The door started rattling. The man behind it strained at the lock and hinges.
Ian’s slingshot broke. He cried out in panic, and I yelled at him to close the shutters on his side of the cottage. We heard them start to bange their fists against the locks. There were probably four of them at our house alone.
“What are we going to do?” Ian asked me.
“Powdered sugar,” my mother said from the floor. “That will buy us a little time. We just have to convince them that it’s not worth their time to keep attacking.”
“But they won’t stop if they’re mad enough,” I reminded her, grimly tucking a knife in my belt.
My mother turned weary eyes toward me. “Can you really use those knives on a human being? Can you kill them if you have to?”
I gulped. The very thought filled me with horror, but I would do what I had to. Ian and I went for the powdered sugar. If you’ve ever handled it, you should know how easy it is to make a cloud of it that fills the air and chokes the lungs. Cinnamon is more effective, but we only had a small amount of that.
The shutters near the back door gave out first. I jerked my open bag of sugar over the window, and it exploded into the air immediately. I coughed and closed the shutters again as curses and yells came from outside. They were getting really mad now.
All the banging on the doors and such stopped. We still heard some shouts from outside, but too muffled to understand. Some screams sounded from nearby houses. Excitement began to give way to terror.
And then smoke began to come through our thatched ceiling.
“Out!” My mother screamed. “Out, now!” She and Ian went for the front door, I went for the back. Two rogues were waiting for me. I made a few successful kicks at their shins, but that was put to a swift stop when one of their fists crashed against my cheek. We were all caught and dragged to the middle of the square while our house burned behind us.
It hurt. My face from where I’d been struck, my pride from our defeat, the loss of my home-- could not compare how much it hurt to be so afraid. I always thought I could squirm out of a man’s grip and get away in such a situation-- but if I made one wrong move, my family could be killed.
Our house had been the last to give way. I felt no pride in that. The other houses were being looted while the villagers huddled together, shaking in fear. The three of us were then kneeling on the cobblestones in front of the leader of these thieves, and he was getting ready to gloat. The water from the fountain in the center of the village square sloshed, even as the fire crackled behind us.
“That’s the last of them, Olly,” the second-in-command finished reporting.
“Good. So what were you saying, little girl?” he drawled again, the tip of Dad’s sword lightly touching my throat. “A coward? A liar?”
I just needed to keep him talking, give the Faery King more time to get here-- if he was coming. My speech came out slurred with my swelling lip.
“It’s not true.” I took an unnecessary pause to gasp for air. “What you said is not true.”
“It must be hard to believe your dad is dead, I’m sure,” Olly smirked. I glanced up sharply.
“Ah, I can see the resemblance now,” his second stepped up to say.
“She’s the spittin’ image of him, ain’t she?” Olly put one foot on the low ledge of the fountain and leaned down condescendingly. “You know, missy, even with this fancy weapon, he was a sloppy fighter.”
“What, did you kill him in his sleep?” My mother spoke up.
“I fought him man to man, so I did!” Olly the liar snapped.
“Then there’s no way you could have killed him.” She said placidly, as if catching one of her children in a fib. “But he was always bad at putting his things away, so he may have just misplaced his sword.”
Olly glared at her. “Can you believe it?” he asked his second. “This woman’s trying to make a fool out of me!”
I nudged her with my elbow. She took the hint.
“Oh, no, not at all.” My mother waved her delicate hands. “I need to know how it happened in order to believe it. It is the only way I can grieve. Tell us in greater detail.”
It almost worked. Olly blinked and opened his mouth, but then gave a start. “I don’t need to tell you! He’s dead! What was his is now mine! His sword, his village, and--” his eyes whipped back to her. “His woman.”
Did he forget to whom he was talking? Mother slapped him, Ian dove forward and bit his leg, and I pulled out the little paring knife that’d been hidden behind my belt buckle and sliced at his cheek just as he jumped back. As surprise attacks go, it was satisfying to hear him yell and jump about. But our victory was short lived. We were surrounded.
I thank heaven, our luck, and my grandmother’s magic lesson for the fact that the Faery King arrived right then.
Although the battle had seemed an eternity, the Faery King had arrived within the hour. He and his men rode into our village, bridling their black, flaming steeds at the last moment and causing the smoke from their hooves to mingle with the swirling dust around them. It was an impressive entrance. Everyone, even the ruffians, stopped to look.
“Now!” the Faery King spoke loudly, standing up in his stirrups. “Where’s that Bartlemead brat who thinks I’ve got nothing better to do than to drop everything and come running when she calls?”
I waved. “Here!”
“Of course you’re there, in the center of the trouble.” He trotted over to us. The thieves jumped out of the way, left and right. Olly stood his ground, but only because his back was to the fountain.
“Let’s have that fire put out first, shall we?” The king gestured towards the fire that was consuming our home, and his assistant Cusac rode over and turned the flames to foul-smelling ash in a second. The rest of us stood and watched with bated breath.
“My lady,” the king said smoothly as he dismounted. He bowed over my mother’s hand, making her blush a little. “You’re looking lovely as ever. And Master Ian, good to see you, sir,” he gave a respectful nod. Ian flushed happily and bowed back.
“Miss Bartlemead,” he finally turned to me with a smile. “Your reinforcements have arrived.” The Faery King hadn’t changed a bit. He was still handsome, still didn’t look a day over twenty-five, and he was still full of himself.
I sighed in relief. “What took you so long?”
“Tch. I am overwhelmed by your gratitude, as always.”
“Who’re you, then?” Olly tried to seem challenging, even while holding a handkerchief to the cut on his face.
The king looked down his nose at him. “All in good time. This brat and I have business to take care of.” He turned back to me, reaching out and lightly touching my cheek. “Now what happened to your face? Have you been starting brawls again?”
“Of course not!” I grasped his hand with both of mine, squeezing his fingers in desperation. “We tried to get them to leave, but they attacked us. They won’t listen.”
“Please, Faery King, make them leave! I don’t want anyone else to get hurt!” In my relief, my limbs had begun to shake.
The king raised an eyebrow. “Not anyone? That's no easy task, Meg Bartlemead. What shall you do for me in return?”
The shaking stopped and I dropped his hand. “Is now really the time to be thinking of a reward?” I said, indignant.
“Not a reward, a trade.”
“People are going to die if you do nothing!”
“Yes, that's what happens during a war. I had to fight my way through my own, and so will humans, for as long as they keep bickering.”
“The war’s over! This isn't war. This is an attack on innocent villagers. There are no soldiers here except for them!”
“I agree that it should be stopped.” The Faery King rubbed his chin. “But you aren't asking me for a favor, are you? You should know better than that by now.”
My mouth opened, “I'll--” I began, but he waved his long fingers dismissively.
“Don't say you'll do anything. Don't be stupid.”
“I'll bake for you. Anything you want baked!”
“For how long?”
“How long do you wish? Hurry and tell me!”
“Hmm. Fifty years.” The king tossed the number out, probably thinking of lemon chiffon pie.
My eyes widened. He was so greedy! “One, how about one year?”
“Twenty,” he haggled.
“Oi!” Olly interrupted. “You going to ignore me all night?”
“Stay out of this!” the faery king said rudely, and turned back to me. “Five years.”
“One.” I insisted.
“So stingy! Besides, I thought you didn’t need rescuing. Didn’t you say you could take care of yourself?”
That stung. “If it was just me, I could, but I have a family to take care of!” I gestured to my mother and brother behind me.
The Faery King’s expression changed and he began shaking in amusement.
“Why are you laughing?!”
“Sorry, sorry. I didn’t know I was addressing the head of the house. Of course you have your family to consider. But must I remind you that you need this bargain more than I do?”
“One year should be plenty!” I argued.
He sniffed. “I suppose I could go as low as four years. We could even call it an apprenticeship, if you like. A good career opportunity with plenty of benefits.”
From the corner of my eye I could see the smouldering roof of my house. The thieves around us were grumbling, hands on the hilts of their swords. Their wonder at the sudden magical interruption was fading, and their haggard confidence from surviving the war was returning. They were growing impatient at the chance to fight again.
I grimaced.“Two years?”
“That wouldn’t do anyone any good. You’d leave just as soon as your skills improved! You are a master of pies, granted, but your cakes leave much to be desired.”
Mother and Ian were watching us, oddly silent.
Argh, he was right. “F-four years, then!”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, I suppose.”
“I agree to stay in your mountain and bake for you for four years! Now stop the fight and make them go away!”
The king grinned and lifted his hand, and a long parchment of a contract unrolled in the air. “I look forward to your apprenticeship! Sign here, please.” He offered a quill.
“Oh, fine!” I scribbled my name.
“Perfect.” The Faery King drew his sword, a long, elegantly thin blade, and held it high in the air for a moment. Then he drove it into the ground. A wave rippled from the impact, like a gust of wind, and the effect was immediate. The bandits dropped their weapons.
“What are we doing?” The second-in-command said to no one. They all stumbled a bit, looking confused and asking similar questions.
“I’ve got to go home,” Olly said. “They’re waiting for me.” Dad’s sword was still in his hand.
“That sword isn’t yours,” I said sharply, as he turned to leave.
He looked at me, startled. “Oh! I’m sorry.” He sheathed it and handed it to me, his eyes showing no malice, no recognition. One spell from the Faery King, and my worst enemy was suddenly a polite stranger. Just like that, they walked out of our village.
“What did you do? How?” I asked the Faery King.
“I just made them remember that they were human,” the king shrugged. “Wish it worked on goblins.”
I suppose it was fortunate that our house stood off to the side of the village and the fire hadn’t spread to other houses. Small fortune. The house was half destroyed and the roof was ready to collapse. The other villagers and my family were running in and out now, trying to save a few belongings before it caved in.
My body seemed frozen. I could only stand and watch.
“Oh, bother.” I heard the Faery King mutter behind me, and turned to see him staring mournfully at the tip of his sword. “That spell always makes it so dull.”
I laughed, a painful, hopeless laugh and sat down on the cobblestones, cradling my dad’s sword and covering my face as the tears ran down my cheeks.