Jac and Jiles – Short Story Sunday

*cough cough* Oops. This is late. Hopefully it’ll be the only one. :P This is something I decided to write because in several writing books and articles I read they used Jack and Jill as an example and expanded on it a little bit, so I started thinking about ways I could put a spin on it. This is what I came up with, and I hope you enjoy it. :)

 

Jack and Jill went up a hill

To fetch a pail of water

Jacalyn tightened the strap of her travel bag to her saddle and looked over at Jiles, who was saying farewell to his sisters. He finished and embraced each of them before mounting up on his black stallion. Jacalyn mounted her own chestnut stallion and patted its neck.

“Ready to go?” she asked.

Jiles nodded, tears shimmering in his eyes.

They left the small village and Jacalyn pulled out the map from her saddlebag. It was sixty miles from their current position to the Red Hill that they were headed for, and they’d packed provisions enough for six days, which should be plenty if everything went according to plan. She tucked the map away again. It was a big if.​

“Hey,” she told Jiles, “It’ll be okay. We’ll come back.”

Jiles nodded, but his eyes revealed the same doubt that ate at her own heart. Two and a half days travel each there and back, and a simple climb up the hill to fetch the water from the Traitor’s Well, but the Well itself could be a challenge. Only one person had ever come back from the Traitor’s Well, and he with severe injuries covering his whole body.

“Jac,” Jiles said.

“Yeah?”

“Will the water really be able to save my mother?”

Jacalyn shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out.”

“Yeah,” Jiles muttered, “To go to the man-eating Well.”

“I’m sure it will. The legends say it will.”

“The legends. Yeah. Those are trustworthy. They’re bedtime stories, Jac. They’re used to entertain children. Who knows if they’re really true or not?”

“Jile, you’d do anything to save your mom, right?”

Jiles looked down at the reins he was holding. “Yeah,” he muttered reluctantly.

“Then do this for her.”

“But if it doesn’t work than I could never come back and my sisters would lose my mom and me.”

“I know it’s risky. But we have to try, right?”

Jiles nodded. “Yeah.”

They rode in uncomfortable silence for a long while, Jacalyn focusing on the movement of the horse beneath her and the direction of the path before them. The path would only last until they reached the Elmanor Woods; beyond that, they were on their own, trusting Jacalyn’s navigational skills to get them safely to the Well. They passed few travelers on the road, and Jacalyn wasn’t surprised. Their little corner of the world wasn’t well-traveled. There were a few hamlets sprinkled around, and most people kept to their own homes instead of going on mad men’s quests for man-eating wells.

Jacalyn pulled the map out again just to give herself something to do and looked over the faded lines. The labels near the Red Hill and the Traitor’s Well repeated the message of “turn back” and “DANGER!” and Jacalyn tried to skim over them, but instead her eye was drawn to them. She forced her gaze to the small well drawn on the map. It was colored in black on the map, and Jacalyn wondered if it was actually black or regular stone. The one survivor was long dead of old age, so there was no one to ask.

Jiles yawned and Jacalyn tucked the map away again.

“I’m bored,” Jiles said.

“I know.”

“What games can we play?”

“Like… twenty questions?”

“Or storytelling. Anything but speculation about our quest.”

“We can do twenty questions. Who’s going first?”

“You can.”

“Okay. I’ve got something.”

“Is it smaller than a house?”

“Yes.”

“Is it red?”

“No.”

When the round was solved, it was found to be Jacalyn’s horse, Gilbert. They played several rounds before Jiles stopped.

“This isn’t helping,” he said.

Jacalyn didn’t bother to answer.

“How much longer until we reach the forest?”

Jacalyn pulled out the map and looked it over. “Not long. Maybe about half an hour.” She looked up and saw the sun sinking toward the horizon. “We’ll make camp at the edge of it and go in tomorrow. I don’t think we’ll want to be stuck in the forest past dark.”

Jiles nodded with another yawn. “I’m getting sore.”

“You don’t ride enough.”

“There aren’t really many places to ride.”

“You could just ride around town.”

“That would look silly.”

Jacalyn shrugged. “After my first hunt or two and finding it makes one sore to ride for a long time, that’s what I did.”

“And you looked silly.”

“But it did the job. I got used to the ache.”

Jiles kept his mouth shut.

 

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after

Jacalyn’s time estimate was nearly spot on, and they arrived at the edge of the forest only a few minutes later than estimated. Jacalyn swung down off her horse and Jiles moaned as he did the same. Despite being comfortable in a saddle, Jacalyn was still glad to feel the solid ground beneath her feet after so many hours.

“We’re going to be riding that long every day of this trip?” Jiles asked.

“Yep. Get used to it.” She unharnessed her saddlebag and took a seat on the ground, opening it up to grab two apples from inside, one of which she tossed to Jiles.

“Thanks.” He took a seat across from Jacalyn and she set the bag aside as she took a bite of her apple. The sour juice filled her mouth and she longed for the sweet apples that rarely grew to full size back home.

It began to drizzle as they began another game of twenty questions and Jacalyn put her hood up, wrapping her cloak tight around her to ward off the chill. After only a couple of rounds spent growing miserable with boredom and damp, Jacalyn said it was probably time to go to bed and lay down on the hard ground, her cloak the only thing between her and rocky soil. After at least an hour of speculation about what might happen when and before and after they reached the Well, she finally succumbed to sleep.

Jacalyn rose with the sun, and she had eaten and put the saddlebag back on the horse long before Jiles awoke. She shook him awake and handed him a piece of cheese and a carrot before wrapping her cloak around her once more.

“We need to get going,” she said.

Jiles nodded and took a big bite of cheese before mounting his horse. “How big does the map say the forest is?”

“Thirty miles in each direction.” Jacalyn didn’t have to refer to the map, but knew it by heart from numerous hunting trips. “We should reach the other side at dusk, or maybe a little earlier.” She mounted and looked over at him. “Ready to go?”

Jiles nodded and Jacalyn snapped the reins.

It was still drizzling for the rest of the morning, and by midday it had developed into a downpour.

“Even the weather doesn’t want us to the go to the Well,” Jiles said with an awkward chuckle.

Jacalyn didn’t answer, keeping her eyes on their surroundings.

The forest floor turned to mud, and wet branches snapped at them as they traveled. Both of them had to duck numerous times under some of the lower branches and of course there was the unstopping rain pounding down and soaking through their cloaks all the way to the bone.

Why can’t it rain this much where the crops need it? Jacalyn thought, her mood as dark and dreary as the forest around them.​

A few squirrels could be seen here and there skittering for shelter, but otherwise the forest was quiet and still. Only a hint of sunlight was able to filter through the clouds and trees to reach them, leaving them in near-darkness. There were no birds singing to liven up the consistent pulse of the rain, and no bright flowers to break the dreary dark. Jacalyn could tell it weighed on Jiles’ mood as well. He slumped in the saddle, and his expression held very little sign of life.

For a whole day they rode in silence through the dark, until finally they emerged on the other side. But this wasn’t much better. The sky was still grey, it still rained, and they’d passed from a dark forest into a ruined city that was silent like a tomb.

“This is so much better than the forest,” Jiles said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“At least we’ll have more shelter tonight than last night.” The sun was only faintly visible through a thick veil of clouds, but Jacalyn knew it was setting. She dismounted and tied her horse to a ruined stone gatepost before unfastening the saddle bag and stepping across the threshold of the city. Jiles followed her example.

It took her a few minutes to find what she was looking for, a half-collapsed stone building with a ruined floor. She lowered herself into the cavity that was once the basement and stepped into a corner where the floor above was still mostly intact and only a little bit of the rain dripped in, sitting back against the wall. Jiles sat next to her and she handed him the saddlebag, wrapping her heavy, wet cloak around herself.

“You pick dinner,” she offered.

A roll of thunder rumbled through the encroaching night and she held back a shiver from the cold. Jiles handed her a piece of bread, which she accepted gratefully. She ate it slowly, finding it to be just as bland as she should have expected.

“Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow,” Jiles said.

Jacalyn nodded silently, focusing on nothing.

“Are you okay?”

Jacalyn shrugged. “It’s just the weather, I think.”

“I’m not sure. I feel it too. This overwhelming blanket of hopelessness and dread. I don’t think weather can do that. I’m trying to think nicer thoughts to shoo it away, but there aren’t many happy thoughts to dwell on.”

“You have lots of happy memories with your family.” Jacalyn felt a pang of envy. She’d never had family. She’d always been the black sheep of the village, always an outcast, but never officially, so she never left. That and she cared about Jiles and his family. She knew they needed her hunting and other support, so she stayed to take care of them.

“And you.”

Only the smallest of smiles reached Jacalyn’s lips. “I’m sure you have more with your family. I don’t tend to leave happy memories. No one likes me much. Or trusts me.”

“You’re just different than what they know. People don’t tend to trust what they don’t know and aren’t familiar with.”

“I’m not even all that different. I’m only more willing to go out of the village. And somehow that makes me untrustworthy?”

“Beyond the village are only the ruins and people they don’t associate with. They don’t trust your comfort with those places. They think you’re dangerous.”

“Do I look comfortable here to you?” She hugged her legs to her chest. “I’m freezing and this place gives me the creeps. I’ve only been here twice, and in the daylight, and I’ve always felt a crawly creepiness. I wouldn’t exactly call that comfortable.”

“But the people back home don’t know that. They just know you venture outside of what they know.”

She turned toward him, her dark eyes shining. “Do you think I’m dangerous?”

“Jac, you know I don’t. Not the way they think you are.”

“Then in what way?”

“You’ve trained yourself to fight. No one else in the village has. If someone or something attacked you you’d have them lying dead on the ground in a heartbeat.”

Jacalyn snorted and turned away. “Not really.”

“Maybe not, but it certainly seems that way. We need the kind of dangerous you are. We need someone who knows how to protect us.”

“But if they don’t trust me then why would they let me protect them?”

“Because even if they don’t trust you they know they need someone to protect them. They know they can’t do it themselves. They’re not entirely blind to their lack of skill in that area.”

“Still. If I’m so ‘comfortable’ out here in these ruins, maybe I should just leave and stay here.”

“Jac, you know you can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because even if most people don’t trust you, there are still people who need you and care about you and would miss you if you left.”

“Yeah. Four of them. And one of them is dying.” Jacalyn bit her lip. “I’m sorry. That was entirely rude and uncalled for.”

“You’re probably right. But would you leave if there was even one person who wanted you to stay?”

Jacalyn arched an eyebrow at him. “What question are you veiling under that one?”

“I’m just saying I care about you.”

“And asking if I care about you enough in return that I’d stay if you were the only one who cared. I know you too well for these things to work.” She smirked a bit. “I suppose I might stay if you were the only one who wanted me to, but you’d have to be very convincing.”

“Of course.”

Jacalyn rested her head back against the wall. “Goodnight, Jiles.”

“Goodnight.” He lay down on the floor and she closed her eyes, but sleep didn’t come.

She opened her eyes after a while and looked over to see Jiles’ chest moving up and down in a steady rhythm. Asleep. She turned back to face the wall opposite her – not that she could see it in the dark – and sighed. Jiles was desperately trying to get closer to her, and always had been, but she kept pushing him away and distancing herself from him, certain that one day he’d see like all the others that she didn’t belong. He wouldn’t trust her, either, and he’d turn away. But it grew harder and harder as time went on for her to keep herself distant from him. He really did care about her, and he was the only one. Sure, his mom and sisters didn’t mind her, but neither did they care about her like he did.

With a million thoughts swirling in her mind, her eyes finally drifted closed and she slept.

 

Up Jack got and home did trot

As fast as he could caper

Jacalyn awoke and squinted against bright morning sun. She stifled a smile and looked over to see Jiles already awake. He handed her an apple.

“Good morning,” he said with a smile.

“Morning.” She took the apple and bit into it. It almost seemed sweeter than most, but she knew that couldn’t be. She rose from her spot on the floor and moved to the edge of a strong section of the upper floor, straining to reach it and lever herself up onto it. Jiles tossed her the saddlebag and she set it aside before helping him up.

“How many times have you practiced that?”

“Three times, now, but I pull myself up onto high tree branches fairly often.”

“Ah. That explains it.”

Jacalyn led them back to the entrance and saw that both horses were gone. “Uh oh.”

“We can still make it without them, right?”

“Yeah, but it’ll be a day longer to get there and two days longer to get back.”

“We can do it.”

“What’s made you so optimistic all of a sudden?” She slung the saddlebag over her shoulder.

“For one thing, the weather’s a lot nicer. For another thing, this place is actually kind of pretty. And for a third thing… I actually have no idea. I just have a feeling things are going to be fine.”

“And feelings are always trustworthy.” Jacalyn sounded incredulous, but she felt a bit of that optimism, too. Which just made her distrust it all the more. “Let’s just go. We want to get as early a start as possible. There’s still twenty miles of ruined city, if I remember correctly, and we’ll have to hurry if we want to make it out before nightfall.”

They started through at a brisk pace and as Jacalyn walked she realized the ruins actually were kind of beautiful. Moss grew in the cracks and crevices of the stone walls and pillars scattered throughout, both those standing and those fallen, and vines curled around everything, displaying delicate white flowers that shimmered in the bright sunlight. Against her better judgement, she began feel comfortable as she walked. It didn’t seem like there could be anything dangerous, even as a tiny voice in the back of her mind nagged at her that something was definitely wrong.

Despite the nagging worry, they crossed the ruins without any problems and talked for a long while after nightfall before going to sleep.

 

Jacalyn awoke and woke Jiles, tossing him an apple as he sat up. Sun still shone bright, but Jacalyn’s feeling of security was no longer so overwhelming.

“How long before we get there?” Jiles asked, taking a bite of his apple.

“We should get there late in the day today.” Jacalyn slung the saddlebag over her shoulder.

Jiles nodded and stood up, taking off his cloak and draping it over his arm. “Let’s go, then. Almost there, right?” He smiled.

Jacalyn returned the smile, but her worry and reason was beginning to creep back, along with the same sense of dread that she’d had in the woods and their night in the ruins. Instead of giving voice to her concerns, she started walking, with Jiles right beside her.

Their travel that day was uninteresting, mostly across grasslands with the sun shining down on them. Jacalyn squinted against the bright light and wished for a hat to block it.

Finally, as the sun began to lower in the sky, she saw a hill in the distance, and a dark shape on top. The grass on the hill was unnaturally green, and Jacalyn wondered if there was anything they could do to make the soil back home that fertile.

“There it is,” she said, her voice quiet. She still wasn’t entirely comfortable that everything would turn out okay, but as they arrived the majority of the weight of worry lifted from her shoulders. They’d gotten this far, at least.

They climbed the hill and Jacalyn let her gaze roam the well. The stone was an ordinary color, the inside bearing a bit of a reddish cast to it, not the black portrayed on the map, and the depths were shadowed. The sun didn’t reach the liquid below, blocked by a cap over the well. There was a bucket attached to the winch, already lowered into the darkness.

Jiles started to turn the winch, and it creaked as he did so. In a moment something began floating up from the depths, an orb of dark red. As it neared the cap, it stopped and formed into the rough shape of a human.

“You seek the healing water of the Well,” the thing spoke, shimmering like liquid. It was not a question, but a statement.

“Yes,” Jiles said.

“Do you know the price of the Well?”

“No.”

What might have been an amused smile caused the thing to shimmer and shift. “Then you may find yourselves unable to pay. Or rather… unwilling.”

“Why? What’s the price?”

“First, why do you want the water?”

“My mother is dying.” Jiles bit his lip. “Please. Tell us what the price is.”

“Dying, eh?” It was hard to read the thing’s expression, but Jacalyn thought it might have shifted its gaze from Jiles to her and back. “Well then… a steep price indeed. You see, the power of the water requires that the injuries to be healed be substituted onto another.”

“You mean… Instead of my mother dying, I’ll have to?”

“You or your friend.” The thing’s gaze seemed to shift to Jacalyn again, lingering for a moment before swapping back to Jiles.

“I’ll do it,” Jacalyn said. The words came unbidden to her lips, but she knew she had to do it.

“No,” Jiles protested, turning his gaze toward her. “You can’t.”

“Well you certainly can’t.” Jacalyn’s dark eyes rested on Jiles. “You have people who need you. I doubt that anyone in your family would approve of you substituting yourself for your mother. I, on the other hand, don’t have anyone holding onto me. Except you.”

“Yes, and I can’t bear to see you go.”

“It’s me or your mother, and you know there’s only one option to that choice.” She removed the saddleback from her shoulder and offered it to him.

Jiles pressed his mouth closed, his eyes pleading. “Don’t do this,” he whispered after a while.

“I have to, Jiles. I won’t let you do it.” Jacalyn dropped the saddlebag on the ground and turned toward the floating thing. “How does it work?”

“Well, since the mother’s dying you’ll have to forfeit your life.” The creature seemed almost amused. “Your blood will be added to the soil here.”

Jacalyn didn’t like the sound of the word ‘added’ in that sentence, but she nodded. “Do it, then.”

“You’ll have to plunge into the well.”

“Jac, please don’t do this.”

Jacalyn ignored Jiles and stepped onto the well’s edge, sitting on the ledge and letting her legs dangle. She looked down into the dark depths and took a deep breath. She turned toward Jiles with an apology in her eyes. “Goodbye, Jiles. Take care of your mom and sisters, all right?”

Jiles shook his head, tears beginning to shimmer in his eyes. “Please don’t, Jac. Please don’t.”

Jacalyn let her gaze remain on Jiles as she slipped herself off the stone wall of the well into the darkness below.

“JAC!” Jiles screamed her name, gripping the edge of the well so hard the stone cut into his hands and looking down. “No…” He fell back from the well and clapped a bloody hand over his mouth, muffling the sobs that racked his body. “Jac…”

“Don’t let her sacrifice be for nothing,” the Shimmer said. “Draw the water.”

Jiles couldn’t move for a moment, staring at the well that had taken his best friend with wide eyes. Finally he staggered toward the well, his mind entirely blank, and winched the bucket upward. It passed right through the Shimmer and Jiles rested the bucket on the edge of the well, recoiling when he saw that the liquid within was red.

“What is this?” he choked.

“Blood, of course. It fuels the magic.”

Jiles gagged and turned to retch into the grass.

“Unless you’d rather lose both the girl and your mother…”

Jiles stood with his hands on his knees, shuddering uncontrollably. “None of this happened how I imagined…”

“It rarely does.”

Jiles stumbled back to the bucket and struggled not to gag again. He opened the waterskin he’d brought and filled it with the blood. “Please let this work,” he whispered.

“I make no assurances.”

Jiles’ eyes flicked to the Shimmer, wild with rage and pain. “You mean my best friend just died and you can’t even promise it was worth anything?”

The Shimmer giggled and shattered into red droplets that fell back into the well.

Jiles screamed, allowing the rage and pain to surge out of him. He imagined the scream leaving angry red marks in the air, like jagged lightning bolts.

When the scream was done, he collapsed to the ground, his eyes closing, and tumbled down the hill. The waterskin fell from his fingers and spilled out in the grass, and he fell down beside it. He didn’t care about the bumps and bruises, dwelling on the physical pain to avoid the pain of losing Jac. A strangled sob passed his lips and he just lay there for a long time. The sun sank and left him there in the dark, until finally he opened his eyes and looked up at the sparkling stars. He’d ordinarily find them beautiful, but now their twinkling seemed to mock him. They seemed almost joyful and so out of place amidst his pain.

He got up, ignoring the twinkling lights above. He picked up the waterskin and capped it, shaking it to make sure there was at least a little bit of liquid remaining inside. He climbed the hill and picked up the saddleback, slinging it over his shoulder before shoving the bucket back into the well. The winch spun loose with the weight and he picked up his cloak, which he’d dropped after Jacalyn tipped herself into the well.

His torn hands stung in the cool night air as he trudged back toward the ruins.

He barely kept track of the time it took him to get home. He didn’t stop until he collapsed at the border between the ruins and the forest, and after that didn’t stop until he was home and he was collapsing on the doorstep. His sister Marie helped him inside and into bed and asked him what happened, but he was too tired to answer. He succumbed to sleep.

 

When Jill came in how she did grin

To see Jack’s paper plaster

Mother vexed did whip her next

For causing Jack’s disaster

Jiles awoke and staggered into the kitchen, taking a seat at the table to find a bowl of porridge already set out for him. His mother was up and about in the kitchen, cleaning things up and looking quite well.

“You’re better,” Jiles said.

“That water you brought me did wonders.” She smiled at him. “It didn’t taste like water, but I suppose magical water wouldn’t.”

Jiles swallowed. “No, I guess not.” His stomach flipped as he looked at his porridge, and he shoved it away.

“Are you all right? And where’s Jacalyn? I haven’t seen her yet this morning. Ordinarily she’d be here by now.”

Jiles choked as he held back a sob. “She- She didn’t come back.”

His mother’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“She had to- She-” He couldn’t continue, nor could he hold back his tears any longer. He broke, feeling like a pottery jar that shattered into a million pieces and let its contents pour out.

His mother came over and wrapped her arms around him. “It’s all right. You can tell me when you’re ready.”

 

It took a long time for him to be ready to tell her. It was a full week before he finally gathered up the courage to go to her. He stood by the garden gate, on the opposite side from his mother as she planted a new bed of petunias she knew wouldn’t grow. Finally she looked up and must have seen the stricken look on his face for she set her gloves aside immediately and came over to the gate.

“She’s dead, Momma.”

His mother came through the gate and wrapped him in her arms. “Oh sweetheart. I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“The Well, it- One of us had to take your injuries. She gave herself up.” He swallowed hard. “She said I have more people who need me. But… But I need her, Momma! I miss her so much…” He choked and buried his head in her shoulder. “I want her back, Momma.”

“I know, sweetheart. I know.” She stroked his hair. “Oh sweetheart… If I’d known I would never have let you two go. Never.”

“I know, Momma. Neither would I.”

Jiles disappeared into the tears and grief, allowing himself to be swept away. Jac was gone.

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