Cara Michaels’ Picture Choice: 1
Title: The Reds
“Saints be,” Old Gertrude said from her stall of bolted fabrics and hand sewn quilts. She bumped hard into her table, nearly toppling the simple structure. “The Reds are coming.”
I glanced up from where I finished laying out my wares. More cheap bits of metal and paste than anything else, I still made a decent living selling the pretties to the ladies and girls. They appreciated a bit of shine to brighten up an otherwise dull, dreary life.
For me, the Sullivan sisters—or the Reds, as the superstitious lot around me called them—provided all the shine I needed. The redheaded trio rarely came to town, maybe one market day each month. Towing baskets of dried herbs and flowers, they traded their medicinals, seasonings and incense for grains, fruits, and dried meats.
Why did they catch the eye so? Their beauty alone made them easy targets. People always suspected beautiful women of dark doings. Their cleanliness further marked them as different, from shining hair, to white teeth, to pristine clothes, they added startling color to a landscape dominated by dust, mud, grass, and shit. Above all though, their near scandalous clothes and frank manners set them apart. They didn’t come from our land and people could see as much.
Strangers from a strange land.
I dreamt of lands, entire worlds even, beyond this one. Peoples and places who knew of more than I could imagine. I would give anything to know the world as the Sullivans did.
Old Gertrude crossed herself. Narrow minded crone. As though the girls knew anything about evil beyond what we gave them. They’d never been less than kind and polite during their rare visits.
The eldest of the three, Scarlet, noticed Gertie’s movement and winced. Her flat mouth had forgotten happiness somewhere along the road of life. I supposed she knew too much of cruelty and the vagaries of Fate. God knew, she hadn’t been taught otherwise in these parts. Ginger, the middle sister, she kept to herself more, content to hide in the shadows and smoke. Youngest Ruby had a sweetness about her, something soft and innocent to tempt a lad to dream.
She favored me with a gentle smile and I didn’t deny my dreaming.
The girls made their way to me.
“Good morning, Aidan,” Scarlet said, echoed by her sisters. Ruby’s smile grew as they approached.
“Morning to you, Scarlet,” I replied. “Ginger. Ruby.” I lingered over Ruby’s name, my voice warmer than necessary. “How can I help you today?”
“I’d like something today, Aidan,” Ruby said. She wore a short, flowing dress of ivory just reaching her stocking covered knees. I kept my eyes respectfully above the exposed length of her slim legs. A sleeved shawl of fine, white knit covered her arms. She drew a cachet of herbs from her basket. “I made this for you.”
“Alfalfa for prosperity, basil is protection against evil.” She seemed nervous, as though I might turn down her offering. “The amber beads are protection from harm, but bring success and prosperity as well.”
“Thank you, Ruby,” I said. “This is quite a gift.” I gestured to my wares. “Take your pick.”
Her misty, blue-green eyes lit up with excitement. She pored over my trinkets, settling on the one thing I hadn’t made. She held out a ring, a plain band of gold smoother than anything I could craft.
Something from another world, like her.
“This?” Her tongue darted out to lick her lips. “May I have this?”
“Of course.” I couldn’t renege on my offer now, though the ring’s sale might feed me for a year. I wanted to ask if she knew the ring, or the world that could fashion it.
“Where did you find it?” she asked.
Her tone didn’t suggest any hidden meaning to her words.
“By the old mill,” I said. “A few years back. Not long before you first came here.”
Ruby smiled. “It looks like our mother’s. She gave it to me just before—”
Scarlet cleared her throat.
“Before we came here,” Ruby finished.
“Then it’s obvious you were meant to find this,” I said.
To my surprise she caught my hand and placed the ring in my palm, closing my fingers around it.
“Thank you,” she said. “I knew you were different.”
The trio headed on to the next stall.
“Different? But—you didn’t take it.”
My words fell on my wares and the small bag of herbs Ruby had left behind. The Sullivans went about their business, and I had no choice but to go about mine.
The day passed, busier than usual, with the milder weather of spring warming the day. I had no time to think on Ruby’s curious behavior. As the sun began to set, I packed up the unsold items. My sights fell upon the cachet, forgotten in the hustle of the day.
“Strange,” Old Gertrude said. “She gave you something but took nothing in return. That’s no kind of business.”
“She isn’t evil, Gertie,” I said.
The woman nodded. “But she is different. Not like us.”
“Not like us, no.”
I opened the bag, inhaling the earthy scents. I almost missed the scroll of paper wound tight and nestled among the dried plants and amber. I drew out the missive, closing the bag and tucking it in the pouch at my hip. Unfurled, I saw the paper had been inked in painstakingly neat letters.
My heart stumbled.
I couldn’t read.
Who could I ask who wouldn’t refuse? Or who wouldn’t cry ‘witch’ or some nonsense over what was written here?
“Here, boy.” Gertie held out her hand.
I reflexively pulled my hand in close to my body.
“Gel’s taken a shine to you, Aidan,” she said. “Best see what she’s about.”
She pried the paper from my hands and rolled it open. Her brown eyes darted left and right.
“Doesn’t write fancy like the monks,” she said. “They ought to take a lesson and make words easier for a body to make sense of.”
“What does it say?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose.”
“Gertie. What does it say?”
“It says to go find your fate, boy.” She tossed the paper back to me. “At the old mill. You know the place?”
“I do.” No coincidence I’d found a ring reminiscent of Ruby’s mother’s there, then. Perhaps I’d been the one meant to find it.
She nodded. “Best pack up, then. And take the ring with you.”
“The note says all that?”
“You’re not much like us, either. Always been a strange one.” Gertie’s tight smile revealed her uncertainty. She handed me the note. “It says she’ll be waiting for you. Do you need more?”
My fingers clenched tight around the ring.
“Get on, then,” she said. “Find your place. Got enough strange folk in this town without inviting them to stay.”
I headed out of the village.
I didn’t look back.
Cara Michaels is the author of the Gaea’s Chosen sci-fi romance series and host of the #MenageMonday flash fiction challenge.