The carpenter walked ahead of the boy, hunting hat clasped over his belly like some kind of shield. His head was bowed and he was shuffling, which wasn’t a great look as his his eyes darted up to see where he was putting his feet before falling back down.
The fairy remembered the boy. He was fresh-faced and had bright blue eyes, but that was just the way of boys. There was a bright red feather on his yellow cap that always caught her attention. She had never managed to figure out what kind of bird it would come from. It was too saturated and bright to belong, and yet instead of looking fake, it made everything else less real.
The old man eventually stopped close enough for her to hear, but too far for his smell to reach her. At least he knew better than to speak first, and his silence pleased her. She watched the boy.
There was a relentless cheerfulness to his smile that should have delighted her to the core, but never quite reached her soul. Maybe she’d been granting marzipan wishes for a few centuries too long. A visit to the old country would do wonders. Perhaps after tonight. She shook herself from her reverie.
“Yes, carpenter? I see your boy is in good health. You have no reason to complain. What other boon would you ask of me?”
Down the hall to the left, a cupboard bumped and shook in a gentle tinkling of china. All her familiars should be asleep by now, but then again those rascals didn’t like staying put.
“The boy, mistress. He misbehaved.”
His voice broke at the end in crackle of emotion. It took her a moment to process and remember. He was afraid she’d actually waste magic again to undo the spell he’d begged of her. He was afraid she’d turn the little snot rag into a wooden puppet again. As if she had nothing better to do with her magic. Sometimes dealing with humans felt like a curse.
“Dear carpenter, fear not. We all have to learn sometimes. This one time only I am going to let your son keep his human form, even though he has transgressed.”
The old man didn’t move. He was still looking at his own feet, still clutching that hat. She turned to look at the boy’s head just over the old man’s shoulder.
“You are sorry, aren’t you, boy?”
The boy’s smile widened and sharpened at the edges. He nodded with a little too much spring in his neck. Then, he pushed his father, forcing the old man to take another step forward. The carpenter’s shoulders surged with panicked breaths that were starting to become sobs.
There was another tinkling cascade, though this time it ended in a sharp crash on her right. Before she could look in the direction, the old man spoke again.
“No, please, mistress. You must punish him, as you promised. He.. has been extremely bad. Very bad. Please..”
The fairy turned to look at the man properly for the first time. His skin was waxy, its sheen wholly unhealthy. She looked at that ridiculous hat held before him like a begging talisman. The carpenter’s fingers were twisted and broken at the joints. More than half of his fingernails had been torn off into ragged gashes that oozed pus.
“Please, mistress, you promised that if he misbehaved he’d be turned into a puppet! You have to keep your promise, or he’ll keep playing with the fox and the cat, all their games, and I..”
This time, there was no tinkling. The furniture that lined the room rattled in an approaching wave, and one of the lights on the right went out.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“The meaning is that I’ve been patient enough, bitch. Grab her!”
The ragged, dark voice had come from the boy, who sent his old man tumbling against the wall with a shove. Shadows unfurled on each side of her dais, one serpentine, the other pointy-eared, and claws dug into her arms, easily shredding her blue sleeves. The fabric stained black with her blood.
The fairy reached for her magic and started uttering a shield that would slam everything in the room against the walls. Power grew in her belly, rose through her chest, and then the air was cut from her.
She reached to feel the edges of the horizontal gash that had torn her trachea and wheezed out a cry of pain as her captors dug their claws into her arms deeper. She hadn’t seen the blade nor the hand that wielded it move, and yet the resulting strike had been so diabolically precise. Surgical. The boy was up against her face and that terrible smile filled her sight and warm pain flowed down her neck.
“I didn’t slither my way up from the earth to call that half wit peasant from a tree for months just so that he could beg you to could trap me in this meat suit.”
The carpenter held his knees, pressed his chin into his neck and repeated a litany to a god that wasn’t going to help. She saw the deep, precise cuts a the base of his neck where his skin had been flayed. The stench of sizzling hair burned her nose.
Where her blood touched the boy’s skin, it erupted in boils that burst and leaked black ichor that instantly knotted into living bark. He screamed, and looked at his hand. Then he laughed.
“Now I’ll have to do this the hard way.”
Claws ripped her dress and a red-bladed flash sliced her shoulder. The boy pressed his face into the gushing blood and then looked at her, earned blue eyes filled with concern.
”You know, this is going to hurt me more than it’s hurting you.”
He howled to the ceiling and then laughed again. Her vision grew darker with each slash to the sound of childlike glee.