Aery burst through the hedge line and into the garden, chest heaving, eyes wide. The child paused and swept their head from side to side as tears ran down their cheeks. They spotted a path framed by bushes bearing alabaster roses and took it at a sprint. They stumbled once or twice, and they would later swear the wicked thorns had parted in favor of open earth where their hands had landed to catch their balance.
The path of roses led to the garden’s heart.
An old woman with tan, honeyed skin and warm green eyes sat upon the edge of a stone well. She tilted her head as a songbird would, tossing her cloud-white hair with the motion.
Aery had to take a moment to catch their breath, then they knelt before the elder in reverence. “Chased,” they managed to pant. “Apologies… intruding… garden, Guardian.”
The Guardian tutted and rose from her seat along the well’s stone edge. “All souls of peace are welcome in my garden,” she said, laying a hand on Aery’s head. “This space is safe.”
The child felt a surge of energy and instantly caught their breath, their lungs no longer aching, their legs as fresh as morning. They looked up at the old woman in wonder as she pulled her hand away.
Aery cast a glance behind them. “Bullies. They don’t like my name. They don’t like… who I am.” They began to sob, and tears rolled down their cheeks.
The Guardian of the Garden reached out and caught a single, silvery droplet, then cast it into the well.
The rose bushes quivered.
With a knotted, worn hand, the woman pointed, and the roses parted to reveal a hidden path.
“Follow that,” she told the child, “and you will safely reach your home, Aery.” When their face creased with worry, she added, “Your name is rather lovely. Be sure you don’t go giving it away.”
Aery smiled wide. “I won’t.” They turned and took the rosy path, and the garden closed behind them.
Benny trampled through the hedge line and into the garden, followed by Henry and Luke. They found the rose-flanked path toward the center and continued their pursuit. The roses had grown over, and the thorns were in their way. The plants drew blood from tiny gashes as the bullies trod along the cluttered earth. Flecks of red appeared within the petals of the blooms.
They bled along the path of thorns and reached the garden’s heart.
An old woman stood before a well. Her hair was storm-cloud gray, and her green eyes glowed with a vicious light. She bared her teeth as a wolf would, leaning toward the intruders.
“You dare to carry ill intent within my garden, mortals?”
Benny’s breath caught in his throat, and his companions trembled beside him.
“Wait, pl—” was all he managed ere the thorns had overtaken him.
The fae of Spring voiced the final words the bullies ever heard:
Mortals bearing hatred’s horns
Tear your flesh among the thorns
Roses white to roses red
Fill with vigor justly bled