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“Cat” by Rose J. Fairchild

Image is from Pixabay

I’d been Catherine’s neighbor for six months now and remained just as captivated by her beauty as everyone else. Equally delicious was the mystery that swirled about her, almost visible to the naked eye. 

She liked to keep to herself, and hence lived at the very edge of town. There were houses to one side of hers, but with enough distance between her and them to act as a cushion. She kept a big, beautiful garden where birds and beasts from the surrounding forest seemed at home despite the nearness of the other houses, including mine, which lay across the dirt road.

I had even seen a cougar there once, sitting in the yard and watching the moon. It must have sensed my presence because it turned toward me, the weight of its gaze heavy in the darkness. It seemed more curious than threatening, so I held my ground and watched back. With a flick of its long tail, it licked its chops and turned to prowl back into the forest.

 My hands shook with the speed of my galloping heart. If nothing else, living near her home afforded me these bits of excitement.

 I could understand why Catherine liked her space since I’d seen men fawning all over her in the past, practically drooling on her hand or arm as they kissed it “in greeting.” Fools. It was obvious they just wanted to taste her.

 She always shooed them away quickly and with grace, but in a way that left them looking confused as they shuffled dejectedly away.

I also liked to keep to myself and would never tell her how I felt about her. Nor would I stoop to the swine-like levels most of the men around here did just to touch her. I worked in my garden, hoping to catch a glimpse of her or one of the many fascinating creatures that visited her yard. I never expected her to notice me back.

But then she did. She came bearing a basket of mushrooms called “Hen of the Woods,” along with some homemade bread and a few wild ramps. 

She smiled and I had to frantically grasp for the edges of me that wanted to unfurl under her emerald gaze. Silken waves of raven hair cascaded around her shoulders, and her skirt billowed around her ankles. She had bare feet, and even they were dainty and beautiful. 

I almost laughed. Feet normally repulsed me. 

I gave myself a mental slap and stuck out a hand to her. She took it without hesitation and I gave it a firm, but gentle shake, then released her. My fingers tingled where her cool skin had touched mine. 

She handed the basket off to me. Our fingers brushed again and the electricity of it shivered up my spine.

She spoke, and though I’d heard her at a distance, the musical quality of her voice in such close proximity almost knocked me off my feet. “I’m your neighbor, Catherine. I wanted to give these to you as an incentive because I’m hoping you’ll help me with something.”

Curious. “I know who you are!” That came out a little more excited than I’d wanted. I cleared my throat and tried again. “I’m Victoria. What can I help you with?”

She bit her lip. “I believe it is time to settle down…find someone to spend my life with, you know?” I nodded half-heartedly and she sighed. “Since many of the men here seem to have such piggish intentions, I’ve decided to give them a challenge in the hopes that the right person will prevail.”

“Fascinating.” 

She pursed her lips, then continued. 

“The challenge is this: I have placed a key to my home around my cat’s neck. The one who is able to obtain the key may enter my home and claim me for their own. But, I do not want my cat hurt. If you see anyone after her, would you watch over her?”

“Of course I will. With my life.”

She smiled, stretching her full rosy lips over moon-white teeth. The green in her eyes glittered in the sunlight. I could not help but feel I’d struck some sort of deal.

“Thank you, Victoria. I hope you live up to your name.”

Of course I would. If any of them tried to hurt the cat, I would make sure they regretted it.

As she walked away, something occurred to me. I called, “Catherine! What’s your cat’s name?”

She shrugged. “I just call her Cat.”

I grinned. “Easy enough. Thank you! And thanks for the food!”

I ate a sumptuous dinner that night with what she had given me. It was a true treat because though I loved wild mushrooms, I knew precious little about foraging. I had a small garden and could hunt, but that was the extent of it. 

I watched Catherine’s house as the sun set, and sure enough, a sleek black cat prowled across the low stone wall out front, its back silvered by moonlight. I wondered how I had never noticed her over there before when a sparkling flash at its throat alerted me to the key’s presence.

It had also alerted someone else. 

A man crept up on the cat with a net and she appeared not to notice. I jumped up and raced out of my little cottage, slamming the door hard behind me as I bulled my way into the yard. 

“Hey, you! What are you doing there?”

The cat raced off and the man cursed at me. He took three threatening steps in my direction, then hesitated and turned away in search of the cat. I felt a bump against my leg a moment later and smiled at the dainty feline twining around my legs. I bent to scratch her ears. 

“Good girl.” I winked at her. “Keep away from those men, okay? They’re nothing but trouble and your momma deserves better.” Her green eyes sparkled and I swore she winked back. 

The next evening, just before dusk, I saw a man setting a trap. He baited it with a small bit of meat. If she took it, Cat would be snared and possibly injured. As soon as he was out of sight,, I stormed over and dismantled it. Cat came bounding up to me from out of nowhere.

“And where did you come from, pretty girl?” She sniffed the trap. I stroked down her back and she leaned into me, purring happily. “That was for you, but you’re safe now.” I gave her the scrap of meat and she ate it quickly, then jumped down and raced off into the night. 

I debated knocking on Catherine’s door, but thought better of it. Night was ruffling its dark feathers and settling heavily over the world. Time to go home. I’d keep my eyes open as long as I could. 

This went on for weeks. Each time I saw anyone after Cat, I sabotaged them. One morning, I awoke to find my garden destroyed, likely by an angry man—or maybe several men—I’d intercepted. 

My heart sank when I saw it. That would have been food for winter and now I’d have to get everything at market. I wasn’t sure I could afford that. I salvaged what I could for immediate use and removed the rest to the forest to feed the wild animals. 

That evening, Cat was frightened by a club-wielding man who leapt out of the bushes. I grabbed the rake I’d been using in the garden and stormed over there. He did not notice me as he scrabbled after her, trying to clobber her over the head. He was desperate, but so was I.

I lifted the rake above and behind me and swung it into his gut as he raced by. He tumbled to the ground with a rough expulsion of air and when he tried to stand, I hit him over the back.
    “Stay down, you pig! How dare you try to hurt that poor cat?” I waved an arm toward Catherine’s house. “Do you really think she’d want you if you hurt her pet?” I hit him hard on the legs, the dull ring of the rake a sympathetic echo of his pained howls. 

“Get out of here! Tell all the other swine in town that the challenge is over!”

The man crawled away, pulling himself clumsily to his feet at the stone wall and limping back into town screaming that I was crazy. 

Maybe I am. And proud of it.

Cat ran over and bumped my legs in her customary fashion, winding her way between my feet. I bent to scoop her into my arms and pulled her to my chest. 

“You’re safe now, little one. I’m going to tell your momma that she’s got to call off the challenge. I can’t stand to see you hurt. You’re a sweet little thing and it would hurt your mom if something happened to you. Not to mention my garden has been destroyed now, and I’m worried what else these spurned men might do.” 

I sighed and slid the ribbon holding the key up and over Cat’s head. “Let’s go tell your momma.” Cat purred and nuzzled against my neck.

I knocked, then put the key into the lock of her front door. 

“Catherine? It’s me, Victoria. I’m coming in! I hope you don’t mind, but I need to talk to you.”

I opened the door and found a lantern burning on her wooden table, its light suffusing the room with warmth. Her home smelled of earth and herbs–a different sort of warmth.

“Catherine? Are you here?” No answer. I looked at Cat. “Where is she, girl?”

Cat meowed and licked a paw, then held my gaze as her fur fell off in a pile of black fluff around her feet. I reached for her. 

“Cat! What’s wrong?”

She chirped and her limbs began to stretch, shifting positions on her body. Her face reformed into something vaguely human as her ears rounded and slid down to the side of her head. I watched in horrified fascination, fumbling for the doorknob behind me until I noticed the raven waves rolling down the newly formed shoulders and the face that softened into the beautiful Catherine.

She grinned at me, pulling a nearby blanket around her naked form. 

“Surprise!”

My breath came in ragged gasps.

“What? How?”

She smiled, bright and beautiful, and I felt my defenses melting as she stood. The words left my mouth before I could stop them. 

“Gods, you are so beautiful.”

She paced her way to me and wrapped her fingers around the hand holding the key. 

“Congratulations, Victoria. You lived up to your name, after all.”

My skin heated at her nearness. 

“What do you mean?” My heart hammered against my ribcage. It wanted to be hers. 

She leaned forward, her chest pressing against mine, to whisper in my ear, “I’m yours if you want me.” I knew she could feel the traitorous pounding of my heart against her skin.

My throat felt swollen. I licked my lips, afraid words would fail me, but managed to find a few. 

“It’s not right.”

She brushed her lips against mine and I was sure I would melt from the heat that flooded me. 

“Of course it is. You’re the one I wanted to win all along.” She ran her fingers through my hair. “Say yes, Victoria. Say you’ll be mine.”

I swallowed, hard, as her lips drifted back to gently brush over mine. 

“I’m yours.”

She grinned, small fangs just visible in the warm light. She purred, “Good girl,” and crushed her lips against mine.

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“Monster Mashup” by Rose J. Fairchild

Image is from Pinterest. If you know the original artist, please let me know so I can give credit!

     The party buzzed around them. Monsters of all shapes and sizes writhed on the dance floor in a haze of pheromones and musk. No one heard the occasional squeal of the few victimized by another’s temptation over the swell of music and conversation. 

        Jadon bobbed to the music, arms crossed over his broad chest as he leaned against the wall. He soaked in the energy, absorbing it like a drug. It made him feel alive. Watching the revelers make fools of themselves was even better. 

        A subtle shift at his side reminded him of the presence of his mate. He stroked her hair—an obsidian waterfall down her black-clad back. He lazily looped his arm around her waist, pulling her in for a kiss. 

        “How’re you doing, babe?” 

        She huffed a breath. “Awful. They stink. And do they even see how ridiculous they look?” She gestured roughly toward the dance floor. 

         He chuckled low in his throat and bit her neck gently. “Relax. Have fun. You know how to have fun, right?”

        She tapped a long fingernail against his white-furred shoulder, then traced a black stripe that ran down his chest. 

        “Sure I do. But this isn’t it.”

        He shivered, always hungry for her. She looked so innocent with her pale skin, violet eyes, and silky flow of raven locks. Her curves…delicious. And he wasn’t the only one who wanted to taste them. In fact, it looked like confrontation coming now.

Jadon kissed his love—his Salem. He whispered against her lips, “Are you hungry, love?” She bit his lip in return.

Image is from Pinterest. If you know the original artist, please let me know so I can credit them!

The approaching male swaggered in, flashing fangs as he scented the air. His voice was low and raspy as he wedged himself between the two lovers, brusquely introducing himself as Leo.

        He grasped Salem’s hand and pulled it to his lips for a kiss. “Well, don’t you smell succulent?”

        She smiled at him, but only Jadon knew to watch for the glistening sheen of venom on her diminutive fangs. He smirked and looked on. 

        Salem tried to pull Jadon into the conversation once, but the new male, a lion shifter, brushed him away. And though Jadon would normally rip apart such an insolent fool, sometimes Salem needed to play too. 

        The lion shifter herded Salem backward until she was pressed into the wall. He gently raked a single claw down her curvy side before leaning forward to catch Salem’s pillowy lips against his. His tongue slipped between them and Jadon chuckled. Foolish lion.

        The lion pushed away from Salem and turned on Jadon.

        “You got a problem?”

        Jadon shook his head. “No. But I think you might.”

        The lion’s shaggy brown hair shook as he laughed. “What…you? I’m not scared of tigers.”

        Jadon sighed. “If only you were so lucky. But no.” He pointed over the lion’s shoulder just in time for him to see Salem floating above him on eight massive chitinous legs. She crept forward knowing her venom was working as the lion’s body turned to jelly. He hit the floor with a sickening thud. 

He slurred, “No…please.”

Image is from Pinterest. If you know the original artist, please let me know so I can credit them!

Salem caressed his shaggy head. “Shh…let’s hope you’re as succulent as you thought I would be.”

Jadon stood guard as she quietly feasted in their corner. He would kill for her should the need arise and had a proven track record to back it up. But for now, it was her turn to play.

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“Natural Selection” by Rose J. Fairchild

Image is from Pixabay

“All children of the earth are welcome here. Come, walk the mossy path; shelter beneath my canopy. But remember, I’m watching you.”

This human treads gently upon the earth, reveling in the sights and sounds. She bends to speak softly to a mushroom, which seems to glimmer with her compliments. 

A fox shrieks and her face lights with joy. She whispers, “I hear you, little one. Stay safe and blessed,” as she stoops to remove an old bottle from my floor. She places it gently in a bag looped over her shoulder. 

I can relax. This is one of the good ones. As I let down my guard, I feel the old spirits drawing closer, seeking to  study her with me. She feels them, hesitant and unsure as their energy surrounds her. She wonders if she has offended or overstepped, but they gift her the discovery of a blood-red trillium and she knows she is welcome. She photographs the flower, leaving it unmolested, and places a gift of seeds and nuts on the earth for the creatures of the wood. 

Soon enough, someone breaks through my barriers, unaware of the pulsing wall of energy they’ve passed through. They stomp through the undergrowth, crushing small plants and animals alike. A mushroom is kicked over, a beetle crushed as it rushes for the shelter of its rocky home. A can thrown, clattering, against the trunk of an oak.

My fangs sharpen and my claws slip from their sheaths. I howl. The forest spirits race through the canopy, whispering through the leaves. I call one to me—a bear totem—and send it to remove the destroyer. After all, nature is an endless cycle of life feeding life, and removing this destroyer will benefit all.

I recline into the mossy cradle of an old tree—my dear friend—and relish in the fleshy sounds.

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“Ember” by Rose J. Fairchild

Image is from Pixabay and was used as inspiration.

     “I’m sure you have heard that men discovered fire long ago. That statement is doubly false, and I will teach you the true story, young one.”

     The little girl snuggled against a warm golden side as a well-muscled tail curled protectively around her.

     “But who discovered it then? The fire?”

     The dragon hissed, revulsion giving its sunny eyes a molten spark. 

     “Fire begins with dragons, my dear. Always with dragons. It comes from within us and we decided to share it with the world. Well, a part of the world.”

    The dragon’s heavy silence settled over both of them, it’s disappointment so thick, the little girl could almost taste the bitterness.

     She bit a strand of hair, twirled it around one finger, and whispered, “What happened?”

     The dragon snorted and snapped its jaws as small tongues of flame curled within its nostrils. 

     “The fire was a gift. I met a young woman once who was to be married off against her will—sold like cattle to the highest bidder.” The dragon’s focus settled on some unseen memory, and the girl felt it gently probing whatever old wound waited there. 

     “Her name was Elidi, and she was barely more than a hatchling, while the man was old enough to be her father. She stumbled into my lair, and to this day I do not know if she was trying to hide, or if she hoped I would eat her.”

     The little girl sighed. “She must have been very sad to want either of those things.”

     “She was. She cried like I have heard no one else cry in my very long life. I swore her heart poured out in her tears, like she was purging herself of all emotion. How else could she handle what was happening to her? And she, with no choice!” The dragons shook its red-maned head.

     “I went to her and lay at her side. And when no more tears would come, I finally spoke to her.”

     The girl whispered, “Was she scared?”

     A wry chuckle trickled through fangs and scaled lips. 

     “No, child. She was more afraid of the arranged marriage, and that she had no voice in the matter.”

     The little girl stroked the dragon’s scales, absorbing the story. “Then…what did you say?”

     “I told her this was not the end—that I would gift her something to help her through; then I gave her power over fire. She held it in her hands and watched it dance across her palms. She did scorch her hair a bit, but only once.” A deep, rumbling laugh made the dragon’s sides heave up and down, bouncing the girl along with them. She giggled, swallowed up in contagious mirth. 

     “But then came the important part.”

     “What’s that?” The girl held her breath.

     The dragon curled its neck so it faced the little girl.

“I planted an ember in her soul. I told her it would light her way when the world was dark, and warm her when it was cold. That when things were tough, with a little fuel, she could ignite that ember and accomplish great things.”

     The girls eyes shone with amazement at her friend’s story. “And then?”

     “And then I explained that while the ability to hold and create fire was uniquely hers, the ember would pass through the generations to all women. Do you know what that means, little one?”

     “That I have it in me, too?”

     A gentle squeeze from its golden body spoke volumes. 

     “That’s right, child. And never forget that it is dragon fire burning in your soul. You will never be tamed. You will never be ruled. Ignite, my dear, and change the world.”

     The dragon could feel happiness radiating from the small but fierce girl at its side. It heard the intake of breath and knew a question was coming.

     “But, what happened to the old man she was supposed to marry?”

The dragon grinned ferociously.”I guess you could say he was the first man to truly discover what fire can do when tested.”

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“Hazel” by Rose J. Fairchild

Image is from Pixabay

  “Do you hear them?” I ask as I gently lay my hand against the trunk of a birch tree. Curls of papery white bark tickle against my palm as I watch the leaves flash silver-green in the breeze. 

     “Hear who, Hazel?” My best friend Rachel stares quizzically at me, her expression bordering on wary. 

     I smile. “The trees, of course.” She squints at me and crosses her arms over her chest. I continue, “They whisper, but I can’t tell what they’re saying.”

     She studies the maple arching gracefully over her head, and nods. Her steps are swallowed by the earth as she approaches me. 

     “Yeah, I hear them. And do you want to know what they’re saying?”

     My heart races. “Absolutely.”

     She speaks, sing-song. “They are saying, ‘go home, Hazel! You really need some sleep!’”

     She bats her eyes at me and I gently shove her away. “I’m serious, Rachel.” She rolls her eyes and I shrug. “Fine. Don’t believe me. I’ll figure it out myself.”

     The air whooshes from my lungs as she roughly pats my back. “Sure you will. But first, we have midterms to study for.”

     Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. 

     ***

     Once midterms were finished, I could finally spend time somewhere other than the library. Normally I love the library and all the secrets hidden there, but the silence had become insufferable. The air felt dead. 

It is my first day of freedom from studying, so I am heading to the river to walk through those beautiful trees lining its banks. I sing gently and swear the trees sing back. But when I stop to listen, I hear nothing but the soft susurration of the wind dancing through leaves.