Welcome to this year’s Halloween special! Earlier this month, I had you vote on what kind of content you wanted to see, and you chose an “In-Universe Spooky Story,” which worked out perfectly with this month’s theme of framing structures and horror! You can read last year’s Laoche drabbles here. Chronologically, this short takes place before the events of Runaways. If you want to learn more about the story, you can visit its WIP page, and if you want to read another short story in the same universe, you can sign up for my mailing list here to read “Jack of Fables”. Shameless self promotion aside, I hope you enjoy this story! Have a very Happy Halloween!
“Ma! We’re ready to come in now! Can you put on the water for hot cocoa?”
Hannah stomps the snow off her boots in the garage and props her sled against the wall. Cecelia trails in after her, but groans upon seeing the empty wood rack, already knowing what comes next. Their mother emerges from the kitchen, wearing an apron and holding a half-peeled apple.
“You never got wood,” she observes.
“Do we have to? I’m freezing, and I already started getting undressed.”
“Your father comes home any minute, and we need to stoke the fire. I’ve been making apple butter all day, and lost track of time. There are only ashes left. Why didn’t you do your chores before you played?”
“But Ma, it’s almost dark!”
“It will take you twenty minutes to fetch the wheelbarrow from the shed and fill the rack. Only three loads. I’ll let you finish the job tomorrow, but work until sunset.”
“It’s snowing, the wood will get wet,” Hannah wheedles.
“It won’t turn green between the stack and the house. Stop making excuses.”
“We’re all wet. We could catch hypothermia and die.”
“If you didn’t die in the four hours you were out sledding and stuffing snow down each other’s coats, then you won’t die from twenty minutes of stacking wood. Might even warm you up.”
Hannah gives a long-suffering groan, but their mother budges as much as a sturdy oak.
“Get on with you. The sooner you finish, the sooner you can have cocoa and apple butter bread. Many hands make light work. Stop whining and be a good example for your little sister,” she instructs.
She flips the switch to turn on the outdoor light, and tosses Hannah the keys to the shed, then disappears into the kitchen. Hannah begrudgingly pulls back on her sopping gloves and hat. Cecelia sighs and stomps behind in her footsteps.
“You know that arguing with Ma is no use,” she chides as Hannah’s frozen fingers fumble with the lock on the shed.
“You could have helped persuade her. She listens to you more than me, cause you’re the youngest.”
“She listens to you more because you’re the oldest, but not when you’re complaining so much about something you brought on yourself.”
“We,” Hannah corrects. She pulls the wheelbarrow free, pushes it towards the back of the shed where their family put their big wood stacks and covered them with tarps. They use the oldest seasoned logs first, and bring them inside the garage where they’re conveniently within reach, without having to get dressed in snow gear. Another chore to add to her list of duties in the winter, and one that Hannah loathes. The heavy tarps dump water on her if she isn’t careful, and her toes are numb. “We wanted to play in the new snow, and you didn’t remind me when I forgot.”
Cecelia concedes the point with a nod as she moves the stones off the tarp and pulls it back to expose the stacked logs. She clambers up onto the pallet and starts handing them to Hannah, who dumps them in the wheelbarrow.
“Why don’t you complain?” Hannah asks, hefting an unwieldy stump onto the pile. “This is the worst job.”
Cecelia throws her the last of the logs and they ferry the wheelbarrow into the garage, where they re-stack the supply of wood on the rack, and return for another load. Then, she answers Hannah’s question:
Once upon a time, there lived a nag. She had a lovely house–a cottage on the edge of the woods, the perfect size for her family. They owned a field that gave them harvest a plenty, and they never wanted for meat or milk or eggs. Money came enough for her to afford treats on the feast days. Her husband loved her dearly, and her young son adored her. Yet she was not happy.
Everything beneath her supervision measured against her standards fell short. The front door squeaked, and the ceiling hung with spices and dried fruit, stooped too low for her liking. Her neighbor’s field gave a finer harvest than hers, and the animals snapped too much when she gathered their daily supply. The money was never enough, and she sighed after the rich silks that the mayor’s wife wore on Sundays. Her husband, though he tried to remedy her wants, never completed his endless tasks to a satisfactory requirement. The boy never slept through the night, and she could never escape his dirty diapers and puke-covered clothes.
Beyond that, she was bored. Her feet grew restless, her chest filled with wanderlust. She longed to see what laid beyond the woods, to visit the city, to swim in the sea. She did not remember how she trapped herself in this life. What spark of love still possessed her husband evaded her. She bore no fondness for her son. Once she’d been so excited to be a mother and a wife, she knew she chose this path, but she cursed the past self who settled for such mundanity. She needed an escape.
One blustery October night, the insatiable craving grew too much to bear, and the woman ran. She flung herself from her bed and pulled on her boots even as her husband beckoned her back to the warm covers. She snatched only a shawl and carried only the ring on her finger, as she fled the cottage. Past the field, past the pasture, past the edge of the woods, into the storm she ran, until she reached a tree.
It stood alone in the center of a glade ringed by toadstools. Untouched by the driving winds and whipping rain, serene leaves of gold barely fluttered as if in a spring breeze. She hesitated only a second before rushing across the threshold and jumping into its hollow trunk. Underside, she discovered a world of wonders and whimsy, of revelries and radiance. She danced with pixies and drunk with dwarves until her head grew dizzy and light.
Then she approached the monarchs. The King and Queen asked her reasons for running away, but her answer held no honor. Their disappointment struck the woman like a kick to the gut, and she groveled before their thrones, begging to stay and live amongst the fantastic delights of their land. They offered a position as a caretaker in the royal nursery, or as a gardener, or whatever job she should wish, but she scorned their offers, forgetting that life requires work. To return to that drudgery? The thought was unbearable.
With wounded pride and rejection eating her stomach from the inside out, the woman ran. Into the woods again. Fear and brambles choked her path and her tears fell as hard as the rain. What if her family should miss her and search the woods? What if they found her and dragged her back to the suffocating little cottage and smothered her with their attentions and requests? But what if she froze or starved in these woods? What if a wolf or bear attacked her at her most vulnerable? She sunk to the ground in despair, and at this moment, he appeared.
A pale face smiled at her in the darkness, with indistinguishable features and a shifting form as his clothing blended with the forest. He offered freedom, and a changeling who would take her place. He promised they would not miss her while she went on grand adventures and earned true glory.
She didn’t hesitate. They sealed the bargain with her wedding band.
A mirrored face sneered at her in the darkness, with identical features and a solid form that took her clothing and gave her the garb of the forest. The imposter slunk towards the cottage. The fae beckoned her to a feast where he played pipes for a court of monsters. She danced with phantoms and drunk with devils, and felt no remorse for her decision.
Her triumph lasted until morn, when her liberators became her captors. The Piper gave her to the Queen as a slave. A different Queen—one who spoke of both seelie and servants with contempt. The woman worked through the hangover to scour the banquet hall clean. They awarded her with a stone bed. This labor stole her sanity and ate years of her life. She toiled long and hard for others, not for love, nor duty, but for fear. The adventure died as soon as it lived.
The food kept her from running away from her troubles yet again. Enchanted delights seldom came, but she hungered for each morsel with a smoldering desperation she could not quench. The euphoric crumbs did not satisfy her for long, but she answered to their bitter and repulsive demands for the hope of meeting that fleeting joy again.
After years of earning her place, they pressed an icy blade into her hand and drilled her until it warmed with slick wet blood. She was too numb to care. At long last, she earned the glory she sought at the cost of her soul and her heart. She never won satisfaction, and passed the evenings away with gambling and drink to forget her troubles, to drown out the voices of her ghosts. She never thought to return or rise to a higher purpose until her debts caught up to her. When faced with nowhere left to retreat, she resorted to the home she abandoned. She needed an escape.
One blustery October night, the dread grew too much to bear, so she ran. She flung herself from her litter and pulled on her boots even as her mates pulled her back to the bar. She snatched only a shawl, not even carrying the lost ring on her finger, as she fled the unseelie court. Into the storm she ran, past the edge of the woods, past the pasture, past the field, until she reached a small cottage. She charged the front door and seized the changeling, to the horrified screams of her husband and child. His hair now white, her boy now grown, the changeling weathered with wrinkles, while she didn’t look a day changed. That didn’t matter.
She demanded the changeling give up her place and pay her debts. No apology. No explanation. The creature acted as her scapegoat once before, and it must fill its role now.
The changeling refused.
Her husband refused. Her son refused. They might have been hers, once. They were not anymore. Who fed the animals and coaxed good grain from the ground? Which one kept soup boiling over the hearth? Which was the kind smile at the door, the steady hand during turmoil, the warm hug on a miserable day? Which laughed, whistled to birds, rejoiced for flowers, and loved every joy of the mundane?
The family ousted the selfish stranger from their home. She fled into the night. Loss, fury, pain, and fear drove her on to more desperate speeds. The keening of pipes, screeching of rats, and howling of dogs chased her wild run through the forest. The wind bit into her skin, and when the next gust hit, her body fell, and she flew, swept up by the other lost souls in their eternal charge across the night. What better home for her but the eternal wild hunt? A ghost is many things: love lost, unfinished business, wishes, dreams, guilt, memories, broken promises, searches, fights, forgotten familiarity, a voiceless thing shouting “I Am Here” to no avail. Her formless spirit batters against the windows when the night winds wail, desperate to reclaim her life from the replacement she wanted.
Hannah shudders, suddenly aware of the howling wind and the gathering dark. A sharp crack pierces through the snow, and both girls jump with surprise as a branch crashes and ice shatters in the forest. Cecelia climbs down from the woodpile. They worked as she told the story and filled up their last load as the sun slipped behind the mountain.
“Let’s go inside,” Cecelia whispers, “before it’s too late.”