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A late January night, Denver
Jennie Weaver's skin prickled as the heaviness of ancient earth magic crossed her front boundary and marched up her sidewalk to her front porch.
A dwarf was at the door. The magical kind of dwarf, from the Lightfolk. He waited for her to acknowledge him. He could wait forever. She wasn't budging from her second-floor office.
The doorbell rang, a fruity ripple of notes that she'd gotten used to since she'd bought the house, and had begun to actually like.
She would not open the door. She'd been dodging phone calls from strange numbers for days.
The doorbell sounded again. She stared out the window, nothing to see but dark, no moon tonight, and her neighbors' windows weren't lit.
The doorbell rang a third time. And the clear phone on her desk lit up and trilled. And her cell in her bedroom warbled "The Ride of the Valkyries." She was afraid if she answered the door the tune might become all too appropriate.
She set her teeth, turned up her computer speakers and continued typing. The final tweaks to the new little story line for the mass multiplayer online game were due tonight.
Her computer died an unnatural death.
A supernatural death.
A touch-of-fey death.
She stared at it openmouthed.
The ringing and ringing and ringing went on.
Stomping downstairs in her fuzzy slippers, she peered out the peephole and saw no one, not on the drafty covered porch or the stoop beyond. Definitely a full-blooded dwarf if she couldn't see him.
Another bad sign.
She shouldn't open the door, but didn't think the dwarf would go away or her computer would come back on until she responded to all the noise.
Her cell tune changed to "Hall of the Mountain King." She hadn't programmed that in.
Hard raps against the doorof course he wouldn't use the silver Hand of Fatima knocker.
Knowing she was making a mistake, she opened the door. Recognized and stared down at a dapperly dressed dwarf in a dark gray tux. Drifmar. "What part of 'never darken my door again' did you Lightfolk not understand?"
He smiled ingratiatingly, addressed her by her birth name. "Mistress Jindesfarne Mistweaver, we've found a pair of brownies who'd indenture themselves to you, despite your many cats. A token of our esteem." He swept a hand toward two small beingsshorter and thinner than the four-foot solidly built dwarfshivering in the late-January cold. The long tips of their furry ears folded in for warmth. Both male and female were dressed only in white shorts and sleeveless tops.
Jenni looked at the goodwill offering. They were scrawny and wrinkled. Their triangular faces and equally large and usually triangular ears and small vicious pointy teeth made them look as mean as wet cats. They wrapped their arms around themselves and leaned together.
"I don't need household help," she said. "I am a productive member of human society, I have a cleaning team every month."
"You have a squirrel hole in your eaves above the door," Drifmar, the dwarf, pointed out.
"I like the squirrel hole," Jenni insisted. "I like the squirrels."
The brownies perked up.
The dwarf bowed. "Mistress Jindesfarne, we have great problems."
"Always great problems around. No." She slammed the door.
He stuck his foot in it and the door splintered. He smiled with naturally red teeth. "Now you need the brownies."
The brownies were looking hopeful, big brown eyes blinking at her, their thin lips turning black with cold.
Drifmar said, "You need the brownies and we need you. Let's talk."
"We will make it worth your while."
With just that sentence he ripped the scab she'd thought was a scar off the wound. Hot tears flooded her constricting throat. Her fingers trembled on the doorknob. "No. My familymy once happy, large familytalked with you fifteen years ago. Then we went on a mission to balance elemental energies while the royals opened a dimensional gate. My family died." All except her older brother, who blamed her for the fiasco, but not more than she blamed herself.
"They saved the Kings and Queens of the Lightfolk."
"I don't care. The Lightfolk did not save them." She didn't control her magic, let her eyes go to djinn blue-flame. The brownies whipped behind the dwarf.
She got a grip on herself. It was Friday night and the sidewalks had people coming and going. Besides, losing her cool with a chief negotiator of the Lightfolk was not smart. "Most of my family is dead in the service of the Lightfolk. I have no responsibility to the Lightfolk at all."
"Your parents taught you better." There was a hint of a scold in his voice.
Since Jenni felt like shrieking again she kept her lips shut on words, breathed through her nose a few times, then managed to say, "Go away. Never come back."
"You are the only one with the inherent magic to balance elements left."
Her gut clenched. The dwarf didn't have to remind her that her brother was crippled physically and magically. She remembered that every day and prayed for him.
She stared into Drifmar's pale silver slit-pupil eyes. He could have no power over her, her own eyes were sheened with tears. "I am well aware of that. Go away. Never come back and if I say it three it will be."
"Wait! We will make you a Princess of the Lightfolk, you will lack nothing for the rest of your life, your very long life. We need you for just a small job, and it's time sensitive so the mission would be for a short time, only two months."
Harsh laughter tore from her throat. "You can't make a half blood a princess. Against all your rules. A small job for a great problem? I don't believe you, and two months is eighty-four thousand, nine hundred and fifty-nine minutes more than I want to spend in Lightfolk company." She looked down her nose. "That left you with one minute. Time's up."
"You'll have power and status and money and love, whatever your heart desires."
"I desire to be left alone by the Lightfolk." She flicked her fingers. "Go away and that makes three!" She put her fury in it, hurled the magical geas at him, but drew on no magic around her. Not to use on such as he.
The brownies remained.
The male squealed, "What to do? What do we do now?"
Jenni stared at the pitiful couple. "You can come in for the night, I suppose, but just one."
They stepped on the stone hearth, then clapped their fingers over their rolled ears and ran back to the far side of the porch. The woman looked at her reproachfully. "You have a nasty-sound scare-mouse machine."
Jenni didn't like the sound, either, but she'd been able to ignore it.
The man appeared interested. "You have mice. They said we would have to suffer many cats. Why do you have mice?"
Jenni sighed. "I have one old, fat, toothless calico cat."
The brownie womanbrowniefembustled back, stared up at Jenni with determination. "Go turn off the scare-mouse sound machine."
Giving them a hard look, Jenni said, "You will guard this door and let no Lightfolk in."
"We promise." They bobbed their heads. "Please leave the door open for the warmth," whined the man.
Jenni muttered a swear word under her breatha human wordand tromped back to the kitchen. Sighing, she removed the sonic mouse repellers. In the summer she could live-trap the mice and relocate them, but in the winter and the bitter cold no. If her cat, Chinook, had caught them and eaten them, that was different, that was natural. But she had too many advantages over mice to destroy them. Stupidity.
By the time she reached the entryway, the brownies were in and the door propped shut.
Chinook, always curious, descended the stairs two paws at a time. When she got three steps from the bottom she saw the brownies and her fur rose, her tail bottled and she hissed.
The male hopped into her face, bared his fangs and hissed back.
Jenni went to Chinook and picked her up. "She's lived here for years, you're overnight guests. As long as you're here, you must treat Chinook with respect. She responds well to pampering."
Before she'd petted Chinook twice the brownie couple had zoomed to the kitchen. Jenni followed.
The browniefem looked around, nose in air. "You need us. I am called Hartha and this is Pred."
Pred grinned. "Mousies!" He disappeared into the crack between the stove and the counter.
"The cleaning team comes Monday, only three days from now," Jenni said. The house didn't look too bad to her.
Hartha was suddenly wearing an apron made from two of Jenni's dish towels. That had been in a drawer. "Go sit down and I'll make you some nice tea. You've had a shock." Another sniff. "We must have the house warmer, but we will do it with magic, lower your heating bill."
"We need the positions." The woman lit the gas oven without turning the knob. She met Jenni's eyes and her own were not pitiful but shrewd. "Those new shadleeches have nested in our home. We had to leave or they would drain our magic dry."
Brownies were mostly magic. But Jenni didn't want to hear their long, sad story.
Music filled the house, her computer was back on. She hoped she hadn't lost much work.
Chinook wriggled and Jenni set her down. The cat sat and stared at the brownie. The woman went straight to the dry food container and filled the cat's bowl. Chinook hummed in greedy pleasure.
Magic filled the atmosphere along with the lavender scent of home spells that Jenni recalled her mother using. She didn't want to think of her family or the brownies or the dwarf. She let Chinook crunch away and went back upstairs to work.
Soon she'd turned in the leprechaun story and was in the depths of email consultation with the game developers about its debut the second week of March, only six weeks away. The scent of sweet-herb tea wafted to her nose. More memories of her mother, her five siblings, whipped through her. The browniefem set the pretty patterned cup before Jenni, twisted her hands in her apron.
So Jenni picked up the tea and sipped. It was perfect. Just sweet enough. Naturally. Hartha would have sensed her preferences.
The brownieman, Pred, appeared in the doorway, grinning. "There is no more mouse problem."
Jenni let the brownies have the back storage room, messy with piled boxes, computer parts, cables, extra clothes, mailing materials, old software and broken appliances. She had a feeling it wouldn't be untidy in the morning.* * *
Grief and ghosts and guilt haunted her dreams.
She should have known that the arrival of the dwarf and the brownies would stir up the old trauma, but had worked that night until her vision had been fuzzed with static from looking at the screen. Then she'd fallen into bed and slept, only to watch the fight around the dimensional gate with the Darkfolk, and be too late again.
Her family had died in that fight fifteen years before. Jenni had been late to help her family magically balance energies as a portal to another dimension was opened. She'd been more interested in her new lover and loving. Hadn't been there when the surprise ambush had occurred. A fatal mistake she was unable to fix, so she had paid the price every day since.
She would never forgive herself for her mistake.
Neither would her elder brother, the only other survivor of her family.
She awoke weeping and curled into a ball, and knew from the soft and muffled quality of the air outside her windows that snow fell in huge, thick flakes. She felt the silent coming and going of the female brownie, Hartha, but kept her back to the woman until the smell of an omelette and hot chocolate made with milk and real liquid cocoa teased her nostrils. She rolled over to see her best china on a pretty tin tray along with a linen napkin and tableware.
As she ate, Chinook hopped onto the bed, onto her lap, and purred, accepting bits of ham and cheese from the omelette. The cat was her family now, old and scruffy as she was.
Only one old cat.
As she stared out the frosted window, she accepted that the Lightfolk would not leave her alone. They'd send others to negotiate. They'd send him. Her ex-lover.