Going Home

Gwen paced nervously as she waited for the knock on the door she knew was coming. Nessa would be there any minute with dinner. She would have a takeaway bag of their favorite Thai foods and that smile Gwen couldn’t say no to. Except that tonight she would have to say much more than no. Tonight, she would have to say goodbye.

She stopped her pacing for just a moment, leaning against the countertop to stare down at the roll of parchment that had upset the careful balance of her life. It had been a shock when it had appeared beside her bed in the night.

Bitterly, Gwen remembered so many years ago when she had been sent, sobbing, far from her home. It had been for her safety, they had said. They couldn’t guarantee her protection if she stayed. Now they wanted her back, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to go.
Scooping up the offending scroll, she looked one last time at the seal of her house and shoved the whole thing into a cabinet. If tonight had to be the last, then better it be a good memory for them both.

Vanessa knocked not more than a minute later, a smile on her face as she held up the bag.
“I got extra satay since you ate all of mine last time.”
“You’re the best, Nessa.”
Gwen closed the door, trying to figure out what to say and how to say it while Vanessa put the food on the table.
“Hey, Earth to Gwen.”
Vanessa’s giggle drew Gwen out of her thoughts and she looked up to see Vanessa holding plates in one hand and the roll of parchment in the other.
“What’s this, love?”
“It’s…that’s…” Gwen froze, staring at the scroll, then her shoulders slumped. “It’s a royal decree from my mother. I have to go home.”
“A royal decree?” For a moment, Nessa grinned, but slowly the smile vanished. “You’re serious. Oh God, you’re serious.”
Vanessa set the plates on the table and dropped into her chair, reading and re-reading the scroll. Then she set it on the table and looked across at Gwen, her face full of wonder.
“Tell me. Tell me everything.”
For the next two hours, they ate and Gwen told Nessa everything she could remember from those long ago days under the double moons. She told about her mother’s court and the civil war, about the death of her father, the rumors of assassins. Gwen didn’t notice when she set down her fork and didn’t pick it back up, so wrapped up was she in her telling. She painted a picture of words, drawing on every detail of her so-nearly forgotten childhood. She could see it all again from the slightly blue shade of the grass to the light grey sky with the single golden spire of her mother’s castle illuminated against it.
“The war’s over.” The words left Gwen’s mouth quietly, uncertainly. “That means I have to go home. Be the heir.”
“But you don’t want to.”
It wasn’t a question. It was never a question, but Gwen answered it anyway.
“I don’t want to leave you.”
The silence hanging between them in that moment was painful. Then Vanessa tapped the scroll.
“They said there would be a portal? To bring you home?”
Gwen nodded mutely and Vanessa soldiered on.
“You know how this stuff works. Would anything go wrong if we both went through?”

At the stroke of midnight, the portal opened in the throne hall as scheduled. This was the best time, during the conjunction of celestial objects that would put their material existence closest to that where they had hidden the Princess Gwynneth. Tonight, she would be coming home. The court tittered with excitement and the Queen leaned forward on her throne with eager anticipation. A shadow formed in the portal and a shape stepped through, followed closely by a second one. There was no mistaking the princess, even in tattered jeans and an old, oversized t-shirt. It was in her manner and her bearing. She bowed low before her mother and gestured to the woman who stood at her right hand.
“Mother, may I present my love, Lady Vanessa.”
The Queen smiled and nodded as Vanessa sketched a shaky bow. Gwen relaxed inwardly and reached for Vanessa’s hand. Now. Now, she was truly home.

Return to Port

She knew she wasn't supposed to go to the docks. They were a rough and vulgar place, or so her grandmother said. But Sarah Alcott was not content to wait at home when sail had been sighted on the horizon. Not when it could be her father coming home. Her brother, Garret, was as bad but despite being five years her junior, the nine year old was considered fit to venture to the socks on his own. All that meant in reality was that Sarah had long since mastered the cleverer routes to the harbor.
"Back again, Missy?"
Sarah climbed down from the low roof to stand on a barrel beside the start of the wharf.
"I heard there were sails, Jimmy. Help me down?"
The old shoreman gave her his hand and Sarah jumped down, landing on the wood of the dock with a flutter of skirt.
"Your Grandmama is going to be one pleased about this."
"I know, but I promised Papa I'd be waiting for him."
A few of the hands nearby heard and shook their heads sadly. Poor girl. Not a one of them had the heart to remind her that her father, the good Captain Alcott, was more than a year overdue now. The odds of the man returning to his family went down with each day that passed. Jimmy just smiled sadly. He was used to Miss Sarah and her ways.
"Well, come have a seat and practice your knots until the ship comes in."
She climbed up onto a crate and fished two lengths of cord out of the small bag she carried.

The sound of a bell ringing was what broke her concentration. She nearly had the marlinspike hitch mastered. Just a bit more practice and she'd have it for sure.
"They've made port, Miss Sarah, and the gangplank's down."
Scrambling, she slid down in a manner she was quite certain didn't befit a girl of her age and station and she didn't care. Her eyes were only for the ship. It was a smaller vessel than her father's and she sailed under the Union Jack. The Catherine Ann, named for Sarah's mother, was a three masted vessel and this girl was a two. Nevertheless, she waited to see if perhaps the captain had news of a Captain Alcott who sailed under the Stars and Stripes.
The crew began to unload cargo and Sarah could hear the officers organizing the effort. She would have to wait until they disembarked. She watched the crates being brought up out of the hold and wondered what they carried. Maybe spices and dyes like her father so often carried. Or the fancy fabrics her mother liked to buy. Then her gaze settled on something that made her blood run cold and her spirits sink. She remembered when her father had had the figurehead installed on the ship with the same bright gold hair and green eyes her mother had, saying this way his Catherine would always keep watch over him. That way, he would always come home to their children. So why did this strange ship have her Papa's figurehead? Protocol and politeness demanded that she wait and speak to the captain when he'd stepped onto the dock. Protocol be damned, she wanted answers. Hiking up her skirts, she ran up the gangplank before anyone could stop her. When she found the captain, he was on the deck yelling down to someone in the hold.
"Be careful! Dammit, man, we got you this far. Don't die on the steps."
"Excuse me, Captain?"
If the captain was surprised to see a young woman standing on his ship, he hid it well.
"Yes, Miss?"
She took a breath, drawing courage as best she could.
"Captain, I was wondering if you could explain why you have my father's figurehead among your cargo."
She did her best to sound calm and to ignore the wood on wood thumping noise coming up from the hold behind her.
"Your father's, you say? Are you Miss Sarah Alcott, then?"
Her eyes widened as the man smiled.
"He's told me quite a bit about you and your brother."
The thumping came faster now and Sarah whirled around to see the source. Her father, leaning on a crutch and making his way to her as quickly as he could.
"Papa!"
She threw her arms around his waist and he held her tightly.
"I told you I'd be back, little one. It just took me a bit."
"Papa, what happened?"
He shook his head a little.
"We went down in a storm. Luckily for me, I grabbed the figurehead when she broke off and we floated to shore. I think your Mama was watching out for me from Heaven. I broke my leg, but I'm home now."

Power Dynamics

The Patriarch's Ball was upon them. 400 strong, the elite would gather to display their marriage-bait like so many cakes dressed in silks and lace, sending the girls from gilded cage to gilded cage without so much as a by-your-leave. Cora wanted none of it. She was no pretty songbird to be caged, to be sure. Betsy stood nearby, head down and hands clasped before her.
"Miss Cora, your mother was insistent."
Cora turned away from the window and her musings upon the sea and sighed.
"Bess, if she's so insistent on dressing up a doll and sending it off to the ball, then someone ought to tell her to go to the store. I hear they have new ones that walk about and don't talk back."
Bess raised a hand to cover her mouth and tried to hide her giggles as Cora fell into a chair dramatically. Bess let Cora pull her in and smiled sadly.
"Your mother would throw a fit. And we both know where that would lead."
Cora kissed Bess gently on the forehead and sighed, her melancholy returning.
"I wish I could at least pretend it wasn't true for a few hours. But I suppose the dreams would only make the cage worse."
Pulling away, Bess went to the gown on its stand.
"You'll look delightful in this, Cora. I'm jealous of the men you'll dance with tonight."
Cora stood as well and went to stand beside her maid.
"I'll look like an over-decorated pastry and I doubt I'll be able to breathe."
"Will you tell me about it this evening?"
"If I don't fall asleep on my feet, you know I will." Cora brushed her fingers against Bess' hand and smiled. "I will say, if I had a sensible gown and could bring anyone I wished, then I would enjoy spending an evening dancing with you, Bess."
Bess looked down and demurred, a blush on her cheeks.
"I don't know the steps."
"I could teach you."
Bess shook her head less in disagreement than in bemusement.
"Your mother will be looking for you soon, Miss Cora. Let's get you ready."
When the formality returned, Cora's shoulders slumped.
"Only to keep you out of trouble, Bess."

It seemed like forever before Cora returned home sweaty and exhausted, but flushed with excitement.
"You would never guess the gossip, Bess. Scandal positively abounds."
Bess smiled, coming to help her young mistress with her gown.
"Is it political, financial, or social this time?"
"Social." Cora raised her arms to let Bess get to the laces on the side of the corset. "A married man caught with an unmarried girl. Worse yet, he'd been lying to her about the state of his marriage and the state of her future."
Bess paused in her unlacing for a moment.
"That's…cruel of him."
Her tone was soft and surprisingly emotional. Enough that Cora turned to look at her.
"Bess?"
"Miss Cora," Bess paused uncertainly and Cora turned, letting the open corset hang.
"Bess, you don't need to call me Miss. You never have to be that kind of formal when it's just you and me. I love you. You know that."
Bess looked away.
"Do you?"
Cora reached out to pull Bess into her arms and Bess pulled away.
"What's so different between what you say to me and the lies of that gentleman to the young lady? You tell me you love me when you and I both know we have no future together. You have to marry one of the young men of Mrs. Astor's court and I'm nothing but a maid." Bess was crying and she didn't even realize it. “You have to find a husband that suits your station. Even if I were a man, I could never do that and we both know it.”
“And we both know I don't want a husband.”
Cora tried again to gather Bess close to her but Bess was having none of it.
“Do you plan to tell your mother that? Or your father? How do you suppose they would take that news from their eldest daughter? You would end up in a marriage as soon as your mother could arrange it and I would end up on the streets or worse. Women who admit to this kind of thing end up in asylums, Cora.”
Cora’s hands dropped to her sides. Opening and closing her mouth a few times, the words that always came so easily failed her. After a long moment of silence, she spoke uncertainly.
“We could run, live together in freedom.”
“And poverty. You know nothing outside these walls. The best we could hope for would be millwork in Massachusetts.
Cora tried to open her mouth again, tried to protest, but Bess was already working on her laces again.
“Bess?”
For a moment there was only the sound of fabric rustling and quiet concentration.
“Will you be needing anything else before bed, Miss Cora? If not, I’m going to pack this away and start in on the mending.”
Cora felt like there was a chasm stretched between them, one she didn’t understand. And yet, she could the more she thought about it. She hung her head, trying to keep from crying.
“No, Bess. Thank you. I…I think I’m going to turn in early.”
Maybe in the darkness, the realization would hurt less.

Red Hair, Red Fur

The howls echoed in that dark night painting pictures of blood stained maws and sharp rows of teeth in the minds of the people in the ráth. All but one mind, anyway. It was a wolf moon, her father had said. It was wolf weather, the priest had intoned. Still, Aine ni Cathair was drawn to the hills and the cliffs and the open air. She donned a cloak and pinned it fast, pulling the hood up to hide her wild, red hair and her freckle-strewn face as she passed through the doors and into the night.
A steady rain fell and mist clung to the ground like man to a mystery, parting only slightly as Aine passed through. She carried no torch against the darkness and kept her steps light. The path to the cliff was a well-trod one and one she knew as she knew her own heart. That was why she was surprised to find something there she had never seen before: two torches, one to either side of the track.
Aine paused for only a moment before striding between them with determination and purpose. This was her place, her family’s land, and whoever was out here in the night would regret it if they were trespassing.
A lone figure stood beyond, a silhouette carved against the sky. They faced the sea and as Aine came closer, she could make out silver curls of hair.
“Gran? Is that you?”
The woman turned, a smile on her face as she looked at her granddaughter. Again, Aine hesitated. Her grandmother stood in the soaking rain beyond the torches with a knife in her hand, reflecting the light, and a fur over her shoulders.
“T’is, my dear. Come closer so I can see you.”
Aine took another step forward, hearing the howls echoing off the hillsides.
“Gran, why’re you out in the rain?”
The old woman chuckled softly.
“Why, the same reason as you, my dear.”
Another few steps brought Aine even closer before she paused.
“Gran, where’d you get that wolf skin?”
The woman reached to pat the fur of the skin thrown over her shoulders and smiled fondly, as though at a distant memory.
“Why, I’ve had it since I was your age, my dear.”
Aine stood only a single step away from her grandmother now and she could feel the fear warring with confusion in her gut.
“Gran, why’ve you got that dreadful big knife?”
The old woman flipped the blade in her hand and held out the hilt her to granddaughter.
“Why, so you can claim your own skin, my dear.”

The howls echoed in that dark night and the moon climbed further into the sky. The people in the ráth could hear the trembling call of a new wolf joining the hunt. Outside, a red wolf ran at the side of an old silver one, never as free before as she was now.

Prom

Goddammit.
That was the only word that went through my mind as I watched her step out of the thrift store dressing room. God fucking dammit. This is the part where, normally, our fashionista cheerleader heroine would be thinking check plus for your hard work, your frumpy best friend is going to get the useless jock of her dreams and ride off into the sunset as prom queen. Well, except for one pretty major detail. I did not want her to go riding off anywhere with Darren McAndrews, scum lord extraordinaire. I wanted us to be the ones riding off into the sunset together. Yep. One makeover later and the cheer captain is pining desperately over her formerly fashion-challenged best friend since kindergarten.
“Holy shit.”
The words slipped out of my mouth and Lily’s shoulders slumped.
“Does…does it not fit?” She sighed a little and looked so sad. My mind was racing in five thousand different directions. “I really thought we had it that time.”
“No, no. Lils. It fits. Perfect. Great. Amazing. You look amazing.”
The words were tripping over themselves in a jumble to get out of my mouth and I felt like there were spotlights trained on my face. I knew from the heat rising to my cheeks that I must be blushing. Oh yes, this was rapidly entering worst-day-ever territory.
“Kat?”
That was when the floor dropped out from underneath me. Okay, not really. Lily walked over and touched my arm, a concerned look on her face. I tried to be relaxed, calm, not buzzing with some stupid pile of hormones I only half remembered from biology. She must have said something else because she was looking at me like she was waiting for an answer.
“Y-you shouldn’t go to prom with Darren.”
For a moment, we both stood there and I wondered if this was what going crazy felt like. Like I didn’t have control over what was coming out of my mouth.
“He’s an asshole and a lech and a creep and…and…”
No, I was wrong before. This was what it was like to lose control. I grabbed my best friend and I kissed her right there in the back of the thrift store with tears in my eyes and my hands shaking. She looked startled but then her expression softened.
“You never said. Not a word. Not the slightest hint.”
I flailed. I honestly flailed.
“I didn’t know!”
Then she took my hand and her little smile nearly killed me.
“I’d love to go to prom with you, Kat. Assuming you’re asking.”

Monsters and Heroes

The first thing Lysandra did was belt on a sword stolen from her brother. If she succeeded, he need never know. If she failed, it would never matter. The second was to tie a cloth over her eyes. It was hard to be certain when she would meet the monster, so it was best she be protected. With any luck, the patron of Athens would be with her. Or maybe the Goddess of Love, given the nature of her quest. Taking a breath, she began to feel her way through the rocks that led to the cave. She was certain she would find what she was looking for there.
It was slow going, that sightless progress from beach to cave. Lysandra stopped twice, certain she heard movement but never once daring to adjust her blindfold just in case it was the monster. Her questing hands found stone before her and she nearly jumped out of her own skin when it moved, falling backward.
“Lady of Wisdom, please let that not have been her I just knocked over…”
A voice sounded from behind her, disturbingly close.
“The Lady of Wisdom has no place on my island. And neither do you.”
Lysandra didn’t turn. It would have done her no good. She let her hands fall to her sides and tried to keep from shaking.
“Neither does Pelagia.”
She wished for a moment that her voice had sounded more fierce, more determined, less afraid. But there was nothing she could do now. Snakes snapped all around her head and Lysandra knew that Medusa had come right up behind her. For a long moment, they both stood there like that. Then Medusa spoke, her voice low and dangerous.
“Do you know what happens to the people who come here?”
Lysandra licked her lips nervously.
“They turn to stone. When they see your eyes, they turn to stone.”
“Which is why you wore a blindfold, clever Athenian girl. Then you know the girl you’re looking for is stone. So why are you here?”
“Because I think you know how to turn her back.”
Lysandra listened to the shifting behind her as Medusa considered her words.
“Assuming for a moment that I could, why would I? Why would I restore any of them? What do you know about any of this?”
Medusa grabbed Lysandra by the arm and the girl screamed. Clamping her free hand over her mouth, Lysandra felt hot tears beginning to soak her blindfold.
“I don’t. I don’t know anything beyond the stories. They…they said you were a monster. I just came to rescue Pelagia. Because. Because I love her.”
When Medusa spoke, there was distaste in her voice.
“So, of course, you carried a sword to face a monster. Everything becomes clear. Once, I was as human as you, girl. As it happens, I can do what you wish, but it will be for a price.”
Lysandra’s heart leaped into her mouth and her pulse hammered in her ears.
“I’ll do it. Anything you want, I’ll do it.”
“There’s spring on the island. Use the water from that to wash the stone off of her and only her. Then take your Pelagia and go tell them that I am dead. I don’t care what story you tell, but make it convincing. I’m tired of would-be heroes trying to test themselves on me. I just want to be left alone.” Medusa let go of Lysandra’s arm. “I’ll be in my cave, so you can take your blindfold off. If you swear to the deal.”
Lysandra didn’t hesitate.
“I swear it on the River Styx.”

Lysandra had tucked the sword back among her brother’s belongings before she and Pelagia went to the agora with their news.
“I tell you, the gorgon Medusa is dead.”
Lysandra stood on a low wall, hands on her hips.
“And who slew that monster?”
“Was it you, girl?”
Lysandra glanced at Pelagia at her side and then smiled, spinning a tale no one would ever forget.
“Not I. It was a hero, a demigod named Perseus. I can tell you exactly how it happened.”

What It’s All About

Charlie hung her backpack on the hook on the stall door and leaned against the partition. With any luck, she could wait in here until the boys out there looking for her were gone. They wouldn’t think to look in here. Hopefully, anyway. If she heard the door open, she could always climb up and perch on the toilet. Maybe they’d just think the stall was locked. She double checked that she still had her pistol tucked into the waistband of her jeans. Good and good. Somehow, she didn’t think this was what her Daddy had had in mind when he’d gotten it for her before she left for college two years back. She could hear voices raised out in the store. Maybe they’d get the cops called on them. That’d serve them. She doubted it though. How many states had they chased her through and still managed to evade the notice of actual authorities? She didn’t even know why they were chasing her, of all people. Just that they were. When it got quiet again, she counted slowly down from 30 before grabbing her backpack and heading back out into the store. The cashier was looking at her funny but she grabbed a box of cereal, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of water. After a brief hesitation, she grabbed a small bottle of vitamins. Then she plunked it down on the counter along with a few small bills.
“Keep the change and thanks for not ratting me out.”
The girl behind the counter nodded.
“I’ll even let you out the back. That lot might be waiting in the parking lot.”
She smiled, shoving things into her backpack.
“You’re a lifesaver.”
It might even be true. She honestly didn’t know what they wanted her for. She’d never known. And she really didn’t plan on finding out. The cashier helped her slip out the back door and she set off into the woods. Based on the map, there was a highway. She could probably hitch her way to the next city and disappear there for a while. It would be risky, but it might just be worth it. She rested her hand on the slight swell of her abdomen. A few more months. Then maybe she might find out what this was all about.