This story originally appeared in the Supernatural zine "The Brotherhood 2," published by Pyramids Press.
Thanks to Yum and Kati for the opportunity!
(And because I can't seem to stop tweaking, I changed a sentence or two, added a word here, took out one there…)
"Into the Wood"
It all went south so fast.
Armed variously with crossbow and silver-tipped bolts, shotgun and cartridges packed with consecrated iron and rock salt, they had tracked the creature in the wood for five grueling days, at last finding its hidden lair and the gruesome evidence of its many kills. But the creature itself, unseen and elusive, was even now away from its nest. Out killing again, their shared exhausted glance said. They silently searched the area, fanning out from around the lair.
When a flock of birds burst out of cover in a sudden fluttering rush, Dean felt the hair on the back of his neck rise as well. He shouted a sharp, quick warning to Sam, raised his crossbow, and caught a glimpse of shadow out of the corner of his eye. It moved faster than any animal he'd ever seen, and it was racing across the clearing and almost on him even as he spun to face it.
Dean fired, heard the blast as Sam fired off a round, then another. Without missing a beat, Dean backed up and smoothly reloaded, shot again. The creature, sleek and dark, full of teeth and rage, twisted and screamed as bolts and shots hit. Falling to the forest floor, it thrashed, spat at Dean, and stared at him with baleful eyes that dimmed even as he watched. Its shape flickered and shimmered, its panther-like body shifting in stillness to something far more grotesque.
He heard Sam running toward him, feet kicking through the leaves and low underbrush, no longer needing to be quiet.
Coming to stand beside him, looking down at the creature that was now all leathery skin, scales, a hint of wings, and razor-sharp teeth, Sam said in a fascinated voice, "Dude, it looks like a medieval gargoyle right off Notre Dame. What do you think it was?"
Dean lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "Shapeshifter, but some kind we've never run across before, that's for sure. Let's finish the job, okay?" Something made him shiver. "Don't wanna be caught in these woods after dark."
He'd been experiencing way too much déjà vu in the last few days, of a similar hunt years before – not long after Sam had left for Stanford – and in addition to that weirdness, suddenly the forest was really starting to feel . . . off . . . to him. It was a wild old wood, deep and dark with mature oak and beech, and despite its cathedral-like beauty, the place was making him damn uneasy. He wanted to put it down to adrenaline aftermath and sheer fatigue from the relentless pace of the long hunt, but his instincts knew better.
"Come on," Dean said, trying to ease the tension from his shoulders. "Let's get it done."
They cleared the ground, and within minutes the salted, lighter fluid-soaked body was awash in fire. The resulting stench made them both gag.
"Aw, man," Dean muttered, wiping at his streaming eyes. "That's just gross."
As he watched the creature burn, at first Dean thought the shimmer in the air came from the heat of the flames, like a mirage on sun-baked blacktop on a hot August day. He blinked his watering eyes but it didn't vanish.
"Sam, you see that?"
He angled his head and shifted his eyes just enough to see Sam staring and squinting at the widening curtain of shimmering light beyond the fire. Dean saw him open his mouth to reply, but there came a crack of what sounded like thunder, drowning out whatever he'd tried to say, and –
Leaves tossed and scattered on a swirling rush of air. The veil tore, and through it stepped a tall, pale woman, swathed in blood-red layers of gossamer and whispering silk, her hair like midnight, her amber eyes reflecting the leaping fire. Those eyes glittered with either rage or amusement, or possibly both. She walked lightly toward them, and more figures glided behind her out of the glimmering doorway in the forest.
Dean had already stooped for the shotgun lying atop the weapons bag, thought about the knife in his belt, and knew with dreadful, bone-deep certainty that they were in some serious trouble here.
Instinctively, he moved, Sam moved, and they stood back to back. A dozen of the tall, pale folk surrounded them, silent, predatory, curious as cats. The men wore slender silver blades at their hips and stalked slowly with casual, dangerous arrogance. But it was the women, with their strange, unearthly beauty, their rapt attention and sharp, knowing smiles, who struck Dean as the more lethal of the two.
And one of those women scared him a hell of a lot more than all the others combined.
His shoulder thudded against Sam's, solid and warm.
The woman raised a hand, and her followers instantly halted their circling and pacing to fall into an expectant stillness. She stepped within a close arm's reach of Dean, and he had to look up slightly to meet her eyes. Which was probably a mistake. His mouth went dry. She stretched out a delicate, long-fingered hand and traced a cool burning line down his cheek, along his jaw.
Dean didn't even dare breathe.
She smiled as her hand lingered, then trailed away. "So very pretty. For a mortal." Her voice was honey and woodsmoke and power.
He saw her eyes flick down to the shotgun still held loosely in his hand.
"Hurts, doesn't it?" he said, his own voice husky. "The metal. Burns you like poison, I bet."
He felt a mere touch of her power then, a quick lash of sharp agony like barbed wire through his skull, behind his eyes. With a hiss of indrawn breath, his body flinched, his head knocking painfully into Sam's. He felt Sam shift against him, trying to keep him balanced on his feet.
"I did not give you leave to speak, mortal boy."
"Oh," he whispered, throat raw, the pain slowly diminishing. "Sorry."
Why was she talking to him? Why couldn't she have picked Sam for this conversation? Sam was the talker. Sam would know how to be nice. Sam would know how to talk to this . . . woman.
"Forgiven, this once," she said, her eyes still caressing him. "Since you are so pretty." Another smile, accompanied by a languid shrug as she glanced again at the shotgun and answered his question. "Does it hurt us? Perhaps. But I still think you should put your weapon down, because brave though you are when so outnumbered by my folk, one of my archers in the trees has an arrow aimed at your brother's heart."
Dean pressed even closer into Sam's back, aware of his brother's heartbeat, of his hitched breathing.
He licked his lips. And slowly lowered the shotgun to the ground. He straightened, just as slowly, though his mind raced. Careful, careful. Every word counts. You can do this. A little flattery, some nice manners. Just pretend you're in The Lord of the Rings and talking to Cate Blanchett . . . .
"Permission to speak, ah, my lady," he said, just managing to keep his voice steady. Eyes cast down, he still contrived to look up through his lashes. And saw her smiling again.
Was that good or bad?
She laughed. "Granted. Speak on, I pray you."
"Have we . . . offended you in some way, my lady?" He tried to sound respectful.
"You are in my wood, mortal." All laughter gone. "You trespassed and slew my servant, spilled his blood upon the ground, and burned his body. Do you not think I am owed for that?"
"Your . . . servant, my lady, was killing people, bringing their bodies to this wood. We just wanted to stop it from killing anyone else, from doing more damage."
A hand under his chin raised his head, and those ageless eyes bored into his.
"Mortals," she said, making it sound like a curse. "Who cares what happens to mortals? There are so many of you – what can the loss of such a few even matter?"
Dean swallowed with difficulty as her fingers tightened against his throat.
"Or the loss of two more," she whispered as she leaned close. "Even if you do," she breathed softly, even nearer, her tongue flicking out to graze his lower lip, ". . . taste somewhat intriguingly of the fae yourself." She drew back a little but didn't loosen her grip.
Dean's mouth burned at her touch; his senses swam. But he could still feel Sam's worry and fear for him clearly enough. He blinked away the vertigo and focused on the woman standing in front of him.
"Let my brother go," Dean said hoarsely, his eyes pleading desperately with her implacable, immortal gaze. "And I'll pay the price. In full. Please."
"Dean, no . . . ."
He felt the words more than he heard them as Sam turned his head slightly into Dean's.
"You would give yourself over to me, willingly?" she asked, a flash of astonishment crossing her features. "To be mine if I chose? To do with you as I wish?" She tilted her dark head at him, considering, and for the first time he noticed how her hair was intricately coiled and bound with gold as though she wore a crown. "Very gallant. But I think not, mortal boy," she said, as she at last let go of him.
Dean feverishly racked his mind for another answer, snippets of tales and songs weaving through his memory, joined by scraps of lore and casual conversation collected over the years. He'd offered. She'd refused. He didn't know what else to do.
The knife was still tucked in his belt. It wasn't cold iron, for centuries used as a talisman to ward off or harm creatures like her, but perhaps modern steel would work almost as well. She hadn't denied that the metal of the shotgun burned . . . . Maybe he could at least hurt her and the others would flee in panic.
But would he be faster than the archer?
She watched him, as though reading his thoughts, and he saw the slow smile cross her lips again as if she'd been struck by something new. "But since you ask so prettily and because I find you so very entertaining, a quality not often enjoyed when among your kind, I shall give you one chance."
"What chance?" he asked. Careful, he reminded himself again. Careful.
"To win your brother back."
One elegant, mocking eyebrow went up. "No? You give him to me freely?"
"No, please," he said, feeling as though he walked – danced, rather – on a knife's thin edge. "That's not what I meant, my lady."
"Ah. You must learn to be more watchful of your tongue," she said, still mocking, "when dealing with my kind."
"Yeah," he whispered, "yeah, I see that." He swallowed. "My lady. Please, not my brother. I'm asking again. I'm the eldest son. I'm responsible for what happened. Take me instead. Please."
"No," she said simply.
He could hardly breathe past the lump in his throat. Sam's back tensed against his, but Dean didn't dare move, didn't dare to grab Sam and try to fight their way out.
"This is not a deal of your making," she went on. "I will take your brother because, beautiful though you are, I find your pain even more lovely – and amusing. Your brother, in truth, somewhat fascinates me. He is like the old ones, with his Sight. Thus, I will keep him for seven days and seven nights as your world counts time. The moon will be full on the seventh night, and do you come to the Old Hall at the crossroads at midnight then. There, mortal boy, you shall have your one chance. I might allow a bargain of sorts, if I am in the mood." She laughed. "If I still find you beautiful. But should you fail to appear, your brother is forfeit." She bent and murmured low in his ear, "For the rest of his mortal life, boy, which among my folk will not be long."
She stepped away then, her pale, cool beauty distant and forbidding as she locked eyes with him. "Seven nights, lovely mortal boy. Until then."
Without a word, merely an airy gesture of a delicate hand, the ghostly shimmer wove itself around her and her folk as they gathered behind her once again.
Dean spun, frantic, reaching for Sam even as Sam turned toward him. He got a fistful of Sam's jacket, felt Sam's hand briefly clutch his arm, then Sam was torn out of his grasp, expression anguished and Dean's name on his lips.
Dean made a last frantic grab, leaping, arms outstretched. And then Sam was gone, swept up and whirled away by the Faerie Queen as they all disappeared back through the doorway into that other place, where he couldn't follow.
"Noooooo! Sam!" His scream echoed forlornly in the clearing.
The whirlwind blew out the fire as easily as candles on a child's birthday cake, and the carcass of the creature collapsed into dust. Dean dropped heavily to his knees beside it, sparing it a single loathing glance. For too long he sat, slumped and weary, in the growing darkness of the wood.
Somehow, sometime later, Dean dragged himself upright and managed to gather their gear, then stumbled out of the clearing just far enough to lose the worst of the stench of the creature they'd burned. He had no wish to go much farther in the dark, not even sure which wood he was in. Reality was an uncertain toss of the coin at the moment.
The moon, though intermittent through the canopy of branches, at least shone bright enough to lead him to a small shelter of some fallen trees and a tumble of rocks. It was probably safe to build a fire, the Queen and her folk long gone, but he had no desire to attract any other sort of supernatural being tonight. And, frankly, even the very idea of starting a fire exhausted him.
So Dean slept sitting up, wedged between a pair of tree stumps, cold and uncomfortable, one hand curled around the shotgun with his knife lying in his lap. In the faint light of dawn he woke with a start from a dream of a beautiful dark-haired woman who laughed at him, then flew away with his brother clutched in her talons. Even as he straightened, hand tightening on the shotgun, and, blinking away the remnants of the dream, he called out for Sam then remembered with a sudden horrible dread that it hadn't been a dream.
"Sammy," Dean murmured, wiping a hand across his eyes. "I screwed up. But I'll get you back, I promise. Whatever it takes, I won't let her keep you."
And he wondered if such a promise made in such a place had bound him as surely as blood and sacred ritual. Not that it mattered. He meant it just the same.
But the wood looked . . . normal this morning. Peaceful. Non-threatening. Whatever had made his hair stand on end yesterday was no longer in evidence, and his instincts weren't screaming fight-or-flight vibes at him. Just a forest again. No hint of faerie glamour.
But a chill worked its way down his back nevertheless.
With a wince, he clambered to his feet, stretching stiffened muscles and rolling his shoulders, brushing leaves and bits of bark from his clothing. He fished out a bottle of water from the weapons bag, and drank half of it, saving the rest for later, and slung the bag over one shoulder. Hefting the shotgun, he retraced his uncertain journey from the previous night, which turned out to be far shorter in the light of day. While the evidence of the fire was plain to see, nothing remained of the creature itself, and he kicked dirt and leaves over the scorched patch of earth.
He tried not to think of Sam with every breath he took.
Dean searched the area with quick, careful eyes, knowing it was hopeless – it would just be too damn easy for the Queen's crossroads to be around here, wouldn't it? – but also not willing to overlook something so obvious. Just in case. The faerie folk of legend were known to have a cruel sense of humor. After an hour he called it quits, glanced skyward to take a heading, and in the growing morning light made his way out of the forest.
He had a crossroads to find.
It was one of those ubiquitously quaint New England towns, of colonial-era houses, village greens, annoyingly narrow streets, and trendy little boutiques designed to draw in the tourists. But tucked away between the coffee shops and the urbanely upscale restaurants stood the local history museum and a small library.
Hiking out of the woods and back to the car had taken Dean all morning. After driving to the motel they'd been staying at on the edge of town, he had taken barely an hour to shower, change clothes, and grab something to eat before going out again.
He stood on the steps in front of the library for a moment before going in, painfully aware of Sam's absence. Dean liked libraries, he really did, and museums, too, for that matter. He just didn't necessarily like poring over dusty volumes for hours on end, without so much as a beer, until his eyeballs felt ready to fall out.
But he'd done it before. After Sam left. He could sure as hell do it now.
Squaring his shoulders as though going into battle, he climbed the remaining stairs into the old stone building and pushed open the door.
A helpful librarian pointed him to local land records and county maps, and he spent the rest of the day chewing on his pen and taking notes and ignoring his ever-increasing headache. It was with some surprise when he found the polite librarian at his shoulder regretfully informing him that it was closing time, and that he could come back tomorrow at nine a.m.
He thanked her, too tired to even flash a smile, and made himself find some dinner before heading back to their room. His room.
A few more hours of research later, Dean finally lay back on the bed with a quiet groan, toed off his boots, and stared blankly up at the ceiling. One day down. And frustratingly little to show for it. He rubbed his gritty, aching eyes.
Six days to come up with an answer.
Over the next few days, the drab little motel room gradually found itself the scene of photocopied maps dating back two hundred years or more, newspaper clippings on unexplained disappearances in the area, articles on local legends and oddities, and everything on faerie lore that Dean could lay his hands on. John Winchester's journal had been meticulously paged through at least twenty times, scrutinized, and certain passages memorized.
He'd made calls to some people, heard back from a few. He haunted the library and the museum, plowed his way through stacks and stacks of books, stayed up with the laptop when he got kicked out of the library, and talked to friendly residents in cafés and bars. He used the rest of the daylight hours to drive country roads and the streets of nearby small towns with those old maps spread on the passenger seat of the Impala.
Searching. Making maps of his own.
And coming up empty.
He hardly remembered to eat. He drank far too much coffee. He fell asleep late, woke from too many restless dreams, and got up early to start it all over again.
Four days passed in a blur. The waxing moon mocked him every night, rising near full and orange, round and mocking like the Queen's amber eyes. Its light whitened as it climbed, shining through the thin curtains of his motel room.
Dean lay there and cursed it, and her, and the hunt that had led them here.
Hunter's moon, he thought despairingly. And rolled over in the bed, his back to the window, curling around a pillow. Ignoring the moonlight, trying not to think of the opposite bed, empty.
Empty except for Sam's duffel, innocuously sitting there just the way he'd left it, half open with a shirt spilling out the top. As though he'd be right back. Dean couldn't bring himself to move it.
He kept seeing Sam's face when the Queen swept him away, remembering how Sam had cried out his name, eyes wide. Dean had lost his brother, and he didn't know how to get him back. Didn't know where to look.
Two days left.
She'd given him a time and a place to meet, but had she tricked him? An old hall – but no, he'd heard capital letters when she said it – the Old Hall. At the crossroads. A crossroads in the mortal world? Or hers? Or somewhere in between? Crossroads . . . .
"I'll find you, Sammy," Dean whispered into the moonlit darkness, closing his eyes. "I'll find you, and I'll get you back. I promise."
He woke early, tired – no surprise there – with nightmares lingering. The sight of Sam's toothbrush in a glass on the sink, where it had sat for the last however many days, suddenly had Dean stumbling out of the bathroom as soon as he'd showered. He pulled on the same clothes he'd worn the day before, and maybe the day before that. And since nine o'clock was a ways off yet, he made a quick run to one of the town's numerous Dunkin' Donuts – honestly, he could swear there was one on every freakin' corner – and came back to drink coffee, eat chocolate donuts, and look over the notes he'd made earlier.
Two hours later, yawning despite the caffeine and sugar, he decided it was close enough and gathered his various piles of research, notes, and John's journal, and headed off to the library. Again. The older reference books could only be read there, not checked out, and he wanted to take a longer look at one that he'd just dug up yesterday. Or rather, Claudia had.
He pulled into a conveniently empty parking space right in front of the library, and the ghost of a weary smile flickered across his face. He could just see Sam rolling his eyes, and hear the beleaguered sigh.
Yeah, Sammy. On a first-name basis with the small-town head librarian. But she's married and has a seven-year-old daughter, so just stop right there. Strictly business.
She was just unlocking the door when he got there, and she greeted him with a smile. "Good morning, Dean. Back for more?"
"Hi, Claudia." He held the door for her as she turned back. "Thought I'd get back to that book you found yesterday just before closing."
"Ah, yes. That should be very helpful for your project."
He had, of course, spun her some tale of graduate research, looming deadlines, etc. and so on, and while he could hardly tell her the real reason for his interest in local history, he felt oddly guilty about the deception.
And although he caught an occasional concerned glance, if she wondered about the increasingly dark circles beneath his bloodshot eyes, his growing pallor and unshaven jaw, she was kind enough not to mention it.
Settling in at a table and once again wishing for a bottomless cup of coffee, Dean fished out his notes and looked up as Claudia set the large volume in front of him. He started to thank her, but instead of just smiling and walking away, she hesitated a moment, glanced around and took a seat opposite him.
Keeping her voice low in deference to the handful of patrons at other tables, she said, "I should've mentioned this earlier – I don't know why I didn't think of it. If you'd like to get some firsthand accounts of the history and stories about this town, you should really talk to Andrew McBride. He's kind of . . ." she shrugged and made a face, "eccentric, but he probably knows more local history than the historians. He's lived here his whole life, and his family has held land here for close on three hundred years."
"Somebody else I was talking to mentioned him." Dean frowned. "But then they laughed, called him a crazy old codger or something. What's that all about?"
"He's at least eighty years old, a bit of a recluse – lives all by himself in a cottage out in the country. He still walks all over the place, miles every day, I've heard. Hikes in the woods. Comes into town every two or three weeks. He's not overly friendly, but he sometimes likes to talk." She grinned and tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. "I caught him on a good day once. It was weird. I was with Rachel in the park, and he just sat down with us and started telling her stories. She loved it."
"So," Dean asked, his hunter's instincts sharpening, focusing. "How do I find this guy?"
Claudia's directions were not perfect, but he found the place eventually, off a narrow, winding dirt road and down a long tree-lined driveway. Sunlight filtered through the arching branches and turned the road into a green, translucent tunnel.
When he reached the end of the driveway, he pulled to a stop, shutting off the purr of the Impala's engine, and took a moment to look around. The cottage stood in a clearing, small and neat, with – surprisingly – numerous window boxes stuffed full of bright flowers spilling over in a profuse, cheerful tangle. A pair of wicker chairs on the porch sat together like old friends. As he got out of the car, the opening creak and slamming shut of the door sounded overly loud in the silence, making him wince, but he figured the noise had at least no doubt alerted the old man he had a visitor.
If he was home, and not out on a daylong nature hike or whatever it was he did.
Dean stepped up onto the front porch, knocked, and called out, "Mr. McBride?" Nothing. He knocked again, louder, then walked to the edge of the porch to peer around the corner of the cottage. "Mr. McBride," he tried once more, raising his voice, "my name is Dean Winchester, sir. Claudia Morrow, the librarian in town, gave me your name. I was wondering if I could talk to you?"
"No need to shout," came a faint, grumbled response. "Come round in back if you have something to say."
Dean breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay," he called back. "Thanks." He jumped off the porch and swung around the side of the house, heading for the back.
And found Andrew McBride, at eighty-something, appearing quite capable of hiking for miles through the woods. But for now simply sitting, book in hand, in a weathered Adirondack chair in a patch of sun. A big dog dozed at his feet but opened its eyes at Dean's approach to stare up at him, thumped its tail twice, then settled back down, apparently satisfied.
"Well," said the old man, sounding dryly amused, "if Thomas approves of you, I guess you're all right. Hmm. He doesn't always care for visitors." McBride closed his book and gestured at the other chair. "Pull up a seat, boy." Shrewd, bright eyes studied Dean as he sat down. "Now, what does a young fella like you want to hear from an old coot like me? Can't think why Miss Claudia would send you all the way up here just to pass the time of day."
Dean slumped back in the chair, suddenly overwhelmed by the weight of exhaustion he'd been laboring under the past several days. He briefly rubbed a hand down his face, feeling the tightness behind his eyes, the roughness of his stubbled cheeks. After a moment, he straightened up with an effort. Sam would know what to say, how to tease the knowledge out of the old man with a few questions and a sweet, encouraging smile. But Sam wasn't here, and Dean didn't have time to be cajoling or placating.
He cleared his throat and unflinchingly met those sharp eyes. "I guess you could say I'm interested in local geography, landmarks, that sort of thing." When McBride didn't say anything, Dean wet his lips and went on, carefully. "I'm looking for a certain crossroads. With some sort of building on it, or near it, called the Old Hall. You ever hear of something like that around here?"
That got McBride's attention. The old man's gaze narrowed but didn't move from Dean's face, and his next words were soft, though Dean heard the steel beneath them.
"What do you need to know that for, boy?"
Dean's vision blurred, and he had to close his eyes, not daring to hope.
"Boy?" There was a surprisingly firm grip on his wrist.
He started at the touch, blinked, and looked up to see McBride leaning over and peering at him.
"Sorry," Dean murmured, feeling the heat rise in his face.
The hand released his wrist and gave him a pat on the knee. "It's all right, son. You look done in from what I can tell." McBride sat back again. "What's this about, young fella?"
"I need . . . to be there. Soon. Tomorrow night, actually." He swallowed with an achingly dry throat. "If you know, please, tell me. I don't what else to do, where to look." With a frustrated shake of his head, Dean went on, hearing the growing desperation in his voice but unable to stop it. "I won't give up. I won't. But I've driven every damn road in this county. I've checked out crossroads up the wazoo, with town halls, city halls, meeting halls. But they're not it, are they? Where I have to go. It's older than that." He paused, knowing he was right when he added softly, "And somewhere . . . not quite here."
He ran out of words, and looked down at his suddenly clenched fists.
After a long moment of silence, he heard McBride clear his throat, and glanced up to meet the other man's gaze.
"Well," McBride said slowly, "you don't look like a fool, boy, I'll say that for you. To anyone else, you'd sure as hell sound like one, though." Holding up a hand to forestall any heated reply Dean could make, McBride seemed to consider him for another moment, then simply nodded. "Old Hall. The Carter place."
"Carter . . . ." Dean flipped through his memory, the pages and pages he'd read in the last few days, crammed with names and dates and places, and his tired mind finally kicked in and gave him an answer. "Carter? Really? Huh." He scrubbed a hand over his hair. "Son of a bitch."
"That's not exactly the response I was expecting," McBride said dryly.
"Ah, hell, came across the name a couple of times. Traced it as far as I could, got nowhere, so I dropped it." Dean let out a slow sigh. "Nowhere, just like everything else with 'hall' in the title," he added wearily. Frowning, he made an effort to recall more. "Carter – some rich guy way back when, right? City father type?"
McBride nodded. "Yup, you got it right, son."
Dean rubbed his forehead, still frowning. "So, his place was called the Old Hall, not Carter Hall?"
"Well, not then. He called it Carter Hall, of course. Josiah Carter was a vain old man. Proud. Built that place, all big and fancy, with his sudden wealth. Sure had the folk around here talking. But that fine place, it's empty now, long abandoned. Family all died out, or left, within a generation. One or two even went crazy, so the stories go. Folk said they were cursed, or just unlucky, maybe. No one there for well over a hundred and fifty years. People stopped saying the name, talking about it, hell, even writing about it when the place went empty – superstitious, you understand. All forgotten now, though. Forest grew back up around it, took it over."
"Where?" Dean asked hoarsely. "How do I get there?"
"North of town. In the middle of the wood. Lots of pockets of old forest still around here, but that's one of the oldest. Old, old wood there, boy. Carter cut the trees down to build that fine house of his more than two centuries ago, that's what my granddaddy said. Could be that's where all the bad luck started, eh? Didn't have a chance, not in those woods. Back then, folk tried to tell him, folk who knew better, but old man Carter, well, he wasn't from around here, didn't understand, didn't listen. See, the fool built his house on the old crossroads, crossroads older than anything, probably old as the trees themselves." McBride sighed. "Heard the stories all my life. But nowadays, people don't know those stories. They don't want to remember. Or believe."
"Do you . . . believe?"
McBride smiled for the first time. "Well, my granddaddy sure liked to talk. Said he'd seen something, once upon a time out there under the full moon. When I was a boy, I spent many a night sneaking out to that wood, hoping for the same." His smile slipped. "Probably just as well I never did, eh, son?"
Dean shook his head, feeling an absurd sting of tears once again in the back of his eyes. "No, just as well," he said quietly, looking away.
The old man reached out and patted Dean on the knee again. "Older and wiser, I am. I just walk the edges of that wood now, and only in daylight. But you listen up, young Dean Winchester, and I'll tell you how to get to old Carter Hall."
Following McBride's meticulous directions, Dean drove north of town, leaving the paved blacktop for dirt roads that progressively got narrower and rougher. He drove on until he came to an unmarked turnoff, idled for a moment glancing pointlessly at the memorized map, then swung the Impala onto what was little more than a track through the trees. He couldn't go much farther before he had to stop. There was really no room to pull over, but he figured he was hardly in any danger of getting a ticket for obstructing traffic.
He got out of the car and listened alertly. Nothing more menacing than birdsong and the sounds of small creatures rustling in the underbrush. Not even a breath of wind to stir the leaves. Nothing to make his hair stand on end, or his skin itch.
Just a forest.
Dean opened the trunk and pondered. This was only a recon today; he probably didn't need a full arsenal of weaponry. But he still felt a hell of a lot more comfortable with the shotgun. And the Glock tucked into the waistband of his jeans. And the pair of knives in his belt. No point in being careless, after all. He shut the trunk, and, compass and map in hand, set off on foot.
Thankfully – strangely – the track wasn't completely deteriorated. He had to step over fallen branches, kick his way through a few seasons' worth of leaves, but the road itself was still visible despite the overgrowth. It made him think of aerial photos of Britain, with the ancient fields and roads a clear imprint on the landscape after hundreds and even thousands of years. The road wasn't a straight track, though; it twisted like a snake writhing through the wood. Dean swore he was doubling back on his own trail more than once, and he wondered what had prompted Josiah Carter to want to build this deep in the forest, anyway.
Despite the fact that it was still afternoon, the wood seemed to grow darker the farther into it Dean trekked. He shivered. No longer quite so peaceful. Not forbidding, not yet, just . . . wary.
"Lions, and tigers, and bears," he murmured with a glance at the old oaks. "Oh, my."
He continued to check landmarks against McBride's map and his own shorthand notes, and he stopped every so often to add to them. He wondered sardonically if he should be leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
Another hour slid by, then two. Pushing on after a short break, Dean ducked under a low-hanging branch, followed a curve in the road, and found his footsteps slowing. Stopping.
The colors of the wood looked . . . different. Not so much brighter, just . . . more. The sunlight was soft burnished gold. The leaves on the trees glowed a green not usually found in nature.
Dean shivered and, when he blinked, the glimpse of faerie was gone. But he could still feel it lingering, dancing across his skin, in the air he breathed. He turned in a slow circle, and when he faced front again, his eyes widened.
Ahead of him stood the sad ruin of Carter Hall.
It was huge. And it must've been pretty damn impressive when it was built, but now it looked as though a good wind – or even a good shove – would topple its grey, sagging walls right over. Half the roof was gone, with birds nesting in the rafters. Windows stared back at him, dark and empty, except for where they were overgrown with vines. Porch railings hung like rotten teeth.
He gave himself a shake and got moving again, studying the layout. The road led right past the house, and there was the other road, plain as day, crossing over at perfect right angles.
"Found you," he whispered, sagging a little himself as he stared up at the place.
Too bad this had probably been the easy part.
Dean got back to the motel after dark, veering unevenly between exhaustion and exhilaration. The Chinese take-out he'd picked up on the way suddenly lost its appeal halfway through the fried rice, and he pitched the rest into the trash. Running on empty but too wired to go to sleep, he sat down on the bed and reached for the weapons bag. Maybe the familiar action of breaking down and cleaning the guns and sharpening the knives would help settle his mind.
It worked for a little while. Until he sliced his thumb on a blade, and stared dazedly at the blood that dripped onto the bedspread. With a soft curse, he got up and padded into the bathroom. Running cold water over the cut, he met his reflection in the mirror, wishing he could blame his awful pallor on the harsh fluorescent lighting.
"Not very pretty," Dean mocked, staring into his weary eyes, their green depths dark and shadowed. "Her Majesty will not be impressed."
He took care of the cut, turned out the unkind light, and other than packing the weapons away, decided he was better off leaving them alone for the rest of the night. Shucking boots, jeans, and shirts, he crawled into bed, exhaustion finally winning out over exhilaration.
"See you tomorrow, Sammy," he whispered as he flicked off the bedside lamp and curled up under the covers, away from the bright light of the moon.
Dean spent the next morning, the last morning, methodically making preparations in the small motel room and slipping his mind into hunter mode. Cold, calculating, patient. With so much riding on his actions in a few hours, he couldn't afford the slightest mistake.
Dunkin' Donuts first, as had been his habit all week, then a quick last trip to the library, returning the few books he'd checked out. Dean managed a stiff smile for Claudia as he thanked her for her help before turning to leave.
He made it back to the house in the wood well before sunset, easily finding it again despite a lurking fear in the back of his mind that it might have somehow disappeared on him overnight. Breathing a quiet sigh of relief when he saw the ruin emerge out of the trees, he walked all around it, up and down the roads – even though he'd done the same just yesterday – and soon had a spot staked out with a good view of both the house and the roads crossing in front of it.
He passed the rest of the daylight hours checking over his weapons – because, after all, she'd never said anything about not bringing weapons – as well as stretching, pacing, and forcing himself to eat the sandwiches he'd bought on the way out of town. Trying not to think too much about what would happen at midnight.
For the past week, he'd focused on the hunt. Doing the research the way he'd been trained, scouting the territory, and learning his enemy's weaknesses. He hadn't let himself dwell on Sam. Only on how to get him back.
The worry was always there, simmering beneath the surface, along with a near-frantic fear that crept and slid into his thoughts at unguarded moments. But he had forced himself to shove it all aside or he wouldn't have been able to function. To do the job.
But now . . . now, sitting in his chosen hidey-hole for the evening, all Dean could think about was Sam, with the worry almost choking him. He knew the stories. Of humans disappearing, to return years and years later unchanged, only to find their families and everyone they knew long gone. Or to have eternal youth in the land of the fae, but to crumble to dust upon returning to the mortal world.
What had the Queen said?
"Seven days and seven nights as your world counts time."
Dean had gone cold at those words then, and now they had his insides twisted in painful knots. Seven days for him, a mere week. How long had it been for Sam in that other world? Seven years? More?
Could a mortal stay sane in the faerie realm? His hands tightened into fists at the thought of Sam going mad, of the Queen tormenting him, hurting him. For seven days, or seven years . . . . She'd never said anything about not harming him, had she? She found him "fascinating." As though he were a new pet to play with.
Would Sam be trapped, no matter what Dean did?
And what would he have to do? One chance, she'd said. One freakin' chance to do what? Would she take a trade this time? Him for Sam? He'd do it, like a shot. Sam would be pissed, but too bad.
Or a contest, a riddle game . . . . He'd read that, somewhere. A test of courage? A duel with a faerie knight? Dean had to shake his head ruefully at that one. Errol Flynn he was not. But whatever it was, he'd do it – anything – to get Sam back.
So Dean sat in the deepening dusk, watching quietly as it merged into twilight and eased into darkness. Night fell in the old wood, and he sank into the shadows to wait, alert, on the hunt, with a circle of cold iron for protection in one jacket pocket and a flask of holy water in the other.
The moon rose through the trees, impossibly huge and round. Full, staring down at him. So close, he thought he could put up a hand and grab it.
Despite his deep weariness, he knew he was in no danger of falling asleep. He waited for midnight and the Queen's arrival and, as the moon rose higher, something alerted him even before he threw a glance at his watch. Something he felt under his skin, in his bones. He straightened, senses alert, his hand slipping into his pocket to grip the cold iron there.
The darkness wavered, shifted, and a ghostly track appeared, seeming to overlay the crossroads before old Carter Hall. He could've sworn he heard the light sound of bells, and then the shining doorway was there, glimmering under the moon that sailed high above the treetops. His breath caught at the sight of the Queen and her folk riding through that door, mounted on tall horses that trod the ghost road, floating above the ground for an instant before striking the solid earth with their hooves.
The riders, men and women, wore silk and leather, with silver jewelry glinting on their fingers and throats. The horses' bridles were silver, and the bells Dean had heard jingled faintly from their harnesses. Several of the faerie held brightly burning torches. Two riders carried hawks on their gloved fists. Another gripped the leashes of a pack of lean, straining greyhounds. Everything glittered.
It was beautiful and radiant and terrifying, and for a crazy instant he yearned to be one of them. Shining like the stars, ageless and powerful.
But then the cold iron bit into his hand, burning, and he gasped, as though waking from a dream. He blinked and looked again, seeing the Queen on her black steed, her court milling behind her, and the desire to join them quickly fled.
But she was still beautiful . . . .
Her voice, the voice of smoke and honey he'd heard in his dreams, rang out in the moonlight-drenched darkness.
"I have come as promised, my sweet boy. Are you here? Or have I won already?" She laughed, sounding like the bells on her horse's bridle. "If you are here, show yourself now, or your brother is mine. Forever."
His eyes searched frantically for Sam, but his brother was nowhere to be seen among the fae.
With a silent curse Dean eased himself to his feet, too aware of the loud thumping of his heart, and stepped out from the concealing underbrush to stand on the road before the faerie host.
"I'm here," he said, warily keeping his distance as her gaze turned toward him.
"Why, so you are, lovely boy." She tilted her head, studying him.
He felt rather like a rabbit under the scrutiny of a hawk. Right before the rabbit became dinner.
"But," she tsked sadly, sighing, "not so beautiful tonight, are we? Have the days been long, my dear? Have you fretted and despaired over your poor brother's fate?" Her disdainful smile returned. "Not to worry. I have him, safe and sound. On my honor. I have enjoyed his company, however. It might be hard for me to give him up, after all."
His hand gripped the rough circle of iron, and the edges grated against his sweating palm. "You promised, my lady," he said evenly, though his heart was in his mouth. "You said one chance. I'm here. Where's my brother? What about my one chance to win him back?"
She pouted, suddenly more woman than queen. "I'm not sure you're worth it anymore, my dear. What happened to those bright eyes of yours? Of course," she added, her tongue tracing her lips, "you still have that lovely mouth."
It wasn't anything he'd never heard before but, dammit, he'd never heard it from the Queen of the Faerie, either.
"You want to bargain, then, my lady? A trade?" Dean took a calming breath. "Me for my brother?"
"Oh, my darling boy, I scarcely know how to choose between you." She gestured at one of her knights, who instantly swung off his horse to help her dismount.
He heard the silken whisper of her skirts, all green and silver tonight, as she stepped closer to him, and he had to force himself to hold his ground.
"I am feeling generous tonight, boy." She laughed softly. "You and your brother have given me such rare amusement that I am willing to make a sporting wager with you. Here is your chance." Her smile glittered as cold as the moon. "If you can pick out your brother from among my folk, he is yours to take. Simple, yes?"
"Pick him out?" Dean frowned, not liking her mood. He'd been expecting a trial of sorts, but he'd figured it would be lot more . . . devious. Dangerous. "What, like hide-and-seek or something?"
It couldn't be that easy, could it? There had to be a catch, there had to be something up her sleeve.
She laughed again. He heard the edge of cruel mockery in it, and his blood ran cold.
"Or . . . something," she repeated. With a smile that was nothing but feral, she went on. "But once you have him, you must also hold on to him, no matter what, do you hear me? If you let go too soon, I win. I will take him back, and you as well. Double or nothing, my dear." Her voice dropped to a low caress. "There is your chance. Do you agree? If not, I will keep just him, and you are free to go."
No, somehow not simple at all, Dean thought despairingly. But what did that mean, hold on to him? The cold iron bit sharp as he tightened his fist. It wasn't like he had a choice, did he? So he nodded.
"If I win, you let us both go," he stated, making certain of her words. "Free and clear."
"Of course, my sweet." Her eyes narrowed. "But I think it would be best if you left your weapons on the ground. Including," she added with a moue of distaste, "that ugly lump of iron in your pocket. And the cursed water in the other."
Evidently, he waited a moment too long to obey, for she raised a hand, and suddenly there were five knights off their horses, bows up, arrows nocked and aimed at his heart.
"All right," he muttered. "I get the picture."
He wanted to spit a few choice curse words at her, but for once wisdom made him hold his tongue. With utmost care – so as not to encourage an archer with an itchy finger – Dean divested himself of shotgun, Glock, knives, and, slowly, reluctantly, the quartered circle of cold iron and the holy water. Everything lay on the ground at his feet.
"There." He spread his empty hands. "Happy now?" He just managed not to turn the words into a snarl.
"Temper, temper, sweetling. I can always change my mind and have my archers fill you with so many arrows, you'll look like my maid's pincushion."
"Sorry, my lady," he ground out, lowering his eyes only so she wouldn't see the rage in them.
"Apology accepted. With all the . . . graciousness in which it was offered." She raised her hand again, and the archers stood down.
He made sure he had his face under control before he glanced up. Judging by her expression, she was back to finding him amusing. Annoying though that was, he supposed it was better than having her threaten him with death by arrow skewering.
"If it's all the same to you, my lady," he said, "isn't it time we get to the main event? Not that I haven't enjoyed your company, but I'm sure you have more important things to do."
"You can be sweet-spoken," she said, with an ironic lift of an eyebrow, "when you try, my fair flower." She sighed. "I am so looking forward to keeping the pair of you. By all means, let us begin."
With a sharp clap of her hands, all the faerie folk in her company dismounted without a word. Like a troupe of rehearsed actors, they took their places in a long line on the moonlit crossroads, standing side by side.
She motioned him forward. "Come, come. Don't be shy. Your brother is here among my people. Surely," she said slyly, "you can find your own brother?"
Dean looked down that long line of faerie men and women, tall, beautiful, posed like statues, their delighted malice clear to see, and he felt his courage and confidence falter. But he straightened his shoulders and moved forward to stand at the Queen's side.
"Take your time, dear," she murmured, leaning close. "I'd hate for you to make a mistake."
He didn't even waste an instant on a glare, but walked up and down the row of faerie folk. And somewhere among them, Sam. Hidden, no doubt, behind the Queen's glamour. Illusion and trickery. If he chose wrong, the game was over before it even began . . . .
They were tall and fair, but there was a wealth of bright, spiteful glee in their eyes and smiles as they watched him. They enjoyed this, his pain and uncertainty. It was just a passing diversion for them all.
Up and down, once, twice. Nothing. Not a hint of Sam, of his warm eyes and flopping hair. Dean could feel sweat prickling between his shoulder blades. His mouth tightened.
Come on, Sammy, give me a sign, dude. I got nothing here. Where are you, man? Which one of these masks is really you?
His steps slowed on his third time down the row. The smiles had grown more taunting, and light laughter rippled in his wake. He paused, and stared into a pale face of haunting beauty, and realized he was going about this all wrong.
"Do you concede yet, my sweet?" the Queen called. "You seem to be having trouble."
Ignoring her and the resulting laughter at her jeering remark, Dean looked away from the fae in front of him to stare up at the moon.
The Queen was using glamour and illusion to hide Sam, cheating perhaps, but then, she never said anything about rules. So. He needed to stop using his eyes, didn't he? They weren't doing him any favors.
Dean walked to the end of the row, turned, and with his eyes shut, slowly, slowly made his way down the length of faerie folk yet again. It felt ridiculous, he felt ridiculous, but he also knew he was right. He knew Sam like he knew himself. He could find Sam in the dark, always had, right from the start. Why should this be any different?
There was no sound now; even the taunting voices of the fae and their laughter had stilled as if they sensed a change in the game. No sound, but . . . something. One step to his right. He cocked his head.
Without an instant's hesitation, Dean reached out and his questing fingers met fabric he knew was soft flannel, much washed and mended. He slid both hands up and up to grasp familiar shoulders, and he wrapped his fists in Sam's shirt and pulled his brother close until they stood with foreheads touching.
"Sammy," he breathed, feeling his world make sense again. Then he drew away a little, opening his eyes.
Sam's eyes smiled down at him, as puppy dog as ever. Except for the lurking shadows, and fear. Like his own all this past week.
"Be careful, Dean," Sam whispered. "She –"
And Sam changed.
Transformation or more illusion, Dean couldn't tell. He flinched but didn't let go. He wouldn't be tricked that easily. Instead of his brother beneath his hands, it was the gargoyle-like creature they had slain in the forest.
Claws that felt too real to be illusion ripped at his back, shredding his leather jacket, his shirts, and the skin beneath. Wings batted around his face. It snarled and fought, but Dean hung on, ignoring the warm, wet slide of blood down his back.
Illusion, his mind screamed, even as he let out a cry of pain as the claws struck again.
He tightened his grip around the thrashing form, ducking his head away from the claws, but not quite quick enough, and in the blink of an eye, the creature turned into something else. It was a long, twisting serpent, winding about him, squeezing, choking. His instincts were to fight back, to get away, but instead Dean gave in and grimly held on, even when the fangs glittered and seized at his throat.
Another low cry of pain burst out of him, and he shut his eyes against the glamour.
Sam. It was Sam in his grasp, only Sam, and Sam wouldn't hurt him. Ever.
More shapes, shifting beneath his hands, one after the other. He felt scales turn to feathers, then fur; teeth snapped and bit at his flesh. But he didn't let go. He didn't dare. No matter what.
It seemed to go on forever, this strange battle between them. The rest of the world no longer existed. Not night, or wood, or full moon, not even the Faerie Queen. There was nothing outside the circle of his arms.
Dean wondered hazily if the pain and the blood were as much illusion as the shapeshifting brother in his arms. At least, he hoped Sam changing shape was an illusion . . . .
At some point, he had fallen to his knees, and he breathed in heaving gasps. He could feel himself tiring, growing weaker. His arms trembled with the strain of hanging onto whatever monstrous form currently slithered in his grasp, trying to break free.
Then it seemed to melt, to shift again, and instead of another snarling creature, there was nothing but searing heat licking at his hands. With a yelp, Dean's eyes shot open wide to see a raging pillar of fire in his hands, flames leaping wildly.
His body jerked back as the heat struck his face. His hands still held . . . something, and they burned and blistered even as he watched in fascinated horror. Scorching, now blackening. A low keening cry made its way past his clenched jaw.
It hurt. Oh, God, how it hurt.
The smell of burning flesh was not unfamiliar to him, not after using fire on so many piles of bones and desiccated bodies over the years. Nor with the memories of a terrified four-year-old, running clumsily to escape the sudden inferno that raged inside their house, with his little brother in his arms.
It's Sam. It's only Sam, and all you have to do is hang onto him like you always do, and everything will be all right.
Because after all, he'd gone through fire before with Sam, for Sam, more than once, and he'd do it again. In a heartbeat.
So Dean closed his eyes again, leaned into the fire, into the hungry flames, surrendering but still hanging onto whatever lay beneath. For dear life.
And through the agony, he felt strong arms holding him in return. A voice saying his name, over and over, nearly crying it, and he slowly cracked open his burning eyes.
"Dean. Dean, wake up, come on. You did it, Dean. Please, it's over, it's all right . . . ."
"Sammy?" he whispered. Mostly into Sam's shirt, because Sam's long arms held Dean tight against his chest. As if Dean might suddenly float away. He rather felt as though he were already floating, actually. And it felt kind of nice. Surprisingly, nothing hurt. Not his hands, not the flayed skin of his back. Nothing.
"Dean, oh, man," Sam said, and Dean heard the tremor in his voice. But he didn't let go. "Are you all right?"
"Ease up," Dean said, his own voice none too steady. "I'm all right, Sammy. Are you? Any fangs or claws or anything still there?"
"I'm fine, Dean. It wasn't real, any of it."
Dean let out a sigh. "Glad to hear it." He gave Sam a nudge with his elbow. "Come on, I can't breathe here."
With a shaky laugh, Sam loosened his grip slightly on Dean's shoulders and helped him sit back. They were both on their knees – tangled up in each other's arms, Dean was suddenly embarrassed to see – and he pulled away a little further. But he didn't want to let go, either, not altogether.
The hard knot of pain and anger and helplessness that had been stuck in his chest all week melted away.
Dean looked at his brother, swept into the faerie realm and lost for the last seven days, and said, "Nice to see you."
"Likewise," Sam said, grinning goofily, his eyes a little damp.
Dean squinted at him. "You weren't gone for seven years, were you? You don't look older. Not any older at all."
"Only a little. It wasn't as long for me as it was for you."
"Huh. Aren't you the lucky one."
He tried standing, but needed Sam's help to get fully upright. With his brother's steadying hand still on one shoulder, Dean finally got his feet back under him and turned to find the Queen watching them.
She looked rather ticked off, in a queenly sort of way. Almost as mad as when she'd come upon them burning the corpse of her servant. But when Dean took a closer look, she also seemed to have that expression of faint amusement back on her face. Maybe she'd enjoyed the evening's entertainment.
Well, he'd take that over the five archers with arrows zeroed in on his chest.
"My lady," Dean said, cautious, one eye on his weapons still lying on the ground. He maintained his position in front of Sam. "It's been a lovely evening, really, but I think my brother and I are ready to leave. Wager won and all."
With a sigh, she said, "Yes, sadly, I suppose I must agree to let you both go. You played the game well, my dears, and won." She gestured at Sam. "Your brother was most insistent you would win my little wager. He had no doubt whatsoever."
Dean slanted a glance over at his brother. "You knew what she was cookin' up?"
Sam winced, and Dean saw the horror and helplessness of that knowledge in his eyes.
"It's okay, Sammy," he murmured for Sam's ears alone, reaching back with one hand to give him a pat on the chest. "We made it."
He felt the Queen's speculative gaze on him once again, and he turned to look at her. The slow smile that crossed her face suddenly made his mouth dry.
"Brave as well as beautiful you are, sweetling. His faith in you was not misplaced. I shall regret not having you both at my court."
"So we're free to go?" Dean asked, trying desperately to ignore the "beautiful" comment. He could practically feel Sam snickering behind him and hoped the darkness was enough to hide the blush he could feel creeping into his face. "You and your people will leave us alone from now on?"
"Should you ever be in my wood, I think perhaps it very likely we shall see each other again, Dean Winchester." She lifted a hand, as though swearing an oath. "But no harm to you, or to Samuel, from neither me nor any of my people."
Dean nodded and started to turn away, pulling Sam with him, then stopped.
"My lady . . . ." He didn't want to know this, did he? But how could he leave without asking? Clearing his throat awkwardly, he plunged ahead. "My lady, what you said, earlier . . . when you, um, said I . . . tasted . . . like the fae. What . . .?"
She laughed softly. "Not to fear, boy. You do not share our blood, but surely you know you and your brother already walk in the shadows, on the edge of faerie." She stepped close to him, and he looked up into her amber eyes. "You have taken paths most mortals never tread or even know exist. You have a foot in both worlds, whether you will or no."
Then to his surprise, she leaned in and brushed her lips over his. But this kiss did not burn with cold. It was soft, and she tasted of autumn and apples and warm wine. "Goodbye, sweetling," she breathed, her fingers lightly lingering on his face. "Fare you well."
Then just as swiftly, she spun around, calling to her people in a lilting, ancient tongue that nevertheless sounded oddly familiar to Dean's ears, and the Faerie Queen and her folk whirled away with hawks and horses and hounds, riding into the moonlit sky on the ghost road until they disappeared in a shimmer of glowing light.
Dean blinked, heard Sam's soft exclamation of wonder. Without the faerie glamour, the night turned suddenly somehow darker.
"Hey," Dean said, reaching for Sam's arm, needing to feel his solid presence with his own hand. "Let's go, huh? I could really use some sleep. I had to sit in a library for a whole freakin' week." He bent to retrieve his discarded weapons.
"Oh?" Sam said, with that slightly silly grin again. Shoulders bumping, they started to walk out of the clearing. "Well, wait until you hear about the week I had . . . ."
And the forest lay quiet again, and old Carter Hall sat lost and forlorn on its nearly forgotten crossroads beneath the bright moon and stars.
A/N: This story was inspired, in part, by the old Scottish ballad "Tam Lin." With a teeny tiny shout out to Susan Cooper's wonderful and brilliant book, The Dark Is Rising.