Crown of moss, ore, amber, and vine;
this is earth’s daughter and she has come for the cruel.
Vera almost missed the turn-off, the tires tipping as she jerked the wheel towards the side road. Broad trees edged the way, their roots rippling the broken pavement. Vera leaned over the wheel to pat the van’s rocking dashboard in apology.
Squinting out past the light of the headlights, Vera noted the deep black between the trees. Their tangled branches blocked the stars above her. These were trees older than the road, older than the town she was trying to get to.
Like the turn off, the town itself was hard to spot. Dark windows, no streetlamps. A unlit wooden sign marked the motel. Beneath the buzzing porchlight, paper flyers covered the bulletin board behind a single pane of scratched plastic. Advertisements for the farmer’s market and guitar lessons. But mostly it was missing kids, some missing adults too. They smiled from photographs beneath block letters begging for information and promising rewards.
Vera checked into the motel and asked directions to the nearest liquor store. Vera smiled through their warnings. She could use the walk. Gravel and mud crunched beneath her sneakers. The sooner she learned what lurked in the dark the better.
More old trees watched her trudge down the road to the promised liquor store. She could smell the cold wood of their knotted trunks, their roots deep and mean beneath the road.
The liquor store was a hazy colorful destination across a field when lights began to peak through the trees just off her path. Blue silver like moonlight on snow, the small orbs bobbed in the black between the trees to catch at her eyes. Vera’s mouth went slack and she took three steps off the road, a hand rising to reach out to the dancing lures. Soft sweet music filled her ears.
Deep roots stretched, shifted, groaned in the dirt beneath her as she walked from the road. Their cracking whispers called her back. A young root caught her sneaker, sending her sprawling to the ground. The fall broke her sight of the beckoning lights and Vera shook herself out of the thrall. “Nice try,” she called out to the wisps, wise enough to mean it.
Nothing troubled her more that night beyond an overly curious liquor store clerk. The little town didn’t get visitors anymore, too many disappearances. Vera walked back to the motel sipping bourbon and thinking. Fey were tricky as they come and cruel as early winter.
The next morning Vera fished out boots from the back of her van. The fields and thick woods around the motel were muddy. She spent her days wandering hither and thither, the bundle in her arms growing with a wild harvest of whin, rosemary, and St. Johns wort. Her fingers bled and stung, pricked by thorn and nettle, but she did not tire each day until the sun did.
A week later the farmer’s market was a popular as the flyers promised. By Vera’s weather eye, most of the little town had to be in the square perusing fruit, sweets, and amateur crafts. She parked her van in the midst of it and threw open the doors. Inside hung the colors of burnt autumn, frosted with the occasional mint and moss of winter. Wreaths, bouquets, and boxwood bundles wove their earthy scents into the air and drew a quick crowd.
Vera took money only if offered and was quick to pass out free blossoms or twists of twig to the children that passed by. The market wore on and Vera’s van emptied. Everyone had something bright and fragrant to take home, many households left with more than one wreath or bundle.
The sun spread its last rays over the remains of market. Vera slid her van doors closed and went to get into the driver’s seat when a chill drilled between her shoulder blades. Vera turned. A young man regarded her with narrowed eyes. He was lithe and apathetic as a teen, though with none of the fledgling awkwardness.
“Sorry, I thought everyone had gone.” Vera smiled and touched the van’s door. “I have a few more.”
The corner of his nose twisted with disgust and the air grew colder. Vera watched his eyes turn, some nameless mundane color flashing to brilliant grey ice. The stretch of his lips wasn’t human and his words settled into her skin like snow. “Leave. Take your weeds with you.”
Vera stepped back against the van’s side before swallowing her fear. Deep beneath the stone and concrete of the square, old tree roots curled strong about the iron of the town’s bones. She listened to them grow for a moment. Vera threw back her van’s door and the encroaching night filled again with scents of whin, rosemary, and St. Johns wort. “Without a parting gift?” She asked with a bold jut of her chin.
The fey recoiled, choking on the warding herbs and swearing. Vera planted her feet solid. “There are older things than you here and they grow strong,” she told him.
He left her with a sneer. A moment there, a moment gone. Vera only breathed once back in driver’s seat, the scents of her craft circulating through the van’s AC/heat vents. She sighed, this was as good a place as any to spend the winter. The town needed more help than she’d thought.