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Faint Dark

Title: Faint Dark
Author:
Disclaimer: This is a creation of my own feeble mind. All rights reserved
Length: 7203 (posted in three parts due to LJ limits)
Rating: PG

A/N: A gift forlurkingwombat Vaguely based on something that happened to me as a child. Thought I would post it today, as it is a little dark. Happy Halloween! Beta is the ever-patient caffienekitty


She makes a barricade around her from every stuffed animal in the room. The quilt rides high on the mound around her. Cassie hopes it makes her look larger so it frightens them, and they’ll go away.

“Is she asleep?”

Cassie stops breathing. She feels the shadows in her room pull together. The pale light through the high bedroom window fades.

“She should be. If she isn’t –“

“Kill her.”

Cassie digs her fingers into the sheet, and feels the edge of her stuffed cat against her thumb. It starts playing “rock-a-bye baby,” and then stops.

“It’s just the cat. Look at her, how does she breathe under that quilt, with all those things around her?

“Doesn’t matter. Listen, is she still breathing?”

Cassie snorts through her nose. She shifts onto her side and sighs.

“Yes. Still with us.”

She feels them lean over her. She feels like she has melted into the bed, she can’t move her arms and legs. Cassie needs the light, needs to open her eyes. Can’t. Can’t open—

Cassie opens her eyes. Sunlight is streaming into her room. She sobs into her pillow and clutches her stuffed cat to her chest. She winds the silver key and burrows further under the sheets. The light pierces the quilt, making everything gold. Cassie closes her eyes.

***

“Honey, if you wait any longer those Frosted Flakes will turn into oatmeal.”

Cassie looks up at mom, and shrugs. She isn’t really hungry anyway. “Can I go outside, mom?”

“Sure honey. Do you want to take an apple or something?”

Cassie opens her mouth to say no, and sees her mother holding a banana. It’s the “if you don’t take this, you can’t leave the house” look. She takes it and goes to change.

She pulls on her favourite jeans and yellow t-shirt with the picture of a baby deer on it.

When she is pulling on her runners Cassie sees mom at the top of the stairs, pulling her brown curls into a ponytail.

“Be back before dark Cassie, and don’t go too far into the woods.”

“I won’t, mom.” She pulls on her purple jacket with the fuzzy lining and shuts the door behind her. Cassie walks across the road, heading for her tree.

She thinks of it as hers, even though Cassie knows you can’t own a tree. She pulls herself up and heads for the second branch from the top – the last one that is strong enough to hold her weight. Cassie braces her feet against the branch she is sitting on and one just below her, and pushes her back against the tree trunk. The sun warms her legs, and she can feel the heat in the bark of the alder tree as she presses against it. No shadows here, at least none large enough to swallow the sun. Cassie remembers a fairy tale, something about a bird that stole the sun, and kept it in a box. She doesn’t think the shadow people in her room are playing a prank though, and she doesn’t have a night light big enough to keep them out.

***

She comes home just as it starts to get dark. She turns on the night table light, the overhead light, and both night lights in her room. Cassie’s bed is made, with all her stuffed animals piled on top of the quilt against the pillows.

Cassie flips back the covers, climbs in, and makes a line of stuffed animals all the way around her. Blue dog, white bunny, bear, kitten and unicorn down one side. Bear, dolphin, Pegasus, and cat (next to her pillow) on the other. Now she is surrounded. If she wriggles her toes she can feel plush at her feet, if she reaches out on either side she feels them against her. But she needs more light. Cassie finds two flashlights in the kitchen drawer and hides them under her pillow.

She wolfs down the chicken fingers and home-made French fries at dinner.

“Cassie. You’re going to choke. Take it easy.”

She looks up with her fork halfway to her mouth and stops. Cassie remembers to swallow before answering.

“Sorry dad.”

“Don’t make me use the Heimlich on you.” He raises an eyebrow and laughs at her.

Cassie manages a grin in return. She sees the blue circles under her dad’s eyes. She doesn’t remember if they were there before. She rubs her eye, wondering what her parents see on her face.

“Don’t stay up too late reading honey.” Her dad ruffles her hair as he leans over Cassie’s bed to tuck her in (her hair is brown like her mother’s, with streaks of gold the colour of dad’s). He walks away, leaving the door open a crack.

“I won’t. I promise.” Cassie has stayed up late before, reading. In the summer, when she isn’t outside, she raids the library between trips to the book store. Tonight she doesn’t think reading will help. Cassie pulls the quilt over her head, burrowing down between rows of stuffed animals. She doesn’t remember falling asleep.

***

How long shall we wait?”

“She’s a child. They are not known for their strength.”

Cassie hears voices coming from high window across from her bed. She wonders how the shadows fit in the windowsill, barely big enough for a cat to sit on. But shadows don’t need to stand, don’t need bones.

She remembers how safe she felt high in the alder tree, feeling it move with the wind, remembers the sun warming her skin. She felt warmth coming from the trunk of the tree, the branches holding her up.

Whatever the shadows are, she doesn’t think flashlights will help, and her nightlights don’t count. Cassie doesn’t think a shadow is afraid of a humpback whale-shaped light anyway. She needs to find something to make them go away, or catch them so they can’t bother her ever again.

She remembers one of the fairy tales her mother read to her. It was about a group of knights who were trying to catch a hart (mom told her it meant a male deer), and every trap they set at night was empty the next morning.

***

The lady hears the knight’s plan, and laughs.

“You cannot catch magic with steel. The hart will step over your pits, and slip your snares while you roam the forest like lost children. You need to hold the heart of the earth in your hand, and then beg its favour.”

It is the knights turn to laugh. They scoff at the lady, and return to the forest. But as she predicted, they spend weeks picking up empty nets, broken snares, and empty pit traps. The hart laughs at the knights, just as the lady had.

Finally, the knights return to the lady, heads bowed, on bended knee. “We have failed. Please help us capture the hart.”

The lady smiles, but her eyes glitter like the silver embroidery on her dress.

“Tell me why you want him. If this is just another hunt, you can wander until the land consumes your bones and your graves are marked by the blades you wear.”

“My lady, we need to ask a question. The land is suffering from drought, and the people are starving. The king is at a loss.”

“Then you do not hunt the hart for sport. I will help you, but you must ask your question, and then set the hart free. Holding the hart is holding the land, and you do so at your peril. I will be the one to hold the creature. Once you have asked your question it will return to the wood, and you shall not see it again. Do I have your word?”

“The word of every knight here and the promise of the king, my lady.” The knights hold out their swords.

The lady walks from one knight to the next, laying her finger to the side of the blade, making a tiny cut and leaving a drop of blood on the surface of each sword. When she returns to the first knight she smiles, and the blades are unstained.

“I will need nine days. On the tenth day, I will meet you at the edge of the wood. Leave all your armour and weapons behind, and I will take you into the forest. When the hart appears, remain silent until I tell you to speak. If you refuse, your promise is broken and the land and its people will suffer.” She looks at each knight, and they all nod solemnly to her.

The lady returns to her tower, and shuts the door. No one in the castle sees her for nine days and nights. The food left outside her door disappears, but no one sees her open the door. At night the servants whisper about the strange lights at the window, but no one disturbs her.

On the tenth day, the door opens, and the lady emerges from her tower, awaiting the knights in the courtyard. She is very pale, and her blue-black hair emphasises the shadows beneath her eyes. Smiling at each knight, she sees that all of them are unarmed. They are dressed in breeches, tunics, vests, and wool cloaks. Nodding, she walks out the castle gates toward the forest. The lady stumbles once, and one of the youngest knights runs toward her offering an arm. She waves him away.

“Thank you, but no one must touch me. The hart will smell the blood of those you have slain; it is not something you can wash away.”

The knight shakes his head. He looks away, and self-consciously runs a hand through his blonde hair.

The lady has known many men as young as this one, who start out eager to serve their king, but quickly find their feet slowed with every life they take. She knows the king feels the burden each time he sends them out. When the knights return, the king’s shoulders slump, taking their burdens on his shoulders. This burden, she can spare him, this one she will bear herself.

***

Cassie clutches her stuffed cat under the blankets. She is no great lady, and she is too small to lift a sword (which wouldn’t be any good against shadows anyway), so there must be another way to fight the things that won’t let her sleep. Why do they want her anyway?

Cassie doesn’t think she is special. She isn’t good at sports, or art, or music. The only thing she does more than anyone else is climb, and read. Her friends can’t climb as high as she can, don’t understand why she spends hours swaying in the branches. Cassie isn’t afraid of high places, and she has never been afraid of shadows, until now.

The light under her covers is gold with the sun when she wakes up. Cassie hopes they are gone. Maybe shadows have a home too, or other kids they have to visit. She sits up and pulls the quilt down. Then she finds it.

She can see through it, and it shines like glass filled with black oil. It’s a mask that looks unfinished. It’s big enough to fit over Cassie’s face. There are hollows for eyes, a long bump for a nose, and two thin lips. Cassie reaches one hand towards it, holding her breath. The mask slides towards her fingers, and she sees the quilt is where it had lain. Her grandmother embroidered the quilt for her, and it is covered with animals and trees, each square of the quilt a different scene. The weeping willow in the square where the mask sat is gone. The stream beside it is still there, but now there is a hole in the middle, where the tree used to be. Cassie snatches her hand back and kicks the quilt where the mask sits. It falls to the carpet, but she doesn’t hear it land. All she hears is a hiss, like the echo of their laughter. Cassie hiccups, and screams.

****

The knights and lady stop outside the entrance to the wood.

“Once we step onto the path you must stay on it. If you don’t, you will not find it again, and I cannot help you. Do you understand?”

One of the knights frowns. “But we know this path. Stepping into the trees would never--"

“Not this time. This time it is not the path you know, and if you leave it, I do not know where you will go.” The lady waits until he nods, and turns away.

She doesn’t chant in another language, doesn’t wave her hands in arcane patterns, and throws no magical dust. She walks. Slowly, carefully, as if she is stepping on stones crossing a river.

The knights hear no birds beneath the trees, or animals in the brush. Even the wind is gone. Then they notice the trees. There are oaks with trunks half the width of the castle; a monstrous willow and saplings that consume half an acre; cedars that keep the sunlight for themselves, their branches overhanging the path. The wood is full of darkness. It listens to them as they pass. The knights are far from bold. They shiver and walk faster so they do not lose their guide.

***

Cassie’s bedroom door slams against the wall.  She starts shaking when she sees mom and dad. Dad gets to her first and she buries her face in his terry robe, digging her fingers into his side.

“Cassie? Did you have a nightmare? It’s OK now it can’t

“Wasn’t.” Cassie struggles to breathe through her stuffed nose. “Wasn’t asleep.”

Dad takes her hands and pushes her away gently. Mom is sitting on her other side, against the pillows. Cassie stares at the floor, but there is nothing there. No mask, nothing that looks like black glass. She looks up at her dad, sees the creases around his eyes and the lines around his mouth, and decides she can’t tell him. The blue pools under his eyes aren’t as bad today (she knows that his office is missing someone, and dad doesn’t sleep much, and works too hard). Mom reaches out and puts her arm around Cassie’s shoulders. Mom would get rid of the shadows too, if she could, but Cassie doesn’t think they will believe her.

She loves them, but parents don’t have nightmares like this. They worry about money, her grandmother being sick. The things you can see in the daytime, things that keep them awake, but won’t carry them away in the dark, or kill them if they open their eyes. Not the same. It means Cassie has to lie. It makes her feel sick, but she will have to beat the shadows on her own. If shadows can cross into the light and leave warnings for her, Cassie will fight them in the dark.

“It’s OK; I just thought I saw someone in my room.” Her chest hurts. She rubs her nose on her hand. “Can we have waffles for breakfast?” Mom and dad look at each other and shrug.

“Alright honey. If you promise to eat everything I give you, and go to bed earlier – no reading this time. Deal?”

Cassie looks up at her mom and nods. She doesn’t feel like smiling. She tugs on the ruffled flannel cuff of her nightgown. Mom and dad both have an arm over her shoulders; she can feel them hold hands behind her back. Cassie wants to stay this way. They make a better wall than her stuffed animals, and no shadow can fit between.

Cassie’s grandmother makes the best waffles (mom got the recipe from her). They have just the right crunch on the outside, but still fluffy when you bite into them. Grandma can sew, knit, and crochet anything too. Grandma tried to show Cassie how to do crochet and tatting, but there were so many loops and twists that Cassie couldn’t keep them straight. She loved watching grandma’s fingers pull the pearly thread, weaving chains together, until she had made a cardigan for Cassie that looked like the moon made into lace. Grandma makes the room seem smaller, warmer, just by smiling and listening. If she didn’t live so far away Cassie would ask her for help, but she just can’t explain it over the phone, and mom and dad would be listening anyway.

After breakfast Cassie tells mom she is going out again.

Mom slowly puts down the plate she is washing on the counter. Cassie hears a tiny click.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay in today? You can build card houses on the carpet, or read?” Mom has a tiny clump of soap bubbles on the back of her hand.

“No, I’m OK mom. Maybe the fresh air will help me sleep.” Cassie smiles.

“Not fair, throwing my best advice back at me.” Mom smiles and reaches into the water for the next plate. “Come back a little earlier this time, yes?

“OK. I promise.”

“Dad will be home early today, they owe him some time at work. So be home by four, and you two can actually be in the same room together for once.”

Cassie rolls her eyes.

“You know I can hear that even with my back turned. Parental magic.” Another dish clinks on the counter.

Cassie laughs and runs down the stairs to grab her shoes.

Part 2: http://ciaranbochna.livejournal.com/112121.html#cutid1
Part 3: http://ciaranbochna.livejournal.com/112346.html#cutid1