We came to an open field, surrounded by a fence made of logs. Cows grazed in the long grass, and a round thatched hut sat on the other side of the field. Grimalkin leaped onto the fence and sat down, twitching its tail.
“You’ll find help in that house,” he said, looking at me with unblinking yellow eyes. “Just don’t spook the cattle when you cross the field.”
“What about you?” I asked, as he yawned and stuck its hind leg up to groom itself. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Me? No, I make Brownies very nervous. Don’t worry, I’ll be close. Just don’t mention my name or you’ll send them into a panic.” He abruptly stopped grooming, eyeing me somberly. “And whatever you do, don’t offer to help out with anything.” Turning his back to me, he started licking his flank, and I knew I had been dismissed.
I climbed over the fence, trying not to jostle my shoulder, and walked across the pasture. The cows only came up to my waist, and when they saw me coming, bolted across the field with alarmed moos. When I reached the hut, I heard humming noises coming from inside, and knocked timidly on the door.
The humming stopped. For a moment, there was silence, then feet padded towards me. The door cracked open, and a pale blue eye, about level with my knee, peered out warily.
“Who’s there?” the figure on the other side whispered. “Get back! I warn you, I’m armed. I’ll beat you to a pulp if you’ve messed with my cattle.” There was the sound of something solid rapping the door, and I took a step back.
“I’m sorry,” I said, mentally cursing Grimalkin. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I’m leaving now.”
“No, wait.” The door swung a bit wider, and a shaggy head poked out. Thick brown hair perched above a round face with a potato sized nose. The little man squinted up at me, and his eyes got big and round. “A human?” he murmured, and his whole face lifted into a smile. “Well! It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a mortal child.” He stepped back and opened the door wide, revealing himself to be about three feet tall, dressed in filthy rags. His arms and bare feet were covered in bristly brown fur. “Come in, come in. I was just about to make dinner.”
I hesitated, glancing back for any sign of Grimalkin. But, except for the cows, grazing on the far side of the fence, the pasture was empty.
When I paused, the little man frowned in confusion, then laughed. It was a pleasant laugh, neither maniacal or threatening. “Ah, I can see you’ve already run across the more unpleasant of our residents.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Don’t worry, girl. I’m not going to put you in the oven. I’ve had a long history of working with humans. You’re safe here, I assure you.”
Gathering my courage, I stepped across the threshold, and the man closed the door behind me.
My first impression was surprising. By the way the Brownie was dressed, I had expected the house to be filthy, covered in bones and fur. Instead, the little three-room hut was perhaps the tidiest home I’d seen. The floor was swept, the tables and furniture gleamed with polish, the fireplace hearth was clear of ashes and dirt. Everything, from the dishes on their racks to the shelves boasting dozens upon dozens of books, everything was in its place. If the Brownie owned a dog, not one hair would lie crooked or on the floor.
“Wow,” I murmured, stooping a bit to avoid the low ceiling. “Mom never got the house this clean, not even for her Auxiliary Club meetings.”
The Brownie beamed.
“Now,” he said, padding towards the table and offering me a chair. “You’re hurt, aren’t you? I can smell the blood. Why don’t you sit and let me take a look at that? Then, when the nasty business is done, we can have dinner.”
Reluctantly, I sank into the chair, hoping I wouldn’t break it, as it was Brownie sized. Still, it seemed sturdy enough, and the little man hopped up on a stool to examine my shoulder.
“Mm, yes,” he muttered, moving some of the fabric aside. “Looks like you’ve been tangling with goblins. Nasty, dirty things. There’s a hole right here in your shoulder blade; looks like you took a spear to the back my girl. One moment, I have some salve for that.”
He hopped off the stool and opened his cupboard, which was just as clean and tidy as the rest of the house. When he returned, he clutched a blue jar in one calloused hand.
“Alicorn powder,” he murmured, climbing onto the stool again. “Worth its weight in gold, but I always keep a small supply on hand, just in case.”
“Why are you helping me?” I asked, as something cold and tingly was dabbed onto my shoulder. The Brownie chuckled.
“Why not?” he said, hopping down once more. “It’s what we do, girl. Now, move that arm. See if it feels better.”
Cautiously, I lifted my arm, and found the pain completely gone. Probing my shoulder, I found a hole in the fabric of my shirt, but the flesh beneath it was healed. That was some impressive salve. I examined the jar and saw a tiny label that read: “Unicorn safe.”
“Now,” the Brownie said, rubbing his hands together, “we can eat.”
Dinner was simple; bread with honey butter, milk, and cheese, all homemade from the Brownie’s herd. “Don’t worry, it’s not ‘fairy food,’” the Brownie assured me, though I had no idea what he meant. “I know how to prepare meals for humans, unlike those snooty elves in court.” He sniffed and stuck his nose in the air, waving an invisible hankie. “Everything has to be so fancy and glamorous, because we’re the aristocrats,” he mocked in a singsong voice. “Bah. They forget that simple pleasures are sometimes the best.”
I was ravenous, but for the sake of my host, tried to be polite and not eat like an animal. The food was delicious, though a tad on the sweet side, and the portions were very small. Still, I wasn’t going to complain.
After dinner, the Brownie began clearing the table. Automatically, I stood and picked up my plate.
The Brownie stiffened. I saw his eyes go from the plate in my hand to me, his expression wounded.
Too late, I remembered Grimalkin’s warning. Whatever you do, don’t offer to help out with anything. “I’m sorry,” I said, putting the plate down.
The Brownie’s expression didn’t change. “Quite all right,” he said, his voice cold. “I don’t need any help, but thank you anyway.”
“I’m really very sorry,” I tried again. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
He sniffed, and continued in an overly polite tone. “I’d offer you my bed tonight, but it’s too small. You’re welcome to any blankets in the closet. Sleep here for the night, but tomorrow I’m afraid I have to be out of the house early to milk the cows. I hope you understand.”
“Yes,” I murmured, and watched sadly as he tidied up the kitchen, then retired to his room, shutting the door with a bang. I’d offended him, and somehow I knew he wouldn’t be forgiving me.
I found blankets in the closet, and tried to make myself comfortable on the floor, using my backpack as a pillow. Something was poking me in the skull, and I unzipped my pack to find my iPod, still wet from my plunge into the river.
“Dammit,” I sighed, looking at the screen, now warped and distorted in the dim light. I dug out the headphones, plugged them in, and tried turning it on. Nothing. Not even a buzz. I’d spent months saving for that thing, and now it was ruined. Like everything else in my pathetic life. Plunking the broken iPod onto an end table, I lay back and sulked, hating this place and all its weird, stupid residents with their weird, stupid idiosyncrasies. Eventually, I fell into a restless sleep.
When I awoke, the house was dark. Everything stood still and silent, outlined in hazy blue moonlight coming through the windows. Nothing stirred. But, I was sure something woke me up.
A knock came at the door. A soft tap-tap, then silence.
I glanced at the Brownie’s bedroom. The door was still shut; I heard faint snoring coming from the other side.
The knock came again. A bit louder this time, more insistent.
Moving as if in a dream, I rose, shedding blankets, and took few steps towards the door, my hand reaching. No! I screamed in my head. Don’t open it! But my body belonged to someone else and I could only watch, helpless, as my hand reached for the knob and grasped it.
Under my palm, the knob shook, and turned. I stepped back as the door swung open with an agonized creak.
The fey boy stood in the doorway, moonlight shining on his dark hair, his eyes like twin slits of metal in the gloom. He raised a fist towards me, something large dangling from his grasp.
A scream caught in my throat. The boy dropped the head with a wet thud on the wooden floor, leaving a spatter of crimson. I looked up at him as he drew his sword, the icy blade covered in frozen blood. I could only stare, mesmerized, as he raised the weapon over his head. His glittering eyes never left mine.
“They’re here,” he whispered, and brought the sword flashing down.
I jerked awake, the scream turning into a ragged gasp as it tore free. Heart pounding, I lay back, trying to catch my breath while gazing wildly about the room. The Brownie’s door was tightly shut; no angel of death loomed on the front porch, the floor blissfully free of severed heads.
In the darkness, something moved out of the corner of my eye.