Everyone’s time runs out eventually. Sometimes it comes quietly in the middle of the night at the end of a long life. Other times, death cuts across your timeline without warning.
Today just happens to be my time.
No, I’m not dead. But this is the end for me.
It’s a week before the Winter Solstice, which has always been one of my favorite times of the year. A full feast on the table, as large as money can buy, music pouring out of the windows of every building in Lisden and family to spend the day with. Mom’s been accumulating canned vegetables for weeks and recently ventured into the market to bring home the best of the fresh fruits in a small bag. My mouth waters just thinking about the blackberries. We never get blackberries in this part of the Middle Realm outside of solstice-time. They’re one of my favorite treats. My older brother Leo is due to be home any day now. He’s been gone for six months off on another of his mercenary expeditions.
One more assignment, he said, and then he would be home for the Winter Solstice. Just one more assignment and he’d bring me back something nice for the celebration. Just one more assignment.
I was lying in bed when it happened. It was late morning: not late enough to be noon, but not early enough to have time to get things done. I had been awake for hours, but I liked to lie in bed and just think. Sometimes, I’d read, but today, I couldn’t get myself to focus. Leo was due home in a week, and I was expecting a letter from him soon. He hadn’t written in a few days. I figured the letters must be backed up—communication in between realms is rare and therefore not always speedy—but I had an awful sense of foreboding.
When Leo decided to become a soldier, my mother and I were both terrified. She tried to respectfully talk him out of it whereas I threw a fit and stormed out. I was just scared. Anything could happen out on the roads in this realm. He could have been sent to a peaceful town, or he could be sent south to the farm country where they’re fighting for whatever scraps they can get, and they don’t care who gets killed. But he held out against both of us, started training the day he turned eighteen, and never looked back.
I was sixteen and he was nineteen when he was first hired to run security out in the trading ports of Baypoint. We cried when he left home, promising to be home in the spring. But we rejoiced when he sent home his first paycheck, and we could afford new clothes and fresh fruit from the market. Leo sent every copper, outside of his expenses, home to us. He had always said he wanted to take care of us someday like Mom had for all these years on her own, and finally he had the chance.
Leo bounced around from job to job until six months ago when he was summoned to city hall with the other mercenaries in his company. We all thought maybe the government wanted to offer him a job, but no. It was the higher higher-ups.
The Fae have always had a hand here in the Middle Realm. They control the alliances, the trade, and the resource distribution. They all sit up there in the Upper Realm in their fancy castles and their bountiful homes with their magic and just watch us all run around down here like ants. This time, the Fae needed their worker ants, a group of mortal soldiers, to come run security for a top-secret operation of the House of the Sun. They offered more money than anyone in this realm had ever even heard of, and of course, Leo jumped at the chance. I have never seen him prouder to serve, and Leo could never resist an adventure.
A knock from the front door echoes faintly under my bedroom door, interrupting my thoughts. I pull the covers over my head in hopes I can stay in bed. “Will you see who that is, Grace?” My mom’s faint voice calls from the kitchen.
Ugh. She knows I’m awake. I grab a robe and begrudgingly drag myself out of bed, stumbling to the door. I peer out of the hole in the top of the door and am faced with the back of a strange man’s head. Behind him stand two other men. They stand rigidly at attention, mumbling quietly to one another. The leader’s stance along with the navy-blue uniform marks him as a military man. Then I see the slightly pointed ears sticking out from under his rigid hat. My heart stops.
He turns slowly, and I see his face. His skin glows with an unseen light, and his purple eyes seem to bore into mine. It is as though he can see me through the heavy door. Perhaps he can. His features are too bright for this realm. His mouth is drawn tightly into a slight grimace, and I can’t bear to think what it means.
“Mom!” I can’t hide the panic in my tone. I hear a dish clank into the sink as my mom rounds the corner in a rush. I feel guilty for making her worry before she even saw what the trouble was, but my face says it all. She peeks through the hole herself before opening the door. She opens it so slowly, delaying the inevitable.
As the soldiers take a step forward into the doorway, I can now see that the leader is a Fae commander. The medals lining his breast and the swirling insignia mark him as such. His guards stand behind him. One of them holds a tightly wrapped scroll; the other holds the universal Upper Realm flag neatly folded in his hands. I stand behind my mother, staring blankly at the lot. I can’t bring myself to move.
“I’m sorry,” the commander says quietly.
My mother collapses to the ground, and I just let her fall. She sobs wildly into her hands as the panic rises up in my chest. I reach out and take the scroll and the flag, shaking my head over and over again. This can’t be real. I tear open the scroll, ripping it violently in my attempts. Leo Richardson—notice of death.
I drop the flag, and it hits the ground with a soft thunk. The soldiers start when it hits the ground, but the commander stops them from moving into our home to retrieve it. Thank the Lady for that at least. I would have charged them both if they had tried.
Damn them. Damn all the Fae.
I kneel at my mother’s side and pull her to my chest as she begins to wail. I haven’t even begun to cry yet. I cling to her as tightly as I can, trying to shush her before the neighbors come to see what is going on. Our pain should be ours, not a spectacle for others to gawk at. I stare up at the Fae commander with what I hope is some sort of dismissive glance. His even gaze looks down on me, and when we lock eyes, I am filled with a blinding hatred.
“Get out,” I hiss. To my surprise, he only nods, and he and his men turn and leave immediately. I wonder how many death announcements he has had to carry out in his life. It may explain the flash of pity I thought I saw behind his glassy demeanor.
I despise his pity.
I see the flash of a maroon coat before my uncle Liam is kneeling by our sides. His door down the hall makes an audible click as it swings closed. “Grace, what happened?” He hugs my mother protectively before addressing her, “Anna, what happened?”
My mother is too incoherent to answer, and I can’t find the words. I slide the scroll over to him slowly. Liam takes one look at it, and his breath rushes out in one go. “Ohhh, Grace.” He hugs my mother tighter and holds out an arm to me. I lean my head into his hand for one small moment until it is too much.
“Take care of her,” I say quickly as I flee to my room. I am being selfish. I know it, but I can’t take the pounding in my head. I slam the door and begin to pace the room. The sunlight streaming in through the window is too bright, too perky for the moment. I try to yank the curtains closed, but the heavy fabric tumbles off the walls causing more light to break. I have no patience for this. My hands tighten in my hair as I look for somewhere to hide. I catch a glimpse of the clothing shoved under my bed, and a rush of emotion hits me all at once.
I dive to the floor and reach far under my bed. Rummaging through my things, I search for the one box that has… There! I rip the lid off the jewelry box and throw it across the room. It hits the bookshelf and ricochets off the wall. I cringe and reach to get it, but I stop short when I see the tiny seashell bracelet lying in the case, curled up in the corner.
My hands shake as I pull it out of the box. I toy softly with the pure white shell on the end as I finger the smaller shells lining the string. It was the very last gift I received from Leo. He brought it home to me from the beach on his last mortal assignment in Baypoint. I can’t even bring myself to put it on. I finally try to slide it onto my wrist, but it falls to the floor. I pick it up and try again, but my shaking fingers just can’t hang on to it.
Finally, my tears come. I scream in my grief, crying out Leo’s name to the heavens and praying the Lady would see him safely to the afterlife. I cradle the bracelet to my chest and rock back and forth as I sob and heave for breath. Come home, Leo. Please come home. You can’t be dead. You’re coming home, Leo; I need you to come home, big brother, please… Please…
I cried for a very long time. I don’t remember much else of that day or that week, for that matter.
I can’t stand the wintertime now. Too cold. Too dark. Too empty.
From the time she was a child of eleven, writing her first novel between classes, Cady Hammer explored her world through her imagination. She was often teased for being in her own world, but never hesitated to invite others along on the adventure. As she grew older, Cady’s studies in history and anthropology set the stage for the detailed worldbuilding that lets readers step into the story. Her stories explore the complexities of relationships crafted around the idea that love, friendship, and grief are all interwoven.
Cady runs the internationally-read website, Fluff About Fantasy, a place for young writers to learn the genre-specific craft of writing fantasy and be inspired by what they can accomplish. Find out more at https://fluffaboutfantasy.com.