Thomas is the youngest monster hunter he knows. He helps his parents prepare various traps, baits, and weapons before they go on hunts. He isn’t allowed to go with them yet, even though he can hit a bulls-eye with the crossbow. When he helps them set traps, they stay to fight and he leaves before the monsters come. One time when they were trapping a leprechaun, Thomas stayed close in the bushes to watch. He couldn’t get close enough to hear them talking, and he only got a few glimpses of a little person in the circle. It’s the closest he’s ever gotten to a monster.
Thomas turned 13 in August. He had a party, and he became a man, but his parents still treat him like a child. But a man doesn’t need permission. So tomorrow he is going hunting. But tonight he is lying awake, tracing the grain on the wood of his bed, looking at the dust on his dresser, and mentally reviewing everything he needs for his hunt.
In the morning he is waiting for the bus, nervously holding his backpack in front of him. His breaths chill his chest on every inhale of Autumn air. He is sitting with his back to a stone wall, feeling them press into his back through his jacket. He ignores the three other children waiting next to him. They are standing in a circle, talking only to each other.
He rides the bus in silence. He’s sure that he will get a call from his mom, who discovered his plans and would yell at him, and punish him, and he would never get to go on hunts. When the bus finally pull up to school, Thomas takes his first deep breath since getting on.
He walks in with everyone else, the crowds pushing him and everyone talking over everyone else. As he walks toward the back of the school, the crowds thin out, each of them finding their locker. Around a corner there’s an exit that hardly anyone uses. Thomas slips out, back into the cool air, free of worthless chatter. He walks quickly but calmly across the soccer field and into the woods. It takes 15 minutes, but he arrives at his destination — a fairy circle.
There’s a difference between a true fairy circle and an ordinary ring of mushrooms. A fairy circle is a perfect circle made of exactly nine toadstools, all the same size. It’s a link to Fairy, and all kinds of things can come out of one. All of them are dangerous in some way, if you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Thomas can use this one to lure a leprechaun.
He takes his equipment out of his bag very carefully. First he takes out a piece of cake, baked with lavender and honey. They still have some left over from summoning a pixie, hopefully it’s not too stale. He sets the cake in its tupperware to the side. Next he has a thermos that he snuck whiskey in. He snuck the whiskey from his parents’ stash, but he filled the bottle back up with water, so hopefully they won’t notice. He pours some out into the cap of the thermos; he doesn’t know the proper amount, so he just fills the whole thing. The last thing he takes out was the hardest one to get, he had to make it himself. It is a wreath woven from clover and wild rose vines. They are stiff, and Thomas has scratches on his fingers from the thorns. When his mom makes them, she makes it look much easier, and her wreaths are more round than his came out. The cake and whiskey are there to tempt the leprechaun, and the rose is there to trap it. The clover woven in with the rose hides it from the leprechaun’s senses. The last thing he needs is one perfect oak leaf, which he takes from a nearby tree.
He carefully places the cake on top of the leaf in the middle of the fairy circle. He puts the thermos cap to the side, and then puts the rose wreath around them. Thomas marches back and forth along the outside of the ring, before fiddling with the cake and wreath, trying to line them up in the exact center. Maybe there’s another piece that my parents didn’t tell me, he thinks.
He sits down with his back to a tree. Thomas doesn’t normally sit still; there’s always something to do around the house, whether it’s doing homework, making potions, or practicing his skill. But he didn’t bring a book with him and he doesn’t have a project. He starts eyeing the cake, partially out of boredom, and partially because he knows he’s going to miss lunch, and he forgot to bring himself a snack. Besides, leprechauns are small. Surely it won’t want all of it.
The nervous tension that he has carried for several days starts to disappear, leaving him feeling tired and drained. The day has warmed up enough that he can take off his jacket to use as a pillow. He lies down in the dirt, enjoying the outdoors.
Birds rustle around in the leaves nearby. Occasionally acorns fall to the ground with a small popping sound if they hit a leaf, or a stone, or with a quiet thud when they find bare dirt. The trees sway overhead in a gentle breeze, which gives a light swishing sound as it passes through.
Thomas falls asleep watching the patterns the sun makes while falling through the leaves.
He wakes up to someone yelling at him. “Hey! Hey boy!” A small rock hits him on the shoulder. “Wake up!”
During his nap, Thomas ended up face down in the dirt. He sits up slowly, dirt and twigs dislodge from his skin and fall to the ground, and with his mind still half in dream he looks around. In the middle of the fairy circle is a little woman dressed all in brown. She has brown pants, a brown shirt, and a brown hat. Her feet are bare, but they’re covered in dirt so, close enough. Her voice doesn’t match her stature. It’s high, but like a child’s, not a cartoon.
Thomas jumps in the air, his fist thrown above his head.
He did it! He starts laughing, just out of relief.
But his celebration is cut short by a rock that hits him in the nose.
“Do you have any more cake?” The leprechaun is standing as close as she can to the wreath without touching it. She has her hands on her hips and she is leaning over, peering intently at Thomas. Even though she is only a few inches tall, meaning not much bigger than the piece of cake was, there is no trace of cake left, not even crumbs.
Thomas sits down cross-legged outside the fairy circle. He has to be careful of it now, with the leprechaun around. They have small magics they can do, although she should be contained by the rose. Thomas says “No, I don’t have any cake left.”
“Oh, well, got any more of that whiskey?”
Thomas shakes his head.
“Damn.” The leprechaun lies down with her head in her hands, elbows propped on the ground, her legs splayed. “Well what do you want?”
The question takes Thomas by surprise “I don’t know. Just proof I guess.”
“Proof? Proof of what?”
Thomas fidgets a bit, and locks his hands behind his back. “Just… proof. That I caught you , you know, to show my parents.”
The leprechaun sits up, mouth open. “No way… are you Edith and Mark’s kid? My cousin says he saw you hanging around one time when they called him. We all thought he was lying. No way Edith and Mark had a kid. Those two are more frigid than a snowman in a freezer. But by Titania’s left tit, you really exist. I guess I owe him a glass.”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m their son. I don’t know about the rest of that. But does that mean you’ll give me something? Because of my parents or whatever? Because I’d rather if you didn’t tell them that you did it as a favor to them or you know.”
The leprechaun narrows her eyes, purses her lips, and strokes her chin. She looks deep in thought. “Alright kid. I need to ask you something. Because you look brave and competent, but I need to be sure. So can I ask you a question?”
Thomas nods. “Yes.”
“And you will answer completely truthfully?”
Thomas thinks carefully about this. Truth can be powerful, and it’s not always a good idea to give too much of it to a stranger. But he nods; he can’t back down now.
“You have to answer out loud or it doesn’t count.”
“Good. Okay. Here it is: if someone you love is in danger, and you are the only one that can save them, what do you do?”
This is easy. “I help them.”
“Yes, yes! That’s good. Alright.” The leprechaun jumps to her feet. “Because your parents are in trouble and you’re the only one that can save them.”
“What?” Thomas leans back, skeptical. “What kind of trouble?”
“There’s this troll in the woods. It ate someone or something. Anyway, your parents decided to take it out and they got captured by it. Now you have to save them.”
“Because you’re the only one that can!”
“What about Uncle Art?”
“Uncle Art? Oh yeah… Uncle Art. He must be the other guy that got captured with your parents. So it has to be you. You’re the only one.”
Thomas is not stupid. And if anything ever sounded like a trick it was that.
Apparently reading the skepticism from Thomas’s body language, the leprechaun continues. “Look, if you don’t believe me, just call him. I’ll wait, but remember that every minute you wait is one more minute closer to when the troll eats them.”
Thomas takes his phone out of his bag. It’s half-past three; he slept longer than he thought. He dials Uncle Art. It goes straight to voicemail. “You’ve reached the number –” Thomas hangs up. The phone offers no answers to his stare.
“Go on, call your parents too. Got to make sure.”
Thomas chews on his lip while he’s dialing his mom. But it’s the same thing, straight to voicemail. He frantically hangs up and dials his dad. His whole body starts shaking a little bit and he bites down on his thumb. Nothing from Dad, either.
“See. It’s time to step up Thomas. Time to be a man. So just come over here, and let me out.”
Thomas is still standing outside the circle. He takes a few deep breaths while the leprechaun impatiently urges him forward, like someone might encourage an old, especially stupid dog. He takes one step inside the fairy circle.
The leprechaun relaxes a bit. “Good, now let me out, and I’ll take you to them.”
Thomas gingerly lifts the rose and clover wreath. He carefully avoids touching the thorns or hitting the leprechaun.
“Excellent. Follow me.” She looks ready to start running off immediately.
“Wait. What’s your name, and why are you helping me?”
The leprechaun turns back to face him. “My name’s Josie. I’m helping you because you gave me such nice cake. One good turn and all that. It’s good to meet you Tom.” She sticks out her hand, like she’s asking for a handshake, despite Thomas’s hand being bigger than her whole body.
Thomas slowly reaches out to her. “Thomas, please.” He never goes by Tom.
Josie holds the end of his finger with surprising strength, and shakes it. “Good to meet you Tommy.” She bounds off before he can complain. She calls over her shoulder “Keep up! Not much time.” Despite his large size advantage, Thomas has trouble keeping up. She’s not so much running, as jumping. She’s light enough to leap between blades of grass using them as springboards.
As Thomas follows, his breaths come harder and harder. Pretty quickly his legs start to ache, and he has to stop to catch his breath. Josie waits for him impatiently, tapping her foot on the ground. “We have to keep moving, we have a long way to go.”
“Just give me a minute, please.” Josie lets him rest, but too quickly she ushers him on. They trek for an hour through trees and undergrowth. Three times they stop. And three times they move on before Thomas is ready. One time, during a stop, Thomas tries to use his phone, but they are too deep in the woods to get service.
They arrive at the top of a sort of ravine. The sides are shallow and covered in scrub. A creek runs along the bottom of it. Upstream from them, the ravine has huge tree trunks spanning it, forming a roof and blocking out all light past a few feet.
Josie whispers. “You stay here. I’ll do some recon, see what I can see, scope it out and all that. I’ll be right back.” She disappears immediately into the undergrowth, her clothes and stature providing perfect camouflage.
The forest is eerily quiet. There is no breeze. There are no animals. Thomas lies down, grateful for the opportunity to catch his breath. He hears in the distance a cracking noise of trees shaking from an unseen force. It stands out only because everything is so quiet. Doubts being filtering towards the front of his consciousness. Maybe he isn’t ready for this.
And maybe if his parents, and Uncle Art, got captured, then maybe Thomas isn’t really capable of rescuing them. There is still so much they haven’t taught him yet. And it’s getting cold. The light sheen of sweat he got makes him shiver in the shade on an Autumn afternoon. He is all alone, in the middle of a strange forest. The way home is unknown. Every direction he looks is more forest.
To Be Continued.