The cart bumped along in the forest’s heart to the sounds of stag hooves on crispy leaves. When a breeze managed to wind its way through the dense branches, Lorelei pulled the sleeves of her chunkiest sweater down over her hands and wrapped her arms around her knees. She was finally on her way to Moonlit Shores.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” From the front set of the cart, Ziah turned back to the others. Ren raised an eyebrow in the seat beside her where he held the stags’ reins. From her small bag, she pulled four matchsticks, “We’ve got to draw babysitting straws.”
“Ugh, why you gotta call it that?” Grier snarled at her, crossing his arms with a pout.
“Because that’s what it is,” Ziah looked to Lorelei with a smirk, “Those two can’t man the booth alone. Age restrictions.”
Hotaru, who’d been sitting just next to Lorelei, sighed but said nothing. They would be taking shifts in twos at Moonlit Shores’ harvest festival selling the manor’s house-made mead and cider which was clinking gently along in crates beside them, but the rest of the day was free for them to explore. Lorelei was surprised Arista and Seamus were so keen to let them go, but Ziah advised that most guests would be at the festival themselves, and the two would likely spend the day by the fire unbothered. Regardless, Lorelei had never been to the town from which her workplace derived its name, and she nearly shivered with anticipation.
“Anyway,” Ziah went on, “If you get the short straw, you’re with Hotaru, and if you get the shortest straw, you’re stuck with Grier.”
“Hey!” the boy who, if Lorelei was honest with herself, could barely be called that anymore, snorted, “I’m taller than almost all of you!”
Ziah looked thoughtful for a moment then grinned, “You’re right, you have had a weird growth spurt recently. Well, congrats on finally hitting puberty. Conrad?” she offered the sticks to him, their ends hidden within her fist, reaching past a very visibly insulted Grier. Lorelei pulled second and held hers up, but she didn’t need to compare them to know she had the shortest.
“Could be worse!” Grier rolled his eyes at the front of the cart–he certainly didn’t hate her anywhere near as much as when she started–and pointed at Ziah, “But we get the midday slot, yeah?”
“Fine,” Ziah shrugged and turned back.
The cart emerged from the wood and crested a hill, the path widening. There were signs of life here, the outskirts of a town, fencing and farm animals, mailboxes and gravel driveways, but one paved a brilliant white, caught Lorelei’s attention. She followed the winding drive to its end where a house sat high on a hill, boxy and a bit out of place with its perfectly straight lines, and massive rectangular windows. Lorelei had never seen such a large, modern house, as if it were out of some magazine that had slipped backwards in time to them. It glowed oddly in the dull morning lights, half of the exterior a bright white stone, the other half black slate.
“Blackburn Estate,” Hotaru whispered next to Lorelei’s ear, and she recognized the name. This must be where Britney lived. “One of the oldest houses in town. Well, oldest foundations, at least.”
Past the farms, the homes sat closer together, and the road straightened. Set off from the main road, atop another hill, a low stone fence surrounded a patch of gravestones, a mausoleum flanked by statues in its center. There was more order here, but still a sense of whimsy. Nothing was exactly right, nor was it exactly wrong. They passed others carting in their own goods, and Lorelei wondered where on earth these people could possibly be living, but then realized that answer might not be earth–her idea of it anyway–at all.
Lorelei was hit with the salty smell of the nominal shore as the road narrowed and dipped between two rows of tightly packed buildings. If you didn’t know better, you may have thought Moonlit Shores was just like any sleepy, seaside town, but on closer inspection the pharmacy beside the coffee shop was actually an apothecary, and it wasn’t a therapist, but a palm reader set up between the tavern, where absinthe was notably served per the front sign, and the daycare, which accepted children as young as two and with up to seven limbs only.
At the center of the town, a park had been decorated for the occasion, lampposts strung with violet lights, stacks of bright pumpkins and rough-skinned gourds at their bases, and the people milling about were dressed in jewel-toned cloaks and flowing dresses, though Lorelei thought perhaps the attire wasn’t significant.
As they unloaded the hefty crates of cider, the vendors around them were lighting fires in small wood stoves and cinnamon breads and roasted corn mingled with the salty air, though Lorelei still hadn’t glimpsed the ocean. When the table was set, she finally sidled up to Ziah, “How does this stay…private?”
“From humans?” she dropped her voice low, “Well, they sort of just…don’t show up? On occasion there’s a story about a lost traveler or a vacationing family gone astray, but the forest that surrounds this place, well, it’s got an aura about it. Kind of wards them off.” She gave her a wink. The forest did have a distinct eeriness to it that set Lorelei’s stomach on edge, but she’d managed to ignore it this go around.
Relieved immediately by Ren and Hotaru who had the first shift, Ziah grabbed Lorelei’s arm and guided her from booth to booth inside the sprawling park. Grier trailed behind, eating absolutely everything he could get his hands on, and Conrad kept suggesting they visit areas outside of the grounds, but was shut down by Ziah each time much to his confusion until Britney showed up and whisked him away. The morning passed in a blur of handcrafted athames and purportedly ancient spell books, and eventually Lorelei found herself behind the cider-laden table with Grier just as the sun reached its midpoint and warmed the park.
The boy unwrapped foil from the roasted, bright-red leg of what Lorelei assumed was a turkey and sunk in his fangs, pink juices trailing down his chin.
“Lord, you’re a mess,” Lorelei pressed some of the paper they’d used to buoy the bottles into his hands and gestured to his face, “How are you even still hungry?” Her own belly was bloated from a stop at a candied apple booth and cheese from an animal she’d never heard of before, and he hadn’t stopped stuffing his face since they’d arrived.
“You’re not?” he looked genuinely confused, but it only lasted a second, “Eh, you know, it’s lunch time!”
She watched him devour the meat quicker than he should have been able to then quickly denied him when he begged to run across the grounds to grab another, “I need you to help me. Someone’s bound to say something I don’t understand.”
“Oh, you need me, huh?” he smirked at her and moved his chair closer, “Well, I’m at your service, milady.”
She curled a lip at him, “Ew.”
The mead and cider proved to be quite popular, and the customers proved to be quite engaging, keeping them both busy. Ziah had been right about babysitting, however, as of the two of them, Grier turned out to be more apt to say the wrong thing, but he couldn’t be watched the entire time. As Lorelei closed a sale with a group of very chatty old witches–she guessed by their wide-brimmed hats though they were the only ones around donning them–she caught Grier in a deep conversation with a lanky man in a black cloak. The man hurried off with a bottle before Lorelei could free herself of the women and their discussion about which equinox their mead choices were best suited.
“What’d he get?” she leaned over to watch what Grier did with the cash he’d been handed, but gasped when she saw what he held.
“The la pomme noir,” the boy butchered the name.
“That’s the most expensive!” she yelled at him in a whisper, her heartbeat quickening, “He didn’t give you any money?”
Grier held up the scroll he’d accepted, “Oh, no. He gave me something much better.”
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