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From the author: A boy goes too deep into the woods and finds a monster.
Raff Luthier wasn’t lazy, not really, but he loved wandering into the woods and finding new trees and secret places more than he liked working in his father’s workshop that always smelled of wax and sawdust. He was no good at making instruments, not like his father. John Luthier’s work was known wide, and players sent to Father from as far south as the capital at Norcrest for his lutes and fiddles.
Raff had been trying to shape the wood for the soundbox of a new fiddle; not an order, just a practice piece for himself, but each time he tried to carve a gentle curve, his chisel slipped through and scarred the wood and ruined it. He was so clumsy, with his useless fingers that would not do as he ordered them. Whenever he picked up a chisel or a plane, it felt like his hands belonged to someone else, a stupider, slower boy who shamed himself and his family. His father had let him begin to work without guiding his hands three months ago, and still Raff was no better.
Today, he had thrown down tools and ruined wood after a third failure, and Father had come to see what was the matter, and he had told Raff not to mind it, that the trick of it would come with practice, but Raff had marked how his father was so careful to speak slow and calm and pleasantly, and known how angry he was at the waste, at the noise disturbing his important work, at Raff’s own uselessness.
So Raff had run out into the woods instead of staying there and weeping and throwing a tantrum like he was still a baby. It was cool under the trees, but the wind was blunted, and very soon he found a path that he had never found before, winding deep into the forest on a clear track under an arched roof of leaves that turned the sunlight green as his imagination of the sea.
Raff walked slowly, pausing to look at how the light revealed a maze of dazzling complexity in the bark of one wizened tree and then going on a few paces to see some new marvel. The path he walked was so smooth and clear of undergrowth, and its sides so thick with briar and fern and twisted roots, that it felt half like the old holloway that father said had been a road since the old Gallian empire, and Raff could imagine that he was on a secret road into fairyland.
He became so lost in the pretty little things that littered the trunks and the brush around him that he did not notice the darkness until the light turned grey and grew so dim he could barely see beyond a single rank of trees at either side. When he looked up, the leaves were lost in black, more like night than cloud, but that was nonsense. He hadn’t been in woods that long.
He heard a scraping sound somewhere behind him, like his father drawing a chisel blade across a whetstone. The path there seemed darker and more twisted than he remembered. He went on. The sun would come out in another moment, and then he would know the way and cut through the underbrush for home.
The trees were strange in this part of the forest, black and twisted, with barely any leaves, as if it were winter, or they had all been burned and split by thunderbolts. Even without the canopy above, it was still dark, with only a directionless grey light to guide him. He tried to imagine that he was a fairy finder, walking boldly into the dark forest to rescue a stolen child and send the monsters back into the shadows of the West.
The path twisted tighter, so that he could see less and less ahead, and then suddenly he came to a dead end. In front of him, the trees were a wall, twisted together and gnarled and dead from each one strangling the others with root and branch and fighting for sun in the shade of their dead leaves. He heard the sharpening slide again, close behind him now, and he very much wanted to scream, but there was no one who would help him there to hear, and he was sure whatever was there would only come quicker and be hungrier if he did that.
Raff turned. There was something in the road. It was tall, maybe taller than a tall man if it had stood straight instead of being hunched and gnarled like the dead trees. In its face were set eyes deep as drill holes and a mouth like a ragged saw-cut and barely a nose. It was black, and its arms and legs were thin, with bulging joints like the growths on gnarled trunks. It hid its hands behind itself. Raff thought it might be smiling.
It—the fairy, what else could it be?—breathed in like a whisper of wind through leaves and over sharp edges, and its voice was deep and grinding and gleeful.
“Do you want to go home, Little Boy?”
Raff felt very small, but he had to answer. He did not think that a fairy could hurt him very badly if he made no mistakes but in stories, they were always tricking people into saying the wrong thing, so that they would be in the fairy’s power. He knew he had to say something; being rude to a fairy was terribly dangerous in all the tales.
“I do, yes.”
He would tell the truth, but not give the fairy his name or talk too much and say something that would give it the power to hurt him, or trap him in the forest for a year, or take him away to fairyland forever.
“Shake my hand, Little Boy, and I can set you on the path back to your home.”
Raff’s heart was in his throat hearing the offer and then fearing what the fairy really meant. He knew a fairy would not go back on a promise, but that had not really been a promise, had it? The fairy only said it could send him home, not that it would, and he did not think he wanted to shake its hand. Why was it hiding its arms behind its back?
“Do you promise to take me home?”
The fairy drew itself up tall and nodded its head up and down, slow and exaggerated. “I swear that after you shake my hand, I will set you down in sight of your home at once.”
Raff put his hands out in front of him.
“Let me see your hands first. That’s fair.”
The fairy frowned with that saw-cut mouth like a black slash into deep night, but then it laughed like dead leaves in a windstorm.
“Alright, Boy. Take a look!”
The laugh rose to a cackle as the fairy thrust its hands out. At the end of its black arms like twisted branches, each finger was a silver scissor blade. It laughed and laughed until it must choke soon.
Raff snapped his hands back behind himself and shouted.
“No! No, I won’t!”
He had no space left to think of being mannerly, his head was so filled up with fear of the sharp silver scissors.
The scissor-finger shouted back in a voice as big as the forest.
“If you won’t be my friend and shake my hand, I made no oath to take you home. You can stay here and learn to be a nicer boy.”
It stretched its arms out and stood up taller than a tall man, and cut and cut at the dead trees all around with a snick and a slither of metal on wood. Branches and trunks fell down with a boom and a rattle, and Raff was trapped tight in a wooden cage, too heavy to move, too tight to stand up in, with no hole bigger than his fist to slip through.
“I’ll come back again later, Little Boy, and we’ll see if you’re ready to be better friends.”
It was gone into shadow and bare branches, and the sound of scissors sliding against each other faded slowly.
Raff examined every branch and beam of his cage. There was nothing else to look at. The cuts were so smooth. Those silver scissors must be sharper than his father’s best knives and chisels.
He was thirsty. He wondered how long he had been in the woods, and whether he still was, or if he was already away in the West, and if he was, whether drinking anything would trap him there forever.
He couldn’t tell how much time was passing in the dark. He might have fallen asleep, but the sound of scissors slid in from the woods just often enough to keep him sweating coldly and working to breathe slower.
The fairy came back once to look at him, but Raff lay still with his eyes shut and pretended to sleep, and it went away after a little while.
Raff was hungry. He had gone over every inch of the cage more than enough to know he couldn’t move it or squeeze through. Maybe he should say yes when the scissor-finger came again. His fingers weren’t worth much, after all, not against the fear that would keep Father from work. He always hated it when Raff was gone without a word, and said he got no work done while he was worrying. What else could Raff do, except starve here and leave Father wondering forever? Did he have anything to offer the fairy that was worth less than his hands? How much was a hand worth anyway, when it was too clumsy to do the work his father made so easy, when it would never bring a smile of honest praise to his father’s face?
The next time the scissor-finger came back, Raff sat up and looked at it, though his eyes still flinched away from those bright silver finger-blades.
“We have to make another deal before I can shake hands with you.”
The scissor-finger bent its knife-gash face close, like a dog nosing after food.
“I am my father’s only help at his work,” Raff said, “his only prentice. You have to promise that I’ll be able to help him with his work after you take me home, or that he’ll get other help if I can’t. You must promise that nothing you do to me will hurt him or make it so he can’t work and make his instruments.”
The scissor-finger rested its chin on its awful fingers and thought, then pointed one blade at Raff accusingly.
“That is too much to ask for nothing offered, Boy. If you want my promise, you must make one. You must swear this is not a trick, and pledge that you will never leave my wood or try to before you have shaken my hand.”
“And if I do, you’ll promise what I asked?”
“Yes, Boy, if you swear not to even try to make your way out of the wood without shaking my hand, I’ll promise that your father will never be without…assistance in his work.”
Maybe now Raff’s hands would be good for something at last. If the fairy made him good enough, or brought a better prentice to his father, it would be more than Raff could ever do alone.
“Alright. I promise I won’t try to leave the wood without shaking your hand.”
“Then it is sealed, our first bargain and our second.”
The scissor-finger held both hands out to Raff, all ten blades splayed for him to see. They were so sharp, so bright in the dark wood, like little pieces of the moon.
He tried move his hand. He had sworn. He had to do it.
He couldn’t make himself reach and touch the silver blade.
The scissor-finger must have read the struggle in his face. It laughed.
“You’ll work yourself up sometime, Boy. You’ve nothing else to do.”
It was still laughing like a storm of dead leaves long after it had vanished back into the twisted woods.
Raff waited in the dark and wondered why he was so useless, even once he was resolved what he should do. He was no longer hungry. He barely felt alive. He looked at his hands and tried to memorize the whorls of his finger-pads, the wrinkles of each knuckle, in case this was his last time looking at them. Again and again he swore to himself that he would do it, he would reach out and be done when next the scissor-finger came. He was not sure if that would make it easier to reach his hands out through the bars when the time came.
Something tapped at his cage. Raff sat up to look out. There was a woman there, kneeling to look him in the eye. She had iron-grey hair, and her face was lined. She wore a patchwork cloak of every color and kind of cloth, and she had an iron ring on every finger. A finder! Just like in stories. His father had called a finder to save him. Maybe this was even Grey-Haired Maddie, whose stories he had heard, but how had she come there so soon? Was it only luck that brought her, or a sight of the future that told her where she would be needed, or had he been trapped in this fairy wood for years while the scissor-finger laughed at him?
“Are you…How did you?” he asked, breathless.
She slid her hand through the bars and over his mouth before he could say more.
“Shh. Shhh. You must be quiet, Raff, and you must tell me about the fairy who trapped you here, and the bargain you made with it, as quick as you can.”
Once he started, it was like something had broken inside, and all his fear spilled over at once and rushed out of his mouth like a stream of water.
“It’s a tree thing with scissor-fingers and it said it would take me home if we shook hands but I made it show me its hands and I said I wouldn’t and it said I could stay here until I’d be its friend.”
The finder patted his shoulder and pressed a finger to his lips. He didn’t try to tell her about the second promise. He felt ashamed of it now, of trying to deal with a fairy to make himself a better luthier, or stop fearing his father’s shame.
“That’s good, Raff, quiet now.”
The scissor-finger was behind her, between her and the way back. She smiled at Raff, and stood up and turned around, with her hands hidden under her patched cloak.
It laughed at her.
“You cannot take the boy, Finder, or go free out of my wood without my leave. What will you pay for that?”
The finder did not sound frightened when she answered it. Raff saw her fingers moving through the cloth.
“I will make the same bargain you made with the boy; and let me stand for both of us. We will show our hands, and shake them, and then I and he will both be free to go.”
“Agreed, Finder, but you must swear to shake at once, as soon as we have seen each other’s hands, not make me wait with the same trick the boy has.”
“Done. Show me your hand.”
Raff almost thought the finder was straining not to laugh.
The scissor-finger put its awful blades a whisper from her face.
“Do you like them, Finder? Think of how smoothly they’ll cut through you, flesh and bone and shriveled skin.”
The finder shrugged and held her left hand up, and it was bare. The scissor-finger frowned.
“That is the wrong hand for shaking with. Show me the other.”
The finder shook her head.
“We agreed to show and then shake hands. Come, I will use my right.”
The scissor-finger’s right hand pushed forward, slow and trembling, as if it were straining not to and still was forced. The finder reached out her right hand and clasped it, and the silver scissors cracked and twisted and wept black blood like oil on her five iron rings. The fairy crumbled to the ground and cradled its ruined hand, blubbering and muttering softly, like the scratch of twigs on a windowpane.
“You were clever, Raff,” she said, “to be so careful with the bargains you made, and to remember them to tell me. Now come home with me. Your father has been worried.”
The cage around him was only a few thin fallen branches now, and Raff pushed them off easily, and he took the finder’s hand and walked, but he could not go past the scissor-finger. After three steps, his feet fixed to the ground and he could not lift them. The woods ahead still twisted dark and pathless, and even as it cried, he thought he heard the scissor-finger’s laugh.
The finder turned to look at him, and her dark eyes were stern.
“What other bargain did you make, Boy? What binds you here?”
Raff looked at the ground. This confession did not spill out easily.
“I…I promised I would not try to leave without shaking its hand.”
“And what did it offer you for that?”
“I made it say that I wouldn’t be too hurt to help Father, or that someone else would, and that it wouldn’t hurt him so he couldn’t work, whatever it did to me.”
“Shake then. We must be going.”
She pointed to the scissor-finger crumpled on the ground, and there was no smile left in her lined face.
Under her eyes, he could do it. He walked forward with little steps, feeling himself shake if he tried longer ones. Raff did not look at the knife-gash face, only the broken silver hand. He reached out and held one twisted finger lightly, clenching his teeth against the pain so hard he felt cords knot and fray and pop in his jaw and down his neck. Three gentle pumps up and down and he let go. Even twisted, even broken, it was so sharp. The cuts ached to his bones.
The finder bandaged his hand and led him out of the dark woods, back to his father’s house.
Ever after, Raff felt the pain of those cuts in his right hand, and the scars never faded. His hand trembled, limp and useless, save when he held a chisel, blade, or saw, or any tool his father taught him how to use. Then he was steady, and his work soon gained a reputation almost the equal of his father’s, though different musicians bought from father and from son. All of them, whether they sought it out or avoided it, said that Raff’s instruments gave a strange sound, like the wind whistling over dry leaves and bare branches, and sometimes a tap on the frame would echo with a sound like silver scissors sliding one over the other.
This story originally appeared in Coppice and Brake.