Suspense Fantasy Horror

Benzie in the Closet. Elina’s Guest. The Way of Halflings.

Benzie started, arrested from sleep by the sound of a table dragged across the hardwood floor. He wiped the drool from his face and brushed crusty sediment from his eyes. Faint firelight emanated from under the closet door, allowing him to make out shadows of his surroundings.

Alone, Benzie Fernbottom huddled against the back wall of a narrow supply closet beside a mop and tin water pail. 

Listening, Benzie didn’t hear any voices, but he did hear Elina’s footfalls as she went back and forth to the kitchen.

Benzie delightfully felt the radiating warmth of the inn’s oven and smelled baking shortbread - caramelized sugar, toasted flour, and berries.

Benzie brought in his legs to rest his chin on his knees, and, in taking time to think things through, became increasingly anxious. Spying on Elina was poor judgment, and he hoped he could simply lie low and wait out the consequences of his bad decision-making.

* * *

Elina Hogsbreath prepared a tea service, expecting a midnight visit from an old friend.

The comforting aroma of Chamomile leaves and ground vanilla wafted from her stoneware teapot placed in the center of a hawthorn serving tray, accompanied by two delicate tea cups and saucers, two small plates, two sieves, and paired eating utensils. Two hot lemon blueberry scones - fresh from the oven - were joined with ramekins of chilled clotted cream, warm honey, and more than an ample helping of red currant jelly. Three stalks of dill were laid across the teapot.

Lifting her tray, Elina exited the kitchen. Pausing, she slightly turned and stomped her foot, blowing out all of the kitchen candles instantly.

Elina was a hedge witch, trained in kitchen magic by her mother, whose mother was trained by her mother, her mother by hers, and so on. Historically, halfling women like Elina lived in the hedges - spaces beyond the boundary of farms and villages, in the thickets, on the fringe - and used their knowledge of plants, herbs, and food to aid their communities. They acted as scries and fortune tellers, caregivers, protectors, and healers. Hedge witches were not book-learned wizards trained in the formal aspects of magical arts or alchemy, nor did they fully understand how their magic worked. Rather, their magic was passed down through songs, folklore, artifacts, and recipes. To witches like Elina, cooking and cleaning were part of their art; they wove emotion and willful intent into simple, everyday acts of service.

Entering the tavern, Elina passed the bar to approach a square table she’d centered on the fireplace. Two chairs sat across the table from each other at opposite sides. Elina’s chair faced north; her guest’s chair faced south.

The cozy, flickering glow of the fire offered warmth and ambiance, casting shadows along the wall. Minding her footing, careful not to disturb the faint outline of a chalk circle surrounding her chair, she set her serving tray on the table.

Elina’s chalk circle had two borders with five runes marked between them with a single southward-facing triangle drawn in its center. It was a symbolic ward: two borders protecting two spaces, guided by five life-affirming ideas, filled with feminine power. 

Leaning against the hearth next to Elina’s chair was a ratty pinewood broom. The crooked handle still wore its bark, and its head was made from dry, crispy branches of an ash tree, fastened by twine made of pure silver. And the sour face of a monk - his eyes upturned, and mouth gaped open as if in prayer - was carved into the handle’s center.

Elina wearily removed her cooking apron to fold it over her chair’s backrest. Taking her seat, she brushed errant strands of hair from her eyes. Taking the dill stalks, she wove them into a crude bracelet before sliding it over her left wrist. Finally, she poured herself a filtered cup of tea and helped herself to a scone.

It was then the flames of the fire bellowed as if fanned by a stiff wind, and the ghostly form of Rimilde Ficklethicket rose from the floorboards to settle into the chair opposite Elina.

And without batting an eye, Elina poured the apparition some tea with her left arm. “Rimilde,” Elina said with a kind smile. “Y’ look well.”

A halfling, Rimilde’s face was gaunt, wrinkled, and pale, crowned by a flurry of floating gray hair that blackened at its tips. Her garments, not only her hair, were equally untethered by gravity. She was dressed in a long-since-forgotten fashion, wearing a comfortable, homey evening gown over a white blouse, with a delicate gold locket and chain draped about her neck. Her ghastly eyes harbored frightful, narrowed pupils, and her left arm tremored from palsy.

Slowly, Rimilde leaned toward the table to imbibe the delicious smells of the living.

“Scone?” Elina asked, cutting one open to smear it with clotted cream before adding a thick jelly layer.

Glaring spitefully at Elina’s dill bracelet, Rimilde’s eyes softened and longingly followed the pastry. Taking a crumbly bite, the ghost moaned, and her eyes rolled in elation.

“It’s good seein’ you again,” Elina said gently and with a pleasant, cordial smile, sampling her own scone.

Rimilde Ficklethicket’s expression angered to stare at Elina with rising contempt.

* * *

Benzie strained to listen, going so far as to put his ear against the door.

He was confused.

After taking her seat, out of the blue, Elina started talking.

Benzie recounted what he knew on his fingers. First, the heavy round door to the inn hadn’t opened; second, nobody descended the stairwell from the upstairs suite; third, footsteps leading from the back door didn’t traipse past the service closet. It was dark, and Benzie naturally couldn’t see his fingers, yet Elina was most certainly conversing with someone in the tavern. Someone who wasn’t … there.

Growing more befuddled, Benzie frowned when hearing Elina make small talk. Elina complemented her guest’s locket. She insisted on how the earthy, fall colors of their gown were so appropriate and matched her guest’s eyes. And she remarked on how beautiful the weather had been today and inquired about the conditions they encountered on the road. Road, Benzie internally questioned, madly gripping his hair. Nobody’s here!

Unable to really take it any longer, Benzie carefully reached above him to quietly twist the knob to crack open the door. Finding the hallway suitably dark to remain unseen, he quietly left the closet and, crouching, sneaked behind the bar. Peering out to look toward the fireplace, Benzie went wide-eyed and threw his hand to his mouth to capture a terrified gasp.

* * *

“Have y’ given it more thought? Leavin’?” Elina pensively asked, finishing her scone.

Rimilde stared angrily into a space beyond Elina and whispered deathly, “I want to go home.”

“Yes, dear,” Elina said, wiping her lips with a napkin. “I know.”

The ghost’s eyes drifted to Elina. “My husband?”

“Milton? He’s not here-”

Rimilde snarled, hissing, “Where is he?”

“Long departed for the Green Fields, I’m afraid.”

“Take me to him!” Rimilde insisted. Her teeth were wicked and sharp.

Elina shrugged and looked sternly at Rimilde. “I can’t, dear.”

Grumbling, the ghost reached for her tea and brought the cup shakily to her nose. She inhaled to remember a distinctly mortal sensation. After sipping the tea and returning the cup to the saucer, Rimilde looked to the floor and whispered, “I want to go home.”

Elina put her hands into her lap and, with an expression of genuine concern, said, “Rimilde, your home’s burned to rot’n’soil long these eighty years. You’ve nothin’ left to go home to, which is why you’re here, an’ why you haunt my inn.”

Confronted by the blatant acknowledgment of what she was, the ghost growled, and the table heaved and shook violently; Elina’s chair, however, remained absolutely still.

Her clothes waving in an unseen wind, the spectre’s body rose to hover menacingly above the table. Rimilde’s wispy hair drifted as if she were underwater, her expression turned indignant, and her voice escalated into a shrill scream. “Why do you keep me here?!”

Elina smiled cordially and reached to pour Rimilde more tea. Lashing out, the ghost’s good hand went to rake Elina’s living tissue with her elongated, jagged fingernails but hesitated upon sensing the dill bracelet.

“Oh, you’re more than welcome to go,” Elina shrugged, “you’ve just chosen not to.”

“Where is my husband?” the ghost snarled, her translucent form looming over the table. “He must come home!”

Elina nodded and tried to move the conversation along. “You died in a fire, Rimilde, and at midnight on the anniversary of your death, you’ve always returned here, lookin’ for your sweet Milt in my tavern. You’ve haunted my grandmother and my mum,” Elina said dourly, and taking a sip of tea, added, “… and now me.”

Throwing her arms back in rage, the ghost’s otherworldly presence flung her chair out to bash into the wall behind her, and the fire roared and crackled, blasted by a gale of deathly wind.

Nonplused, the table still stomping and rattling - but she and her chair utterly unaffected by the apparition’s temper tantrum - Elina sipped her tea and confessed, her eyes lowered to the table. “None of us felt right, ‘bout your appearin’ regularly on your lonesome, yellin’ into the bar for Milton an’ wakin’ the guests. So it’s been our way these eighty years to expect you. It was a lifelong promise I made to my mum, and she to hers.”

“Milton!” the ghost wailed, reeling in a circle, her gaze going to the suite above, then panicked, to the kitchen. “Milton, come home! I need you!”

“We figured you were as much a part of Pondaroak as anybody else an’ that’s why we’ve tried to help you, all these years.”


Throwing her good arm out wide, Rimilde smashed the tea service from the table, sending it crashing to the floor. The ghost howled at Elina in an unearthly sound like metal forks dragged against stone.

“You must decide to leave, you must will it,” Elina said, and oddly calmly, addressing Rimilde as she might a rueful child. “You must go find Milt somewhere in the Green Fields, for he is not here.”

Screeching, the poltergeist gripped the table to furiously wrench it away from Elina, but it was stuck as if nailed to the floor. Yanking, pulling on it with all of her might, Rimilde wrested it ragefully from its sticking point, shattering its surface into wooden fragments she sent sailing across the room to smash into the bar. The table’s two legs, still within the confines of Elina’s circle, remained solid and still, queerly upright and unbroken.

And that’s when Benzie Fernbottom dashed into the tavern to defend Elina with a mop.

“Benzie!” Elina gasped, sitting upright in her chair.

“Get back, you horror!” Benzie bravely threatened, standing beside Elina and shoving the working end of the mop at the enraged spectre.

Remilde Ficklethicket’s ghostly eyes recessed, succumbing to an empty darkness found only far below the earth. Her form twisted to rise above Benzie and manifest fully as a vengeful ghost. Her back pressed against the ceiling, Remilde’s skin ripped away in a flakey ash cloud to reveal a skeletal, withered face. Her claw-like hands opened, and her teeth became sharp, rotting. Her body was blackened from fire, and her evening gown transformed into tattered, burned cloth that whipped behind her in an unseen wind. She exhaled a fierce, terrifying scream, for, at once, she recognized Benzie’s unprotected, living flesh as sustenance.

Grasping the handle of her broom, Elina took to the floor; upon contact, her feet and the sliding of her chair destroyed her protective circle and the two erect table legs fell uselessly to the floor.

And the ghost reeled in an exquisite moment of joy, sensing Elina’s safeguards and barriers had been removed.

“Get behind me, Benzie!” Elina commanded, throwing herself in front of him, and she swiftly started to sweep the floor.

Elina’s sudden lunge sent Benzie off-balance, and he stumbled backward to land on his side, dropping the mop.

Instantly, as the broom’s bristles touched the floor, the monk’s head along the handle animated: its eyes shot open with a brilliant radiant light to recite a holy prayer in a deep, unyielding voice. Sweeping under the ghost, every whisk of the broom’s ashwood branches ignited burning, drifting sparks, birthed flashes of searing bursts of light, and sent hot embers rushing into the air. Elina grunted, asserting herself forward to push Rimilde back, and the ghost recoiled, screaming horrifically as portions of her essence were swept away from the mortal realm.

Frantically sweeping the floor, Elina barked, “Benzie! When I say, you run! Run to the kitchen!”

“What … is … happening?!” Benzie shouted above the baritone  of the chanting monk, struggling to his feet while collecting the mop. Assuming a fighting stance, he jutted the head of the mop out and prepared to swipe at the ghost. “I’m not leaving you to this monster, Elina!”

“Benzie!” Elina growled, glancing back at him as she continued to sweep the floor to corral the ghost into the corner. “Do as I say! Go to the kitchen! Now!”

Scrambling from behind her, Benzie dropped the mop and darted for the hall.

Growling, snarling, starving, the ghost’s toothy maul widened, and her arms extended to flail desperately at Benzie as he fled.

“Rugh!” Elina grunted, once again putting herself between the ghost and Benzie, to thrust the bristled head of the broom up at the creature like it was a spear. Puncturing the ghost’s body, Rimilde writhed and crumpled in pain, and behind her, the tavern’s windows exploded to send a shockwave of glass out onto the porch. All the while, undaunted, the monk relentlessly, faithfully, continued reciting its holy prayer even while the ends of the broom’s branches caught fire.

Benzie hollered a rousing retreat customary to Aevalorn halflings scared out of their wits and bolted for the kitchen.

Furiously swiping the fiery end of the chanting broom to and fro, the creature writhed and cowered; its palsy tremors returned. Screeching, Rimilde diminished under the might of Elina’s sweeping broom until there was an implosion - all of the air was sucked from the tavern, instantly snuffing out the fireplace and the flaming broom, ripping dishes, papers, and glassware from nearby shelving. Drawn by the vacuum, a shower of debris flew toward the corner, as did Elina, who was pulled off her feet to crash headlong into the wall.

And everything went black.

* * *

Elina stirred.

She saw glaring, flared light.


Soft, early morning sunlight illuminated the ruined hall.

Elina winced from the pain digging under her forehead. She used her hand to shield her eyes.

Squinting, she found Benzie, armed with a more ordinary, everyday broom, dumping a dustpan of smashed glass, wood, and plates into the tin pail. Elina’s head was elevated with a pillow, and her body was covered with a blanket. Benzie worked through the night to pick up the place, but the tavern - with its shattered windows and broken furniture - would require many repairs.

Glancing to her left, she saw that the monkbroom lay quietly on the floor before the hearth, singed but not entirely destroyed.

Benzie handed Elina a glass of water.

“Drink this, easy now, easy,” Benzie encouraged, and Elina sipped at the water.

Swallowing, she wiped her palm over her eyes and groaned, “Benzie-”

“Yes, yes,” Benzie said, fluffing her pillow and starting in on a well-rehearsed speech, “before you cut me open to read my entrails, please know that I made a very stupid, very grave mistake, and I-”

Elina waved him off and slowly sat up. “Stop it, Benzie. Stop.”

“Right, yes, silence is good,” Benzie acquiesced and promptly shut his mouth.

Looking about miserably, Elina shrugged and gestured to the entirety of the destruction. “Well, Benzie. There. You asked. This is why I shuts it down.”

“Hmm-hmm,” Benzie nodded. He was determined to remain tight-lipped as possible, fearing what Elina might do if she was actually mad.

“But I promised ye an introduction,” she said, attempting to bring herself to her feet. Benzie helped and held her arm. Elina nodded, and considered, “Maybe somethin’ … a bit less dramatic?

Benzie had to fight his good sense to reply, “What do you mean?”

“C’mon,” Elina said, wobbling, and - pressing her hand against her head - continued, “Grab them supplies. Let’s go pay a visit to Rimilde.”

* * *

On the edges of town, bordered by a grove of hawthorn trees, dozens of gravestones met the rising morning sun in Pondaroak’s cemetery. They were modest things, crafted from stone, and bore kind words, phrases, and remembrances to honor those they identified, but they were all well-tended - as structurally sound as the day they were planted - solid and proud.

Wandering into the grove, Elina introduced Benzie to Milton and Rimilde Ficklethicket. Together, they worked to brush away the dirt and scrub the moss from the couple’s headstones, rooted weeds from the soil, and replanted colorful flowers along their edges.

“It’s a pleasure,” Benzie said as if meeting someone for the very first time. The sunlight beamed behind him as he traced the lettering on Rimilde’s marker with his fingers.

It was their practice - halflings - to constantly remember their dead, to always remain near the resting places of family and loved ones. Never abandoned or forgotten, the living diligently cared for the departed long after they left for the Green Fields, never missing a chance to visit, to memorialize them on anniversaries and birthdays. It was well-known that all halflings everywhere did what was necessary - whatever they personally could, and whatever that might entail - to help the earthbound spirits of their dearly missed find their way home.

“Maybe next year,” Elina sighed, joining Benzie in placing a remorseful, comforting hand on top of Rimilde’s grave.

April 26, 2023 18:35

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F.O. Morier
11:48 May 04, 2023

Well - I do love ghost stories ! But this one is great !


Russell Mickler
21:33 May 04, 2023

Hi there, FO! HEY that's great! I'm super-glad you liked the story - thank you :) R


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Michał Przywara
20:36 May 02, 2023

A nice conclusion, and definitely unexpected :) Most importantly, seems like Benzie may have learned something and grown a bit. Good descriptions, particularly in the transformation of Rimilde and her mannerisms. Their dialogue has that talking-to-a-wall quality, where Rimilde isn't really interested in hearing. Perhaps she's even incapable, and this problem is beyond hedge magic. Either way, for a ghost chained to her past, it's fitting. I like that the issue wasn't resolved, as it sounds like it's a long term thing. It would have been ...


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Martin Ross
15:12 May 02, 2023

Benzie Fernbottom! Your mad naming skills alone are magical! And I could smell the shortbread and lemon blueberry scones baking. Warmth — that’s a great defining trait of your Aevalorn tales. Great conclusion to a very nicely steeped part one (tea theme). Love blending a ghost story into your usual flawless fantasy — even with the startling violence of Rimilde’s wrath and passage, it’s conveyed in a uniquely halfling manner. The humble hero(s), the crucial feminine voice in guiding empathy and compassion, the “monster” with a poignant story...


Russell Mickler
16:13 May 02, 2023

Hey Martin! >> Benzie Fernbottom! Benzie!! Hehehe >> Your mad naming skills alone are magical! Yay! >> And I could smell the shortbread and lemon blueberry scones baking Freekin' awesome. :) They're not McRibs, but you know ... :) >> Great conclusion to a very nicely steeped part one Glad you liked it! I still think it needs some more umph but I'll tackle that in the re-writes :) >> You do this so well!! Thank you so much, sir. I've been wanting to write a story about what elements keep halflings in their shires, like, why they d...


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RJ Holmquist
23:23 Apr 28, 2023

You do such a great job of fleshing out your world as always. The food descriptions got me going, I am pretty sure I need a kitchen witch. Benzie sitting outside trying to make sense of thing by counting on his fingers was a great image, as was his pulling on his hair in confusion. Fascinating foray into Aevalorn!


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Irene Duchess
00:19 Apr 28, 2023

Amazing, Russell, as always. :) Two quick typos -And that’s when Benzie Ferbottom dashed into the tavern to defend Elina with a mop. Benzie Fernbottom, instead of Ferbottom? - Screeching, Rimidle diminished Maybe Rimilde, instead of Rimidle?


Russell Mickler
01:38 Apr 28, 2023

Lilah, you are so very right! I just corrected these matters in my manuscript and updated Reedsy - thank you, great catch! Grin - have you ever found that you'll get into a muscle memory with names, then realize - part way through your work - that you've been misspelling it all along? That's exactly what happened with Rimilde! Further, I've been debating replacing Rimilde with Rimilda ... yesterday, my beta reader and I were debating "Is it pronounced 'Re-mild' or 'Re-mild-a'?" Everything I'm seeing is telling me "Re-mild" when I meant "R...


Irene Duchess
02:07 Apr 28, 2023

Yes, I have. :) Rimilda or Rimilde… I like either one. No worries! I’ve had a really busy few weeks too—one of our pregnant goats had triplets and we got a horse, so it’s been a pretty chaotic few weeks.


Russell Mickler
02:10 Apr 28, 2023

Giggle - did you _know_ that you are like Miss. #100 on the nose, in terms of total karma points on Reedsy? R


Irene Duchess
02:28 Apr 28, 2023



Russell Mickler
02:36 Apr 28, 2023

Grin - if you look at the list of people sorted by karma points (you can "view all"), and go to the last entry, #100, it's ... you! WOOPS! NOPE I'm wrong :) It's actually Lily Finch, my bad :) hehhe R


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Kevin V
23:26 Apr 27, 2023

This was really cool, Russell. I knew Benzie was going to be in for one heck of a night, but I expected a more corporeal visitor! Needless to say, you got me. I find all the different types of magicks fascinating, and you really bring them to life. Here we have Elina's kitchen magic and her being a hedge witch that have their own specific uses, even if they no longer understand them. Just know how to use them. Fantastic ending to an engrossing part 1. Thanks Russell! Well done.


Russell Mickler
01:42 Apr 28, 2023

Hey there, Kev! Once again, thanks for reading! >> Needless to say, you got me. Well very cool to hear from my perspective :) I'm glad it was a bit of a surprise! I was trying not to give the secret away in the first part, but I did pepper in "death and dying" with the overnight guest in the inn to help set the theme of the piece. In fact, if I could ask you a question about this ... certainly when you read the stuff about Elina's protective circle and the broom, you were like, okay, we're about to get a ghost ... or did you think, okay...


Kevin V
08:50 Apr 28, 2023

Honestly, I didn't know. The protective circle screamed something unfriendly and unnatural. This sure wasn't going to be Gandalf visiting the Shire. It also showed she wasn't going to get up to open the door. It would expose her. Beyond that, I had no clue.


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Mary Bendickson
21:19 Apr 26, 2023

Ah, out of the closet at last. Another ride on the halfling mind. With depths and heights unknown.


Russell Mickler
21:33 Apr 26, 2023

Grin - glad you liked it, Mary :) Thank you so much for reading! R


Mary Bendickson
21:42 Apr 26, 2023

Oh, I was waiting for it:)


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Russell Mickler
18:48 Apr 26, 2023

Howdy! If you're looking for it, Part 1 of this story can be found on Reedsy, here: https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/x00vnu/ The landing page for this story can be found here: https://www.black-anvil-books.com/midnight-tea Character descriptions, pictures, and maps can also be found on my website. Thank you for reading and sticking around :) R


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