Witness Protection

I’m loving the snow on the ground. To me, it just epitomizes this time of year. So, even though I posted this story a while ago, I figured it might be fun to revisit it.

I hope 2015 has kicked off to a fabulous start for everyone=)

Witness Protection

Wind howled around the eves from the time the sun went down to just before it rose. The cabin was solid enough to take the beating but Gwen lay awake listening to the banshee scream.

Then it went still and left her ears ringing. She stretched, groaning as the chill sept into the covers.

Get the fire going. Awe no! I forgot the water. Gwen rubbed her forehead as she slid out of bed. She pulled on her wool socks before touching feet to floor. Even still, the cold bit through to make her toes ache. Donning more layers than just her wool underwear, she even added her cloak after watching her breath cloud around her face.

Then she set to lighting the kindling she’d prepared the night before in the hearth. Sweet warmth built from the small flames. Gwen sighed with an ‘ah’ as she held her hands close. She rubbed her fingers until they turned red and then shoved them into her mittens. Last she wrapped her scarf around the lower portion of her face.

Water. 

Leaving the cabin exposed Gwen to the brutal cold but she’d forgotten to fill the water the day before. Brant left her oatmeal. She needed water to eat. He hadn’t apparently considered how cold the next month would be when he set her up at the cabin.

Making her way to the river was a slow process. The wind pushed the snow into drifts and each step sunk Gwen up to her knees in the crusty white.

Snow was supposed to be powdery. Gwen had always thought so but not here. Here it froze so solid that each step dented in a small crater with a crunch.

Nearing the river, she slowed and tapped the snow ahead with the water bucket. After three taps, the snow slid and was swept away by the river.

She learned her first day at the cabin that the wind shoved the snow-turned-solid-ice into a berm over the river. She’d fallen through the berm into water so frigid it’d taken her a good thirty seconds to convince her lungs to draw breath. Then it’d taken a whole day to warm herself by the fire in the cabin.

She’d used too much wood that day. Now she was rationing it. Curse Brant for not educating her on the dangers of the mountain cold. She would just melt snow for water instead of going to the river but melting snow required more wood. Curse Brant again. One mistake and now she feared freezing before Brant returned for her.

He had to return for her. No one else would look for her here. That was kind of the point. But now she feared being left, forgotten. She was just an asset to Brant, nothing more. If, for some reason, he no longer needed her to testify, would he come back for her? She couldn’t say. She didn’t really know the man.

Drawing water, Gwen set the bucket on the bank beside her and watched the horizon as the sun peeked over.

That was the one thing she loved about this place. Those first rays of sun touched the snow with gentle fingers, making it sparkle, pristine and untouched. It made her heart ache that something so beautiful could exist without being seen by most souls.

She’d never seen it herself until Brant left her here. He’d acted like this place was the most natural, common place in the world. Perhaps, for him, it was. He was, after all, the King’s ranger.

The King tasked him with hiding her, the only witness to the theft of the crown, until the man she’d named as guilty was found. Brant guessed it’d take a month, at most.

Gwen sighed. This was her fourth week. She’d marked out the days on a piece of firewood.

Being a noblewoman, she’d never spent so long with only her thoughts. Her thoughts scared her. Was she always so superficial?

Probably. After a month to consider, she could admit it. At least to herself. Sighing, Gwen started and scrunched her face.

“Not again!” Her breath had frozen to her brows and lashes. It was the one drawback to covering her face with a scarf. If she sat too long, her breath was directed up against her face and froze to any exposed hair.

Picking up the water, which had already formed a fine crust of ice, Gwen rubbed her face with one mittened hand to break the frost from her brows as she retraced her steps to the cabin.

It probably wasn’t much warmer inside but to Gwen it felt like a toasty bath, just lacking steam.

Breaking the crust of ice, she poured water into the kettle and added a piece of wood to the fire. She warmed the water just enough to make the oatmeal bearable and then sat back to eat breakfast.

When she went home, she swore she’d never touch oatmeal again.

***

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGwen added her cloak on top of the bed that night. Two more days. She’d give it two more days. If Brant didn’t return by then, she’d head out on her own.

The wind started its howl just as sleep was pulling her under. She started at the shrieking and then flopped back, groaning. After a month, she should be used to the high keening around the eves. She wasn’t, though. It made her ears ring something fierce every morning after listening to it all night.

Finally a light sleep pulled her under but the howl crept into her unconscious mind.

A banshee chased her through the snow, hissing and spitting as it clawed its way closer. Snow, crusted hard, crunched into deep craters beneath her running feet. Crunch, crunch, crunch, thunk.

Gwen bolted upright.

The door.

She rolled just in time to avoid the man who’d barreled into the cabin.

She knew who he was without seeing his face. She’d never seen another person with ears like his. Floppy lobes due to gauging, which elongated his already long ears. They framed his face like he was part elephant.

She’d described all of that for the King but apparently it hadn’t been enough for here was the thief, not the ranger.

Hitting the floor on hands and knees, Gwen darted for the hearth where a metal poker leaned. She didn’t make it.

The thief caught her ankle and yanked her back. Digging her nails into the wooden floor, she reached, while twisting and kicking, for something to fight with. Her fingers latched onto cold metal.

Swinging with all her strength, Gwen slammed the water bucket against the man’s head. The water sloshed across the floor and the bucket hit with a crunch. Thudding to his knees, the thief groaned. He released her ankle to hold his head. Gwen snatched her cloak from the bed, shoved her boots on and raced out the door as it swung in the wind.

He’ll kill me.

But so would the cold.

As soon as Gwen left the cabin’s walls, the buffet of wind almost knocked her over. It whipped her hair across her face in angry gusts from the east.

Can’t stay exposed.

One hand to the cabin wall, she struggled around to the west side. Stepping into the windbreak from the cabin, she glanced back. Even with the dark and the blowing snow, she could tell her foot prints were gone. One plus to the insane weather.

But the windbreak of the cabin wouldn’t keep her from freezing. Already her fingers were numb to the point she could barely hold her cloak around her shoulders.

She couldn’t wander out from the cabin either. Between the dark and the snow, she’d be lost and dead long before morning.

Bury myself it is then.

She’d heard of people surviving storms by digging snow caves and hiding inside. She’d scoffed at the stories. A snow cave couldn’t possibly be warm enough to keep a body alive, could it?

Hopefully the stories were true. They were her only option unless she wanted to go back and face the thief. She’d broken his nose. She was sure of it, but that hadn’t knocked him out. He’d be after her soon.

Kneeling, Gwen dug into the drift of snow at the corner of the cabin. She used the edges of her cloak to protect her hands but even still, the exertion warmed her and it was enough to tell her hands were taking a beating.

Finally, having a large enough hole to fit her body into, Gwen packed the walls until they were slick and then curled into the small cave.  It wasn’t comfortable or warm but in comparison to the outside, it was protected.

Gwen’s hands throbbed. Folding her cloak and hood tight to her skin, she tucked her hands into her arm pits where her core could keep them bearably warm.

She lay shivering as she tried to gauge how late the night was. How long before morning? She didn’t really have a way to tell although the wind always died down before sunrise. She hoped it’d died down soon.

Something dripped onto her cheek. Gwen frowned and touched the roof of her cave. Her fingers came away wet. The roof was slicked with a fine layer of water from her body heat. As her hands searched, she found a point where the water was collecting. Packing the point smooth, Gwen shifted her cloak some to keep her dry.

Brant gave her the garment when he left her. He said at the time that a water resistant cloak lined with fur could mean life or death out here. She’d chuckled, thinking she wouldn’t be here long enough to need it. Now she could kiss him for it…or stab him for not catching the thief.

Shivering continued to rack her body. She clamped her teeth closed but that only kept her teeth quiet. It didn’t keep her body from shuddering.

Curse men altogether.

It was a man who stole the crown. Then it was a man who ordered her ‘kept safe.’ Then a man who dumped her out here and called it good.

If a woman had been the thief, she would have had the courtesy not to be seen. Or if the Queen decided on ‘safe,’ if would’ve involved joining her ladies-in-waiting, not trudging to a cabin in the middle of no where.

Her thinking wasn’t fair but while she shivered in the night and listened to the wind, she didn’t care.

***

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe wind died down and the silence woke her. It was that time of morning just before the sun rose when the air was brittle with cold and eerily quiet.

Crunch.

Gwen sucked in a breath and held it.

Crunch.

The sound of a slow step in the crusted snow. The thief was up and moving.

Crunch.

He wouldn’t know she stayed by the cabin, would he? Perhaps he thought the night and cold killed her. It should have. Her, a noblewoman, with no knowledge of the frozen mountains.

Crunch.

The sound was way too close. Gwen couldn’t move.

Her cave crumbled as he pulled on her cloak. The thief had the edge of the garment in his hand. He yanked again and Gwen cried out as he reached for her.

Her arms and legs ached, screamed at her as she flailed after being curled in a ball for hours.

He yanked a third time and the cloak slid from her shoulders.

Gwen stood and spun away but had to brace a hand on the wall when her legs protested. Bloody hand prints trailed the wall, leading right to her spot.

She shoved away and tried to run toward the river but her steps sunk her up to her knees until she was crawling and scrambling instead of running.

The thief yelled but she couldn’t, and didn’t really want to, hear his words. He was chasing her. With his longer legs, he was gaining fast.

Seeing the river ahead, Gwen stopped and crouched, turning as the thief reached for her.

She grabbed his extended hand and pulled. Caught off guard, he stumbled. He stepped once, then twice to regain his balance. Gwen braced her legs and shoved him past her.

He stepped onto the ice berm over the river. It held for a second before crumbling and then he disappeared into the river, windmilling his arms on the way down. He bobbed to the surface farther down with his mouth open in a silent shriek.

Gwen could relate to that feeling.

The thief caught on a rock down mid-stream.

“Now I’ve got to fish him out.”

Gwen shrieked and spun.

Brant stood there eyeing her.

“He’s your problem,” she said and then clamped her teeth together. Her body was still shivering. She couldn’t feel her feet and her hands felt like she’d grated them on a wash board. She flexed her fingers and finally figured out why she’d left bloody hand prints. She tore several nails in her struggle with the thief. Probably left grooves in the cabin floor.

“That he is. I’m glad he finally took the bait.”

“Bait? I was bait!” Gwen wanted to scream and yell and maybe hit him but all that came out was a lot of half words. “yo–cruel–why-” She gave up. She was railing at him in her underwear and shivering so hard she couldn’t keep her teeth quiet.

Spinning, she trudged back to the cabin for her clothes. She didn’t offer to help him retrieve the thief.

***

By the time Brant came in, he and the thief were both drenched and shivering with ice forming in their hair.

Gwen had built up the fire to thaw her frozen limbs and the cabin was toasty warm. She found the sled Brant must have hauled in. Half of it was covered with wood. The other half more food stuffs. He would have left her here as long as it took to lure the thief in apparently.

But he brought firewood, for which Gwen could almost forgive him his plans. Almost.

Seeing both men come back crusted with ice cooled her ire even more. They deserved the experience, both of them, and it was satisfying to see, but she didn’t begrudge them the warmth in the cabin either. It wasn’t like she wanted them dead.

The thief now had a crooked nose to add to his elongated ears. He sat in the corner of the cabin with his shoulders slumped and head down.

After a silent breakfast of oatmeal, Gwen helped Brant clean the cabin.

“Time to go,” he announced and then frowned at her. “Where’s the cloak I gave you?”

“Out under the snow,” Gwen announced, “where I spent the night while this man enjoyed the cabin.”

Brant finally had the decency to look sorry. “He was here all night?”

“Duh genius. Your master plan had a few glitches. Although I could kiss you for the cloak. It saved my life.”

He looked flabbergasted. Gwen’s day was looking up. She turned away to go find the cloak. She planned to enjoy one last morning of the sun sparkling off the snow before she returned home.

The End.

Blessings,

Jennifer

 

Toad Attack

I’ve received a request from a lovely young lady for a story about fairies. What a great idea! And I thought to make the story more whimsical, or maybe just goofy, than usual. Which brought to mind a snippet of a story a fiend helped me start years ago that I never finished.

So this story is dedicated to two wonderful ladies.

Jael – for such a great story idea! May your own writing and reading always be an adventure.

and

Marjorie – who gave me the image of Squirrel Ivan Van Hoven. Your imagination is delightful.

Now on to the story!

Toad Attack

Moira raced with the shadow of a bird. The red-feathered hawk flew above her, high in the sky with its wings stretched to catch the current of the wind. Flapping her wings as hard as she could, she tried to keep her own shadow inline with the bird’s as it flew across the ground, the trees, the brush.

The larger shadow paced ahead and was gone with a single flap of the hawk’s wings. Moira settled on a juniper bush and slumped. She’d never be fast enough. Her shoulders ached by what most fairies could do without exerting themselves. She’d been born too small to be of much use.

Miniature Moira. It was the term the others teased her with when she couldn’t keep up.

The wind played through the bush, swaying it beneath her feet. Maybe a moment with the wind would cheer her. Rising into the air, Moira hovered in the leaves of an aspen tree, enjoying the play of the wind across her wings and the smell of new leaves in the air. If she moved her wings just enough to flutter with the leaves, she could hold the position for hours. Too bad she couldn’t maintain speed that way.

A squirrel scampered into the field in front of her.

Moira sucked in a breath to call a greeting but then the air whooshed from her without sound. The squirrel clutched a small paper sack in one paw. He boasted two crooked front teeth and two hairs sticking straight up from the top of his reddish head.

When he pulled out the sandwich, Moira’s doubt disappeared. Squirrel Ivan Van Hoven, sworn enemy of anything with wings. He hated fairies for their ability to make non-winged creatures fly since he found it the cruelest choice of nature to make a flying squirrel—without wings.

Beside him on the log settled a toad the size of a rabbit.

“They’ll never see you coming.” The words sprayed from the squirrel’s mouth along with globs of boysenberry jam from his sandwich. He was obviously picking up on a conversation Moira had missed.

She shuddered, then stilled, as the squirrel looked her way.

“How many do you need?” the toad eyed the sandwich for the yellow bees stuffed between the slices of bread.

Moira held in another shudder. Boysenberries and bees on wheat. It was Squirrel Van Hoven’s trademark.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots.

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots.

“Ten or so,” he answered while catching a bee that escaped his bite and stuffing it back in between the bread.

Squirrel Van Hoven had launched an attack against the fairies six months before. He’d allied with mosquitoes then but had been thwarted by netting the fairies made from moss.

The toad was new. She’d never heard of the squirrel working with toads but that wasn’t important, their plan was.

“You’re sure?” the toad croaked.

“Positive. Ten fairies for their wings. You produce that and you can have my stash of bees.” He held out the sandwich as proof.

Ten fairies. It was the perfect number. Mixed with a few other choice ingredients, the wings would make Squirrel Van Hoven float…indefinitely.

The toad’s tongue flicked across his narrow lips and he rumbled a croak deep in his throat.

“Done,” he said. With one bound he was back in the trees and gone from sight.

Squirrel Van Hoven bit into his sandwich and chewed slowly. He caught a blob of jam escaping from the back of the bread. Instead of licking his paw clean, he spit on it, and then he pulled back and pitched the jam at Moira.

The sticky mess splattered the leaves and her wings and weighed her to the ground.

“Spying?” Squirrel Van Hoven chuckled. “Fairies make poor spies. You glitter your dust with every flap of your wings.” His crooked toothed grin was smeared with jam. “Good luck warning your friends. That jam won’t come off for days.” Cackling and dripping jam, he scampered from the clearing.

Moira pulled a wing around to inspect the damage. Her fingers stuck to the gossamer.

“Ich!” She tried to pull free but whatever Squirrel Van Hoven used in his jam glued her fingers to her wings. “No, no, no…” she muttered. She had to warn the fairies of the toad’s attack but without her wings she’d never make it home in time. She’d barely make it in time even if she left right away.

“Spit on it.”

“What?” Moira didn’t see anyone near her.

“Spit on it.”

Her eyes swung to the ground. In a glob of jam dropped from the squirrel’s sandwich was a bee.

“How do you think he eats the stuff without gluing himself to everything?” the bee asked.

“His spit?” Moira recoiled.

“Any spit will work.” The bee worked on his own body, spitting and working it into the jam stuck to his wings. Clearly it was working.

“Yuk,” Moira spit on her fingers. With a bit of work, her hands came clean but the damage to her wings was extensive.

“This’ll take forever,” she moaned, holding one wing carefully by the top edge.

The bee, done with himself, buzzed over.

“It is bad,” he buzzed. “I’ll find help.”

“No! Wait!” But the bee was gone. “Warn the fairies.” She said to the thin air. Her own problem was small compared to the squirrel’s plan.

Moira went back to cleaning her wings, spitting on her palms and working globs of jam out of the gossamer.

Mr. Squirrel Van Hoven certainly knew what he was about. By hitting her wings, he’d not only grounded her but stopped her ability to produce fairy dust.

Without the dust, she couldn’t float home either.

A particularly large spot of jam stuck a section of wing to the top of her shoulder.

Moira had almost worked it free when a hum reached her ears. It grew in volume until it droned, vibrating the air around her. The sky filled with yellow bodies and the bee from earlier landed in front of her.

“Brought a friend or two and half my cousins,” he said, gesturing at bees landing all around him.

“Go warn the fairies!” Moira shooed them away.

“Other half of the cousins have that covered,” the bee waved at the sky where a mass of others still flew.

“Oh,” she felt a tug and turned to find several bees spitting on her wings.

“You’re spitting on me!”

“You’ll smell sweet,” several buzzed back.

Moira couldn’t think of a response. Their legs as they worked felt like the tingles she got when she put her feet to sleep, except there was no pain, just tingle.

“There you go.”

The bees held out her wings and dust glittered in a cloud around them.

Several of them caught by it started to float without moving their wings.

“Oops,” Moira caught them before they floated away.

“The toads are coming!” The cry was faint, shouted by a tiny bee high in the air, but it caught everyone’s attention. “They’ve got boysenberry bombs!”

***

Leaf barriers, hastily woven together, surrounded the fairy trees. The bees brought their honey and were fast making bombs to slow the toad attack down.

“It won’t be enough,” Elder Leah worried.

Moira caught the elder’s hands to keep her from wringing them together.

“Why not?’

“The toads can move with honey all over them. We get hit once and we’re done. Even a shield gets weighed down after a single hit.” The elder did a double take at their hands. Using honey, Moira had helped the floating bees stick themselves to the back of her hands to keep them safe while the fairy dust wore off. “Why?” Elder Leah asked.

“Dust,” Moira shrugged. “Wait, dust.”

“What about it? The toads are too big to float.”

“But the boysenberry bombs aren’t.”

The toads pulled the bombs on carts behind them. They’d positioned the carts ten paces from the trees and were constructing catapults to launch the boysenberry globs. It was the only thing giving the fairies time.

The elder shook her head. “We can’t get to them. Flying over the toads would only make us better targets.”

Moira slumped. Twenty-three fairies would never overwhelm the toads.

“What about below ground?”

They both stared at the bee attached to Moira’s hand. “Below ground?”

“It’s not a great friendship, but we honey bees get along okay with yellow jackets and they build their nests below ground, particularly around you fairies because your dust makes great packing for their nests. There’s a nest in the field there.”

The elder shook her head again and Moira’s stomach clenched in disappointment. She was sure the elder’s reasons were good.

“We can’t fit in a yellow jacket’s nest. We’re too big.”

The bee buzzed a negative. “You’re too big. She’s not.”

“I’m not?” Moira said.

“I can’t ask one fairy to take that big of a risk.” The elder countered.

Moira’s stomach clenched harder. “I can do this,” she said. Why did the elder doubt her?

“I can’t ask you…”

“You didn’t. I volunteer.” Moira backed away before Elder Leah could respond. She didn’t want to hear reasons why she wasn’t capable. “Where’s this nest?”

The bee pointed and Moira slipped between the leaf shields. The spot the bee indicated was a small, slanted hole in the ground.

“I’ll fit?”

“It’ll be tight,” the bee released himself from the honey holding him in place and disappeared into the hole.

Moira chuckled. “It’s good to be small, it’s good to be small.”

Head first she crawled into the ground. With her body blocking the light, her surroundings turned pitch black but her ears picked

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots.

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots.

up on the whisper of words between her bee friend and someone else. As she continued forward, those words became clear.

“You want what?”

“Ju-just a quick passing through,” the bee stammered. “Just to where the toads stopped the cart.”

“That’s through the nest. Why should we trust you?”

“We’ve helped you in the past,” Moira spoke up. The ground pressed on all sides and her breath came in short gasps. She wasn’t sure how long she could stand this. “And the squirrel adds you to his sandwiches too.”

The last part she added as an afterthought but she knew it was true. Any bug with wings went into Squirrel Van Hoven’s sandwich but especially yellow bugs. She wasn’t sure why.

“This is an attack from Van Hoven?”

Moira nodded, hoping the yellow jacket could see her and she didn’t have to speak.

“That’s all we need to know,” the yellow jacket’s voice lowered to that angry buzz they always got right before they attacked.

Moira stiffened and jerked within the hole’s confines when the yellow jacket touched her outstretched hand but he didn’t sting her.

“Follow me,” he said.

Without light, Moira could only tell they entered the center of the nest by the change in texture around her. It went from hard packed dirt to something softer, like paper.

“Move carefully.”

She tried but the space was so small she could barely pull herself forward.

“This isn’t working,” the yellow jacket stopped in front of her. “Don’t move a muscle.”

Moira stilled. Movement was all around her and she didn’t want to anger the yellow jackets. A sting to a fairy was poison enough to kill. Stings from dozens of yellow jackets—Moira held in a shudder. Perhaps Elder Leah had a good reason to warn her away from this.

“Hold very still,” the yellow jacket said again. Something touched her arms, her legs, her torso and her wings. Then she was moving forward, being passed from one yellow jacket to the next through the center of their nest.

Moira closed her eyes and held her breath.

“Cool,” the honeybee whispered from somewhere ahead.

“Now you can move on your own. Just follow this tunnel till you reach the surface.”

“Thank you,” Moira whispered. She received dozens of buzzes in return.

Moving forward, she found the tunnel tighter than the other side. It felt like she couldn’t draw breath but there was sunlight up ahead. She was so close.

“Pull on my arm,” she told the honeybee.

His small legs grasped her hand and he pulled. She barely moved.

“Again.”

He heaved backwards and she slid closer to the light. A third pull brought her hand within touching distance of the opening. Threading her fingers into the grass above, Moira hauled herself free.

A deep breath filler her with relief.

The yellow jackets had steered her right. The hole brought her up underneath one of the carts.

“I can’t get to all the carts,” she realized.

“Don’t have to,” the bee whispered back. “Just float these ones and my cousin’ll take care of the rest.”

Moira was about to ask him what he meant when a brown toad turned their way. His catapult looked finished.

Scrambling from beneath the cart, Moira spread her wings and flew in circles over the boysenberry bombs. She’d never tried to produce the dust before but simply flapping her wings seemed to work.

The toad laughed deep in his throat. “They’re too big for you to carry,” he said as he approached the cart.

Moira kept moving but there wasn’t enough dust yet to float the bombs.

“Distract him,” she begged the bee. If the toad caught her, she’d never succeed.

The bee zipped away to fly in the toad’s face. He flew by once, twice, and then the toad swatted him from the air.

“No!” Moira resisted the urge to race to his aid. The boysenberry bombs were starting to lift. Rushing around them two more times, they floated into the air.

But the toad was close. He reached for a floating blob of jam just as a yellow blur zipped forward and shoved it into his face. It exploded all over the toad’s eyes and mouth.

“Ha!” the yellow jacket taunted. “Try to catch me now!” and he zipped away back into his hole.

The other bombs were well above Moira’s head by now. Several honeybees lumbered toward them, much slower than the yellow jacket but undaunted as they surrounded the floating bombs and directed them in the air. Hovering the bombs over the remaining carts, the bees shoved them downward to explode, sticking the cart and the bombs together.

Moira couldn’t help a laugh before she turned to find her friend who’d been swatted into the grass.

She found him a moment later, dazed and humming about the ‘Toad Attack” as he buzzed one wing and not the other.

“Is it broken?” She rushed to help him.

“Nope,” he buzzed, “just ruffled from being hit.” Closer inspection reassured her but she still stuck him to her hand again to take him to the healer. The bee didn’t seem right in the head.

“You did it,” the bee pointed around in a dizzy fashion.

Moira nodded. Without the bombs, the toads were leaving. They couldn’t break through the leaf shields or bring the fairies to the ground where they could be captured.

“Hero of the fairies!” the bee sang at the top of his lungs.

Moira chuckled. It was a good thing the bee had a small voice or his words would have been heard by the Elder Leah who was winging toward them. Even still, the words boosted her like dust and the wind. It felt good to accomplish something.

The End

Blessings and have a wonderful weekend,

Jennifer

Beauty Chapter Three

Some stories have a will of their own and continue to write themselves in your head even when you’re trying to move onto something else. Well, at least that happens to me sometimes=)

That’s what happened with this story. Although I meant to let it sit for a bit, it continued to run through my head, so hopefully readers don’t mind a new installment with Lila Dean.

For those who may not have read the first two chapters, here’s a brief summary:

Cliff Notes Ch. 1: Lila Dean’s a young girl who lost her mother in a fire and was horribly scarred, both physically and mentally, as a result. Now people just don’t look at her, so when a stranger approaches and asks her to steal the Roy’s ruby to help him save his daughter, she takes the chance to do something good.

But Billy Roy catches her in the theft. To her surprise, he doesn’t stop her, instead he trusts she’s doing it for a good reason. So when Lila Dean goes to give the ruby to the stranger, Michael, she questions his story and it falls apart. She realizes she’s been taken for a fool and runs away. Now she’s determined to return the ruby and make things right.

Cliff Notes Ch. 2: When Lila Dean tries to return the ruby, she arrives to find the town burning and the people taken captive. With the help of her father’s friend, Sheldon Lea, she helps her father and the Roy’s escape but must give up the ruby to the soldiers in the process. (If you’d like to read these in full, they can be found here: Chapter One and Chapter Two.)

Now on to Chapter Three. I hope you enjoy=)

Chapter Three

The soldiers started the fire but couldn’t contain it. They didn’t care as long as the flames moved eastward with the wind.

Lila Dean’s eyes burned with unshed tears. She wanted to yell, scream a warning to the villages in the fire’s path but she could do nothing but watch the orange glow from the ridgeline above town.

Over the angry orange and red hung a black so thick it blotted out any definition of the horizon, which should be glowing with the sunrise but wasn’t. Lila Dean shuddered and looked away from the mass of smoke.

Below her in the town, the soldiers were moving the town’s folk toward the mine in a single file line.

Sheldon Lea had been right, the soldiers were going to use the miners to keep the mine running and would take anything of worth that came from it. What they needed the wealth for she couldn’t guess. Didn’t want to guess.

Michael’s mention of war turned her insides like she needed to hurl.

“What’s happening?”

Lila Dean jerked. She hadn’t heard Billy Roy’s approach.

He settled on his stomach beside her and lifted Sheldon Lea’s looking glass to his eye.

Lila Dean looked away. She hadn’t been bold enough to ask to borrow the glass. Especially since the old spinster refused to look at her again.

But Billy Roy was the golden child. He probably didn’t even hesitate.

She stole a glance at him while he still looked below. His brown hair moved with the wind but everything else about him was still.

As he lowered the glass, she turned away, he’d settled on her right, her scarred side.

“They don’t have tools,” he muttered.

Lila Dean lifted her head. Without the glass, she hadn’t picked up on that small detail. She held out her hand and Billy Roy passed it over.

He was right. The tools lay lined up next to the mine’s entrance but the miners were not picking them up as they entered.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots.

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots.

“Why take everyone below without tools?” she asked.

Billy Roy shook his head.

Lila Dean panned out to view not just the mine but the camp and it’s cages below. There seemed to be fewer soldiers than the night before.

Those that were present carried boxes up toward the mine. Focusing in on the open boxes, Lila Dean’s stomach clenched so hard he fought bile in her throat.

“Explosives,” she backed away form the ridge, tearing into her arms.

“Dean?” Billy Roy followed, confusion pulling his dark brows together.

“Explosives, Roy!” she called over her shoulder, “they aren’t going to work the mine, they’re going to bury it.”

Billy Roy caught up to her and grasped her hand to pull her along faster. Lila Dean stretched her legs as far as she could to keep up but the burn in her scars made her stumble. She pulled her hand away.

“Go, I’ll catch up at camp.”

He nodded and soon disappeared between the trees. Lila Dean braced against her knees, gasping air.

What could they do?

Her heart beat against her ribs, both in fright and from exertion. She was coming to think more exercise would do her well even if the other kids never let her play.

If they ever played again.

Lila Dean fought to control her breath. When it was bearable, she took off at a run again and found herself heaving within seconds. When she finally reached the camp, she was puffing like a black smith’s billows.

“They won’t bury the mine.”

She sucked in air and held it. Had Sheldon Lea just contradicted them?

“They need the wealth from it. It’s basic strategy,” Sheldon Lea continued, not even acknowledging Lila Dean’s arrival. She let out her breath. It was supposed to be quiet but the air whistled through her throat. It prevented her from voicing her objection before Billy Roy spoke up.

“They’ve got explosives and they aren’t taking tools in!”

“I’ll take a look.” Her father held out his hand for the glass Billy Roy borrowed.

Lila Dean pulled it from her pocket.

“Here,” she said.

Her father took the glass as he passed her. No eye contact, no touch.

Lila Dean grabbed his arm. “It’ll take too long,” she said.

He still refused to turn his head. A muscle twitched in the corner of his jaw.

Lila Dean let go feeling as if her fingers burned. Tears threatened as Sheldon Lea followed her father into the trees.

She couldn’t let them see. Turning away from the Roys, Lila Dean blinked furiously. Now was not the time. Swiping the back of her hands across her eyes, she felt childish for still caring.

“She’s right,” Billy Roy said behind her, “we don’t have much time.”

Lila Dean gathered her skinning knife while she listened to them.

“They won’t bury the mine,” Marcus Roy repeated Sheldon Lea like a puppet.

“They will,” Billy Roy insisted. “They don’t need the money now.”

“Why not?”

“Doesn’t matter. They don’t need the mine.”

Billy Roy stood close to his father in height and with them toe to toe at the moment, Lila Dean couldn’t help but feel they were mirror images.

Lila Dean started from the clearing. There was no time for this debate either.

“Miss Dean.”

Her heart stuttered. Why did her father’s friends find it okay to acknowledge her when he wasn’t around? She considered walking away but the part of her mother she remembered wouldn’t allow it.

“Mr. Roy,” she responded and looked back at him over her shoulder, giving him full view of her scars if he chose to make eye contact.

He did. He had eyes like Billy’s but fringed with more lines and a shade lighter.

“Your father would never forgive me for letting you get captured. “

He was serious.

“My father doesn’t even know the color of my eyes.” She responded before walking away. The feeling of their eyes on her back made her skin itch.

“Billy!”

He caught up to her with his own knife hanging from his belt. It was all they had in way of weapons.

“We better hurry,” Billy Roy grasped her hand to pull her along but this time he didn’t push her to falling.

Behind them his father’s shouting still echoed in the trees.

“Why didn’t he stop you?” she asked. She’d never known Marcus Roy to be docile.

“Can’t catch me,” Billy Roy shrugged. “Old mine injury left him with a bad knee.”

Lila Dean didn’t ask more. She was puffing again and couldn’t get words past her dry throat.

“All right,” Billy Roy dropped her hand and turned to face her, “what’s your plan?”

“Back entrance—“

He twitched.

“I know it’s unstable but the soldiers won’t know—“

“The escape tunnel’s safer.”

Lila Dean was already shaking her head.

“Michael knows about it.”

“Michael?”

She glanced at Billy Roy’s throat where the knife had cut his skin. The wound was covered by his collar now but Billy Roy caught the hint. He touched his neck.

“Back entrance then.”

Unlike the escape tunnel, Lila Dean had never been to the back entrance. It was the mine’s original opening but when it became obvious the tunnel couldn’t be made stable, it’d been abandoned for another way.

Billy Roy didn’t hesitate in heading straight to it, though. Lila Dean thought about asking him about it but let it go.

“It’s a ways down before this meets up with the main shaft,” Billy Roy said.

Just inside the entrance they found several lanterns. It was the miners way to leave things behind but even still, the existence of the lanterns make Lila Dean glance around every so often just in case someone was following.

“An explosion might collapse this entire tunnel,” Billy Roy said ahead of her.

“We’ll have to move fast,” Lila Dean shrugged. She couldn’t think of another way and apparently neither could he because he didn’t voice any other options.

“Shutter your lantern.”

Lila Dean complied and they were plunged into darkness. With the lack of sight came the hyper aware hearing she always associated with miners.

The walls echoed with the scrape of hard boot soles on stone. Words like whispers mixed in, too faint to understand.

Lila Dean jerked as Billy Roy found her arm. Thankfully it didn’t make any noise.

“Soldiers,” he whispered. The word fanned his breath across her ear.

“You’re sure?”

“Different boots.”

Lila Dean accepted that. Billy Roy had been down here with his father a few times. He’d know better than she.

They waited. Lila Dean’s body hummed like a bowstring pulled tight. Billy Roy kept his hand on her arm and she clung to the contact to stay still. Her skin barely registered the touch. It was just pressure on her scars, but it was contact and he wasn’t shying away from what must feel very warped to his fingers.

She could hug him for not noticing, not pulling away.

“There they go,” Billy Roy released her arm.

Lila Dean strained to hear what he did and then she caught it, the movement ahead was fading.

“This way,” Roy’s voice drifted to her, pulling her back to their need to hurry.

She un-shuttered her lantern and rushed to catch up and had to side step to keep from running into him when he stopped suddenly.

“Fuse line,” he said, holding his lantern higher to show the lines bundled together at his feet.

“They are buying the mine.” Up till that point Lila Dean hoped Sheldon Lea was right.

“The ruby bought their deaths,” Roy sounded sick.

“Maybe not,” Lila Dean crouched and cut the lines, throwing the first half back up the tunnel to keep sparks from catching the second half.

She headed forward only to look back to find Roy not moving.

“Roy!”

He started. “Right.”

They kept going for another few minutes before other sounds started to reach them. Crying. Lila Dean picked up on the sobs.

“That’s Mary Mae,” she said.

“What?”

“She hiccups when she cries.”

Roy raised brow. Lila Dean shrugged. What else was she supposed to do when she couldn’t play with the others?

In the light of their lanterns, eyes reflected back, then groups of huddled people tied together.

Billy Roy rushed forward to release the first two miners. Lila Dean moved to the next ones.

Surprise lit their eyes, and then they looked away while she cut their cords. She paused. Still they wouldn’t look at her?

Biting her tongue, she cut their feet free. Her hands shook as she moved on to the next person but whether it was nervousness or fury, she couldn’t tell beyond the flush coloring her face.

Ungrateful. Stu-

“Men!” One miner called out. He was free of his ropes and stood at the edge of the lantern light. Lila Dean recognized him as a shift

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots.

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots.

supervisor but she couldn’t recall his name.

“Escape tunnel. Let’s go.”

Lila Dean froze.

“Wait. It’s not safe. Use the back entrance,” Roy called over the general noise.

The man scanned everyone but couldn’t place who’d spoken.

“Back entrance is unstable. Escape tunnel’s safer.” He called, and took off, leading ten or so people behind him.

“No!”

Lila Dean’s shout mixed with Roy’s but the word was lost as those still tied up yelled at those leaving ahead of them.

A touch to the back of her hand pulled Lila Dean’s attention back to the person in front of her. She’d stopped looking at them, just cutting ropes and moving on.

Her eyes met those of Mary Mae. The girl pulled her hand back like she’d been stung.

Lila Dean sliced her feet free and moved on.

“Thank you,” Mary Mae hiccupped.

Lila Dean’s heart skipped. Her throat tightened as she looked back at the girl. Mary Mae was beautiful. She was that girl, the one all the boys had eyes for.

At the moment her blue eyes were lined with red, her cheeks puffy from crying and her hair mussed, sticking up on one side.

She was still beautiful but the mess transformed her into someone approachable.

Lila Dean gave her a nod and pointed to where Billy Roy was explaining to the next miner about the back entrance. Mary Mae smiled, her lips quivering, and moved to join him.

Lila Dean moved down the line of people, her thoughts on those first ten that were now walking straight into the soldier’s explosion.

Her skin pricked, waiting for the concussion to the air of the first charges going off. She’d never been in the mine when explosives were being used and she didn’t want to be now.

Roy went back to cutting people free as the miner took over explaining the escape route to everyone. Lila Dean sighed relief. It was good Roy was with her because she doubted anyone would have listened if she’d tried to explain herself.

What had Roy told them about the escape tunnel? She couldn’t hear the miner’s words but whatever he was saying, no one was arguing.

They only had the two lanterns, so the miners formed groups to lead the town’s people by touch. They instructed the people to hold hands in a line with one miner in front, one in back and then the front man would lead them with his free hand on the left wall.

Lila Dean cut the last person free, marveling at the miner’s courage. The system wasn’t fast but it got everyone moving.

“We’ll take the last group,” Roy informed the miner directing everyone. He nodded and headed out.

Lila Dean joined the last group, wanting to yell at them when they glanced at her and then pointedly looked away.

“They won’t follow me,” she told Roy. She handed him his lantern and moved to the back with her own.

The woman in front of her hesitated to offer her hand. Lila Dean grabbed her right hand with her left, unscarred one.

“I’m not catching,” she muttered. Instead of hearing the woman’s answer, her ears rang and the ground jerked beneath her feet.

“Run!” Roy pulled them forward.

Lila Dean stumbled over rocks and the ground shook again but every one was stumbling, so she doggedly kept on.

They took the tunnel to the back entrance and the walls became less formed. Dirt rained on their heads.

There was a crack and the beam ahead sagged in the middle. They ducked it. Another crack and a whoosh of air and dust caught at Lila Dean’s back as the beam gave behind them. Light appeared ahead through the dust and dirt. They raced from tunnel to open daylight as another explosion shook the ground.

The woman dropped Lila Dean’s hand and turned away.

Roy led them away from the mine, catching up with several other groups along the way.

Lila Dean trailed behind. Their rejection burned at her throat. Before she’d always expected it but somehow she’d thought saving them would earn her some notice, some respect. It made it all the worse instead.

Lila Dean leaned against a tree as her tears escaped. Not even saving them made her acceptable.

I never will be.

“Help!”

Lila Dean’s head pivoted. The cry was faint but then it came again and she was sure she wasn’t mistaken.

Following the sound, she came into view of the escape tunnel—or what was left of it.

“Help!”

She crept closer, bracing herself for blood or amputation or-

Rubble filled the tunnel’s entrance and from it protruded Marcus Roy’s head and torso. His legs disappeared into the mass of rock.

“I heard people down there,” he said, “but the charges blew before I made it to them. The soldiers knew about this tunnel. How could they…” He rambled on, pushing feebly at the rocks on top of him.

Lila Dean didn’t answer. She let him ramble as she pulled rocks away from him.

The other people couldn’t have survived. But Marcus Roy had tried to help even after he’d argued with his son. Lila Dean’s mind rolled almost as much as her stomach.

“Mr. Roy, I need you to push up on this one,” she interrupted him.

His words stopped and he really looked at her.

“Why are you helping?”

Lila Dean frowned. “Push up.” She repeated instead of answering. Did he really think she’d leave him half buried? Did scars somehow make her a monster inside too?

He pushed as she levered under the rock with a stick. It finally rolled free, revealing a broken leg but miraculously nothing worse.

“I think Doc made it,” she said. “Let’s get you to camp.”

Lila Dean settled his arm over her shoulders and groaned as she took his weight to help him stand. He screamed when his broken leg dragged across the ground.

“Why are you helping me?” he repeated through gritted teeth.

It was going to be a long walk back to camp but Lila Dean didn’t know how to answer. She was saved from having to by several men who found them.

“Heard your scream,” one explained as they took over carrying Marcus Roy. He kept his eyes on Lila Dean like he was demanding an answer. When he passed out from pain a few minutes later, she felt a sense of relief she never thought possible when she’d always wanted to be seen.

Lila Dean followed them back to camp where everyone was following Sheldon Lea’s direction. They were moving farther from the town to avoid the soldiers.

She couldn’t place her father among the chaos. Roy passed with the Doc close at his heels. His eyes slid past her like she wasn’t there. She snapped her mouth closed on her question. She’d been about to ask if he’d seen her father.

He’s just worried about his own. 

Her heart didn’t believe it.

***

Moving camp took most of the day with so many people.

Lila Dean huddled against a tree in the dark, listening to people settle behind her.

“How’d they get the ruby?”

Lila Dean cringed, not for the first time. Someone saw the soldiers with the ruby and now the question was going around. The soldiers had been intending to work the mine but with the appearance of the ruby, they’d had enough to buy whatever it was they needed so they changed tactics and buried it instead.

A total of thirteen people were caught in the escape tunnel when it blew. Thirteen dead because of her. Why Billy Roy kept quiet she couldn’t say. She was the monster Marcus Roy expected.

“What now?”

Lila Dean shifted. It was Andre Mel sitting with Billy Roy and Mary Mae. They’d set up their sleeping pads, a collection of long grass collected from the area, off to her left. They hadn’t noticed she sat so close but it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. They’d pointedly ignored her all day, even Billy Roy.

Never acceptable.

“Don’t know,” Billy Roy admitted.

“Was saving us really her idea?” Mary Mae’s soft voice asked a moment later.

Lila Dean’s chest ached. Why would she care. 

“She would’ve tried even if I didn’t help her,” Billy Roy answered.

“Perhaps we’re wrong about her.”

Andre Mel snorted. “Right, because her father would lie.”

No one responded and Lila Dean huddled closer to the tree, glad they couldn’t see her.

What now indeed. What did Andre Mel mean? None of it made sense but after being seen, after interacting normally with Roy, she wasn’t sure she could go back to how it was before.

Something touched her cheek and Lila Dean brushed it away. Her fingers came away smudged black. Ash. The wind had changed. Tilting her head back, Lila Dean watched it rain ash in fine flakes. She never could get away from the fire, it seemed.

The End

 

Blessings,

Jennifer

Beauty Chapter Two

Welcome back for the last part to this week’s story. I don’t usually post stories this long, however, when I asked if reader’s wanted more to a story I posted last month, they responded yes. (Beauty) If you missed the post on Tuesday or the story from last month, here’s the cliff note’s version:

Lila Dean’s a young girl who lost her mother in a fire and was horribly scarred, both physically and mentally, as a result. Now people just don’t look at her, so when a stranger approaches and asks her to steal the Roy’s ruby to help him save his daughter, she takes the chance to do something good.

But Billy Roy catches her in the theft. To her surprise, he doesn’t stop her, instead he trusts she’s doing it for a good reason. So when Lila Dean goes to give the ruby to the stranger, Michael, she questions his story and it falls apart. She realizes she’s been taken for a fool and runs away. Now she’s determined to return the ruby and make things right.

Now for Chapter Two. Thanks for stoping by and I hope you enjoy.

Beauty Chapter Two

Lila Dean refused to look at her nightstand but the deep red of the ruby glared in the corner of her eye. Her room wasn’t big enough to get away from it.

Outside her door came the muffled steps of her father preparing for work. She waited until they disappeared and the latch on the door clicked before emerging into the empty cabin.

During the night she’d made a plan. She’d return the ruby while everyone was away at the mine. The other kids would be at the field again playing ball. If she didn’t show up until later, it wasn’t likely they’d notice.

With any luck, Marcus Roy wouldn’t notice the ruby’s absence for a single morning. Then only she and Billy Roy would ever know. The thought lifted the knot in Lila Dean’s stomach.

Then she remembered she still had to return the gem and the knot came back in full force.

Unlike the night before, it’d be light out when she crawled through the pantry window. The chances of someone seeing her would be much greater.

Lila Dean closed her fingers hard around the ruby she’d stuffed in her pocket. She had to return it.

Letting go, she slung her cloak over her shoulders and left the house.

Most people would walk the main road but Lila Dean never did. People refused to look at her and, in an odd way, it made her feel all the more conspicuous.

She took to the path behind the cabin. It added another fifteen minutes to her walk but no one but hunters tended to use it. There were no averted eyes, no one to remind her of her scars.

As she walked the ruby weighed heavy where is hit her thigh. She wanted to be rid of it and the reminder of Michael’s trick. He’d spotted her for vulnerable and naive and she’d proved him right.

A whiff of smoke caught Lila Dean’s attention. She loved wood smoke, even after the fire. Wood smoke reminded her of home, of a time when her mother held her and rocked her to sleep.

This smoke wasn’t wood smoke. This was burned linens and tar, foundation rock heated too hot and thatch turned to ash.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots

Lila Dean’s breath stopped. She didn’t want to smell it. Her scars pulled tight, almost painful, as she tensed to run away but her legs wouldn’t move.

A plume of black smoke drifted above the trees, confirming her fears.

The town was on fire and her father was there.

As terrifying as the smoke was, she couldn’t run when her father was in danger. Mother would have tried to help but mother wasn’t alive.

Her legs still wouldn’t move under her. More smoke, heavier this time with the stench of burning house, drifted her way. The wind was shifting.

The trees filled with fine black grit that drifted on the air. With the wind came screams and the clank of something unfamiliar.

It was a moment before Lila Dean placed the sound. Weapons. She’d never heard them used in earnest, only heard the precise clack as the other kids practiced with wooden swords.

This sound was more deadly and less precise. A shiver shook Lila Dean. Lots of weapons.

Finally her legs moved as she gasped in the gritty air. Her vision swam and sparked with the breath.

Already the trees were turning black from the ash. Lila Dean passed through them, refusing to look at their darkened bark, until she spotted the back of the Roy’s house. It no longer resembled a house. There was no hint of the pantry window she crawled through the night before. The stone chimney rose above the flickering remains, all that was left to attest to the house’s prior existence.

Lila Dean could see through to Main Street. Men scattered everywhere but they were all unfamiliar in armor the color of blood.

They hemmed in a group Lila Dean did recognize. Mary Mae and Andre Mel sat clutching each other’s hands. Billy Roy darted between two men only to be caught and hauled back by a third.

“-Roy!” Lila Dean started forward. There was no plan, just the need to do something.

Hands grabbed her around the middle. Before she could scream, a hand clamped down over her mouth and she was pulled back into the trees.

When she was spun around, she found herself face to face with Sheldon Lea, her father’s friend.

He gestured for her silence with a finger on his lips.

Lila Dean nodded and he released her but the moment his support disappeared, her legs collapsed.

“Get up,” Sheldon Lea grasped her arm and hauled her to her feet. She vaguely registered the tug on her scars as the old spinster pulled her back father into the forest.

He kept moving until the sight of burning buildings disappeared. Lila Dean collapsed on the trail as soon as he let her go. All her blind courage seemed to have seeped out of her at the first resistance.

Tears streamed from her eyes but she kept them silent. It was habit.

“That won’t help,” Sheldon Lea scolded.

“They have Father?”

He hesitated before giving a jerky nod. He was always honest with her.

“Why?”

“Power, possibly greed.” He scrubbed his face with his hands. Sheldon Lea had been wrinkled for as long as she’d known him but today he looked old, tired. “It’s strategy. Seize a nation’s mines and you cut off its wealth.”

Lila Dean shivered. Her hands shook as she clasped them together. “But why fire?”

“Control.” It was simple but Sheldon Lea’s tone indicated so much more. Lila Dean tried to ask but the look on his face cut her off. She’d never seen him so cold.

“We can’t stay here. Let’s go.”

Lila Dean didn’t follow when he started down the trail. He did a double take when he looked back.

“I won’t wait, girl.”

Lila Dean never argued, never disagreed with an adult but she couldn’t just leave her father behind.

“We can’t leave them,” she protested, still sitting on the ground.

“We can’t help them!”

Lila Dean cringed away as Sheldon Lea clenched his hands into fists at his sides.

She watched him clench and unclench his fingers, realizing she didn’t know this man, not really. The lift of his chin like her countering him was unexpected, the way he always widened his stance when he was surprised. None of these things were from the mines.

Lila Dean would know. She always observed since no one included her. She’d chalked Sheldon Lea’s oddities up to him being a stubborn old man but now she suspected it was more than that.

“We’ll see what they’re doing with everyone,” he finally agreed. “But only then will I decide if there’s anything we can do.”

Lila Dean nodded, pushing to her feet to follow. It wasn’t full agreement but she’d take what she could get for now.

***

The remains of the town looked like a giant smudge in the road heading east to west. A few out lying houses, such as Lila Dean’s cabin and Sheldon Lea’s shack, still stood, forgotten by the attackers simply because they were out of sight from the main town.

Lila Dean lay on her stomach next to the old spinster. He’d taken them to a small ridge west of town. They’d climbed it in silence and then Sheldon Lea had indicated they were to crawl up to the ridgeline.

Lila Dean had crawled without a comment although the motion pulled and rubbed against her scars, setting her entire right side on fire.

Now, stretched out as she was, she focused on the sight below instead of the burn.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots.

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots.

Sheldon Lea had pulled out a glass from the pack he always carried for work. It was an oddity for a mineworker to regularly carry a looking glass but Lila Dean didn’t ask.

Without the glass she could only see the smudge, the small remaining buildings and the movement of people but she couldn’t say what they were doing.

Sheldon Lea lowered the glass with a frown wrinkling his already lined face.

He handed the glass over. Lila Dean cradled it in her hands as gratitude flushed through her. He didn’t even think about including her, he just did it. Not even her father was like that.

A rare smile pulled her lips upward. It pulled her right lip away from her teeth and sent a flare of protest through her skin. She dropped the smile, realizing how grotesque it must look but Sheldon Lea just continued to look at the town. She’d never really thought about it but the old man never had treated her scars as anything disturbing.

Setting the glass to her eye, she focused it and stifled a gasp.

Her father sat on the ground in the confines of a cage big enough for him to stand in but not walk.

Panning out, Lila Dean saw multiple cages in neat rows, all holding people she knew.

“Why cage them?” she wondered aloud.

“Security. They want something and need everyone alive to get it.”

“Want what?”

Sheldon Lea held his hand out and she passed the glass back to him. He took his time scanning the scene below.

“They probably want whatever comes out of the mine. That’d explain keeping the workers.”

“We could collapse the mine,” Lila Dean suggested.

“They’d kill the workers then.”

She shuddered. He was always so blunt.

“We might be able to free your father, maybe the Roy’s, but that’s about it.”

“Why only them?” Lila Dean couldn’t get the picture of Andre Mel and Mary Mae clutching hands as everything burned out of her head. They’d always ignored her but they didn’t deserved being caged.

“Your father and the Roy’s cages are on the end farthest from the camp. With a distraction, we might have enough time for those three cages. Plus, if the distraction’s there,” he pointed, “then no one can see the front of their cages.”

Lila Dean nodded although she still couldn’t get the other kids out of her head. How could she leave them? Maybe with more people they could plan a second escape. It’s what she told herself although a part of her knew, without the element of surprise, another escape attempt wouldn’t be possible.

Sheldon Lea pocketed his glass and pushed back from the ridge.

Lila Dean moved to follow. The motion jammed the ruby into her thigh. She wished that was all she had to worry about. It seemed small, almost silly now.

Moving the ruby to the side of her pocket, she continued back crawling until she reached where Sheldon Lea stood up.

“We need some supplies from my shack,” Sheldon Lea said. “Let’s find our distraction.”

***

Lila Dean clutched the small bag in her hand like it was a priceless treasure. In a way, it was. The black powder inside was her key to the cages. Sheldon Lea had made a comment about no time for lock picking school and then he’s set her down to show her how to put the powder into the locks, then spark it for a small explosion. Enough to bust the locks but not enough to draw attention. There was more finesse to it than Lila Dean would’ve guessed.

She waited in the trees, covered by darkness and the general noise of the invader camp. She asked Sheldon Lea who he thought they were. He shook his head and replied a cryptic, “a lot of trouble.”

Now she wondered if she should’ve pressed for a more specific answer. Sheldon Lea insisted there would be a guard change during his distraction. Lila Dean hadn’t even asked what his distraction was going to be. Now she wished she’d been more bold with the old spinster instead of taking everything at face value like she always did.

“What’sss thiss?”

Lila Dean ducked at the shout but she needn’t have. At the other side of camp several men stoop up, staring at something beyond them.

A wobbly Sheldon Lea stumbled between two of the men, a bottle in hand.

“Coulda—“ He tripped and almost fell, “coulda sworn it’s time for dinner. Where’d the inn go?” He spun in a wobbly circle.

The guard at the cages still stood at his post but he craned his neck around her father’s cage to see what was happening as someone tried to catch Sheldon Lea’s arm and he pulled the man down into a crumbled heap. A nasal laugh erupted from him and he rolled on the ground, sloshing ale over himself and narrowly missing another man grabbing at him.

The cage guard stepped forward, trying to see between his comrades.

Keep going, keep going.

As if on cue, Sheldon Lea knocked another man down by rolling into him. The man gave a surprised cry and the cage guard started forward to join the others.

Lila Dean darted out of the trees with the bag of powder clutched tight.

“Lila Dean?”

She tried to give her father a smile but stopped as she met his eyes. They slipped away from her face, then came back only to slide away again like he couldn’t stand but a moment.

Lila Dean blinked at the tears that threatened behind her eyes.

What’d you expect?

With trembling fingers, she grasped the lock to pour powder into it. Her hand shook and more of the powder hit the ground than the lock.

“Lila Dean, get out of here.” Her father’s feet appeared in front of her through the bars. She refused to look up at him as she poured a bit more powder.

Twisting the bag closed, she shoved it into her pocket and pulled out her flint.

“Stand back,” she warned.

His feet didn’t move for a second but then they retreated without another word.

Lila Dean sparked the flint but missed the lock. Sheldon Lea’s voice rang in her ears. Not like that, angle it or it’ll blow up in your face.

She tried again and cried out as the sparks hit.

A look over her shoulder shielded her face from the blast and confirmed no one noticed her startled cry.

“Give me the bag and go.” Her father held his hand out.

Lila Dean’s fingers closed around the bag. With unfamiliar defiance, she poured a palm full into her hand before handing the rest over. Then, instead of leaving, she headed to Billy Roy’s cage as her father moved to Marcus’.

He shot her a reproving glance but, again, didn’t fully look at her.

Fumbling with the lock, Lila Dean didn’t see him approach. Billy Roy’s hand came through the bars to grasp her wrist.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he whispered.

She glanced up to meet his eyes and he didn’t look away. A dull ache constricted her throat.

“Stand back,” she whispered, almost crying when he listened and released her wrist.

Her hands were steady this time. She sparked her flint and with a hiss, the lock exploded.

Lila Dean pulled the door open.

Her father and Marcus Roy stood by the tree line, waiting. When they saw her free Billy Roy, they retreated into the forest’s shadows, satisfied the kids were right behind them.

“What about the others?” Billy Roy caught her arm.

“No time,” she pulled away with a wave at where Sheldon Lea had been. So close to the cages she couldn’t see the exact spot but Sheldon Lea’s nasal laugh could no longer be heard.

“Dean—“

She spun back, surprised he’d shorten her name again, and froze.

“Fancy meeting you again,” Michael flashed a grin. He held Billy Roy with a knife to his throat.

Lila Dean glanced around. Her father and Marcus Roy must have moved farther into the trees where they couldn’t be seen because they didn’t come back.

And the cages still shielded them from the invader’s camp. Not that that would matter since Michael wore the same blood red uniform as the others.

“You’re one of them?” she asked.

“Who do you think I gamble with?”

Lila Dean swallowed. The knife had cut into Billy Roy’s neck and blood trickled down into the hollow of his throat.

“Let him go,” she begged. The words were supposed to be firm but Lila Dena rarely spoke. She wasn’t used to controlling her tone.

“Why should I?”

“He’s too young to work the mine,” Lila Dean knew as soon as she said the words that Michael didn’t care. He wanted something else.

“None of you are too young. Even you’re familiar with the tunnels, little escape artist.”

Confusion warred with fright on Billy Roy’s face. Lila Dean met his brown eyes, just for a moment, to savor the feel of being seen, to experience the flush of finding something other than revulsion in another’s eyes. Even if he never acknowledged her again, she’d always owe him for the trust she saw there now.

Looking away in shame, Lila Dean pulled the ruby from her pocket. She’d never get to return it now.

Michael’s eyes fixed on it. A half grin, ugly on his handsome face, pulled at the corners of his lips.

“I’ll set this down and step away,” Lila Dean whispered, “then you let him go. He and I will run and you can have the ruby.”

The gem clinked softly as she set it on the cross bar of the cage.

“You have no idea what that ruby will pay for, do you?” Michael asked as she stepped away.

Lila Dean shook her head. She didn’t want to know.

Michael chuckled as he shoved Billy Roy toward her.

“In war, when you don’t make the small sacrifices, a lot of people get hurt.” Michael’s grin said just how much he enjoyed her shock.

“War?”

“What do you think this is?” he gestured around. “Now go!”

Billy Roy grabbed her hand and pulled her into the trees. After a moment, she stopped resisting and followed but not before seeing Michael grasp the ruby. A chill ran her spine at the sight.

***

She’d failed to make it right. Sheldon Lea, Marcus Roy and her father sat eating cold soup. They had no campfire or even a camp, nothing to give their position away.

Lila Dean wasn’t sure how Sheldon Lea had gotten away from the invaders after his ‘drunken’ spectacle. She didn’t ask, either. Now the adults were talking and none of them acknowledged her again.

Maybe Sheldon Lea did it because her father did but no matter his reasons, it hurt.

Lila Dean huddled against a large pine, just outside the small clearing the men sat in, and hugged her knees.

Billy Roy flopped down beside her. She jumped and then looked away, ashamed of her nerves and her foolishness.

“You’re not going to tell me how you knew him?” he asked, his voice pitched low so the adults couldn’t hear.

Tell him how foolish she’d been? She remained silent and he let it go.

“What do you think the ruby will pay for?” he asked instead.

Lila Dean shook her head. “Don’t know.”

His lips pinched in. He didn’t like the answer any more than she did.

“We’ll make it right,” he said after a brief pause.

Lila Dean turned her head to look at him. He was so hopeful, so sure they could fix things.

She gave him a half smile, leaving the right side of her face shielded against her knees to keep the expression from being grotesque.

She hoped he was right but making things right was harder than it sounded. Even just returning the ruby spiraled out of control.

Lila Dean hugged her knees, enjoying for the moment the silence with someone beside her for once.

She really hoped he was right.

The End

Blessings,

Jennifer

When Sticks Move

Welcome to a new short story. This one started from a random dream snippet of a dragon walking on me. Go figure. I don’t usually remember my dreams but this one stuck and I couldn’t resist attempting a story.

It grew longer than I’d like but I really prefer to keep it all within a week, so I’ll post it in three parts with an extra post on Saturday. Personally I prefer that over posting two gigantic posts. Let me know, Dear Readers, if you would prefer something different because these stories are for your enjoyment. Or, if you have any editing suggestions that would help tighten the story, I’d love to hear those too.

Again, welcome and I hope you enjoy=)

When Sticks Move

I should know better. Layla prided herself on being able to see practical jokes coming. She’d never been the brunt of one—until now. Micah would never let her live it down if he’d just succeeded in pulling one over on her.

But he swore dragons existed and there’d been something to his confidence that made her believe him. Said he’d seen a few but most people never slowed down long enough to see what lay hidden right before their eyes.

The tall grass swayed, tickling Layla’s cheek. She resisted the urge to scratch. Laying on her back, she remained still, taking slow, long breaths.

She wanted to believe Micah but now she was starting to think he was making a fool out of her.

He lay a few feet to her left, probably laughing this whole time, staying still just to see how long she would wait.

Layla could see it. His silent laugh spread across his face. That was Micah’s way. He played jokes on people all the time and this would be the laugh of the month for him. She almost sat up to see but then stopped herself.

What if he wasn’t lying? What if there really were dragons?

She stopped a snort in her nose. It tickled. Blinking a couple of times to distract herself from sneezing, she refocused on the stick jutting out of the grass several yards from her feet.

The tree it came from probably lay hidden in the grass, recently fallen. At least Layla guessed recently fallen because the bark still covered the branch in a thick layer of dark ridges. It curved toward the end and rounded out like a snout.

If she imagined it, she could believed the little bowl toward the end to be a nostril and the oval circles farther back to be a closed eyelid and brow ridge.

Perhaps her fancy was getting the better of her but the longer she stared, the more like a head the stick looked.

It moved. Layla twitched and blinked. Then kept her lids open for a prolonged period of time, watching. It moved again, swinging slowly to the left, then the right with the nostrils flaring in air.

The lids opened just a crack. Emerald green glinted through. Layla bit the inside of her lip to keep from squealing.

A dragon!

It rose in the grass and the hint of a back emerged below the long neck. Layla wondered how she ever mistook it for a stick but Micah was right, she usually would have walked right past it without a question in her mind.

The neck stretched out like a cat getting up from a nap before the dragon moved off to the right.

Layla wanted so badly to follow it. To simply pivot her head to keep it in her line of sight. But Micah had been adamant about not moving. He said dragons sensed motion. Any movement and she’d never see it again.

She could hear it though. The creature’s sinuous steps swished in the grass, slow and cautious.

Something brushed her arm and Layla choked in a scream. A clawed foot rose above her, the toes stretched out for balance. The dragon’s head lifted high above its body, not watching the ground it walked on but watching the horizon like it expected something to appear.

The foot came down across Layla’s torso, shifting heel to toe from her right to her left and pressing into her rib cage as the dragon put its weight down.

Micah swore she wasn’t to move, especially if it’d spook the dragon because then it might attack.

Layla held her breath and tensed her stomach as the weight pressed into her. She rolled slowly with the heel to toe motion, right to left. Tears pooled and then streamed from the outside corners of her eyes and into her hair.

The dragon never looked down. It placed its other foot and the weight slowly lifted.

Just as Layla started to relax, the tail drug across her body. Its rough scales heated her skin and, when the tail was gone and she braved looking, she saw it had burned her like the rug in her mom’s living room.

***

“It burned you!” Micah held her arm to examine the burn.

“Its tail did,” Layla attempted to pull away but it didn’t work. “Alan would love seeing a dragon! I’ve got to tell him.”

Micah’s grip tightened, keeping her from racing home “He’d hate it.”

Layla stilled, searching Micah’s eyes. “Hate it?”

Micah looked away and released her arm.

“What do you mean, Micah?”

“Nothing.” He walked away, no sign of humor in his eyes.

***

Layla kept her head down as she ate dinner. Beside her sat Alan, his elbow brushing her burned arm every time he lifted his spoon to his mouth.

His elbow brushed her again and Layla winced. She covered it by taking another bite.

“Long sleeves, Layla?”

Layla looked up. Mom interrupted Alan to ask the question. It was Mom’s way. She blurted whatever caught her attention.

Layla tried not to look at the scar that ran into her Mom’s hair. Being hit by a runaway wagon had done more than leave a scar. It’d destroyed a part of their Mom’s brain. The part that could track a whole conversation.

“Just chilled,” Layla lied. In reality it was hot—really hot—but she couldn’t think up a way to explain her burn without confusing her mom. “Too much sun, maybe.”

Mom hummed and Alan picked up talking again like nothing happened.

Layla finished eating and took the plates, rushing away to escape Alan’s elbow. She’d never noticed before how much he bumped her while eating.

“Whatcha hiding?”

She spun to find Alan leaning against the kitchen doorframe.

“Hiding?”

He smirked. “Long sleeves when it’s burning hot outside? Really?”

The mention of burning made Layla twitch. “Just got burned when Micah was showing me how to start a fire using witch’s hair. Didn’t want to explain to Mom.”

Alan eyed her and Layla knew he didn’t believe her. He shrugged before turning away. Layla breathed in relief. He hadn’t pressed, which was odd, but she wasn’t going to look the gift horse in the mouth.

***

Maybe she should have looked the gift horse in the mouth. Layla lay still in the middle of the field. Micah refused to come with her. He said too much time out in the field and someone might start asking questions.

But Layla hadn’t been able to resist. She’s waited for everyone to leave the house and then headed out the back.

Instead of seeing a stick or something that might resemble a dragon, she was pretty sure she’d been followed. Something moved in the trees to her left. The movement hadn’t started until several minutes after she laid down. It was unlikely then that her follower could see her in the tall grass, but whomever it was seemed to be searching.

Layla wasn’t sure whether to be relieved that, with the motion no dragons would show themselves, or be disappointed someone ruined her chance of seeing one again.

Movement to her right, a flash of something dark, drew her attention. She shifted her eyes left but didn’t turn her head. More movement zeroed her eyes to the long arch of a scaled back.

Her follower still moved in the trees to her left. She could hear the occasional snap of a twig to prove it without her even looking. Surely the dragon could hear it. Why was it showing itself then?

A snout parted the grass. The nostrils flared and lips parted over long teeth. Layla stopped breathing. It was that or scream.

Finally she looked up from the teeth to meet the emerald eyes watching her.

Another seer.

Layla twitched.

“Seer?” She mouthed the words but no sound came with them.

Prett—

The dragon flinched. Layla cringed back as the parted lips pulled into a snarl and the eyes narrowed.

Trap!

The dragon tipped onto its side, its legs pulled from beneath it. The tail lashed out but something pulled it back mid-swing.

Layla sat up only to see men rushing at her. She scooted backwards from the ropes they threw but then she realized the ropes were not meant for her.

Several twisted around the dragon’s legs and more crossed over its back, holding the massive torso to the ground.

“What?” She couldn’t form the full question. She didn’t know what to ask.

“Well done, Layla.”

She pivoted into a crouch to see who spoke.

“Micah?”

He grinned. His eyes sparkled with the familiar humor but it was tinged with something mean.

Layla’s stomach clenched with the desire to throw up. “What are you doing?”

“Making money.” The grin widened. “You’ve any idea what a dragon will sell for?”

“Sell for?” Layla glanced over her shoulder at the beautiful beast.

Make it right, Seer. Find Alan.

She stared as the men finished trussing up the legs and then loaded the dragon onto the flatbed wagon they’d hidden in the trees.

Make it right?

No answer came.

“Don’t sweat it, Layla. This wouldn’t be the first time a seer’s helped capture a dragon.” And with that Micah strode away, following the wagon from the field.

Not the first time?

“Alan.” Layla was sure of it. That’s why Micah hadn’t wanted her to say anything to her brother.

***

“Alan.”

He didn’t immediately turn to acknowledge her. Tying up his horse, he pulled his coat from behind the saddle and gave Grover a scratch behind the ear.

“He tricked you, didn’t he?”

Layla twitched. “How’d you know?”

“Pulled the same stunt on me a few months back. Tried to convince me to help him again but I refused. When you mentioned Micah yesterday, I contacted Haverim.”

“Who?”

Alan eyed her and then sighed. “Micah didn’t let you introduce yourself?”

“No.”

Pushing his hair back, Alan sighed. “Follow me.”

He led the way into the house and then out the back door to the cellar. Layla stayed at his heels all the way into the cool darkness until he lit the lantern. She froze but Alan continued forward to place his hand on the dragon’s forehead.

This wasn’t the emerald-eyed beast she’d seen in the field. Of course not. That one was being held by Micah’s crew.

This creature was bigger with a spine running all the way from the tip of its tail to the end of its snout. And its scales glowed a dull golden brown.

Layla’s cheeks warmed in shame.

“Meet Haverim,” Alan introduced.

“Hi,” Layla stepped forward with a tentative hand stretched out.

“Place your hand on his forehead.”

She took another step to rest her palm on the cool scales. Haverim’s eyes closed.

Hello Layla.

“The one in the field didn’t need contact,” she blurted.

“Neither does Haverim to speak, but to understand us they need contact.”

“Oh.”

Mallon was taken.

“Yes, I think. I didn’t get his name.”

I cannot go into the city to save him. 

“I’ll go,” Layla promised. “I messed up.”

Haverim nodded. Good. Make it right or I will make sure you never see us again. Then he vanished.

Layla jumped back with a choked screech.

“He does that sometimes.” Alan shrugged.

“Why did Micah need us?” Of course Micah had seen dragons before, otherwise he wouldn’t be trying to sell them. What did she and Alan have that he didn’t?

“We’re seers. Means we can connect with dragons, so they’re attracted to us.”

“But why haven’t I seen one before?”

“Never slowed down long enough.”

All of Micah’s words made sense now. Layla felt sick.

“What do we do?”

“We free Mallon.”

Layla followed him from the cellar with too many questions to voice.

***

Micah’s wagon was left beside a house in the city. It wasn’t a house his family owned but Layla recognized the arms above the door. The house of Erik Coglin, one of Micah’s friends.

Layla shook her head.

“Why didn’t I suspect him?” She asked again. She’d asked the question several times on the ride to the city.

Alan raised a brow at her. He’d already pointed out that she had suspected Micah, just not in the way he deserved.

I’m an idiot. 

“You’re not an idiot,” Alan said.

Layla turned to stare at him.

“What? You’re not.”

She let it go. Alan always seemed to know her thoughts. It was creepy at times.

“They must be holding him in the basement.” Alan mused.

“How you figure?” Layla shook her head and joined him at the wagon.

“They wouldn’t have wanted to move Mallon far. Not in the middle of the day.”

The thought of moving a dragon brought up all sorts of difficulties. “How do they move a dragon?”

“Trussed up tight and with a lot of men,” Alan said. He moved around the wagon, considering it.

“Did you bring your fire kit?” Layla blurted as an idea hit her.

“Of course. Why?”

“Burn the wagon when you see Mallon. The smokier the better.”

“Layla!” Alan called after her but Layla was already moving. It was almost dusk and for her idea to work, she had to be in place before the sale of Mallon happened.

Micah glared at her from where he leaned beside the door to the basement.

“I want in,” she repeated. “You want to continue selling dragons, I want to be part of it.”

“Why would I let you?” Micah asked. “You’re worse than your brother when it comes to having a conscience.”

“It’s not like we live in luxury. Plus, Mom can’t continue working. Not in her condition.”

The glare still graced his face but a line formed between his dark brows.

“We don’t need you for the sale,” he said. “You don’t need to be here right now.”

“Actually,” Layla stepped forward, forcing herself to be bolder than usual. “I can help with moving the dragon.”

“How so?” Micah eyed her as if to say she wasn’t strong enough to be much help.

“I can convince the dragon to move all on his own. No ropes, no men to carry him, just little old me. Less chance of damaging him and far more quiet so the neighbors don’t notice.”

“Prove it.” Micah opened the basement door and gestured for Layla to lead the way.

A single lantern lit the steps on the way down. Layla trailed her hand along the wall, half to feel the rough stone, the texture of something solid, and half to hide the shaking in her hands.

“How’d you get the dragon down here?” she asked. The stairs were too narrow for Mallon’s torso. Even trussed up, he was simply too big.

“Back door.” Micah didn’t elaborate.

The stairs continued downward longer than Layla expected. As she reached the bottom, the basement opened up and she understood why.

The single room doubled the size of the house above and, on the far side, a door like that of a barn took up most of the wall. It was perfect for the sale of a dragon.

“Still can’t get the tail hooked,” a man coming up to Micah’s shoulder informed him.

“He must be secure for the sale,” Micah raised his brow as he turned to Layla. “Prove you can control him. His tail needs to be tied to those rings.”

Three metal rings jutted from the ground along where Mallon’s tail lay. Other ropes held his legs and neck to similar rings.

“Fights more than most,” the short man cautioned.

Mallon’s tail lashed sideways, knocking two men over and slamming a third against the wall.

The emerald eyes rolled under the brow ridges Layla had once mistaken as part of a tree. She couldn’t see how she’d been so blind.

The eye facing her stopped, fixated on her.

Come to make it right or to worsen your crime?

Layla wasn’t touching him yet and so she didn’t respond. Micah’s short assistant sputtered more cautions as she approached the dragon. Even strapped to the floor, Mallon’s head reached her hip.

Laying her palm on the cool scales of Mallon’s forehead, Layla marveled. The texture was different from Haverim, almost smooth but with more ridges.

“You knew I was there,” she said, “when you stepped on me.” There was no way Mallon wouldn’t have killed her unless he’d dispersed his weight.

“Why’d you do it?”

Testing you. Most hunters, Mallon snorted, hitting a man’s face with hot breath, won’t sit still for such a thing. They call in their men long before I get the chance to walk over them.

Layla almost laughed. “You need to be still now.”

Why?

Looking over her shoulder would only alert Micah that she knew he was there, watching and listening. She lowered herself to look Mallon directly in the eye.

“You want to see Alan or anyone else again, you need to be still.” Layla hardened her voice like her Mom used to, before the accident. “You’ll walk out of here after the sale because I’ll make you.”

Defiance flared in Mallon’s eye, bright and angry. But then he closed the lid with a soft click of his scales. His body relaxed as though sleeping.

“Tie his tail,” Layla called over her shoulder.

“Impressive,” Micah said. “Stand over there for the sale.”

Layla retreated to the wall Micah pointed to. It was too far away to touch Mallon.

Alan and Haverim? Mallon’s voice was soft in her ears.

Settling her shoulder blades against the wall, Layla nodded. Mallon stayed relaxed, even snoring part way through the bidding. Most of the bidders Layla didn’t recognize but then, she wasn’t well acquainted with the city’s upper class. She kept her head down until Micah approached after the sale.

“Move him out the doors onto the wagon waiting outside. Then you’re done for the night.” Micah instructed.

“And payment?”

“I’ll swing by tomorrow and we’ll talk.”

Should she push it? Would Micah expect her to? Micah strode away before Layla decided. She took that as a good sign and pushed off the wall.

“Time to move,” she instructed Mallon. “No funny stuff. I’d rather not see my payment go up in smoke.”

I can’t breath fire.

“Untie him.” Layla looked at the men gathered without responding to Mallon’s comment. They hesitated but when Mallon stayed relaxed and Micah nodded to them, they complied.

Mallon rose but kept his head low enough for Layla to maintain contact with his forehead.

“Let’s walk—for now,” she muttered the last part. The handlers were backed up to give them space but Micah stayed close as they approached the doors. Layla eyed the dragon’s sides as he walked. The scales shifted seamlessly over the creature’s muscles. She’d always imagined dragon’s with cape like wings but there was no hint of such appendages.

“Guess the tales of dragons with wings were just that, tales,” Layla commented to Micah.

“Never seen one fly,” Micah responded. He gestured for the men to bring the wagon closer.

You’re blind. But I can’t take off in an alley.

The wagon barely fit between the walls.

“Why’s the wagon full of boughs?” one of the men asked.

The driver glanced over at him. “Following orders.”

Layla knew that voice. She spotted the boughs in the light of the driver’s lantern as he un-shuttered one side. Layered within the branches was a nice film of witch’s hair.

“Run!” she shoved Mallon’s head toward the open end of the alley just as Alan pitched the lantern into the wagon. He jumped from the seat, knocking into Micah on his way past. The witch’s hair caught with a whoosh.

Mallon’s claws wrapped around Layla and then she hung, bouncing, as the dragon cradled her against his side, running on three legs.

A clicking rustled along his sides, above his legs. Layla blinked as Mallon’s scales rippled outward, parting from his body.

The alley ended. Layla caught a brief view of an open avenue and then nothing but green scales darkened by night and the buffet of wind. Her stomach sank like she’d missed a gigantic step.

Relax Seer. It’s my turn to help you.

***

Layla sat on her bed, unable to sleep. She couldn’t decide if flying was the most exciting experience she’d ever had or the most terrifying.

One thing she was sure of—Mallon saved her. She’d thought through his escape but not her own. She would have been caught in the alley had the dragon not taken her with him.

That left the question of Alan. She’d made it home an hour earlier and still there was no sign of her brother.

Something thudded against her door. Layla jumped. She thought about hiding but there was no place to go.

Had Micah come for her?

But it wasn’t Micah who stood in her door.

“Alan,” She rushed to him.

“Next time,” he said, hugging her back, “tell me your whole plan before setting it in motion.”

The End

Blessings and have a wonderful weekend,

Jennifer

Beauty Chapter One

After the last several months of upheaval, my husband and I are finally moved and settled into a house with internet. It’s amazing how much I took internet for granted until I didn’t have reliable access to it. I mean, internet’s everywhere anymore, right? Not exactly.

Anyway, no more moving woes. One plus to not being able to post for the last bit is that some stories have had the chance to germinate in my brain and now I get to share them with you.

This next one I might just have to make into a longer piece. Let me know what you think. It’s good to ‘see’ all of you again=)

Beauty

“You’re beautiful in a pathetic sort of way.” His fingers held her chin, forcing her to look at him, to see his half grin like he was apologizing for his words, to see the quirk of his perfect brow as he waited for her reaction.

She imagined she was the bug some boys liked to pull legs off of. It couldn’t have been worse as the group on the field stared, shocked at first because he stopped to talk to her and then because of what he said.

No one spoke to her, almost ever. She was included simply by default of their parents assuming they’d watch out for her, poor, crippled Lila Dean.

The man released her chin with a disappointed click of his tongue. He pivoted and walked away, back toward Main Street.

“Who was that?” Billy Roy asked.

“Never seen him,” Andre Mel shrugged his narrow shoulders. He was an odd one just as his name indicated, but he was good with a ball so he was accepted.

“Creepy,” Mary Mae shivered.

They all agreed and turned back to their game without looking at Lila Dean. Billy Roy turned last, his eyes swept past her. He’d have seen her, truly looked at her, if he’d paused for even a second.

It was the closest any of them came to acknowledging her. Lila Dean’s stomach clenched with gratitude that Billy Roy came so close. He was the only one who consistently did so.

Pulling her legs tight to her chest, Lila Dean hugged them, feeling the pull of her scars down her right side. She’d never be pretty.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots

That was what fire did to a body. It robbed it of flexibility to play ball or smooth skin to dress up. It robbed one of acceptance.

Lila Dean stared at Main Street although the strange man was gone now. Why’d he come out just to say such cruel words?

***

She still pondered the question hours later sitting in the inn. Every one ate in the inn at night. The miners came in after work, trailing their dust and sweat with them like a cloud.

Lila Dean sat at the usual table, waiting for her father to gather their food. He brought two bowls and set one in front of her before digging into his own. Dirt smudged his face and out lined his nails.

She stared at him, watching him eat, but he never looked up. Maybe she looked too much like her mother except with a bunch of horrible scars. She didn’t know. Her mother died in the fire. Giving up that he’d look at her or say a word of blessing like other families did, Lila Dean spooned stew into her mouth. It tasted like mush soaked in gravy but she tilted her head trying not to lose any out the side of her mouth where her lips didn’t quite meet anymore. If she moved slowly, she usually managed without making a complete mess.

Her father finished long before she and, leaving his bowl, he stood to join two men by the hearth.

The men were Marcus Roy, Billy Roy’s father, and Sheldon Lea, an old spinster who refused to retire from the mine. They were her father’s friends but she’d never spoken with them.

Almost spilling stew down her front, Lila Dean returned her attention to her spoon, and caught the strange man sitting in the corner watching her. He tilted his cup to her and drank before looking away.

Lila Dean felt like a deer frozen in fright. What did the man want? He wasn’t a miner. He lacked the dirt caked around his nails.

Finishing her stew, she gathered the bowls and retreated to the kitchen, keeping her head down just in case the man looked up again.

The kitchen sat empty as the cook was eating with the men in the main room. Lila Dean dumped the bowls into the barrel full of hot, sudsy water and buried her hands in after to wash the dishes. The heat stung her left hand like tiny needles but her right couldn’t feel it except as a dull sensation of warmth.

“Hiding?”

She jumped, splashing hot water across her front. To keep her pained cry silent, she bit her lip. Then she peeked over her shoulder.

The stranger.

“Maybe.” The word came out barely above a whisper.

“I meant what I said earlier.”

“Not exactly flattering.” Lila Dean went back to scrubbing bowls.

Footsteps and then the stranger stood across the barrel from her.

“Perhaps not,” he admitted, “but honest.”

“Maybe,” she said again.

“Want to help me with something?” The man grasped her arm, stopping her from drying a bowl. She looked up, surprised, but then couldn’t look away. He had that same quirk to his brow.

“What?”

“You’ve heard of the uncut ruby?”

Lila Dean swallowed, picturing Marcus Roy’s radiant face the day he’d emerged from the mine with the massive gem. It was the day the town knew it’d survive.

“Maybe,” she whispered.

The stranger sighed and released her arm. The expression on his face looked like relief.

“I need that ruby,” he said.

“Why?” the ruby was the town’s prize, the reason they still existed.

“Some men took my little girl,” he leaned against the counter as he explained. “They demanded the ruby in exchange for her. I couldn’t buy it even if Marcus Roy would sell and I can’t get to it. The only way in is through a window about your size.”

Lila Dean set the bowl down gently. It still sounded like a thud.

“You want me to steal the ruby?”

“For my baby girl, yes.”

Lila Dean frowned at her red hands as she tried to piece together what sounded wrong.

“Why you?”

“What do you mean?”

“The men who took your girl, they had to believe you could get the ruby. Why you?”

He grimaced. “While drinking one night I boasted about having a similar gem.”

“Why?”

“Nosy much?”

Lila Dean cringed and looked away. He wanted her to steal the town’s pride. Squaring her shoulders, she forced herself to look up and wait for his answer.

“Fine. I like to gamble. I needed the men to believe I could pay up when I couldn’t, so I bluffed.”

Her heart went out to this man’s daughter. Her own father may not like to look at her but at least he protected her.

“For your girl, I’ll do it but then you leave and you promise to protect your girl.”

The stranger put his hands together like he was praying. “Promise.” Then he smiled and stuck his hand out. “Michael.”

Lila Dean eyed the hand. Michael what? Everyone had a second name. She decided she didn’t care. The less she knew about him, the better.

“Lila Dean.” She shook his hand, feeling the slight pull on her scars.

“Let me show you this window.”

***

She wasn’t agile. Lila Dean gritted her teeth against the pain in her right side. Michael’s window was for the pantry in the Roy’s house. On the outside, the ground came up to just a few feet below the sill. On the inside, the floor dropped a good five feet, sunk below the ground to keep things cool.

Lila Dean’s left foot barely touched the sacks of flour stacked below. Her right foot sat stuck over the windowsill. If she’d been thinking, she would have crawled through feet first on her stomach and dropped both feet at the same time. Hindsight.

Instead, she’d crawled through like the sill was a fence. Left side first sideways.

Her right side screamed as she stretched just a little more to get her foot over the ledge.

Her scars burned like they were tearing. A whimper escaped her as her foot came free and she tumbled onto the floor.

She stilled, waiting for the pain to subside while she listened to see if her noisy entrance went unnoticed.

Nothing stirred in the dark house. Lila Dean rolled over to push to her feet. Moving through the kitchen and then the dining room, she gawked.

The kitchen could hold most of her house within its walls and the mineworkers could fit with room to spare at the dining table. So much space for just a few people. Like herself and her dad, it was just Billy and Marcus Roy. Lila Dean didn’t know what happened to Mrs. Roy.

She shoved the thought of the Roy’s from her mind.

In the living room, Lila Dean’s eyes were pulled to the top of the hearth. On a wooden pedestal sat a red gem the size of a strawberry, all rough edges and dark light reflected from the single candle left burning beside it.

She glanced around but only shadows cast from the candle flickered at the edges of the room. To reach the gem she stepped up onto the fireplace. The stone warmed the soles of her bare feet. Her fingers closed around the ruby. It was warm too.

“Lila Dean?”

She froze. Guilt made her hand shake. He said my name. Somehow, even in her moment of guilt, she felt gratitude that Billy Roy would acknowledge her. Silly…no stupid.

Turning with the ruby cradled in her hand, she met Billy Roy’s confused eyes.

She tried to say his name but all that came out  was a horse, “Roy.”

“What are you doing?” he still didn’t look away from her. She savored the moment that, for once, those brown eyes actually saw her.

“I—“ She dropped her eyes in shame. How could she say, I’m stealing from you? If he ever looked at her again, it’d be with anger and hatred. She couldn’t stand that.

She kept her eyes down.

She didn’t hear him move but a moment later his hand grasped her own around the ruby. He opened her fist to look.

“I see,” he whispered.

“Roy—“ again nothing else came out. She swallowed.

“Dean,” the tone was teasing. Lila Dean looked up in shock. His eyes were still confused but the anger she expected wasn’t there. “Don’t know why you need it but you wouldn’t take it without really needing to.” He closed her fingers back around the rough gem and stepped back.

He didn’t cringe at the scars lacing her fingers.

Lila Dean stared at him, confused. Then he smiled, a small lift to the corners of his lips.

She couldn’t stand it. Stuffing the ruby into her pocket, she ran.

The main door was right there. She smacked into it before remembering to shove the locking bar up. Bolting across the porch, she tripped, stutter stepped down the steps and skidded on her hands and knees at the bottom.

Blood trickled from her palms and stained the knees of her pants but she didn’t notice until she stopped, puffing, at the tree where she was to meet Michael.

Roy’s smile stuck in her mind like the dirt under her father’s nails. He trusted her. Why?

“Got it?”

Lila Dean jumped. She wasn’t used to people approaching her. It was unnerving.

She turned, fiddling to pull the ruby from her pocket and be done with it. The rough corners snagged on the fabric.

Michael grinned, holding his hand out. The look froze her.  Something lit his eyes with an ugly light.

“What’s your little girl’s name?” she asked.

“What?” He finally met her eyes.

“Your girl’s name?”

His jaw twitched before he controlled it and his expression turned pained.

Is that real? Lila Dean wasn’t sure. The expression didn’t fit with what she’d seen a moment before.

“Laura,” Michael said.

It was just a name. Lila Dean’s fingers closed hard around the ruby still in her pocket.

I’m a fool.

“How old is she?” she asked.

The twitch came back in his jaw. Lila Dean took a step back.

“Five.”

He snatched at Lila Dean’s arm just as she jerked away. The sleeve tore. She ran, leaving the fabric in his hand.

He cursed and his heavy footfalls crashed after her. Lila Dean’s lungs burned. She never ran and now, twice in one night, she pushed her body for speed. Her chest protested with fierce fire and, judging from the crashing behind her, it wasn’t enough.

Giving up on speed, Lila Dean veered left, up the hill and toward the mine. Its dark, gaping mouth appeared before her. Without considering the dangers, she ran inside and rolled herself into one of the carts waiting inside. Her breathing rasped in the darkness, almost loud enough to echo.

Quiet!

She sucked in air and held it for a count of five before letting it out slowly.

“Stupid girl!” Michael’s voice exploded not far from her, amplified by the close space of the mine.

Lila Dean jumped and smacked the side of the cart. The thud echoed off the walls like a bell.

“Can’t hide in there forever,” Michael said.

The silence lengthened. Lila Dean listened. He was still there. If she held her breath, she could just make out the whisper of his breathing.

Peeking over the side of the cart, Lila Dean waited for her eyes to adjust until she could see the faint outline of the mine’s mouth. Michael’s dark shape stood there, leaning against the left side. He didn’t seem inclined to venture farther in.

Lila Dean decided to trust the dark. Unlike Michael, she wasn’t backlit by the faint light from the moon. Pulling herself out of the cart, she reached her hand out for the wall. Its rough, cool texture greeted her like an old friend.

“Had you believing,” Michael said and Lila Dean jumped again. Thankfully there was nothing to hit this time.

She glanced over her shoulder but he still leaned against the entrance.

“Didn’t think you’d care about details or I’d have had a whole picture in my head about little Laura…” he described his imaginary little girl. Lila Dean let his words cover the soft crunch of her steps. He paused and she paused until he started again.

“I do have gambling debts,” he continued. “Owe a lot and they’ll take a lot in payment. Maybe an arm or…”

Lila Dean’s hand hit empty space. She turned into the tunnel and, as she moved into it, Michael’s voice faded. It was a secondary entrance. Only there for if the entrance caved in but Lila Dean knew about it because of Sheldon Lea. The old spinster showed it to her right after the fire. He led her down it to relieve her fears of losing her father too. She wouldn’t lose both parents, he said—most likely. Sheldon Lea tended to be honest.

By the time she reached ground level and made her way home, it was late into the night. She wondered if Michael was still waiting at the entrance of the mine. Would he give up before the workers arrived?

Lila Dean cringed. She didn’t really care but her sleeve was missing, her palms and knees were bloody and her clothes were covered in dust from the mine. What would she tell her father?

She hesitated on the small porch but then squared her shoulders and entered.

A single candle burned on the table and her father sat writing in his ledger.

“Never again,” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” she answered.

He didn’t look up. Lila Dean went to her room to change, for once glad he didn’t look at her.

Pulling the ruby from her pocket, she set it on her nightstand, remembering Billy Roy’s smile. She’d wronged him. She wasn’t sure how yet but she vowed she’d make it right.

The End

Blessings,

Jennifer

Stalking Prey

Welcome to a new week=) The idea for this story came to me from my six-year-old niece. Gotta love the creative mind of a child.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you enjoy.

Stalking Prey

No sound warned her. Nothing moved to catch her eye or snapped a twig to reach her ears. But the trees were hushed. The squirrels had fallen still and the birds fled to the sky, leaving only the wind to rustle half dead leaves.

Tension built a shiver between Moyra’s shoulder blades. She gripped the hilt of her knife in her sweaty palm as she scanned the woods, trying to place the predator that stalked her.

It could be a bear. They had yet to retreat to hibernation and she’d seen one scruffy male just two days previous. But she doubted it. Bears didn’t usually stalk prey.

A musky odor, heady and thick, wafted on the wind. Moyra’s shiver traveled her spine.

Mountain lion. She’d seen a few in her time. Old Tyner even had the skin of one that he wore across his shoulders with the ears sitting on one shoulder like the round tufts could still hear. She’d stared at that pelt for hours listening to the old man spin tales.

But she’d never been close enough to smell one. Old Tyner’s description fit it perfectly though. The musk stuck in the nose like wood smoke and body odor.

Moyra gripped her knife until her knuckles felt close to popping. She hadn’t brought another weapon. The walk from the house to the butcher wasn’t far, and she hadn’t figured she’d need an actual weapon.

The short knife felt inadequate. It wouldn’t stop a lion, not by a long shot.

Moyra stopped scanning and moved forward with light, tense steps. Stories always said you only saw the lion when it was too late.

She wasn’t sure she believed it but there was no use wasting time looking for the feline when it was unlikely she’d find it.

The trail was clear with soggy dead leaves to deaden the sound of her steps. Moyra felt like a deer, ready to bolt but scared to trigger an attack.

The musky smell stayed strong in her sinuses the whole way to the butcher’s. Moyra couldn’t tell if it was simply imprinted in her nose or if the feline was pacing her. Knocking on the rough wooden door of the shop was a relief.

“Miss Moyra! Here for some chickens?”

“Yes, Sir,” Moyra answered Master Ryan as the thought of carrying squawking chickens home with a mountain lion made her shudder.

Master Ryan noticed.

“You don’t like chickens?”

“Oh, it’s not that.” Moyra glanced over her shoulder as she entered the shop.

“Something else?”

“I…” Moyra hesitated. Was she imagining things?

Then, remembering the smell, she pushed on and explained her unease.

“Lion, eh? All you got is that knife?” Master Ryan pointed a large hand at the hilt she grasped above her belt.

“It’s all I brought,” she admitted with a sheepish grimace.

“Well, that won’t do, let me get Layin’s bow and long knife.”

Moyra opened her mouth to protest but he was out of the room before she could speak up.

Layin was Master Ryan’s daughter but Moyra had never met her since they were several years apart in age. She had some misgivings about borrowing from a girl she’d never spoken to.

Maybe she could buy a better weapon from Master Ryan instead of buying chickens today. The chickens could wait. With that idea in mind, she moved to follow where the large man disappeared.

She ended up traversing the shop into the house behind and exiting through the back door into the yard where Master Ryan had several fires going to smoke meat.

Stacks of wood lined the yard. By one of these stood a slim girl chopping wood. Although she was slim, she was five years Moyra’s senior.

Moyra hesitated. This was the first time she’d seen Layin up close. Considering her father, she was very slight but she had his dark, curly hair.

The girl glanced up as the door swung shut and paused.

Moyra smiled but the expression froze on her lips.

Tawny fur with rounded ears moved on the stack of wood behind Layin.

Sound stuck in Moyra’s throat. A squeak escaped but it wasn’t loud enough to reach the girl.

The cat’s muscles bunched.

Where was Master Ryan? Moyra couldn’t place him but it was too late for him to be of help.

Layin sensed the danger. She started to turn with the axe half raised just as the lion leapt from its perch.

The stack of wood wobbled under the force exerted from the feline’s rear legs. Several pieces fell with soft thuds.

Moyra stepped forward, sound finally leaving her throat. “Down!”

Layin dropped with the axe swinging over her in a defensive ark as Moyra pulled her knife.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots.

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots.

It didn’t feel inadequate now. It didn’t register that all she held was a six-inch blade. It felt solid, the wooden hilt sliding through her palm in a move she’d practiced for fun millions of times. The flat of the blade slid into her waiting fingers. Moyra stepped again, rocking forward at the same time the knife left her hand.

The knife made a soft hissing sound like steam escaping a kettle before it boiled. Neck out stretched and jaws open, the cat’s head jerked as the knife slid home into its glittering eye.

Layin cried out. Her axe narrowly missed the fur on the lion’s belly. With a thud, axe and cat hit the ground with the girl berried beneath.

Moyra’s muscles wouldn’t move. Hearing the door behind her, she glanced back to find Master Ryan standing there, mouth and eyes wide while he held a bow and long knife in his hands.

“Layin!” he dropped everything to rush to his daughter.

Moyra held back, afraid of what he’d find.

Shoving the large cat off his daughter, Master Ryan flinched back as the cat jerked. It wasn’t alive though. Morya stared at the one good, open eye. There was no life in that glassy gaze.

Someone coughed and Morya jumped, relief flooding through her as Layin sat up. Master Ryan enveloped her in a hug. He looked at Moyra over the girl’s curly hair.

“I believe you can have chickens free for the rest of your life,” he announced.

Morya chuckled and collapsed to the ground, her muscles finally relaxing. At least she could go home without worrying now.

The End

Blessings,

Jennifer