Briar Blackwood's Grimmest of Fairytales

First published by Lodestone Books, 2015

Lodestone Books is an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd., Laurel House, Station Approach,

Alresford, Hants, SO24 9JH, UK

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Text copyright: Timothy Roderick 2014

ISBN: 978 1 78279 922 1

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014952386

All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publishers.

The rights of Timothy Roderick as author have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright,

Designs and Patents Act 1988.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Design: Stuart Davies

Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

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Prologue

The spindle, gleaming, cold as winter, had no real feelings, save hunger. It was constructed of malice and fear, the swirling poisons of death, and it had but one purpose. The Lady held it aloft in her icy porcelain fist, tightening, squeezing, awakening darkness to its chore.

A ray of moonlight, just a sliver of pale gray through the tall, lean windows, reached the infant laying in the bassinet. There was no other light in the soaring stone chamber, and when the light-fragment, the shadow of illumination touched the child's green eyes, she instinctively reached a tiny trembling hand upward. She too had her purpose, and she curved her small back, as though aching for the sharp point that hovered just above her.

One solid plunge and it would be done. The Lady inadvertently caught the infant's gaze and her heart shuddered. The cooing little thing was soft, smiling, exposed. She felt suddenly cold, clenched.
But why?
The question needled her. What must be done, must, she knew. She heaved and steadied herself. Certainly, her task was unsavory. But it wasn't less than that done dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times before. And certainly it was the least in her litany of transgressions. Her knuckles whitened again around the spindle, for her task served the Tales. And what served the Tales likewise served the Grand Design.

There were only three of them who stood nearby. Two old fishwives of low magic and spell crafts—and with them stood a skinny upstart youth. Their botched plans ended here in this lonely stone tower caught in the crags of a rocky outcropping spiked high above the midnight clouds. And now, like butterflies stung and cocooned, they stood impotent, with their gummy mouths agape.

Who were they to stop these Tales? The Lady drew a faint
smile across her thin ruby lips. She eyed the three and spat on the floor, now a sea of splintered door fragments and shattered glass. It gave the Lady perverse warmth to know that they could do no more than watch the Tale play out to its ghastly conclusion.

The Lady's wolfguard closed in on the three, the fur on their backs stiffened, and they snapped their saliva-drenched muzzles in delirious anticipation of what would come next. Stragglers, knowing they might never taste the first succulent morsels, whined and drew up on their hind legs to glimpse the bloody end.

Time slowed and then stopped.

A droplet or two formed on the Lady's smooth wan brow, she halted and felt her eyes well up. It was all so inexplicable, and she wondered if she had eaten something poisonous. But ill or not, what must be done, must. She steadied her breath, ground her teeth together, and choked down all sensation. She renewed her grip, knuckles whitening ever more around the spindle, and she began mumbling ancient curses in the Old Language.

A plump matron of the three rescuers implored her. “Please,” she said. “You can't—you wouldn't do this. Think not of the Tales, but of the tot.”

“Be still, sister,” hushed her elder female companion. The elder's furrowed chin quivered as she clasped her withered hands around the plump one's to keep her from doing something foolish in desperation. No matter what would come next, she knew—they all knew—that live or die, the Tale would not end here.

The Lady shot a glance of twisted, unreachable madness at the matron, eyes all darkened clouds. “The tot?” she growled. “Think of the tot? Did any have thought of me? No! I was left. And now, now I am—” Her body went slack as though submerged by a wave of profound sadness, her eyes brimmed over. They were not the softening tears of realization, but those born of hatred for a world with little place left for her to go but into destruction.

The dark-bearded younger man of the three steeled himself. “You are one of us,” he said. “Have you no remembering?” The two elder women looked at each other secretly. There were too many secrets among them. It was lies, treacheries and secrets that stretched back into a time before any of them could remember that led to this with an infant, a spindle, and an ocean of regret.

“Remembering?” The question seemed strange. The Lady took a far-away stare, as if something was asleep, but slowly awakening. “The child.” Her voice cracked, choked with some unfamiliar emotion.

“Yes, the child,” the plump one encouraged. She darted a glance at the elder.

The Lady gazed down at the infant, her cheeks now rivers of tears. Her lips shuddered with revulsion. “Who—whose child is this?”

“Her eyes, Orpion, are they not familiar to you?” the elder asked.

“Lady Orpion—Abbey,” said the man. His silenced footstep fell a finger or two above the floor and his voice gently caressed the very air. Those of their kind were practiced in the ways of soothing and beguiling and enchanting thusly. “End this madness,” he continued. His voice was a droning psalmody. “Come with us. You can spare the child and—”

He stopped when the Lady's eyes drooped, mesmerized, as though a delicious dream had overcome her. She ceased her trembling and loosened her grip again, causing the spindle to slacken a bit. Fighting the magical intoxication, she shrieked “Silence! You would have me break these sacred Tales?” She was suddenly clear-eyed and fixed to her purpose. “And what of the Grand Design? I cannot, and neither can you. It has been written, and so it must be.” Her eyes rested fiercely upon the bassinet. The baby gurgled softly and saw nothing of the world, of treachery or plot. It reached a tiny pink foot upward.

The man took another cautious step toward her and slowly outstretched his hand, a flower gently uncurling amid the storm. “Give me the spindle.” His voice lulled again. It sounded like music and the sea and sweet birdsong all at once. The wolves became docile and dull; their gnashing ceased.

But the Lady battled the bewitchment with eyes downcast and rhythmically murmured words of her own. Soon the wolves shook off the spell and began snapping again with strings of saliva dripping from their fangs.

“Here it is,” she said, taunting. “Take it.” She raised the spindle and rushed it into the infant's chest. Screams, chaos—all became a blur in that instant. A white dust cloud burst forth from the plunge-point, blinding the Lady and confusing the wolves.

Seeing her opportunity, the eldest produced a tiny golden rod from her starchy cuffed sleeve. With a flick of her wrist, it pinged and snapped on springy hinges to the length of her forearm. She raised it like a skilled symphony conductor and brushed the air in a triangular design. The dust cloud responded eagerly, blossoming and thickening, filling the high stone chamber.

“Goggles,” she shouted to the others as she fitted her own pair of brass and leather down over her eyes.

Unable to see beyond her own hands, the Lady Orpion flew into a wild frenzy of stabbing, her spindle piercing the bassinet again and again, until it plunged through the wooden base.

The white dust cloud cleared in an unexpected flight out of one of the immense stained glass windows that stood agape to the crescent moon sky. The three intruders had vanished. The Lady looked down into the bassinet with the smile of a boa constrictor, knowing that though they had escaped, her work was complete. But that quickly gave way to volcanic fury. There was no babe in the bassinet, no twist of arms and legs amid a slop of guts and gore. No. There was a sack of milled flour stabbed open, the powdery contents scattered here and there like small drifts of snow amid mangled linens.

With an earsplitting scream, the Lady raised her arm and wildly flung the spindle toward the window, but it skewered the neck of one of her wolves. The creature yelped pitifully and collapsed, writhing and scratching with its paws on the stone floor in a widening pool of blood. The others of his pack watched their comrade fallen in agony with their skittish amber eyes. With whines and ears tucked back, some straggled, some limped, but they cleared a path for the Lady and averted their eyes.

The squirming wolf bubbled and choked in his blood, while the Lady closed her eyes and waited a breath to restore her composure. She paced the room and strode to the dying wolf. She tugged several times at the spindle until it finally yanked free. Then she shook the excess blood from her hands, splattering it across the chamber floor. “Be still, dear one,” she said. Her voice resonated deeply, her face engulfed by the folds of her dark cloak.

She reached down and stroked his fur, first with one hand— then with two. Finally, her strokes became throttling around his neck. The creature kicked and thrashed; his fellow wolves whined and backed away. What must be done, must.

When all was a black silence, the Lady stood and glided to the high window frame, watching the three fugitives shuttling the babe through the night sky like bats. Her knuckles tightened around the spindle again. But it was time for it to sleep, to dream of the day when it would find satisfaction.

“She shall return. And it won't take much. A nick, a stick, a prick of the finger and then—” Her lips curled into a secret smile. “Yes, and then…”

Chapter 1

I hope you're not holding out for some lame-ass “once upon a time” shit
.
Or worse, thinking that I'm gonna spring some happily ever after crap on you. If you are, you're going to be sadly disappointed. That's because I'm dead
.

Yep—as in stone cold. And I'm not telling you this so you can get all teary-eyed and feel sorry for the poor little loser girl who died because she was too stupid to listen to reason. She was too blinded by the sack she was being fed by the lying-ass fairies to see beyond, to see where this was all headed. Yeah, she trusted them
.

And, I hope you're not getting lost here; ‘cuz when I say “she” I mean me. I trusted their manipulative little asses. And before I knew it
,
I was in so deep that there was no climbing back out
.

Oh God, I can see it now. You're all distracted by my use of the f-word. You know, fairy
.

Yeah, they exist, and so what? Think about it; I'm dead and I'm talking to you. Is it such a stretch to imagine that fairies are real? Come on. You knew they were real when you were a kid, but someone told you somewhere along the way that they were like some crazy hallucination or a dream. And you bought it. But you knew you saw them. Out of the corner of your eye, in the darkness of your room, under the bed, in your closet, you saw something. A shadow. Movement
.

Whatever. Live in your little self-protected bubble-world if you want. But I'm telling you, they're with us all the time, watching
,
waiting to draw us into their screwed-up plots. You need to know all of this because I can't let this happen all over again to yet one more of us commons
.

Oh right, you think you're special. You think, “I'm not common.” But that's what they call you—the fairies, that is. And when they're the really mean ones, the wicketts, who only see you as a sorry ass to be used, they'll call you a squelch. Oh sure, it's all kumbaya and “oooh
,
you're the chosen one,” when you're with them. And before you know
it, you're getting twirked like somebody's little prison bitch
.

They look like us too—the fairies. They don't flutter around on gossamer wings. But they can fly and do crazy magic. They might even try to teach you some. Or they'll give you a taste of something else you want, like love that's just out of reach, or the fantasy of some bullshit power. Hooking you is all they need
.

Look, our world isn't brave enough to accept you for who you are
,
really. I'm proof of that. But the fairies, they will. They want you in all of your quirky glory. And then they'll tempt with such sweetness, that it's almost impossible to resist
.

Splat!—right in the back of the head. The apple core left traces of cold, wet juice trickling down the back of Briar Blackwood's neck. It wasn't accidental. Oh no, this was meant for her. She kicked at the brown mushy thing lying on the ground with her black calf-high grunge boots like it was the fruit's fault she stood in the back of the school auditorium with the rest of the freaks, waiting to audition for the play. She looked around to see if anyone nearby had witnessed her mortification. What did it matter? They'd seen it all before, she realized. She wiped the sticky mess off her neck while trying not to get sick.

She scanned the far aisle with a smoldering, half-lidded gaze that she hoped would scorch them—or at least warn them that she
knew
it was them. It was always the same group who did things like this to the less popular kids. Trash-cannings, spit-ballings, and garbage-bombings were standard in the arsenal of their kind. And there they stood in a group, in the shadowed side aisle of the musty auditorium, unsuccessfully restraining guffaws through their noses.

“Lucky Boys” and “Lucky Girls” is what Briar called them. They were the ones whom everyone liked. Maybe it was because they had mothers and fathers, and they knew where they came from and where they belonged. Everyone had their sad story, Briar knew it well. But some kids were able to hide it better than
others—and maybe that's what made them Lucky. Who knows? But whatever it was, there was a serious, unspoken line between the loved and the lame, and an apple core to the back of the head was a perfect reminder of which side Briar stood.

She tried to adjust her perspective, which was something she had become skilled at over the past ten years of school. In this case, seeing that she was standing amid an entire crew of dweebs, she reasoned that she couldn't be certain for whom the apple core was meant. It didn't really matter.
Seriously
, Briar thought,
I've actually stepped onto the escalator to hell. It better damn well be worth it
.

There was really no way out anyway, now that the Lucky Ones had seen her at the auditions. The best she could hope for was to have an out-of-body experience and float out of the room. It seemed as reasonable a plan as any. So she tried to will it to happen. But, of course, Briar just stood there, going nowhere, looking a bit constipated.

Some dark, heavy, screaming music just ought to do the trick
, she thought, as she stuffed in her earbuds and cranked up the volume on her handheld player. But no music could erase the fact that she was there voluntarily, along with Gluteus High School's celebrated assemblage of oddities. Briar may have had her own problems, but these other kids were just plain wrong. And it was outrageously stupid for her to associate with these bizarre outsiders: the theater geeks. Yet, she had to do it. She had her reasons, even if she wouldn't openly admit them to herself.

To cover for her self-consciousness, she fiddled with her outfit: a tattered black satin Victorian gown made of small scallops (like the lining of a casket, she liked to think), cinched up high enough to reveal fishnet stockings that barely covered her moon-white thighs. She unconsciously twisted the long, iron skeleton key that hung from her neck, hoisted it with one finger to her mouth and nibbled it, tasting the tang of metal.

Briar leveled her scowling eyes at the surrounding herd of
nerd and wrinkled her nose in blatant disgust. She had never been to one of the auditions for the annual school play, but they were legendary among the scoffers, side-mouthed whisperers, and hallway chucklers at Gluteus High. And true to the legends, it seemed like every Renaissance-fair-loving, pimply misfit who had ever been a lunch-break target was dying to humiliate himself by dressing as a fairy in
A Midsummer Night's Dream
.

Briar gave them the once-over.
Oh yeah, this ought to do wonders for their reputations. Screw that. What about mine?
She realized it with a snarl of her tar-black lips and a dramatic roll of her crayon-thick, ebony-lined, eyes.

Briar had to keep reminding herself of her purpose. Seeing as it was just weeks away from her sixteenth birthday, she came to the slow, but burning realization that change was necessary. After all, sixteen was reputed to be some kind of magical number. She read about it in a weird old book she found while hiding out among the tall musty stacks of a used bookshop. She learned that you add the digits one and six to make seven. That was a number representing transformation. It had something to do with fire and alchemy and who the hell knows what. It was mostly gibberish, to be honest. And really, the best part of reading a book like that for Briar was the fretful glances she'd get from soccer moms and tea-toddling bookworms.

That being said, the number and its meaning stuck in Briar's head because nothing in her life really worked and she knew that she was due for an overhaul.

She had never really fitted in, even from a young age. But it wasn't really her fault. There were, well, circumstances. True, she was in foster care. She bounced from one home to another since birth, finally landing in one that “took.” They kept her for a good ten years now, at a profit.

But there was more to it than that. Sure other kids could sniff out the ones that had the distinct scent of “reject.” Foster kids, once they were discovered, often fell into that category. But ever
since she could remember, she had always been associated with bizarre occurrences. For example, there was the time in third grade when a Lucky Girl tried dumping her in a trashcan only to end up with third degree burns all over her body. Then there was the Lucky Boy in fifth grade who tried to covertly cut her hair, but instead found himself in the emergency room, needing surgery for snipping his own tongue in half.

No one knew how these things happened. Not even Briar. But there were innuendos. Words like “witch” and “evil” were whispered around her. And as time passed, the other kids pulled further away until there was no bridging the gap. As the years passed, Briar decided that if they were going to call her a witch, she was going to give them the scariest damned witch they'd ever seen.

Her sullen demeanor and perpetual pout, the capes and black lace veils she'd wear around town had become trademarks. Once she overheard some kids in the bathroom referring to her as the “Queen of Darkness.”
Not bad
, she thought.
If you're going to be queen, it might as well be of something spectacular, like the dark
. She with her ash-tone rouge, her nose, eyebrow, lip, and tongue piercings and forbidding demeanor—it was social suicide for anyone to venture near her vortex of doom.

Despite its obvious disadvantages, the whole charade had an upside. It kept the wrath of the Lucky Ones at bay for the most part. But despite it all, Briar held to secret fantasies. She imagined that by the age of sixteen, the other kids would have outgrown their distaste for her differences—whatever they may be. Or they might have at least matured enough to politely ignore them. No such luck.

So maybe there would never be all-night texting sessions with scores of girlfriends, or invitations to parties and school dances. Hell, maybe there would never be basic acceptance. But what Briar hadn't planned on in this whole scenario—what made her absolutely crazy—was the fact that there'd probably never be,
well…the boyfriend. So cranking up the volume one more notch was always a good solution, she found.

As the auditions progressed, as usual, Briar kept to herself. She tucked herself away in a shadowed seat near the back of the dusty auditorium and glanced toward the rear double doors for the eighty-sixth time.
Where was Dax, anyway?
Her best friend was supposed to meet her by three o'clock, yet an hour into the audition process, still no Dax. Now Briar was solo and sharing floor space with Buck-toothed Braces Girl from science class, that skinny Grizzly Chicken Girl from math, and the really, really short boy who either had no name or nobody ever bothered to use it.

She caught the nearby sight of a couple of goobers rehearsing a love scene. It might have been pretty good had one's headgear not tangled with the other's hopelessly frizzy hair. She followed them with an obvious slow-eyed glower as they shimmied out the back doors.

A Juliet who was shaped like a baked potato was in the middle of her onstage fretting when a stagehand signaled to Briar that she was up soon. She felt a knot form in the hollow of her throat and she started to wonder if she could go through with it.

And where was her reason for auditioning in the first place? She hadn't seen him yet. All right, yes, it was a
he
, Briar begrudgingly acknowledged.
Fine
. But where was he? He was probably hanging out there among the Lucky Ones.

He had to be there, or her whole bloody scheme was wasted. She was sure that she overheard him one day telling another Lucky Boy that he was going to try out for the play. Even if it was a joke and even if he planned on turning the play into a running gag for his buddies, Briar saw this as an opportunity. As strange as it seemed, she felt that sharing the stage together with him might just level the playing field and offer her a shot to get to— well, she hadn't actually thought it through beyond trying out
for the same play.

She arranged her long limp black bangs so that they hung in front of her eyes. It was easier to spy on the group of them without looking conspicuous, she thought. As if sitting there looking like a reject from
American Horror Story
wasn't conspicuous.

Unexpectedly Grizzly Chicken girl moon-walked up to Briar, probably for the first time ever, and naïvely, innocently, complemented her on her super cool mortician's outfit. “Your little spooky outfits are such a hoot!” she said sunnily.

Briar hadn't anticipated sinking to a new low this afternoon, yet here it was. How glorious.

“Thanks, butt-munch,” Briar replied. “Your braces are pretty cool too.”

Grizzly's face caved. “That's the color of my teeth,” she mumbled, holding a hand over her mouth. She faded back into the crowd.

Briar threw over her shoulder, “Well, lay off the tetracycline, then.”

She bit her black lip and felt her stomach twist with guilt, but only for a moment. Then, feebly attempting to soften the blow she said, “Cuz your skin already looks great—” But it was too late. “Aw crap,” she said and slunk lower in her squeaky theater seat.

Just the week before, a couple of Lucky Boys had slapped Grizzly's books out of her hands and tripped her. As Briar stared at the scene from the locker across the hall, she felt a strange heat rising from her stomach. She had never felt that before. She used to think that some of these kids, like Grizzly, kind-of brought on their own persecution. Well, whatever. Even if that wasn't exactly true, she had to protect herself, which meant staying out of little self-esteem crumblers like the one that was unfolding.

But that day, while watching Grizzly dab at her skinned knee and dissolve into silent tears, something in Briar snapped as the
two Lucky Boys slapped high-fives at their prank. Her vision distorted, blurred really. It felt like liquid fire burned her gut, and her face flushed.

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