Friday flash: Autumn leaves

Autumn Leaves

Leaves crunched underfoot as Angelica slipped under the trees. Father didn’t like her passing beyond the grass, but it wasn’t as if she’d gone out of sight — she could still see the castle quite clearly. And even if Father and his archers couldn’t see her, Drake could from the top of his tower, as could Smoke, who slunk along the shadows, quiet even among the deepest leaves.

And how else was she going to test out what Philomena had told her? A charm to tell what the coming year would bring — who could resist?

Still, it was kind of creepy here with the oak branches reaching up against the sky like so many dead things, blackberry bushes grabbing at her skirt and the bag over her shoulder, and bird calls that vanished mid-note. There was a smell in the air she didn’t recognize, either, layered beneath the moldering leaves. It reminded her of the kitchen and the middens and the straw where Father’s hounds slept, but it wasn’t like any of them precisely. Nervously, she began to whistle the minor wind-song Drake had taught her. He had said it was good for focus, implying she needed that, and she should practice it whenever she felt uneasy or confused. This qualified, although she wouldn’t tell him that.

She pushed between two more brambles that caught at her clothes, exclaiming as a thorn scraped her right arm, and found a pond in front of her, quiet but not stagnant, tiny ripples here and there where a leaf had just fallen to join the others scattered across its surface. A fallen oak stretched along the near bank, white mushrooms stair-stepping up its sides. The trees didn’t block the sky here, letting shafts of sunlight slide through the blaze of leaves and into the green-brown water, hinting at boulders and snagged trees below. Perfect!

Smoke chuffed, the first sound the mist cat had made since they left the castle, then leapt to a branch that stretched out over the water in a patch of sun. Such a cat!

Now what had Philomena said? Yes, the apple first — peel it, eat it, throw away the core, then drop the peel into the middle of the pond.

Seemed silly, and Verena would probably laugh at her for even listening to Philomena. Angelica flushed. Verena was always a proper lady, and Angelica didn’t want her scorn. On the other hand, to do something Verena hadn’t . . .

She sat on the fallen tree, swinging her legs up to cross them under her skirts. Next, Angelica pulled the bag from her shoulder and took out the apple and the knife she’d borrowed from the kitchen — well wrapped in a towel so she wouldn’t cut herself, of course. The towel went across her lap to catch the peel.

The off smell intensified, and Angelica thought she heard Smoke growl — as if the cat would do that! A branch crashed nearby, and she jerked, startled. Sharp pain in her hand made her flinch, and she looked down and realized she’d cut herself when she jumped.

Ow, ow, ow! She shook her hand, and drops of blood hit apple, dress, and tree. No — Mother would notice blood for certain. She blotted the blood with the towel, then wrapped the towel around her hand, leaving her fingers as free as she could. Her skirt would have to do to catch the peel.

If this didn’t work, Philomena was going to hear about it, for certain.

The apple mostly fit into her hand, even with the wrapping, and she began slowly peeling the fruit, stopping as necessary to turn it in her hand. Philomena hadn’t said the peel had to be a single cutting, but it only made sense, right? If she had to drop it in the pond? Without thinking too much about it, she started whistling again, letting her movements fall into the rhythm of the music, feeling the breeze playing with her hair, just being in the moment.

The end of the peel dropped into her lap. She broke off her song. Some blood had seeped through the towel, and there were blotches on the fruit. She grimaced, but took a bite. A little metallic, but the crisp tartness of the apple was stronger, and she quickly ate it. Now came the true test.

She set the knife on the tree trunk, scooped up the peel, and stood. The middle of the pond looked too far to throw the peel, but the tree went out partway. Carefully, she clambered to stand on top of it. Biting her lip, she walked toward the pond.

This time, there was no mistaking Smoke’s growl for anything else — part mrowl of a housecat, part snap of a wolf, it was clearly the sound of an unhappy animal.

Angelica paused and looked around. Everything looked as it had. She tilted her head to look at the mist cat, only to see Smoke staring back at her, the tip of the cat’s tail lashing the branch she lay on.

“Don’t you dare pounce on me,” Angelica scolded the cat. She returned her attention to the tree in front of her. Yes, she could get close enough, she was certain of it.

Five more steps. Bunch the peel into a ball and heave.

The water shimmered blue just before the peel struck, the clearest magic Angelina had ever seen, light lancing upward, clearing the water, striking her in the eyes. Startled, she lost her balance and toppled backward. As she fell, she thought she saw something the same mottled green-brown as the pond, part insect, part shaggy pelted beast, run along the tree trunk where she had just been.

She hit the water, and her eyes snapped shut in reflex. She opened them almost immediately to see Smoke sitting on the tree trunk as if guarding her. Angelica spit out brackish water and dragged herself upright. Using the trunk to steady herself, she waded back to the bank.

“That could have gone better.” She pushed her hair back and wiped her face. The cut hand was bad enough, but to return to the castle looking like this? She would probably be locked in her room with nothing to do but write essays for her tutor. For a week!

Sighing, she picked up the knife. She could at least return it to the kitchen. “Come on. I’m going to go back to the grass, lie in the sun, and hope it dries my dress.”

And do her best not to wonder what that thing was she had seen — or why Smoke had acted as if she saw it, too. No, much better to think the blood on the apple had messed up the charm, or Philomena had been wrong all along.

Certainly, Angelica wasn’t going to tell the other girl about this attempt, nor anyone else. No future here to be seen at the turning of the year. Far better to think about more concrete things.

She unwrapped the towel to look at her hand once more and almost dropped towel and knife both in surprise. Only a faint line showed where she had cut herself — and if the line shimmered with a faint blue hue, that was just the shadows of the forest. No magic here at all.

— The End —

1,222 words — not exactly flash length, I know!

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about Smoke or Drake. I hope you enjoy this little dip back into their world. Yes, clearly, there’s a lot more story here to come. Note that I did add a “Smoke and Drake” tag (you can find it at the bottom of this post) so you can find all the linked stories more readily.

My blog is participating in the Forward Motion Flash Friday Blog Group, a weekly flash fiction exercise (not that I’m managing weekly!). Check out the other participating blogs for more flash.

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  1. Lovely. Yes, I’ve been hoping for more Smoke and Drake stories.

  2. Excellent … s’mores?

  3. Intriguing :). Not what I expected, but you caught me up in the tale.

  4. This is the first Smoke & Drake story I’ve read, and I have to say I enjoyed it!

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