The fairies come in the night, leaving tiny footprints in the sugar and the flour.
The townspeople are always too tired after the day of baking to tidy up properly, sweep the floors and wipe the countertops with a rag. A mess can wait.
But the fairies won't.
Everyone knows what happened the first time the fairies didn't get their cakes. It is, coincidentally, also the last time the fairies didn't get their cakes, and the stories are still told in shaking whispers, in lead-lined rooms, the only place the people can be sure they won't be overheard.
They come on a Tuesday, which is an odd sort of day all around, really, but most Tuesdays are not so very odd as the first Tuesday of February. For as long as anyone can remember, and far longer than that, the fairies have come on this day, and the snows always melt just in time to clear the pass through the mountains.
In the morning, the townspeople line the streets to wait for the deliveries. Fresh milk, and flour, sugar and eggs wrapped in cotton and honey from warm, distant lands where the bees are hard at work. The honey is especially important. No one speaks. No one even looks up. Eyes closed, they listen for the rumble of wheels over the broken road.
And on this morning, the rumbles never come.
An hour passes, then another. Higher, higher, the sun creeps.
“They're not coming,” says a voice. Quietly, but the whisper carries down the line, passed from neighbor to neighbor.
“Have to,” says another. “Have to.”
Everyone is thinking the same thing. Angry teeth and unbreakable, fluttering wings. The light fades and the shivers start, and the suggestion comes to check all the cupboards. At once the street is empty, the kitchens full of searching hands, thin and bony from winter. Little children are sent to bed, but they do not sleep, their fingertips trapped in the dust on windowsills as they watch their mothers and fathers scurry to and from the town hall.
“It'll be all right,” says a young girl to her younger sister. Their noses press against the glass, tips growing cold and red, until they have to wipe breath-mist away with the sleeves of their nightgowns.
“I promise,” says the older one, fingers crossed behind her back.
On the wide countertop in the town hall, too much wood shows between the meager gatherings, certainly not enough to bake for each one of the fairies, and no honey at all.
Outside, the moon rises in the sunset-sky. The clock on the wall, hammered into the lead with a heavy spike, chimes the truth that there is no time to get away.
There is no choice but to make do with what they have. When all is said and done, a few dozen tiny cakes sit, cooling, where there should be hundreds. One by one, the townspeople slip through the door and back to their homes. They pull the little children from the windows and tuck them into their beds, planting kisses on foreheads. The girl and her sister curl on their sides, huddling together for warmth, and they are asleep when the humming begins.
Thousands upon thousands of wings block out the moon and the mountains, the noise growing louder and sharper as the fairies descend. Smiling, teeth bared, ready for the feast that is their due. The town hall door stands open; some fly inside, others land on the ground to run, cackling, over the floor.
And the cackles turn to screeching, inhuman cries.
Years later, the stories are told of what happened the second time the fairies didn't get their cakes. The girl is old, wrinkled, her younger sister only a little less lined. In lead-lined rooms, they tell their children and grandchildren of the night the fairies went hungry. Of the sound that woke them from their beds and sent them back to the windows to watch as feathers flew and blood-curdling screams tore the night apart.
They covered their eyes, and then their ears, and then tried to cover both at once. Crouched down, they waited, safe, for the fairies never harm little children. The screams finally stopped, and the humming grew distant, disappearing over the mountains into the dawn.
By the light of day, feathers littered the broken road where the townspeople had tried to protect themselves, even while knowing it was no use.
There was no blood. There were no bones. There was only silence, and then, slowly, whispers as the children met outside their houses. Older ones took smaller hands, promising, again, that it would be all right. They had watched their parents, and knew what to do on the next first Tuesday of February, and the one after that.
It would be all right.
Bravely, the children crept into the town hall. Crumbs littered the countertop, spat out by fairy-mouths the moment they tasted the cakes, baked without honey. Splintered wooden spoons lay strewn on the floor, mixing bowls sat dented where the fairies had used them for war drums.
In the last scraps of sugar and flour were tiny footprints, no bigger than a fingernail, from when the fairies had come in the night.