AN: Submitting this for the LFFL Summer Campout Challenge!
"A lot of parents pack up their troubles and send them off to summer camp."
"Simon!" Sarah forced patience she didn't feel into her voice. "For. The. Last. Time. Put those caterpillars down."
The boy in question paused, his shoulders hunching and his ruddy-face pinching into a look of disappointment.
Sarah tapped her foot.
With an ill-concealed scowl he withdrew a seething mass of furry tent caterpillars from his short pockets and dropped them at Sarah's feet.
She exhaled noisily, shifting her exposed toes to avoid the onslaught.
Be a scout leader, they'd said. It would be good for Toby, they'd promised.
She bent and plucked one of the critters from her ankle before turning on heel to head back to the group.
It wasn't that she didn't like kids. In fact she'd found - her storied babysitting history aside - that she was rather good with them. And, to her surprise, she even enjoyed them.
But it was only day two and she was already feeling brittle. Camp was apparently a whole other ball park. An hour and a half a week was doable. Twenty four hours a day for seven days straight was proving to be something else.
And truth be told she wasn't even sure it was helping Toby. The ten year old was sullenly picking grass, ignoring the instructions the other leader was giving for capture the flag. Toby is just at a difficult age, Karen had explained. He's always been a little different anyway, her father had added. Together they had guilted her into giving up her Wednesday evenings for the last year to be a leader in Toby's pack. Their hope being he would get out of his funk. Maybe learn to tie some knots. Make memories. Get out of the house and give them a much-needed break.
Normal parent stuff.
He just relates to you more, they'd both pleaded.
It didn't help that Sarah suspected why Toby never wasn't fitting in. Why he always had a far away look in his eyes even when he was happy. Why his features were surprisingly sharp and his blonde hair never sat straight no matter what hairdressers tried. Fae-touched, the storybooks always warned. Never the same. And it was only getting worse.
Whereas Sarah had quite recovered, grown even, from her experience – whatever it had really been - Toby seemed caught between worlds. On some days she decided it was stuff and nonsense. A fever dream from a fifteen year old with a vivid imagination. There had certainly been no indications that it had been real. No evidence. No otherworldly visits from Goblin kings she refused to name. Toby was just going through a phase and she'd just grown up. Had gone to university. Gotten a job as a journalist for their town's paper and was currently sending resumes to all the big media moguls in cities she'd like to visit.
That had also influenced her decision to volunteer in Toby's pack. She was planning on leaving. She hadn't told anyone yet but she knew it would hit him the hardest. She wanted to see him make some friends and give him one last summer together before she pulled up roots.
And so, she'd found herself in the remote Wilderness of Canada at a Scout Camp 500 miles from home on exchange. Five-hundred miles trapped on a bus with thirty kids high on summer vacation and the sugar their well-meaning parents had sent them off with so they didn't feel guilty about celebrating their freedom.
It was only day two and she was already starting to regret her decision to take a week's worth of vacation. It didn't help that the camp's coffee machine had broken their very first morning.
Sarah had spent many a summer growing up visiting her grandparents at the lake – an escape from her parents' failing marriage and then from a stepmother she hadn't wanted. She was well-versed in the wilderness, and roughing it didn't fazed her. She rather enjoyed it. What was beginning to bother her was the undeniable fact her kids were behaving like rabid animals and nothing was going to plan.
Her eyes zeroed in on Simon suspiciously. The folds of his shorts seemed to be moving on their own. But then the whistle blew and the kids were off shrieking – scattering into the field and forest to start their game. Lord of the bloody Flies, Sarah thought. And she was Piggy.
Toby was still seated, as though he hadn't even noticed the mass exodus.
Sarah nudged him with a foot. "Hey. You're missing the game."
He looked up, surprised to find himself alone. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry, get going. Looks like we're," Sarah glanced at the marker he'd yet to don, "team blue. Forest it is. Let's go, hmm?"
The boy got to his feet slowly, brushing off the blanket of grass he'd covered himself with.
Sarah mopped her dripping neck with her neckerchief as they made their way to the treeline. "Who knew Canada was so hot in the summer?"
Toby shrugged. "Canadians probably."
"Smart-ass." Sarah swatted his head affectionately, eliciting a smile. "Come on. I want to win."
"You always want to win."
Sarah cocked her head as they ducked down behind a pine and scanned the field for the red team's flag. "True. But losers are on dish duty tonight."
Toby's eyes widened. "Huh. Now I kind of want to win too."
An hour later and almost all the kids were scratched, sun-burnt, exhausted, and entirely satisfied by that. The blue team had won, meaning Sarah and Toby were spared doing dishes after a hearty supper of spaghetti. Spaghetti which would have been delicious, not to mention one of Sarah's favourites while camping, had one of her kids not slipped a caterpillar into her noodles. And had she noticed before taking a bite.
Not having to dishes meant that Sarah's group was at least given a chance to head to the beach and refresh with an evening swim in the deep, cool lake.
Or it would have been refreshing had three of the kids not decided to dump a bucket full of fishing bait into the swimming area. The bait being live leeches of course.
Sarah had tended to half a dozen wailing, absolutely hysterical children before she even thought to check herself and by then it was only back at her tent. A cursory glance told her she'd been spared until she peeled her wet bathing suit off and proceeded to give the kids at the beach a run for their money. In fact the words coming out of her mouth violated every code of conduct and ethics she'd ever signed when she volunteered to be a leader. She was fortunate to be tenting along because she would have made even a long-haul trucker blush.
The plump and completely glutted black leech fell to the floor, detaching from her breast with a wet squelch. Sarah dry-heaved, wrapped a towel around herself, and then used a flip flop to fling the wriggling parasite out the door.
Sarah was still thinking about the leech and the caterpillars when the kids started bothering her for a ghost story later around the campfire. Having disposed of the blood sucker, she'd gone to get dressed only to find her pack filled with more tent caterpillars. It was a record year for them, the camp director had explained. It happened every few years. Lucky her.
"Simon," she hissed, emptying one of her bras.
It had been a long, trying day, and she was hot, un-caffeinated, and starting to think her normally bright and engaged kids had been replaced with absolute goblins. The last thing she felt like was Kumbayaing around the flames. Not least because the other leaders had all but abandoned her. She was the "young" one, they'd joked – most of them parents themselves. She could handle it. Really they were just playing cards in the kids-free mess hall.
Later she'd blame her impulsiveness on that entire series of unfortunate events. A domino effect towards damnation.
The first story she'd tried had been about errant hitchhikers who'd found themselves in a deserted shack. It was met with groans and even a few boos. They wanted something new. Something fresh.
Sarah swatted the tenth mosquito buzzing about her ear irritably. "You want to a better story? I'll tell you a story." She picked at the marshmallow mess cemented in her hair from little Billy's overzealous roasting. She stood and faced them, the fire at her back casting her face in shadow.
"Let's see… once upon a time there was a very brave girl and a very gruel goblin king…"
As she related the story of her time in the Labyrinth, embellishing some parts for effect, but mostly sticking to what she remembered, she failed to notice Toby's eyes getting wider - his back straightening and his attention turning rapt.
So caught up in her campfire tale, she was surprised when Simon announced rudely, "That's a stupid story. We wanted something scary. No one's afraid of a boring old Goblin King."
"Oh no?" Sarah countered. "Well you should be. Because though he's very powerful and cruel, the girl - the girl who beat him? That was me. Which means he's in my power now. Mine to command. All I would have to do is call him – say the right words – and he'd take all of you away," Sarah swept her arms wide, caught up in the drama of her own story-telling. "Right now."
A few kids visibly shivered. It was the kind of story they'd never heard before. The kind they were the perfect age for – on the cusp of still believing in magic. Of still believing their leader might be telling the truth. That she could have certain powers. It wasn't a ghost story but it was something equally otherworldly.
"Then do it," Simon goaded, clearly not forgiving her for the caterpillar ban. "Say the words. Anything's better than this stupid boring camp anyway."
A few of the kids laughed nervously.
Sarah was glad he couldn't see her expression because it wasn't kind. She was about to call a close to the night's activities and send them all off to bed, prepared to face tomorrow with renewed energy…
… And then he did it.
The little shit.
Flicked another caterpillar at her. A big juicy one. It thudded against her chest and slid down the open collar of her plaid shirt. She fished it out and locked eyes with the deceptively cherubic-looking boy. By now several of the other more rowdy kids were also sniggering.
"You want me to say it?"
Sarah bent, propping her hands on her thighs so she was eye-level with him.
"Are you certain?"
The boy tensed but then nodded again.
"I wish the Goblins would come and take all of you away. Right now."
She heard several sharp intakes of breath and then nothing. Not that she'd expected anything to happen. It wasn't real after all. None of it. But in the moment it had felt good to say. Powerful even.
Simon blinked at her. His mouth curling into a smirk. "Was that it? Some power."
Sarah straightened. "And its bed time now." She clapped her hands. At the same time lightning streaked and thunder struck. The kids shrieked in terror and the timing even made Sarah jump slightly.
She glanced up at the otherwise clear night sky. She was just resigning herself to airing out pee-soaked sleeping bags in the morning if it stormed, when it grew preternaturally quiet. Not even crickets chirped. She looked back down and almost tripped backwards into the fire.
They were gone. All of them. Even the caterpillars.
She spun, wondering if the kids had somehow managed to coordinate a prank so quickly and instead came face to face with the Goblin King.
He was limned by the fire; his armour somehow blacker than even she remembered.
His angular face was the same – untouched by the passage of time – and his eyes, well his eyes, were bright with victory. Like he'd been waiting for her misstep all those years between them. To say the right words again oh so foolishly and put herself back in his power.
"Sarah." Her name slid off his tongue like syrup. "And here I thought you'd learned your lesson." His tone suggested he was delighted she hadn't.
Goosebumps prickled across her skin in awareness.
"Do I need to remind you of the rules or do you remember? For old time's sake shall we say you have thirteen hours before they are lost to me forever? And don't think it will by easy the second time. The rules are so much different for those fully grown." She had a feeling he could see her perfectly well despite the heavy dark. "There are none." Lips twitched into a smirk that somehow reminded her of Simon.
It was probably the smirk that did it in the end.
The Goblin King's expression shifted. "What did you say?"
"I said no. I won't be running your Labyrinth to win them back. They're yours now and you're welcome to them. Thanks for stopping by though."
She turned and stalked back to her tent, a smile now bowing her lips. She paused only long enough to toss a 'good luck' over her shoulder at the thoroughly stunned Goblin King.
AN: This fic was born of plot bunny that bit me at, you guessed it, summer camp. I'm a Scout leader for my kids' Beavers and Cubs. I absolutely love it. I absolutely love camping. I absolutely love volunteering with kids (as tiring as it can be). I went to a Scout camp in May and June, and well, this hit me. What would happen if Sarah reached her wit's end (lack of sleep, snotty kids, caterpillar infestation – it's happened) and wished all the kids away to the Goblin King? And what would happen if she didn't want them back? This. This is what will happen. *rubs hands together*
I will do my best to make this reflect American Boy Scouts, but bear with me and suspend some disbelief. It's co-ed in Canada so I'm going to pretend it is for the purposes of this story. Otherwise I'll try to be accurate. I've set the camp in Canada because it's easier for me to describe areas I know, and yes, American Boy Scouts do come up to our camps.
Bonus: LFFL posted a summer challenge and the theme is "Summer Campout." Naturally this was an extra incentive to just go ahead and get this story out. To meet the challenge I have to finish it by September 23rd (my god do deadlines and I not mix but let's try).
And yes… I have been writing/ working on an update for *that* other story. SOOON. I can manage three WIPS *feels crushing weight of denial*
No kids will be harmed in the making of this story. Goblin Kings might…