May 7th, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Upper Jonestown
Fred Clayton sat on a chopping block, between two lengths of corded wood, one pine, the other oak, musing about hickory and wondering, briefly, about the state of his iron ax.
It was a good ax, though steel was better for wood. He kept the iron oiled and it didn’t blunt easy. And it was better than the nail his grandmother put in the doorframe to test faerie gold. Showing faeries you knew their gold was fake didn’t go over well now that they were in charge. Show them an iron ax and they might wonder what kind of statement you were making before complaining about it though.
But the handle was loose. You couldn’t chop wood with a loose handle. Not if you didn’t want the ax blade to go flying off into someone’s head—or your own.
Fred was full of practical thoughts like that.
“Does Jill know?” he asked.
Rosalinda Thorne. Poetic name. Worrying face. Long hair, down in summer, up in winter, like a paradox. Eighteen. Naive. Aware of it. Worried even. Another paradox. Youngest of three.
“I understand,” she said, “if you don’t want to come. I know you didn’t want to break it off…”
“She said that?”
“Not in so few words…”
“But she knows you’re inviting me along?” he asked.
“I told her we need you along, at least as far as Glitterford.”
Fred stood up. He hefted his ax by the handle. “Why?”
“You hunt Fair Folk.”
“Hunted. Before they were in charge.”
Rose stood silent a moment. Then she looked out into the forest. “Fair is fair.” She was citing a missing folklorist.
“After Glitterford, then what?” he asked.
“The world is going to end,” she said. “Not much available after that.”
“In your dream?”
“Yes, but whenever I wake up, there’s also this… drive.”
“They’re not playing you?” Fred worried. “They do that sometimes, snare some mortal in thrall and play until they’re bored. They’re like cats—numb you, wake you, kill you, nap…”
Rose shook her head. “I don’t feel numb, Fred. I feel exhausted, like every nerve’s awake. I want to beat them before they can end the world. I want justice. There has to be a way.”
“The world ended already,” Fred said, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t worry too much.”
He crossed his yard and rounded the corner of his house. It was one of the better houses in the village. It still looked intact despite the air raids, mostly because the trees took the beatings. His car worked too. Fred and his parents were the sort of people who knew how to take care of themselves, not out of cynicism or paranoia but just because that was the adult thing to do. It showed he was older than the rest of them.
He went on, climbing into the back of his trunk. “Things end,” he added. “The sanctions will get worse. The Western Fair Folk will get worse. It’ll all fall to dust. But if it does, history says the pendulum will swing back again.”
He opened the trunk behind the truck’s cabin and set the ax in it. The wind shifted just then, lifting out the satisfying scent of more iron than that.
“It always swings. Everything dies. Everything continues. If it stops someday, it won’t matter that it did, the universe will just be quieter.” He shut the trunk with a thud and smiled dryly. “Even if you’re certain,” he added, “where would we possibly find justice in a country where only their vote matters?”
Rose let him finish. “She always said you were a philosopher,” she observed after, ruefully.
He huffed a laugh. “Said I was a bastard too.” He stood. His footsteps clanked back across the truck bed. “And a heathen. And a pagan.” He leaned forward on the back of the truck. Since he was balding in his youth, his face looked small and round for his head. What hair remained was military short and red as carrots. “I don’t think she realizes those two words are different,” he added in jocular afterthought.
“She doesn’t realize a lot of things,” Rose conceded, not unkindly. “Most people don’t. It’s not a crime.”
“No…” Fred turned his head on one side, “but after the election ten years ago, it really should be.”
He climbed out of the truck. She followed him up the porch steps as he went for his keys. It was a quiet, clear day by the lake. Fred was a man of the woods and a hunter, self-sufficient, just like his parents were in their home a few miles down the shore. Rose looked out across the gleaming waters, envious for a moment. She flipped her coin once as she waited, asked herself a question, and then checked the result under her palm. She sighed. She checked the sun and began measuring in her mind.
Fred came out again, a cable sweater slung over one shoulder, his keys jangling jauntily in his hand.
“You need a ride back into town?”
She fisted her hand around the coin. “I’ll walk.”
“Please tell me soon.”
“Do you need the car?” he asked.
He cranked down the window as she approached.
“No, just you. They’d track the car, don’t you think?”
“You think they’d track us?”
“If what I think is true,” she said, wording carefully as she often did, “then they’d have to sense something too.”
“Whatever it is,” he laughed.
It wasn’t a mean laugh, she thought grimly, but it was the laugh of someone uninvolved. That wasn’t promising.
“Thanks for your time, Fred.”
“See you, Rose. If things change for the worst, I’ll be there, okay?”
And he drove off, taking the dirt road with expert turns, sitting back casually not in idleness but in the ease of the doing.
Fred liked Rose. She had her head on her shoulders. Coming out and saying something crazy wasn’t like her, so he’d assume it wasn’t crazy what she was up to.
Still, Jill was not someone he wanted to see again. He would need to think on it. It had to be worth it. Things worth doing were done, not what wasn’t. You only lived once.