Charms had always been illegal. Evelyn was well aware of the law when she stood before the stranger’s cart inspecting the wares. What had started as innocent curiosity morphed into wonder further amplified by the wild pounding of her heart trying to fracture her ribs in its escape. There was a certain thrill to breaking the law, an adrenaline spike the likes of which she’d never experienced before. She wiped her moist palms against the rough wool of her forest green cloak. The old mule swishing its tail in her peripheral made her flinch, and every few seconds, Evelyn would pause to glance around in fear that the Amanz were coming to arrest her. But the forest was quiet, and after each quick sweep of the trees, her eyes would be irresistibly drawn back to the cart.
The canvas on the side of the rickety cart had been pulled away to reveal the contraband Charms. A pair of mirrors that allowed lovers to see and speak with one another, a ring that brought good fortune, a goblet that would never empty, a dagger that would never dull or rust, and many more. All looked innocent enough; if Evelyn didn’t know any better, she never would guessed these commonplace items were Charms. All that revealed these were indeed contraband were the strange, tiny markings of a lost tongue etched on each object.
“Anything catch your eye?” A woman bent with the weight of many years shuffled to Evelyn’s side and peered around her arm.
“I’m not sure,” Evelyn admitted. She curled her fingers inward until the nails pressed into her skin deep enough to leave imprints. “I want…something special.”
“Aaaahhhhh,” the stranger breathed, nodding. “I have the perfect Charm.” She scuttled around to the back of the cart, all the while mumbling, “I knew the moment I saw you that you that you wouldn’t settle for anything less than exceptional. I keep my best merchandise back here.” The old woman labored up the three short steps and then crouched to seize a metal ring in the floor of the cart. Evelyn took a step forward, opening her mouth to offer help, but with abnormal strength, the merchant hauled the heavy trap door up to throw light into a shallow compartment. “Come here, child, come here.”
Evelyn’s paranoia made her skim the clearing for Amanz officers again before she wandered over. “Let me see, let me see…ah-ha.” Pinched between the gnarled fingers was a silver chain, at the end of which dangled a crystal pendant that caught the light.
Entranced, Evelyn reached out and set her hand behind the crystal. It felt warm against her skin despite the dark space it had been stored in. She leaned closer to squint at the tiny scrawl.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“It is, isn’t it? A very rare stone for a very powerful Charm.”
Mesmerized by the beautiful crystal, Evelyn asked, “What does it do?”
“This one is very special. It will grant you one wish. Anything in the world you desire is yours. Won’t your fiancé be pleased when you have limitless wealth, or a grand house, or perfect health? You can use it now, or you can save it for when you are truly desperate, when you find yourself in trouble and all options have been exhausted. The possibilities are endless.”
Spellbound, Evelyn couldn’t take her eyes from the crystal. One wish. It would have to be perfect, but she and Sterling would have plenty of time to discuss what they wanted. Anything in the world….
Evelyn’s face fell. Fifteen gold pieces? She didn’t even have half that in her coin pouch. She feigned a patient smile and unclipped her pouch from her belt. When she loosened the drawstring and glanced inside, five gold coins and six silver gleamed in the shadow.
“What’s your name?” Evelyn inquired.
The old woman answered, “Kassidia.”
“Kassidia, then…your price is very steep. I don’t suppose I could offer you five?”
“You could offer, but my price stands at fifteen. Nothing less.”
Discouraged, Evelyn dumped the contents of her pouch into her open hand and haggled, “Five augmins and six nimms. That’s all I have.”
“I’m sorry.” Kassidia turned away, taking the beautiful Charm with her. “You may choose from my cheaper stock. I went through a lot of trouble to get this particular Charm, and I can’t afford to bargain over it.”
Evelyn pleaded, “A trade, then?” She poured the coins back into her pouch and patted her clothes, searching every pocket for something the old woman might want.
“Nothing you can give me is worth the price of this Charm. However, I could negotiate something else for the price of five augmins. Let us choose something that will make your fiancé happy.” She shuffled around the cart, her arthritic-stricken fingers shaking as they struggled to tuck the wishing Charm in the leather pouch at her belt. Evelyn followed, crestfallen as she watched the crystal vanish. Kassidia withdrew her hand, leaving only a small section of the silver chain dangling from beneath the flap. Eveylyn couldn’t take her eyes off it. It jostled with every slow step, swinging slowly, taunting.
“So, dear, what’s the lucky fellow’s name?”
“Your husband-to-be. What is his name?”
“Sterling,” Evelyn sighed, unable to mask the desire from her voice.
“And his trade?”
Evelyn half-heartedly surveyed the other Charms again, none calling to her like the crystal pendant in Kassidia’s pouch. “Oh, um, he’s an apprentice to a blacksmith.”
“How nice. May I recommend this for the lovely couple?” Kassidia selected a jade ring and offered it to Evelyn, who took it while glancing once more at the silver chain at the old woman’s hip. “This will bring you good fortune.”
Evelyn tilted the ring to see the etching on the inside of the band.
“Five augmins?” she asked.
Kassidia hesitated, her pale eyes flicking to the coin pouch in Evelyn’s hand at the same time Evelyn cast another longing glance to the silver chain. “Seven.” Disappointment escaped through Evelyn’s lips in a sigh. “But,” Kassidia continued, “for you, I will accept your offer of five augmins and six nimms. Heed my warning, though—this will bring you good luck only as long as you are a good person who deserves it. This Charm will not work if you try to use your luck for sin.”
Evelyn rolled her lips together in indecision. Sterling had given her the money to invest in a good horse so they could plow their new rocky plot of land. All of his savings and her mother’s dowry had been invested in the ramshackle cottage on the bluff. But when Kassidia had found her in the marketplace and whispered enchantments in her ear, she couldn’t help herself. A lifetime of good luck? Surely that was worth more than a horse.
Kassidia coaxed, “Try it on. Believe me, a Charm such as this is worth more than anything you were in the market for.”
Evelyn shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She plucked the ring from her palm and slipped it over her finger. Perfect fit. That must be a sign, right? She realized she was nodding, then squeaked, “Okay.” She would have bought the wishing pendant without a second’s hesitation. But now it was with great reluctance that she relinquished her coin pouch, every cent to her name. If only she could afford the Charm she really wanted. The pendant called her, drawing her eyes back to the chain. Kassidia was old, slow. Who would stop her? The Amanz? Kassidia sold illegal Charms, and seeking the Amanz would only incriminate herself. And besides, Evelyn now had luck on her side….
“A pleasure doing business with you,” Kassidia was saying. “The next time I pass through town, perhaps we could—”
“I’m sorry.” Evelyn rushed forward and curled her fingers around the chain. All it took was a single yank, and the crystal came free. She pivoted and ran, seized in the grips of adrenaline and exhilaration. Kassidia’s old mule startled and kicked at the air while its owner screeched in Evelyn’s wake, but Evelyn paid her no heed. They were hers now. Both Charms, luck and one wish. Her life with Sterling was about to change forever.
Trees flash by, blurred smudges in her flooded vision. Evelyn can’t breathe. Every gasp sears her chest. Muscles burning, lungs on fire, hot saline spilling from the corners of her eyes, she runs. A root catches her foot; a bramble snags her cloak; a branch slashes her cheek like the trees’ enchanted claws are trying to hold her back.
She could hear his footsteps outside. She smiled, counting them: one, two, three, pause. The doorknob turned. Evelyn faced the door, arms poised to embrace her fiancé.
The sound of her cloak ripping on a thorn causes only a brief hiccup in her stride before she pulls free. She leaves behind a chunk of wool in the thorns tipped red with drops of her blood.
There he was in the doorway, the sunlight warming his tousled brown hair. His honey eyes found her immediately and brightened in her presence. “Ah, just the face I’ve been waiting all day to see,” he greeted.
Evelyn’s lips pulled apart into a broad smile. “How was Bolin?”
“Grumpy, as always,” was the grim and weary reply. He shrugged. “But I’ve learned a lot from him. Someday I’ll take over his trade and make a steady living for us. Everything will work out, you’ll see.” He pulled her into a strong embrace. Evelyn inhaled the smell of sweat and smoke and iron from his cotton shirt.
She couldn’t dissipate the giddy grin and spun away. “I know it will. I have a surprise for you.”
She trips on a rock and has a full three seconds of flight before gravity reclaims her. Evelyn instinctively draws her limbs inward and twists her body so she lands on her shoulder and rolls. Out of control, she tumbles down the slope, battered and pummeled by brambles with every turn. She strikes a tree with enough force to whip her around and wrench her arms and legs from their cowered position. Evelyn flails through the leaves until finally rolling to a stop. A groan escapes between her parted lips. Dazed, she stares up at the canopy so high above her while her body throbs.
She held out her fist. The silver chain spilled between her fingers, the crystal pendant swinging gently at the end. The facets caught the sunlight and reflected tiny rainbows on the walls. Sterling stared at it, expressionless. Evelyn loved the way the colors lit up his dazzling eyes. “What is it?” he asked.
Evelyn’s fingers uncurl in the leaves. A silver chain falls between her fingers. In the center of her palm is a pendant, black and dull, the ancient words erased.
“What have you done?” he shouted. “Have you lost your mind? What were you thinking?” He rushed forward and snatched the pendant. The silver chain broke in her fingers.
She wraps the blackened pendant in her fist and rolls onto her stomach. Everything hurts. And yet, this pain is nothing compared to the ache in her heart. Evelyn scrambles to her hands and knees, then the rest of the way to her feet. She sways, the world tilting for a moment before righting itself. Which way? She spins in a circle.
“Sterling, wait! Let me explain!”
That way. She takes a few unsteady steps, her pace quickening to a jog and then resuming her mad dash through the woods.
“I don’t understand you sometimes! You were supposed to buy a cheap horse! How are we supposed to till the ground with a plow and no horse? Honestly, Evy, how could you waste all our coins on a shiny trinket? That was all we had left!”
Evelyn pushes through the final branches and halts at the edge of the clearing. A herd of deer, startled by her abrupt arrival, bound away, their white tails bobbing between the trees. Silence settles in the wake of their departure. The clearing is deserted.
He turned his back on her and reached for the doorknob. “Where did you get this? I’m going to sell it back.”
“Sterling, you can’t!”
She grabbed his thick arm, but he threw her to the floor and loomed over her, his shadow covering her in darkness. Not once had he ever struck her, but Evelyn cowered nonetheless. He held the Charm over her head, every muscle trembling in fury. “You’ve ruined us! You’re supposed to be my wife soon but…you know what, I’m so angry right now, I…damn it, I wish I never had the misfortune of meeting you!”
“No,” she breathes. A warm wind brushes strands of hair from her face. She cups her hands around her mouth and screams, “Kassidia!” Only the birds respond. “Kassidia….” Her final cry fades to a whimper. She falls to her knees. A dam of shock had been holding back the sobs, but it shatters and they come, racking her body. She wraps her arms around her midriff just to hold herself together.
“What have I done…what have I done?” she chokes. “Sterling, I’m sorry…I’m so sorry….”
The pendant falls from her hand. The crystal, once beautiful and pure, is burned and cracked. It is a Charm no more.
They could have wished for anything. The best horse in the world. A fortune to buy whatever they needed. Ground that would be fertile as long as they lived. Evelyn would have sold her soul to undo it.
But Kassidia is gone. Everything she loved is gone. Everything….
Evelyn hiccups, startled enough to halt mid-sob and open her eyes. A pair of boots, scuffed and well-worn, are in front of her. Her eyes travel up as her visitor kneels down. “Why are you crying?”
She laughs and reaches for him, but he draws back with a puzzled frown. “Do I know you?”
Her hand falls with her heart. “I-It’s me. Evelyn. You…you don’t remember me?”
He gives her a half-smile riddled with uncertainty. “I think I’d remember a pretty face like yours.”
Pretty, right. Her eyes feel swollen and bloodshot, her skin marred with scratches, her cloak ripped and peppered with thorns. She swipes the tears from her cheeks, wincing as dirt and perspiration are rubbed into the stinging gashes.
“Are you in trouble?” Sterling asks.
Another sob crawls up her throat and seizes her tongue, forcing her to nod because she can’t speak. He offers his hand—his big, calloused, gentle blacksmith’s hand. Evelyn sniffs, stares at him for a long minute, and then slips hers inside his. A perfect fit. Does he think so, too?
She lets him pull her to her feet. He’s speaking, talking about walking her home, and where does she live, and is there anything he can do to help, but his words are distant echoes. Numb, she lets him tow her toward the trees. Her heel lands on something hard, and it cracks beneath her weight. She glances over her shoulder at the pieces of a broken black rock and a silver chain smashed into the earth in the imprint of her boot. Sterling’s voice calls, “I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
“Evelyn,” she whispers.
“Evelyn,” he repeats, smiling at the sound of her name falling from his lips. She whirls, searching his face for familiarity. Surely there’s a trace of recognition in his eyes, the faintest light proving that all is not lost. But his honey eyes are blank. Warm, but empty.
Evelyn sighs, hanging her head to let her long hair cascade over one shoulder and hide her face. She stares at their hands locked together. Between his fingers, she notices a jade ring she’d forgotten she was wearing.
This will bring you good luck only as long as you are a good person who deserves it….
Evelyn’s eyes flick up to Sterling’s handsome face. Perhaps she could make him fall in love with her again. He fell in love with her once, after all. Perhaps with her lucky Charm….
Written in 2015
~ This short story was published in the Northwest Indiana Literary Journal on February 23, 2018 ~