Cycle 4 Stories!!

Posted by Kat 06/01/2020 7 Comment(s) Inanna's Game,

Ready, Set, Write!!

 

We are ready for the next batch of Inanna’s Game stories! What have you created with this cycle's inspirations?

 

This cycle’s stories should be utilizing the inspiration that was posted yesterday. Once you have written your tale and corrected it to make it as readable as possible, please post it here as a reply to this post, so that others can read your work. Make sure to put the snippet, character, and scenario numbers that you used in the top part of the post!

 

Two days before the next cycle starts, comments and voting for the best story will be cut off at 5 PM. The following day, a winner will be announced.

 

Each story remains the copyrighted material of the author posting the story. Please give us the title of the story, the identification of the snippets, characters, and scenes that you attempted to use, as well as any comments you think applicable.

 

Once a story is posted, other players in the Game and outside interested parties are encouraged to make comments and vote for their favorites.

7 Comment(s)

Taki Drake:
06/12/2020, 12:56:56 AM, http://www.takidrake-author.com
Reply

Sisters in the City

By Taki Drake

Using Snippet 1, Scenario 2, Character 3

Chapter 1 – Power Walk

The man looked totally out of place amid the grime and noisome alleyways of New York City. Pacing past crowds and scattered individuals, the tall, broad-shouldered man stood out from everyone that he passed by. Not only was he taller and more tanned than the people in the city, but he moved like a panther among lesser predators.

His powerful strides and the prominent muscles on his broad-shouldered form warned off many who would have accosted him. Others took one look at the closed-off and dark expression that he wore like armor and found something else they urgently needed to do. Even those that generally preyed on unwary visitors kept away from him. However, each thug followed him with their eyes as long as he was visible, holding their expression in-scrutable, and shadows of fear clouding their gaze.

Dressed in a black suit and white shirt, the moving cloud of power and anger was obviously not from around there. Someone who was a follower of fashion would have noticed the strange device around his neck, a skinny string tie held together by a slider with a carved and glinting stone in the center. Others would have noticed the more visible aspect of his foreignness in the immaculate and perfectly-positioned Stetson Cavalry hat that he wore like a second skin.

Oblivious to the weight of the many watching eyes, Matthew McMahon struggled with his feelings of fury and betrayal. Holding onto his temper by shredded strings, he continued his anger driven conversation with himself as he walked. The worst part of it is that I cannot really be angry with her. She is doing what she has chosen. I am the fool that ignored the warnings of my subconscious and put myself in this position. You would think that a US Marshal would not be so gullible, or able to delude themselves so thoroughly.

Matthew caught his breath in an involuntary gasp of nausea and deeply felt embarrassment. A teamster going in the opposite direction happened to be passing by at that moment. Terror breaking over his face, the burly man flinched at the sound, swinging his eyes to look at the angry lawman. When Matthew kept moving, the man scuttled away, leaving the smell of sour sweat and fear behind him.

The entire interaction had escaped Matthew’s notice. Although part of his subconscious stretched around him in a broad bubble of awareness, he was focused on taming his emotions. Relentlessly he tracked down the wellspring that those feelings came from just like he tracked and captured every criminal that he had ever gone after.

He thought to himself, The only person I can blame is myself. I am the one that responded to her correspondence. I am the one that read more into her words then were actually there. When things she said or reported doing felt off, I ignored those signs for one reason or another. Sighing, the big man stopped momentarily and took two deep breaths. Looking around, he realized that he had gone deeply into one of the most crowded and lawless areas of the big city.

Smiling wryly to himself, he resumed his walk. Deciding that eventually, his path would come out on the other side of this torn and tattered hem of a neighborhood that was home to bully boys and prostitutes, Matthew resumed his internal conversation.

I might as well accept that this was a blessing, even if it was concealed in a disgusting surprise. If I had not been summoned back to the US Marshal Service headquarters in Washington for my group’s regular swearing-in ceremony, it would not have occurred to me to surprise my lady penpal with a visit here in New York City. With no warning, Amanda had no time to put on a show to continue the farce.

Closing his eyes for a split second, Matthew experienced again the rush of disbelief and anger that had quickly drowned his hurt feelings of betrayal. When he saw that unlike what she had told him in her letters, Amanda was no poor widow, he could not even speak with her. Finding out she was a foul-mouthed and tawdry Madam of a wretched brothel, catering to common sailors had set his sensibilities into an angry tailspin.

Finally, conquering his rage, Matthew actually began to smile. It was a thin and stretched positioning of his face, but it was still a change from the furious expression that he had worn for the last several hours. He thought to himself, It is better that I found out now, rather than when I was more invested in a fake relationship. Even worse, I could be like George Gifford and have proposed via a letter.

As if responding to the lightning of his mood, a chill breeze began to flow through the streets and alleyways. Through the cloying smells of decaying refuse and the odors of unwashed people crowded close together, the Western lawman noticed the scent of an approaching storm.

Craning his head up, he saw the gathering of darker clouds and the colors of green and gray that painted their swirling shapes. Thinking to himself, It looks like there is going to be a bad storm. I think instead of ambling, I need to move a bit faster because it would be a rough end to what has already been a tough day if I am caught outside in a downpour among all these buildings. Matthew began to move more quickly and purposely.

<<<>>>

Botana was yelling, expressing her fury at the almost empty room. She shrieked, “I am going to snatch that girl bald! She will be polishing her skull instead of brushing her hair for months if I have anything to say about it!” The slightly-built young woman paced back and forth across the formal parlor, her expression showing both anger and concern. An elderly dog lay in front of the fire, toasting its bones in the heat, chocolate brown eyes following her mistress as she gave physical expression to her feelings.

Continuing to speak to the gray muzzled animal, the woman raised her voice in impassioned tones, “Kezia could have at least told me where she was going! The lame excuses that I had to invent to keep Lenora from descending on us were pathetic. However, I could not think of anything else to do when our big sister wanted to make sure that we were all right. Especially after my twin dragged us out of Lenora’s new fancy house, suddenly deciding she was not feeling well.”

Releasing her breath in a big explosion of air, the young woman slammed her body into a wingback chair that sat next to where the old dog lay. The animal’s tail wagged once and then again before she closed her eyes and went back to her nap.

Uttering a short, sharp snort of mirth at the dog’s behavior, the young woman continued to murmur, “We are twins, and we have always told each other everything. Why is she not talking to me, all of a sudden? Kezia and Botana together, we have always been a team.”

Feeling slightly calmer, Botana half closed her eyes and thought back to the events of the previous evening. She knew that Kezia had been uneasy about going to Lenora’s home for dinner, but they had been so busy that Botana had not pushed her sister to explain. When the twin sisters had arrived for the informal dinner party, Kezia had gone from lively conversation to a tense and silent rigidity.

I could not see anything that would make her angry or afraid, but Kezia felt like both. Perhaps someone said something to upset her. But that does not make any sense either because she went silent on me as soon as we set foot in the house and saw the hats and cloaks of the other dinner guests.

Sitting suddenly upright as if she had been poked by something sharp, Botana almost shouted, “That is it! She got afraid and angry when we saw that two of Darrell’s creepy friends were there. One of them is the guy that makes my skin crawl, but he stays away from us. The other is always watching us with a calculating expression on his face. Both of them smile all the time, but the smile does not go all the way into their eyes. We both know it is fake, and he makes me uncomfortable, but why would Kezia be afraid?”

The door to the parlor popped open, and the wrinkled face of the girls’ grandmother peeked in. Botana jumped in startlement, but before she could say anything, the older woman said, “Your sister is apparently the smarter twin. That man is dangerous, and I will gut him like a fish if he ever lays a hand on either one of you!”

“Baka, there is no need to get so upset. I knew Kezia was not happy to see the two men there last night, but I do not understand what could have happened to make her want to leave right away. Lenora was worried that my twin was coming down with some sickness, and I was forced into hiding the fact that she was gone. I had to lie to our older sister so that she did not come racing over here. That would have been bad, since right now, Lenora is acting almost like a stranger, and I did not know what she would do if she knew Kezia was missing.”

The older woman stepped further into the room and gave her granddaughter a comforting hug. Gently pushing back Botana’s luxuriant dark hair, the old lady murmured, “Lenora is still getting used to married life. She has a lot going on now, with her new husband, a new house, and all the strain of taking over the family matchmaking business now that your father is dead. We all need to be as supportive of her as possible.” For a moment, a look of profound sadness showed in the old woman’s face, disappearing at the sound of another voice at the doorway.

“No gloom and doom! Everything will turn out all right. Lenora will work her way through her problems and get her path back straight again, but we have to let her learn her own lessons. There is nothing we can do about that, and any meddling will simply make it worse! Just concentrate on the things that you can do!” Where Botana’s Baka was comforting with an occasional flash of passionate emotion, her twin sister was the opposite. Sabina Bilya Petulengro was a force of nature, seldom sympathetic and never less than blunt.

Looking at the two older ladies, it was easy to see that they were twins. Although they dressed in different colors and styles, the same feeling of small packages of dynamite surrounded them like a cloud, while their jewel-colored eyes and dark hair could have belonged to much younger women.

Unable to stop herself, Botana laughed, releasing some of the tension that she held. With amusement coloring her voice, the young woman said, “Tetka Sabina, you are always so confident that things will work out for the better.”

“Well, child, I consulted the cards, and they are pretty clear at this point. Lenora will survive, although her spirit will be bruised and battered for a while. Kezia will continue to let her heart drag her feet into dangerous situations but will grow in her abilities.”

Botana waited for a moment that seemed to stretch out until it felt like it would snap from the tension. Finally, the young woman felt compelled to ask, “What about me? What do you see for me?”

For some reason, the matching smiles on the older twins' faces did not fill Botana with comfort. Tensely, she waited for the answer, which came quickly. “I see you changing into that comfortable dress you had made in the deep violet wool. You know the one I am talking about, the one that is just darker than your eyes. I also see that you are going to be meeting a tall, dark stranger, and your life will be forever changed.”

With matching laughs, the older twins left the room, making Botana feel like they had pulled most of the oxygen with them. Shivering slightly, she called after them, “Tetka Sabina, that is not funny! You have been telling me I am going to meet a tall, dark stranger for six months now, and I still have not met a single one. What makes you think I am going to meet one now?”

Suddenly chilled, with goosebumps raised on her forearms, Botana jumped as a searing flash of lightning hit nearby flickered through the windows, and the crashing roar of thunder immediately followed. Her eyes hooded in thought, the young woman stood up and made her way out of the room.

Unseen, the old dog by the fire watched her mistress leave the parlor, wagging her tail several times. Comforted by the feeling that all was right, the animal slipped back into its dreams.

<<<>>>

Her heart pounding, unable to get enough oxygen into her lungs, the young woman struggled to move as silently and as quickly as she could. Thankful for the dimming light of early dusk, Kezia felt like each step was a struggle. With both of her arms occupied, the frightened and enraged young woman was battered and bruised from slamming into obstacles that her encumbered state prevented her from avoiding.

Kezia could still feel trickles of blood on her arm as she cradled the injured body of the sturdy little dog. The animal had stopped its whimpering and now lay silently in her embrace. Tears trickled down the young woman’s face as she worried that it might already be dead.

Stumbling over a piece of trash, the dark-haired, violet-eyed woman would have fallen face-first onto the disgusting surface of the alley, but a massive body flung itself in front of her. Instead of grit covered stones, Kezia smashed into a scarred, bloody, and fur-covered back of an enormous dog.

Resting just for a moment against the warmth of the big animal, the young woman could feel her galloping heartbeat slowing and began to draw deeper breaths. She stayed there for a few moments, just appreciating the comfort of the dog’s heat.

In the sudden quiet, she heard the sounds of pursuit and knew that if she did not move even more quickly, the two animals that she had risked so much to rescue would soon be in a worse situation than before. Determinedly, Kezia stood back up. Grabbing once more the end of the waist sash that she had converted into a makeshift collar and leash for the big animal, the young woman took a deep breath and gathered her energy to start running again.

Looking at the scarred and damaged animal that watched her with trusting eyes, Kezia said, “Thank you, girl, for saving me from a bloody nose. We have not come this far to let those disgusting excuses for men haul you back into the fighting ring. We just have to get someplace safe.”

Unquestioningly, the big dog positioned herself next to the young woman’s right side. Moving like a big white and brown shadow, the rescuer and rescued headed off at a trot away from the sound of their vengeful pursuers.

The light grew dimmer, and an observer would have noticed the deepening dark green in the clouds as thunderheads consumed the sky and crackling lightning chased itself from one side of the city to the other. Heralding the rapid approach of a powerful storm, a chilling wind ruffled Kezia’s hair, whipping it over her face and creating tangles. Goosebumps chased each other up and down her exposed skin, but the exertion of her efforts and the desperation that she felt kept her warm.

Chapter 2 – Soggy Welcome

The wind kept rising, and the lightning increased as Kezia and her canine companion struggled to stay ahead of her pursuers. Once again gasping for breath, the young woman felt like her left arm was a big block of wood, numb and unresponsive. Her fear that she was carrying the corpse of the animal whose fate had pushed her from a scouting endeavor into a foolhardy rescue attempt grew with every step until she almost crumbled beneath the load.

Ignoring the exhaustion that pulled on every one of her muscles and consumed her failing energy, Kezia was praying under her breath for the survival of her companions. The pain of the ankle that she twisted with an injudicious step several blocks ago pushed her into broken apologies to the large animal that accompanied her without complaint or resistance.

“I am so sorry, girl, that I was not there to rescue you when this whole thing started. I knew months ago that there was something wrong, but I was scared to confront the man. My fear was not worth your pain, but my sister, Lenora, is married to his friend, and I did not want to cause any more problems between my sister and her husband. I kept telling myself that I must be mistaken.”

Just then, a roaring rush of wind ripped through the alley around Kezia and her companions. The rumble of thunder overhead increased to a deafening level, and the flash of eye-biting green lightning drew the young woman’s attention upward.

Clouds tumbled all over the sky, lit by the darting lightning and the glow of hellish green light. In the eerie illumination, Kezia could see strange twists of clouds that looked like funnels reaching down from the sky toward the city.

As the mesmerized young woman stared in awe, there was a massive flash of light, and the sharp smell of sour gas overwhelmed her senses. As if in answer to a command, the clouds chose that moment to release torrents of rain that hit her skin like sharp, cutting bullets of liquid, chilled with the promise of hail and destruction.

Instantly soaked to the skin, Kezia sputtered past the drenching rain that threatened to fill her upturned face. Tightening her grip on the large dog’s makeshift leash and collar, the young woman charged toward the promise of shelter enticingly displayed by a warm golden light that showed through an open doorway.

Her headlong rush came to a sudden screeching halt as a powerful hand grabbed the front of her garment and yanked her against the scratchy wool fabric of a vest. The voice Kezia had dreaded to hear again grated into her ear, “There are no witnesses here, little girl. You cost me a lot of money by pulling that dog out of the fight. Instead of profit, the whole fight event is going to lose money, and I will have to make it up somewhere. I guess I am just going to have to take it out of your pretty little hide.”

Kezia struggled frantically, trying to break the man’s grip, but Jared Michelson, the dreaded friend of her brother-in-law, was in control. The young woman’s skin crawled at his closeness, and she fought intense nausea.

Taking a quick deep breath, Kezia screamed with all of her might, “Help me! Someone, please help me!”

Jared laughed, a dark, bullying sound of pleasure at her fear. Running a hand down the side of her face, he chortled again when she shrank back away from him. Triumphantly, the man murmured into her ear, “I love it when they scream. Yell all you want, please. That is a wine finer than any I could buy.”

So absorbed was the man in his pleasure at terrifying the young woman that he ignored something important. In a split instant, his cruel satisfaction turned to a high-pitched scream of intense agony as powerful jaws closed on his upper thigh, piercing down to the bone. All but flinging Kezia away from him, the man beat uselessly on the rounded skull and small, tattered ears of the animal that had sprung to the young woman’s defense.

Infuriated growls shook the big dog’s frame as the fighting animal smashed the 200-pound man against the side of the alley. Unable to do anything to slow the animal’s attack, Jared clutched desperately for a weapon. In his panic and pain, he could not remember where either his knife or gun was.

Kezia stumbled to her feet and called the dog, tears evident in her voice. Gently, the young woman crooned, “Good girl, thank you for saving me, but now it is time to let him go. It is time now for us to finally escape. Come on, my sweet thing, we need to find some safety. Getting rid of scum like him is not worth pushing you into becoming a mankiller.”

With a final shake, the big dog opened her jaws and trotted over to the sodden and shaking young woman. Ignoring the sobbing, bleeding man on the ground, Kezia grasped her tattered sash once more and stumbled toward her goal. Never once did she look back, concentrating instead on putting one foot in front of the other and getting her companions to refuge.

Kezia thought to herself, It may be only temporary, but we need someplace safe, and I cannot see well enough to protect us. We are so close to my home, but I do not think I can carry this burden much longer.

Behind her lying on the ground, Jared rose up on one elbow, eyes alight with vengeance and a snarl silent in his mouth. Finally locating his gun, the well-dressed bully boy sighted on the young woman’s back with a sense of impending satisfaction. Before he could pull the trigger, a smashing blow from the side knocked his weapon from his hand, and a punishing jab crushed his jaw, fracturing the bones and dragging a garbled scream from his throat.

A cold voice from above said, “Consider yourself under arrest. The charges will be attempted murder, intended assault, and a whole variety of others that I am sure we will find when we investigate your affairs.”

Almost unintelligibly, Jared responded belligerently, “The hell you say! I pay enough money and bribes to the cops that those charges will not stick! You will be out on the street, boy. No one messes with me!”

The injured big man’s eyes widened, and fear showed on his face for the first time when out of the darkness in the alley, emerged a man whose power was evident in every move that he made. Lit from behind by the wild and erratic lighting from the sky, he reminded Jared of the stories his grandfather had told him about avenging angels. Unable to control his terror, the thug whimpered and cowered.

It could have been the gun that the big man was holding that frightened the hoodlum on the ground. However, Jared’s eyes were glued to the badge that hung exposed from the other man’s belt. The one that said in prominent letters, “US Marshall.”

Jared Michelson felt his belief in his own supremacy shatter as he realized that fate and the machinations of a teenage woman had conspired to bring him down. Sick with pain and fear, the big thug felt his grip on the world slip away, and he descended into a hellish unconsciousness that brought him no solace.

<<<>>>

Botana screamed for her grandmother, “Baka, help me! Kezia is in trouble! Bad trouble! I can feel her. She is hurting and scared, and I think she is going into shock! Oh, dear God, what are we going to do?” Botana was hysterical, screaming for her grandmother and running through the house. The young woman was not thinking clearly and evaded every attempt to slow her down as she frantically looked for her grandmother.

Slap.

The blow was unexpected and stopped Botana’s hysteria instantly. Holding the side of her face, the young woman stared numbly at her great aunt. Speaking slowly and clearly as if trying to get through to someone whose intellect was not engaged, the old woman said, “Not another word until you calm down. Screaming and running around like a headless chicken will not help anyone, and all you are doing is upsetting everybody else in the house. Go to the parlor, sit in the chair. Theodosia and I will be with you in just a few moments.”

Shaking from the combination of the slap and the feelings echoing over the bond with her twin, Botana obediently went to sit by the fire in the parlor. Still gasping for air, the young woman felt tears running down her face and kept brushing them away with her hands.

Suddenly, her grandmother was there, kissing the young woman’s forehead and dabbing a delicate lace-trimmed handkerchief at the offending moisture. In a soft, comforting voice, the older woman said, “We expect that Kezia and her companions will be here shortly. We need to make sure that everything is ready for them because they are all soaked and hurt.”

“Baka, are you sure, really sure? I am almost sick to my stomach just from the echoes of her pain and her fear. It is horrible knowing what she feels and being unable to do anything about it!”

Theodosia told her granddaughter gently, “How about if we get three warm baths ready for them now. I will set up one in the guest room, and you prepare the one for Kezia in your shared chambers. Your Tetka Sabina will take care of the third one. Once you have the bath set up, go speak to Cook and have her make a warming meal of soup or stew ready.”

When Botana numbly nodded her head and climbed to her feet to execute her grandmother’s commands, the old woman gave her granddaughter one last intense hug, murmuring into her hair, “Trust me, little one. It will all turn out all right.”

Chapter 3 – Homeward Bound

Focused with desperation, Kezia longed with all of her heart to find someplace out of the cold rain and chill wind. The young woman needed someplace that she could catch her breath and check on the motionless animal that she still clutched in her cramping left arm. The beckoning golden light that shone through the open doorway was the only thing around that whispered a promise of what she needed.

Soaked to the skin, the young woman’s stylish skirt acted as if it were almost alive, grabbing at her legs as she moved step by torturous step toward a possible haven. Focusing on lifting her feet and advancing, the threshold to the building caught her by surprise. Stumbling, she clung to her uncomplaining canine companion and almost fell into the room beyond the doorway.

Warmth, glorious warmth. Kezia shuddered in reaction, as relief from the absence of the wind and rain overwhelmed her senses. Shaking, the young woman raised her head and realized that she was in some sort of drinking establishment. Although she knew what a bar tavern was, there had never been a reason for her to enter one.

The next sense that was overwhelmed was that of smell. Cloying dense odors of unwashed people and stale beer and smoke awoke nausea deep within her, and for a moment, Kezia just closed her eyes. Desperately, she tried to get her body to relax the coiled tension that thrummed through her core. As she brought her reactions under control, she realized that the room was silent.

Looking up and brushing her sodden hair away from her face, she cringed under the weight of the stares of strangers. The taproom was packed, every seat taken, and tables were filled with cups of ale and beer. And every person in the room was staring at her.

The silence stretched out for a moment and then snapped as the bartender roared, “You cannot bring that creature in here! Get out, get out, I say!”

Kezia stumbled into a reply, her body so cold that her jaw was chattering as she answered, “I just need to stop for a few minutes. Please, let me stay ten minutes, and I will be gone.”

Unwilling to listen to the young woman, the bartender roared again, and this time Kezia could see the fear in his eyes. He was not even looking at her. Instead, his eyes were focused on the big patient animal that flanked the young woman on her right.

The big man behind the bar motioned to two large burly men who began to advance on Kezia. At a different time and place, the young woman would have been amused by their look of fearful determination. Still, at that moment, all she could do was cry internally as she thought about going back out into the slashing cold rain and trying to make her way in the dark back to home and safety.

Silently, the big animal moved in front of Kezia, scarred lip raised and teeth displayed. A low rumbling snarl began in her chest, and both men stopped. One turned to the bartender and shouted, “I am not going anywhere close to that blasted dog. I have seen them fight, and I am not going to be reduced to ripped up flesh and bloody leftovers!” His companion nodded in agreement, and both men took a couple of steps backward

Kezia could feel the tension in the room escalate and tugged gently on the soaked and bedraggled thin length of cloth that had earlier been a festive sash. Never taking her eyes off the people in the room, the big dog obediently backed up until Kezia could feel the heat of her haunches.

The woman found her mind running around like a squirrel in a cage, unable to think of a solution. The young woman’s thoughts turned to her twin, as she thought, Oh, Botana, I am so sorry that I left without talking to you. All I wanted to do was protect you if things went badly, and they are about as bad as they can get.

The young woman felt a small push of energy come into her that tasted and smelled like her twin, and a tendril of love soothed her spirit. Taking a deep breath, Kezia decided that she was going to have to brave the rain again because staying in this place was not safe either.

She knew that it was just a matter of a few blocks, but she was not sure how far she could make it. However, Kezia absolutely refused to give up her companions. They had come this far together, and they would leave in that same way. The clasp of her hand on the makeshift leash and her determined grip on the body of her unconscious companion did not loosen. She was committed to them and would not let them go without a fight. It did not matter what else happened, they were loyal to her, and she would return that dedication.

Keeping her expression firm and emotions clear, Kezia was about ready to leave the chamber when motion behind her pinned her in place with a new fear. Did Jared come after me?

A strange voice sounded in the quiet, and Kezia saw that everyone’s eyes were now focused in astonishment at whoever was behind her. The relief that she felt at knowing that it was not Jared at her vulnerable back caused her to momentarily sag, but the young woman quickly straightened her back again, ready to withdraw from the building and go on her way.

The exhausted woman was almost shocked senseless when she realized that the man was speaking to her. Trying to parse his words, Kezia noticed in passing that the man had a Western drawl and that his deep, resonant baritone was assured and relaxed.

Shaking her head slightly to gather her wits, Kezia was further surprised to hear the man say, “It would be an honor to escort you and your canine companion back to your home, ma’am. I believe that the rain has eased off a little bit, and we can quickly and safely make our way there now. Would you allow me to escort you?”

Turning on trembling legs, Kezia saw a man in a drenched but well-tailored black suit and wearing a black Calvary hat. Tall enough that she felt like a child next to him, Kezia took two steps and held her right hand out to him, saying, “Yes, please. It has been a very fatiguing day, and I would appreciate your assistance.”

There was a feral growl in the barroom as several men started to rise from their tables. Kezia felt her eyes widen in fear but was reassured by a glance from the big man and intrigued by his quick steps to block anyone from getting to her back. His powerful voice asked in a restrained rumble, “Is there some problem, gentlemen?”

As he spoke, the young woman saw that his suit coat was open and that he flicked it further to the side. Belted to his waist and hanging slightly down was a gun belt, and the deadly shape of the weapon sent a shiver down her back. This is a very powerful man, the young woman thought to herself, as all movement in the room ceased. In the quiet, someone exclaimed, “Crap! That is a bloody Marshall!”

Over against the wall, next to the roaring fireplace, were several tables of cardplaying men. One of them, positioned in an area protected by a wall and formed by the hearth, held a group of six men dressed in a manner that was a cut above the others in the tavern. The table was filled with a variety of glasses and piled high with money and chips.

One of the players, a man in his 40s, grizzled and scarred, abruptly dumped his cards face-down on the table and stood up, saying, “Only if you do not leave here, stranger. The lass came in here looking for shelter, and I am quite happy to provide her with that. We do not need any stuck up lawman coming in here and interfering in our business. I think the lady should stay with me, and I will escort her home. You can take your sorry country backside out of here!”

In a low voiced aside, Matthew told Kezia, “Be prepared to leave the room quickly if I have problems. If any of them pulls a gun, leave immediately. Go directly to the corner where you ran into the scumbag that attacked you. The police should be there shortly.”

Turning his attention back to the gambler advancing toward him, Matthew felt an eager smile slip onto his face, and the older man’s progress came to a halt. The lawman saw the card player’s eyes widen slightly as he realized that his opponent was more than he had expected.

The tension in the taproom increased as everyone leaned forward and waited for the violence that was sure to break out. Matthew knew that getting into an old-fashioned brawl would warm him and provide a channel to shed the pent-up emotion that he was carrying. He was also aware that it would be dangerous for the young woman who he had impulsively offered to protect.

The gambler came to a decision and began to move toward Matthew once again. With practiced skill and speed, the US Marshall drew his pistol in a smooth motion and fired it, aiming not for the man advancing on him, but instead targeting a bag that he recognized resting on the card players’ table.

Matthew’s bullet smashed into the sack at a high velocity, sending the bag flying through the air to bounce off the wall, and scatter its contents onto the floor. There was an inarticulate cry of denial, and the owner of the bag spun away from the table to dive after his property.

He was too slow to conceal its precious contents, and a shout of unconcealed greed rang through the taproom. The desperate man slipped on the grimy surface as several handfuls of precious gems rolled and skittered in a wide dispersal. Scrabbling to retrieve as many gemstones as he could, the unfortunate card player was utterly overwhelmed by the explosion of bodies that smashed into and on top of him as the others in the taproom fought for their share of the salvage.

Even the rest of the card players were drawn into the struggle. Pulled away from their poker table by their own avarice, the four remaining card players were so focused on grabbing the scintillating stones that they failed to watch the money and other items that were piled beside each of their seats and in the center of the table.

The scar-faced man who had been advancing on Matthew spun back toward the table when he heard the uproar. He was the only one in the bar that saw two men from neighboring tables make a dive toward the wealth displayed openly at the poker table. Frantically grabbing handfuls of coins and bills, the two men stuffed their shirts as fast as they could.

Roaring, “That is mine!” Matthew’s erstwhile opponent totally dismissed him and charged back to defend the pile of his winnings stacked in front of his vacant seat. The fight soon extended to everyone in the bar, creating a tapestry of chaos and violence.

Matthew waited a few more seconds, but the barroom continued to swirl with screaming fights and blows driven by rabid greed. Remaining quiet in the shocking atmosphere of a battlefield, Kezia saw the lawman move to stand, relaxed and ready at her side. Her large canine companion stood alertly at her other flank.

After waiting a moment more, Matthew was evidently satisfied that no one was going to attack them because he turned toward Kezia and tipped his hat to her, saying, “I believe it would be a good time for us to leave.” With faultless manners, the man offered his arm to her, and she automatically tried to reach for it.

Gasping in pain, the young woman realized that her arm holding the small dog was totally numb and spasming. Seeming to understand without explanation, Matthew carefully put his hand at the center of her back and gently pressed her toward the door.

Encased in a zone of numbness, Kezia and her escort walked back out into the rain and wind. Moving about ten feet away from the tavern door, the man asked in a low tone, “Do you know the way to your home from here?” When the shocked young woman stammered, “Yes.” She was surprised by a cheerful grin from her rescuer.

“At least one of us knows the area,” Matthew said. “Let us get you home and someplace warm where people can take care of you.” His smile was so unexpected and so charming that Kezia felt like she had been slapped upside the head with a stick. He made her think of one of her cousins, who was always willing to go on adventures with her. While the rest of her relatives all wanted to stay and be well behaved, Gareth was the only one who still did not mind getting into trouble.

Dragging her fragmented attention back to what the big man was saying, she realized he was introducing himself. He said, “My name is Matthew McMahon, and I am a visitor to this fair and soggy city.”

Her mind unable to stay focused, Kezia introduced herself in return, saying, “My name is Kezia Orton, and I am very thankful that you are willing to act as my escort.”

“Ma’am, would you like me to carry what you have in your left arm?”

Fear flashed in Kezia’s face, and she felt the burn of threatening tears in her eyes, but managed to force out the words, “We only have a few more blocks of walking, and I would prefer that you were free to act if we get attacked again.”

Dark blue eyes searched her face, and for an instant, Kezia recognized the implacable determination and banked power nakedly displayed on his countenance before he simply nodded his agreement and accepted her desires.

The next three blocks passed in companionable silence. During the walk, Matthew made every effort to shield the terribly exhausted young woman from the worst effects of the wind and rain. Finally, Kezia saw the front of the family home and caught her breath in a painful gasp of relief.

Lights were everywhere. Lanterns had been hung on the outside of the doorway, and the gas lights that were seldom lit twinkled with a cheery glow. Halfway up the eight steps that divided the street level from the house threshold, Kezia paused, unsure if she could manage anything more.

Matthew steadied her with a supportive hand under her elbow, murmuring, “You can make it. You have come this far on your own feet, and you owe it to yourself to get the rest of the way home. It was your determination that got you here, so own your strength and just push through.”

The young woman offered him a fragile, trembling smile and answered, “You sound like the brother I wish I had.”

“I would be pleased to call you sister. But how about if I do that when you get a little drier and warmer.”

Uttering a soft laugh, Kezia took a deep breath and forced her body to march up the last three steps. Just when her hand would have touched the door, it was wrenched open, and her sobbing twin all but dragged Kezia inside.

The next few moments were a confusing swirl of sobbing and broken sentences. The older twins herded Matthew and the younger twins into the parlor, where a roaring fire was waiting. Walking into the room, the warmth hit Kezia like a blow, and she swayed in reaction.

Instantly, Matthew had a supporting hand under the encumbered arm, and Botana had hold of the other. Startled by their matching actions, the tall, dark-haired man and the young woman with the same violet eyes of her twin, stared at each other across Kezia, and it was like time had frozen. Lost in their wordless examination of each other’s faces, the man and woman did not see the matching triumphant expressions now worn by the older twins.

Mutually bemused, neither Matthew nor Botana was totally conscious of Kezia being extracted and sent to soak in a hot bath. The drenched and injured dogs were taken to be treated in the back, where an animal doctor and another warm tub were waiting.

Dark blue eyes caught and clung to a wide violet gaze, and a lifetime of conversation was compressed into wordless questions and answers. The Western lawman and the young woman in a violet dress continued to speak heart-to-heart, caught in a timeless moment.

The old dog by the fire watched as they gently took each other's hands, and her tail wagged in a graceful brush of approval and blessing.

Mary Sullivan:
06/13/2020, 07:30:24 PM

Love this one! I vote for it.

Anne Borden:
06/13/2020, 07:33:18 PM

I heard this on your story hour recording. It is a great story. I hope you bring it out in a book too.

Dennis:
06/13/2020, 07:37:51 PM

This is good. Glad you are writing stories like this. Is there going to be more to the story? My wife loves the romance and I like that you are writing about people like this marshal. My vote is on this one.

Terri Adams:
06/13/2020, 07:47:15 PM

my vote

Mary C:
06/13/2020, 07:52:22 PM

Yummy guy and romance. Rescued dogs and adventure. Love the story, WHERE IS THE REST?? Vote for this one and more!

Dave Watson:
06/13/2020, 08:02:47 PM

You have to be one of the best writers that I have found. I vote for this and just went out and bought every book that you have on Amazon. Now I am going to settle in and really enjoy my stay at home for a change.

David M:
06/13/2020, 10:42:51 PM

I vote for yours. Great story.

Paul C. Middleton:
06/12/2020, 06:27:54 PM, http://Paulcmiddleton.com
Reply

Hunter's Apprentice

This is a continuation of the story begun in Cycle 3. It uses Snippet 1, Scene 3, and Character 1

Chapter 2 – Travel Lessons

The next day passed mostly in silence as Rhodri tried to absorb the lessons from the first day and night. He was lost in thought as they traveled, thinking of how to oil and polish the weapons of the hunt. It was only late in the day when the first question occurred to him.

“Craftmaster, why don’t you have a bow?”

At first, the boy feared he had asked the wrong question. Aldrig slumped slightly, but then he raised his right hand. Closing it into a fist, he left the middle finger clear.

There were two missing joints on it.

“No hunter carries something they cannot use. I could not draw a bow, not without more of that finger. Don’t worry. If I cannot teach you that skill, and I believe I will be able to, there are others that I can have instruct you.”

Rhodri found himself lost in thought. He had seen others draw a bow. All young men in the tribe learned to use a bow, axe, and staff. His own brother had shown him the draw method, but something niggled in the back of the young man’s mind. Rather than push for it, he looked at the world around him. His mother had always told him that the best way to remember something slipping through your mind was to think elsewhere.

Aldrig was a quiet companion, and Rhodri did not want to upset him. So, the newly minted apprentice started observing the world around him. Much was familiar, but here and there were plants, birds, and animals that he had never seen before. With his curious mind, he started pointing them out to Aldrig. Not deliberately, but by blurting out questions.

“What is that big hawk?”

“That is not a hawk, lad. That is an eagle. You can tell from not just the size, but the darker feathers. The length of the wings is the easiest way to tell. You would not have seen them before because you grew up on the plains. There is no place for them to call home there.”

“We have trees, though. I thought all birds used trees as home.”

The hunter smiled gently to himself. Many people may have found the questions annoying or felt the need to answer them abruptly. A hunter, especially a Master Hunter, needed to know everything about his environment, and this lad was asking to be taught. Knowledge was one of the two most important tools a hunter had. Weapons could be improvised. Clothes could be made from animal skins. An absence of knowledge could end badly, and the best way to avoid that lack was curiosity.

“The trees you lived near are too small, too short for an eagle to make a home on.”

Rhodri’s eyes widened, and he said in shocked tones, “But those trees can be five, even six times taller than my dad!”

“Oh, aye. But I have seen trees that would be ten or even twelve times taller than your father. And cliffs taller than that!”

Rhodri looked at his teacher with a mix of apprehension, disbelief, and confusion. “What is a cliff?”

“Cliffs are where the gods have scarred the land. It is hard to describe them. They are tall walls of rock. Like the wall of a house, but far taller. We will pass some in the next few days if we take that route back to my home.”

Silence fell as Rhodri struggled to picture what he had just been told. The pair trudged on, heading to the next town. Random questions from the lad followed, then Aldrig started asking about local plants and herbs. Probing what his charge already knew.

Both were tired as the sun grew low on the horizon. Rhodri was tempted to ask if they should stop for the night when a village could be seen when they topped a rise. Aldrig would have pushed on to this village or found a farmstead to stay in regardless. He was not going to camp on the way home unless the boy asked something that needed it.

The hunter was not disappointed by his apprentice. After taking care of the hunter’s hatchet and the darts, the question came. While polishing the edge of his knife to the sharpness his master required, the lad said, “When will you start teaching me how to hunt, and how to camp?”

“I already have, child. A hunter needs to know the land.” Pointing to the pack, the older man said, “Lay everything out, and I will ask you a few questions.” Rhodri eagerly complied. His curiosity about what Aldrig carried had been eating at him for some time. Carefully, he started unpacking the main body of the hunter’s leather backpack.

There were a variety of items in it. Some needed no explanation. Bandages, a blanket, and spare clothes, for instance, would be used by a variety of travelers, not just hunters. Accidents happened on the road. The pair of foot-long three-inch wide and half-inch deep slats that slid out of either side of the pack confused the boy as to their purpose. Another half dozen metal and wood pieces were oddities to the child’s eyes.

Some items were easy to recognize. The child removed a ball of twine, a tinderbox, and many other objects that would not be out of place in a home or on the road. A pair of soft shoes like Rhodri had not seen before. A cup and a spoon. There was also some food – strips of dried meat, hard cheese, and something that looked like bread but was much harder and dryer. A couple of skins filled with water hung from the sides of the pack, and rather than removing them, Rhodri placed the backpack and attachments within the collection of goods.

“Now, lad, what is the most important tool for survival in the wilds?”

Rhodri’s eyes narrowed as he examined everything. His father had asked similar questions of his older brother when asking what was most important to being a trader. There was a trick here, and the child knew it. Going over each item he understood, he took the time to think of the uses.

Finally, he looked up, and the hilt of his master’s knife flashed. It was the only weapon that Aldrig took personal care of. Once at lunch, and then at night while Rhodri was caring for the other trade-tools. The apprentice then looked at the twine. That also had many uses and was hard to replace on the road. Eventually, the child answered, “I know there is a trick here. So I will say the knife, but if I am wrong, then it is the twine.”

Aldrig’s lip twitched slightly upwards as he suppressed a smile. “Both are good choices. Out of everything here, on the lands you know, they would be assets to your survival. I would choose the knife, out of that pair.”
“However, any of these items would have been an acceptable choice.” Aldrig pointed at the young man’s skull. “It is the mind that is key to surviving. The knowledge it can hold will aid anyone. My father taught me that.” Rhodri kept his mouth shut. The dark-haired man obviously had horserider blood.

Most of those with such blood found among the tribes were either slaves or bondsmen. A handful of their kind traded with people like his father. In either case, that his mother had chosen such a father would be a sore point. If the horserider had been his mother, then the ridicule Aldrig may have faced could have been worse, from what Rhodri had seen in his home village.

“He was a great hunter, even among his own people. All the horsefolk train as much to hunt as to herd, you know. It was why he was freed. He earned freedom by tracking and killing those who kidnaped his lord’s son. That left his lord with two choices. Execute his loyal servant, or free him and grant him status as a hunter.”

Rhodri relaxed slightly at this revelation. The lords were a class above. They owned the lands and were owed service by all. Tentatively, with an empathy driven mostly by innocence, he reached out to his master and said, “I am sorry for any ill words spent on you.”

Aldrig shook his head, a sad smile on his face. “Do not worry about that, child. It was long ago. Soon enough, you shall find that ill-will meets many a hunter and for less cause. Many families blame us for every member lost to a beast. Throughout the tribe, there cannot be more than one hunter for every three villages. We cannot remove every rogue mankiller before it takes a life, nor could we if there were ten times as many.”

The older man removed his pipe and tabac from the pouch at his belt, stuffed the bowl, and lit it. “Now, child, it is time for you to sleep. The morrow will be soon enough for you to start to learn more.”

<<<>>>

That morning, Rhodri began to learn more on both accounts. Aldrig set out among the villagers, looking for what was needed to equip the boy for traveling rough.

Many of the items made no sense to Rhodri yet. The slats of wood that gave shape to the pack, for instance, had been haggled over by his master with the woodworker for a quarter-hour.

The poncho had been added to his new kit as well. At the village cobbler, even Aldrig had given up trying to find anything similar to the soft shoes Rhodri had seen the night before.

At the leatherworker’s, trouble found Rhodri. While his master was haggling over the price of items he would need there, an older apprentice had approached.

“What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be betraying the tribe, like any hunter? Your ‘master’ is obviously one!” the taller, beefier teenager sneered. Rhodri kept his own counsel, as his father had taught the family. Some people sneered at anyone not of their own village, and it was best to ignore an insult.

“Too good to talk to me, eh?” the teenager continued. First, he spat on Rhodri. But that movement hid the punch that threw the younger boy to the ground. For such a coward blow, there was only one response that Rhodri knew. Rolling aside, the boy came to his feet, knife hilt in his grasp.

It was only a gentle hand on his should that stopped him drawing the blade. He found his master at his shoulder. There was a solid thump from the direction of the bully, and Rhodri found the leatherworker standing over his opponent.

Holding a cudgel and shaking his head, the tradesman turned to Aldrig and said, “I accept your lowest offer. This lad can work off the difference, Master Hunter. I apologize for him and will see to his punishment. Your apprentice should not have been attacked so.”

“Of course, Goodman Eldra,” Aldrig replied, bowing slightly. To Rhodri, he whispered, “Repack your property quickly. We must leave now. As I told you last night, hunters are not always welcome.”

Looking to the clouds in the sky, Aldrig advised, “I suggest you swap your cloak for your new poncho.”

Chapter 3 – Into the Wilds

The first hour of travel off the road, through fields and into the trackless, lightly wooded plain was the most exhausting of Rhodri’s life. Aldrig took off with a long, loping stride. The child had to run to keep up. It was only when the sun was high, and his apprentice started to fall behind because he was tripping over unseen hazards that the hunter slowed.

It was another hour before the Master Hunter stopped for a pause. By that time, Rhodri was gasping for air and had started stumbling in his struggle to keep up. His face held a defeated expression until Aldrig laid a comradely hand on his shoulder.

“Drink and rest. You did well. Better than some fully grown could have,” the hunter said as he assessed the nearby terrain. Gathering his bearings, he walked back to his charge.

“Why did we leave so quickly? Did we do something wrong?” Rhodri asked, frightened by events. Part of the young man was disturbed by how quickly anger had him reaching for his knife.

“No, no,” Aldrig reassured his apprentice, “It has been a long time since I had an apprentice, and my first thought was to keep you safe. Although the Goodman clearly saw that bully as in the wrong, others might not. Best to leave, and let any trouble be forgotten.”

That confused Rhodri a little, but Aldrig had no way to explain to his apprentice that given time the incident would be put down to juvenile high spirits. No blame would land on the local child, and resentment may have fallen on the hunter and his apprentice.

To take the boy’s mind off the problem, Aldrig asked, “Which way do you think we should head?”

It was early afternoon, and they would need to start thinking about finding their dinner soon. Rhodri drew a laugh when he asked his mentor, “If I am to learn about the wilds, are we not there?”

“A fair point, but my question stands.”

“Towards cliffs, then. I don’t know which direction that is.” Rhodri shrugged at his lack of knowledge.

“North, then,” Aldrig stated, and he began teaching his apprentice how to tell direction based on the position of the sun and the estimated time of day.

That evening, after finding a site to camp in and having successfully taken an old stag with his dart, Aldrig showed his apprentice how to butcher an animal in the field. Separating out a haunch for dinner, he also showed Rhodri how to preserve some meat for the next day. Finding a large, thin, flat rock, he buried the other three legs of the deer under it. Building a fire upon it, he cooked the haunch for their dinner.

After recovering the cooked and dried meat the next morning, Aldrig hurried them along. A line of grey-green clouds was pushing up from the plain, a harbinger of a storm to come. Before they paused at noon, the cliffs were within sight. “We need to hurry, lad. A cave will protect us from what those clouds will bring.”

They hurried onwards for several hours. The chill air could be felt at their backs and encouraged haste. No sane member of the tribes wanted to be caught in the first snowfall. It was taboo, and lousy luck besides. They were closing on the cliffs when a wildcat screamed ahead of them. “Draw your hatchet,” Aldrig ordered as he withdrew one of the barbed darts from his quiver.

Crackling lightning chased across the sky, a harbinger of the storm to come. Howls came from the distance, followed by another rippling snarl. More confident now, Aldrig headed for the sounds of conflict. Whatever survived, he should be able to take care of.

More importantly, there was only one thing a mountain leopard would fight wolves over.

A den.

A sanctuary from the coming storm. Whoever won the battle ahead would be weakened. The smell of snow in the air told the Master Hunter that he and his apprentice would need shelter soon. Goosebumps lifted painfully in the rising chill of the wind.

Snarls, barks, and yelps guided the pair of humans to the den. The older man approached with growing confidence, and the younger became increasingly nervous. Rhodri had always been told that there was nothing to be feared more than the large hunting cat, no matter where they were to be found.

By the time they located this small natural battlefield, all that could be heard was a pained whine. Five wolves and a wildcat larger than Aldrig lay scattered about the field of conflict. One of the wolves was dragging itself piteously away. All other figures were still.

Aldrig was initially surprised. He thought it would take a full pack of ten or more to kill or evict a mountain leopard from its lair. Beyond that, no leopard losing a fight would need to stay. They roamed far and wide and kept multiple dens. This situation was a puzzle.

Resolutely, the hunter approached the crippled wolf, Rhodri wide-eyed at his side. Grimly, Aldrig replaced the barbed dart with the smooth-headed one. The boy averted his eyes, knowing the deathblow for the piteous animal was a mercy, but unable to watch. This was the first time he had been so close to the actual death of anything.

Looking nervously at the sky, Aldrig ordered his charge to gather wood. “We’ll need a fire tonight.” To keep any scavengers away, the experienced hunter started moving the bodies. He noted the gaunt condition of the leopard. Five of the six animal corpses were so torn up their skins could not be salvaged. The sixth wolf had been killed with a bite to its throat. That fur could be needed if the weather closed in.

Dragging the final wolf corpse into the den, Aldrig found his apprentice had dropped a passel of branches near the entryway. The hunter started preparing the den for a stay of several nights. The smell of snow was heavy on the air, and his experience told him that they could be snowed in.

After he moved several large rocks to shelter the entryway from being completely snowed in, Aldrig heard mewling from the cave. Moving to investigate, the hunter found three cubs. With their mother dead, they had little chance of survival. Regret tinted resignation filled him as he slowly shucked of his pack and quietly drew his hatchet.

There was a clatter of wood at the entrance that made Aldrig pause. The cubs drew back into the dubious shelter the depths of the den might offer. Interposing his own body between the kits and their assassin, the young boy stood firm and gave one word to his master.

“No.”

This attitude tore at Aldrig. The boy was embodying the Master Hunter’s ethos. That while people must be protected from nature, sometimes nature needed protection from people. Sometimes the best solution to a wolf pack near a village poaching sheep or goats was to draw them off with already killed prey for them to scavenge.

“Lad, this has to be done. Without their mother, they will starve.”

“I understood with the wolf, sir. There was nothing to be done. But there has to be something that we can do here.”

That forced the older man to pause. He estimated those cubs to be six weeks old from the short time he had seen them. Perhaps they were older. Mountain leopards were rarely seen with two young. He had never seen a she-leopard with more. Nor had he heard of such from other hunters.

His initial decision had been driven by thoughts of watching them starve, unable to eat what he and his charge could provide. It had also been covered by the knowledge that keeping his apprentice alive now the weather had turned was his first priority.

“We can try. Both you and I may have to go with food only once a day to succeed. But they may be too young to eat what we have.”

The apprentice nodded grudgingly. Rhodri did not like the implications, but His teacher knew the wilds better. The wind rose to a howl, thunder crashed, and lightning crackled. In these conditions, the boy was only comfortable pushing his opinion on the matter so far. At least, the apprentice felt that he was being given a chance to try.

Rhodri rose and headed to the cave mouth, intent on gathering more wood. Aldrig intercepted him. “Help me gather and pile more stones. We will need something to break that wind.”

Once they had protected the inside of the small cave from the wind, Aldrig set his apprentice to building a small fire. Exploring the cave, the older man was surprised to see cut and stacked wood. After checking it was dry and free of rot, he carried a couple of pieces to the opening.

“Someone has used this place before,” he commented to his apprentice.

“Will they be mad if we take their supplies?”

“I doubt they will be back. No leopard would den where a human had recently lived. I would guess a trapper or renegade spent a winter here more than a year ago.” Aldrig then opened his pack as he considered how to soften or cook the hard, dry meat or dense cheese that were all they had to tempt the cubs into eating tonight.

Taking the section of deer hide he had carried from the last kill, he started by punching holes along the edges with a bone awl. That task complete, he threaded some twine through, experimenting until he had fashioned a crude, and floppy, pot out of the hide.

With no sure way to form a tripod from the jumble of branches, Aldrig picked a long sturdy branch to act as a pole to keep his makeshift pot above the fire.

Holding it upright while his apprentice added some wood to the fire, Aldrig cautioned, “Not too much. We might need what wood we have to last several days.” Then he placed it down and started cutting strips of dried venison. Collecting a handful, he started dicing them smaller. Once he was finished with that, the hunter poured water into the improvised pot and added the dried venison.

“This should feed them. Keep the waterline above any flame, and the pot won’t burn.” Aldrig demonstrated, before watching his apprentice copy his movements. Once he was satisfied that the lad understood what was required, he left. The storm had not hit yet, and there were still preparations he could make.

Rhodri was struggling to keep the awkward cooking arrangement over the fire by the time Aldrig returned with several herbs and roots for the human meal. The Master Hunter took over the cooking, and they sat in companionable silence. The only sounds that could be heard were the bubbling of the meat broth and the occasional flap of the jury-rigged pot.

Once he was sure the meat was softened, he took the pot off the fire. Passing the stick it was hanging from to Rhodri to hold, it was prevented from spilling everywhere. Rifling through his sack, he found a bandage that could be used for what they needed next.

Mewling could already be heard now the broth was no longer simmering in its container. Taking the support stick one-handed, Aldrig lowered the pot to the ground, so the mouth of the vessel opened fully. “Dip the cloth in, let it cool, and see if you can tempt one of those kittens out.”

Rhodri obeyed, and to the surprise of both men, one of the cubs soon braved their strange presence. It sniffed the cloth and started licking at it almost immediately. Once the bandage was free of broth, it looked expectantly at the boy. He dipped the fabric in again and let it cool. This time, when he lowered it toward the ground, three hungry tongues were soon working on it.

It took more than an hour to feed them and drain the broth. When Aldrig emptied the meat scraps, the baby leopards fell upon them. By the time the hunter started making stew for the humans, the adventurous one was showing who it preferred. The silky fur, warmth, and purring had sent the boy into a doze in front of the campfire. Apparently, this cub was more of a kitten when it came to Rhodri.

<<<>>>

Aldrig was late in waking the next morning. The howling wind of the thunder-blizzard was gone. A fire had been laid out, and it took the hunter a few minutes to figure out why. His apprentice must have done it.

Then it hit him. He could not see Rhodri in the cave. Erupting to his feet and ignoring the protests of the two cubs that had sought shelter under his poncho, Aldrig dove for the entrance.

He was entranced by what he saw when he exited.

A small boy, running through a snow-covered forest, shivering with cold and excitement despite his cloak and poncho as he chased the exuberant kitten. A rabbit was out in front of them, and the baby leopard herded it back to its chosen companion. With a flash of steel and a pounce, Rhodri drove the knife into their prey.

Looking up, the apprentice saw his master. Picking up the rabbit, he raced back to the cave, cub on his heels. Tendrils of frost hung from his nose, and from the snow-moistened poncho. The boy panted, steam rising as he hurried, unaware of any danger. He presented the rabbit as if it were a trophy to his master.

“See? They can help us feed them.”

Smiling, the Master Hunter shook his head slightly in bemusement. He then raised a hand to warmly ruffle the hair of the lad. “We will see, young man. Let us skin the fruits of your successful hunt and find out if these younglings are able to eat what they could kill.”

Darryl Winters:
06/13/2020, 07:39:54 PM

My son was very happy to know that there is another one about this kid. Are you guys going to put these on your story hour? My boy has a bit of problem reading, and the audio helps a lot. I would vote for this one.

Jerry Adams:
06/13/2020, 07:48:32 PM

I am voting for this one but my wife likes a different one.

melissa g:
06/13/2020, 07:53:38 PM

Great story. I vote for this one

Robin Endicott:
Reply

I used Snippet 1 and Character 2. I got so excited writing this story that I forgot to use a Scenario. Oops!

Gargoyles and Gym Teachers
Supernatural Defense Squad Series
By Robin Endicott

Chapter 1 – Gym Class

Gravin panted in distress with dust and sand dripping off him in a gargoyle version of sweat. “I hate running,” he grumbled to himself. More specifically, he hated gym class. Unless it was weight lifting, that he could do easier than anyone in the class, including Mr. Fusto, the gym teacher.

He couldn’t lift as much weight as his brothers. They called him the runt of the litter, and he hated it when they said that. At four-foot-9-inches, he was about the same height as most every boy in his class. But to Gravin’s frustration, that was a whole foot and a half short for an 11-year-old gargoyle.

Gravin stood still on the side of the track, trying to regain his energy after surviving the grueling laps around the track. Come to think of it… it was Mr. Fusto he hated not gym class. The teacher never let Gravin do the things he was good at like lifting weights or swinging a bat hard enough for a home run, or any of the other sports where he could use his strength. The man made him do things like run and swim.

Didn’t the guy know that rocks don’t float? Gravin spent the whole time in the pool walking laps along the bottom while everyone else swam.

Gravin glanced up toward the school. Most of the other students were headed back to the locker rooms to change. Gravin saw Mr. Fusto marching toward him with an evil glare of triumph. Gravin shoulders drooped in frustration. Did this guy get kicks out of making his life a nightmare in this class?

Not wanting to find out what more the teacher could make him suffer before the end of class, he needed to get to the locker room. Gravin would have to go past Mr. Fusto, and there was no way he could do that and not have the teacher stop him. Not under normal circumstances, he couldn’t. Gravin smiled in relief and anticipation.

In addition to super strength, gargoyles had one other trick they could do. Gargoyles could step out of time. It was how a person could swear they saw a gargoyle out of the corner of their eye and then look in that direction and not see one.

To anyone unfamiliar with the technique, it looked like he stopped time. He didn’t. Instead, Gravin entered an alternate time where milli-seconds stretched out. In this alt-time, he could move around for hours in what it took everyone else to blink an eye.

It took a lot of energy, but it was how gargoyles moved quickly if they had to. And now was one of those times.

Gravin stood very still and concentrated. The breeze slowed its path along his skin. The drone of cars on the nearby street turned to moans as the sounds stretched out and grew softer. All noise stopped, and Gravin gave a smile of satisfaction.

He looked around to make sure he had stepped out of time. Mr. Fusto appeared frozen in mid-step. One of the track team superstars was hanging like a flag on a flagpole over the high jump bar. Gravin noticed the elf’s knee was bent a little too much, he would hit the bar going over.

But the track star’s jump was not his top priority. His main objective was getting to the locker room without Mr. Fusto doing his favorite trick of saddling Gravin with an added job to make him late for his next class.

Gravin turned and trudged toward the school door. Traveling in alt-time took a massive amount of energy. On top of his exhaustion from the laps, Gravin wasn’t sure how long he could hold the time bubble.

He swung a wide arc around the teacher. He didn’t even want to throw a speck of dust in the man’s direction on the off-chance alt-time fell back into regular time. Gravin trudged as fast as he could, but his feet felt like he was pulling them through thick oatmeal, the cold lumpy kind.

He lost concentration, and the time bubble collapsed just as Gravin reached for the door. Regular time came back with an explosion of sound. The drone of car tires. The clank of the high jump bar hitting the ground.

Gravin pumped his fist by his side. “Yeah!” he said in triumph, both at his accurate call on the high jump and the escape from Mr. Fusto.

But as Gravin lifted the latch of the school door, a crack of lightning chased across the sky. The boom of the thunder burst behind him. Gravin jumped and spun around in surprise.

Crackling lightning chased back and forth over the school field. Even as he saw the electrical display, Gravin’s mind told him it was impossible. The protective ward that kept the school invisible from the eyes of Mundanes also protected it from the weather.

The only way weather could get inside the dome was if someone inside created it. A chill wind raked across Gravin’s shoulders and raised painful dust-bumps on the exposed skin of his arms.

Mr. Fusto stood on the track where Gravin had last seen the teacher. But Mr. Fusto’s eyes were squinted with a menacing glare focused on Gravin. Dark storm clouds swirled above the teacher’s head with more lightning flashing out of the harbinger clouds of doom.

Feeling dust-sweat trickle down his back, Gravin looked around the field. No one else seemed to notice. All the other students kept doing what they were doing as if there was not an electrical storm only twenty feet above their heads. Not one of the other teachers looked in Mr. Fusto’s direction. Not one!

All Gravin wanted to do was turn and hide inside the school. But he couldn’t let others be hurt by magical rage they didn’t see. Not if he could help. As Gravin brushed the dust off the palms of his hands, his mind frantically searched for what he could do to help.

Chapter 2 – Making Plans

“Man, do you see that?”

Gravin let out a sigh of relief. At least, he wasn’t the only one who saw it. Owen lumbered over at a quick shuffle. Trolls usually preferred to conserve their energy. Also, moving quickly often scrapped up their bare toes, since trolls hated to wear shoes.

That Gravin’s friend moved as quickly as he did meant that Owen saw this as a problem too.

“What did you do to make him so angry?” Owen asked as he dropped into a defensive crouch next to Gravin.

Owen towered over his friend by a good eight inches. With hair that stood out at angles from his head, even immediately after combing it, Owen always looked like he just got out of bed. He was not the first person to get a joke, but he was loyal and trustworthy. Gravin was thankful to have Owen at his side.

“He’s not allowed to do that!” said a girl’s voice.

“Definitely not sanctioned behavior,” responded a deep voice.

Gravin turned to see Natalie, a water sprite, and Perry, a ten-inch tall orange dragon, sneak up on his other side. “You guys see it too?”

Natalie nodded. In shock, she held out shaky hands and said, “Look what he’s doing.” Mist rose off the water sprite in waves. “He’s pulling water from everywhere to fuel his storm clouds.”

“I know most adults can’t see magic, but I thought the teachers were hand-picked because they could,” Perry said, pointing a claw in the direction of the adults who didn’t look at all concerned.

“Psst,” a voice said in Gravin’s ear. He looked at Owen. The troll shrugged his shoulders in confusion and said, “I heard it too.”

“It’s me, Ethan.”

Graven, Owen, Natalie, and Perry all looked around.

“Stop that!” Ethan’s voice hissed. “You all look suspicious.”

“We look suspicious? You’re the one who’s invisible,” Graven said.

“I’m not invisible. I’m magically throwing my voice.” Ethan’s voice sounded urgent. “Don’t look, but I’m in the bushes behind Mr. Fusto.”

Graven looked anyway and saw his other friend partly hidden in the bushes on the other side of the track. “Okay, we’re all here,” he said, glad to be surrounded by his friends. “Now what?”

“I don’t know,” Ethen whispered from the other side of the track, “but we have to do something fast.”

Chapter 3 – Actions

Gravin was afraid, and his mind was a blank. How could five kids stop a rampaging teacher from doing evil magic? He did not know. Could they convince the other teachers, the ones who didn’t see this, in enough time to be any help? He didn’t think so.

Fear slithered across Gravin’s skin, reminding him of that time he’d fallen asleep in the sun in the Grand Canyon. Gravin had stretched when he woke up and startled a rattlesnake sunning on his bare back. That snake got a rude surprise when it tried to sink its fangs into rock. But Gravin never forgot that dry slithery feeling of the snake moving across his skin. He shivered at the memory. Gravin felt that same creepy feeling now.

“Bowling!” he said with a thought that surprised even him.

A puff of black smoke flew out in front of Perry as the small dragon snorted in shock and took a few steps forward. “Now is not the time to think about leaving and going bowling. We need to save everyone from Fusto.”

The puff of dragon smoke quickly disappeared in the wave of mist still coming off of Natalie. Perry and Natalie’s fire and water tricks would not be much help here.

“No, I know,” Gravin admitted. He was also frustrated that they didn’t have a perfect solution. But at least he had something.

He put a hand out to stop Perry from leaving the safety of the group. Perry’s eyes blazed red with anger. It looked like the fire he had wanted to shoot at Mr. Fusto was dancing behind his irises.

“We need to stop him,” Perry growled.

“I have a plan,” Gravin said with a lot more hope than he felt. He turned to Owen. “You’re the best bowler in the school league. Throw me.”

Owen tilted his head of messy hair and gave Gravin a confused, “Huh?”

“I’m going to roll up into a round boulder, and I want you to grab my hands and throw me. Throw me like Mr. Fusto is the ten-pin in the last frame of the last game, and the championship is riding on it.”

A slow grin of pleasure spread across Owen’s face. As if he was calculating distance and angles, Owen squinted out at the teacher, whipping clouds into an angry swirl. “Yeah, I can do that.”

“Ethan,” Perry whispered urgently. “Can you cause a diversion, so Fusto doesn’t see Owen’s strike coming?”

Instead of responding, Ethan jumped out of the bushes waving his arms and shouting at the gym teacher.

“Mr. Fusto turned around,” Natalie said in a panicked gush. “Hurry.”

Gravin crouched down and hunched his shoulders up. Rocks and stone plates slid over each other around the gargoyle’s body with a hollow chalky sound. That was quickly followed by a series of almost metallic clinks as all but Gravin’s hands locked into the shape of a ball.

Owen picked up the large boulder that was ten times the size of a bowling ball. He swung Gravin around as if he was no bigger than a typical one.

Owen lifted the stone ball that was Gravin and, with determination, sighted the target over the top. Faster than trolls typically move, Owen stepped forward, swung his arm back then forward, and let the boulder go.

There was a deafening boom as the ball hit the track and picked up speed. Everyone on the field heard that crash and turned to see.

“Now they look,” Perry muttered with disbelief and whipping his spiked tail around in agitation.

Gravin rolled faster and faster. He was seconds away from taking out a distracted Mr. Fusto when Principal Mavin’s voice shouted, “Stop!”

Chapter 4 – Chosen

Principal Mavin threw out her hand in an impressive sweeping gesture. Gravin slowed from his rapid speed to a stop instantly. He watched her amble over to stand behind his friends in her typical navy-blue skirt and matching jacket. Today’s shirt was a lemon yellow that seared his eyes, it was so bright.

The woman was almost as short as the students, but Principal Mavin made up for it by wearing teetering-high heels in the color of dried-bones and what she called a ten-gallon hat. We all figured it was called that because if she turned it upside-down, it could hold ten gallons of water.

Her hat was like a cowboy hat, except the middle just kept going up. It was the same dried-bones color as her shoes and was at least three feet tall. The lights in the school hallway always seemed to cast shadows from it onto the floor, so Principal Mavin’s hat shadow kept her from sneaking up on anyone. Not that she could with the way her heels clicked and stomped on the tiles.

Having the principal stop him just before he took out Mr. Fusto destroyed all the calm he had gathered as he was rolling, changing it into fear again. Was she in on it too? Were Principal Mavin and Mr. Fusto taking over the school?

It was no use staying in a defenseless ball now that he was no longer streaking toward a target. Gravin slid back into shape and stood up. He had never liked Mr. Fusto, but Gravin always thought the principal was a good person, even if she did dress weirdly.

Just then, Principal Mavin waved her hand over her head and shouted, “An excellent performance, Mr. Fusto.”

All the other teachers, including some who stepped out of the building, applauded.

What was going on? Gravin felt as confused as all the students gawking in the field.

“Graven, Ethan. Please come join us,” Principal Mavin said in a friendly voice from where she stood with the rest of his friends.

Gravin wasn’t sure what to do. He saw Perry shrug his shoulders. It was good to know Gravin was not the only one confused by this quick change.

Maybe this was all some sort of test. Did the applause mean that Gravin and his friends had passed? That must be it. He let out a sigh of relief and walked toward the waiting group. Ethan caught up with him just before he got there. Gravin and Ethan exchanged worried shrugs.

“I’ve had my eye on you five,” Principal Mavin crooned in a sing-song voice. She smiled and clutched her hands in front of her throat the way Gravin had seen Ethan’s grandmother behave when she was ecstatic about something he had done.

“Mr. Fusto helped me prove that each of you can detect villainous magic,” the principal said as she herded them toward the door back into the school. “You are all now part of the Supernatural Defense Squad! Isn’t that exciting?” Principal Mavin’s voice sounded so high-pitched and excited, Gravin wondered if the reason for the large hat was to contain her brains if they exploded.

Now that she was no longer losing water to Mr. Fusto’s enacting cloud storm, Natalie bounced up and down, clapping her hands. “This is so exciting,” she said in a voice almost as happy sounding as Principal Mavin.

Being on the Supernatural Defense Squad was what every kid at the school dreamed about. Gravin looked over at his roommate. The small orange dragon looked stunned. Getting on the squad was something Perry talked about every night in his sleep. All of his siblings had been part of the special team when they were in school. Perry had begun to worry he’d be the only one in his family not to be chosen.

Gravin was happy for his friends. But he wasn’t sure how he felt about the entrance exam they’d just gone through. Had it really only been a test? He had an uncomfortable feeling that something was not quite right.

Ethan nudged Gravin’s shoulder with his own and grinned happily. “We’re on the squad. And we beat him,” Ethan whispered excitedly as he gestured with his thumb over his shoulder toward where they had left Mr. Fusto.

Gravin couldn’t help himself, he followed the motion of Ethan’s thumb and looked back over his shoulder at the hated gym teacher.

Mr. Fusto was still glaring menacingly at Gravin. Then Mr. Fusto lifted his chin and gave Gravin a small, snarky smile that sent dust-bumps down Gravin’s back.

Yeah, thought Gravin, something wasn’t quite right.

Roberta G:
06/13/2020, 07:31:48 PM

Delightful. I like this one the best. How do you guys think these things up?

Mother59:
06/13/2020, 07:42:05 PM

This is a perfect story. Interesting and just right for my kids. Just know how much some of us appreciate the stories you are writing. I am sending in my vote here. Just wish I could vote for your previous ones also.

JHG2984:
06/13/2020, 07:56:33 PM

My grandsons told me about this story and I wanted to see what the excitement was bout. Looks and reads good. Hope you are planning more. I vote for this.

Summer Donnelly:
Reply

Pixies to the Rescue
Summer Donnelly

Snipped 2, Scene 1, Character 1

Chapter 1 – Up at Dawn

Seven-year-old Elizabeth Spencer blinked as rays of sunshine streamed in through her bedroom window. She heard her mom prepare for the day and the unmistakable aroma of coffee. Pretty soon, her dad would be up and grumbling about the need for caffeine.

The sun rose as they awoke, and the new day welcomed the family. There was a small knock at her window, and Elizabeth turned. Last year, she’d discovered there was a flutter of fairies living in their backyard. A quick look confirmed it was her friend Suki at the window.

Suki was beautiful. Her pink hair was pulled back into a long ponytail that trailed down her back like ribbons of cotton candy. Her dark eyes were always full of mischief, and the light tended to cause rainbow flashes in her iridescent wings.

“Good morning!” Elizabeth greeted after opening the window, just a smidge. Hot, steamy August air slipped in under the sash. “What are you exploring today?”

Suki shrugged. “Tati got a new pet, so she’s been busy with it. I was just coming to see if you would be around today. Maybe we could play in the pool.”

Noah and Elizabeth had been begging for a pool all summer. Their dad had finally relented in July and put one up. It wasn’t an inground like Noah wanted, but it was plenty big enough for Elizabeth. “I’d love to. Maybe after lunch. I have to get my school picture taken today.”

Suki looked confused. “I thought you said school didn’t start for a few more weeks.”

“It doesn’t. But Mom wanted my pictures taken early.” Elizabeth blushed at the thought of last year’s pictures. Was it her fault that they’d had chocolate cake with lunch?

“Okay. I’ll let the others know and see you after lunch.”

Elizabeth waved goodbye to her friend before standing up in bed. After making sure her bedroom door was still firmly shut, Elizabeth jumped in the air and landed on her knees. Jumping was almost as exhilarating as winning a game against her brother, Noah.

“Elizabeth Rose, stop jumping on the bed!”

Elizabeth sighed. Unfortunately, her mother seemed to have a sixth sense about when Elizabeth jumped on the bed. Elizabeth still couldn’t figure out how her mom knew what she was doing.
With a little pout at her mom’s extrasensory perception, Elizabeth leapt off the bed and landed in a crouch on the floor. Today was picture day!

Elizabeth pulled her dress out of the closet. It was white with small lilac flowers decorating the bodice and skirt. The fabric was silky to the touch, and Elizabeth loved wearing it. Her white lacy turn-down socks sat in her shiny black patent-leather Mary Jane shoes. Even knowing the photographer wouldn’t see her shoes, Elizabeth wanted everything about her look to be perfect.

It was too early to get into the dress, though. Elizabeth would need to stay still and be very neat once she put on the dress. That meant no French toast and syrup or orange juice once she was ready. Grabbing her robe, long brown hair trailed behind as she raced through the hallway and down the stairs.

“Slow down, sweetheart. Breakfast is almost ready,” her mom cautioned. Elizabeth sighed. Mom was always telling her to calm down, be careful, and stop jumping. Sometimes, moms weren’t much fun. It was a good thing they were good at breakfast, though.

“How do you always know when I jump on the bed?” Elizabeth asked.

The little girl missed her mom’s amused glance at the ceiling before she said, “I can’t tell you all my secrets, silly.”

As Honor Spencer plated her daughter’s breakfast, she smiled at her youngest child. “All set for picture day? Your dad is going to drive you to the school at eleven, so make sure you’re ready.”

Elizabeth paused with a mouthful of buttery, syrupy breakfast dangling off the edge of her fork. “You’re not going to be here?” she asked before shoveling the sugary deliciousness into her mouth.
“No, sweetie. I have to go to work today. Aunt Emma needs me.”

Elizabeth stilled at the implications of her mother’s words. She loved her father but to trust him to get her ready for picture day? No way. “Who's gonna’ do my hair?”

“I can do your hair before we leave. Just be careful you don’t mess it up when you put your dress on, okay? And no going outside to see the fairies afterward, okay?”

Still lost in thought, Elizabeth absently nodded in agreement while finishing her breakfast. It would be a long morning of not getting dirty, not getting into trouble, and not messing up her hair before picture time.
An hour later, Elizabeth sat on the couch in her favorite dress, ankles crossed, neatly encased in her prettiest socks. Her polished shoes were by the door, waiting for her to put them on before they left the house.
Which was when the twitching happened.

At first, it was just the bothersome tag at the back of her neck. Elizabeth didn’t remember it being so scratchy before. She heaved a big sigh as she contemplated taking the dress off, snipping out the tag, and putting it back on. Ordinarily, that would be fine, but multiple sparkly butterfly clips decorated her French braid. Elizabeth knew from painful experience they got caught on clothes.

But then, Elizabeth realized she couldn’t breathe in the dress. It felt tight around her middle every time she inhaled, which gave her the overall sensation of being in the grasp of a boa constrictor.
Not that she’d ever been near a snake. Not even her brother Noah seemed to like snakes, but Elizabeth’s science class had gone to the natural museum, and the lady there told them all about it.

“Suki can cut the tag,” Elizabeth realized. Although her mother had forbidden her from playing with the pixies, she hadn’t forbidden her from getting their help. And obviously, pixie advice was very different from playing.

Decision made, Elizabeth stepped into her Mary Janes and winced when she closed the buckle. She’d only just got the shoes, and it would break her heart if she’d outgrown everything so soon.
She went to the kitchen and rummaged around for a pair of small scissors, something hopefully little enough for Suki to handle. She carefully avoided her mom’s desk. The big, heavy scissors were in their case, right on top of the counter but the one time Elizabeth had tried to borrow them, her usually calm, cool mom had turned into a screech owl and had hollered something about never touching her fabric scissors.

Yeah, Elizabeth thought with a roll of her eyes. She was young but not stupid. No way would she ever touch those scissors again!

Chapter 2 – Unexpected Detour

Elizabeth walked outside as she carefully held the small pair of scissors in one hand. They were the cheap plastic pair she’d used in pre-school, but she still worried they would be too big for Suki’s tiny hands.
Lifting her face to the sun, Elizabeth enjoyed the trailing fingers of heat as they penetrated both her skin and the land. Encased in the warmth and welcome of the planet, everyone felt energized and ready for a new day.

From inside the house, Elizabeth heard her dad wake Noah up so he could start getting ready. Elizabeth knew she didn’t have much time to get the tag removed and get back in the house before her father realized she was outside.

The itch at the back of her neck combined with the overall tightness of the dress and gave Elizabeth the sensation of having sand in her clothes. No matter how beautiful the beach was and how much she loved the ocean, Elizabeth hated the beach. Sand got everywhere.

Each step in the now noticeably too small shoes caused Elizabeth to wince. She sighed. One picture. She could do this. And then she could spend the rest of the school year in her brand-new strawberry-pink Converse sneakers. When they’d gone shopping last week for a new pair for Noah, Elizabeth had fallen in love with the brightly colored pair. Sighing, her mother had only nodded and let her get them, too.

“Suki?” Elizabeth called out as she neared their homes. Sitting in a semi-circle, the little rock formations were cozy cottages. Each one decorated according to the personality of the fairy who lived within it.
Suki emerged with her hand tilted up against the bright sun. “Elizabeth? What are you doing here? I thought you had pictures today.”

“I need a tag cut out of my dress. Can you help?”

“Let me see,” Suki said. She flew up and landed on Elizabeth’s shoulder. Turning out the garment, she saw sharp edges of the tag that was irritating the delicate skin between Elizabeth’s shoulder blades.
“I can do that,” Suki promised. After a quick glance at the scissor Elizabeth offered her, Suki laughed. “I have a pair. It may take a little longer, but I think we’ll be safer if I use my own.”

Elizabeth dutifully stood still as she waited for Suki to come back. She was going to stay clean this time. Absolutely, positively!

A blur caught her eye, and when Elizabeth focused, she saw a small creature running out of Tati’s cottage. Tati was the queen of Suki’s flutter, as well as their healer and her new pet looked like some kind of cross between a silver tabby and a field mouse.

“Get back here, Dandelion,” Tati called in a hushed whisper as though the animal was afraid of loud noises. Tati half-flew, half-ran as she chased after the small animal.
Dandelion was having none of it.

With surprising agility, the tiny mouse-cat leapt into Elizabeth’s chest. She caught him instinctively and cradled Dandelion to her torso. “He’s so cute, Elizabeth commented as the tiny cuddly creature curled into her palm. Dandelion curled into her hair and welcomed Elizabeth with his warm manner. Elizabeth stroked the animal with one finger. She smiled with delight at how silken he was to the touch.

Dandelion began a low, harmonic purring that eased Elizabeth’s troubles in an almost magical wave. The scratchy tag, the too-tight dress, and the pinching shoes suddenly didn’t seem nearly as big a deal.
“Oh no, Elizabeth! Don’t,” Tati called out, her voice rising a bit and causing Dandelion to startle. “He got into the strawberries.”

Eyes closed, Elizabeth knew without anyone telling her that her prettiest Easter dress with the lilac flowers was now ruined. Shoulders heaving, she resigned herself to look down, and sure enough, strawberry-colored paw prints were all over her prettiest dress.

“Elizabeth, ten minutes,” her dad called from the patio.

The little girl turned and looked at her dad with absolute panic. Not only had she maybe, kind of disobeyed playing with the pixies (which she for sure definitely hadn’t played with them, she stressed in her mind) but now she’d ruined her dress, and, if she wasn’t mistaken, her braid was slipping out of its clip.

“Dad! Help,” she cried, not knowing what else to do.

Chapter 3 – Plan B

Spence looked down at his youngest child with amused resignation. Honor had insisted the girl stay clean until after the picture, and Spence believed his daughter had tried to keep clean. But a kid trying to stay clean in summer was an uphill battle. “What happened here, kiddo?”

Bottom lip trembling, Elizabeth rushed through the explanation. It was all a bit garbled, but Spence understood the gist. “But you have to tell Mom I wasn’t playing with the fairies. I promise. I needed their help,” Elizabeth stressed.

Lifting a hand to hide his smile, Spence nodded. “Where did the strawberry stains come from?”

“Dandelion got into the strawberries.” Elizabeth held up her hand to show him what looked like a tiny cat-mouse hybrid. Widely spaced rounded ears framed a feline-like face, and the small grey creature purred happily in his daughter’s hand.

“I see.”

Just then, Suki came out of her home carrying a fairy-sized pair of scissors. “Oh. Uh. Hi, Mr. Spencer,” the pink-haired fairy greeted him. She turned to Elizabeth. “Do you still need the tag cut out?”

A better picture of the morning’s events began to form in Spence’s mind. He hated tags in his shirts, too. He was on the verge of reminding Elizabeth that she could have asked him or Noah to help her with the tag, but Spence understood the appeal of help from her friends. Having a garden full of pixies meant no day was ever dull in their house. Glancing at his watch, Spence realized they would need to hurry. There was no time for waffling over his decisions. “Let’s get you cleaned up and in a new outfit. Let’s move on to Plan B.”

Elizabeth giggled. “Plan B? What if that doesn’t work, either?”

Spence winked at his daughter. “Still lots of letters in the alphabet. How about that green dress you wore to Aunt Emma’s last week?”

His no-nonsense tone seemed to do the trick. Elizabeth gently handed the cat-mouse back to the orange-haired pixie and turned to go back to the house. “What about my hair, Dad? It’s falling out.” Long strands of brown hair slipped out of the braid and brushed up against her cheeks and nape.

Girls’ hair was Spence’s Achilles Heel. At best, he was capable of a clumsy ponytail but not at all like the complicated braids Honor was capable of doing. “We can comb it and leave it down, or I can give you a ponytail. Your choice,” Spence offered.

Elizabeth glanced down at her feet and nodded. Sometimes, there wasn’t much you could do but accept that your school picture was not going to be taken in her favorite white dress with lilac flowers, she was not going to wear her prettiest shoes, and her hair was going to look…well, it was going to look like her father had done it.

On the bright side, she did like the green dress, too. “And I can wear my Chucks?” Elizabeth asked, smiling up at her father.

“What’s wrong with those?” he asked, pointing down to her dress shoes.

“They pinch. I think I’ve grown since Easter.”

“Chucks it is, then,” Spence agreed easily.

Seeing how sad the little girl looked, Tati spoke up. “I can do your hair, Elizabeth. Pixies are great at doing hair.”

“We don’t have much time,” Spence warned, again glancing at his watch.

“No problem,” Tati replied. She put Dandelion down with a firm hand. “Let’s go,” she said, flying ahead of them toward the house.

Chapter 4 – Picture Day

Sprawling verdant grasses were soft underfoot, with a bright blue sky peppered with the rainbow colors of many balloons. Cheerful voices were raised in laughter, contributing to ramped-up anticipation as the rising second graders saw each other, many for the first time that summer.

Elizabeth preened in her green dress and brightly colored sneakers. Some of the other girls complained about pinched toes and itchy tags, too. Elizabeth wondered why clothing companies didn’t make softer tags and marveled at the room she had for her own toes. She wiggled them and delighted in the amount of space she had in her new sneakers.

“Elizabeth! I’ve missed you!”

Elizabeth looked up to see her friend Jade rushing through the crowd to get close. The two girls hugged each other and jumped up and down in a small circle.

“Ooh, be careful,” Elizabeth cautioned as they settled down. “This is my second outfit and hairstyle of the day.”

Jade giggled. “No more chocolate cake for you?” she teased.

Elizabeth felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment. The Chocolate Cake Incident was going to live on for a while longer, she knew. Hopefully, this year would finally end that memory.

The two girls chatted for a few minutes until Elizabeth heard her name being called by the photographer. “See you soon. Maybe you can come over this weekend and play in the pool?” Elizabeth invited as her dad led her away. “Is that okay, Dad?”

Spence turned to see Jade’s mom come up behind her daughter. Jade gave her mom a quick update. “Can we, Mom? I got my new swimsuit, and we only went swimming once!”

“How about if I have Honor call you and we can arrange an afternoon,” Spence offered. “I’m not sure what my wife’s schedule will be over the next few days. I don’t want to promise the girls unless we get everyone on board.”

“That sounds great. I know Jade has wanted to get together, but it’s been a crazy summer,” Jade’s mom said.

When she turned away, the light caught in her hair. Jade gasped. “How did your mom get those sparkly strands into your braid?” Jade asked. She lifted one hand to touch the rainbow of tinsel decorating Elizabeth’s hair

Elizabeth shrugged and hummed a sound that sounded a little like, “I don’t know.” The less said to others about the pixies, the better.

Jessie M:
06/13/2020, 07:35:35 PM

My little girl loves your pixie stories and I was happy to see this one. They are funny and sweet, and everyone that I know that has listed to them raves about them. I vote for this one. Can we only vote once?

TigerMom:
06/13/2020, 07:44:51 PM

A lady in my support group mentioned your stories. I listened to the ones on the story hour and have to tell you that I am really impressed. Great storytelling and a sweetness that comes through well. My two little girls are listening to them again and again. PLEASE keep writing them!

TigerMom:
06/13/2020, 07:45:34 PM

Ooops! I forgot to say I vote for this story.

MomAtHome:
06/13/2020, 07:50:10 PM

Love it love it love it My kids are playing your stories and love them too You have my vote, theirs too

David J:
06/13/2020, 07:59:12 PM

It may be strange but I am voting this week for yours. I have not voted before. Just came in and read the stories. This one special and deserves a vote. Others are very good too but this touched even my heart. Good writing, great storytelling.

Ruth LeFevre:
06/13/2020, 04:44:28 PM
Reply

Snippet 1, Scene 3 and Character 1

Protector of the Tiny
Ruth LeFevre

Chapter 1 – Thief

The small dark-haired boy running behind me through a snow-covered forest is my charge, Hank. He is shivering with cold and excitement as he chases after me, while I, in turn, chase the goblin who stole one of his medals. “Get it, Gretchen! Don’t let the crow get away.” I am Protector of the Tiny, his Guardian Cat. What is important to him is crucial to me.

Tendrils of frost hang from his nose and the sweat-darkened hat brim. His many medals of accomplishment for his young scout organization jangle on his hat, creating a musical litany as he runs. Hank pants, steam rising as he hurries unaware of the danger represented by the glamour covered evil creature. The chase has been strenuous as the goblin led us deeper into the forest toward the house of the wicked witch. I am close behind him now.

There! The witch’s beast made the mistake of resting too long on the branch while looking back to check our progress behind him. I leap with my claws fully extended and hook the vile creature from his perch. The goblin squalls and twists under me, clawing and trying to rip my flesh, as we fall toward the frozen crust of heavy snow. I am lucky that my thick double layer of fur prevents his claws from penetrating. We land hard with me on top. I have been concentrating my weight on one point of the evil beast’s throat. There is a sudden crunch as we hit, and the goblin lies still, its evil ended. Panting myself, I rise triumphant.

Having terminated this particular threat to my charge, I breathe a sigh of relief. Hank comes running up and retrieves his badge. The boy replaces it prominently and proudly on his hat. “Good girl, Gretchen. You caught the crow for me.” My charge reaches down to pet me as a reward for my service. I stay sitting on the goblin as its glamour fades to hide the true nature of the danger from the child. I care for him too much to want him to be afraid of being in the forest.

The run completed, Hank wipes his nose on his coat sleeve and looks around. I use the opportunity to hide the body of the goblin in the protruding roots of a nearby tree. “Gretchen, where are we? I have never been in this part of the woods before. How do we get home?” my boy asks.

I knew the exact instant when the witch realized that his ploy has failed. My fur stood out from my body as the sky grew dark and crackling lightning chased across the sky, like a harbinger of the unnatural storm to come presaging the witch’s fury. The grey-green clouds promised heavy weather and extended as far as the eye could see. Chill wind ruffled exposed hair and my thick fur, while goosebumps were lifted painfully on Hank’s uncovered skin.

Getting Hank away from this area of the forest was imperative. We were too close to the witch’s home, and the storm he summoned would be dangerous to my charge. We needed to leave and now. I meow so that my boy will follow me as my fur-tufted paws spread wide on the snow crust leading him back the way we came. The first hefty, wind-driven snowflakes blow past us. Blast! We won’t be getting home tonight. I need to find some shelter for Hank away from here.

The temperature drops precipitously, and Hank is shivering with cold now. His coat is too thin to keep him warm and well. My boy’s lips are turning blue. I am afraid that if I can’t find him some shelter soon, he might perish from the frigid weather. I care for him too much to let that happen. The problem is the snow is coming down blindingly, so I can’t go ahead too far. Hank would lose sight of me.

Wait, there ahead is a pine tree so heavily laden with snow that its branches bend down to the ground, and the snow-crust itself can act as shelter. I run to the pine and scratch a hole in the hardened snow on the downwind side. This is perfect. There is room underneath between the ground and the bottom-most branches for my boy. Dry needles covered the earth, which didn’t have any snow on it. My whiskers tingled, letting me know that this place was secure.

Good, we can wait out the storm here in safety. Using the bit of magic all cats possess, I fluffed my fur and said, “I claim this place in the name of Guardian Cats!” I shook all of the loose coat hair out, thus completing the ward.

“Gretchen! Gretchen, where are you?” Hank calls to me. My boy sounded worried. I poked my head out from the snow hole I made to get under the pine tree and purrup to get my charge’s attention.

“There you are! What are you doing? We have to get home. Mama will miss us if we don’t come home tonight.” My boy reached in to pull me from the shelter I found for him. I set my back claws in and pulled him through the hole I made.

He popped into the interior of the pine tree. His breath turned to fog, warming the frigid air and rising further up the tree. My boy repeated his desire to get home tonight, but I strongly disagree with him. Even now, the snow hole that he enlarged was blowing closed. To indicate that we should stay here tonight, I used my claws to rake together some of the plentiful pine needles for a bed, curled down on it, and tucked my fluffy tail around my paws.

Hank heaved an exasperated sigh, even as young as he was, my boy knew better than to argue with me. Still, he wasn’t entirely giving up his disagreement with my chosen shelter. “Cat, there is no food here for either of us and while it is out of the wind and snow, it is cold.”

Getting up from my bed of needles, I swiped the hat from my boy’s head and patted the fire-making badge. Hank seemed to get the message when he asked, “You want a fire?”

I chirruped at him. He then asked a silly question, “With what?” I dearly love my little boy, but sometimes he can be dense.

Climbing the inside of the pine tree was effortless, and I used my weight to knock down dead pieces of wood to Hank. I poked another hole through the snow up at the top to make a chimney for the smoke to leave. Being a smart Guardian Cat, I thought ahead. I knocked more sticks down from the other side of the tree on my way back down.

Hank, in the meantime, had cleared the rest of the pine needles, arranging them into a bed for himself. That only left the one I had made, which he was using as a fire starter, and rubbing two of the sticks I knocked down together. He was concentrating on that to the exclusion of everything else. The boy had his tongue out the side of his no longer blue lips in his absorption. I had seen him do this before and knew that he wouldn’t notice if I went out to fix the other problem with this shelter that he mentioned earlier.

Going hunting for a sweet, fat rabbit would solve the snag of there not being food under the boughs of the pine tree. I pushed my way out through the almost closed-hole through which I had pulled Hank earlier. The storm had become a blizzard now with howling winds and blinding thick snow, and the darkness was unnerving. Leaving bits of my fur behind me in a trail, I stalked the winter forest in search of fresh meat.

Finding anything out in the storm was close to impossible, but I persisted. Taking my time, I eventually spotted a squirrel climbing out of a knothole in an oak tree. Stalking it in the storm was tricky, but it couldn’t see me any better than I could see it. It started digging at the base of another tree.

A quick pounce and bite and the tree-climbing rodent was ready for dinner. I looked down at the squirrel’s food cache. There were acorns, and other nuts and dried strawberries. Dried strawberries! Knowing how much Hank loved berries, I couldn’t leave those.

There was also a leather bag with a drawstring. I opened it up and pawed the entire cache into the pouch, then pulled the string with my teeth, closed it over the goodies. Slipping the leather tie over my head, I picked up the dead squirrel and followed my fur trail back to Hank. It is good that I am so sturdy, between the pouch and the squirrel, I was laden to capacity.

I arrived back at the pine tree and pushed through. Hank had gotten the fire going, and the little hollow warmed up quickly. Shaking off the snow in my coat away from the tiny flame, I presented my catch to my charge. His eyes lit up with delight upon seeing the feast that I found, especially the strawberries.

My boy pulled out the swiss army knife that was a gift from his father from his pocket and set to work preparing the squirrel for spit roasting. While it cooked, Hank broke open the nuts and ate them and the strawberries that he hadn’t used to stuff the squirrel. The warmth and the exertion overcame me, and I slept. Hank woke me up in time to eat the tasty squirrel. I yawned and stretched to get my muscles loose.

Bless my boy. He shared with me. After we finished the squirrel, Hank set the fire so that the sticks would fall into it and burn all night before lying in his pine needle bed and dropping off to sleep. I snuggled in next to him and let him know just how much I loved him by purring him to sleep. I have a harmonic purring that pulls stress from muscles in a magical wave.

Before dropping into the boneless sleep my purr induces, Hank said, “You, Gretchen are a cuddly kitty with a warm manner that lets everybody know how welcome they are. I am happy that you are here with me.” He started snoring softly, letting me know that I needed to keep watch. The blizzard prevented us from getting home, but it also kept every other nasty thing that the forest contained in their dens too. The night passed without disturbances.

Chapter 2 – Homeward Bound

Our little shelter under the pine tree was still warm in the morning when Hank woke up. Like me, the boy yawned and stretched and then ate the squirrel remaining from the previous night along with the few nuts that stayed in the leather pouch. That bag still had heft to it, and my curious young boy gave it a good shake to find out what was still in it.

Into his hand, rolled a bunch of small, shiny stones and some flat round metal things in different colors. “Wow! Coins and gems! We are rich, Gretchen.” The last item to roll out was a large ring set with a funny carved stone. It smelled of magic, but I couldn’t tell what kind. I head bumped Hank’s hand to get him to put the jewels away. We were still too close to the wicked witch’s house and needed to depart.

My boy realized that he had been staring in fascination at the wealth and returned it to the pouch. His knife and the closed leather bag went into his pocket. I clawed open the entry hole again. It helped remove the pine tar that attached to my claws while I knocked down sticks to Hank last night. When I broke through the snow crust just the tiniest bit, I put my nose and tried to sniff out what was outside. I only smelled freshly fallen snow and finished opening the hole big enough for Hank to push through.

The snow was waist-deep on Hank because the crust hadn’t hardened to a thickness that supported my boy’s weight though it did mine. We started the slog homeward. I often had to pause for my charge to catch up to me. I kept a close eye out for more goblins. I did not want a repeat of the previous day’s theft. Just thinking about it got me angry all over again.

Getting home was taking more time than I wanted. Hank was having trouble pushing his way through the snow when I spotted an illusion disguised goblin sitting high in a tree ahead of us. This one looked like a giant woodpecker. I could feel my loathing for it raise the hackles along my spine. Our eyes met, and it knew I had seen it. The evil creature went flapping off in the direction of the witch’s home.

I felt a desperate sense of urgency with a touch of fear for Hank’s well-being. We needed to run and now. I tried to get Hank moving faster but to little avail. That was when I heard the first hunting howl of the wolf pack coming from behind us. The howl alone raised the hackles along my spine in fear. They had crossed our trail and sounded hungry. Hank heard it too and finally started to move. To help him, I scouted out a path through the trees where the snow wasn’t as deep.

The second wolf howled off to our right. My fear spiked higher. They were closing in, trying to herd us into exhausting ourselves. We got only a little farther when I saw the shadows of the pack stalking us. I got my boy to the base of a tree he should be able to climb, and I demonstrated what I wanted him to do by scrambling up the tree myself. I felt an immense wave of relief when Hank followed me.

Letting my boy climb high into the tree, I waited for the pack on one of the lower branches. Soon, eight wolves encircled the trunk. Two tried to jump up to pull me down off my bough. Firmly latching onto the bark of the tree with three paws, I strongly discouraged this activity by raking the sensitive nose of the second canine to leap and snap at me. It yelped in pain, and I angrily said, “I swear that the next one that tries that will lose an eye, so help me, Fairy Godmother.”

The big alpha male came under the tree. “We want the boy. We hunger. Give him to us, and you may leave.”

“Do you work for the wicked witch in this valley?” I inquired caustically. The question set the entire pack snarling and vibrating with low growls. The hair along their backs stood up in taut ridges.

“No?” I attempted to appear calm, though I was far from feeling that confident. “The boy is my assigned charge. I will not fail in my duty to him. The Fairy Godmother herself ordered me to take care of my boy, and you cannot have him.”

The alpha female was pregnant, though not severely as yet. She whined, “We are hungry. The pups must eat, the ones inside my body as well.”

“I will bargain with you,” I stated, inspecting my claws for any chips. “There are two squirrel nests in this tree. Let me and my boy go, and you will feast on the rodents in those nests. Do we have a deal?” I was curious and hopeful that they would accept the offer.

“We will discuss this,” the big male said. “You two keep them in the tree.” Telling his two yearling pups to sit and stay, the rest of the pack moved off a short distance. I could not hear their low toned conversation as anything other than a quiet rumble. They returned under the tree shortly. “The contents of the two nests are not enough for us. We have no way to know if there is even a squirrel in them. If you swear to hunt us up each a squirrel and two for my mate, we will let you go.”

I opened my mouth to agree then sensed the trap the wolves had set. “You will let me and my boy go. Otherwise, no deal,” I hissed at the wolves. I disliked that they had tried to trick me. “The witch wants my boy. Do you wish to do a service for the evil one?”

With her ears laid back flat, the alpha female snarled, “Yes, you and the human pup may go free for a squirrel for each of us and two for me.”

“Done!” I sang out joyously and started to climb the trunk of the tree toward the first mass of leaves in the branches.

“Gretchen? What is going on?” Hank quavered. Not being able to speak with animals, he was scared. “I’m afraid.” I longed to comfort the child but dared not delay further. The goblin I spotted earlier should be back to the witch by now. I am not sure what that evil man will do, but I do know that we won’t like it.

I climb to the first nest and quietly poke my nose in. There are three adult squirrels here. There are also six tiny kits feeding from the one female. The baby squirrels are so young they haven’t even opened their eyes yet. They and their mother are off-limits. I would not be Protector of the Tiny if I harmed them or their mother. The two adult males are fair game. The distaste I have for the bargain is growing, but this is for Hank.

With two quick bites, I end the lives of the males and drop them to the wolves below where the bodies get snapped up and devoured. I back down the tree bough and proceed to the other nest. This one is much larger and contains five adult squirrels and no kits. I feel some relief that I won’t be endangering babies of whatever type. That is when I hear distant flapping, coming closer.

I repeat the bites dispatching the furred rodents in this nest and again drop them to the wolf pack. Looking toward the flapping sound, I spy a murder of the bat-winged goblins coming this way. The one that saw us earlier and flew off is in the lead. Calling down to the wolves as they eat, I shout, “My boy and I need to leave now. Is that enough squirrels for now?”

“No! You still owe us two more,” responded the alpha female. “I want those squirrels.”

“Okay, how about I give you three goblins in place of the squirrel?” I offered.

“Blech. Everybody knows that goblins are poisonous,” she said. “No. Won’t do.”

“Alright, then for help killing the goblins, I offer to quadruple what I owe you,” I offered. I was getting desperate because the goblins had dropped below the treetop level, and I couldn’t see them. “Will that work?”

“Alright, so long as you don’t expect us to fight them by ourselves,” the big male said.

“Deal. The goblins are almost here,” I warned as I jumped from branch to bough to get close to Hank. I could hear the disguised vile beings croaking to each other as they surrounded the tree and the wolf pack. I had reached my charge when the goblin leader squawked loudly, and all of them veered into the attack. Most of the evil creatures went for my boy.

Hank saw them closing in and bless his heart, pulled the swiss army knife getting the principal blade into position to defend himself and me. He did not know precisely what he was fighting because of the glamour. Because of my stance, my boy knew that they were enemies and was ready to battle them. I was so proud of him in that instant I could almost have cried with joy.

We met the first rush of the goblins head-on. Since I knew that they were poisonous, I tried not to bite them, but I aimed paw swipes at heads and wing joints. The head strikes dazed them, and they dropped to the wolves to finish. The bat-wing bones of the goblins were their weak point and broke readily, also dropping them to the wolves. Hank stabbed into their bodies with his sharp little blade. The evil creatures tried to dislodge us from our perch.

The wolves jumped and used their rock-hard paws to drop the vile beasts until a yearling pup snapped at one and connected. The little male yipped with glee and shouted, “Mom! They taste delicious!” In short order, the pack switched from paws to fangs, and the goblin force dropped by half.

The evil beasts drew away and then flew back to the attack. They did not try for subtlety this time but flew straight at Hank en masse. They hit him full-body and slammed my boy back into the tree trunk. He struck his head and fell stunned from the oak, landing in the deep snow below. The goblins crowed with delight and winged over to follow my boy down.

“Hank!” I shouted in alarm. I leaped into the mass of writhing goblin bodies, swiping, clawing, and biting. I killed several even before I landed on the ground next to my poor Hank. The stupid beasts had not figured the wolf pack into this assault. With the vile creatures close to the ground, the canine family finished them all quickly with a little help from me. I thoughtfully said with just a touch of sarcasm, “So goblins aren’t poisonous after all. Who knew?”

The sarcasm must have escaped the alpha male since he replied, “I suspect that they did.” He sat and watched as his pack feasted on the goblin remains. I went to check on Hank.

My boy was breathing, just knocked out, but lying in the snow would not be healthy for him. I used my tail and tickled his nose with it. Hank came to sneezing and brushing the fur from his nostrils. I greeted him with some kitty kisses to get him up.

“Gretchen, stop that!” he complained, then froze as he noticed that he was sitting in the middle of a wolf pack. The boy swallowed and stayed still.

Looking at the large male, I asked, “Do you want those squirrels now?”

“Yes, we still want the squirrels, just not now,” the wolf said. “We will take a rain check until you come into this part of the forest again.” With a wolfish grin involving his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, he said, “I will spread the word to the other packs that goblins are tasty.”

With a feeling of happiness, I replied, “You should do that. You should definitely do that.” I turned and patting Hank on his cheek with a soft paw, resumed our journey home.

Chapter 3 – Home Coming

The rest of the trip across the forest was uneventful, thank the Fairy Godmother. We arrived home as the late afternoon sun was turning the western sky a brilliant, striated orange. It took us longer because of Hank having to push his way through all the snow. But we made it!

There were hordes of people getting organized to search for us. Hank’s mother had gone into the nearest village to request help looking through the woods. My small boy ran to his mother, who covered his face with kisses, all while crying and hugging and laughing.

“Mama, I missed you,” Hank said, hugging and kissing his mother back. It took a while, but his mother brought herself under emotional control and started asking questions.

“Where have you been?” his mother demanded.

Hank looked ashamed when he said, “In the forest, Mama.”

“All night? Why didn’t you come home? I was worried sick!” his mother scolded.

“I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to make you sad or angry.” Hank was crying now. I could do nothing to protect him from this. I felt sorry for the child. That was when my turn came.

A tall blonde woman dressed in swirling greens and blues with a diadem and a magic wand stepped up beside me and said, “Protector of the Tiny, walk with me.”

“Yes, Fairy Godmother.” I padded after the powerful woman until we were a considerable distance from the scene with Hank and his mother. I was feeling apprehensive and knew that I was in for a scolding at a minimum. I hoped I would be allowed to explain myself.

“Henry seems to be no worse for the night away from home,” Fairy Godmother stated, looking down at me. “I charged you with keeping him safe. Would you care to explain why he stayed out all night?”

I was starting to get angry. Doing anxiety is just not in my nature. “Yes, ma’am. I would like that very much,” I came close to spitting but kept myself under better control than that. I knew my fur fluffed out. “A goblin from the wicked witch stole one of Hank’s scout medals. We chased it down and got the award back.”

“What happened to the goblin?” she asked.

“I killed it. The blizzard last night started almost immediately after that. Rather than try to make our way back through the storm, I found us some shelter under an encased pine tree,” I explained. “Hank got a fire going, we used the pine needles as a bed, and I managed to hunt a squirrel for dinner. Oh, the squirrel had a cache of nuts and fruit. There was also a leather pouch in with the food. Hank has it.”

“Does he now?” Fairy Godmother commented as she stroked her chin. “Interesting. Back to the subject at hand, what took you so long in getting back today?”

I sat and just looked up at her, disgusted. Sometimes people that fly do not realize how hard it is trudging through snow. “The boy is small, and the frozen water came up to his waist. Plowing through the drifts takes him lots of time and effort. Could you call over to his mother to get him inside in front of her fire? He is chilled to the bone.” As an afterthought, I added, “Please?” I was thankful that the powerful woman did as I asked.

“Then there was the run-in with the squadron of other goblins and the wolf pack,” I said in an aside.

“Guardian Cat, do I have to pull the whole story out of you a piece at a time?” she asked. She sounded annoyed.

“That is pretty much all of it except that I bargained with the wolves for help with goblins and still owe them four squirrels,” I was feeling somewhat mischievous right then and so added, “Oh, the wolves discovered that goblins aren’t poisonous and instead are quite tasty.”

“Bother!” Fairy Godmother seemed angry at that news.

“What is wrong with goblins being tasty?” I asked curiously.

“Goblins are evil and magically corrupting creatures. Those that eat them will turn evil unless they get cleansed. Where was this wolf pack?” the powerful woman asked.

“All you have to do is follow the trail that Hank left in the snow to find them. I tried to take good care of my boy. Have I done something wrong by preventing a goblin from stealing one of his medals?”

“Hmm? No, you did well. Any of the medals the boy worked hard to earn can be used to cast an enchantment on him,” the Godmother explained. “You must continue to keep him safe. He is important to the future. The wicked witch must not get a hold over Henry.”

“I swear to do my best to keep him safe, happy and well,” I promised. “I have to. I love my boy,” I said simply, telling the truth. “I am Guardian Cat, Protector of the Tiny, after all.”

MMdragon:
06/13/2020, 10:43:47 PM

Love this, love my cats. My vote is this one.

CatLady43:
06/15/2020, 04:23:46 PM

Bummer! I missed the voting window. Please write another one and I promise to check earlier!

Barbara Bennett:
06/13/2020, 10:40:22 PM
Reply

Critter Skitter

By Barbara Bennett

Using Snippet 3, Scene 1, Character 1

The room was quiet, and the old man knew his audience was waiting for him to begin. Smiling in anticipation, he said, “I am going to tell you a tale of a time in my life where an accident gave me the largest gift anyone could ever get.

<<<>>>

Thoroughly backward little planet, he thought bitterly. Don’t know if I can get back out. Sucked me into the gravity well before I realized how strong it was. Air’s not too bad. Different from home, but I can manage. Wish we had these plants at home, though. Whatever they are, they’re delicious. The sun was warm, and he was comfortable. I think I’ll just nap awhile.

While he was napping, soft dreams rose to surround him. Slowly the smell of green grass and the soft verdant grass of a previous time formed a picture of a young girl running toward him on quick feet. The storyteller knew that she did not know that he was ahead of her. The only thing on her mind was her entranced view of a group of primitive flying vehicles called hot air balloons.

<<<>>>

Maryann Hunter, age seven, was peering into the sky as though she could track the fleeing rainbow of hot air balloons by willpower alone. She glanced at the blue sky every few minutes as she ran, panting and shoeless, on the soft, warm summer grass.

She smelled fresh-cut hay and stopped for a moment to catch her breath and look around. Maryann thought to herself, They’re headed north, by Old Man Johnson’s place. That means I’m not too far from Grandpa’s house. Wonder how his strawberry patch is doing?

The young girl licked her lips at the thought of eating just a few warm, ripe strawberries. She started running again, her dirty feet sticking out from her brother’s outgrown overalls.

When she got to Grandpa’s house, she walked by the front porch, absently noting that his old Ford truck was gone. Maybe he went to watch the balloons, too.

The small girl leaned carefully over the rim of the well in the front yard and slowly let down the bucket into the cold, clear water. Oh, that’s so good! Maryann thought as she drank down two cups full of the cool liquid. Politely, she put the dipper back in its place, before lowering the bucket back down.

Maryann walked to the back of the house, already thinking about how good the strawberries were going to taste. Creaking loudly, the garden gate obediently swung open at her gentle push, and she moved quickly to the side gate that opened onto the strawberry patch. The young girl looked up at the field and gasped in surprise, coming to a complete halt.

Half the crimson ripe strawberries were gone, and Maryann knew that her Grandpa would be very upset. She only had time for a quick flash of concern before she saw the apparent thief. There was a sizeable orange-colored critter with black stripes sitting right where the fruit should have been.

The young girl had never seen an animal like this one. The creature had big, round eyes that were closed to slits right then, and something that appeared to be a smile on its face. She could not tell precisely how large the animal was, because it was curled up and lying down among the plants.

Maryann could hear a loud purr that sounded just like her cat, Sylvester, and the sound seemed to be coming from the critter. The comforting and homelike sound made her immediately relax.

She thought to herself, I have no idea what this animal is. I guess I will just call it Critter!

“Hold on, Critter! Them’s my Grandpa’s strawberries,” she shouted, stamping her little foot just like Aunt Hannah did.

“Burp!” erupted from the Critter as he opened his eyes.

Ah, a planet native, he thought.

“Critter, that ain’t polite, eating somebody’s strawberries without so much as a please or thank you!” Maryann scolded. “You wasn’t raised with any manners. That’s for certain sure!”

The purring stopped. Maryann heard a deep lazy-sounding voice say in her head. <<Oh, very well. I will replace them.>> Then the speaker added, <<But they did taste so good.>>

The young girl’s eyes were wide and wild-looking, as she realized that the only creature close to her was the strange animal. Frantically, she thought to herself, Could it be talking to me?”

<<Yes, I am talking to you, or did you think this all was a dream?>>

Stunned into a frozen stance, Maryann saw the Critter flick his right, three-fingered paw, and the little garden was immediately as full of ripe strawberries as it had ever been.

Experimenting, the young girl thought as hard as she could at Critter, <<How’d you do that, Critter?>>

<<It’s very easy once you learn how. It does take some practice though.>>

Maryann peered intently at the visitor. <<You know, Critter, I have seen you someplace. I just know I have. How long you been here?>>

<<This is the first time I have ever visited your backward little planet,>> the Critter said with a sniff of disdain. Cocking its head to the side, it continued their mental conversation, asking, <<What are you? What is your species?>>

<<I don’t know that word, Critter. I’m Maryann. I’m a girl, and I’m seven>> she announced proudly.

Maryann walked around and kept looking at the creature from all angles. While she was moving, the girl passed close by a pile of discarded newspapers, held down by rocks, and close at hand for garden use. The young girl looked down and saw that one of the comic pages was on top, and her eyes got big with surprise. Grabbing the top sheet, she began to jump up and down with delight.

She yelled, “I knew you from somewhere. I just knowed it! Come on here and see for yourself, Critter.” When the creature did not respond, Maryann repeated her comment mentally, adding << Oh, sorry, Critter. Your name ain’t Critter, it’s Garfield, and I see you in the funny papers every week. Just look!>>

Stretching his back, Critter began to stand, letting Maryann see precisely what she to whom she had been talking. The young girl caught her breath as the creature stood up, and up. Fully erect, Critter measured almost twice the girl’s height. His stocky form was roughly pear-shaped and brushed the low branches of the apple tree next to the strawberry patch.

<<Wow! You are a big one!>> she thought.

A self-satisfied tone sounded in the response from Critter, <<That I am! In your measurements, I am over seven feet tall. On my world, I am average. Here, I am magnificent!>>

Maryann could not help laughing at his comment, although she admired his grace as he ambled over to join her.

Critter looked down and made a startled, strangled sort of sound. <<Uncle Edgar! Uncle Edgar!!! That’s my Uncle Edgar! So that’s what happened to him! He disappeared a long time ago, and we never knew what happened. His ship must have crashed here, on this planet.>>

Maryann was stunned but thought back at him, <<Ship? You have a ship, Critter, uh, Garfield? A real spaceship?>>

<<“I most certainly do. That’s how I got to this backwater planet. Would you like to see it?>>

The little girl squealed aloud and thought, <<I surely would! Does it have rockets and all?>>

<<Nothing so primitive as rockets, Maryann. We’ve gone far beyond that. Rockets!>> he muttered with disgust. Putting his hand down toward hers, he asked, <<If you wish to see it, we need to walk a little way. Do you want to come and look?>>

Fearlessly putting her hand in his, Maryann walked confidently out of the strawberry patch, until they came to a small lake.

Garfield pushed back the fur on one massive forearm with his opposite paw. Hidden in his coat were several buttons, apparently set into his arm. He pressed one, and a saucer-shape wider than farm’s barn rose out of the lake. Still dripping water, it landed smoothly on the grass. The press of a second button opened a hatch where there had been nothing to mar the smooth surface of the vehicle a second before.

Garfield took the lead, and Maryann followed close behind. The pair moved into the spaceship, the alien with a proud, possessive posture and the little girl with wide eyes, trying to see everything at once.

Maryann was beside herself with excitement. She could not help commenting, <<Wow! A real spaceship!>>

<<Yes, it is real. And I am very proud of it. Would you like a tour?>>

<< Please! This is amazing! Even my Grandpa has never seen anything like this! And he has been the city!>>

Garfield walked the little girl through the different parts of his ship. He seemed to grown in confidence and pride as she exclaimed over each wonder. As they were finishing up the exploration, the alien brought her to his control room to finish the tour, knowing that she would be even more impressed with his displays and technology.

Maryann was right behind Garfield as they crossed the threshold separating the control room from the rest of the ship. As excited as she was, the little girl was also exhausted. Her bare foot caught on the raised entry to the control center, and she stumbled and slid.

The young girl reached forward to try and stop her motion, but her small fingers hit a sizeable gray button on one of the control stations instead. Immediately, lights flashed and the deck under their feet vibrated. Before Garfield could react, the ship shuddered and began rising.

Garfield lunged toward the station, but as pressure pushed them both down, the big alien twisted his body to catch Maryann before she could be slammed to the deck and possibly injured.

The child groaned in pain but was cushioned by Garfield’s padded body. By the time that he could untangle himself from Maryann, it was evident that there was no longer an emergency. Black spangled space surrounded them with the pinpoint lights of many stars. The pressure on the two people eased, as pinpoints became streaks.

<<Maryann, are you alright?! That wasn’t supposed to happen, at least not now. It could have been horrible!>> Garfield exclaimed as the ship raced faster and faster. <<We are already away from your planet, and it will be a long time before I can go back. That means that you will get to see my world, just like I saw yours.>>

Of course, her disappearance was noted, and her family searched for her. They never found a trace, of course. To this day, it remains a mystery.

<<<>>>

The storyteller smiled at his rapt audience. Raising his voice, he said, “That’s how little Maryann Hunter became the first American in space, and the first one to visit an alien planet. The little girl grew up and lived a long and happy life at home with our people. She became a valued member of our family. She even learned to purr.”

The old storyteller looked out at the sea of small orange and black striped faces.

“Aw, that’s just a story for wee little kits, “ said a kitten from the back.”

“Oh, really. What’s in those bowls around the room, and in the one in front of you?”

“These? I don’t know, but they’re great,” the kit said as he popped one into his mouth and purred contentedly.

The old storyteller smiled and purred back, before saying, “I grabbed a few plants as we walked back to the ship. I think they’ve taken to our soil quite nicely. Maryann always called them strawberries.”

Mark Wilson:
06/15/2020, 04:25:37 PM

Very interesting. Hope you write more of these.

Cassi Callens:
06/14/2020, 03:33:22 AM
Reply

“Touch of Mercy”
Inana’s Game: Scenario 3, Snippet 2, Character 3. I know the deadline has past but i still wanted to post.

Glancing out the window she could see the gestapo banging on doors and searching each house for harboring Jews. Any German citizen found aiding a Jew would be dealt with severely. This was the risk she knew all too well, but it did not matter. The young woman had decided long ago that she would do anything to protect her cousin. They would have to go out the back way to avoid being caught. Sliding her backpack on, she grabbed a flashlight and the two girls set out, fleeing into the night.

Cold bitter air nipped at their skin as the girls trudged silently through the white, slushy terrain. Sounds of faint screams and dogs barking echoed behind them. A few miles north of town was a train station. It would take them south to a safer location. Fighting the frigid winter air, the girls traveled, trying to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the town. It wasn’t until their bodies ached with fatigue that it became clear that shelter was needed. Hiking up a little way, the girls found an old, rundown shop where they could stay the night. There they sat huddled together, Grace fiddling with her mother’s necklace and her cousin quickly succumbing to sleep. Before they knew it, the sun arose, waking them from a short, restless slumber.

Hungry and exhausted, the young girls continued their trek north until they reached a wooded area with smoke billowing above the trees, signaling that they were close. A wave of relief encircled them as the train came into view. Just a few more steps. They used every ounce of energy to push their weary bodies closer. With their minds focused on getting to the train, they hardly had time to notice the car that belonged to the gestapo sitting a few feet away from them.

Panic set in when the girls saw that the officer had spotted them. They stood there embedded in fear as he got out of the car and approached. For a moment, the man inspected the two girls thoroughly. Observing Grace’s necklace, he leaned down and whispered, “Don’t make me regret this.” With a grateful look in their eyes the girls turned and ran up the hill towards the steam engine.
Hopping onto the freight car, they crawled into a corner and laid down, drifting off to the sound of the whistle blowing.

Miriam D:
06/15/2020, 04:28:05 PM

Brought remembered chills to my body. Thank you for remembering those that struggled.

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