Like the Heroes of Old by Kate Haley ~ Book Tour & Giveaway

There are no heroes anymore. Only legends. Only lies.

Like the Heroes of Old

by Kate Haley

Genre: YA Fantasy

There are no heroes anymore.

Only legends.

Only lies.

In a land of gods and faeries, teenage Jak just wants to live a normal life in her tiny unremarkable village and keep her little sisters safe. Unfortunately, that isn’t an option anymore. Her ordinary life is destroyed by the arrival of a strange and inappropriate merchant. Although he is quick to play her hero, Jak discovers the stranger is hiding more than simple goods in the back of his wagon, and perhaps the business of gods and faeries has caught up with her after all…

Climb aboard and join Jak as she takes her first perilous steps into the unknown, falling deep into myth and legend to protect her family, and discovering that the world is far bigger, bolder, and more complicated than she could ever have dreamed.

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Chapter One

Rain had fallen in the night. The forest was still dripping as water ran down the leaves and broke across already sparkling wet grass. Inside the thatched-roofed hut, Jak was hurriedly stacking dirty breakfast dishes in the sink. Her black curls cascaded over her shoulder and she quickly tied them back out of the way with a leather cord.

“You should already be married. You would be if you put in a little bit of effort to look pretty and didn’t chase away every single boy who comes near you with a stick. Then, if you were married, your husband could look after us and I wouldn’t have to go to work.”

Jak counted to three inside her head and took a silent breath. They were not having this fight again.

“Allie, please,” she tried calmly. “Put on a work dress and get ready to go. I’m doing everything I can, but I’m struggling. We need the extra cash – just for a little while.”

“It’s not for a little while, Jak,” Allie sighed. “We both know that. I’m thinking about my future. You should too.”

“When Mum gets back—”

“When?” Allie demanded. “It’s been a year, Sis. When’s Mum getting back?”

Jak didn’t answer. She looked to the note pinned to the wall. The paper was faded and dusty now, but she kept it there anyway. Morning my darlings! Just popping out for a bit. Be back soon. Jak’s in charge until I return. Love you xx.

“I’m in charge ‘til she gets back,” Jak reaffirmed. “So go change. You’re going to get it dirty.”

“Then I’ll wash it,” Allie rolled her eyes. “I do half the washing around here anyway – and don’t bother using your stupid threat on me. It doesn’t work. I’m too old for that now.”

Jak let out the sigh she’d been holding back all conversation. “Where’s Dora?” she asked after their youngest sister.

“Probably out in the woods. No one took the bread and milk she left out on the sill last night, so she will have taken it out to Äulé in the forest.”

“That stupid gnome…” Jak shook her head as she marched to the door. “Stupid girl,” she added with a mutter. “Dora!” she bellowed out the front door. “Get back here!”

The rain dripped from the eaves of the thatched roof and Jak watched the still forest. It was calming. Nature always felt calming to her. It was better than being inside. Inside was where all the chaos was. It was where she was trying to raise her sisters. It was a reminder that Mum had left and life was hard. The woods were wild and beautiful, and she didn’t begrudge Dora the desire to play in them. She just needed her not to do it now.

The back door sounded and Jak turned. Tiny footsteps pounded across the floor and Dora raced in with wet grass on her shoes. The bottoms of her leggings were soaked. The little girl was beaming excitedly out of her freckled face.

“Look! Look! Look!” she yelled. Nestled in her halo of black curls was a flower crown. It was very cute. “I’m a fairy princess! A nice man just gave me a magic crown! I’m a fairy princess now!”

“It’s not magic,” Allie told her. “It’s flowers.”

“It’s magic!” Dora insisted. “He said it was magic! He said that I’m a fairy princess now.”

“Who was this?” Jak demanded. “Was this Äulé?”

Dora shook her head. “Nope. I didn’t see Äulé this morning, but I left his bread and milk out. No, this was just a nice man in the forest. I didn’t ask his name.”

“Dora,” Jak began patiently with the tone of someone who has had their patience tested too many times in one day. “What have I told you about talking to strangers?”

“Don’t do it…” Dora muttered.

“Yeah,” Jak enforced. “Don’t do it.”

“But I’m a fairy princess now!” Dora protested.

“Oh my gods!” Jak cursed. “I don’t care if you’re the bloody fairy queen! Mum put me in charge! Do as I say and don’t talk to strangers or Ĝoŕgomghōul will get you! Magic powers won’t save you from the god of darkness. He preys on naughty children, and he will slip out of the shadows and steal you away to turn you into soup! So just… behave! Both of you!”

Allie pulled a face behind Dora’s back. It was true; that threat didn’t work on her anymore. Ever since she’d turned twelve she had discovered a new level of attitude that Jak considered a problem. But Dora was still young. Tears were welling in her eyes. The threat of a scary shadow monster turning her into soup was very real. Jak sighed and knelt down to pull her little sister into a hug. If Allie was an old twelve, Dora was a very young seven.

“I’m sorry, baby,” she muttered. “I don’t want to scare you. I just want to keep you safe, and that’s a hard thing to do. I know I’m not Mum, but that’s what makes it harder. Your crown is lovely, and you make a wonderful fairy princess, but please don’t go talking to and accepting gifts from strangers in the forest.”

“I won’t do it again…” Dora mumbled miserably into Jak’s shoulder.

“Thank you. Now, come on. I’ve packed your bag. You’re going to the bakery with Allie today – I need someone to keep her out of trouble, and it will take all your new magic powers…”

Dora giggled. Jak gave her a squeeze and let her go. Dora ran to the corner of the room and picked up her backpack. Allie gave Jak an angsty teenage eyeroll as Dora wiggled into the straps of her backpack.

“I’m ready!” the little girl announced.

“So am I,” Allie challenged Jak.

Jak was prepared to concede that this was a battle she didn’t need to win. If Allie wanted to wear a pretty dress and flirt with boys at work, she would soon get a taste of what working life was like. Or, perhaps, she would find her future husband and then Jak could sell her off. It didn’t seem like such a bad option this morning.

With her sisters packed for the day, Jak ushered them out of the house and into town. Their little cottage was only a ten-minute walk from the centre of the village of Rutsborough where they lived. The girls were known by the locals, but it wasn’t an overly friendly relationship. Jak worried that was her fault. She was not a people person. Allie was. Allie liked people, and people liked her. Jak liked… well, Jak wasn’t really sure what she liked. She was sure she used to like things, but the last year… she hadn’t had time to like things.

Few people acknowledged them as they wandered through the muddy streets. Given that most people’s topic of choice at the moment was war, Jak was even more okay with the silent treatment than usual. Their village was in a tiny corner of the kingdom of Kosveir, but the neighbouring kingdom of Dazigh had broken out into civil war. The rumours that had reached Rutsborough were that a band of rebels had murdered the king of Dazigh and now the people were rising up. The locals here considered the behaviour barbaric. Jak considered the entire affair none of her business.

“That’s him!” Dora exclaimed suddenly. Jak broke from her train of thought to see Dora pointing down the road. “That’s him! That’s the man who gave me the crown!”

Jak followed her sister’s finger to the culprit. It was a travelling merchant. He looked like the most ordinary man she’d ever seen. Short brown hair, weather-beaten skin, simple clothes. He was sorting his caravan and folding the back of it out into a store. Dora took off like an arrow before Jak realised.

“Shit,” she muttered under her breath as she ran after her little sister. Allie chased after them.

“Hey!” Dora waved as she ran up to the merchant.

The man turned to look their way. He caught sight of Dora and beamed. His smile lit up his whole face and dimpled his cheeks. Jak felt her feet slow. He was the most ordinary man in the world until he smiled. It was a heart-warming smile that radiated from him. A smile of genuine pleasure.

“Hey Dora,” he grinned at the little girl cheekily. His accent was unusual but not unpleasant. “I didn’t realize you were coming to town.”

“I’m going with my sisters,” Dora declared proudly. “They’re going to work. This is Allie, and this is Jak.”

Jak reached them as she was introduced to the stranger. She didn’t have time to stop Dora or halt the pleasantries. She’d been introduced now. She was going to have to people. The man’s eyes washed over her and Allie. His warm brown gaze met Jak’s.

“The infamous Jak,” he grinned at her. “The ‘I have to get home before my big sister comes looking for me’ Jak.” He turned his most charming smile on them. “It’s a pleasure, ladies.”

At a guess, Jak would have estimated the merchant was at least twice her age, and she had a horrible feeling Allie was going to swoon. She wasn’t going to check though. Her eyes scanned the side of the caravan as they all stood by it.

“The Banging Wagon?” she questioned dubiously. It was painted in large purple letters across the dark wooden side.

“Absolutely,” he grinned. He raised an arm and leant against it, managing to loom casually over them. “Only exploded once though.”

“Twice!” another man’s voice called from inside the wagon.

“The second time doesn’t count,” the merchant insisted without batting an eye. “It was a one-time accident and we learnt from our mistake.” He held out his hand to Jak. “I’m Jim.”

Jak took his hand and shook it, more to fulfil the necessities of politeness than anything else. He had a strong, warm, and reassuring grip.

“You gave Dora the flower crown, Jim?” she asked.

“I did indeed,” he confirmed. “We were passing through while she was playing in the forest. Said she was looking for faeries and wanted to be a faerie princess. Well, she has the right dress for it, yeah, high-five for purple. Best colour.” Jim held his hand low for Dora and she slapped it enthusiastically as he grinned at her. Jak noted that he wore a wide cloth belt in a similar colour to Dora’s purple dress. They were purple buddies now. “Anyway,” he continued, “I figured; you can’t be a princess without a crown. So I gave her one, and here we are.”

“Now I’m a fairy princess!” Dora exclaimed.

“You most certainly are,” Jim agreed. “Magic crown and everything.” He gave Jak a side glance and murmured to her. “It makes the kid happy and it costs me nothing, why not?”

Jak was nowhere near close to trusting the strange man, but she felt herself settle slightly. Taking him at face value, his heart seemed to be in the right place. He was just a nice guy who had done something sweet for her sister. Unfortunately, he wasn’t done yet, and the cheeky smirk on his face was directed at entertaining Dora again.

“You know, Dora…” he mused. “When you said you had a big sister looking after you and we needed to get you home before she got mad… you never mentioned how hot she was. I feel like this is important stuff. This is the kind of thing you should mention to people – that your scary sister is something of a babe.”

Jak could feel her face flame with blush and it was a thousand times worse because she could hear Dora and Allie laughing. She stared daggers at her sisters but they ignored her. Dora was laughing at Jim with her big eyes turned adoringly up at the entertaining stranger. Allie was trying to hide her chuckling behind a polite hand, but she looked almost sorry for the man who had unknowingly made a huge mistake as far as she was concerned. Jak turned to usher them away. Jim softened as she moved to go.

“I jest,” he apologised gently to her. “I have no intention of making you feel uncomfortable, Miss. I’m sure with a face like yours, in a town like this, you’d already be spoken for, and don’t worry – I’d flirt with him too.”

Jak cracked a smile. She wished she hadn’t, and he didn’t make her actually laugh, but it was a close call. He was a salesman. It was his job to be charming and, in a weird way, he was. In small doses it was funny. This felt like it was turning into a long dose.

“It was nice meeting you, Jim,” she told him. “But I have to get to work.”

“A tragedy,” he lamented. “Stop by again if you’re free later.”

“I’m not,” Jak assured. “Ever.”

Jim laughed delightedly. “Ah, I like you, Jak. It has been an absolute pleasure. Have a fun day at work.”

“Thank you,” she inclined her head. “And say thank you for the crown, Dora.”

“Thank you Jim!” Dora exclaimed.

“You are most welcome,” he replied, but Jak was already walking her sisters away from the dangerously charming merchant and his Banging Wagon.

Down the road, Allie caught Jak’s arm tightly. Jak didn’t even have to look to know it was her sister and what it was about.

“Jak,” Allie spoke insistently. “Quit your job and go back there right now.”

“Not if Ĝoŕgomghōul rose up out of the shadows and ordered me to himself,” Jak replied.

“He’s real nice though,” Dora added, completely oblivious to all of Allie’s intentions. Jak nodded at her youngest sister. Jim had been nice. He was perfectly nice. He was also so far from Jak’s type it wasn’t funny. The only reason she didn’t think he was a creepy old man was because she had a feeling that he hadn’t been joking about hitting on everyone. He was one of those tactile people who made friends by flirting. She wasn’t special, and he wasn’t really interested, and that made him much easier to like from a safe distance.

At the end of the road Jak dropped her sisters off at the bakery. She had checked with the head baker and Dora was fine to stay out of the way there with her bag of activities where there were plenty of people to keep an eye on her. Jak certainly couldn’t bring her to her own work.

“Right, have a good day you two,” Jak told them. “I’ll see you at home later. Allie you’ll be done long before I will, so please get her home safe.”

“Calm down, Jak,” Allie sighed. “I’ve been looking after her for the last year just fine, haven’t I?”

“You have,” Jak conceded gratefully. She kissed the top of Allie’s head. “Thank you. Be good,” she told Dora.

By now she was running late. There were no two ways about that. She took off from the bakery and sprinted off up the muddy road to the other side of town. The sound of ringing steel was already pounding out of the blacksmith’s forge.

“Sorry I’m late, Sam!” Jak yelled out. She was already tying on her leather apron as she rushed in.

Big Sam didn’t say anything as she ran in. He just pointed at her workstation with his hammer between blows. Her boss was a giant with a shaved head and a massive grey beard. He was a man of few words, and they got on very well. Jak was on horseshoes today. She usually was. It was their biggest trade in Rutsborough. The roads were rubbish and horseshoes were important. They were also simple and easy, so Jak was left with them because she was the new kid.

She noted Sam was forging another sword. There were nearly two dozen on his walls now. He didn’t sell many, but he always said he liked making them. There was a craft to it — an enjoyable design aspect. Jak accepted this, but she felt like he’d been doing it more often recently. With all the talk of war in the town, it was starting to make her uncomfortable. Not that she was going to tell Big Sam that. Although, she might be able to mention something about swords and war over lunch, if she felt bold enough.

Jak got to work and the stress and memories of the morning melted away under the heat and rhythm of the forge. She was able to focus on her work and hammer her frustrations out into her craft. Big Sam always told her she was stronger and faster than other apprentices he had taken on, and that was why he’d kept her. Jak was pretty sure it was just how hard she worked to prove herself, but she would take the praise.

She wasn’t sure of the time, but only four horseshoes had passed when she heard screaming and yelling outside the forge. Jak shared a glance with Big Sam. They were both safe to put down their work and step outside, so they did. Outside the forge, smoke was thick in the air. They wouldn’t have noticed it inside. The smoke was black, but the air was still cool against the sweat running down her spine.

“What’s going on?” Sam demanded.

“We’re getting water from the river,” one of the villagers answered. “The bakery’s on fire! There’s a witch set it alight!”

Sam looked straight to Jak, so he saw the horror dawn on her face. He knew about her family troubles, and he knew about Allie’s first day. Sam didn’t hold to magic and fairies and witches. He knew they were out there, and he knew they had no business in his village. Jak hadn’t even had the nerve to tell him about Dora leaving bread and milk out for the gnomes in the forest. Sam saw the fear in her eyes. With one meaty hand, he grabbed a sword from his display stand at the counter. It was simple but sturdy. He handed it to Jak.

“Go get them,” he told her.

Jak took the sword. She was no master, but she’d had some practice and wasn’t a complete amateur. She nodded her thanks at Sam and took off for the bakery. Now that she knew what was going on, it was easy enough to see. The pillar of black smoke was rising right from the corner with the bakery. She sprinted as fast as she could towards it. In her head she prayed to the ten gods of Roïgola’a’lanaū that her sisters would be okay.

Mud splashed from her boots as she rounded the corner. The crowd outside the bakery was huge. They had managed to form a bucket chain. It wasn’t putting the fire out, but it was holding it at bay. Most of the bakery was alight.

“Allie! Dora!” Jak called. She stopped at the edge of the crowd and people turned to look at the dirty, sweaty blacksmith’s apprentice wielding a sword. “I heard there was a witch,” she offered, holding the sword threateningly in one hand.

“Oh, there is,” Baker Wilma announced angrily. The tough old lady dragged Dora out of the crowd by her wrist. Dora was struggling and crying. Allie was hanging around with a scared look on her face, but she clearly hadn’t been able to dissuade her new boss. “This little girl is a witch!” the baker screamed at the crowd. “She started the fire!”

“I didn’t mean to!” Dora wailed.

“She didn’t do it,” Allie insisted. “She’s not a witch! She’s just a kid.”

“It’s my new fairy powers,” Dora cried. “I didn’t know.”

“Oh my gods!” Allie cursed angrily. “You don’t have fairy powers, you idiot! You’re not a fairy princess! Shut up!”

“What is going on?” Jak demanded.

“Your witch of a sister started a fire!” Wilma screamed. “Look at my bakery!”

“She thinks she’s got magic powers because of her stupid flower crown and now she’s taking the blame for an accident!” Allie yelled at Jak.

“Okay,” Jak mediated, even as she died inside. “Everyone calm down.”

“We’re not listening to you!” a boy in a baking apron yelled. “You’re probably a witch too!”

“Shut up, Thom,” Allie scoffed.

“You’re all witches!” he yelled at Allie. “Your mum was a witch and you all are too!”

“Our Mum is a herbalist,” Jak replied.

“Same thing!”

“Thom, shut up,” Allie repeated scornfully. “You’re an idiot, and right now you’re just advertising that. Your face is not pretty enough to excuse this level of stupidity.”

Jak didn’t think he was even remotely pretty, but she did admire Allie’s ability to crush her crush. Although, now probably wasn’t the right time.

“Everyone, Dora didn’t do this,” Jak insisted calmly. “She couldn’t have. I promise. She’s a little kid who wants to be a fairy princess, but she doesn’t have any magic powers.”

“But my magic crown!” Dora wailed.

“Shut up, Dora!” Jak snapped. “I’m sorry, baby, but it’s not magic. Allie’s right — it’s just flowers. Now is not the time.”

Dora began to cry again. Jak tried to count to three, but the crowd wouldn’t give her the space. The villagers were advancing.

“We have ways of testing for witches,” Wilma glowered. “How about we dunk the witch and see if she floats?”

“You’ll kill her!” Jak roared. “Get off my sister!”

Jak tried to snatch Dora back. Wilma grabbed the little girl and twisted her arm away. Dora screamed as her arm was twisted. Jak reacted instinctively. She hadn’t even realised she’d been raising the sword until the crowd drew back in alarm. She caught herself before she struck, but the blade was raised and she knew she looked as angry as she felt.

“Enough!” a voice bellowed. Everyone turned to see a stranger approaching. Jak felt her arm drop. It was Jim. The merchant had a severe look about him that didn’t go with anything Jak felt she had met earlier. He was not a particularly tall or physically imposing man, but when he spoke the whole crowd froze.

“What in the name of Roïgola’a’lanaū is going on here?” he asked.

“This witch burnt down my bakery!” Wilma screamed, brandishing Dora.

“Hey Dora,” Jim smiled reassuringly at her.

“Jim! Help!” Dora wailed. Jim eyed up the crowd. His eyes were still the same warm brown. He wasn’t involved in this fight. His eyes were soothing as they washed over his audience. He took in their distrust at the fact that he knew the little girl, and none of them knew him.

“I met Dora this morning,” he offered the information. “I gave her the crown, and you all think it’s magic?” He grinned as he said it. The tone of his voice made it sound preposterous. Jak felt a wave of relief hit her as the man stared down the village.

“She’s a witch!” Thom yelled again.

Jim chuckled at him and his winning smile hit the crowd like a tidal wave. “That girl ain’t a witch. I’ve been around. I’ve seen witches. She is not a witch.” He turned his attention to Wilma. “I’m sorry about your bakery, Ma’am, but accidents happen. Persecuting these young ladies won’t change that. It will just make ugly, superstitious folk out of the rest of you. Let the girl go.”

Wilma did as he bid, and Dora tore herself free and clutched at Allie. Allie grabbed her and made for Jak. Jak quickly sheathed the sword in her belt and grabbed her sisters. She looked up at Jim. He was already watching her. She felt a strange shift in her first opinion of him. He hadn’t needed to get involved, but she was extremely grateful that he had.

“Thank you,” she murmured.

“Get them home,” he replied.

She nodded and led her sisters away with her hands around their shoulders. He didn’t need to tell her twice. The way he’d told her once said enough — he didn’t think this was going to stay polite. The village was ready to get nasty, and the presence of a stranger may have momentarily confused the mob, but he had no guarantee they would stay confused. As soon as they were out of sight, Jak took her sisters’ hands and broke into a run. She hoped the merchant would be able to get himself away, and couldn’t believe he’d thrown himself in the path of the mob to rescue them.

The girls raced home and, as soon as they were inside, Jak locked the door behind them.

“I’m sorry, Jak,” Allie apologised.

“It’s okay,” Jak took a deep breath. “Just tell me what happened.”

“I pointed at the oven and it went BOOM!” Dora cried. Jak looked to Allie who shrugged and didn’t disagree.

“I was mixing dough,” Allie said. “So I wasn’t really looking. Dora was in the kitchen with us, just staying out of the way in the corner. She was pretending to do fairy magic, but it was harmless. A few people were giving her dirty looks. I…” Allie trailed off. She wasn’t a good liar. Jak knew what she was trying not to say. It was going to be something to do with Thom. Allie was flirting and not paying attention. Jak didn’t care. She nodded at Allie to continue, so her sister did. “Dora pointed at the oven and said ‘magic baking fire’—”

“I didn’t know!” Dora wailed. “I didn’t know it would do it!”

“Hush,” Jak stroked her hair. She was still looking at Allie. She didn’t know if Allie was aware how traumatised she looked. Everyone had been focused on Dora, but Jak’s other little sister was having quite the morning too.

“The oven just exploded,” Allie shrugged, bringing her arms up to hug herself. “Huge bang and fire everywhere. That old brick oven. It’s a miracle no one was hurt.” She shook her head. “My ears are still ringing. But that’s it. Just went bang. Bits of flaming brick went everywhere. The wall started to catch. We all started screaming and ran outside. Wilma ordered a bucket chain, but the fire grew so fast. When she saw how bad it was, she just turned on Dora and said it was her and she was a witch. It was total rubbish, Jak. It was an accident, and now people are trying to blame us.”

Jak had been looking out the window as Allie spoke. She could see the faintest flicker of fire down the path through the trees. She knew that sight well. It was the sight of a torch coming up the road. This was the first time it had ever scared her. It was accompanied by another one. Jak looked to her sisters.

“Go pack,” she ordered. Neither of them moved. “Come on. We’re going to go camping for a little bit until this all blows over. Get your stuff. Get it fast.”

Dora and Allie both looked like they wanted to say something, maybe protest, but the look Jak was giving them kept them silent. They rushed off to pack bags. They knew how serious this was. Jak wasn’t sure if they knew what she knew though. The torches were getting closer, and there were significantly more of them now. They had five minutes. Jak shoved some spare clothes and food into a pack as fast as she could. In the kitchen she grabbed some of her mother’s special pottery and the note by the door. She wrapped it in a spare shirt and packed it. They were treasured possessions and she couldn’t leave them. She didn’t know what was about to happen, but it couldn’t be good.

“Girls!” she called. “We’re leaving. If you haven’t packed it by now, you don’t need it!”

“But Binky!” Dora cried.

“I’ve got him,” Allie soothed her. Allie ushered Dora into the main room where Jak was waiting. Just looking at them, Jak could see that Allie had helped Dora pack. She knew. Jak met her sister’s eyes. Allie knew what was happening. She had sorted Dora and herself, and she had their youngest sister’s stuffed toy bunny in one hand. Allie really was an old twelve. She had always been quick, and right now her scared face betrayed her understanding of their situation. Jak nodded her thanks to her. They didn’t want to spook Dora more than was necessary.

“Okay everyone,” Jak encouraged. “Out the back door. Let’s be as quiet as we can.”

Jak ushered them out. Allie took the lead and Jak brought up the rear behind Dora. They snuck out the back door and into the forest. By now, Jak could hear the angry mob approaching. They were loud and they were furious. That was a lot of torches through the trees. It looked like an ocean of fire.

“Come on, guys,” Jak muttered. “Faster.”

“What’s going on?!” Dora cried.

“Shhhh,” Jak hushed her. “Come on.” Jak picked up Dora in her arms, and she and Allie raced off into the forest. They could hear yelling and breaking glass behind them. Jak could feel her heart pounding like it was going to rupture out of her chest. She wanted to cry. Crying would have to wait. They weren’t out of the woods yet — literally. She didn’t know if the village would pursue them once they realised they were gone, or if the destruction alone would sate them.

If the mob realised they had gone into the forest, then perhaps they were safe. Everyone knew this was a faerie forest. There were mushroom circles and rings of stones scattered and hidden in the long grasses. Children were warned never to play in the woods because they would be snatched. It had happened before. The gods could use people’s lives and bodies to make magic. Faeries would snatch the lost and use them for spells. However, the girls’ parents had taught them to be safe in the forest. As much as anyone could be. Be kind to the faeries, watch your footing, and they’ll be kind to you.

Most of the villagers didn’t hold to that. Rutsborough wasn’t a faerie friendly village, but they knew better than to mess with the forest. They ignored it and it ignored them, to a point. Vandalism wasn’t worth it. Messing with the faeries cost lives. The Queen of the Fae had an army of shadow assassins that Ĝoŕgomghōul had made her. The Head Hunters. Dark faeries that would come for those who had wronged the fae. They would come in the night and behead their victims to steal their power. Nearly a decade ago, a villager had decided to clear some of the woods with fire. The gnomes had doused it, but the flames had claimed a small clearing. The next day all that was left of the arsonist was blood-soaked bed sheets.

The forest was good to the girls, but it was also a dangerous place, and Jak didn’t know if they would be safe here. If the mob started to burn the trees to come after the girls, would they be blamed for it? Would the Head Hunters come after them? The thought made her want to puke.

“We have to get out of here,” she stated.

“Äulé,” Dora offered. “Äulé will help us.” She wriggled out of Jak’s arms and rushed off through the long grass between the trees. Jak and Allie chased after her. They made it to the little clearing Dora always came to. In the middle sat the lumpy boulder with the Fora rune carved into it. There was a small crust of bread and a jug of milk placed by it.

“Äulé!” Dora called. She knelt in the wet grass by the stone. “Äulé, please help us!”

Jak remembered when her father used to bring her out here when she was young. He was long out of the picture now. He’d died when Dora was born. The youngest sister had never known their old man. Jak missed him. She always did, but with everything else that was happening right now it was like a knife in her chest. He had been a big believer in faeries and small folk. Always had time for them. Dora was so like him, and she didn’t even know it.

Above them in the trees a little red squirrel chittered. Its beady black eyes watched them with its head cocked. The forest animals didn’t touch food left for the gnomes. They knew. Well, most of the time. Legend had it that squirrels and gnomes had gone to war over a loaf of bread. With a sharp pop, the gnome appeared. He was a little man with a tanned face and giant ginger beard. His pointed red cap flopped over on his head and his mischievous eyes twinkled. He sat perched on the rock with a tiny baby gnome in his arms.

“Äulé!” Dora exclaimed delightedly.

“Mah little Dora,” Äulé grinned at her. “Ah, I see yer brought treats again. ‘Tis kind of yer, mah sweet girl.”

“Äulé we need your help,” Dora begged. “Please help us.”

“Whatever’s the matter?”

“The village thinks Dora’s a witch,” Allie told him. “They’re chasing us out, and we need somewhere safe.”

“And yer pray to the rune of protection,” Äulé nodded approvingly, well aware of what he was sitting on. “Damn humans. Can never trust ‘em. Well, yer girls have always been good to me and mine.” He rocked the baby gnome in his arms. “I can trade yer some magic for the treats yer left.” He raised his arm and pointed through the trees. “Go that’a way. Keep heading straight and yer will find shelter and protection worthy of Fora. Fae’s oath.”

“Thank you, Äulé,” Jak nodded to him. “We won’t forget this.”

“Debt’s already paid, girl,” he smiled. “Can’t do no magic without payment. Go get, little girls. Yer be safe on that path.”

The girls thanked the gnome and headed off exactly the way he pointed. Their parents had not been witches, but they had been knowledgeable and respectful of faerie folk, and had raised the girls carefully around such magic. Äulé’s spell only kept them safe as long as they stayed on his path. If they diverged at all, the spell would break or they would lose its protection.

Above them came the chittering. The squirrel was still there. It scrambled and hopped between branches, keeping just ahead of them. It dodged and wove between trees. It was leading them. For a fleeting second Jak panicked that the squirrel might try and trick them into betraying Äulé’s magic. After a breath she calmed. Not all gnomes and squirrels were enemies. Especially in this forest. They were all the children of Thænäri, after all. The goddess of the earth and forest protected her own.

Jak had no idea how long they followed the squirrel, but it kept a straight line through the trees. Eventually, Jak had to put Dora down and get her to walk again. Every now and again the squirrel would stop and look back at them. Whenever they fell too far behind it would chitter. Twice as they travelled she glimpsed a flash of red in the grass, and caught the warning sight of a ring of toadstools, but Äulé’s path kept them safely out of mushroom circles. Birds sang in the canopy, and the hut and the villagers seemed far away. Jak couldn’t hear them at all anymore. Light shone ahead through the trees and Jak started to feel another rising panic. It wasn’t the light of fire though. It was something else.

Daylight was breaking through the trees. She looked up for the squirrel. It was gone. She had no idea where it had scampered to. Where the day shone through was a muddy dirt road. Jak felt her feet slow. She had spent her whole life playing in that forest. There wasn’t a road this way for ages. Yet, somehow, here it was already. Time and distance had become jumbled. Faerie magic. Äulé had protected them from followers. It wasn’t all he’d done.

As the girls stepped from the shelter of the trees onto the road, the clomping of hooves and rumbling of wheels could be heard. Jak recognised the wagon instantly. It was hard not to with the big purple letters all over the side. The man driving it gave them one of his characteristic grins.

“Well, well, well…” he smiled at them. “Fancy seeing you three all the way out here. That’s a long way you got.”

“Äulé helped us,” Dora told him before anyone could stop her.

“Äulé?” Jim mused. “That’s a faerie name… ain’t he a gnome?”

“You know him?” Jak blurted. Jim just smiled at her. He leaned back against the wagon with the reins draped loosely in one hand.

“You girls need a lift?”

Jak hesitated. She was not sure about this at all. She had warned her sisters about strangers. While she was extremely grateful he had helped them get away from the villagers, she wasn’t sure how far her trust extended. Something about him was still weird. Besides, they couldn’t go far… they had to wait for Mum to come home…

“Yes please,” Allie answered for her.

“Allie, we don’t know where we’re going,” Jak protested.

“Away from Rutsborough,” Allie answered vehemently. She stalked out of the grass and approached the caravan.

“Good answer,” Jim grinned at her. “Sorry about your town, Jak, but… well, it certainly seems like a bit of a rut. We decided not to stay.”

“Who’s we?” Jak asked. That was the first thing she wanted to know before she fell in with a group of vagabonds. Jim grinned at her and nodded his head towards the caravan behind him.

“Come meet my friends.” He climbed down from the front of the wagon and led them around to the back. He banged politely on the back and it was opened from the inside. Jak felt her jaw drop as two men climbed from the back of the caravan. At first she thought they were identical. They were tall and pale and extremely beautiful, with soft blonde hair and large pointy ears. One had a serious expression and golden eyes, and the other had soft lavender eyes and a huge friendly smile. The one with golden eyes had shorter hair, but they both wore their pale locks loose with random, interspersed braids.

“They’re…” Jak started numbly.

“Fae,” Jim finished with a grin. “This is Krill,” he indicated the serious one. “And this is Kode.” The happy one waved joyfully at them. Jim never stopped grinning at the girls. “We’re the Banging Wagon,” he introduced. “Want to join us?”

“Allie come on!” she called to her younger sister. “We can’t be late today!”

“Calm down,” Allie called back from the next room. “I’m just getting ready.” The younger girl swept into the main room in a green dress and twirled. “What do you think?”

Jak raised an eyebrow as she watched. The two of them were three years and a million worlds apart. Same dark skin. Same black curls. Except not the same. Jak’s hair was wild and she tied it back like overgrown vines to keep it out of her eyes. Allie’s curls were brushed sleek and plaited down her back like a princess. She wore simple dresses, but she wore them to try and accentuate her newfound puberty and appear older. Allie was maturing way too fast. Jak dressed like a boy. In shades of brown. She wore trousers and boots, and a leather vest over her cream shirt, and she hoped no one would notice she was a girl.

“What are you doing in your good dress?” she asked. “You’re going to work.”

“It’s my first day!” Allie exclaimed excitedly. “And Thom works at the bakery too… I want to look nice.”

“Thom?” Jak criticised. “Who in the gods’ names is Thom?”

“The cute boy at the bakery,” Allie told her like she was stupid.

Jak stared her down. With Allie it was a new boy every week. There weren’t that many of them in the village; Jak still struggled to keep up.

“How old is this one?”

“About your age,” Allie shrugged.

“So fifteen?” Jak checked. She gave her sister another sharp look. “Allie, you’re twelve.”

“I’m of a marriageable age,” Allie told her primly.

“No you’re bloody not! I’m not of a marriageable age! You’re definitely not!”

Kate Haley is a speculative fiction author who works predominantly in fantasy and horror.

While currently content to fill her days with writing and table-top RPGs, her grander plans involve world domination. Something akin to the tyranny of the greatest city atop the Disc would be an acceptable standard. She believes a super-villainous overlord would be an upgrade, given that our current villains lack style and imagination.

After all, super-villainy requires Presentation.

If you like her references, consider reading her books. Peruse the website for short fictions and merchandise, and join the mailing list for early access and exclusive cool stuff.

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