A Walk in the Woods

[Well, for most of the eastern US, the weather outside is frightful. To pass the time as you bundle up and try to stay warm, here’s a 650-word “prequel” to Children of Pride, due to become available (hopefully) in about a month.]

“By oak, ash, and thorn!” Danny exclaimed. “It ain’t been this cold in twenty years.” He pulled his cloak tight as he crunched through the icy snow. His traveling partner, with his shorter legs, hurried to keep up. They walked in silence, saving their breath, through a wilderness of barren trees and snowdrifts: a stark vista in black and white spreading for miles beneath a steel-gray sky.

At the crest of a hill, Danny said, “You don’t reckon the Winter Court is up to something, do you?”

“Nah,” the second traveler shrugged. “Sometimes a cold snap is just a cold snap. If I was you, I’d be more worried about your own boss.”

Danny shivered, not entirely because of the cold. “You just had to go and say it, didn’t you, Bug?”

“Didn’t you tell me she gave you the winter off?” Bug said as if that proved his point. “So why, all of a sudden, are you on your way back to Bisgarra Verry?” Bug pulled a pointed ear back underneath his red knit cap.

“Hey, you may not know it, but I’ve gotten to be a pretty important guy at the Summer Court. Mrs. Redmane probably wants my opinion about—stop laughing!”

“I can’t help it, Danny. You crack me up sometimes! Look, you’re a nice enough guy. Best switcher I ever worked with. But you can drop the act. You’re scared of Mrs. Redmane, same as everybody. And you ain’t being called in ‘cause the Chief Matron of the Summer Court wants to have tea of a mangy pooka!”

“Yeah,” Danny said. “You’re right. But would it hurt you to be a little more diplomatic about it?”

“I’m a goblin,” Bug said. “I don’t do diplomatic.”

Danny rubbed his gloved hands together against the cold. “Winter’s got to be up to something, Bug. It ain’t been this cold in thirty years—at least.” The path opened on a patch of farmland.

“Maybe,” Bug agreed. “But that ain’t your problem.”

“Yet.”

“Yet. If Winter’s got a plan hatching, you can guarantee somebody’s keeping an eye on them. It’s the Summer Court that’s cut your vacation short. Go see what Mrs. Redmane wants.”

Danny sighed. “Probably just wants to give me a heads-up about my next assignment.” He smiled in spite of himself.

“This is your last one, ain’t it?”

Danny nodded. “Contract’s just about up. I reckon another couple months and I’m a free agent again. I swear, I can just about taste it, Bug.”

“That’s great, Danny. I’m happy for you. If you ever need somebody with my skills, I’d be happy to work with you again.”

“Thanks. That means a lot, coming from you.”

“The ring’s got to be around here somewhere,” Bug said.

Danny pulled off a glove. “Just keep watch for me.” He tilted his head toward the farmhouse in the distance. “We don’t need no Topsiders getting all curious.”

Bug nodded, and Danny summoned a ball of flame into his hand. He held it close to the ground around where he thought he remembered the ring being. Thankfully, the snow had heaped up into a bank ten or twenty feet away. The wind patterns had left the spot they were looking for almost clear, and Danny found what he was looking for soon enough.

It was a ring of mushrooms just wide enough across for two people to stand in. Danny smiled.

“One good thing,” he said. “They keep it pretty warm in Bisgarra Verry.”

“Then here’s to a toasty new year, Danny. Shall I?”

Danny nodded. Bug gestured toward the mushroom ring. Slowly, a swirl of sparkling light emerged. It grew until it became a column of white punctuated with gold and silver flashes.

“Thanks for walking with me,” Danny said.

“I appreciated the company. Now, go get ‘em!”

Danny winked, stepped into the vortex, and vanished.

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