The Starwood Ladder (short story)

Fiction By Melissa // 12/15/2012

On a chilly autumn night, after the last field was plowed under and prepared for winter, the girl with no name lingered after dark. The work was done, but the quiet field and dancing auroras made her feel like all was right in the world. She didn't want to break the spell by going home. She sat on the split-rail fence, watching the sky.
Suddenly a trail of light streaked down across the green and blue, like a shooting star, so close she thought she could touch it. It landed at the far end of the field by the edge of the forest with a thump she could hear from where she was.
She slid off the fence and approached, listening close. In the mud shone something round and smooth, and big as a pheasant egg.
Catching a falling star was the greatest charm for luck a soul could ever find. The girl with no name bent and picked it up. It glittered between her fingers. She cradled it in her palm, squinting against the brightness.
If she took it home, what would the farmer and his wife say? Would they welcome her as they did their own if her streak of luck were broken? Would the fields yield again as the farmer said they once had?
The fallen star was getting brighter still, and hot. The girl yelped and it fell from her palm into the dirt. She couldn't look. Her eyes pinched shut from the light. On hands and knees, she felt through the mud, trying to rescue the star.
"What are you doing?" said a voice.
The light was still too bright to see. "I'm looking for the star!"
The brightness dimmed like a lantern when the shade closes. The girl with no name looked up. Leaning against the fence was a boy. His boots were muddy and his trousers turned up, showing knobby knees. He was like any other farmer's boy in all but one thing: he glowed. Not bright, like a candle, or even like a firefly, but just enough to see by.
"That's me," he said with a lopsided grin.
"You burned me!"
"Sorry." He swept an apology with his gleaming hat and almost fumbled it. "I was playing with my friends. I didn't mean to fall."
The aurora continued, flickering across the sky. "What's your name?"
"Csillak," he said. "What's yours?"
She looked down. "I was a foundling. No one ever gave me one."
"That's wicked," said Csillak. "Would you like one?" He grinned. "I've never given a name before."
"Yes! Only..."
"Eh?" His tongue poked out and one eye half closed in concentration.
"I've tried naming myself, but no one paid any mind. How can I make it stick?"
His face untwisted. "Don't worry. Star names always stick." He rubbed his boyish chin. "Do you like Layla?"
"I do!" She clasped her hands, then winced. "Ow."
"Then Layla I name you." He took her other hand and they danced through the field until Csillak tripped and sent them both sprawling. They lay in the mud laughing, then bounced up to dance again.
They danced and played in the field all night long. As the sky began to grow lighter, Csillak stopped her and they sat together on the fence.
"Can't you stay?" asked Layla presently. She didn't want to go back to being alone.
"No, I can't. If I don't return to the sky soon I'll be trapped here forever." He scuffed a boot on the frozen dirt. "And if I go, you'll forget me when the sun rises." Then his face brightened, and he leaned against her to whisper in her ear. "Do you want to come visit the stars with me?"
"What?" Layla took a breath of stunningly cold air. "Can I?"
"Not now, but next time I come, I'll bring a ladder for you. Until then, remember me with this." Csillak tightened his hand into a fist, then opened it. In his palm lay a ring.
"How did you do that?" She held out her hand, and he pressed the ring into her palm. His hand burned, and his countenance brightened so that Layla had to cover her eyes. When she looked again, he was gone.
Layla's breath puffed white. As she watched, the stars faded one by one. When the rising sun plucked at the horizon the ring began to glow. Light poured from it, dim in the brightening sun. She held it up to her eye, curious, and touched the stone with her finger. The light pulsed.
She hummed and sang as she milked the sleepy cows. Loaded down with the heavy pails, she strode across the bare yard to the house and set the milk on the grey doorstep. She tugged the iron handle. The door was locked.
Layla stepped back, her breath caught in her throat. Someone must have turned the iron latch in the night. It could only be locked from the inside. If she knocked, they would want to know how she had gotten locked out.
Inside, she could hear her mother humming as she stirred the porridge. Her brother was talking with her sister in a low voice.
"No one's seen her since last night." Thomas's voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. "She didn't come to dinner."
"What do you think she's been doing in the forest?" Kay's whisper carried better than Thomas's deeper voice. Thomas shushed her, and Layla had to lean closer to the crack to hear his response.
"What do you think? If she's not a fairy wench, she's a witch, it's certain. The Folk must be tickled to have a slippery little spy like her in our own ranks. I'll wager she reported to them last night. When she comes back she'll have the mark of the Devil on her face."
Layla stepped back from the door, heart thrumming in her ears. She'd overheard things like this before. They thought she was a child of the Fair Folk, and that their kind act of taking her in had brought a curse on their crops. That was why she didn't have a name. No one talked about her, except in whispers, when they thought she wasn't listening.
That the farm's yields were poorer than any of the neighbors' was undeniable, and Layla didn't know any more about her own origins than anyone else did. Sometimes she woke at night, entangled in damp sheets, from half-remembered dreams of the cruel Fair Folk coming to claim her for their own.
She might not know who she was, but she did have a name now. Layla twisted the ring on her finger, watching its light waken and pulse at her touch. Csillak's cheerful face floated through her memory. He was the only one who'd ever smiled at her like she was someone who mattered. Even if it was all a trick, and he didn't come back, she never wanted to forget him.
Bowls clunked down on the table and spoons clattered. "Breakfast!" called Emesa's melodic voice.
Thumping feet climbed down the stairs, rattling the thin walls. Her youngest brother and her father. "Where's Layla with the milk?"
Her father's voice. Layla froze, disbelieving. He'd said it. He'd said her name.

Weeks passed, and one day her sister noticed the ring.
"Where did you get that?" she asked, pointing.
"A - a boy gave it to me," said Layla. Her hands went cold, and she felt suddenly nameless.
"What boy would look at you?" scoffed her sister. "That must be worth a fortune. Let me see?"
"No!" cried Layla. She closed her hand into a fist and wrapped her fingers over it. But her sister pried her fingers off. Kay tore at the ring with her ragged nails until Layla's skin bled, but it wouldn't come off. Finally they collapsed exhausted on the splintery floor. The smooth clear stone shone in the center of the silver with a pale light.
Layla, nursing several scratches, saw the look of horror in Kay's thin face and backed up until she stood against the corner. She wiped the blood on her dress. The cuts knitted and healed. She looked up at Kay with round eyes.
"Devilry," whispered Kay. "Who gave you that ring? A shaman?"
"No, a boy did," said Layla defiantly. "Last autumn. And he said he would return for me." He had not mentioned that the ring was magic, but she ought to have realized.
"As if anyone would willingly accept the hand of a witch like you! How did you trick him?" demanded Kay. "Who was it? Who did you curse?" Her sister put one hand on either side of her shoulders, preventing her escape. "Tell the truth!"
"I didn't curse anyone. Csillak gave it to me!" Layla tried to push her sister's arms away.
"Liar!" Kay slapped her face. Layla ducked under Kay's arm and ran down the shabby stairs, past her shocked family, and burst out the door.
"She's proven herself! She bewitched someone! A boy from the village!" Layla heard her sister shrieking. "Do something, Father! I'm the eldest, I should have been the first to marry, not her!"
Layla turned around and kept running. The far field. The forest edge. Maybe Csillak would come back for her today. Her steps crunched on the filigree of ice. Her cheek burned like fire.
Lights emerged from the cabin, orange in the misty twilight. Torches. They were going to look for her. Where was Csillak? When he finally returned she would be nothing but ash. The villagers had burned witches before.
Layla curled up on the frozen mud at the foot of the fence, cold tears streaking her face and tangling in her dark hair. She kissed the ring, still shining with its pale light. The forest behind her offered no escape, the leafless branches no shelter. She was alone.
The light grew. Layla sniffed and forced her eyes to stay open. The thickening mist muffled her family's crunching steps and haloed their torches and lanterns.
Her ring glowed like the moon. Layla sat up, a tingle of hope shivering her frozen heart. The shape of something long and thin loomed in the darkling field.
She took one step, then another, cringing at the sound of her footsteps. The fog hid her dark woolen shape from her hunters. Her outstretched hands touched wood.
Streaks of silver striped the weathered grain. It was Csillak's promised ladder.
Tentatively, she brushed the starwood with her fingertips. The moonstone pulsed with light. One rung. Another. Her knuckles whitened and her fingers clung tight as she climbed into the sky.
At the top of the ladder she met the star boy. She stepped off onto the silver clouds and Csillak hauled up the ladder and lay it across the fog. He took her hand. "I'm sorry it's been so long. Are you all right?"
"No," said Layla. "Csillak, am I a fairy?" His touch warmed her cold fingers. If she was, the farm would produce again now that she was gone and she needn't feel guilty for going. All would be well. "I have to know."
Csillak raised an eyebrow. The friendly gesture seemed so human. "Fairies are born with their own secret names on their lips. They can take as many new names as they choose. If you were a fairy those humans you lived with wouldn't have been able to leave you nameless."
"So I'm not cursed?"
"Of course not." The star boy gave her a friendly smile. "You're as ordinary as I am."
Layla didn't know what to make of that. Down below her, she could hear her family calling and shouting as they spread out to look for her. She walked over to a break in the low cloud. Torches bobbed in the dark. There were too many. Kay must have called for the neighbors.
Csillak sat down on the edge of the cloud, dangling his feet into the air. "What are they doing? Pretending to be stars?"
"They're hunting for me." The words took Layla's breath.
"Oh. They miss you already? Are you sure you want to come with me? It could be a long time before you come home. You might not see them again."
"Oh, yes. I ran away. I think they want to k-kill me." Layla kept her voice low. "It would be all right if I never come back here at all."
"What?" Csillak floated up like a dandelion seed and then his feet were under him. "Are you serious?"
"I - they think I'm a witch," stammered Layla. "Kay saw your ring, and she thought it was magic."
"Of course it's magic! You say that like it's a bad thing," said Csillak, with exasperated humor. "I have half a mind to show them some magic they won't forget!" He ran over to the ladder and lowered it to the ground. Then he grabbed Layla's hand and before she could stop him, he stepped off the cloud, taking her with him.
"No! Csillak, I can't go back!" she begged. "Take me back up!"
"They won't hurt us," said the star boy with bravado.
Layla pushed at her skirt, which drifted up on the slight breeze as they floated down. She wanted to yank her hand away from Csillak, but feared that she'd fall if she did.
Their feet touched the ground. Layla couldn't move. She hadn't expected to be here again so soon. She wanted to curl up on the ground and sink into the mud until all but the gnomes forgot her name. Csillak squeezed her hand. His boyish lightheartedness had changed into determination.
"Hello!" he called into the dimness. Twilight was almost gone, but his glow gave plenty of light to see by. The ladder was behind them, and so were the trees, shadowy and skeletal. "Come over here and face me!"
Kay emerged from the grey mist. Her face was a silhouette, her outline all sharp angles and pointed nose. She gasped. "Father, come quickly! I've found her." She hung back warily. "Is this the boy, witch? Is he enchanted?"
"I'm not a witch, I'm your sister," said Layla trembling. "I'm not a fairy child."
"You, calling yourself my sister? What kind of a name is Layla, anyway? Who but a fairy could force such a preposterous thing through our lips? Only you could have killed this farm. When I think of all the beautiful things Mother and Father used to have, used to give to us- !" Kay's voice was a raven's scream. "And now you're betrothed before me, too! Will you take everything that's mine? Is that why you're here?" Her eyes flicked from Layla, to Csillak, to the ladder that climbed into the fog. She rushed forward and grabbed Layla, forcing her up against the ladder.
"Let me go!" Layla struggled, trying to climb backwards up the ladder, but Kay was older and taller, and she pressed her advantage. She twisted Layla's arms behind her back and slipped a loop of rope over her wrists, pulling it so tight that Layla yelped, eyes watering. Then she slipped the hot circle of the ring from her sister's finger.
"When he finds out what you did to him, he'll choose me instead." Kay pulled away, rubbing the ring's bright stone. She slipped it on her own finger. The light faded, and the stone reflected only moonlight. She flashed Layla a smug smile and turned away.
Csillak yelled something, words Layla couldn't understand. Three of the neighbors' boys had forced him facedown to the earth. He still glowed. One of the boys yelped and backed off as if stung, shaking his bare hands.
Layla writhed, trying to free herself, but Kay's knots held fast and the ladder wouldn't budge. "Csillak!"
Kay was off, running to help the boys. "Get wood for the fire!" she cried to anyone who would listen. Then she crouched beside Csillak. "Don't worry, the spell will be broken soon." She reached out to stroke his cheek and recoiled. "He's burning up! Somebody bring me some water!"
The star boy's countenance grew brighter and hotter until his captors were forced to scramble away from him, work gloves burnt through. Kay fled to the well, screaming.
Csillak sprinted for Layla and the ladder. His glow dimmed, but he was still too hot to touch Layla without harming her. Instead he reached for the ropes that bound her wrists. The smell of burning hemp stung her nose, and one of her wrists came free.
"Take this, witch!" Kay threw the bucket of water over them both. Icy water splashed on Layla's wool dress, soaking her sleeve, but Csillak took most of it. He screamed. His light dimmed. He tumbled to the ground, a broken candle.
"No!" Layla sobbed. She knelt awkwardly beside the fallen star, one wrist still snared in the rope. "Please, please wake up." She shook him. For his skin to be that cold, he should have been shivering, but he lay lifeless, his face ashen.
Kay and her father knelt on the other side of his body and examined him. He wasn't breathing. Her father turned over one of his hands. His ragged fingernails were made of silver. The bottoms of his boots were marked with a five-pointed and a seven-pointed star and what might have been the cobbler's name, written in symbols like nothing Layla had ever seen. The markings were silver, shining in the orange glow of torches and lanterns.
"Devilry." The word went through the gathered crowd in a whisper. Layla looked up at the people, relatives and neighbors, standing all around her, their cold eyes reflecting fire.
"She's a murderer. Tie her up. Burn her," the people murmured.
"Whose son is this?" demanded Layla's father, standing up and brushing the mud from his knees. "Is everyone here? Find out who knows him. The boy is dead. Come and claim him if he's yours. We'll have the funeral after we burn the witch." His voice was hard, without pity.
The feeling drained from Layla's hands. Pins and needles prickled her feet. "No! You don't understand," she cried.
The voices of the crowd rose to drown out her fumbling explanation. Some of the boys ran to the woodpile and returned, trundling along like ants under their heavy load. They dropped the logs at Layla's feet.
Something brushed her trembling hand. Kay's fingers gripped her like a vise. She had brought more rope. She pulled Layla's arm back around and forced her to stand against the ladder, yanking the knots tighter than before. She backed up, watching Layla as if she would burst the knots and dash out to strangle her. But all Layla wanted was to hide in the forest and never see her family again. She wanted to close her eyes, but she couldn't look away from Csillak.
He seemed the same age as Layla. Younger, even, maybe. He looked so sad, lying there. Tears tracked down her cheeks. She remembered the first time she had picked him up from the mud and held his bright star-shape in her hand. She couldn't rescue him now. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
The farmer conferred with the neighbors as they passed, one by one, each one afraid to see if this was their own son lying dead.
Kay knelt beside him and drew the ring off her finger. "I think she stole this and used it to control him," Layla heard her say to a cousin standing nearby. "Maybe if I return it to him, he'll revive."
She slid the metal circle over a finger on his left hand.
Layla's heart thundered inside her chest like a trapped bird. The ring had healed her when Kay attacked. What if --
The moonstone burst into brilliant silver light. The effulgence trailed across Csillak's skin, up his arm, and covered his body. The star boy gasped and coughed.
A shiver of relief trickled down Layla's spine. She gasped too, and leaned against the ladder, smiling through tears.
The pile of wood and straw was building high around her. The boys abandoned it at the farmer's order and went to look at Csillak.
"No one seems to know who he is." Layla could barely catch what he was saying over the unsettled rumble of talk. "Do any of you boys recognize him? Seen him at market day maybe?"
"I don't know him." Another boy shook his head.
"He's a stranger to me, too." The boys backed away, staring at the farmer. "Don't you know him? Who is he?"
The farmer frowned and didn't answer. "Look at the markings on his shoes. Any cobbler you know make boots marked with silver?"
"It's like the devil's mark," objected one of the younger boys in a ringing voice. "Is he a witch too, Daddy?"
A shudder ran through the crowd.
Kay's face was a mask of horror. She stumbled back, leaving the stolen ring on the star boy's finger. He coughed harder and sat up. "Layla? What's happening?"
"Burn him," someone shouted. Others whooped and hollered their agreement.
"He's a star," interjected Layla in a loud voice. "He's a star! Just let him go! You mustn't hurt him!"
The people muttered like a forest of aspens before a storm. They surged around her and converged on Csillak, who was still too weak to respond. They lifted him by arms and legs and dragged him over to the starwood ladder. Someone else brought more rope and bound him too, winding the rope around his and Layla's arms, pinning them together.
"Let him go! Please! Just burn me," Layla begged. Her nose was running, but she couldn't wipe the slime away. "Please."
The crowd was chanting the incantation for the sign-against-evil. No one responded. She tried to catch their eyes, but they refused to look at her.
"Csillak?" Layla twisted, trying to see him, but it was no use. His arms were bound to hers so tightly that her hands felt numb. His skin was beginning to shine again, and the ring's light pulsed like a heartbeat. "Are you all right?" She wrinkled her nose against the bitter scent of the oil the boys were pouring on the logs.
"My fire went out," he mumbled. "I - I'm still dazed. I'm sorry. I don't know what to do." His voice sounded small. "I've never -- never heard of anything like this happening before. I'm only twelve. I'm so sorry! I should never have made you come back down here." He sniffled. Layla felt him shuddering against her as he fought back a sob.
"We can't cry," he whispered. "We have to do something."
Layla struggled against the ropes. "The ropes -- can you burn them away again?" she choked out.
He squirmed. "If I make enough heat to do that, I'll hurt you. Or set the- the oil alight." A cough wracked through him. "I could survive, but you. . ."
Layla imagined the feel of the skin searing off her arms and shuddered, cringing away from the thought. "But if it didn't light, we could make it up the ladder and escape." That was a pretty big "if." And if it went wrong, a lot worse would happen than burns on her arms. But wasn't that coming anyway?
"You won't be able to climb if I scorch your hands, and you're not wearing the ring anymore."
Layla gritted her teeth and resolved herself. "What choice do we have? Just do --!"
A harsh voice interrupted. "Any last words, demon?"
Her eyes widened and her heart dropped through her shoes. One of the neighbors, the fair-haired man in his wide-brimmed hat, his face red and angry, glared at her. In his hand was a firebrand. The others stood around, with lanterns and lamps and torches, ready to fling them on the fuel.
The farmer stared at the ground. Kay stood by him, her face hidden by his shadow. His wife, the only mother Layla had ever known, was nowhere in sight.
"Got nothing to say, eh?" He lowered his torch and all the others followed. Yellow flames climbed the logs. Someone cheered. Layla screamed and strained against the ropes. The rough fibers dug into her skin and heat seared her arms. She twisted her neck so far that its sinews wrenched and scattered pain through her skull like sparks. She couldn't see him, but it didn't matter. The rope binding her right arm broke and fell away.
The air rippled with heat. Yellow, orange, red. The flames closed in. Layla closed her eyes and gritted her teeth against the burns forming on her arms.
Csillak howled and the rest of the ropes burst apart. He kicked the logs away from his feet and tore Layla free.
Steam hissed up from the outer edge of the fire. A woman screamed and men yelled. Over the roaring flames it was impossible to tell what was happening.
"Quick, put this on!" Csillak slipped off the ring with fumbling fingers and dropped it in Layla's hand. "Get up the ladder!"
The fallen ropes writhed like snakes in the heat, but as soon as Layla put the ring on, her burns began to heal. Fire stormed around her. Where the flames licked her skin, she felt only hot wind, like a breeze from the cornfield on a midsummer day. Encouraged, she climbed faster and stepped out onto the roof of fog.
Csillak glowed like the moon. He stepped through the edge of the flames and knelt beside someone lying twisted and appallingly still.
What had happened?
Layla cupped her hands around her ears and listened.
"What did you do to her?"
The people edged away from him. If anyone answered, it was in a whisper too quiet for her to hear.
"Stay back from me, you cowards!" Csillak ran back into the fire and set both hands on the starwood ladder. He tugged it free of the clouds. The long ladder sloped and tilted, almost pulling Csillak head over heels, but he mastered its momentum, righted it and carried it back through the roaring flames.
Layla ran, her feet sinking into the fog. The ladder poked up through the swirling floor and opened another window.
Csillak gathered the woman in his skinny arms and tottered to the ladder. It was lucky she was so small, or he never could have made it. Layla watched the villagers, terrified that one of them would try to follow and bring the woman down again. But none of them seemed to want her enough to try.
When he reached the top of the ladder, Csillak let the woman tumble down onto the clouds. He climbed off the wood and hauled up the ladder before sinking down in the mist to catch his breath.
The woman had landed face down. Layla went to her and gently prodded her onto her back. And then she saw who it was. Emesa.
Her mother didn't stir. Blood streaked the left side of her face. Layla gently brushed back her hair and held a shaking hand before her lips. She was still alive.
The ring. Layla slipped it from her finger and slid it gently onto the woman's hand.


I missed this when it first got published!

The only thing is some times the dialogue was misplaced and confused me.
This is one example of the number of parts that confused me.
The light was still too bright to see. "I'm looking for the star!"
I think you should have made another paragraph after the first sentence since the light is definitely not saying "I'm looking for the star!".

Other than that, this is really magical. I really, really like this. The beginning caught my attention to the very end and the whole entire story of the fairies and the ring is so very exquisite. I could see everything - Csilla, the aurora, the flaming torches, etc.

This is a wonderful short story - better than what I could write! Great job! Keep writing! --Megan

Lucy Anne | Mon, 02/04/2013

"It is not the length of life, but the depth of life." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oh, thanks for the advice! I

Oh, thanks for the advice! I really had trouble with that part. It's so good to have someone else help spot these things. :)
Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for the encouragement! :)

Melissa | Wed, 02/06/2013


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