“Hand me your slingshot, Ian,” my mother said, holding out her hand. “Meg, the fry oil.” I handed her the small, dripping bag of dark, brown oil. It stank of chicken and was thick with flour. The three of us were crouching under the windowsill, and from what we could see, there were about fifteen of them approaching, dragging their feet lazily in the grass.
The village of Thomas Bartlemead wasn’t usually this inhospitable. The war that had started nearly four years ago had made a difference-- a very large difference in how we treated groups of armed men. They trampled our fields the year before, leaving us to starve for the winter. Since then, there have been some petty raids on a few houses and barns. As they got closer to the round base of the worn out brick fountain in the square we could see that these were the same men as before, with the same faded uniforms. If only they had waited until my father, Tom Bartlemead the younger had gotten back from the war. He would’ve taught them a more permanent lesson. But they hadn’t waited. And we couldn’t wait for him ourselves, not any longer.
Mother fired the shot of disgusting oil right at the feet of their leader. It splattered on his shoes. “Go back!” she shouted.“Go back now, while you still can!”
“We ain’t here to fight, missy,” their leader drawled. He had some kind of handkerchief wound around his head, whether for a wound or not it was hard to tell. “Haven’t you heard? The war’s over!”
“Then go home!” Mother’s lips were set into a thin, grim line. Her hands looked like they were starting to shake. The only time she yelled was usually at Ian and I when we misbehaved, not at men who could kill us all if they got close.
If only Grandad had been there. Since his leg had fully healed and Grandma had returned, he’d once again lived up to his legend of fighting injustice and causing trouble around the countryside. Old as he was, gray as he was, he could have whipped them all single-handedly. Sent them home crying. Grandma would’ve had no trouble getting them to leave either. No, she’d have them turn tail and run with only one of her lectures. But she and Grandad had gone to help a friend. They said they’d be back as soon as they could, but they were still days away.
“Surely you can spare some food for our journey, madam,” another rogue said smoothly.
My mother laughed, loud and bitter. “We’d have plenty to spare if you hadn’t trampled our fields.”
“There must be some misunderstanding. We’re not enemies anymore,” he continued.
There was no misunderstanding. We knew their faces. These were the same men that trampled our fields before. They’d been gone for a while, when the fighting had gotten more intense on the front lines, but now that the war was over, the treaty signed, they were back again. Bullies.
Old man Hodge spoke up from a few houses away. “Then are you here to plant more crops? You carry swords, not plows. You bring the war to our doorstep out of spite! Be off with you!”
“Enough of this,” their leader said. “We’re here to take what we can get. If you don’t want your families to get hurt, you’ll let us be.”
“This is the village of Thomas Bartlemead,” my mother said coldly. “Not just the elder, but his son as well. Do you really think that you’ll escape alive when he finds you?” I never thought she could sound so imperious.
“I ain’t afraid of an old man,” the leader puffed out his chest. “As for the younger, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t count on him anymore. He’s dead.”
The slingshot slid out of my mother’s hand and dropped to the floor with a soft thud. Ian and I looked at each other behind her back, wide-eyed.
“I killed him myself, in fact,” the leader continued. “He fought well, you know, but he really wasn’t all they said he was.”
His men snickered. He might have been commenting on a disappointing meal. The slingshot was in my hands before I thought twice, and a small sack of flour the size of my fist was flying through the air and hitting him squarely in the face before anyone could stop me.
He staggered. He coughed. He rubbed his eyes. His head and shoulders were covered in flour. All of those slingshot contests with my brother (which had been called a waste of time) had paid off after all.
“Who did that?!” the leader demanded.
“You’re lying!” I yelled back. “He would swat you like a fly!”
“I have proof, you little whelp!” He drew his sword and held it up.
It wasn’t his. It couldn’t be. Not Dad’s.
Dad was very proud of his sword. Although he was an excellent baker, his confidence with the finer, artsy side of his trade was very low. While every loaf of his bread was delicious, he had to have my mother shape it before he’d allow it to be baked. He stayed away from any of the final touches. He was more comfortable with the ‘simple labor’, as he put it. In his frustrated moments, he’d grab his ax and say that destroying things was all he was good at, so he’d go get more firewood and leave the important things to the ladies.
His sword was different. For the first time, he really made something, from start to finish, and it was beautiful. With training from both the local blacksmith and Grandma (expert in all things magical), he made a sturdy broadsword with a garnet inlaid in the hilt. It was enchanted to be light as a feather, but to always stay sharp. It wasn’t perfect, by any means. The very next day, he dropped it on a rock and dented the goldwork on the handle. Rather than hang his head, Dad just laughed and said that now it had more character.
The ruffian with the now-floury handkerchief around his head was holding it. He was actually smirking. “You may as well surrender now. We’ll take what we want, and you can’t stop us. Be nice and we’ll spare your lives.”
There was silence. After seeing his sword, my mother was sitting on the floor, staring at the wall in shock. Ian was patting her shoulder, trying to comfort her. I turned a dark eye toward the white-faced idiot outside.
“That’s not proof, you numskull!” I roared. “You probably just found it lying around somewhere! You may be a sneaky coward and a bully, but you’re no match for Tom Bartlemead!” His lie was so pathetic that I felt like a match for him, even though I was only eleven at the time.
The floury ruffian stared. “Why you--!” They weren’t going to stand for that kind of talk, naturally, and began to rush forward toward our houses.
“Now, Ian!” I handed him the slingshot, and then the ammunition. Earlier, when we saw them come from the road, we’d cut up old sacks, put the flour and old frying oil in them, and bound them loosely with string, so they’d burst once they hit their target. I give Ian the credit for the idea, since it all started with a prank of his.
In our contests, I had always been a little more accurate with my shots, but Ian was faster. Now he slung out the bags of flour in rapid succession, delaying our enemies, but not stopping them. Next, I handed him rocks that we’d gathered from our garden. We knocked out two of them, but there were still thirteen more.
“I told you we should have boiled the oil!” Ian said reproachfully as I scrambled for more things to fire at them.
“We would have burned ourselves first, I told you,” I retorted.
The other villagers were doing what they could as well, but they were like us, the elderly, women, and children. I knew we weren’t going to last long.
“Mother, it’s going to be all right. You hear me? I’ll call for help. It’s going to be fine. Ian, use the cinnamon and pepper next.”
While those two spices had them sneezing and gasping for breath, I read the words of the spell Grandma had given me before they left. Mother didn’t like us to do magic, especially not inside the house, but this was an emergency. It was a simple spell: you think of a person, and call for their help in your heart. I called for my grandparents, but I knew they were still far away.
I hated to admit it. I still hate to admit it, but there are some things that I cannot do alone. There was only one other person nearby that I knew could help save our village. He was somewhat unreliable, with a history of holding petty grudges and kidnapping children, but...
I called for the Faery King.