The Small Stranger – Part One: Beneath the Shadowed Moon

Autumn arrived like a newborn child: very loud, messy, bare, and filling the heart with warmth and wonder. He would grow into a strong and lusty winter. His teeth came in small, but very sharp. Those were the days ruled by the moon, as a symbol of change and season, and as the nighttime of the year drew closer.

Otto Kunger could not sleep, so to calm himself he pulled his heavy quilt tight and thought of Else Verboom, his sweetheart. It had been more than three months since she had defeated the zonnestrider, saved their lives, and impressed the deeply unimpressible Prof. Morhier, their teacher of Magic at Cancer Independent. Nothing so supernatural had happened since that dreadful time. Dr. Tom Kikkert had warned him and his friend Kitty Bauer not to disturb the fairy prince in the Bauers’ pasture:

“He’d be offended if you conferred as a casual thing; it must only be as a ruler seeks a ruler, to give aid, or to ask for aid.”

They had not needed aid, and the fairy had not made any sign. There had been other notable events: a transfer student, an eclipse, a severe illness that had kept him home from school, a last rain party before the colder weather…

Suddenly Otto sat bolt upright; his heart was beating fast, and there was sweat on his forehead. He felt for his glasses and put them on with trembling fingers. Though he had heard nothing, it was as if he had heard some beast breathing in the hall, or a scream in the night outside.

Then, he did hear something, and it was the more frightening that he heard it inside his own head. It was like seeing his arm move by itself to hear a thought that he was not thinking. A voice spoke, a young voice, indistinct like one talking in their sleep or in a different room – but this seemed due to his own bewilderment. Then a few things came out clear and low, as if spoken at his very shoulder:

“…I love you, I love you,” (it was not speaking to him,) “don’t be afraid… a perfect place, how lucky. Goodbye… thank you, my noble…”

A little girl’s voice, yet it had the awful effect on the soul like a roll of distant thunder; the hair rose on his arms. He got out of bed shaking, and made his way to his parents’ bedroom. As necessary as it felt, he was timid to approach the great hill his father made in the bed, and to interrupt his deep, rumbling snore with a whisper. His father’s sleep was well entrenched; it was his mother who woke instead, and sat up beyond the hill. No doubt she was practiced at waking to tend Otto’s baby brother, who slept in the cradle on the far side of the bed. She looked somewhat sour, but patient enough, as she peered inquiringly over the great mound of Otto the first, her husband. Otto the younger immediately felt more calm, but the urgency in him was frightened by this calm, and surged back through him, tingling in his skin.

“Mother, there’s something wrong over at Kitty’s place, in the pasture…”

He knew this the way he knew things in dreams, like a memory. His mother’s reply surprised him, but seemed perfectly natural.

“That’s no reason to waken your father. Next time you just leave a note to say where you’ve gone in case you need to stay. Now go along: there’s no use in supernatural warnings if you dawdle and come too late.”

So he hurried away, the tingling in him feeling more strange by the moment. He slipped on his rubbers because it was quicker than shoes, and pulled a coat on over his striped pyjamas. Outside, the moon was shining clear and riding high, having just reached its full width. It turned everything into a moonscape, as if the trees and grass were growing on the moon, as if the house and road were built on the moon, and as if the biting air was the air of the moon.

Otto took the shortest way, over the fence, through the hollow and the gap in the corner of the hedge, then around to the front of the Bauers’ house, though he usually went to the back. Approaching a house where people slept was like approaching a sleeping person. He didn’t want to touch and wake the house, but he had to; he rapped on the door smartly, waited, then did it again. When he was about to knock a third time he saw a movement in a window which made him jump; someone must have pulled a curtain back to see who was knocking. Some moments later he heard the door being unlocked, and then opened. With some difficulty he made out Dolores Bauer, Kitty’s mother: less than a head taller than himself, dressed in glasses and a pale dressing gown.

“What is it Otto?”

“There’s something wrong in the pasture; I heard someone talking. In my head, just now…”

Dolores paused with her mouth open in indecision for some moments, looking in the low light almost exactly like Kitty, except for the glasses.

“Just a moment,” she said, and disappeared into the house. Otto felt suspended in the sharp air and cold light. Two green eyes gleamed from under the far hedge, and a prickle of fear ran through him before he remembered the Bauers’ cat Jackalope. Dolores reappeared carrying a shotgun and a large torch.

“Can’t find my sandals,” she grumbled, and hopped out in her bare feet, turning to hastily lock the door again. When she switched on the torch Otto could see that her gown was light blue; he wondered how cold she felt without so much as a hat. They set off up the old lane at a brisk walk, the torch-light chasing out the shadows which the moonlight left. Otto’s strange warning had thrust him into a strange scene: outside with his friend’s mother in their nightclothes and carrying a gun.

“Will that hurt your arm if you fire it?”

“Oh, right,” Dolores said, and handed the shotgun to him. That wasn’t what he had meant; he was certain it would hurt his arm at least, and clutched it nervously, his heart suddenly beating harder than it had been already.

Thick clouds blocked out the moonlight; to them it was as if something vast had risen up behind them and was drawing near. With the still, motionless light of the moon removed, all they could see became filled with the movement of the jostling torch-light as they marched, and stirred in the frigid breeze that came with the change, so that the darkening of the night was almost like the coming of an earthquake. Otto swallowed, hoping he would be up to whatever they were hastening towards.

“Is Mr. Bauer awake?”

“I would have got Ted, but the fairy hasn’t met him yet. I suppose three people…”

All at once Dolores made a sound in her throat as if she had stepped into an icy pool, and twisted round to shine the light behind her. It lit up the hedge, which here was tall and leafy; a gust of the wind made a deep V in the leaves as if something was being dragged there, or like the wake of some swimming beast.

“What was it?” Otto asked, as soon as his throat had loosened enough to speak.

“Someone put his hand on my shoulder; it felt all soft and damp.”

Otto became very aware of the gun in his hands, and the responsibility it meant for him. He felt like the two of them were staring up at a policeman, or a dour soldier, though they could see no one. The feeling departed, and, breathless and hesitant, they continued up the lane.

When the gate came into view – a sudden dark interruption in the wall of the hedge – the danger sign on it gave Otto a start. The fairy prince had asked that they leave the sign there because he liked it; Otto had not seen it in the night for months; it brought back dread memories. Lurid and stark in the electric beam, more than a warning it looked like a threat. Walking straight up to the gate was like putting his hand into a dark hole where he had seen some unknown scurrying creature vanish.

Dolores was just tall enough to peek over the top of the gate; Otto looked between the top two boards. He saw something on the ground near the middle of the pasture, bright in the torch light which faded into the surrounding darkness. He couldn’t make out what it was, and couldn’t see where the goats might be…

It moved, and Dolores caught her breath next to him, making him jerk.

“Otto!” she whispered hoarsely, “Otto, there’s someone there!”

Go here to read all posted so far of: The Kitty and Otto Stories

The Pasture Watch – Part Five: The Furnace of the Sky

It was a zonnestrider, a diurnal spirit that exhaled a deathly aura of fury and violence. No weapons were permitted on or around the pasture, not even the fairy blade. The fathers of Otto, Else, and Kitty were livid that they were not allowed either. Dr. Kikkert, as the least physically dangerous of the older men, was placed outside the gate with a radio transceiver to contact Prof. Morhier, who waited up the road in a car. Morhier taught Otto a ward to repel the enemy for a time; after at least a day he would be able to prepare a more permanent solution.

Continue reading

The Pasture Watch – Part Four: The Cure

By the time morning came the fairy tree was not only withered but rotten. The fallen leaves that had dried and then been wetted by the dew filled the whole place with the bay leaf smell. Otto thought it was rather inconsiderate of the fairy’s signal to make such a mess after only one brief conversation, but Kitty pointed out that it was it easier for them to get at the roots, where the signal had said the weapon was buried.

Kitty’s father helped them to respectfully remove the dead tree and the layer of leaf litter. Carefully following the roots into the ground with slow digging, they found one root that extended further than the others, almost straight down. The other roots had in fact loosened the soil and made it easier to dig. Four feet down they finally found where the long root was tangled around an object. As expected it had a blade, which made it difficult to get it out of the roots and soil safely. The blade was of no expected kind however. It was curved, somewhat longer than a cubit, and it had handles at each end going straight back from the blade, like the handles of a two-man crosscut saw. When Dr. Kikkert saw it he was puzzled, and rubbed his head.

“Er, Kitty, I wonder if you would allow me to tell one more person about your fairy prince? I’ll need Professor Morhier’s help with this I believe.”

He pronounced the French surname uncertainly as he always did (like “more”, with a French “r”, and the rest rhymes with “Schizosaccharomycetaceae”). Kitty and Otto hesitated. Prof. Angelus Morhier was their magic class teacher at Cancer Independent School, and he wasn’t exactly a friend of theirs. He was demanding, peremptory, dour, impossible to impress, and his mere presence made them feel small, ignorant, and weak. In a way he was the opposite of Dr. Kikkert, who, however competent and knowledgeable he was, always seemed like he needed your help. Kitty didn’t like to think of Prof. Morhier knowing about the fairy: she felt like that would make it belong to him rather than them. He would keep such a secret far better than any of them though, even than her own father. And she couldn’t simply forbid Dr. Kikkert from telling him.

And so it was Prof. Morhier that ventured next into the field, wearing tall, black boots and long, black gloves. He carried a smoke dispenser, a thing like a can or tankard wrapped in a cage, with a top tapered at an angle, and a small bellows beside the handle. With this he pumped clouds of thick smoke around himself into the grass, smoke of cedar, lavender, mayweed, cassia, and screwpine. Towards the middle of the field he pumped vigorously over a certain area, then beckoned Dr. Kikkert to come, who brought a case like a surgeon’s case and a peach wood board the size of a small table-top. Kitty and Otto heard a sharp tapping, and after what seemed a long time Otto was beckoned to come. He wished Kitty could go with them, but no more than three should enter the field, out of respect.

They had found and tranquillised the scorpion, and stapled it to the peach wood board by its tail and pincers, disturbingly like in posture to a crucifix. Otto was told how to hold and use the strange knife: to bring it down like a guillotine, and rock it left and right, cutting off the head, and then cutting the rest into smaller pieces to be eaten. He removed the sling from his cursed arm, and took hold of the plain yet plainly ancient handles. Even in a stupor and fastened to a board, the black guardian looked terrifying. Completely outstretched it was the length of his arm. He didn’t like the thought of how long it would take to eat the entire creature. He lifted the blade. It felt horrible to do this, to kill something so strong, significant, and passionate, like killing a faithful and cunning dog. It didn’t help his feelings that they had immobilised the powerful creature so thoroughly.

He brought the blade down hard. There was no flash or smoke, simply a dull thud and foul crushing sound. The long body and every long leg of the scorpion twitched. With blow after blow he cut it into pieces small enough that he could put each in his mouth without having to bite through anything. He was cutting a long time.

“Begin by eating the head,” Prof. Morhier instructed him. “Use your cursed hand, but do not touch the board.”

Otto took up the head and closed his teeth around it. A shudder went through him, and an unreasonable fear that the complicated mouth he felt on his tongue would bite him. The first crunch into it made him gag. He wondered if it would be easier to swallow it like a pill, then had a horrifying thought of one of the leg pieces moving in his stomach. The next bite was no easier; he only got somewhat used to holding back the constant pressure of nausea. It was making him sweat. At one point something slipped in his mouth, and he half-vomited, but kept his mouth shut, and swallowed it back. It was too bad that the scorpion couldn’t be roasted or put in some other food. He thought the curse leaving his arm might feel good, but it only felt weird, like his arm was swelling again, and full of warm needles.

He was to eat the end of the tail, the telson, last. They told him the poison had been magically denatured. He had another shudder as he crushed between his teeth the very thing that had injected the horrible venom and the curse into his body. He chewed it quickly and was relieved that this particular ordeal was over. Was it worth it to remove the curse? When he thought of what might have happened if he had touched Else with his cursed hand – yes, it was worth everything.

Taking the guardian’s place did not seem nearly as intimidating, no doubt because he did not know what he would have to do.

His father and Else laid out sleeping bags alongside his in the field. Prof. Morhier told them that they could all sleep, because Otto, being the fairy prince’s guardian, would awake if any enemy was approaching. They dared not hinder their view or movement with a tent, and so were grateful that rain or serious cold was unlikely at that time of summer. With friends on either side of him, and under his pillow the ancient blade that had killed the scorpion, Otto felt very safe. More than once he had spent the night outdoors, and fell asleep not long after exchanging quiet goodnights with his father and with Else. He looked into her quiet, bright eyes for a some moments before taking off his glasses.

But he awoke suddenly in the dark, and sat up, feeling a hot, creeping sensation. He groped for his glasses in a panic, and saw when he put them on that there was something at the end of the field: several dark, blood red lights advancing through the weeds. He seized the fairy’s blade from under his pillow, nearly cutting his finger in his haste, and the glaring luminescences dropped lower, like a threatened dog shrinking to the ground. Then a sound slid into Otto’s ear-holes, a voice thin as silk fibres drawn from a worm’s spinneret, soft as doves’ faeces, dull as a razor bathed in nitric acid. It said,

“In the night you are so strong, great one. But I will come under the furnace of the sky, and I will fill your great hands with the blood of your friends, shed by your fingers.”

Otto realised that Else and his father were also awake, but could not remember when Else had raised herself on her arm, or when his father had switched on their lamp. The voice had claimed the previous moments entirely to itself. He felt weak and feverish.

“Father, did you hear that? Did you hear what it said?”

“I did not hear it. Therefore, it must have been meant for Otto’s ears alone.”

“Yes it was,” Else said, “but I heard it too.”

Though sweat was getting in his eyes, Otto could tell that she was looking steadily at him. She filled his hand with hers.

With that small, still hand resting in his, the fear that it would be hurt, or worse, by his own thick, trembling fingers… a darkness filled him which the blackness of night around them could not equal.

And yet, with God above, Else holding one hand, and his father holding the other, he was even able to sleep again.

He did not take off his glasses when he lay back down.

Go here to read: The Pasture Watch – Part Three: The Signal

Go here to read: The Pasture Watch – Part Five: The Furnace of the Sky

Go here to read all posted so far of: The Kitty and Otto Stories

I’m cross-posting this here and on Hope, Hearts, and Heroes: a blog of six authors in Romance and Speculative fiction.

The Pasture Watch – Part Three: The Signal

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Dr. Tom Kikkert was friendly about the number of people he let in the room when they were those who needed to be there. He kept the true proverb, that “companionship is the purest medicine”. Otto’s room had warm brown walls: the doctor tried to avoid sterile white. Otto’s barrel-chested father sat by the bed and held his hand. Nearby sat his mother, who seemed undisturbed (“He is a boy, after all”). She was holding Otto’s baby brother, who also seemed undisturbed, and was pointing with interest at the various medical and magical things in the room: he had never been in this interesting place before. Kitty was sitting on a love-seat, and leaning, exhausted, on Else Verboom, Otto’s sweetheart; Else was a nice person to lean against.

In a larger town than Assendoorn there would be a natural doctor and a preternatural doctor, but here Dr. Kikkert served as both; a “biplane” as he called himself. He had Otto receiving intravenous anti-venom at measured intervals, and had a bronze medallion taped to his forehead to mitigate the initial impact of the curse. To Kitty the strangest thing was seeing Otto without his glasses on, though she had seen it often enough.

Between tending to Otto and doing tests, Dr. Kikkert would sit near the girls to hear Kitty’s account of the occurrence. She spoke thickly as he had put ice in her mouth: she had indeed bitten her tongue very hard. The ice also helped her focus on speaking clearly rather than on the terrible things she described. Dr. Kikkert often resembled an old Benjamin Franklin who was oddly at a loss for words; Kitty and Else liked him.

When Otto’s breathing had quieted and his speech had become coherent again, his father spoke with him. His father’s name was also Otto, Otto the First. He had a low, growling, storyteller’s voice, and taught history at Cancer, where Kitty and Otto went to school (it was named for the constellation).

“Why did you run at the scorpion, Otto?” he asked.

“Well, Kitty had already lost one of her goats today. And I knew it was dangerous, though I couldn’t see what it was, I guess because it was a spirit.”

“And you didn’t think how it would be dangerous to you.” His father said this not as if rebuking his son, but almost as if he was tranquilly boasting to all present. Else and Kitty agreed in sentiment with their eyes.

Dr. Kikkert brought from another room a small flag, and gave it to Kitty. It was white, with diagonal black bands separating it into four quadrants, each with an emblem. 

“Erect this flag at the entrance of the field, with a gift of good fruit below it,” said Dr. Kikkert, “this is so we may speak with the fairy, if God allows.”

She recognised from magic class that the flag was made of human hair yarn, and that one of the emblems stood for royalty: it was a flower, but always looked to her like a cup. She wondered why it was there.

“Do you think the fairy is good then?”

“No. That is to say, I can’t tell. But we must find out from one of The Folk, and the fairy is the only choice.”

He advised her not to tell anyone else who did not already know of the fairy (except of course her father), as it was disrespectful to such creatures to noise abroad their presence.

That evening was very busy for Kitty and Dolores Bauer. With extreme care they retrieved the body of Ari, the goat which had died, and buried her sadly. They fetched the rest of the goats from the pasture, which was an even more frightening and ticklish business as it seemed they didn’t want to leave. Then they put up a danger sign outside the gate, and a few steps inside the gate they set up the flag, with a little mound of beautiful pears, cherries, persimmons, and apples. The next morning the flag and the fruit were gone, and in their place grew a small sapling of a bay tree. It grew further, branching much, so that on the third day it was a bush as wide around as a large table, blocking the entrance to the pasture past the gate.

As Dr. Kikkert instructed, Otto and Kitty brought bay branches of their own to the fairy tree, on the evening of the third day when the sun touched the horizon. They laid their branches on the ground and stood on them. Instead of bowing, they held out their hands. Otto held out his left hand, his right being in a sling – not because of the effects of the venom, but to remind him not to use that hand. The curse was a potent one: a window spontaneously cracked when he stood near it, and the plants died on his bedroom windowsill. Before he used the sling to remind himself, he tried to pull on a shirt, and it tore like tissue; later when he leaned his hand lightly on the sink, it had broken off the wall.

They saw a soft light without any source play over the leaves of the fairy tree, and then the form of a man, no taller than a man’s finger, came and stood at the end of one of the branches. Kitty caught her breath, and covered her eyes with her hands; not because there was much particularly amazing about the man, other than his complete lack of clothes. Otto hoped the small personage would take Kitty covering her face as respect rather than insult, but felt he had better try explaining.

“I am sorry, with all respect good fairy…”

“I am not the fairy prince,” said the man, “I am the human signal of the fairy prince, come to speak with the great.”

“Yes, thank you good signal, I just wanted to say that my friend Kitty isn’t supposed to see a man who…” He hesitated, trying to think of a delicate way of putting it.

“I am sorry, my friend among the great. I will go, and the fairy prince will send the female human signal.”

“No! I mean, I’m sorry, with all respect, she may see you, but she must only see your face, your handsome face, with all respect…”

The human signal walked back along the branch and was gone. Otto took off his glasses in case the female signal appeared, until he heard the same voice speak again. “Here I am,” it said. Otto put his glasses back on, and saw the man face peering from a thicker place among the leaves. He whispered to Kitty that she could look. Once the two of them were properly looking at him, the tiny person began:

“Otto Kunger the Second, you are large, and your eyes are terrifying; Katharine Bauer, you are vast, and you are extremely strong; both of you have come to speak to the human signal of the fairy prince, and the fairy prince says…” here his face suddenly became so stern that, small as he was, they felt more shy and embarrassed than if they were being scolded by a father or teacher, “great ones, why have you taken away my people?”

After a moment’s awkward confusion, Kitty ventured to assume he meant the goats.

“We are sorry, good signal, we took them away to protect them, we didn’t want any more to die. Will you tell the good fairy prince that we are sorry?”

“The human signal is my ears as well as my mouth, the fairy says.” Then the face became heart-rendingly mournful in every line. “Oh, why could I only defend one of all my people? They were not used to me.” Then it became terribly stern again. “Why, great Otto, did you attack my guardian with such tremendous speed and strength?”

“I’m sorry, great… I mean, good fairy prince. I thought I was saving your people.”

“I would never hurt one of my people!” the signal cried fiercely. He stroked his small curly beard with a grim scowl, then swiftly hid his hand from Kitty, and his face was filled with abject guilt. Otto had told him only his face should be seen. Kitty decided to strike while the iron was blushing, so to speak.

“Oh please, good fairy prince, will you not help us heal great Otto, who was stung and cursed while trying to defend your people?”

“Mighty and tremendously heavy Katherine, he must kill my guardian, and eat him entirely, and take his place. The instrument to kill my guardian you will find among the roots of this tree.”

With that, the face withdrew, and the parley was abruptly ended. The sun was fully set a few moments later, and they were standing in grey twilight.

“So…” Kitty said uncomfortably as she and Otto looked at each other, “people do eat fairies after all…”

Go here to read: The Pasture Watch – Part Two: The Sting

Go here to read: The Pasture Watch – Part Four: The Cure

Go here to read all posted so far of: The Kitty and Otto Stories

I’m cross-posting this here and on Hope, Hearts, and Heroes: a blog of six authors in Romance and Speculative fiction.