The embers from the fire were still glowing sending small sparks of light into the dark night air. Stumbling through the edges of the camp her scrambling hands found a few lost sticks and bits of rotten log to coax the fire to a brighter glow and then a flickering flame. It was not cold enough for a fire, in fact, the humid air had already slicked her skin with sweat.
She had been hiking by herself for almost a week now. There were no others on the trail, she had left the nearest campground and marched away, refusing to look back to see if anyone noticed that she was gone. She had planned to head out for a day or two and then curl up in her tent and take the bottle of pills she had been saving, but she had not. Each night she lay there holding the bottle to her chest like it was a teddy bear. Each day she packed up and walked as far and as fast as her legs could take her.
Each evening she would set up camp and lay there watching the sun set and the stars come out. She imagined the massive blue black sky and stars filling up the hollow she felt in her chest, blotting out the pain and frustration, rubbing out the numbness. Sometimes she cried as she walked, slow tears that had no beginning or end. Sometimes she sang as she marched, jingles and every old christmas song she could remember.
She walked and walked, until she lost the trail, ran out of food and was living on what water she found in creeks and chewing grass and leaves to keep her stomach from caving in. She followed a small creek where she could, trudging through the ankle high water and slick rocks when the banks were too full of brush and trees for her to make her way. She had lost weight, she could count her ribs when she hugged herself for warmth each night. She decided it was simply like losing weight during a sickness and after the sickness, she would fall into the deep darkness of sleep and eventual death.
Singing Silent Night under her breath she stumbled to a stop. Mouthing the beginning to the next verse she watched the waves and fingers of fog creeping toward her. It was like the earth itself was reaching out to embrace her. She reached out and ran her hand through a thick section of mist, it was cool and made the tips of her fingers tingle. Dizzy she staggered along the creekside until she could not see beyond a foot or two in front of her.Sliding off her pack she settled to wait it out, falling into sleep soon after.
She woke slowly, curled on her side, wrapped in quilts and more comfortable than she could ever remember being. She did not want to wake to reality. Some time later she sat up, pulling the blankets around her lap, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. A breathe later she was shrinking against the stone wall the bed was set against.
“That’s not possible, you cannot be real.” she blurted. She knew she would die soon and not the silent sleeping death she had dreamed of.
“See, do a spot of good for someone and they insult you, Humans, worthless.” one creature sneered, leaving with a huff.
“What do you mean we aren’t real?” the other creature demanded. “You’re the one wandering around in the mists like an idiot. Whether we are real or not, you need to eat and get your strength back. There is soup and bread on the table. I will be back in a bit. Once you are well you can leave anytime you like, lass, but for now you are our guest. I suggest you act like one.”
“What are you…mame?” she managed after several breaths. EIther she was very, very sick or hell was filled with small knobby, wrinkled brown creatures.
The creature sighed and set a bowl, spoon, and hunk of bread on a tray and gently settled the lot onto the girl’s lap.
“Your kind call us many names, the most common is Brownie.”
“…like in Fairy Tales.” she asked tentatively, tearing off a small bite of bread. It was delicious, dark brown and full of some kind of nut, slathered with butter and honey.
“Yes, like in tales. We used to be very numerous. We lived in most farm households, helping where we could in payment for being allowed the safety of a home, then your kind decided to move closer together and to leave the farms. Those that stayed on the farms used big iron machines that belched black fumes and smoke. It spoiled the air and ruined everything. With the machines we were no longer needed on the farms, so we left. We retreated to the mists with the rest of the Old Ones.” while the Brownie talked the girl had been inhaling the food, she had never had anything so filling.
“Let me take your bowl. You must be tired, child, lay back and sleep a while.”
“Thank you, it was delicious.” she said tiredly.
“You must never thank someone here, lass. It is one of the rule among our kind.” she said with a wince. The more the girl watched the Brownie the more human she seemed. Yes, she was small, the color of rich oiled mahogany with black pebble like eyes, but her wrinkled face had seemed to grin at each hungry bite the girl took. Her shiny dark brown hair was braided into many plaits that were then braided into a long thick tail that ran almost to the beings feet. Curling back into the blankets she slid into a deep sleep that held no dreams.
The next morning she was shown the bathroom, the old fashioned kind that was a wooden seat with a hole dropping into darkness, and given clothes from her pack that had been cleaned and mended to change into. Breakfast was a thick porridge studded with dried fruit and swirls of honey along with a pot of tea the Brownie shared with her.
“Why are you doing all of this?” she asked finally, overwhelmed by the generosity her hosts showed. “You don’t even know my name, who I am. Why are you helping me so much?”
“It is our nature, lass. We Brownies help those around us. As for a name, it is bad manners among us to ask for a name when one is not given. We do not share our true names around like your kind does. We go by nicknames, if you will,use names, a common name that we are known by. Only those we truly trust are told our true names. Names have power, lass. Folk can take a name and use it to twist your nature and demand services from you. No, I would not give my true name to anyone I just met. You may call me, Rose.”
“You can call me…” a sudden vision pulled the words from her mouth. The fires she had slept by each night and huddled next to coaxing back to life in the morning, one leaf and bit of bark at a time. “Ember. You can call me Ember.” she said stronger.
“Where do you plan to head after this, Ember?”
The question froze her. “I don’t know.” she whispered. She had left everything behind her intending to never return from this trip. She had no real direction or need to go anywhere. There was no one place to call home or friends to worry about. She had went to the woods to die and instead was sitting here having tea with a Brownie.
Well, a new name would go very well with a new start. She would leave the past behind her in its ashes and start over here.
“I am looking for a new home, for something to do.” she said, tugging at one mended cuff of her blue shirt. She had worn this shirt till it was more of a suggested blue than any real color and now it shone a rich blue jay blue, stark against the mixed colors of the patch quilt she sat on.
“Well, there is always things to do, but in a Brownie colony you will be hard pressed to find much. There is a mixed colony not to far from here that you could try at. It’s at a Crossing so there are always beings coming and going. We can give you a rough map to get you headed the right way. It should only take you a night or two depending on how fast you walk.”
“That would be wonderful, Rose. Th..” she barely managed to choke off the Thank You she was so used to adding. That would be a hard habit to break. “That would be wonderful.”
“Let me see if the rest of your things are dry. My man was working on your boots since he is the best when working with leather. They should be done by later today and you can head out in the morning. It is nice to see a youngling willing to do some work….” she paused and eyed the thin girl. “If you are alright in a kitchen you might could help me make some bread to go with supper, than you can have a loaf to take with you.”
“I have not baked in a very long time, Rose,” she said slowly but forced herself to continue with determination, “but I am willing to learn.” She needed to start as she meant to go on. She would learn what she could and see if it was enough. At the least, she had to try and repay Rose and her husband in some small way.
Later, cheeks streaked with flour, she watched in awe as the dough Rose was working pressed themselves into small balls and rolled their way along the counter to come to rest in a perfect line like military soldiers at rest on a baking sheet. Rose had laughed when she saw the slack jawed expression on the girls face as ingredients lifted and mixed themselves while Rose set out the ingredients and things Ember would need on the kitchen table.
“I forget how sheltered most of your kind is from magic. This is nothing, lass. Us Brownies have but small magics to use. It lets us mend things that look fit for the scrap bin and cook up a fine meal but that is all. We do not have the great magics like that of the High Courts.”
“High Courts?” Ember asked as she followed Rose’s directions on how to make bread. She knew the Brownie was humoring her in letting her work but she still enjoyed it. It drew up memories of watching her grandmother bake when she was a small child. She did not have many memories of the older woman but the smell of baking bread or cookies was in all of them.
“It’s a bit like your human governments. Those with little power are members of the Lower Courts, like the Brownies, pixies, and such. Those who are high born or of a powerful race are members of the High Courts. The High Courts have two courts, one Light, one dark, each with a King or Queen to rule them. While us in the Lower Courts have councils or rulers that got their place on strength or cunning. Each race has it’s own head. Most of us still answer to a High Court but most are simply too small for them to bother with. The only time we have to join the fray is when the Courts are at war but that has not happened in many years now. There are a handful who do not bow to the Courts but not many.”
“You mean like in the stories, Titania and Oberon and such?” she asked struggling to mix the stiffening dough.
“Exactly so, those two are not our King and Queen any more, goodness bless. Now, we bow to the Light King Tristan and the Dark Queen Morrigan.” Rose tapped the bowl with a knobby finger and suddenly the dough formed a ready ball that she could pour out onto the floured board.
“Which court do the Brownies follow?”
“Oh, we are part of the Light Court. Most Light will fill your head with stories of how wrong and bad the Dark Court is but in truth they are much like us, just opposites. Where Brownies mend, creatures of the Dark Court break.They can mend if they like and they do create things of beauty of their own.” Rose added gesturing for the girl to start kneading the bread dough. “I had a friend growing up who was a member of the Dark Court, Sila. She was no different than me growing up but such friendships are looked down upon by many and she drifted away over the years. She has done well in the court, rising high, but I would not set my bed in those halls.”
“Why not? Is it that bad a place?”
“It is not the place, lass. The place is the castle of the Dark Court, and a splendid and beautiful one if the tales are true. In truth I would not set my bed in either Court. To rise there is to do so at the expense of those below and around you. They fight tooth and nail to get their positions and the rewards and responsibilities that position gives them. I am not one to mislead easily or to twist the meanings of what I say. A High Court member trades in favors and secrets, some are vicious about it, lass. No, I am happy where I am.”
“I am telling you this because you may see some of those that are lower in the Courts while you are at the Crossing. All heading to this region must pass through that way. Enough kneading, lass. I will talk the day away at this rate. Roll out the loaves and place them on the sheets.”
The rest of the day was spent in quiet work in the kitchen with Rose occasionally correcting some small mistake Ember made. Lunch was a small salad with nuts and berries and cheese toasted on bread. They did small chores with Rose trying to teach the girl how to sew small things.
“Now stitch magic is something you might be able to learn. See here on the edge of your shirt hem, this small design in red thread? It keeps your clothes clean to a small extent and helps prevent wear and small tears from becoming big ones. My man, Thomas, will be placing ones on your boots that will help prevent blisters and make your steps light.”
“That is so cool.” Ember whispered, stroking the small design.
“It is but a small magic, lass. It is a useful thing to know however. If you cannot find someone to teach you in the crossing, mayhap you can come by once in awhile and I can show you something.”
“That would be wonderful, Rose, I think I would like to learn something useful.” She was coming to like the caring Rose. No matter her looks she was a hard working woman who clearly loved to be helping others. Maybe in this new life she could have new friends as well.
Dinner was uncomfortable. Thomas did not approve of his wife taking in a human out of the blue. Ember made sure to praise how good her boots looked, being careful not to actually thank him. Thomas was taller than both of the women and had a broadness to his features that Rose lacked. His eyes were more brown than black with his hair cut short to his head, exposing pointed lobeless ears.
The meal was amazing, a rich thick brown stew sopped up on slices of thick crusty white bread with cool water to drink with mint leaves floating in the pitcher. The loaves of bread they had made sat lined up along the counter. Hers were not the perfect circle that Rose’s magic had crafted but no one commented. After dinner they sat by the fire with Rose trying to teach Ember how to knit and Thomas smoking a pipe and working one some bit of wood he was carving with a large clasp knife.
Ember could not remember such a peaceful time in her life. Her life had always been so rushed, so busy, traveling from one place to another, never enough time to breathe. For once in her life she had nowhere to be hurrying too. She sat with her hands busy but her mind was so still. She was afraid to breathe too deeply in case she broke whatever spell was being placed.