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.

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. 

 

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. 

*****

 

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

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

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um … That’s not him.”

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

“Um … about that…”

“Spit it out, boy!”

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

“Nonsense!”

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

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

“Look,” Ben repeated. “You’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’d better!”

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

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

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

“Loki,” Odin warned.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know this demon?” Odin demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Father, I only thought…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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.

 

 

 

Merry Fic-mas Eve!

ficmas

It’s that time of year again. Our favorite holiday tradition is here.

Can you call something you’ve only done once before a tradition?

Sure. Why not?

We had so much fun challenging ourselves with last year’s Twelve Days of Fic-mas, we decided to make it a thing. Which as our favorite Time Lord will tell you is like a plan, but with more greyness.

So, the Twelve Days of Fic-mas is back! Twelve original stories (we are literally writing as you read this) that celebrate the festive spirit of the holidays, hearth and home, and occasionally the darker side of the season. This year you’ll see familiar faces if you’re a fan of the Always Darkest Universe, some friends returning from last Fic-mas, and maybe a few surprises. We hope you’ll join us on this year’s fictional adventure.

If you’d like to check out last year’s Twelve Days, the rough drafts are still up here on the blog, or you can pick up a copy of our polished up collection (lovingly beta read by some of the universe’s biggest super heroes and best friends) over on Amazon at http://mybook.to/12daysoffic-mas.

New readers, welcome! Old friends, welcome back! And Merry Fic-mas!