Linn slammed the car door, flinging the end of her scarf over her shoulder as she stepped over to retrieve her instrument case from the back seat of the car. Her fingers protested against touching the metal, still cold despite the heated trip inside her tiny Toyota. No use in putting on gloves though, not when the house was so close.
Punching the lock button, she squared her shoulders and started the awkward shuffle down the road to the common house. No one had been shoveling today, but then no one had taken up Jon's duties since he died last year. She should be happy the road here had been plowed.
The house was lit from within, the noise spilling out even through securely closed doors. Someone had put a miniature juniper with red ribbons tied to the branches on the front porch. Birgit, no doubt, Linn thought with a smile. She liked that sense of home in a place.
Navigating the icy steps carefully, Linn pulled her hand into the long sleeve of her jacket before touching the handle. Her fingers were already stiffening up -- why the hell was it this cold this Christmas anyway? They hadn't had snow for Christmas for years.
"Linn!" Jonas cried as she entered, the heat of the insides beating against her face. The fiddle would be completely out of tune, Linn realized with a wince even as she put the case down to submit to Jonas' hearty hug. "I thought you wouldn't make it!"
"Just barely," she said and shrugged out of her jacket, throwing her cap onto the shelf above the hooks. "Had to rent a car in town -- the buses aren't going anymore and the train I took was the last that made it out. They've closed the roads."
Jonas winced and looked over his shoulder. "That's not going to make them happy," he said, then bowed to swing the small girl running up to him into his arms. "Hi, sweetie. Tired of playing with grandma?"
The girl -- Maria, Linn realized, had grown since she last saw her - smiled toothily. "She said Linn was coming and that I should come say hi!"
"She did, did she?" Linn said as she kicked off her shoes, ruffling Maria's hair. "How's Birgit anyway? I saw the juniper."
"As well as one might expect," Jonas said and lead the way into the main room. "Her hips are bothering her, but she's getting old. The hip-replacement surgery helped."
"Mmm," Linn just had the time to say before she was swept up in a mass of hugs and handshakes from people she hadn't seen for years and years. This was the first time she'd been home for at least a decade. And this was home.
Finally making it out, Linn walked over to Birgit, sitting in a chair to the side, a gaggle of children sitting faithfully around her as she told them something in a strong and unwavering voice. No changes there, Linn thought affectionately before sitting down beside Maria, who immediately crept into her lap.
"..and when Jon died, do you know what he said?" Birgit said, hands moving with her knitting without any seeming input from her eyes. "He said this spring, the king would come from the forest and claim the girl for his own. The king had waited long enough, and this time, she won't get away."
"But won't the girl be sad?" demanded a boy who Linn thought might be Anna's youngest. He had that unmistakable nose of theirs.
"I don't know," Birgit said, meeting Linn's eyes over his head. "Will she?"
"Doubtful," Linn said, and the children giggled, then ran away to join the ruckus around the Christmas tree. Marie had started with her accordion. "You're still telling that old tale?"
"Well, I had to in case you wouldn't return," Birgit retorted, putting down the knitting in her large bag. "You didn't return for Jon's funeral even."
Linn winced. "I had my reasons," she said. I wasn't ready, she added mentally. I'm still not, but there's not any time.
"I'm sure you had," Birgit said rather doubtfully, but then smiled and got to her feet carefully and heavily. Linn flew to her feet, hovering at her side anxiously, one arm stretched out for safety's sake. "Oh shush, Linn. I'm not that old yet."
"That's not what Jonas told me," Linn said dryly. "Hip-replacement surgery, I think he said."
"One fall, and everyone hovers," Birgit muttered but nevertheless took Linn's hand, squeezing it gently. "I'm happy you came, Linn."
Linn looked down at their hands, one thick and wrinkly, softened with age. One pale and cold, fingertips rough and worn from years of pressing on the strings of her fiddle. "I made a promise," she said quietly. "I intend to keep it."
"That promise was made a long time ago," Birgit said, equally quiet. "I wouldn't blame you from backing out."
But I would, Linn thought and pulled away to walk over to the window, the window bleeding chill even through the heat from the radiator below. It was snowing again, a dance of white that nearly obscured the unevenly lit country road passing the house merely a driveway away. If that wasn't a sign, she didn't know what it was. The King was coming.
Fairytales are meant to remembered, fairytales are meant to be believed. They are kept alive in words, in music, in the slide of the bow on strings. Linn grew up with them, knowing the words by heart and learning the music with soft fingers that still didn't have the calluses to keep them from hurting when they pressed the strings of her fiddle, far too large for her still. But they didn't have a real teacher, only her grandpa who had played in the village for as long as they could remember, leading the procession at weddings and funerals.
Fairytales were in her blood.
Jon wasn't her real grandpa of course, but that's what she called him. He was her stepfather's father and her stepfather had long since become her dad even as her father moved south, to the warmth, to the sun, where the winter yielded rain rather than snow. Her mother had never told her why, but Linn knew it had something to do with the fact that each winter yielded less and less snow. She'd heard the whispers, even though she was small.
Just as Jon wasn't her grandpa, Birgit wasn't her grandma, but it still felt that way. Linn loved spending time with her in the garden, naming flowers and giving them water in the heat of the summer. Birgit told her tales as they walked, of the trolls, fairies and brownies, of the creatures that lived in the forests and mountains and rivers.
When Linn turned ten, Birgit even brought her to the dead rapids where great boulders lay as if thrown by a giant where the rapids had gone before the madman had turned the river away. They hid in a hollow beneath a wooden bridge over the gaps between stones as dusk fell, the scent of flowers drifting down with the wind. Birgit told her the tale of Fiddler, who lured people to die in the fast waters of the rapids. He no longer had any rapids to lure them into, she said, but fell quiet as the music reached them - the dancing tunes of a fiddler who's instrument was an extension of himself.
Linn edged out of the hollow before Birgit could stop her, walking towards the noise, spelled by the lament crying above the dead riverbed. She saw him soon, sitting naked on the largest of the boulders with the reddest fiddle cradled between shoulder and chin. He turned his head as if sensing her approaching, and smiled. Red dripped from his mouth, onto the fiddle and to the rock. Then Birgit grabbed her arm and forced her to run.
"I shouldn't have brought you," Birgit muttered even as she dragged Linn over boulders and walkway, the fiddle music following them tauntingly. "You've had your first blood, otherwise he wouldn't have seen you. You're promised to someone else, I shouldn't have brought you."
"Promised to who?" Linn asked, looking over her shoulder. The Fiddler was staring after her, the bow dancing over the strings.
"The Mountain King," Birgit said grimly, pushing Linn up the last set of steps and dragging her to the car. "And God protect us all if you don't come."
Her father was a common man, tall and broad-shouldered from the heavy work of caring for his forest and his cattle. He smelled like manure most of the time, like cow and horse and diesel, even when he had showered and sent water raining over her as he shook his hair at her, laughing as she shrieked and darted away.
"Who's my little girl?" he used to say, spinning her around and round by her arms until she was dizzy and breathless from laughter.
Those are the memories Linn would like to keep, not the way he'd looked when he returned that day before her seventh birthday, carrying a spotted kitten in his arms. Not with dark rings and shaking shoulders, eyes as pale as snow even as he cradled the kitten softly carefully.
"I didn't believe you," he had told her mother, voice shaking and soft. "I didn't believe you."
Her mother had removed the kitten carefully, putting it in Linn's hands. She'd wished for the kitten for her birthday, but she couldn't be happy when her father looked like that.
"What didn't you believe?" her mother asked softly, cradling her father in her arms and stroking his hair. He looked like a child, not a grown up.
Linn pulled her knees up, cradling the kitten close, hiding her face in its soft, soft fur. She wanted her father back.
"I promised her away," her father said, helplessly, roughly. "For a kitten. I thought... I promised her away."
Linn didn't look up as a sharp slap echoed through the suddenly silent room. The kitten mewed. He was hungry.
"Do the others know?" Linn asked, feeling Birgit coming up behind her. "Do they even believe?"
Birgit laid an arm around her shoulders, hugging her softly. "You can't live here and not believe," she replied quietly, nodding towards the low table in the corner. A bowl of porridge was kept warm there, along with jam and a saucer with milk. "We're not keeping the traditions alive, they are alive."
"This is my last time here," Linn said and her heart shook, the realization coming where she'd just felt numb. "I'm not coming back."
"You're not," Birgit said, and her voice was pity and love and harsh reality. "So make the best of it as only you can. You've had twenty years of freedom that was bought for you. We have nothing more to pay with."
I know, I know, Linn thought, closing her eyes. She'd known it through the years and she knew it still. But if she was leaving this world, she was going to leave this with a happy memory.
Walking over to her fiddle case, she flipped it open and pulled out the bow, swiftly adjusting it before pulling out the fiddle itself. Its familiar red-brown shine seemed to calm her, her stomach settling. She smiled as she ran the bow over the strings. Out of tune, as she'd thought. Rather horribly so at that.
It took ten minutes of careful turning of knobs to make it sound all right and the noise of it blended with the laughter and the sound of the accordion still being played. Then she let her fingers run wild, the music tangling around her before dancing out over the room. Her friends, her family went quiet, looked at her, and the children ran shrieking to her, spinning in circles.
"Play, play!" they begged, cried, wanted and Linn played, dancing with them and letting the music run with her, closing her eyes, her feet doing as they wished as the wildness grew around them.
The lights went out one by one and families spilled out, settling into cars and carefully pulling out onto the road before driving homewards in the dark. Linn remained, sitting on the floor next to the tree, fiddle resting in her lap, bow resting against the wall. The light reflected off the glass orbs in the tree, playing strange shadows over the walls and ceiling. The chill was creeping in again, the heat turned off as Birgit closed off the last amenities.
"We need to lock up," Birgit said softly as she returned to the main room, unplugging the lights to the tree, leaving them in the flickering light of the few candles still burning.
Linn nodded, getting to her feet, carefully bringing her fiddle with her. Replacing it in its case, she threw it over one shoulder and bowed carefully to blow out a candle. The room fell into darkness and she followed her grandma out into the foyer. Birgit was wrapping her scarf around her neck, already bundled up in far more clothes than even the windy night demanded.
"You're coming with me?" Linn realized.
"To the border," Birgit said, her smile bittersweet. "Jon and I bought you this time, I might as well see the end of it."
Linn didn't say anything, only pulled on her own clothes, adding the gloves this time. She didn't want to leave this life freezing to death. The fiddle case she wrapped in a blanket Birgit produced, then put carefully in the pull-along sled before walking outside carrying the whole thing in her arms. Birgit locked the door and Linn looked around the village, the faint lights in the distant and the flickering multi-colored shine of the closest neighbor's Christmas lights. This was the last time she'd see this. The last time.
"Let's go," she said, turning her back to it. Birgit fell in beside her, leaning heavily on a cane and hooking her other arm around Linn's. As Linn turned on to the path, the warmth was welcome. She wasn't sure she would've been able to walk without it.
The path wound along the edge of the forest, worn deep into the grassy ground. It ended at the split rock that had fallen some thousand years ago from the top of the mountain wall rising straight and high into the sky just beyond the field behind the common house. In winter no one usually cleared it, letting it fill with snow until you could barely pass without skis or snow shoes. This year it was cleared, however, and Linn saw the work of the villagers in every shoveled drift.
Birgit stopped as they came a few yards away from the rock, stiffening as if caught by the cold. "I'm not allowed to go any further," she said, her voice frail all of the sudden. "Don't look back, Linn. I love you."
Linn took another step, intending to turn, but then the world disappeared and she was inside a mountain hall, cold and bare of life. Water dripped from the ceiling, the small echo of it bouncing along the walls.
"Hello?" Linn said, her heart suddenly pounding. Her hand tightened on the sled-handle as she turned in a circle. Only darkness, only the dripping. "Hello?"
Something pulled along the ground, something very heavy. Linn stopped breathing, stopped moving.
"Welcome," said a voice as hard as stone, as ancient as the stone itself. "I have been waiting for you, Linn of the Stone Village."
"I've heard," Linn said, not sure where she found the voice -- or the courage. "I did expect a slightly warmer welcome."
The voice laughed, the sound like boulders rolling down a cliff. "Oh, your welcome will be warm," it promised. "This is merely the entrance, made to catch the unwanted." It hesitated. "Not that it stopped your father. Did you like the kitten?"
"It was a lovely kitten," Linn replied. "Lived to the ripe age of eighteen, spoiled rotten."
"I'm glad to hear it."
There was a sound of rocks clashing and a light flared to her right, bright and clear, and suddenly Linn could see, huge and frightful, the body belonging to the voice. Made of stone with scraggly moss for hair, it was a mountain man, crowned with strains of gold and patches of quartz for eyes.
The Mountain King.
He led her deep into the mountain, each step he took sending a small tremor through the ground, rattling her to the bone. The chill seemed to go even deeper than the snow outside, settling deep into her flesh until she was shivering constantly. She worried for her fiddle -- even wrapped up, this chill wasn't good for it. It was her last possession, and she would be sad to lose it.
But slowly, the halls widened and warmed, the light becoming natural and less sharp until she wasn't walking in caves anymore, but in a palace, made out of stone and moss in all colors and textures. The King stopped at a door made out of thick oak and waited for her to catch up.
"Your room, Linn," he said, voice a rumble. "Yours do with what you want, yours for a sanctuary."
"You bought me," Linn said softly, staring at him. "Sanctuary isn't something I expected."
His eyes disappeared, turned into rock for a second. Blinked, she guessed. "I bought your presence," he said, and she thought she heard sadness in his voice. "I didn't buy your life."
Then he left. Or disappeared, Linn guessed, fading into the stone as if he'd never been. Left with nothing much to do but explore the room he'd given her, she walked over and opened the door, taking a startled step back at what met her.
A room, splendid and warm and with a skylight of quartz that brought the sun to her filtered through what must be hundreds of meters of mountain. Moss covered the ground, soft and inviting, and the furniture was made of the same oak as the door. And what was more, it wasn't a room but a series of them, holding everything she might dream of having. Everything but freedom.
Linn stepped inside and started undressing, the warmth of the caves stifling her. She stood barefoot in the moss for a second, then unwrapped her fiddle, walking over to place the case carefully on a table in the center of the room.
"You made it," she said softly as she opened the case, stroking the old, weathered surface. "I was worried."
Making sure to store it safely, Linn returned to hang her clothes on hooks and place her shoes on a shelf before investigating the rest of the rooms. Eventually, she returned to the fiddle, however, sitting down and looking at it.
"This is my home," she told it, "and I have known it since I was young. Now I only have to feel it."
Right now, however, it felt utterly impossible.
The Mountain King didn't come for her, so in the end she sought him out. She found him in another set of room like hers, sitting on the mossy ground beneath another skylight of quartz. He didn't say anything, just watched her as she entered. She thought he might have been smiling, a change in hue around where his mouth should have been.
"Fine," she told him, "fine. I've known since I was little that I was meant for you, but they didn't tell me what you wanted from me beyond me being here."
The stones that were his body moved and she winced as some sort of stone gnashed against another, making a horrible sound. "I want your presence," he said quietly.
Linn shook her head in disbelief. "And all this for a kitten," she said. "I know fairytales are cruel, but this is still quite silly."
He definitely smiled this time. "I'm bound by fairytales as you are," he pointed out, "perhaps even more than you."
"I'm sure," Linn muttered glumly, then flopped down in front of him. The fairytales said he wouldn't hurt her, quite the opposite. "So. I'm supposed to fall in love with you."
"Or kill me," the King said helpfully. "Usually with the help of your lover from the outside world."
"There's none of that," she told him and really, him. It was a stretch even that. He was a heap of stone with edges of moss. Falling in love with him seemed impossible.
"I know," the King admitted and turned towards her, the sound of it echoing between the walls. "I'm not expecting anything of you." He looked at her, the lack of eyes making the experience highly surreal in Linn's opinion. She shuddered, looking down.
"I'm not sure I can do this," she admitted, slowly, tentatively. "Knowing and doing...it might be impossible."
Something cold and unyielding touched her cheek and Linn looked up to find a huge hand only inches from her face. Suddenly, she could see the eyes in his face. They seemed deeper than the caves they were in.
"I'm ready to die," the King said, voice low. "This summer, I will let you go to see your family. As long as you don't return before the autumn equinox, this will all be over."
She could hear the weariness in his voice and had she known him, she was sure her heart would've ached for him. But she didn't and it was too hard to connect to this thing that was as far from a man as a being could be.
"We'll see," Linn finally said, as if things were likely to turn out in a way other than the way he had implied.
The King rumbled to his feet, holding out a hand. "Come, Linn," he said, "come and play for me. I've heard your music echo through the mountains and I have long wished to hear it in person."
That I can do, Linn thought and took his hand. The fiddle and I can keep him happy until summer. And after then? Well, who knows.
Music played in the caves had a weird echo, Linn soon learned, distorting sound in unfathomable ways. She learned to compensate and the King learned to cover the walls of the cavern outside her room with moss to help the sound to thrive. They learned together how to let the sound survive and delighted together as they managed to contain the dance without letting it contort between walls and ceilings.
"I do believe this moss has worked the best," the King said, stroking one hand down the wall. "It seems to support the sound without consuming it like the last one."
Linn played a cheerful piece of music and the sound of it lived. A line of quartz appeared in the King's face and she twirled a few paces, her fingers flying, before putting down the fiddle.
"Maybe now I can show you my music," she said. "I've learned a lot during my travels."
"You wanted to have it all," the King said, "so you would have it here."
She shouldn't be surprised he understood, Linn thought, but she was. The music... she'd made it her life. Ever since she'd been a child - but it had grown after she met the Fiddler. Maybe it had been his gift to her, the Mountain King's promised. Birgit hadn't thought so, but who knew. Fairytales worked in mysterious ways.
"I will teach you a walking song," Linn promised impulsively. "From the twin lakes between the mountains. I played it at midsummer once, on a field high above the lakes. I love celebrating summer there -- no place can ever quite live up to it."
"I would love to hear it," the King said softly, stones falling into a sitting position. There was yearning in his voice and Linn never let her ears go deaf against the wish for music.
But not even music can last forever and a handful of weeks into her stay, Linn put down the fiddle and looked at her blistered fingers. She couldn't play, not for a while. Her body couldn't keep up, and nor could her mind.
"I need to rest from music," she told the King that morning as she exited her rooms. "Show me the caves! That should keep us busy until I can play without hurting again."
He rumbled without words, streaks of stones coming and going through his body. The moss that was his hair seemed to grow, then retract as Linn watched. It seemed to mostly do that when he was uncertain, she'd noticed. But what was there to be uncertain about?
"I will show you the caves," the King finally said, and held out a hand. "I will show you stone, I will show you gold, the homes of trolls, of gnomes, of brownies and elves. But know that not all of them will welcome you without my presence. You must keep close, must not walk away from me."
"I will," Linn answered even as her mind spun around the ideas of brownies and trolls and elves. She had seen them -- distantly, dangerously, hiding carefully with Birgit at her side. This was something far else.
They wandered the caves after that and the King showed her wonders and monstrosities, depths deeper than anything Linn could imagine and high galleries inhabited by elves that swarmed upwards and out through tiny holes in the ceiling that every now and then let through a glimmer of sunlight. Linn would've liked to stay there, but then the King pointed mutely to the mounds of bones in hollows in the wall and Linn shuddered, turning her back to it all. There was truth in the tales of faeries after all.
Weeks passed and Linn's lust for music dwindled. She kept her mind busy, her heart distracted. If she wanted her sanity, she couldn't think of home, not of what lay outside. The music kept her sane, the wandering kept her focused and slowly, the King became her friend.
Then the day came when music not her own echoed through the caves of the Mountain King and Linn stepped out of her rooms, curious and drawn to the sound. The King waited for her, the cold surface of his skin seemingly greyer than usual.
"The time has come," he told her. "It's midsummer and the echoes of the celebration can be heard even down here. Life is leaving me and you're free to go."
"Free to go," Linn murmured and marveled at the way she worried about the King, about the odd pallor of his stones. "Not free to forget." But she nevertheless went to gather her belongings, grown to include much she hadn't had when she came. On top of it all, she put the fiddle, carefully cradled by moss-spun clothes and stone-polished figurines.
The King led her out ways that were familiar to her now, and as they reached the dripping cave he extinguished the light, leaving them in darkness.
"Farewell, Linn," he told her and the sound of his voice was less the movement of boulders than the soft sound of pebbles moving in water. "Thank you for putting an end to my fairytale."
Linn couldn't see him, but she knew where he was nevertheless. For a moment, she resented him, resented what he'd put her and her family through. He'd taken a father from her, a grandpa and years where she could've lived carefree and normal. But then she remembered the music that lived within her, the fact she had a dad instead of a father and the way the fairytales and the beings made her life what it was.
"I'm sorry," she said, and she was. But all fairytales must end, and this one was ending earlier than most of its kind. Without allowing herself further thought, she walked outside. No sound of movement followed her out.
The villagers were gathered outside, dancing around the raised pole in the meadow. Anna had her accordion, Maria had grown several inches and Birgit sat in a wheelchair at the edge of the gathering, clapping her hands with the music. Jonas was dancing with his children, round and round, clapping his hands with the energy only a father with his kids could have. Linn smiled -- it was home.
Maria was the first one to see her and let go of her father's hand with a shriek, bare feet pounding against the ground. Linn let go of everything and fell to her knees, letting herself be knocked to the ground as Maria ran into her arms, tumbling over and over again.
"Little, little Maria," Linn said, ruffling her hair as they came to a stop. "You've grown again."
"I'm ten now!" Maria said and giggled as Jonas pulled her off Linn.
She got to her feet and met Jonas' eyes. They were full of wonder, of questions.
"He let you go," he finally said, even as the others reached them.
"He let me go," Linn agreed before she was swept up in an echo of Christmas almost six months earlier. But back then, there hadn't been this nagging feeling of loss.
Summer went on and Linn found a life, found a home with Birgit. Her grandma had grown worse during the months gone by, her mind weakening along with her body. She didn't remember as much anymore and every now and then, she looked at things no one else could see. No more did she tell tales of trolls and elves, no more did she lead girls to the dead rapids to watch the Fiddler, and what was more, people were forgetting.
The fairytales were being forgotten.
Linn only fiddled on Saturdays now, when the villagers gathered to dance and socialize. The kids moved cautiously around Birgit, not sure how to react to the more and more feeble woman. Linn tried to encourage them to speak with her, knowing that her grandma missed having them around her, but they only giggled and ran away, watching from behind parents and trees.
No one spoke of fairytales anymore and there was talk about selling the common house to the foreigners who wanted to buy 'authentic' houses in the country. They didn't use it much anymore, instead driving to the common house a few miles over in a larger village. You met more people that way, instead of being isolated like they were.
September came and Linn took Birgit to the hospital when her health became too bad for Linn to care for her alone. She left the fiddle at home, instead taking with her books and tapes to keep her company as she waited. Because there was no doubt: Birgit was dying.
Late one night, Linn woke up and found Birgit looking at her, sadness in her eyes. "You don't feel like you did anymore," Birgit said in a waving voice. "You don't feel alive."
"I know," Linn said, and she did, feeling the change every day without knowing how to stop it. "Things are changing."
"Not for the good," Birgit said decisively. Linn suddenly knew this was the last she would be able to speak with her like this. "I thought the King had taken you for the worse, but this is far worse. The fairytales are dying." She stopped talking, her eyes going blank as tears welled up. "It hurts them. I can see them -- the fairies, the brownies. They're fading."
"I know," Linn said again, but instead of helplessness, something inside her was beginning to understand. So she said: "I didn't fulfill the fairytale."
But Birgit's eyes were closed and her chest had stilled. Linn lowered her head, tears welling up. She needed to get back.
She didn't park the car outside the common house, but simply continued past it, only stopping when she could go no more. Grabbing her fiddle from the seat beside her, Linn stalked out and to the split stone. She didn't know how to get in, but she knew how to catch his attention.
Settling the fiddle to her shoulder, she closed her eyes and exhaled, then lifted the bow to the strings and played. She chose the same walking song she'd played so long ago, letting her fingers dance in the familiar patterns. They weren't as used to the strings anymore though, hurting as she pressed down and slipping when they shouldn't. But the melody still came and she played on and on, switching between songs as one ended, playing seamlessly on and on.
Then, when she'd almost given up, she was in the dripping cave and the sound of stones rumbled around her. "What are you doing here?" the King grumbled, but his voice was weak.
"I didn't finish our fairytale," Linn told him, putting down her fiddle carefully on the ground and stepping towards him. "I thought I did, but that wasn't true."
"You don't love me," the King pointed out and Linn's chest hurt. Maybe she didn't, maybe she did, but it couldn't end like this.
"I love you as a friend," she told him, and urged him to hear the truth in the voice. "Maybe it can become more, maybe not. I don't want to give up."
"Maybe you should," the King said, but his voice was fading quickly and with a stab of pain in her heart, Linn realized he was fading into the stone.
Flinging her hands out, she stumbled forwards, hoping to hit him, stumble on him, anything at all. Then she slipped, falling headfirst towards the ground. "Damn puddles," she muttered, trying to catch her breath and ignoring the way her wrists ached. Then she realized: there was moss under her hands.
"Are you all right?" the King rumbled and his voice came from somewhere around her ear. He'd caught her.
"I'm fine," Linn said and pulled herself upright. She knew this fairytale, she knew how to make this work. Now if she could only make it happen. Stretching out her hand, she fumbled over the smooth stone that was his face, searching for anything at all to clue her in to where his mouth was. The King of course, damn him, didn't help at all.
In the end, fed up with all of it and crying for a reason she didn't know -- her grandmother, the fairytales, her life, anything -- she leaned forward and smacked a kiss at random.
Things seemed to fade, then grew brighter and stone rumbled around her as if the cave was falling in. Her eyes couldn't see and she fell, her wrists jarred again and she moaned, rolling until she could cradle them against her. If she lost her fiddling hands to this, she would never let it go. Ever.
"Are you all right?"
Warm hands touched her, no hint of stones anywhere and Linn opened her eyes, finding a human face staring back at her, warmth in his eyes. "I'm still fine," she said, rather breathless she had to admit. Whether from the pain or the fact that he was a lot more handsome as a man than as a rock, she didn't know.
"Good," the King said, then sank down bonelessly next to her, looking at her. "You don't give up, do you?"
"The fairytales were fading," Linn told him. "My grandmother died."
"Maybe it would be better for them to fade," he said, reaching out to touch her cheek like he had so long ago.
"Never," Linn said, then, as if pulled along by something she couldn't name, she leaned over and pulled him into her embrace. He melted into her and it was hard to imagine he had ever been stone. "We need fairytales." And I think I need you, Linn thought, to remember that.
He pulled away from her, looking into her eyes. "Then I'll help you keep them alive," he said and Linn could feel things changing, things coming alive.
They got to their feet and Linn collected her fiddle, placing it under her arm.
"I've missed your playing," the King said, taking her hand like he had during their walks in the mountain.
"I've missed the caves," Linn admitted.
They smiled at each other and their fingers twined without thinking. Then they walked out of the mountain and into the sunlight where fairies once again played, watched over by brownies in the shadow of trees. Far away the Fiddler played.