It was a stone cold snowy morning after New Year's Eve and old man Fury wanted violets.
The girls have been whispering about it in the freezing stone halls of the orphanage since little Jessie Jones woke up in the small hours of the morning and she held on the longest time but eventually, she had to go to piddle; and it was such a relief it was worth it, even though to get to the loo, she had to run barefoot through the long scary corridor, all quiet in the dark, because if the ghosts could hear her they would catch her and eat her.
Tiptoeing on the way back, little Jessie caught the end of the conversation from the hall in front of Director Fury's office and flew back to the dormitory and told the girls, wide-eyed and breathless. The night before was a snow storm, vicious with lightning and so strong it almost took off the roof of the orphanage; but now old man Fury wanted violets, violets freshly picked from The Forest and he wanted young Darcy Lewis to go out into the new January frost and somehow find them beneath the snowdrifts and pick them and bring them back to his desk.
Even such a notorious hardass as warden Hill did not look happy about it when she brought Darcy the news.
“Well unless I manage to pull them out of a bear's ass, I don't see how that's gonna happen,” said Darcy Lewis to Maria Hill and ducked the attempted slap. She told as much to the girls before, trying to be all nonchalant and shit, but inside she was worried. Girls were sent away from time to time for weird stuff, not often, but sometimes they were and they never returned. Hill always said - if she could be bothered to answer the questions at all, that is - that Director Fury was obviously joking and the girls were sent to their relatives. But that was bullshit. Vera Black didn't have nobody and neither had Crazy Jane, and Elektra was born at the orphanage and her Mom died squeezing her out and nobody outside the orphanage even cared she existed; and they all disappeared suddenly one day before breakfast and never even wrote back. None of them ever wrote back.
The night before New Year's Eve, the girls had held a Secret Ghost Stories Session after dark. The dormitory was, as always, about as cosy and cheerful as a tomb. Warden Hill did not allow them candles, on account of the orphanage not being made of money (Lewis, so shut up and go to sleep), so they huddled around the dying coals of the hearth, wrapped in their rough grey blankets, and tried to scare each other stiff.
Soon, the conversation turned to The Forest, as it was want to do. The Forest was hard to ignore.
“It's like, full of monsters,” said Becky Blake and pushed her glasses higher up her nose. “They are like, real Twelve Months of the year and they live there and they are these big monster dudes called January and February and so on, yeah? And they sit in a circle around the bonfire in The Forest and they rule the seasons and they eat orphans.”
“You mean like, raw?” asked little Jessie. “Ew.”
“No, idiot,” said Becky, “they roast them first, obviously, so that they're all crunchy.”
“And how do you know that, Blake,” Darcy inquired, “'cause I don't remember seeing you going to The Forest to check.”
“Well obviously, Lewis,” said Becky, drawling, “I talked to Matt Murdock at the fair and his Dad has a mate whose brother saw them once, up the mountain. Sitting around the bonfire. Massive, he said they were. And one of them was green. He said he thought that one was April.”
“You're full of shit, Blake,” said Darcy, “in fact, you're so full of shit that it's sloshing against the back of your teeth.”
“Shut up,” said Becky, incensed. “They do, they sit there and eat orphans and if they catch a pretty orphan girl they fuck her first.”
There was a collective intake of breath.
“What's that like, then, do you reckon?” asked Jessie after a moment of contemplative silence.
“It's like, the dude's dick gets all huge and hard and he jabs it into your fanny all vicious like and then you have a baby and die like Elektra's Mom,” explained Amanda Sefton helpfully.
“Exactly,” said Becky, “and imagine what a monster's dick must look like, it must be as big as my arm.”
Everybody looked at Becky's arm. There was another moment of – this time slightly horrified - silence.
Darcy did not say anything, but she strongly doubted the situation would be as dramatic as all that. She was at the fair too, and having a healthy inquiring mind, she pulled young Ian Boothby behind the blacksmith's tent in the spirit of showing each other the goods. Ian – who did not seem to be able to believe his luck - was seriously hard but not all that big at all, and as soon as she touched him, he came helplessly all over her hands and she had to scrub them in the pond, because, ew.
Warden Hill had some books on the subject, mostly with pirates and soldiers and busty wenches on the cover. They were full of descriptions of 'tight harbours' and 'manly stiffness' and honestly, this whole sex affair mostly sounded stilted and pompous and not very exciting at all. The only spine-tingling thing that happened was the thrashing she got when warden Hill caught her reading them. Man, Darcy's ass smarted for a week.
“Anyway,” said Becky, “that's that. They are probably outside even now. Waiting.”
Darcy shivered involuntarily. She sneaked a look out of the window, into the darkness and the whirling snow. The Forest was a mass of jagged black silhouettes looming too close to the stone walls of the orphanage. Somehow, it managed to look hungry.
They are outside even now. Waiting.
That happened two days ago, but now it was all the girls could think about, the monsters in The Forest sitting around their bonfire with thin naked bones of Crazy Jane and Vera Black frozen on the ground behind them...and then Jessie Jones gasped as warden Hill opened the door to the dormitory and walked in, her face pale and serious.
It was the morning after the New Year's Eve and Darcy Lewis was shit out of luck.
*Claps and rubs hands* OK, LET'S DO THIS! :D If anyone feels like beta reading this thing, drop me a line? Also, suggestions for soundtrack songs would be welcome - creepy, creepy and sexy or even cheerfully homicidal. Actually, that last one sounds kinda perfect :D. Let's get our Halloween on, people!
The door to Director's office was made of dark oak and engraved with scenes depicting mythical beasts. It was, Darcy thought glumly, entirely appropriate. One such a beast was currently sitting in front of her, staring her down with his single glittering eye and crushing her logical arguments like bugs.
“Did I stutter,” asked Director Fury from across the desk, “or do you have trouble understanding a simple instruction, Lewis?”
“I get that you want me to go to pick violets, man,” said Darcy, “but like, can it wait until Spring, when they like, actually grow?”
“No,” said Fury.
Well, that was kinda difficult to argue against. Darcy regrouped and tried anyway.
“What do you need them for anyhow?” she asked. “Can't I get you some other nice flower instead? Like holly. Or cabbage.”
“I hate flowers,” growled Fury. A vein was starting to throb visibly on his forehead. Darcy stared at it for a moment.
“So,” she tried, “one wonders, if you hate them, why do you go to such trouble,” she said, “to get your mitts at some,” she added. “I mean, why-“
“Shut up, Lewis,” said old man Fury, practically snarling at this point. “You will go up the mountain and bring me violets. Imagine that I want to put them in my hair, if it makes you do it. They got to be fresh and sweet-smelling and if you cannot find them feel free to stay out there and freeze to stone and then thaw out and rot in Spring for all I care. Now get the hell out of my sight.”
How did you say no to this? How did you refuse a clearly delusional order from a man who must have been kinda bonkers for ages, given how long has this been going on? How did you suggest to someone in a position of power to stuff it in such a way so that your point would come across?
Or did you at all?
Maybe that was the problem, Darcy realised. Maybe not one of them even tried to refuse him before.
She looked up across the desk at Director Fury, with his broad shoulders and scarred face and ferocious scowl.
“No,” said Darcy.
“What. Did you. Say. To me,” said old man Fury.
“I said no,” repeated Darcy. “I am not going to die alone in the fucking cold to get your stupid violets, I am not going and you can't make me.”
“Okay then,” said Fury, voice deceptively soft. “Shall I send Becky Blake in your stead?”
“What?” said Darcy. Her hands felt numb.
“Becky Blake,” repeated Fury. “Or perhaps little Jessie? Or maybe Betty Ross, or Amanda Sefton, or that sassy one with all the bravado and ideas above her station, what's her name? Diana Prince? See, I have to pick someone, because one girl or another is leaving these doors this morning and going for those bloody violets, and if it ain't gonna be you,” he spread his hands, “it's gotta be somebody else.”
Darcy gaped at him. “Why it's gotta be anybody at all?” she said, voice rising shrilly.
“Because I've got to give them someone!” shouted Fury and slammed his hands on the desk.
The office was deadly silent. Darcy swallowed and rubbed her damp palms against the skirt of her dress. Her hands were shaking.
“Sit down,” said Fury quietly.
“I'll tell you what little bit I can. This ain't leaving this office, Lewis.”
“A messenger came to me when I first started working here,” said old man Fury, “ages ago. A bit of an odd guest. It wanted me to choose a girl and send her to The Forest in dead of winter, to search for fresh apples. 'Twas no season for those. And if she don't come back, it said, don't you worry about looking for her. And in return, we take real good care about you and yours. You won't need to fret about the house surviving on a pittance and the girls going back to being homeless. We know, it said, about your troubles. And we'll help you. But if you don't do what we ask of you, it said, we will take more than you can give.”
Outside, the snow started to fall again. It was still very early, before breakfast, and the sky was only just losing its gray tint. It was going to be a bright cold day.
“I said no, and he left,” continued Fury. “During the next fortnight, a third of our girls died of fever. The only doctor we could afford healed them with leeches and made them worse.” He made a face. “I kicked him out and we tried what we could, but they were just fading, one after another. And when it ended and we buried them at the edge of The Forest and the priest left, the messenger came again.”
“Choose a girl and send her for a handful of raspberries, it said. Don't and we will take more than you can give. I was shaken but still said no, and he left.”
“The next day, our girls were coming from church and when they were going by the edge of The Forest, a grey wolf set upon them and torn up the throat of the last little one from the group. She was dead before anyone could even find a stone to throw. And in the evening, the messenger came again.”
“One by one we will take them, it said. Day by day you will lose them. Choose a girl and send her to The Forest for a sprig of asphodel and for one year we will not ask any more of you.”
Darcy's throat was all closed up. She swallowed. “What did you do, then,” she said.
“I sent Claire Bennet,“ said old man Fury.
The office was silent again. Behind the door, faint sounds of the girls getting themselves sorted out and going down to the eating hall were heard.
“Oh,” said Darcy, eventually. “And did she bring you the asphodel?”
“Don't be stupid, Lewis,” he said, quietly.
There was another moment of silence. Then Fury stood up and crossed the room to a safe in a wall. He unlocked it and took out a shiny object. “I found one of these on my desk the next morning,” he said and threw it to Darcy. Automatically, she caught it.
It was a golden apple.
“One of them takes us through the year. I rebuilt the house, made it bigger,” he said, “we could take more girls in, save more of them. From the horror they lived in. Before they came here.”
“Well,” said Darcy and stood up as well. “Now you have more to choose from.” She started to walk towards the door.
“Lewis,” called Fury. She stopped but did not turn around.
“For what it's worth,” he said, “you're a smart kid. Scrappy.” He tried to smile but it came off more like a grimace. “Maybe you'll manage to bring those violets back.”
After a while, she nodded. “Maybe I will,” she said softly and walked out of the door.
Song: Lament for Old Man Fury, rec'd by Janaai.
So, this is sort of a dystopian Dickensian parallel universe. Ehm. Explanation is coming.
(Btw, I have been listening to your recommended songs on repeat while writing. Keep the suggestions coming, soundtrack hooray!)
Many thanks to Colton45 for the beta. I've learned so much from Colt. This is the one constant in my who_is_small hopeful life - I am surrounded by geniuses.
As Darcy walked through the main corridor to the dormitory, half of her mind was still numb with disbelief. But the other half was making a list.
I need a knife, I can swipe one from the kitchen. A box of matches, defo a storm lantern. I’ll need a proper winter coat and a good scarf, could possibly steal mittens from Becky. I should take some blankets in case I wind up spending the night in a wind hole beneath a pine tree. God, I hope not.
Jessie was waiting for her in the dormitory. As Darcy strode to her bed to ransack her trunk, she was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't even notice the younger girl.
“Darce,” piped up Jessie from behind her back, making Darcy twitch with surprise.
“Gah,” Darcy said. “It's you, is it?!”
“Yep,” confirmed Jessie. “Sorry,” she added in a small voice as she stared up at Darcy with dark, worried eyes. “So you're going then?”
“Yeah,” Darcy said quietly. “Yeah, I'm going.”
“Oh,” breathed Jessie and stared for a moment longer. Then she blinked, shook her head. “You'll need a plan then,” she said in a no nonsense voice. “And supplies. But a plan first. You got a strategy in mind or you gonna rely on your feminine wiles?”
Darcy blinked. “On my wha- did you read those books of warden Hill's too?”
“Sure did,” said Jessie, a bit smugly. “She needs to learn to hide her shit a little better. Including this.” She dropped a black and yellow striped contraption on Darcy's bed.
“Sweet Mother of all that is good and pure,” breathed Darcy. “Jessie, you magnificent beast. You liberated the Stinger!”
The Stinger was made for the warden by the village smith, who was smitten with Maria Hill something fierce. It was half iron, half lightning and all around badass. Hill usually carried it with her on trips to the market, hidden in the bottom of a basket. When triggered, it kicked like a horse and could topple a grown man, knocking him out stone cold. Darcy picked it up with reverent awe. She could already feel a bond forming, a beautiful bond between her and the Stinger. She pressed it against her bosom.
“This is so much better than a knife,” she said, her voice dreamy. She reached for her coat and carefully nestled it into a pocket. Then she started to dump the bits and pieces from her trunk on the bed.
“It's hard to strategize when you aren't certain what you're going up against,” she added. “I figured I'd just get to the Signpost, pick a path and improvise from there. Say there really is a bonfire with monsters around it, yeah? I’ll try to sneak up on them quietly, see if they have any violets around for orphan-luring purposes. If they do, I'll pinch them.”
“Solid,” Jessie said, lips pursed. “You'll pick the Surprise path, yeah?”
“I dunno, man. That one always creeped me out the most.”
“Good point,” Jessie made a face. “The others ain't much better though.”
“No,” said Darcy, “They're really not.”
With two people, the packing did not take long. In twenty minutes, Darcy was standing in the austere front yard of the orphanage, her satchel and a storm lantern hanging from her hip. The Forest loomed in front of her, vast and still in the morning sun.
They looked at each other for a while, The Forest and Darcy.
"Alright, motherfucker," Darcy Lewis eventually whispered and started on the snowy path.
And deep inside The Forest, something smiled.
When she finally reached the Signpost, it was getting dark.
The Signpost would not be a cheery sight even on a bright Summer day; it was decidedly less so on this occasion. It was the furthest the girls from the orphanage ever ventured, and even that happened rarely. Mostly because if one of the girls had a day off, to go anywhere she liked, she certainly picked somewhere nicer.
It was a tall, dead tree in the middle of the crossroads, long ago stripped of bark and branches. The naked wood was bleached white by the sun and sharp, like a bone of a dragon. On it were three crudely nailed arrows pointing east, west, and north. On them were three black, boxy signs, long ago branded into the massive planks.
I LEAD TO CERTAIN DEATH the first sign read. I LEAD TO MORTAL DANGER proclaimed the second. I LEAD TO A NASTY SURPRISE declared the third.
Darcy stood in front of the Signpost for a minute, silently deliberating her choices.
Over the years, the three signs had led to quite a few existential debates in the dormitory. Laid out like that, it seemed like an easy choice. Theoretically. But Darcy knew that things were rarely that simple. More often than not, easy decisions were treacherous, especially when it came to The Forest. Which tended to be anything but straightforward. Say she chose the SURPRISE path and the nasty surprise was a pit with sharp blades at the bottom. Or an anvil falling from the sky. Or a completely unexpected enraged leopard. She'd be dead as a doornail before she even managed to appreciate the irony. And when she thought about the path to CERTAIN DEATH, wasn't that where everyone was already going, simply taking the long way round? Taken like that, MORTAL DANGER was just par for the course, as evidenced by the small grey granite cemetery by the back wall of the orphanage, shadowed by the edge of the Forest.
“Riddles, man. Let them and they'll do your head in,” mumbled Darcy to herself.
Philosophy was all fine and dandy, but it was one thing to defend the path of CERTAIN DEATH to Becky in the dormitory; it was quite another to start walking it with her own two small feet, freezing at dusk in the cold winter, all while on a deranged quest. Mostly, Darcy did not want to overthink it. So, on the way there, she decided to give the choice up to chance.
At the moment, she stood in the middle of the crossroads, miles away from any friend or source of warmth. It was dark already, so she did not close her eyes all the way, just squinted so as not to fall on her ass, and started to turn in quick circles with her index finger pointed forward.
The surrounding forest blurred in front of her slitted eyes. Trees, rock, tree trunk, bush, trees, trees, ferns, trees, rock, tree trunk, bush, trees, man, trees, ferns, wait, what, what -
Darcy ground to a halt and almost fell down, but an iron hand grabbed her arm and held her like a vice. Dizzy and choked with shock, she tried to budge, but no dice. The son of a bitch had freakish strength. It made Darcy's skin crawl while fighting against the dizziness, and she made another attempt to yank herself free. It only made the man chuckle.
Finally, she was able to focus her eyes and looked up. And up. Whoa. Long blond hair, short beard, cold patronising smirk, and blue eyes under bushy eyebrows looking back down at her.
“And what a pretty little bird to catch in the woods today,” he thundered. Stupidly in Darcy's opinion. His appetite for conversation apparently exhausted, he simply picked her up, hoisted her over his shoulder, and started down the NASTY SURPRISE path.
Darcy tried to kick and beat her fists against his back, but felt like a bee trying to headbutt a bull. The giant merely smacked her bum with his broad palm and strode on. After a moment her mind cleared enough to remember that headbutts were not the primary weapons of choice for bees. She blindly grappled with the button on her pocket and managed to pull the Stinger out without dropping it. She found the switch, leaned back, and nailed the bastard right in the neck.
He made a surprised grunt and fell down like a sack of bricks.
Darcy managed to partly twist away during the fall, enough so that she ended mostly on top of him. A crunch of glass and sharp smell of oil announced that the lantern was a goner. Shit. Her knee and shin were bruised, but nothing broken. She stood up, dusted herself off and added a symbolic kick for good measure.
“Ha!” she told him.
He just laid there, out for the count. From the standing point, he really was quite attractive. Gorgeous, even. All those muscles. Shame about the attitude.
Darcy looked back towards the crossroads, the white bone of the Signpost shining in the dusk. She would have to leg it, obviously, and quick. Welp, time to improvise. She reached down to pick the Stinger from the ground and froze.
All around the unconscious body of the man, the snow had melted completely and spears of new grass were starting to peek out of the muddy ground. Even as she stared at it in disbelief, it grew another half an inch. She reached her hand towards it and the man groaned. Darcy immediately slammed the Stinger into his neck again and was on her feet, running like mad. Damn, it should have lasted much longer! What sort of insane physique did the dude have anyway?
She got a stitch in her side - for such a short time, they went surprisingly far - and then she was at the crossroads again. She looked wildly between the two remaining paths, bent forward and catching her breath. One was straight, the other lead up the mountain. Both were rocky and would not easily show footprints, hidden beneath the thick canopy of the trees so that the snow could not cover them fully.
A pebble fell down from the slope, skittering in the dusk, and rolled to a stop near her foot.
Darcy stopped breathing.
Something was coming from the CERTAIN DEATH path, down from the mountain. The ground started to shake beneath her feet in regular intervals and the branches were snapping crazy high, a good seven to eight feet, scaring jackdaws and thrushes, sending them shooting out of bushes and trees, chattering like crazy. Whatever it was, it was massive.
She turned to the path marked MORTAL DANGER and fled.
After a couple of hours, Darcy had to admit that she was screwed. She was completely numb with cold and her progress slowed down to snail-like pace. Without the lantern, she could barely see the path in the black night, and so was reduced to treading like a foal on an icy lake, clumsy and overly careful, to avoid slipping. If she sprained her foot, she would be finished.
Gradually, the Forest around her seemed to come alive with unseen malevolent power. During the day she walked through near total silence; now at night, odd sounds and ever changing dark shapes were pressing against her ever closer, like a gallery of demons. Savouring her struggle. Preparing to pounce.
She stopped, took a sip from her water flask and swallowed a handful of dried fruit from her satchel. Refreshed, she closed her eyes and gave herself a stern pep talk. You will go on and keep moving. The Moon has to come out sometime during the night. Don't sit down or you'll freeze. It is just trees, not demons, idiot. You are fine. Perfectly...safe. In the good...old...Forest.
Frankly, the last few adjectives did not work even in her most persuasive inner voice. She opened her eyes.
The path to mortal danger was sprawling in front of her like a nightmare, blotchy with snow. The trees seemed to press even closer. She could swear she heard the soft sounds of something moving behind her, up in the trees.
And then the Moon came out.
It was a flood of light so sudden that she shielded her eyes with both palms and looked down, every single grain of soil suddenly visible crystal clear. She blinked, eyes watering, and somewhere in the back of her mind realised that instead of the cold silvery blue of the moonlight, she was bathed in the golden red of Summer Sun. Slowly, her eyes adjusted.
On a tree in front of her sat a Firebird.