Duke woke up groggy and disoriented due to the lack of sleep and the lack of the morning sounds he was used to, the earplugs having proven even more effective than he’d expected, but he didn’t wake up at the bottom of the harbor. Overall, it was a win. The feeling of satisfaction that he’d gotten something right in this ridiculous mystery stayed with him all the way to the Gull, where it was dashed by the bright eyes watching him from the railing of the deck. Duke spared a glance upward. “One day of normal,” he said to no one in particular. “Is that really too much to ask?”
Snowfall sat up as Duke exited his truck. “The sun has been up forever,” he said accusingly. “Where have you been?”
“It’s Sunday,” Duke said, aware of how little this would mean to a squirrel. He’d half considered just not opening today – Sundays were the slowest day of the week anyway – but he’d eventually decided that somebody out there was likely to consider this cheating and exact revenge.
“You said you were going to find a way to fix me.” Snowfall said, ignoring the explanation, as Duke had expected he would.
“Working on it,” Duke said shortly. “You’re not the only one suffering from this Trouble, you know. The rest of us want to finish it just as much as you do.” He was feeling especially motivated to get this one solved as soon as humanly possible, given the events of the previous night. The conversation he’d had with Nathan... well, he couldn’t exactly say he regretted it; he’d sort of owed Nathan that thank you for a good while now and Nathan apparently hadn’t even realized it. But what the hell had possessed him to get that real, that vulnerable? He’d let more of his guard down than he had with Nathan in a long time, and while he’d stopped short of letting anything he’d really regret slip out he was leery of the prospect of a repeat performance. He didn’t even know what had caused it, if it had been a story taking hold of him or just his gut-level terror of the sirens’ influence, or something else entirely. I should have just called Audrey.
“I suppose you’re probably trying as best you can,” Snowfall said with bad grace. “But you have no idea how exhausting it is following you around all day!”
“Try being me some time,” Duke said, and instantly regretted it. No sense in giving the universe ideas. He offered the squirrel his arm. “Come on; I’ve got some peanuts behind the bar. You can have ‘em as long as you stay out of sight if anyone else comes in.”
The tiny forepaws folded indignantly. “Do you really think it’s going to be that easy to get back on my good side?”
“Yes?” Duke hazarded.
Snowfall eyed him for another moment before hopping onto his arm and scrambling up to his shoulder. “You’re right,” he admitted. “But only because I’m apparently stuck with you.”
“Story of my life.”
Duke stayed at the Gull only long enough to make sure that everything was in its proper order and to hand the keys over to the first competent employee to clock in after him. Hinting that there were rumors of a restaurant critic in the area would be, he hoped, enough to have the staff on their best behavior for the day. The hazel tree was still watching him from the window.
Snowfall insisted on accompanying Duke to the police station, or at least to the parking lot. “I can keep an ear out for you from outside,” he said. “I’ve had enough of Insides for a while.” That was fine by Duke, who was less than thrilled by the prospect of gaining a reputation as ‘the guy with the squirrel.’ He felt even more strongly about this when Stan gave him a scrutinizing look as he breezed past the front desk. He’d spent years slipping everything he did under Stan’s affable radar, but apparently the whole ‘wild animals in a government building’ thing was where he drew the line.
There was no hesitation as Duke reached Nathan and Audrey’s office. He absolutely did not pause with his hand on the door, steeling himself to open it and face Nathan and whatever response he was going to have to the previous night. Duke Crocker didn’t worry about things like that, and he wasn’t about to let anybody think otherwise.
Both detectives were huddled over one desk when he opened the door, studying a spread of paperwork. “There you are,” Audrey said, looking up at him with a smile. “I figured you’d be down here the second you woke up.”
“I’ve got a business to run,” Duke reminded her, not really paying any attention. He was focused on Nathan, who’d looked up half a second before she had. His head had snapped up at the sound of the door, in fact, looking desperately for something. Something he’d found. Duke had had years of practice in reading the barely-visible cues in Nathan’s expressions, and in the sudden light in those blue eyes he could see undisguised relief.
Something in Duke’s heart gave a little jump. He hadn’t known what to expect, and he’d tried to be ready for anything from confusion to derision. He definitely hadn’t been ready for the possibility that Nathan would have been concerned about him, even beyond the immediacy of the situation of last night and into the cold light of morning. It was... Duke didn’t know exactly what it was. But it was a good feeling. He inclined his head briefly, a quick yeah, I’m okay. Nathan blinked in acknowledgement before turning his attention back to the desk.
The moment over, Duke pulled himself together and joined them. “What are we looking at?”
“Anything unusual that got reported to anyone last night,” Nathan told him. “Park services, highway patrol, animal control, fire department, anyone. Trying to figure out what’s Trouble-related and what’s normal weirdness.”
“Tell me there’s nothing from the harbor,” Duke said quietly, suddenly fervent.
“Not so far,” Audrey told him, looking surprised by his reaction. Nathan had apparently not told her about the sirens. Duke wasn’t sure how he felt about that, either.
“We had a handful of kids who disappeared overnight after the fall carnival,” Nathan said. “They all made it back home by morning. Nobody’s hurt, and they all swear they were just ‘out with friends’ and ‘lost track of time.’ An excuse I’m sure none of us have ever used,” he added wryly. “Could be The Twelve Dancing Princesses, could just be teenagers.” He indicated another paper. “There’s a beanstalk doing some serious damage in a community garden, probably the same place Dwight found the other guy. He’s out there seeing if he can cut it down before anyone gets any ideas.”
“What about that librarian you were going to look into?” Duke asked.
“Still no answer on her phone,” Audrey said. “Someone’s on the way out to her address to check up on her, but in the meantime we’re just making sure there’s nothing from last night that needs immediate attention.” She rifled through the papers again. “Nothing’s jumping out at me,” she said. “Everything else just looks like the usual weekend chaos.” She cocked an eyebrow at Duke. “Mind taking another look?”
Duke wondered if she really thought he was going to find something they hadn’t, or if she was just looking for something for him to do. He gave a little shrug and squeezed in with them at the desk. “Your definition of ‘weekend chaos’ is cute,” he said after a few minutes. “Noise complaints. Drunk and disorderlies. Someone saying they saw a bear in town, which may or may not be connected to one of the aforementioned drunks. Not exactly gonna make the national news.”
“Is there anything here we need to investigate or not,” Nathan said.
Was it Duke’s imagination, or was his ‘stop screwing around’ tone less impatient than usual? “If the bear didn’t knock on anyone’s door and ask for shelter, then no.”
“And if it had?”
“Prince in disguise.”
The radio on Nathan’s desk interrupted them. “Nobody’s home at the Harper residence, honey,” Laverne said. “Neighbors say they haven’t seen her all weekend."
“Thanks, Laverne,” Nathan said. “Since before this all started,” he added to Duke and Audrey.
A thought that had been taking shape in the back of Duke’s mind for a while started to come to the fore. “Speaking of that,” he said. “As far as we can tell, the fairy tales started creeping in on Friday, right?” Nods from the other two. “Then this is the third day. We don’t fix it now, there’s a chance we won’t be able to at all.”
“Everything comes in threes,” Audrey said, understanding. “So we’ve got a deadline. I’ll get back in touch with Doreen and see if she has any idea where Caroline might be if she’s not at home.”
“You mean aside from the library?”
“Closed for the weekend,” Audrey said. “They were supposed to be doing some kind of mass re-cataloguing thing, but for some reason they couldn’t. Doreen explained it, but I’m still not sure what’s going on; some issues with an outside contractor, I guess. But the library’s still closed, and nobody’s supposed to be in there until Monday. Which doesn’t mean Caroline isn’t there, but if she is, she didn’t tell anyone and she’s not answering the phone.”
They were interrupted by a knock, and the door opening a crack. “Got a message for you, Chief,” Rafferty said, poking her head in.
Nathan waved her in. “What is it?”
A slip of paper landed on his desk. “Something’s going on at the sheep farm,” she said. “Sandra didn’t want to say what it was over the phone, but she says it’s one of your cases.”
“Haven has a sheep farm?” Audrey asked, a bright grin spreading across her face. “And here I thought I’d heard about all the tourist attractions.”
“Few miles outside of town. If it can be produced locally, someone probably is,” Nathan pointed out. “Wool’s no exception. Thanks, I’ll take care of it,” he added to Rafferty.
She gave him a nod and turned to leave, ducking around Duke. Her elbow bumped against the doorframe, and she let out a yelp of pain.
Everyone jumped. A simple knock shouldn’t have been enough to cause that kind of reaction. “Hey, you okay?” Duke asked.
“Yeah,” Rafferty said, rubbing her arm distractedly. “Just hit a bruise.” She winced as she rolled up her sleeve to examine it. “I must’ve slept wrong or something; I woke up completely black and blue this morning.” Her skin was peppered with dark spots like buckshot.
Or like peas, Duke thought. “Where did you sleep?”
“Spare room at Duncan’s parents’ place.” Not that it’s any of your business, her face added clearly. Duke held his hands up disarmingly. “Didn’t bother him any, of course,” she added in a grumble. “That man could sleep in a gravel pit.” She seemed to notice that they were all looking at her thoughtfully. “Why? Something going on?”
“Possibly,” Audrey said before Duke could say anything. “But you’re not in any danger. Just keep an eye on those bruises, and let one of us know if anything seems weird about them.” She was giving Rafferty her ‘trust me’ face.
As happened so often, to Duke’s amazement, it worked. “I will,” Rafferty said, looking relieved even though five seconds ago she hadn’t known there was something she should be worried about.
“Didn’t see that one coming,” Nathan commented mildly after she left. “Not the first person here I’d suspect of being a princess in disguise.”
“Kind of the point, isn’t it?” Audrey pointed out. She picked up the slip of paper Rafferty had brought in. “Think this is something we need to check out?”
“There’s a good chance it is,” Nathan said. “Sandra’s pretty level-headed. If she thinks there’s a problem that needs our attention, there probably is.” He flicked an eyebrow at Duke. “You know any fairy tales about sheep?”
“Yeah, actually. There’s one about a princess who gets rescued by a prince who’s been turned into an enchanted sheep, and he takes her to live with him in his magical underground kingdom.” He’d been expecting the stares. “Dead serious,” he said, holding up his hands. “Why would I make something like that up? Once you get past the Disney selection, fairy tales are weird.”
“Gonna take a wild guess and say that’s not what we’re dealing with here,” Nathan said. He gave Audrey a playful look. “What do you think, Parker? Want to go tour the sheep farm?”
“I really kind of do,” Audrey confessed, the grin coming back. “But I need to stay in town and look for Caroline. If I’m really immune to the stories she’s spinning, I might have the best chance of getting to her. You mind taking care of this one alone?” She gave Duke a look. “Unless...?”
Duke waved her away. “Me and farms don’t mix,” he said. “There was an incident with a goose when I was a small child. What?” he added as Nathan gave him a wry look. “They’re very terrifying animals when you’re two feet tall.”
“I’ve got it under control, Parker,” Nathan said over Duke’s head.
“Okay,” Audrey said. “You deal with the sheep.” She tilted her head at Duke. “You coming with me, then? I’m gonna need someone who can interact with the stories backing me up.”
“Not like I have much of a choice, if I want to get my life back,” Duke said. It was mostly a token protest, and Audrey knew it. “Where are we going?”
“We’ll figure that out on the way,” Audrey said, standing up and reaching for her jacket. She threw another grin over her shoulder at Nathan. “Pet a sheep for me while you’re out there.”
The forest was quiet. Not ‘too quiet,’ just ‘nothing at all is happening’ quiet. It would have been peaceful, if it wasn’t so boring.
Jordan had to admit that, given the prevalence of little cabins in the woods in fairy tales, it was probably a good idea to have someone keeping watch over some of the Guard’s more remote safe houses until this latest Trouble was taken care of. Which didn’t make her any less annoyed by the prospect of being stuck out here alone for the day. She leafed through the book she’d brought, unable to concentrate on it. She couldn’t stop her mind from drifting off, wondering what Nathan and his people had found out, what other stories they’d run into. And of course she couldn’t shake the question that came along with that: What’s my story? Not that she wanted to be targeted by this Trouble, exactly, but the curiosity wouldn’t leave her alone. What kind of fairy tale was likely to latch onto a cursed waitress who swore she hadn’t always been this angry?
The book continued to be uninteresting. She should have followed her first impulse and hunted up a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It would have at least counted as research. It might have given her a better idea of what she was in for if anything came up.
One of the windows rattled so suddenly and sharply that she nearly fell out of her chair. By force of habit she reached for the gloves she’d taken off as soon as she was alone, although the more logical part of her brain pointed out that anyone who was likely to come after her out here would know who she was and be unlikely to touch her by accident, and anyone else trying to get into the cabin was someone she’d be wise to stay armed against. To that second point, with equally fluid instinct she shouldered the hunting rifle that had been lying on the table in front of her just in case.
The hunting rifle, as it turned out, had been an unexpectedly fitting choice. The stag bumping his antlers against the broad front window was one of the largest Jordan had ever seen, with a rack like a small tree. He would have been the kind of trophy someone could brag about for decades. And he was looking through the window at her with a friendly, expectant expression, which she was pretty sure a deer shouldn’t be able to pull off. So much for wondering what her story was.
Jordan set the rifle down, but kept it nearby just in case. She undid the latch on the window and pushed it open slowly, expecting the animal to bolt at any moment. When he didn’t, she wasn’t sure what to do next. “Hi there,” she said softly, opening the window all the way. “What are you doing out here?”
The window was large enough for the great branched antlers to fit through it easily, and the stag pushed his head inside until he was nearly nose to nose with her. He breathed in her face, a warm, heavy smell that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, and flicked his ears invitingly.
He looked like he was waiting, and Jordan didn’t know what for. She couldn’t think of any fairy tales that involved deer at all, let alone ones that got this bold. “Is there something you want to tell me?” she asked, feeling less ridiculous than she thought she probably should. No response. “Somewhere you want to take me?” she suggested. Still the stag said nothing, just breathed at her again.
Jordan sighed. She’d apparently gotten tangled in a story, and she didn’t even know which one it was. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m afraid I don’t know this one.” Cautiously, she put her hand up to pat the stag’s ears. Her curse didn’t affect animals – she’d found that out by accident after a long period of refusing to test it – but it still might break whatever spell was happening here.
The stag let out a loud sigh that sounded unexpectedly contented. The big head rolled to the side, leaning into Jordan’s hand like a happy dog’s. She ducked under the antlers with a surprised laugh. “Is that all you wanted?” she asked. “Just a little company?” There were more happy sounds as she scratched the ears, reaching her other hand up to ruffle the fur under his chin at the same time. “I guess I can do that,” she murmured.
The stag’s fur was warm and soft. A little dirty, probably, and stinking of wild animal, but still pleasant to touch. Jordan could feel herself letting out a little happy sigh of her own. This was no substitute for human contact, of course, but it had been such a long time since anything living had reacted positively to her touch. Aside from Nathan, she corrected herself, trying to ignore the voice in the back of her head reminding her that he couldn’t actually feel her, and that ‘not recoiling in pain’ wasn’t the same as ‘reacting positively.’ “I don’t mind just being ‘that girl who can charm wild animals,’” she said, mostly to herself. “But I was hoping you’d have something more to say to me.”
“Even when they can talk, deer rarely have anything to say.”
The voice came out of nowhere, making Jordan jump and the stag grunt in irritation. She reached for the rifle again as she turned past the stag to face the figure approaching the cabin from the trees.
It was an old woman, older than anyone Jordan could remember seeing outside of a nursing home, in a ragged grey dress that might be better classified as a robe. Iron-grey hair hung around her face in loose wisps, making her look lost and disheveled, but her face had the look of someone who knows exactly where she is and what she’s doing at all times. She also didn’t seem the least bit fazed to see someone raising a gun in her direction. “Put that down, child,” she said with a wave of her hand. “There’s no need for it here. Though I do apologize if I startled you.”
Jordan did lower the gun, though she continued to watch the woman warily. She wasn’t Guard, and she wasn’t anyone Jordan recognized from the area. There was nothing inherently strange about her, at least nothing that Jordan could see, except for the inherent strangeness of a ragged old woman wandering in the woods, and that was strangeness enough to suggest that she was part of this Trouble. Always be kind to strangers, especially old women, she thought, remembering some of the fairy tale ‘rules’ Nathan had passed on to her. “I wasn’t expecting to see anyone else out here,” she said. She kept one hand on the stag’s neck; he was solid and reassuring.
“Nor was I,” the old woman said. She leaned on the windowsill, on the far side of the stag, setting down a bag she had slung over her shoulder. “Left you alone all the way out here, have they?”
“I’m not alone,” Jordan said automatically, her self-preservation instinct reminding her not to make herself look vulnerable.
“Yes, I can see that,” the old woman said with a wry look at the stag. The animal was eyeing her warily, leaning closer to Jordan.
The stag’s reaction was enough to make Jordan keep her own caution up, and to make her keep her distance, but there was also curiosity to contend with. “Is there something I can help you with?” she asked.
The old woman waved a hand dismissively. “I don’t need anything, child,” she said. “I only heard your voice and thought I might offer a bit of conversation.” She rubbed her shoulder. “Not that I don’t mind putting that bag down for a minute.”
Jordan knew an opening for an offer of kindness when she heard one. “If you’d like to sit down...”
“Don’t trouble yourself for me, dear. Besides, I’m sure those who left you here wouldn’t appreciate it. No doubt they made you promise that you wouldn’t open the door to anyone.”
“Not in so many words,” Jordan said, trying to make it sound like an admission. Something about the way the old woman had said that, the words she’d used, was putting her on edge. There may not be any stories about cursed waitresses, but there are plenty of stories about girls out in the woods alone.
“Good for them, looking out for you like that. I won’t make you break a promise. But, no harm in a chat through the window, is there?” the old woman said with a warm smile. She looked like someone’s grandmother when she said it, friendly and harmless and ready to hear everything you had to say and keep it all as secret as you needed.
“I guess not,” Jordan said, although she was growing more certain by the minute that there was plenty of harm to be found here.
“No, of course not.” The old woman bent down to rummage through the bag she’d dropped. “And what’s a little chat without something pleasant to go along with it?” she asked. “Here we are. Lighten an old woman’s load a bit.”
The stag’s nostrils flared, and he belled a sharp warning that Jordan didn’t need. The pieces clicked together in her head even before she saw the apple. Skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony, lips... well, two out of three.
“Go on,” the witch encouraged, biting into a second apple herself. “I have plenty, and food always tastes better when it’s shared.”
It was tempting. A chance to be part of the story, to sit back and wait and find out who would save her. Someone would, she was certain enough of that. And then she’d know exactly who it was that she could count on, who she could trust. Possibly even who it was that she could love. With a sigh, Jordan gently pushed the stag away and reached out her hand.
There was a shout, partly of pain but mostly of indignation, as her hand closed around the witch’s wrist. Jordan held firm as the witch tried to pull away. “I hate doing this,” she said quietly. “But I’d hate it even more if I thought you were real.”
“Library’s the most obvious place to start,” Audrey said as she and Duke piled into her car. “Unless you have a different theory.”
Duke shook his head. He was developing a new sympathy for Audrey; being the guy everyone thought had all the answers was wearing on him. “I can’t predict these stories, I can only tell you where they’re going once they get started. If Doreen had any good information for you about this girl, you’re ahead of me.”
“I just hope it is good information,” Audrey said. “If we go through all this, and Caroline isn’t the one we’re looking for...”
“It’d be a pretty crappy fairy tale if we spent all this time chasing a bad lead, wouldn’t it?” Duke pointed out. Audrey made an amused sound, which encouraged him. “I mean, if this was literature we were talking about then there’s a good bet that everything we have ever done in this life is futile,” he continued.
“And the whole thing would be some kind of tortured metaphor for the industrial revolution,” Audrey agreed. She rolled her eyes. “I do not remember lit class fondly.” A pause. “Well, I have someone’s memories of not being fond of lit class, anyway,” she added.
“I mostly remember sleeping through mine, the ones I didn’t skip,” Duke said, trying to head her off before she started going down the ‘who am I, really’ road. It never led her anywhere non-distressing. “And then trying to read some of the books on my own when I was older, and remembering why they were putting me to sleep. A whole bunch of people accomplishing nothing and then talking about it forever. But fairy tales? With fairy tales, if you think what you’re doing is the right answer, it probably is. The only reasons people really set out to do something and fail in fairy tales is because either someone else is destined to succeed, or because they pissed someone off and got deliberately given bad information.” He gave Audrey a sidelong, teasing look. “You were nice to Doreen, right?”
That got another mini-laugh out of her. “If she was leading me on, she was putting a lot of effort into it. This street, or the one after it?” she added, nodding towards the upcoming intersection.
“Next one, on the left,” Duke said, brow furrowed. “You mean you don’t know where the library is?”
“Just because it’s your second home,” Audrey countered with another roll of her eyes.
“It’s not like you can miss it, though,” Duke said as they made their way to the next intersection. “I figured you would have at least noticed it.”
Audrey took her eyes off the road just long enough to shoot him a curious look. “What are you—oh.”
She cut off in a gasp as the library loomed ahead of them, dark and heavy. This close to it, only the roof was visible above the mile-thick tangle of briars that ringed it on all sides. The air was filled with the hiss of the brambles writhing against each other, quiet but all-pervasive. Audrey slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a halt in the middle of the street. “What the hell is this,” she said in a choked voice as she leapt out and began running towards the library.
It occurred to Duke almost too late that if she had somehow never noticed the library, she probably didn’t know about the safe zone. “Audrey, wait!” he said, jumping out of the car after her.
He caught her by the arm and pulled her to a stop just half a foot away from the yellow line painted on the asphalt a few yards from the edge of the briar patch. The hissing intensified as the briars woke up, recognizing that someone was nearby. “Don’t get any closer,” he warned.
Audrey was frozen, staring back and forth between him and the briars with a look of bewildered horror. “Duke?” she said in a small, hesitant voice. “What’s going on?”
Duke covered a sigh. However she’d done it, she’d somehow managed to miss this particular tourist attraction. And showing her would be easier than explaining. “Don’t move,” he told her. When she nodded, he let go of her arm and slowly took a step forward. When he was younger, he and the other kids were always daring each other to step over the line, to see who could get the closest to the briars before chickening out and running back to safety. He guessed that the current generation of neighborhood kids were probably still doing it. He put one foot over the yellow line and continued advancing, keeping low and stealthy as if he could somehow sneak up on it.
In the space between one heartbeat and the next, the briars went from a quietly seething mass to an explosion, bursting out to grab at him. Duke scuttled back hurriedly, leaping over the line with no care for how undignified he probably looked. The briars continued to roil like a boiling pot for a moment before going back to their usual hiss. “That’s a rush,” Duke said mildly.
Audrey wasn’t looking quite so horrified anymore, but now she gave him a skeptical eye. “And this seems normal to you?”
“Haven normal, yeah.” Duke shook his head. “I’m trying not to be a jackass about this, but I don’t see how it can possibly be new information for you. The briar thicket has sealed the library off for, like, a hundred years now. Everything inside it is locked away until the rightful hero comes forth to claim the sword and cut it down. Everyone knows that.”
“This library,” Audrey said flatly.
“The one that was last open on Friday. The one you just told me last night that you practically lived in when you were a kid.”
“Yeah,” Duke repeated less confidently. He did remember saying that. And it had been true, hadn’t it? He’d spent hours in the library, a drab municipal building flanked by two other drab municipal buildings. But... this was the library, deep in the briar labyrinth that was a fixture of the neighborhood, the same as it had always been. He was quite firm on that in his mind. “It’s always been like this,” he said, a little helplessly.
“I think it feels that way to you,” Audrey said, and she was using her ‘calming down the Troubled time bomb’ voice. Great. “But it’s part of this Trouble. You’re caught in another story, and it’s making you believe things that you know don’t make any sense.”
Duke shook his head. She was mistaken. Not trying to deceive him, just... wrong. He was very clear on this.
She was still talking. “Last night you told me that it was a paradise when you were a kid,” she said relentlessly. “A heated building where you didn’t have to pay and nobody would kick you out as long as you didn’t cause trouble. How could you say that about a building that’s been locked off for centuries?”
Duke ground the heel of his hand into his forehead. She was right; she had to be. He remembered everything she was saying and more besides, the smell of the books and the sound of a dozen people being quiet. But when he tried to think about that library there was a crawling feeling at the base of his skull, like something pawing at his brain, telling him that the briar patch had always been there. It was a more subtle version of the feeling he’d had when the sirens’ song started creeping in on him, which was enough to tell him that there was a problem here. “I believe you,” he said with some difficulty. “But I can’t shake this.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be trying,” Audrey said thoughtfully, although she had a hand firmly on his arm like she expected him to bolt in an unknown direction at any second. “You might have some useful information lurking in there. What were you just saying about the rightful hero?”
What was he just saying? Duke tried to take his mind away from the memories that Audrey was telling him were the real ones, setting the words that were itching to come out free. “The library is waiting for the rightful hero to claim the sword and cut through the briars to rescue the princess,” he said. The words came out without thought, like something he’d memorized for a test but had no context for. He let out a heavy sigh, feeling like something had let him go, like whatever was crawling on his brain had been holding him hostage until he delivered the message and was willing to leave him alone for now.
“There we go,” Audrey said encouragingly. “That’s more information than we had when we got here.”
“Suddenly knowing the answer out of nowhere,” Duke said to himself, thinking of his conversation with Nathan last night. “An insult to the reader, but really handy when it works.”
Audrey raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment. “A hero, a sword, and a princess,” she said. “Well, the princess is probably Caroline. You got any details about the rest of it?”
“You know as much as I do now,” Duke said. “Just enough information to be no help at all.”
“It’s somewhere to start,” Audrey told him. A gentle tug on his arm. “Come on, let’s get you away from here.” Duke had to agree that this seemed like the best course of action.
As soon as they were back in the car Audrey was on the radio to Laverne. “Weird question, Laverne. Do you know of anywhere in town where there’s a sword on display?”
“You mean aside from the one outside the police station?” Laverne’s voice crackled.
Audrey and Duke shared a silent, significant look. “Yeah, aside from that one,” Audrey said.
“The history museum might have a couple,” Laverne said. “I can call them and find out for sure.”
“No, I can check it out on the way, thanks,” Audrey said. She raised an eyebrow at Duke. “We’re double-checking some research out here. How old is the sword outside the station, again?”
A confused sound. “Nobody knows, honey. It’s been there for as long as anyone can remember.”
“That’s what I thought,” Audrey said grimly. “Thanks, Laverne.” She disconnected and turned to Duke. “‘As long as anyone can remember,’” she echoed. “Except that it definitely wasn’t there when we left.”
Duke had a hand to his forehead again. There were vague memories of a sword, but it was like something he’d heard somewhere and put out of his mind, not the aggressive memories of the library. “I think,” he said slowly, trying to find the words, “that it has been there for a long time, but it wasn’t there until someone went to the library and found out that it was supposed to have been there for a long time.” A baffled laugh. “Or something like that.”
“No, I think I get it,” Audrey said. She gave him a wry smile. “So, how heroic are you feeling?”
“I’m flattered, really,” Duke said as they drove back to the police station, only sounding a little sarcastic. “But I’m telling you, if the story is specifically asking for a hero it’s not going to be me. I’m a loveable rogue at best.”
“You were the first person to know about the library and the sword,” Audrey pointed out. “And you said it yourself, that fairy tales tend to be pretty straight to the point about getting to the solution.”
“Or I’m just the weird guy who goes into the woods and comes out with tales of strange happenings that set the main character off on his journey,” he countered. “I’m going to mention the sword in a crowd, and then a tailor or a kid who herds pigs is going to go and claim it.”
Audrey almost asked how likely it was that there was a swineherd somewhere in town, but that was beside the point. “You’re pretty firm on this ‘I’m not a hero’ thing, aren’t you?”
“I know what these stories are looking for,” Duke said. “And I’m not it, thank God. Like I need another destiny.”
“Fair enough,” Audrey said, giving him a sympathetic look. “But you’ll still try, right?”
Duke gave a resigned sigh, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “Yes, I will attempt to pull the sword out of the stone to save the town,” he said. “Have I ever not at least tried?” Audrey had to admit that he hadn’t, and the two of them were silent for the rest of the short drive back.
The stone jutting up from the grassy hillside in front of the station looked like it had been there for ages, sitting a tasteful distance from the walkway like a piece of public art. The sword embedded in its top stood out at an angle that made it look like it was just resting there, waiting for someone to pick it up. The bit of the blade that was visible gleamed liquid silver, and the darker metal of the hilt shone. There was coppery detailing on the hilt, making it look like it was wrapped in briars, and the guard was fashioned to resemble a pair of leathery wings. “Look familiar?” Audrey asked.
Duke was still standing some distance back, taking in the entire scene, and Audrey wondered if he was fitting the sword and stone into his mental image of the police station or trying to convince himself that it hadn’t always been there. “Yeah,” he said slowly, the same tone he’d used when they’d been discussing his memories of the library. “Like it’s something that’s been there so long that you don’t really see it anymore.”
“Well, even if you hadn’t already told me it was connected to the library I think we would have figured it out,” Audrey said, indicating the decorative briars. When Duke bent down to take a closer look, she sighed and dug in her pocket. “You realize you’ve been pushing your hair back all day, right?” she asked, coming up with a spare hair tie and holding it out to him. “Trust me, it’s long enough to tie back now.”
“I must look bad if Audrey Parker is giving me style advice,” Duke teased, taking the hair tie gratefully.
“I had short hair for a couple years,” she told him. “I remember how much growing it out sucked. I couldn’t wait for it to get out of that ‘too long to ignore, too short to do anything with’ stage.”
Which was strange, if she thought about it for any length of time. She had developed a sort of uneasy acceptance regarding most of the memories in her head that didn’t actually belong to her, but this was a memory of someone else’s body. She was remembering someone else’s hair, growing out to a length and color that hers had never been, and the memory was slotting itself perfectly into her mind despite all the evidence that it couldn’t be right, or at least couldn’t be hers. It was more than a little distressing, and it was something she didn’t want to think about for any length of time.
Duke was giving her a concerned look as he pulled his hair back into a short ponytail. “You okay, Audrey? You kinda spaced out there for a second.”
“I’m fine,” Audrey said. “Just... me and memories. You know.” He gave her a short, understanding nod, and she reached up to brush at the little bit of hair around his face that was apparently still too short to stay pulled back. “Nice to see your face again.”
“It is my most valuable contribution to society,” Duke agreed. He turned his attention to the sword. “Here goes nothing,” he said. “But I’m telling you, it’s not gonn—agh!
“Duke!” He had lurched backwards, clutching his hand. “What happened?”
Muttering a few harsh words under his breath, Duke shook his hand out and examined it. Dark red welts crossed his palm in a pattern that resembled the briars on the hilt. “I’m really not what it’s looking for,” he said with a hiss of pain.
“Jesus,” Audrey muttered, taking hold of his wrist and taking a closer look. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he grunted, flexing his fingers. He sucked in a breath, then let it out more easily. “Pain’s already fading,” he said, and Audrey could see that the welts were, too. Within less than a minute they were gone entirely, not even leaving the soft pink of a freshly-healed wound. He gently tugged his wrist out of her grip. “Told you I wasn’t hero material,” he said with his usual casual manner. Even so, if Audrey looked closely she thought there might be a hint of disappointment in his eyes.
On a hunch, Audrey stepped around him and took hold of the sword herself, ignoring his sounds of warning and giving it a firm tug. There was a jolt of pain, but not the same one that had driven Duke back. Pulling on the sword was like trying to yank a steel bar out of set concrete, and she felt the resistance all the way up to her shoulder. “It’s all right,” she said, showing Duke her unmarked hand. “It’s ignoring me, like the rest of the stories.” She rubbed her shoulder. “It’s solid, though. That thing’s not moving until it wants to.”
“And we have to figure out who’s gonna be able to convince it,” Duke said. “And I’m not sure how patient it’s gonna be while we work that out.” Audrey gave him a questioning look. “What it did to me? That was a warning. It could’ve done a lot worse if it wanted to; I could feel that much.”
“You think it was holding back?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know why. Or if lining the entire town up to try it is gonna annoy it into getting meaner.”
Audrey chewed her lip, thinking. “Or maybe it doesn’t think you’re unworthy enough to do any permanent damage to.”
Duke raised an eyebrow. “Thank you?” he hazarded.
“The sword is outside the police station,” she continued. “That can’t be a coincidence. And you’re not exactly law enforcement’s favorite person, but even the cops who’re dying to bust you for something all consider you basically harmless. What did you call yourself? ‘Loveable rogue’?”
“I’ll try not to take offense at ‘harmless.’”
“But you see where I’m going with this,” Audrey pressed. “It’s looking for someone... lawful good, for lack of a better way to say it.”
“You just lost whatever right you had to tease me about my taste in reading materials,” Duke told her with a wry look.
“Hey, you understood it,” she countered with a smile. He gave her a ‘fair enough’ shrug. “And since it’s looking for a lawful good hero and it showed up here...”
“It’s looking for a cop,” Duke finished for her. “Because of course it is.”
“Which at least narrows our search. Any suggestions on narrowing it further, or do we line up the entire force out here?”
Duke was looking over her head, the way he did sometimes when he was thinking. “Two ways this one could go,” he said. “It’s either someone who’s really obviously already got the ‘destined hero’ thing going on, or it’s the guy at the very bottom of the ladder who nobody pays any attention to until suddenly he’s the center of everything.”
“So, either the Chief of Police who inherited the job from his adoptive father, or Stan?”
“Pretty much.” Duke shook his head. “I really hope it’s Stan.”
The smell of sheep was all-pervading. It wasn’t a bad smell, exactly, but it clung. Nathan wrinkled his nose as he exited his truck just outside the farm’s perimeter, thought for a moment, and took his jacket off and left it on the front seat. Sandra wouldn’t hesitate to rope him into giving her a hand if she could, and the jacket would be the hardest thing to get the smell out of later.
The sounds came next, the milling bleats of unconcerned sheep mixing with human voices and the occasional bark of a dog. As Nathan crested a small hill he could see the flock covering the ground like a dirty-white fog bank, with two or three human figures moving between the sheep and doing whatever it was that farmhands did. One of the figures caught sight of Nathan and gave him a wave, turning around with a whistle to one of the others. That one straightened from where she’d been crouched and said something to the first one, who nodded, and made her way towards Nathan.
A lanky woman in her middle fifties, Cassandra Pace had always reminded Nathan of his father in her brusque and businesslike nature. “Wuornos,” she greeted him, holding out her hand.
He shook it. “Morning, Sandra. What’s going on?”
Sandra didn’t respond, just tossed her head in the direction of one of the outbuildings and headed towards it. “We had a visitor last night,” she said. “You know we keep one of the barns open to the public some days?”
Nathan nodded. A significant percentage of the farm’s wool got processed by hand on-site, and it was a popular destination for crafters looking for fleece and handspun yarn, as well as for school trips looking for demonstrations of how a sheep became a sweater. Nathan had been in that barn once or twice as a kid, back when Sandra’s father ran the farm, and once with an ex-girlfriend who’d been learning to crochet. “Older guy came in alone,” Sandra continued. “Said he used to spin a little, and asked if he could take a spin on the castle wheel.” She shrugged. “Everyone wants to try it out. But he sat down and I could tell right away he knew what he was doing, so I left him to it for a while. When I came back... well, I’ll show you.”
Sandra dug for her keys as the large black-and-white dog draped across the doorway of the building gave Nathan a wary look. “Didn’t want any of the hands seeing this until you had a look,” she said. “Ruin’s not a guard dog, but tell him to stay and you can’t move him with a crowbar.” The dog’s ears flicked at the sound of his name, but he did remain otherwise motionless. “Ruin, heel.”
The dog stood and made a wide circle, coming to heel at Sandra’s side as she unlocked the barn door and pulled it open. The barn was set up in stations, with separate areas for cleaning the wool, dyeing it, spinning it, and whatever other steps there were in between – Nathan had never paid much attention on those class trips. The spinning wheel, a massive, elegant thing that already looked like something out of a fairy tale, was near the center of the floor and surrounded by a neat pile of spools of yellowish thread. “He’d only done one or two when I first came back in,” Sandra said. “Offered to make as many more as I had straw for in exchange for the earrings I was wearing.”
It took Nathan a moment to realize what he was looking at, even with that description. He picked up one of the spools carefully, fascinated by the shine of it and the way the strands bent under his hands. “Gold?”
“Spun out of straw,” Sandra confirmed. “Wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been watching him. He did just enough to convince me it was real, then he took the earrings and told me to leave him locked in for the night. I opened up this morning and he was gone, and this was all just lying here. I haven’t touched anything.”
Nathan made a noncommittal sound as he set the spool down. “Did he say anything else to you?”
“I didn’t ask any questions,” Sandra said, some of the brusqueness in her voice giving way to bemusement. “Listen, today it’s obvious that something’s weird about the whole thing. But at the time...”
“It seemed to make perfect sense,” Nathan finished for her, repeating what so many of the people involved had already said.
Sandra caught the comprehension in his tone. “So this isn’t the only incident,” she said.
“Well, you’re the only person who’s been visited by Rumpelstiltskin so far,” Nathan said with a smile. “But there’s been plenty else going on.”
“Figured it had to be one of your Troubled folks,” Sandra said with a nod. “Although I think I’d be asking for a little more than dime-store jewelry if I could spin straw into gold.”
“There’s a little more to it than that,” Nathan said, not wanting to tell her too much. “But we’re looking into it. For now, just keep an eye out, and if he comes back, don’t let him in and don’t make any more bargains with him.”
Sandra gave him a wry look. “I doubt he’d be interested,” she said dryly. “The closest I have to a firstborn was the first lamb I ever delivered, and she’s been dead for years.”
Nathan couldn’t help smiling at her attitude. “All right,” he said. “I’d like to look around for a while, if you don’t mind.”
“Take all the time you need,” Sandra said with a wave. “Let me know if you need to ask any questions, but Ruin and I have to get back to the sheep.”
“I’ll tell you when I leave, so you can lock up again,” Nathan said.
Sandra nodded. She paused, giving him a shrewd look. “I don’t suppose there’s anything illegal about spinning straw into gold, is there?”
“I guess not,” Nathan said, not sure where she was going with this.
“And I did pay for it, technically. So there’s really no reason I shouldn’t be allowed to keep it, right?”
It wasn’t something Nathan had actually considered. “No reason I can think of,” he had to admit with a smile. “I’m just not sure if it’s going to stay gold once this is all over.”
“So sell it fast, is what you’re saying,” Sandra said, meeting his surprised look with a wry one that said she was only half serious. “Think your buddy Duke would know where to find a buyer? No, I guess he wouldn’t tell you if he did.”
Nathan still hadn’t formulated a reply to that by the time that Sandra turned and walked away, Ruin still at her heels. He shook his head, turning his attention back to the pile of spun gold. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he’d feel better having checked the place out thoroughly.
Trying to determine what was unusual here would have been much easier if Nathan had any idea what ‘normal’ looked like. The wheel was the only thing in the barn that he really recognized, and that only because he’d seen similar ones in so many storybook illustrations and movies. It was practically a fairy tale lightning rod, he thought as he gave the wheel part of it a gentle push and watched it turn, setting mechanisms he didn’t understand in motion. He made a mental note to look up exactly how these things worked next time he was killing time on the Internet.
The rest of the equipment that surrounded him was even more of a mystery. Nathan could guess that the massive metal bowls were for either washing wool or dyeing it, but the spiked rollers bolted to a table looked more like a torture device than anything and he gave them a wide berth. He was circling back to take another look at the gold when his phone rang. “Go ahead, Parker.”
“You still at the sheep farm?” Audrey asked.
“I was just about to leave,” he told her. He picked up one of the spools again. “Sandra got visited by Rumpelstiltskin.”
“Rumpelstiltskin,” Audrey repeated. “I’m guessing you wouldn’t sound so calm if he’d gotten as far as the child abduction stage yet.”
“Not yet,” Nathan confirmed. “Just the ‘trading jewelry for spinning straw into gold’ part, which Sandra seems to consider more than a fair trade so far. Not really something that we can do anything about, and she shouldn’t be in any danger as long as she doesn’t let him in next time he shows up.”
“Hopefully we’ll have this wrapped up before he’s due back,” Audrey said.
“Any luck on that front?”
“Possibly. Still working on it. Duke and I are pretty sure that if we can get into the library, we’ll be at the heart of this whole thing and we can fix it.” Audrey paused. “Nathan? Describe the library to me.”
Nathan furrowed his brow. “Big building in the center of town surrounded by a briar thicket. Why?”
“Thought so,” Audrey said, sounding like she was talking to herself. “A thicket that only the chosen hero can get through, right?” she went on at a more normal volume.
“If anyone ever figures out who that is.”
“We... might have figured that one out,” Audrey said slowly. “We’re working through a couple hunches, and there’s a good chance that it’s... well, you.”
She said it like she wasn’t sure how to break it to him, and he wasn’t sure how to respond. “No it’s not,” he finally said. It didn’t come anywhere near to expressing the confusion and disbelief that her statement had left him with, but it was the best he could do.
“Well, we won’t know for sure until you get here,” Audrey admitted. “But you fit all the requirements better than anyone. And besides,” she added, her voice going softer, “nobody does more to protect this town than you do.”
“You,” he countered with equal softness.
“I don’t count,” Audrey said, fumbling her way back to her usual briskness, pushing him away again. “I don’t fit into the stories, remember?”
“You always fit into my story,” Nathan couldn’t help saying. In the awkward silence that followed this, he added, “And this isn’t a Troubled story. Haven’s been looking for its hero since before I was born. It’s not going to be me.”
“Has it?” Audrey countered. “Who first told you that?”
It was like asking who first told you that the world was round, or the sky was blue. It was something you’d learned so early that how you found out didn’t matter anymore. “It’s not like I’m going to remember that,” Nathan said.
“Because no one ever told you. You just think they did. This is another story, Nathan. And this one is yours.”
Nathan shook his head, forgetting for the moment that she couldn’t see him. But at the same time... had he ever heard anyone mention the library or the search for the hero? Even with the Troubles, there were conversations he’d overheard ever since he was a kid where, in hindsight, it was obvious what everyone was avoiding saying. They talked about it even if they didn’t talk about it. But he couldn’t remember anyone even pointedly not talking about the library. “That can’t be right,” he said.
“I know,” Audrey said. “Believe me, I know; you’re not the first person I’ve had this conversation with today. But I need you to believe me.”
“I wish I could.” Nathan would love to believe her. Admittedly a little bit because there was something appealing about the idea of being a destined hero, but mostly because if she was right then he had a chance to fix this particular Trouble before it did any more harm.
“If you meet me at the police station, I can prove it to you,” Audrey said. “And if I’m wrong, we can figure out what to do from there.”
Nathan nodded to himself, thinking. Even if her theory wasn’t right, he’d done all he could here, and it would be easier for them to plan their next move if they were all together. “Okay,” he said. “Let me just tell Sandra I’m leaving and I’ll be on my way.”
“Great, see you soon.” Another pause, sounding like Audrey was going to say something else. “Gold, huh?”
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” Nathan confessed. The light slanting in through the windows was reaching the pile now, making it glisten with a radiance that he didn’t have words for. He set the spool in his hand back among the rest and stepped back, leaning against a low table in the corner to take a better look at it all. He missed the table and stumbled, throwing a hand out to catch himself. It didn’t work. The world was still sliding sideways, and at the center of it was a splash of red. “Audrey?” His voice was suddenly thick, and it was hard to get the words out. “I think I’m bleeding.”
“Nathan? Nathan!” Audrey’s words fell away, down an echoing tunnel. Or maybe he was the one who was falling away, his vision narrowing to a single point of light before fading entirely as dark silence closed in around him. There was a shout in Nathan’s head, a voice telling him that he should have seen this coming, and then nothing.