joseph arranged some straw into what might make for a soft place for his wife to rest, and spread his traveling cloak over it. There was a horse blanket, but it looked like it could get up and walk away on his own. He helped Mary lower herself onto the makeshift bed. She smiled up at him, as if some secret knowledge had once again found its way into her heart.

“We must trust that He has a plan,” she said with subdued confidence, then gasped with a sharp pain.

“We’ve trusted so much already, my love, I feel that’s a muscle I’ve nearly worn out.”

Even through the pain, she smiled more brightly. “It’s almost time. You’ll see.”

Kneeling down next to her, as a deep serenity came over her expression, he supposed he would.

∞∞∞

Outside, an angel settled in to watch, silent and invisible. She found herself almost questioning the command not to smite every one of the horrible greedy men who turned away two of their own people in desperate need for something as base and common as simple money. She was intent on making sure no other indignities befell her charges.

From the main building, a figure bustled across the courtyard, arms piled high with a cumbersome bundle. It was a woman, framed in the glow of the now well-lit inn, mumbling and cursing under her breath. Armisael turned her attention to this woman as it became clear she was heading to the little barn.

The angel let her pass. The bundle held clean blankets and linens, food, a wineskin and a bladder of water warmed on their hearth, cloths for the birth and to swaddle an infant, some salt to rub down the child and prevent infection. Anything the couple might need. She was livid with her husband and murmured to any power listening that he ought to be struck with some very personal boils. Armisael smiled. She thought she could arrange that. At least one of the bastards could suffer for letting her charges come to such a state at such a critical time. Although, she did understand the need to conform to prophecy for the purposes of this endeavor. No one had told her she had to like it.

“Kinda says a lot about your Boss, doesn’t it? That this is how He leaves His kid … or is it Himself … to come into this world. I’m kind of fuzzy on this whole three-way thing.”

Armisael jumped in surprise and hated herself for it. It was shameful for her, an Angel of the Lord, to be startled by a human, especially since she should be invisible. But this human had spent thousands of years working magic, causing trouble, so it wasn’t any wonder the rules didn’t apply to him. She smoothed her robes as she regained her composure, very much on her dignity.

The smirking man, dressed like a Roman but not Roman in the slightest, just laughed. “You’re a might jumpy for an angel,” he observed.

Armisael cursed herself when she observed the simple magic that had let him approach without detection. They should have known he’d pull something like this and prepared for it. “Cain,” she greeted tersely. “To what do I owe this annoyance?”

“Oh, I ain’t here for you, sweetheart.” He grinned at how her jaw clenched. “I’m just here for the show. To witness the casus belli.”

“Pardon me? This is no such thing.” Her eyes flashed with indignance and a spark of anger.

“Sure it is, sweetheart. This is why y’all had your little family squabble, ain’t it?”

“It’s not that simple, Human.”

Cain’s eyebrows went up, not in agreement, but in something that might have been amusement, or an understanding he wasn’t willing to share. “With Him, it never is. But all I was sayin’ was you’d think He’d provide for His Son or Self … or whatever the Hell. Like I said, the whole three-way thing has me confused … Since it’s just Him and all.”

“Trinity,” she bit out.

“Yeah, I know Trinity, what about her?”

“No, you arrogant ass. The Trinity. The three-parted nature of the Lord Most High. It’s called The Trinity. The Holy Trinity, in point of fact. One God in Three Divine Personages. You could show some respect and refer to it properly.”

“Now you’re just being pedantic. I like calling it The Holy Three-way.”

“Cain! My patience with your revolting nonsense is at its end. Just because my work is not usually of a bellicose nature does not mean I am unarmed. Leave. NOW!”

“Or what?” The smirk was teasing, baiting. She hated it.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. You could hear me if I just thought it. You can’t touch me. Daddy said so. When He had one of you toadies curse me. So, I say, leave or what?”

Her feathers ruffled, then smoothed. “Fine. Stay if you want.”

“Oh, I plan to.”

They were silent for a few minutes, watching the bustling activity now happening inside the little building in front of them. Finally, Armisael glanced at him. “How is it you’re so well dressed? I thought people were to run you out wherever you go.”

He shrugged. “Well, yeah, they used to. But I found a workaround.”

“Really? A workaround for an angelic curse sanctioned by God?”

“Well, now, it’s a funny thing, but one on one, small groups … I manage to get by just nicely.”

Her utterly smooth face creased. “How?” she demanded.

“Now that’s my little secret, sweetheart. And I ain’t tellin’.”

“Whatever,” she said with a dismissive roll of her eyes. She couldn’t believe this little twerp had bought up every room her charges might have found comfort, just to gratify some strange egotistical urge. Most likely just to prove he could do it. To let Heaven know, once again, that he didn’t give a damn what they thought or what their plans were. “Must be nice to live without a conscience.”

He put a theatrical hand to his heart. “You wound me, Armisael. I am right now, as we stand here, in the throes of deepest regret.”

“I somehow doubt that.”

He looked at her earnestly, eyes wide enough to make her believe he could suddenly be near tears. “No really, I am.”

He waited a beat, then his expression morphed into his familiar smirk. “Right now, I regret that I didn’t rent out that damned manger, too.” Her eyes went wide with fury, but he just waved, and turned away. “You have yourself a good night there, fancy bird.”

Cain whistled to himself as he walked away.

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Eighth Day of Fic-mas …

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Faerie Lights

Some of you know Ben Brody as the demon with a heart of gold in Always Darkest. Last Fic-mas we met the restless little boy as he once lived, deep in an ancient Scottish winter. This holiday season, we are visiting that little lad a few winters later, only to discover that wherever he goes, magic (and trouble) are likely to follow.

Caraid is pronounced Key-er-aid. Beathan is pronounced Bay’en; and Bean is a nickname for it. Teasag is pronounced Ch-eh-za. Hin is a Gaelic word for honey/sweetie. Osheen is pronounced just like it’s spelled, but Ben calls him Osh, and says it Ah-sh. Ashrays are small water spirits in Scottish mythology, and part of the faerie race. Hopefully the rest makes sense in context. While the Solstice isn’t until tomorrow, we want to wish you all, from us and from Ben, a Blessed Yule. 

 

“C’mon, Osh!”

“Beathan, no! Ma’ll skin me ’f I let you follow us!”

“Ach, she won’t know,” he protested.

“She knows everything! ‘Specially ‘bout you, Beanie.”

“Don’ call me that!” he said hotly.

Osh’s smile had the slightly mean-spirited affection only an older brother can have. “But that’s what she calls ye. Her wee Beanie bairn.”

Osheen found himself, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, flat on his back in the dusting of snow, being pummeled by his little brother, who despite his small size, packed one hell of a wallop.

“Ah! Ach, get off me!”

Osh had started the day by taking half the meat from his plate, had mussed his hair, stood between him and the hunt just because he had a sharp eye and a suspicious nature, and now he’d called him Beanie. So, Beathan didn’t even half listen. If anything, he took Osh’s protest as a sign he was winning the fight.

“Beathan, lay off Osheen this instant,” came an unsurprised voice from the nearest doorway.

Undeterred from beating some sense into his thickheaded, mean as a badger brother, Beathan kept up his assault, but growled, “He. Started. It,” between smacks.

Osh, to his credit, was not hitting back, rather, he was deflecting the blows as best he could and pretending to laugh, even though it was starting to hurt. Beathan was a good bit younger but had a wiry strength and tenacity that everyone was starting to mark. They wouldn’t be able to keep him out of the men’s business much longer no matter what their mother wanted.

He looked over pleadingly at Drustan’s wife, Cinnie, the only one who could get Beathan to calm down when he was in a temper, and said, “I caught him followin’ an’ he was tryin’ to get me to help him sneak off on the hunt.”

She came over and bent down, grabbing him under his arms, picking him up, and setting him on his feet.

“Le’me go, then!” He squirmed, finally managing to pull away.

He stepped back from Osh to make it very clear he had no intention of beating the snot out of him again. He also sidestepped out of his sister-in-law’s reach. He didn’t need Cinnie being all handsy on top of yelling at him. She knew he hated that.

He was still mad enough to spit, but he also knew once Cinnie stepped in, the fight was over, and it was time to make nice or he’d have some unpleasant chore on his shoulders. He’d finally passed off the damned goat on one of the cousins and he didn’t want her back. Determined to get himself out of this, he made his expression appropriately contrite.

“Sorry, Osh.”

Osheen picked himself up off the ground and dusted off the seat of his deerskin pants. He could get himself in trouble with Cinnie right now just as easily as Bean if he wasn’t kind. And he had sort of started it, first thing this morning, he supposed. “S’alright, Bean … Beathan. I was teasin’ ye. I shouldn’t’a. I know ye want te come with us.”

“I’ve taken down deer before,” he grumbled.

“Ye’ve helped,” Osh observed. “Boar are different.”

Cinnie squatted down in front of him. “Bean, I tried.” Somehow the nickname wasn’t as grating coming from Cinnie. Then again, it never would occur to her to call him Beanie anymore. He’d told her he didn’t like it once, and that was all it had taken. “But yer parents still think yer too young, at leas’ for huntin’ boar, mo a bhobain.”

Calling him her darling rascal was about the quickest way to get a smile out of Bean short of tickling him, and the endearment didn’t result in him not speaking to her for a day and a half. She wasn’t disappointed when he cracked his shy little smile, dimpling his round cheeks.

“I’ve near seven summers now,” he protested around the pleased grin.

She didn’t point out that having just passed his sixth was not nearly seven by anyone’s reckoning. “I know, love, but yer mother has the final say, doesn’ she?”

“Da’ said maybe I could …”

“An’ she said no when she found out what they were goin’ after, didn’ she? He’s a wise enough man not te argue with her or go agains’ her word. Are you wise enough te be Donal’s son?”

“Go on with ye then,” he grumbled at Osh.

“I really am sorry ye cannae come, Beathan.”

He shrugged his narrow shoulders and waved off his brother. He was so angry he wanted to cry. But that was no way to get taken on any kind of hunt any time soon and missing this one was bad enough. So he wisely kept his mouth shut. Osh took off running to catch up to the men.

Cinnie noticed the carefully concealed trembling of his chin and the way he was biting his lip. She smiled fondly. “I’m startin’ the sorrel soup, hin. Would ye like ta help with the cookin’?”

Usually the prospect of hanging around the fire and getting to glean extra food cheered the little fellow right up.

He dug a toe into the cold dirt and shrugged. “I guess.”

“Where are yer boots? An’ please don’ tell me ye’ve traded ‘em with Rabbie again.”

“No, he hasn’ had anythin’ worth tradin’ fer in ages. He’s in some trouble, I think.”

She smiled. “Well, then. Where are they?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. Home?” He waved vaguely up the track toward the center of the small village.

Cinnie shook her head. “Come along then. Let’s get ye in by the fire for a bit. Did ye eat this mornin’?”

They started inside her house. The hearth was surrounded by Beathan’s nieces, all busy with something. Even Teasag, who was just toddling around, had a spoon. He grinned broadly at her and plopped down on the floor, so she could come over and sit in his lap.

“I had some oats,” he finally answered. “Osh took most of my meat though.” Teasag rapped him on the head with the spoon, but instead of getting upset he took the spoon with one hand and rubbed the little lump that was already forming with the other. “Ow! No. No hittin’.”

His voice wasn’t even sharp. He was still so little himself, but he was more patient with the younger ones of the clan than most of their mothers, and most especially with Teasag, who was a bit of a terror.

Cinnie smiled again. Lost food was probably more behind his flash of temper than anything to do with the hunt. She deposited a few honey sweets on the floor next to him. His face immediately lit up. “Thanks!” he said, already cramming two into his cheek.

He played with the energetic toddler to keep her out of the way for a while. He also ate all the sweets and every scrap of meat Cinnie offered. When he kept stealing spoonsful of mulled mead out of the kettle, she decided he was bored enough to start getting himself in trouble. That was no way to send him home to his mother.

Without turning from her work, mostly because he was sharper at reading facial expressions and true intentions than the wise woman, she casually said, “I wonder if the lads will remember the mistletoe …”

She could hear his frown when he replied, “Drus’ tol’ me Angus’ll get it.”

She paused thoughtfully. “He’s hardly one to trust with somethin’ so important. He can barely be counted on to bring home garlic instead a dropwort.”

Beathan snorted laughter. “He’s too busy chasin’ after Sorcha to know good herb from bad.”

“Seems to me the lad who spends half his time with Daira, who knows plants and their lore better than anyone in the family, ought te be charged with the task. Ye did such a fine job las’ time ye went out for it.”

“Ach, ma was all in a snit that I got home after dark last time,” he shrugged.

“Well, ye’ve learned a bit since then, haven’ ye, Bean?”

“‘Spose I have,” he nodded sagely.

She glanced at him and flashed a smile. “Why’n’t ye go have a look ‘round and see if ye can find a nice bunch for the feast, lad? If we leave it te Angus we’re as like to have wolfsbane as mistletoe.”

Beathan found the idea so funny he fell back on the floor laughing. Teasag got a good handful of his blond hair and gave it a playful yank. “Ow!” He sat back up, prying her fingers out of his shaggy waves. Then he got to his feet. “I think I will. Don’ want ole Gus ruinin’ it for everyone.” He snickered to himself again. “Only eye he’s got is fer girls.”

“Ye don’ think you’d ever get distracted from yer work by love, Bean?”

“No! Well …” he trailed off thinking about it. “Maybe if she liked ta fight an’ hunt an’ … if she was really pretty.” He blushed and looked at his feet.

Cinnie laughed and ruffled his hair. He made at ducking away, but it was a half-hearted effort. He turned to go, pausing to wave at Cinnie and the girls.

As he went to slip out of their doorway, she called after him, “Go get yer boots before ye go off into the wood!”

Beathan sighed. He supposed she was right. He started up the path to his parents’ house and had every intention of getting his boots, but a black fluffy streak whizzed past him. “Caraid!” he shouted joyfully.

He hadn’t seen her in over a week. He’d been worried something had gotten to her. He sped off after her.

After a while, he found himself climbing up on the water barrel behind his uncle’s house. Caraid liked the roofs better than anywhere. Probably because the chimneys were warm, he thought. He levered himself up over the edge. “Caraid!” he called softly. “C’mon, now.”

He could see her peeking around the chimney. “C’mon then!” Nothing doing, said her face and posture. He sighed, then grunted with the effort of hauling himself up the rest of the way onto the roof.

He sat down cross legged, facing the chimney. “I’m goin’ te the woods. Ye should come. It’ll be fun,” he said like he was offering a treat. “Ye like the woods,” he said like she’d contradicted him somehow.

This time she did contradict him. He could just barely hear it, but a low growl rumbled deep in her throat.

“What’s wrong, girl? Ye can tell me.” Beathan moved to crawl toward her. She backed up against the chimney and hissed. “Daira says ye could talk if ye wanted te.” She growled again, then purred like she wanted to be petted. Beathan shook his head. “Well, if ye wanna be like that,” he huffed. “I’m goin’. Ye can stay here bein’ a numptie ‘f ye like. There’s nothin’ in the wood today that wasn’ there las’ week.”

Then he was thoughtful for a moment. Even if she wasn’t opening her mouth and using words, she seemed to be communicating pretty clearly. She didn’t want him to go to the woods.

Maybe she’d seen something. Maybe that’s where she’d been. Maybe he should stick to the edges or ask Rabbie to go with him, so he wasn’t alone. Something told him that was a wise idea. But … that wouldn’t be an adventure. That wouldn’t be fun.

He climbed off the edge of the roof, let himself dangle as far as his arms would let him, and dropped into the snow, narrowly missing the water bucket. He swore at the nearness of the dunking. He hated being cold. Being cold and wet was like some special torment nature had devised to try to teach him to look before he leapt. He was still resisting the lesson.

He debated the wisdom of going after his boots again but thought better of it. Who knew if Osheen had stopped long enough to tattle to their mother?

At least if he came back with mistletoe, he’d have that as a distraction. Angus was good for a lot of things, but as he and Cinnie agreed, plant lore, or even the basic growing of things, just wasn’t part of that. He was better at fixing things. An’ at gettin’ girls’ attention, Beathan snorted.

He ran across the meadow toward the wood, liking how the sun had warmed the grass and melted off the snow. It was hardly cold on his stubbornly bare feet.  He noticed about halfway between the edge of the village and the tree line, Caraid had started following him, and was catching up. He grinned. He knew she wouldn’t be able to stay away. She loved going into the woods with him. He guessed it was probably because she liked eating the squirrels, but that was okay. It still meant he had company.

He slowed to a jog from the flat out sprint he’d been keeping up. “Caraid!” he called to her merrily. “Ye came!”

He had about a second to be happy about it before she darted in between his feet and sent him sprawling. He hit with a force strong enough to knock the air out of him. He lay face down in the damp grass that was still vaguely crispy with frost, too, trying to get his breath back for long enough that it frightened him just a little. When he finally drew a breath deep enough to speak again, he swore at the cat. One of the good ones he’d heard his father use that always got him in trouble with his mother.

Caraid was only a foot from his face and just gazed into his eyes placidly. He would have sworn he heard a voice right next to his ear whisper, “I told you not to, silly boy.”

He got to his hands and knees, shaking off the unexpected spill, tossed a glare at Caraid, and climbed the rest of the way to his feet, cursing softly in his small-boy manner, while brushing himself off. “If ye don’ wan’ ta go, be gone with ye!”

He made the little hissing noise he used when she was trying to steal his food. Instead of taking off like she normally would have, she just fell into step beside him, almost hugging the side of his leg.

Beathan rolled his eyes and started picking his way along the tree line, his sharp vision trained to pick out the slightest indication of the white berries or clusters of leaves he was looking for. Caraid never strayed from his side, and after a while, he stopped minding that she kept tripping him up. He just adapted his stride, so she didn’t tangle him into meeting the ground unexpectedly quite so often.

The sun had climbed to its highest point in the sky when his demanding little stomach growled louder than Caraid when she was upset. He reached into the little cloth pack he always carried with him on his little adventure. “Stupid,” he chastised himself when he realized he’d left Cinnie’s without so much as a honey sweet.

He was hungry, without supplies, and he’d been hunting for mistletoe for hours. He huffed a frustrated breath. Being sent for mistletoe and coming home empty handed was no way to prove he was ready to join the men. Since the trees on the outskirts of the forest seemed determined to be stingy, he was going to have to venture in farther. The faster he got what he came for, the faster he could go home and get something warm to eat.

He started into the shadows of the trees and once again Caraid was at his ankles, hissing and spitting for all she was worth. He hissed back at her and shoved her away with as gentle a hand as seemed likely to give her the message that he’d had enough of her fussing. She backed off for a moment but before he’d taken another fifty steps, she was back, biting him hard on the back of his ankle.

“Ach, fer feck’s sake, ye mad cat! What’re ye doin’?” he shouted at her, shooing her away with a little more force this time. “What’s gotten into ye?” he grumbled, stopping just to make sure he wasn’t bleeding. He had plenty of light left in the day, but anyone with any sense knew the smell of blood could draw all sorts of unwelcome beasts out of the deeper, darker parts of the wood.

He wasn’t bleeding, so he supposed he might forgive her. She was a good cat, most of the time. He had another fleeting thought that there had to be a reason she seemed so dead set against this adventure, but he shooed it away like it was another ornery cat.

Before too long, he found a tree holding his prize, just out of his reach. Caraid was keeping her distance now, but she was still following him. “Don’ suppose ye want to be useful, instead of mad, an’ skin up there an’ get that fer me?” he asked.

He liked climbing trees, but he was tired, and hungry, and still a little grumpy with the cat.

She made a little purring sound, and he shook his head, grinning affectionately once again. “Well, there ye are,” he observed. “I knew my girl was in there somewhere under all tha’ crazy.”

She purred at him again.

Beathan quickly climbed up the lower branches of the hawthorn tree, got out the cunning little knife Cinnie had given him a couple of Yules ago, and cut a beautiful bundle of the precious plant. He tucked it into the sack where his food should have been, put away the knife, and climbed down.

As soon as he dropped down out of the tree, Caraid was winding between his feet again, now purring loudly and letting out little mews of satisfaction. He grinned down at her. “A’righ’, girl, let’s head home. If ye can keep out from under my feet, I’ll share my meat with ye.”

She meowed in apparent agreement.

They hadn’t walked far when Beathan stopped. “Do ye hear that?” he asked, tilting his head.

Caraid tilted her head too, and upon hearing the tiny sound of soft weeping that had stopped her boy, she hissed again and nearly tripped him.

Ignoring her completely, he started off in the direction of that sound. “Hallo! Hey there! Are you a’righ’?” he called out.

The small sound seemed to grow infinitely louder at his question. It was the sound of a small child crying real tears. Beathan was always the first to hop up when one of the littler ones was upset, so, of course, he sped up in the direction of the noise. Caraid kept up but didn’t trip him this time. He sensed she didn’t want to get chased off now.

In another fifty or so steps, they found themselves in a little clearing. It felt almost as warm as summer and was so bright, it seemed the snow flurries must have suddenly stopped, and the sun must have come out with a vengeance. The sound was still quite loud, but Beathan didn’t see anyone. Then, a sparkling little movement, that at first, he’d taken for sun dappling, caught his eye.

A child, a little girl, was sitting on the ground by a sapling. He shook his head like he needed to clear it. This little girl could not have been bigger than the palm of his hand. After a second, one of her tiny sobs was accompanied by the flutter of little wings that put him in the mind of a butterfly. She must be a faerie, he thought. Then he corrected himself. One of the fair folk. Daira had told him the fair ones didn’t take kindly to being called faeries even if you meant it nicely.

He knew all the stories of the wood, and none of them explained this little creature. She looked a bit like an ashray, at least as Daira had explained them, but there was no water anywhere about. Maybe he’d discovered something altogether new. He couldn’t wait to tell the wise woman. He’d have to stop at her cottage on his way home.

He stepped closer to the tiny girl. “Hey, now, it’s alrigh’.”

At his words, the tiny creature hopped to her feet, smiling brightly, just like there’d never been tears. She nodded at him. Looking more closely, he thought she looked a little older than Teasag, but not very much. Three or four growing seasons at most.

“Do ye need help?” he asked.

She nodded earnestly, and her little wings flapped, bringing her to eye level with him. She smiled at him and something about it made him drop back a step, but then she beckoned with one hand and started flying off toward the deeper, darker parts of the wood.

Never able to turn away from a child who needed help, little Beathan started after her, now totally ignoring Caraid’s hisses and attempts to tangle his feet. He’d figured out how to move around her over the last several hours.

The tiny faerie girl flitted from tree to tree, and Beathan kept up for all he was worth. “Hey, what do ye need? How can I help?” he kept asking, trying to get her to talk to him, and so focused on the possibility of an answer, he lost track of how far into the woods they were traveling.

Soon they found themselves in another clearing. The tree on the far side had a big knot in it that looked almost like a cave. The little faerie girl lighted on the edge and beckoned to him to follow. He looked around. Caraid was nowhere in sight. A grown-up could never get in there, he thought. But someone his size could easily follow her.

Beathan was often impulsive, and more often than not it was to his own detriment, but he was learning at Daira’s knee, and he did have a reasonably keen sense that he didn’t want to get hurt, or worse. “Nah, I can’ little fair one. I’m sorry. I’ve got te get home with the mistletoe.”

The tiny girl shook her head vehemently, beckoning again.

“I really hadn’ better,” he said. “You’re home now, right?”

She nodded, then she made the sort of face that told Beathan that’s where the trouble was. She waved for him to follow her more energetically this time.

“I said I cannae go with ye. Are ye daft?” Daira would skin him alive if he followed one of the fair folk into a tree. Even if it was just a baby faerie.

She fluttered over to him, dancing in front of his face, making little sobbing noises again. Well, that was a bit different. What if she really did need the help of one of the big folk? He’d heard stories like that, certainly. “Ye have te tell me what ye need first,” he said wisely.

She shook her head, tossing her little curls in a way that reminded him acutely of his smallest niece.

He reached out to her, thinking if he could get her to be still for a moment, she might have to speak to him. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” he barked, snapping his hand and hearing little droplets of blood spatter on the leaves. “Ye bit me!”

She smiled at him again and this time he dropped back several steps. Her teeth were sharp, like a wolf, and suddenly she looked older, like a woman even.

This fanged and flying beast grabbed the front of his tunic in her tiny fists and started dragging him toward the hole in the tree. He dug in, fighting with all his might, trying to gain purchase on the ground with his feet, or swat her away with his hands, but nothing he did even slowed their progress.

The gaping cave, for that is what it most certainly was, that led to one of the realms of the faeries, began to glow, a hot, red, burning color that made the little boy’s blood run cold. “No!” he shouted.

He was almost to the lip of the cave, that seemed to have grown to swallow him up, when Caraid leapt out of the cursed tree itself, planting all four paws in the middle of his chest, and knocking him over backwards.

His head struck a stone on the ground with a heavy thud. Just as his eyes were fluttering closed, he got the distinct impression that Caraid had pounced on the creature. The last sounds he heard as he drifted out of consciousness were the wet smacking noises of a cat having a good meal and a deep contented purring.

∞∞∞

When Beathan’s eyes opened again, he found himself in front of Daira’s hearth, lying on her softest animal skins and wrapped in warm blankets. His finger was throbbing, but neatly bandaged. His head felt rather like he’d run it straight into the stone wall of his house a few times and then perhaps been beaten with a wooden spoon the size of the old goat.

He groaned and rolled onto his side to sit up but couldn’t quite get there on his first try.

“Well, now, there he is,” came Daira’s soft, pleasantly husky voice.

He looked up and his ancient, wrinkled friend was smiling down at him, holding out a steaming cup. He made a second attempt at sitting up and found it easier this time. He reached out for the proffered cup, took a tentative sip, and spat its contents out in an irritated spray. “Ye tryin’ te poison me, are ye?”

“It’s headache powder. Ye need it with that lump ye’ve got. Drink it, an’ no whinin’, lad,” she said.

Her tone said it was better not to argue. He held his nose with one hand and tipped the contents of the cup into his mouth with the other, trying to get it down in one swallow. He pulled a terrible face. “Ach, what’s in it? Bear piss?”

“Mind yer mouth, young man.” She was smiling when she said it. “It’s a bit a magic. Have ye feelin’ right as rain in no time.”

He handed her the cup. “Magic ought te find a way te taste better,” he groused.

She just smiled and watched him for a while. He stared into the fire for a bit, looking like he might go back to sleep, but as the contents of the cup worked through him, he slowly looked more like himself. It had tasted like death to Beathan, but after the tea, his head quickly seemed to feel better, and his faerie-bitten finger stopped its relentless throbbing. Finally, he looked up at her again.

“How’d I get here?” he asked, remembering how deep in the woods he’d been.

“I don’ know, Ben,” she said softly. He grinned. She’d called him that since he’d come home two winters ago and told her the story of his strange encounter with the Cailleach Bheur. No one else believed him, but Daira always did. “I foun’ you asleep on my stoop with yer cat pacin’ circles around ye.”

He looked around a little wildly then. There she was. Caraid lay just off to his side, sleeping contentedly, and purring while she did it.

“Why don’ ye tell me what new adventure ye’ve had today,” she said, sitting down on the skins next to him, and handing him another cup which he glared at for a minute, but was pleasantly surprised to find this one was some minty sort of tea with lots of honey in it when he finally worked up the nerve to take a drink.

As he sipped the beverage that warmed him all the way to his toes and seemed to ease his small hurts even more and relayed to events of the day, Daira listened attentively. “An’ then the cursed thing bit me!” he exclaimed indignantly.

She laughed. “Well, what do ye expect faeries te do?”

He laughed, too. His head didn’t hurt anymore, and as he finished his story, he peeled the bandage off his finger and there didn’t seem to be any evidence some insidious monster from the trees had nipped him like a rat. “An’ then Caraid knocked me over an’ I hit my head. I don’ know, but I think she might have … might have eaten it.”

“Because she’s a good cat.” Caraid lifted her head and meowed. “An’ a pretty cat,” Daira affirmed, reaching out to pet the cat once again.

“She is that. She’s the best cat.”

“She is, indeed, little Ben. She saved her wee little man’s life today, I do believe. If one a the fair folk bites, they’ve a taste for flesh. That’d not have ended well for ye, lad.”

He shook his head solemnly. “I’m never doin’ anythin’ she tells me’s a bad idea again.”

“How’s yer head now, boy?”

He thought about it. “S’good.”

“Well, then, ye ought to be gettin’ home with that beautiful mistletoe I foun’ in yer pack, lad. It’s gettin’ late.”

His eyes widened. “It’s not dark is it?”

“Very near. But I’ll walk with ye and explain ye’ve had a fall.”

He shook his head. He’d catch all sorts of trouble if they thought he’d been doing something somewhere he shouldn’t have.

“Now, no one’s goin’ to be upset with ye, Ben. Ye’ve been helpin’ me mosta the day, haven’ ye? No one’s goin’ to get after ye for gettin’ hurt doin’ me a good turn, are they?”

He grinned. Daira understood. He couldn’t go home and tell them about the fair ones. They still teased him about his tale of his encounter with the Cailleach Bheur. “I s’pose not.”

She rose like a much younger woman and helped the little fellow to his feet. Caraid got up and stretched and followed them. “In fact, I suspect ye’ll get a hero’s share of the feast, little Ben. Wounded in the line a duty and comin’ home with such nice mistletoe an’ all.”

He grinned hugely. “C’mon, Caraid. I’ll share!”

They set out to walk the short distance to Ben’s home.

Caraid followed, purring loudly. And if someone had looked closely at her face, they might have, just for a moment, thought that it was strange for a cat to wear such a smug smile.