Hi everyone, please welcome the uber talented, Emma Newman, and this week's Split Worlds story...
This is the thirty-third tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds.
If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here. You can also sign up to get the stories delivered to your inbox, one per week for a year and a day.
It was the first genuine life or death decision Coll had faced. He knelt, hand poised to pick the mushroom. Was it a Common Morel or a Deadly False one? He was so hungry he was tempted to risk it.
A dog barking in the distance made him scrabble to his feet and start running again before he made up his mind. The police would be looking for him by now. He was a fugitive, like in the films, but it didn't feel nearly as exciting as he'd imagined it would. He'd been running for a night and most of the day and wouldn't be able to keep it up much longer. He didn't want to spend another night shivering in leaf litter. If he turned himself in there would be food.
He tripped again and landed hard on his front. Something was pressing into his ribs and he pulled it out from under him. An apple! In less than a minute only its stalk remained.
Apple trees filled the woods ahead of him and he almost wept with relief. Most windfalls were worm-ridden but some ripened apples hung low enough to pick. He devoured the tart flesh as twilight descended.
When it was too dark to walk without risking more falls he flopped down under one of the trees and leaned against the trunk, exhausted.
"They're nicer in a pie," an old woman's voice pulled him from sleep.
Coll opened his eyes to see a rectangle of light ahead of him. He blinked a couple of times and realised there was a cottage around it and an old woman waving from the doorway.
"Are these your apple trees?" he asked. "I'm really sorry, I was so hungry."
"It's getting cold, come and warm yourself up. There's a pie in the oven."
Coll struggled to his feet. He ached. Shivering, he walked towards her, smiling shyly. She was tiny and had a curved back but still looked sharp.
"You're only a boy! Goodness me, you'll catch your death out there. Come in."
There was a horseshoe on the door, herbs hanging from the ceiling and the scent of baking. He stepped inside and she closed the door. It was an old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen, replete with Aga and large wooden table and chairs. It was warm and cosy and all the things he needed most. Old iron tools hanging on the walls clinked as the draught caught them. She stared at them for a moment before saying. "Looks like you've had a tough time. Sit down and I'll make you a nice cup of tea. I'm Agnes."
"I'm Coll." He wondered if he should have given a false name.
"Ham sandwich while the pie cooks?" His stomach growled. "That's a yes then."
"I'm really sorry I nicked your apples," Coll said.
She waved a hand. "More than I can eat out there now. My son David used to eat them by the bucket load, but he's moved away now. He's just had a son. Wisht, he's perfect!"
Coll watched the iron tools sway on their hooks. "You're all by yourself?"
She put a steaming mug of tea in front of him. "Just how I like it. My husband died years ago. Blacksmith he was. Best in these here parts. David's a banker." She shook her head. "No idea where he got that from." She picked a leaf from his hair and sat down opposite him. "So then, young man, you're in trouble, aren't you?"
Coll struggled to swallow the mouthful of tea and shrugged.
"Those fair folk, they do like their mischief."
He frowned at her. "Eh?"
"You'll be safe here. After you've eaten I'll make the bed up for you and give you a sturdy breakfast before the blackbird wakes. As soon as the sun comes up you need to get out of these here woods."
He twisted to look out of the window but it was black out there. All he saw was their reflection.
"Now I'm not one to pry," Agnes went to the bread bin. "But you have the look of a lad who's seen something that's scared him." She glanced at the swinging tools. "Something's interfering with you. But don't you worry. I know the old ways and you'll be safe inside these four walls. Then you can go on your way. But you'll have to be careful. They have their eye on you, my boy. I knows these things."
Coll wasn't sure she was sane but he was certain she was an amazing cook. When his belly was full she led him to the guest bedroom where a plump bed with fresh linen was waiting for him. "Thanks," he said. "I didn't think there were any kind people anymore."
"Wisht!" Agnes smiled dimples into her wrinkled cheeks. "We've always been here. The world's just got too busy to notice." She pulled out a long iron nail from her apron pocket. "Let's just pop this under your pillow." Coll followed her in and watched her place it. "That'll keep you safe. The wind's getting up. Don't you worry about any creaking or noises out there, you just stay tucked up in bed 'til I bring you tea in the morning."
He nodded and she left. He slipped off his shoes and climbed into bed fully clothed. When he switched off the bedside lamp the moon shone through the thin curtains and made the shadows of tree branches look like fingers trying to reach in. Sleep took him swiftly.
Coll woke with a start and sat up, straining his ears against the silence of the cottage. Just when he was about to settle back down he heard a tapping on the window.
He slipped his shoes back on and opened the curtains. The moonlight picked out the tops of the trees. Probably just a branch, he told himself as he tried not to think of four ghosts missing their belt buckles.
A movement made him press his nose to the window pane. Fluttering wings were catching the moonlight… A dragonfly?
He was trying to make out the insect's shape when a familiar rectangle of light spilt across the ground below. The kitchen door was open again and framed within it was Agnes' silhouette. The old woman's shadow was giant-like with a huge pair of shears above her head. The blades scissored open and closed as she yelled; "You stay away from him, you nasty little buggers! Else I'll chop you up and bake you in a pie for Lord Iron!"
Coll saw the trees sway as if there was a gust of wind. The insect was no-where to be seen. The shadow shears opened and closed a couple of times and then the door slammed shut. Coll closed the curtains and hurried back into bed as the stairs creaked. He held his breath as her footsteps came to the door, the shears snipping all the way.
"Night night," she called softly through the door.
"Night," he called back and listened to her go to bed. In the morning he would leave the woods. And he would never come back.
Thanks for hosting Erin!