WINTER GUEST
"Rabbit lady looking for lady companion this winter Must be small, tidy, and able to play an instrument Food and board provided free of charge Contact me here" The piece of paper read. A small sigil was drawn below the text. A little rabbit woman, disguised as a human child, took a pin from her apron pocket. She adjusted her bonnet that hid away her ears, the one part of her other than her tail that she could not hide with magic. The rabbit woman stood on the tips of her toes reaching for the board where other messages were placed. She was too short to reach it. Her small bit of magic wouldn't allow her to make herself any bigger than she already had. She tried to levitate the paper and the pin, but she wasn't strong enough to stick the pin in the paper. She stretch again to reach the board, then sighed. There was no way for Flower to reach the board here. She would have to try a different board in the city. A blond man in a blue robe tapped her on the shoulder. "Do you need help, Miss?" Flower looked over at the man. He was very tall and looked like a human. She sensed magic about him, and presumed it was a disguise. "I can manage." Flower said. She backed up against the wall. "Well, if you're sure. I wasn't trying to insult you. You looked like you were having difficulties." The man smiled at her. Flower sniffed the air around him. She didn't pick up any gun powder or metal on him. Flower held the paper out to him. "Could you place this up here?" The blond man nodded. He put the paper up in the middle of the board. Rabbit wondered what sort of creature he really was. His appearance had to be a disguise, she thought. He seemed nice enough, but he was too big to fit in her burrow and she wasn't interested in a male companion. The blond man read over her message. He looked down at her. "Oh, you are looking for a companion, I see?" "A female companion. A small person who can fit in my burrow." She said. "I see. I have a companion myself. He keeps me quite happy. I wish you luck, Miss." The blond man looked over the paper again. He rubbed his chin. "Are you sure you've included everything?" "Yes, thank you." Flower said. "Well, I wish you luck." The blond man said. Flower's stomach growled. She blushed. She was in such a hurry to get in and out of the city she forgot to eat. "Oh, are you hungry, Miss? I was on my way to get some lunch before heading home. Would you like to join me?" The blond man asked. "I doubt I would be interested in the same kind of food as you." She said. Fear rose up her back. She worried the strange man was seeking to lure her away and stuff her in a bag. "If you're worried I'll be having one of your friends for lunch, you needn't worry. I don't eat meat, though I do eat eggs from time to time. I was thinking of getting lentils and rice or some oatmeal with fruit." The man smiled kindly at her. She couldn't sense any ill will about the man. Nervously, she decided to take the man up on his offer, if he agreed to pay for her meal. She didn't have any currency on her that could be used in this place and many in the city weren't so willing to trade like those out in the countryside. The man in blue led her to a small establishment near the edge of town. He ordered strawberry oatmeal and lemonade for himself. Flower had a dandelion salad and apple juice. Flower watched the strange man. He seemed, she thought, to not be the brightest. He was too easy going about his surroundings. Flower wondered if she might be able to trick him out of his name and gain a little bit of power for herself. "Thank you for treating me. I didn't eat before I set out." Flower said in a cheery voice. "Oh, it's nothing. I don't really like eating in places like this by myself." He said. "Me neither, but I don't like the city much in general." Flower smiled widely. "Oh, I didn't ask your name. What should I call you?" "My name?" The man looked to the side. He smiled back. "You may call me Rin." "Rin, huh?" Flower kept smiling. His reaction to her question told her the name he gave was likely fake. He didn't answer her with "my name is" but "you may call me". It was a common tactic used by anyone with sense. She noted he didn't ask for her name back, which confirmed to her even more than he did not give her his real name. Flower played dumb about knowing of his deception. "So, where do you live?" "I live in the forest at the border to the southwest of here. My home is half in each realm." Rin said. "Where's your companion at?" "Oh, he's not one for cities. He likes staying home and hunting little ones like you." Rin's smile turned to a cruel grin. "How horrid!" Flower yelped. She drew her arms in close to herself, ready to run if necessary. "I've told him the same, but he keeps doing it." Rin shrugged, as what if what he said wasn't anything frightening at all. "You should get rid of your companion." Flower frowned. She glared at Rin. "It's his way. I can't interfere. We're all prey to someone." "Is he a human?" Flower asked. "Well, physically, you could say something like that if you wanted to." Rin answered. Flower pinpointed what Rin really was, a fairy. He spoke and acted like they did, Flower thought. His ignorance about his surroundings was a facade, an act to trick someone like herself into letting her guard down. She had no intentions of being had by a fairy. "And what about you? Where did you come from?" "I was born by a beautiful river to an unfortunate girl and an unfortunate boy." Rin's answer was as vague as all his others. "And you, Miss? Where is your little burrow?" "I won't tell. You might send a hunter to my door." Flower turned her nose up at him. "I just might." He smirked. Flower gasped at his words. He laughed when she did. "I'm only joking." "It's no joke for me. Every day is a struggle. Coming to this place...this was the only city nearby I might be safe in." Flower slammed her tiny hands on the table. "That is true, but I would watch your back when you leave." Rin said. "I know that." Flower said. She had one more trick for him. She put on a surprised face and got on top of the table. Flower reached for Rin's blond hair. "Oh, you have something in your hair. Let me get it for you." "No need for that." Rin pulled a long, silver thread out of his shoulder length hair. He handed the thread to her. "You wanted something to take home, didn't you?" Flower saw this as more proof he was a fairy. She laughed off what she did as something innocent. "Ahaha...you caught me. I couldn't help myself. Your hair is so golden and shiny." "My hair doesn't come cheaply, but if you'd like to make a deal..." Rin ran his fingers through his hair. Fairies didn't usually make deals with little ones like her, not unless they were one of the old ones. She asked. "Who are you, exactly? You're different than others I've met. Are you a grandson of one of the seasonal queens?" "My grandfather serves the Lord of Death at the moment, and my father once did." Rin said. "The Lord of Death..." Flower shivered at hearing those words. Few would so casually mention such a being, for it was seen as bad luck and may bring unwanted attention to oneself from that great one. Flower forced herself to laugh. "Oh, I see. You're joking again, right?" "I might be." He laughed back. "So, what do you say, Miss Rabbit? Do you want to make a trade? A lock of golden hair, what would you give in exchange? I can assure you there is strong magic in my bloodline and my hair has been strengthened by unicorn milk. It would be quite a useful tool to have, perhaps in making a protection amulet for your front door?" "My mother always told me to never make deals with fairies, and I haven't much to offer." Flower said. She wanted to see what she could get out of the fairy man. "What about your hair? Rabbit fur, gifted willingly, is much more powerful than taken by force. I was thinking the other day I'd like to add some to my supply of that strength." He suggested. "How do I know you won't use this to do something bad to me?" Flower asked. She was weary of giving her own fur up. Hair, next to blood, was the most powerful ingredient one could use in magic. As much as she wanted to snatch a few strands of his, she wasn't so willing to part with hers. "I can't prove that to you. Hair is a power tool. Perhaps, instead, may I have that spoon you're carrying in your pocket?" He pointed to the left pocket of her apron. Flower looked inside her pocket. There was a spoon there, left from the previous day when she was cooking dinner. She held it up. "This? What for?" "It's quite beautiful. I'd love to have it as a measuring spoon." He offered her a deal. "What do you say? Three strands of hair for your spoon?" Flower traced the tiny letters at the end of the spoon. "I don't know...this spoon was made by my husband before he died. It's very valuable to me..." "Six strands." He countered. "Six strands and the button in your pocket." Flower responded back. She'd caught glimpse of a button in his pocket when they walked together. Her nose told her it was rowan wood. The small button would be useful for protection magic. "Oh, you checked my pockets, did you?" He laughed about it. Rin pulled six strands of hair from his head. He handed them and the wooden button to her. "It's a deal." Flower handed him the spoon. It was true that her late husband made the spoon for her, as he made all the utensils in their house. She had other spoons made by him. Flower tucked her prizes away into a pouch and placed the pouch in her right apron pocket. After lunch, she parted ways with the fairy and ran straight home. Once she was out of the city, she let her bonnet fall back and transformed into her real self. Her patchwork dress shrunk in size to match her real body. The long hair she had in her disguise spread out across her body as her fur. Flower hid away in her burrow, locking the wooden door at the main entrance. She went to work making a protection amulet out of the blond hair and wooden button. Flower got her sewing needle and threaded it with the golden hair. She pulled the hair through the holes in the button several times. She added a bit of her own fur over the golden hair before looping it through a few more times. Flower recited the incantation her mother taught her when she was young before pricking her finger and letting a single drop of blood fall onto the hair. When it was done, Flower hung the newly made amulet over the door. She had one there before, but it had fallen off and broke a few days before her husband was killed. She hadn't had time to make a new one then, and as nothing had happened to their home in so long, she became lax about it. Her husband could do magic, but not the way she could. His talent lay in making remedies and healing wounds, not in making amulets. If she hadn't been out foraging, she would have been in someone's rabbit stew months ago. Since his death, she hadn't made a new amulet either. A part of her felt guilty every time she thought of it. With the fairy's golden hair and her note posted in town, she was finally ready to put up a new one. Winter wouldn't be long now. That would be her last long trip before spring. For the next week, she foraged and stored what she could. There was no telling what would be edible through the winter. Last winter, her and her husband barely made it. Food was scarcer than usual. Sharing her resources with another in her home was risky, but braving winter alone frightened her more. She had never spent a winter alone before. When she was young, she lived with her parents and moved in with a nice rabbit from a burrow nearby her family's after that. They had a good many children together, and Flower could move in with them, but she didn't want to leave her burrow behind. At the end of the week, the bell above her door began ringing. Someone was trying to contact her through her sigil. Flower rushed to the bell. She picked up some dirt from the floor. Flower blew the dirt into the air and kept it up with a wind spell. In the center, a silhouette started to appear. A woman's face, partly covered by a cloak and covered in silver-gray fur, appeared. "Who calls me?" Flower asked. "I saw your note, Miss, about a lady companion. Is the offer still available?" The lady in the cloak asked. Flower couldn't help but find, of what she could see of the woman, quite beautiful. She had piercing amber eyes like none Flower had seen before and thick, shiny fur. Flower wondered what sort of creature she was and if her appearance was a disguised. She hoped the lady might be another rabbit. "That it is. Are you a child of the forest as I am?" "Yes. I know a bit of magic, from what my mother taught me. I can make the fire in your home burn warmer at night and I can make pies that will make you withstand the cold better." The lady said. "Oh, that's wonderful." Flower said. She noticed fine embroidery on the lady's cloak. Violets, roses, and peonies, all delicately stitched along the edges were so well done they rivaled the finest work she had ever seen in any city shop. "Did you do the work on your cloak, Miss? It's quite good." "Oh, yes. Embroidery is a specialty of mine. I come from a long line of embroiderers. If you have the items, I can enchant clothing with protections. There's unicorn hair in one of these lilies, a gift from my husband's mother. I don't have anything special items on me at the moment, but if you have the items, I can use them in my work." The lady explained. "Actually, I do have some golden hair from a fairy that I recently acquired. Having it woven into my coat would be nice." Flower still had five strands of hair left. "Then, is it a deal? I will bring some of my own food as well. I've collected a lot." The lady said. "It's a deal!" Flower said. She gave the lady instructions on how to get to her home. The lady told her it would take her a day or two to arrive. Flower waited anxious for her guest to arrive, already anticipating the lady to be another rabbit. She tidied up the home while she waited and finished off the quilt she was working on for her guest. Flower canned fruit for later, carefully writing each letter so it would be easy to read for her guest. Two days passed, and a knock came at the door. Flower opened the door. A fox woman stood on the other side. Flower quickly closed the door and sealed it shut with magic. 'A fox...I've been tricked!' Flower's heart raced. The fox knocked on the door. "Miss, please don't be frightened. I'm here about the deal we discussed. We spoke recently." "I'm not letting a fox in my house! You'll take my home and leave my bones by the fire!" Flower yelled. "But Miss, your note never said foxes weren't welcome! I won't eat you. I swear, I will not eat a rodent or bird in your home!" The vixen pleaded with her. "Please Miss, from a vixen to a doe, won't you grant me this mercy? Let me stay in your home over the winter. I have no place to go this winter." "What happened to your den?" Flower asked. "My husband and I were living along the border in our little den we built many years ago. I went out to get some dinner, sifting through the leftovers humans always throw out, when I heard him calling me. I ran back home and found a pack of dogs at our door. The hunters were carrying his body off and our home was destroyed. I've been hiding with other fox friends nearby, but with winter coming, food will be scarce. I've collected up some of my own food, but it won't be enough. Then, I saw your note asking for a lady companion." The vixen begged her. "Please, Miss, let me stay. I will clean the house and keep to myself." "Vixen, you have not met all the requirements yet. Where is your instrument?" Flower cracked the door open slightly. The fox revealed a small harp from under her cloak. She played the instrument for Flower. "This was one of the few things that the humans didn't destroy. My husband hid it well for me, under a shroud of illusions." "You may stay for now, but if you so much as raise a claw at me, the protection spell around this house will strike you down dead." Flower held the door wide open. Against her better judgment, she decided to let the vixen stay. Flower added one more condition. "And you must give me your name." The fox stopped playing her harp. Meekly, she said. "My name is Ester." Flower let Ester into her home. As promised, Ester ate no bird or rodent meat within Flower's home. She survived off of human scraps she foraged when she was out looking for meat. When she was inside the burrow with Flower, she mostly ate the same things as Flower, with an added bit of worm here and there. After sunset, when the days had become quite long, Ester played her harp while Flower knitted. Some days, Ester embroidered. Flower's coat was now decorated with small suns near the clasps. They spoke little to eat other, and Flower never fully trusted Ester, but she was happy to not be alone in the darkest part of the year. A home too quiet was maddening, and Ester kept the fire strong and the smoke of Flower's chimney hidden better than than Flower and her husband typically did with their magic. Everything was going well until a terrible storm came through. A blizzard, with howling winds, shook the trees and snapped branched away. A very large branch landed near the entrance of Flower's burrow. The force of the impact should have broken the door open, but the amulet kept it protected. However, in doing so, the amulet was spent. It snapped in half. Flower needed to make a new amulet, but she didn't have an appropriate wood on hand and Ester had used the rest of the golden hairs on Flower's coat. "The amulet has broken...Does that mean it protected us?" Ester asked. "Yes, it did its job, but I can't make another until the storm passes!" Flower cried. "There, there. We're still safe in here. Perhaps we should go to the deepest part of the burrow for now?" Ester suggested. "I suppose that would be best." Flower said. Flower and Ester went deeper into the ground only to find that most of the rest of the burrow was buried now. They couldn't go any further. Flower checked her pantry next. The food was spared. Ester looked over their firewood. They were going to need more soon. She used her magic to make the fire as warm and last as long as she could to cut down on how much wood they would need. Such magic weakened her, and Ester became too weak to stand. Flower set up a cot for her not far from the fire. They sat and ate jam together, with Ester embroidering and Flower knitting, both of them working hard to forget the wind outside the door. When the storm cleared out, Flower got to work on gathering more wood. She found some suitable for her amulet, but needed a powerful thread to bind it with. Flower couldn't find anything suitable outside. She told herself she would consult the spellbook her mother gave her on how to make a suitable substitute for what she needed. If there was nothing, she would have Ester undo the work on her cloak. Ester jumped down through the top of the snow to join Flower on her way back. "Did you find what you needed?" "Not all of it. I did find some rowan wood, but I'll need another ingredient. I'll see what I can do when we get back." Flower said. Flower and Ester froze. They heard footsteps, large ones. Ester poked her head out of the snow slightly to see what was coming. She ducked back down immediately. "A man! There's a man with a bow!" "A human! Quick, transform! Let's pretend to be children!" Flower whispered. "I'll do you one better." Ester transformed herself into an adult human woman. She was dressed in a tight-fitting, low cut dress. A hooded cloak covered her head to hide her fox ears. Flower turned herself into a small child, with a bonnet to hide her long ears. Ester picked her up and hide her under her cloak against her body. The human with the bow approached them. He was dressed in red. His features were unusual for the humans in the area. Flower suspected he might be a fairy in disguise. "A woman? What are you doing out here in this weather?" The man in red helped Ester to her feet. "It's so cold...I'm lost. My daughter and I have been lost for hours. Do you know of a place where we could be sheltered? The nights have been so cold...I am sure I can...repay you somehow..." Ester leaned against the man in red, putting on a pitiful expression and giving her eyes a watery look with magic. The man in red held her for a moment, then unclasped her cloak. It fell around her and revealed her fox ears. He smiled at her. "Vixen, you are quite clever, and I am very hungry." Flower leapt from Ester's arms and pulled out a bone knife her husband made for her. Her bonnet fell off as she jumped, her own ears now on display. Flower lunged at the man's legs. The man in red grabbed her by her ears with one hand and touched the tip of her knife with the other. The bone knife turned hot in her hand. She dropped the knife. It was so hot it melted through the snow and fell all the way to the earth beneath it. Flower kicked at the man until he dropped her. "A fairy hunter!" Flower yelled. Ester pushed away from the man and returned to her real form beside Flower. "Do you really think I will eat you?" The man asked, amused. Flower, now in her true form, ripped the golden hair from her coat and wrapped it around her fingers. She recited the first incantation her mother ever taught her, a protection spell that would set fire to any who dared to hurt her. With no aid, it would send a slight burning sensation through the man's skin. With the fairy's hair, she knew she should be able to burn right through his boots. The spell failed. The fire burned around him, but did not touch him. She didn't understand it. Unless he was one of the old ones, or the owner of the hair, that shouldn't have happened. Flower froze. "Who...who are you?" "You try to set fire to me, and now you ask?" He laughed. More footsteps came from behind them. Flower and Ester huddled close together. It was the blond fairy man from the city, Rin. He wore a heavy blue cloak over his robe. The snow melted wherever he stepped. "Leave them be. They are friends of mine." Rin said to the man in red. The man in red held up his unstrung bow. "I wasn't going to eat them. I never eat the ones that have magic." "You shouldn't eat any of them, but you never listen." Rin said. Rin turned his attention to Flower and Ester. "Pardon us for the intrusion. He's very hungry right now, and the snow has delayed us from our destination. Do you happen to have any food?" "You! You're the fairy I met in the city!" Flower yelled. "We...we do have food we could share, perhaps, if you wanted to make another exchange." Ester whispered. "Should we really be negotiating with a fairy? They'll trick us the first chance they get." "Shh...I can handle this one." Flower reassured her. "I have lots of jam and cakes ready." "Cake?" Rin's eyes lit up. "Oh no...you've said the right words, alright." The man in red sighed. "What of meat? Do you have meat, Vixen?" "I have some fried worms and beetles." Ester offered. "I'll take that." The man in red shrugged. "What are you wanting in exchange?" "Hair, golden hair. I need to replace the protection amulet in my home. And..." Flower looked at both of the men for anything she could get off of them. She pointed to the man in red. "And one of the beads in your hair, the one made from emerald." "That's quite a lot to ask for in exchange for cake and worms." The man in red said. "It's a deal." Rin said. "Really?" The man in red looked at his companion strangely. "Let them have the bead. You have over twenty beads in your hair right now." Rin said. The man in red reluctantly removed one of the emerald beads decorating one of his many small braids. He handed it to the vixen. Rin plucked seven strands of hair out. "You said you needed a new protection amulet, didn't you? Why don't you let me make it for you? I'm very skilled at making them." Rin suggested to the pair. Ester and Flower exchanged looks before agreeing to let Rin make it. Ester went inside and got the food items ready for the travelers while Flower watched Rin make the new amulet. Rin used two pieces of rowan wood for the new amulet, bound together by his hair. He asked his companion for one of the black feathers decorating the ends of his braids at the front of his hair. The black feather and some of Flower's fur were placed in the middle before he finished binding the twigs together. He finished it with a drop of his blood. Flower placed the amulet above the door. She and Ester presented the pair with the food. "Thank you for the food. He's so cranky when he's hungry." Rin said. "Sorry about earlier. I really wasn't going to eat you. I was only teasing you because you used magic on me first." The man in red said. "I hope I didn't frighten you too much." "You frightened me very much! You need to work on your manners!" Flower said sternly. The man in red laughed. "Forgive me. I haven't had much practice at interacting with children of the forest such as yourself. I'll try to do better next time." The two companions left shortly after that. Flower never sorted out why her spell didn't work on the man in red. She wondered if it were somehow possible that Rin had created the man in red himself and thus, he was an extension of himself, but she doubted a fairy so easy to trick would be able to accomplish such powerful magic as that. She reasoned, in her panicked state, that she simply forgot a word in the incantation. The weather improved after the blizzard and spring came sooner than expected. Ester packed her things. She readied herself to leave. "Where will you go now?" Flower asked. "I suppose wherever I must to find someone to share a new den with. Many of those here are paired off or relatives of mine. I will have to journey far, so I must be going right away." Ester said. She placed her bag on the floor in front of the door. No sooner than Ester put down the bag did the burrow fill with silence behind Flower. Her words stumbled out clumsily. "Must you? You could...stay here for a while if you'd like." "If I stay, I will have to wait another year before finding a new husband." Ester said. "We are not like the silent ones who don't know magic or logic. We have years to spare." Flower said. "I thought you were worried about having a vixen in your burrow." Ester teased her. "There are advantages to having a fox around, and I find my food tastes better when it is made to harp music." Flower straightened out her apron. "Perhaps us old widows could take a break from children and husbands for a while, don't you think?" "To be honest...I wasn't looking forward to all that courtship nonsense again. Perhaps I should stay another year, out of respect for my husband." Ester said. "Yes, I think we should both forget about marriage for now." Flower said. "But if I am to stay the year, don't you think I am owed something?" Ester said with a sly smile. "What is that?" "Your name. You never gave it to me, and I already gave you mine." Ester said. "Oh, that." Flower laughed nervously. Once she said that word, there was no undoing it. It would be unwise to give her name to a fox. She curtsied. "My name is Flower. Welcome to my home." The vixen put the bag away. She walked out of the burrow in the spring air with the doe a step behind her. Flowers covered the ground in a rainbow of colors. Out of another burrow, Flower caught a snake slithering out with a pair of rabbits. The old stag with his ladies filled the fields. More than hunger, Flower yearned for the warmth of the sun. She looked around at all the movement surrounding her and fell back in the clovers. She sunned herself while Ester pointed out shapes in the clouds.
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