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  When in doubt, there is always something to get done. Work. Tasks. Every little thing ticked like a seconds hand on a clock face to pass the time. Horseshoes. Nails. Drawer handles. There were things that Maple Hollow needed that only Fletcher could provide.

  He was happy to count the minutes with each order filled.

  Roland’s axe had been easy enough to repair. A quick polish afterwards and it looked as good as new. The blade was beautiful to begin with, no doubt the pride of some city blacksmith. With Fletcher’s care it became something of dignity once again.

  When Roland had picked it up he had come alone, much to Fletcher’s disappointment. His delight at his prized weapon’s repair and genial carousing softened the blow.

  Hazel had not shown their face since that evening in the tavern. The conversation had played over and over in Fletcher’s mind as he tried to sleep. It was easy to recall the delicate quirk of their smile and the way their mahogany hair looked in the lantern light. Like spun copper. Like strong coffee. Like cold beer on a hot summer day.

  Rings above, he hoped they took his advice and left the perfume behind.

  It was the afternoon after they departed for the fort that Fletcher saw the smoke rising from the southeast. No amount of tasks left undone stopped him.

  He had ceased and left at once, barely remembering to grab the pair of daggers from his home. They were simple things with handles wrapped in brown leather and bearing Apollo Black’s smithing seal.

  It had been a while since he had fought werewolves.

  He hoped he did not have to.

  The path to the cabin was well worn under his boots. There were years of experience surrounding the Viotto family cabin. Memories of Hunters passed were woven into the very enchantments that surrounded the clearing. They all ended with Ellen Black. She took her husband’s name, untraditional for the women of prominent hunting families. The Viottos became the Blacks and then became nothing when the family business withered away in the forest snow.

  Night began to fall across the trees and sent long shadows across the snow. Fletcher did not shiver, though the chill cut through his coat like a blade.

  The cabin was set in a clearing. Large Lyfe crystals sat erected in a circle around it, glittering green and blue in the fading sunlight. The ancient runes burned his skin as he passed by them. Fletcher paid them no heed, halting just outside the door.

  Wind chimes, made of vampire bones and crystals chattered in the breeze. A distant owl hooted. There was nothing else.

  But the smell of werewolves was strong, fading with time. The breeze carried the stink of blood, fur and perfume across the threshold.

  Fletcher swallowed, knocking on the door. “Miss Hazel?”

  For a moment there was nothing. The sound of the wind and rustle of tree branches were all that filled the air.

  Click. The latch came undone.

  “...Mr. Black?” Hazel cautiously opened the door. Bloodstains covered their hands, one clutching an unfurled whip. Their hair fell from their braid in haphazard stray stands.

  Relief washed over their eyes. “Oh, it is you! Hurry! Inside-” Hazel held open the door to let Fletcher in.

  The first thing Fletcher noticed after he stepped over the threshold was Roland, covered in blood and leaned over against the far wall, red-soaked bandages strewn about the floor around him.

  “O-Oi. Blacksmith.. Good work on that blade. M’fraid I lost it though,” he wheezed, dabbing the sweat from his forehead, “Buried it in the shoulder o’ one of those bastards and well, it got stuck there.” His laugh was weak but unfaltering even as he winced from the pain.

  It looked bad. Fletcher could not deny that. The scent of blood hit him like a hammer to the gut. “Damn,” he murmured, clenching his hands at his sides.

  The front room was usually quite cozy, all polished wood. There was a large red rug in the center of the floor with a rocking chair on one corner. Trophies from successful hunts, crystalline claws and pelts, hung from the walls. A fire was already roaring in the fireplace. The room was warm, the stuffy air and blood making his head swim.

  “No matter, Hunter,” Fletcher forced a smile, “You look in fine form at least.” That was a stretch. Roland was alive at least. When he saw the smoke rise, he thought the worst. “Once you three are back in town you can lament the loss.”

  Roland froze, the grin that had formed when Hazel resumed tending to him fading.

  “W-we lost Logan,” he said, grimacing. “I think he’s still alive but he cut the ropes on the bridge after we made it ‘cross. Last we saw he was facin’ down one of ‘em alone.” He winced and fell silent with a troubled scowl.

  Hazel quickly moved to alleviate the sudden pain, worry spreading quickly over their face. “Please don’t move. You got hurt defending me.” Their voice was high with anxiety, the accent bleeding together. It had been subtle before, a strange way to how they held their ‘r’s in the back of their throat and left certain letters off the end of words.

  Roland weakly waved a hand. “Logan never should have used you as bait in the first place. It was my job to make sure you didn’t get hurt because of it.”

  Fletcher swallowed hard, throwing his pack down onto the rocking chair.

  That would explain the perfume.

  There was a little voice in his mind that told him Logan deserved it. It was foolhardy and risky. But that's not fair. Going out alone was a common fate for Hunters. But it was not a sacrifice to be looked at lightly.

  “Did you get bitten,” Fletcher asked evenly. Roland did not smell any different, but the scent usually did not change until after the first transformation.

  “No,” Hazel shook their head, “I only found slashes. I can keep the wounds from growing worse, but I worry about the damage already done.”

  Whether that was a blessing or curse remained to be seen. If bitten his wounds would have started to close up on their own but Hazel’s Lyfe magic would have been rendered impotent.

  Roland coughed out a smile. “Cheers, love. It’s thanks to you I’m alive at all.”

  “You’re lucky, Roland,” he murmured.

  Hazel attempted to return the smile, and then turned to Fletcher. “The one that followed us stopped trying to force their way in about an hour ago. Did you encounter anything on your way here?”

  “I did not,” Fletcher turned from them, staring into the fire. If he had he would have not been happy. He was quite fond of this jacket. “I saw its tracks though.” And smelled them. “How long do you think before he can be moved?”

  The cabin was secure. Two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room made it a cozy little place. There was a stock of dried meat, fruit and wine in the cellar along with a sealed room from any prying eyes. But that was deep underground, behind a lock and protected from Hazel’s amber gaze. When it came time for him to abandon the smithy, it would be the perfect place to live in solitude.

  “We can stay here for a few days if needed. There are supplies. The enchantment will last as long as we do not open the door.”

  “The werewolf has been gone for a while now. Probably looking for Logan since we escaped its reach.” Hazel folded their hands in their lap, on top of the whip, black-blue and wrapped about like a snake over the floor.

  “I can walk. Hazel’s kept me together so I can make it.” Roland said confidently. “Logan’s a big boy. He’ll make do on his own.” Whether this was determination in Logan or just to convince himself was unclear.

  “Mr. Black? What should we do?”

  Fletcher flinched from Hazel’s look, covering it up with a cough. The plea in their eyes struck him like an arrow. “First. It will be dark soon. We cannot travel by night.” He would be fine in the dark, the dim light from the rings above enough for his keen eyes. But he doubted Hazel and Roland had the same boon.

  “Then-,”he continued, "We leave in the morning. I can look for Logan after we get you both safely tucked in at Angela’s” He knew these woods. If Logan was still among the trees, alive or otherwise, he was certain he could find him. The man’s scent was faint in the air even with the blood and two other humans stifling it.

  The bridge they spoke of had to be the one over the Hollowed River. It was treacherous to cross in most places but there was more than one cobbled together bridge along it.

  Hazel nodded. “Alright. Roland? Let’s get you to bed.”

  With Hazel’s help, Roland began hobbling towards one of the other rooms. It appeared his claim was nothing but bravado, as he had to lean heavily on the cleric to walk.

  After a few moments getting the Roland taken care of, Hazel went to wash the blood from their hands. Then, they found Fletcher, placing their cloak over one of the chairs.

  Fletcher was stroking at the fire with a poker. The last time he had been up here he had had enough forethought to cut a few logs. There were more in the pile outside but opening the door was not the best idea.

  “I’m glad to see you are whole,” he murmured, casting them a sideways glance.

  “If only by your kindness.” Hazel approached slowly, hands clasped together and avoiding his gaze.

  “Logan assumed that only one wolf would come. We were not prepared for the second,” they said, quietly, ”Logan drove it back enough for me to take Roland beyond the bridge. He knew we were headed here. If he never showed that must mean-”

  “It’s the life of a Hunter, ”Fletcher turned to face them fully. “Dying under the jaws of a beast is how most wish to go. But do not give up on him so easily.”

  The lump in his throat was hard to swallow around. “Maple Hollow is cursed. I beg you to leave here as soon as Roland is able.”

  The Viottos were cursed by the Gods. His mother had told him that. There was nothing that indicated it was an exaggeration.

  “C-cursed?” Hazel looked up at him. The stains of red near the hem of the skirt and the ends of the sleeves were more obvious in the flames’ glow.

  “Did they tell you what happened ten years ago,” Fletcher asked. He took his jacket off, and hung it on the chair opposite Hazel's. “There was a whole pack that destroyed half the town. Killed twenty people. Infected three.”

  He took in a sharp breath. “All because of my mother.”

  The hidden scar along his side ached with the phantom teeth sunk into his side a decade ago.

  “I heard about the attack but not why your mother would be involved. She was a monster Hunter, correct?” Hazel took a step closer. “Wa-was it revenge?”

  “It was.” He avoided their gaze. “My mother was not in town when they attacked. But they came for her at my family’s home in town.”

  His fists were clenched tightly at his sides, jaws set hard. “I-“

  Vivian was with him the night the werewolves attacked. The image of her broken at his feet had hung over him like a guillotine.

  “I had thought I’d driven them out of the forest that night. I was wrong so-.“ He took in a shaky breath. “I don’t want to see anyone else get hurt.”

  Hazel let their eyes fall away, an arm slowly rising to hold the other at the elbow. “Why are you so concerned for my safety? Clerics of Garth are expected to serve and soothe both the body and heart.” Their voice faltered, “W-We are replaceable very easily.”

  “People aren’t replaceable, Miss Hazel,” Fletcher faced them with a soft smile. “No matter the profession.”

  He cleared his throat. “And I once knew a gentle woman who died because of a beast. I would not want the same to befall you.”

  “That is kind of you to say. I am unaccustomed to such kind words.”

  “That’s a pity,” Fletcher was closer to them than he had ever been. They were a head shorter than him, even in heels. “You deserve better.”

  Words were the only comfort he could offer. A backwater disappointment had little power to console anyone.

  Hazel looked up at Fletcher. “I...um..,” they stuttered.

  He traced the gentle curve of their lips to their eyes with his gaze.

  “I-“ Fletcher ducked his head and stepped away to poke at the fire once again. “I apologize.” Though he was not sure who or what he was saying sorry to. “The master bedroom is at the end of the hall. You can take the bed there. I’ll sleep in here tonight.”

  Sleep was something he was not sure he was capable of that night. But he would try.

  “T-thank you.” Hazel folded their hands over one another and gave a bow. They paused at the frame of the door looking back at the man overlooking the flame.“Good night... Mr. Black.”

  Fletcher gazed over his shoulder at her. In the firelight their hair had turned to copper. Their eyes stared back with glints of soft caramel.

  For a moment he could pretend he was allowed to look at them,something tight clenching his chest like a vice. But that was all someone like him could manage. It was all that he deserved.

  “Call if you need me. I’ll surely hear you.”

  Before the squeezing in his lungs could suffocate him,he looked away. “Goodnight Miss Hazel.”

~

  The next morning the gentle warmth of the winter sun poking over the trees outside roused Hazel from their slumber.

  They pulled the outer layer of their dress over their head and quietly applied their makeup. Then taking the bottle of perfume their sister had given them, they sprayed their neck and chest. It was like clockwork now. Getting ready was as much a duty as healing had become.

  They emerged from the room, stepping lightly to the room Roland was in. His snores reassured them that he was, at the very least, alright. In the sitting room, Hazel found Fletcher slumped over in a chair by the fading embers. His hair was disheveled but his breathing was steady.

  Before they could stop themself, Hazel leaned in close to Fletcher’s face.

  His stern features were softened in sleep, square jaw slack as he snored lightly. Under straight eyebrows his eyelashes were dark and longer than Hazel expected. Something sweet smelling lingered around him. A beard oil or cologne perhaps? His short beard and mustache looked well groomed,that was certain.

  They froze as the distance between them came too close. Backing away and stepping over to their cloak, they pulled it free from the chair and gently covered Fletcher with it. Then, Hazel stepped away into the kitchen, looking for something, bacon perhaps, to cook for breakfast.

~

  Fletcher woke like the sun breaking over the dawn, soft and slowly. The fire had smoldered down to almost embers. But the light was not needed with the morning sun peeking into the dusty windows.

  He groaned, sitting up. It had been a long time since the cabin had been more than a lonely place. The cloak around him, soft and fragrant like being wrapped in a summer field, made his heart nearly stop. How long had it been since he had woken with such kindness? He stood up, careful to lay the cloak down on the back of the chair.

  Then he went to the kitchen, following the rustling of soft hands like breadcrumbs in a forest. “Good morning,” Fletcher stifled a yawn with one hand. “There is nothing fresh here. There are some canned and dried goods in the cellar.”

  Hazel smiled, closing the cabinet they were searching through for food. "Oh. Good morning, Mr. Black. I was going to prepare breakfast...but..."

  They turned and bowed. "I do not know where the cellar is, but if there is food I can prepare, if you bring it to me, I can prepare it. It's the least I can do after your kindness saved Roland and myself."

  “There is no need for that, Miss Hazel.” Fletcher said. He fell in beside them, reaching to the cabinet and pulling out a jar of ground coffee.

  “It's hard to do much more with beef jerky.” Unless they were a witch, making the meat anything more than peppery and tough was impossible.

  He busied himself with starting a fire in the pot-bellied stove.

  The kitchen seemed to be built as an afterthought, a room cobbled with stone on the back of the cabin. Dried herbs hung from the ceiling. The whole room smelled earthy, like rosemary and myrrh, even as the stove sprang alight. Cabinets lined one side of the room with a stone basin made of aquamarine crystals. Flow stones were rarely used outside of fishing and sailing but it had gotten popular to utilize their magic for plumbing.

  “But I’ll be happy to go get us something to eat once I get some coffee going,” Fletcher quipped.

  Roland seemed like a coffee drinker. It would be better for him than whatever he kept in his flask.

  Hazel stepped back as Fletcher moved towards the countertop. It was, after all, his cabin. They folded their arms behind their back and leaned back against the stone wall. “That would be wonderful.”

  After making sure the water in the pot he put onto the stove had started to boil, Fletcher swept down to the cellar.

  The entrance was outside the cabin, a pair of large doors set directly into the soil. There was no scent of werewolves nearby, morning dew clogging his senses. At least it was safe for now as he closed the front door behind him. A heavy padlock kept anything that could make it past the enchantment out. Fletcher took the keys from his belt and unlocked it.

  The smell of earth and spices hit him as he threw the doors open. There were many shelves filled with jars of preserved food. Hardtack and beef jerky were stored in parchment lined boxes. Some of it was made by Fletcher himself, jams and vegetables carefully prepared with recipes left behind by his father. The rest was purchased in town. It was enough to feed a family of four for a whole winter.

  Fletcher studied the shelves, finally settling on enough jerky, hardtack and spiced berry jam for the three of them.

  Then he left, making sure to close and lock the door behind him.

  “Miss Hazel,” Fletcher strolled into the kitchen, arms full of his spoils. “I hope this will do.”

  Hazel nodded, examining the ingredients Fletcher had brought back.

  “I’ll go wake Roland.” They stepped away and down to Roland’s room. After a few moments Hazel returned to the kitchen, where the scent of jerky was beginning to fill the air.

  Fletcher turned to her as she entered the room, a full plate and steel mug of coffee in his hands. “This is for Roland,” he nodded towards what he held. “I don’t have any milk so I hope black coffee is alright with you.”

  He had warmed the dried meat and hardtack in a skillet with butter from the cabinet. There was a heap of the jam on the side.

  The kitchen table was simple, mostly utility with its oak surface and matching benches on either side. Food and plates were scattered across the surface.

  Nodding, Hazel handed Roland the plate and drink. His hand trembled as he took it,even though he tried a jovial grin at the attention.

  Hazel checked over Roland’s injuries, gentle hands lingering. The wounds would need further attention once they returned, but for now their biggest obstacle was managing to return to town at all.

  “The werewolves… Would they still be roaming during the day?” Hazel asked.

  “They can,” Fletcher sat into his own seat. “The sun does not hold any sway over them.” He took a bite of his jerky, chewing thoughtfully. “I did not see any sign of them near the cabin at least.”

  Sugarcoating it would not do any good. They needed to be careful. It was a long hike in tip top condition. It would take twice as long with Roland’s injuries.

  “I can give you sachets to mask your scents.”

  Aconite and myrrh wrapped up were a keen combination, clogging the senses of any werewolf. He tended to not keep the two together but this was a unique circumstance. “If we get separated it will be difficult but they won’t be able to track you.”

  Neither will I.

  If it came down to it he could take a leaf from Logan’s book.

~

  The winter air nipped at Hazel even as they pulled their cloak’s hood over their head. Roland leaned against them, balancing on the crutch they had rigged from a branch. In their other hand was their whip.

  “Mr. Black, I think we’re ready,”they said.

  Fletcher had pulled on his own jacket, a pack thrown over one shoulder. The daggers at his hips were sheathed and ready.

  “Good.” He passed over the threshold after them, shutting the door behind him. “These are for the both of you,” he said, holding up a pair of small bags.

  The faint odor of myrrh flitted over ,overpowering the aconite easily. He swallowed down the bile in his throat. The unique stink made his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth.

  Their pouches taken, Hazel helped Roland along and followed behind Fletcher, careful to stay close.

  The air felt still other than the chill of the wind. Fletcher listened carefully for anything that was not the sound of their footsteps crunching in the snow.

  Nothing.

  None of them spoke as they carefully crept through the trees. Despite it being morning,the tall pines were shadowy and as inky as the evening gloom. Fletcher led them through as easy a path as he could. The trail down to the town was at least worn enough that Roland didn’t struggle to tread it. But it was not ideal.

  Fletcher glanced back at them as often as he could.

  Roland’s face was damp with sweat,leaning on Hazel. Anxiety was plain on both of their faces as their eyes went to the thick trees around them.

  Thankfully nothing accosted them. They left the thickest part of the woods and were finally graced with the light of morning.

  It was when they reached the bridge ten miles out from Maple Hollow that they found it.

  The carcass of a werewolf, slumped over on its back, a familiar two-handed sword,the blade’s center as black as a starless night and lined with silver with a red Spark crystal in its hilt, ran deep into its chest, a trail of dried blood on the ground underneath it.

  “...L...Logan.” Roland whispered.

  The dark haired Hunter was nowhere to be seen.

  “Oh no.” Hazel shifted a bit closer to Fletcher.

  He fought the urge to lean into them. His eyes were only for the werewolf. The fur-pattern was distinct, almost golden in color with glassy eyes.

  He knew him.

  Geoffrey Nightfog had been a traveling bard who’d stopped in Maple Hollow. One of the three who’d been infected by the attack,he’d been unable to hold the beast at bay. The last time Fletcher had seen him, Geoffrey was limping away into the forest. A decade had not faded the memory.

  Fletcher tore himself from the group, approaching the corpse. Logan was an expert to the end. The trick was to kill the werewolf quickly. If a Hunter did not,it would revert to human form as it died. There were no trophies to gather from a humanoid corpse.

  Quietly, out of habit he said a prayer to the Judge for Logan and Geoffrey Nightfog.

  Then with one hand Fletcher tore the blade from its place, spraying blood over the snow. “I’m sure he will want this taken care of by you, Roland.”

  Roland lifted himself away from Hazel, reaching out to take the sword. His arm almost buckled under the weight, but he held it firm. “R...right.”

  The rest of the journey back was taken without incident. Fletcher breathed a sigh of relief as Maple Hollow came into view. The sight of the bloodied Roland elicited some gasps from onlookers as they made their way.

  “I’ll be fine, love. Get yourself cleaned up.” He said with a strained grin as he gestured towards the bloodstains of Hazel’s dress near the end of the sleeves and a section of the skirts. Then he was led inside by a fretful cleric.

  Hazel turned to Fletcher. “I don’t have any other clothes. If I get this cleaned-” They lifted the stained skirt. “I will need something else to wear in the meantime.”

  “Let’s take you back to Angela’s.” Fletcher motioned down the path.

  The afternoon sun was high in the sky. Pale rings of violet and aquamarine were clear across the blue,only obscured by fairy floss clouds. It was a beautiful day,all things considered.

  “The stains will come out with vinegar,” he added. Blood was something he had been taught to clean out many times. “I can buy you something else in the meantime. My treat.”

  How could Lord Garth send them with only one set of clothing? Healing was bloody work.

  Hazel followed quietly behind Fletcher, breathing out a sigh. “Thank you.”

  Fletcher gazed down at them,smiling weakly. “It’s no bother.” There were times when he realized he had not much use for his money. The most he spent on was nice liquor and raw materials for his personal projects.

  If he had taken care of them the werewolves wouldn’t have been there to sully Hazel’s pretty clothing.

  “I can have something sent to your room if you’d like.”

  Hazel bowed as they reached the entrance to the inn. “I am in your debt.” They looked up at him and smiled. “Truly, it has been an honor to meet you, Mr. Black.”

  “The honor has been mine,Miss Hazel.” He returned the bow. “Until later.” With that,Fletcher left before he could correct them.

  Meeting someone like him was no honor.

~

  Hazel stepped inside and rounded the stairway up the stairs. No Roland. No Logan. It was almost like they were there of their own volition. They could pretend that was the case if they ignored the shake in their hands and the blood on their clothing.

  The maids had already straightened from their departure earlier, making the beds and dusting the furniture. The scent of lemon oil lingered and overpowered the blood.

  Hazel stepped around to the washroom and over to the tub. Warm water, no doubt provided via Flow and Spark crystal like Garth’s, began to fill its basin. Veridia had shown them ages ago how by taking the soap under the flow, the entire bath would become sudsy and smell sweet.

  Undoing the clasp of their cloak, they let it fall off onto the floor near one of the beds as they walked back out to get undressed.

  As they stood in just the underdress and their smallclothes, their thoughts drifted back to Fletcher. It was only thanks to him they were even alive to enjoy this bath.

  The thought of him and baths crossed their mind and sent a redness creeping into their cheeks. Shaking their head, they stopped the water flow and dipped a finger in.

  Heavenly.

  Hazel sank into the soothing water,muscles relaxing as the fear and anxiety of the day melted away.

  Safe.

  They were safe after a nightmarish twenty four hours.

  It would be another hour before Hazel would have a package slipped into their room after the courier knocked. The knock pulled Hazel out from the edge of dozing off. They lifted out of the tub and reached for the towel, creeping out to retrieve it.

  A parcel with a note wrapped around it sat on the floor. It was wrapped in parchment with a note in an unfamiliar script.

  “Mr. Black.” Hazel lifted the note up and read it over.

  Miss Hazel,

    I hope this is suitable for now. I’m going to look for Logan and will update you and Roland soon.

  Your’s,

  Fletcher

  “F...Fletcher.” Hazel whispered.

  They put the note down, pulling open the parcel. A black dress with a cinched waist and white long sleeved undershirt was inside, alongside a ribbon to tie around the neck.

  Hazel held the dress up to their body. It would certainly fit. Fletcher knew their size already? Was he that observant or just lucky? They laid the dress on the bed and moved to recover their undergarments and try the dress on.

  For some reason the thought of wearing a dress a man bought did not feel dirty this time.

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About the author

acureforliving

  • United States

Bio: Hey!

You can call me “E”. I write solo and with my spouse. I’m still learning how this website works so we’ll see if I can figure it out.

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