The road winded through the countryside. Typical, lush green fields sped by, divided by the dark green bushes and trees. The wind softly rustled the leaves, gently fluffing the winter coats of the sheep dotting the area. Brightly coloured flowers were in full bloom, far away from the pollution of the city.
He smiled as a breeze entered through the windows and caressed his hair, greeting him after so long. He breathed in deep, catching the rich scent of soil and grass. A quaint house zipped by and he waved, earning one in return.
One arm relaxing in the open window, he remembered visiting his grandparents growing up. On the first trip his brother and he had been fighting over something frivolous that he couldn’t recall.
His small chest heaved, fighting to take in enough air as he ran. He glanced back, seeing his brother and his friends chasing him across the field. It was a miracle that he had gotten away in the first place — now he had no idea how he was going to out run them with a broken leg.
Tears clumped his eyelashes together and ran down his soft face. A few managed to reach his lips and he vaguely registered the taste of salt. His body tried to sob at the same time as his breathing, creating a quiet whine.
One of the boys behind him heard it and shouted, alerting the others. They laughed, shouting insults across the narrowing distance.
He winced, his eyes tightening shut for a second as he began climbing the hill. One of the boys had jumped on him, claiming it had been an accident. Now his leg flared in pain and every step and he couldn’t walk properly. In retrospect he wasn’t sure why he had headed up the hill in the first place, thinking that it was only way to escape the bullies.
The ground began to even out and he looked up. It was blurry, but there was a building in front of him. He wiped his eyes, not stopping.
It was a castle. Crumbling old brick, growing vines and moss, and a dime-a-dozen. There was a large arch where a metal gate once stood but was now missing, likely taken for scrap. He raced towards it as fast as his leg and the pain would let him. Each step stabbed into his brain, worse now that he had relief in sight.
The hollering voices were louder.
He sucked in air, his body struggling to move, cry, and breath at the same time.
He gasped as he foot caught and he fell, his teeth clattering together. The grass absorbed some of the fall. The voices were louder and he scrunched his eyes tighter in anticipation.
“Where did he go?”
“Hey, wasn’t your brother just here?”
His brother snarled. “I don’t know! Keep looking! He’s going to regret every being my brother.”
The voices grew quieter and he risked a look. He had fallen just inside the castle. Behind him his brother was running back down the hill, searching with the other boys.
Still panting and crying, he couldn’t figure out how they hadn’t seen him lying down in plain view in front of them.
“Ooo, is that a human?”
“I think so. But perhaps a little one.”
His head whipped around and his eyes widened. Standing in the courtyard just behind him was a giant, furry black dog. It had bright red eyes. Its tongue was lolling out of its mouth from the heat of the sun, just like what his grandparent’s pet would do. Beside it stood a squat creature about his height and covered in brown fur. It had a large nose and a tail with a tuff at the end.
“Uh oh, do you think we scared it?” the furry person asked.
The dog shifted from one front paw to the other. “Probably.”
He wiped his eyes and more creatures appeared. There was a tall, willowy lady with long hair and long pointed ears, other animals that stood on hind legs, sometimes wearing clothes, a gargoyles, little fairies with dragonfly wings, and a man and woman with brightly coloured hair and a magical glow. Little creatures with pointed ears were crawling on a few shoulders, eyeing him curiously.
His mouth opened and closed.
Then there was a whorl of black and large crow appeared in front of him. “Hello!” It happily said.
He chuckled remembering his scream and the terrified looks of some of the creatures. Some had leaned back in fright and others had briefly disappeared. The rest had eventually calmed him and brought him into the castle.
He smiled warmly as the sun peeked out from between the folding grey clouds. Fond memories flash through his mind of the adventures he had experienced with his new friends. He grinned, thinking of the various times the tricksters of the group had fooled and pranked his brother.
Over the first visit his leg healed up well, as with each trip to the country his confidence grew. His brother stopped harassing him so much, and a few of the boys even apologized — once they had gotten a taste of their own medicine, of course.
The crow had turned out to be one of his best friends, going so far as to visit him occasionally in the city. The rest were like family, teaching him things no school ever could. Over the years he had seen fairy cities, Otherworlds, and had even joined the Wild Hunt once. He had seen loss and had grieved with his friends.
Then his family had stopped going to his grandparents for a while. Busy family matters, disagreements and whatnot. His smile disappeared and he sighed, pushing the air between his lips. It had been the worst years of his life, where he had gone downhill.
As a teen he smoked and drank to escape the drama and pain. He had made poor friends, but ones that eventually sobered up, got clean, and were the best people he had ever met, the closest friends he had now.
One particularly bad night when he had just got his license he had driven all the way to the castle from the city. He hadn’t bothered to turn on the headlights and had crashed his parent’s car. Sometime later he had stumbled into the courtyard, tears flowing down his face and speaking gibberish. One by one his old friends had arrived, sensing his presence after so long.
He smiled again. They had taken him into their arms like he had never left. Of course he got in trouble from his parents and the police, but it had been worth it.
The clouds were flowing quickly overhead, breaking up and leaving behind a dusty blue sky as she drove. Paved roads became stone. He slowed as he crossed over an old stone bridge, reaching out to nearly touch its sides.
He shut the radio off, listening to the vehicle, the wind, and his hopes. It had been so long since his last visit. His grandparents had passed away, his parents had broken up, and he had moved even farther for university and his career.
His heart fluttered as the hill came into view. It rose up behind a few fields and a house. Once he was as close as he would get, he pulled over to the side of the road without falling into the ditch.
He shut the vehicle down and stepped out.
The late afternoon sun was warm on his face as he beamed — the castle appeared on the hill, waiting for him like an old friend.
He stuffed his keys away and jumped the ditch, misjudging it and sliding down a little. Then he ran across the field. Into the next he jogged and finally walked the rest of the way.
No path led up to it but he took the familiar steps with growing excitement. The sinking sun was warm on his back as he crested the hill with the stone arch in sight.
A relieved, breathy laughed escaped him as the dog and brownie appeared. The others followed, waiting just inside the castle with smiles.
A swirl of black formed out of the air and became a shape.
“Did you really think we’d ever forget you?” the crow asked, a mischievous twinkle in its eye.
He laughed and wrapped his arms around it. His friends shouted and laughed, running out of the castle and under the arch to join them.
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