A Missing Sheep
Arthema could feel that a very big storm was coming long before the first dark clouds appeared over the tall mountains in the north and the wind brought them cool salty air from the ocean beyond. She often had heard people say that they could smell it when rain was coming. But for her it was more like a tingling sensation in her stomach. Like standing on the edge of the Black Brick Bridge down the road to Wirough and looking over the parapet on the dark river dozens of feet below. Arthema wondered, not for the first time, why the Black Brick Bridge was called that. As far as she could tell, the bricks were all orange and brown. And if you repeated the name very often in succession, you could get a knot in your tongue. But whoever had built that bridge must have had a good reason to name it like that.
In any case, she had bigger problems than thinking about strange bridge names at the moment. The first problem – the coming storm – wouldn’t be sobig if it wasn’t for the second one: a sheep was missing.
Just to be sure, she and her younger brother were moving through the herd of indifferent grazing sheep for the third time, counting them. “How many?” Arthema asked as they met in the center of the herd. One of the sheep looked up and bleated at them.
Finnán wrinkled his forehead, still counting with his fingers before he answered, “Eleven.”
She had only counted fourteen. With Finnán’s eleven it was one sheep less than they had led to pasture this morning. “Rotting Ratling-balls!” Arthema cursed.
“That’s one for the curse-jar!” her brother said.
She sighed. “Don’t tell mother or father.”
“Won’t. If,” he paused, looking up to her with a mischievous grin and continued, “I can have your berberries!”
She looked down at him, scowling. He was four years younger than her and still a head smaller but would be bigger in size than her in a few years. “Fine!” she said and ruffled his black hair. “That stupid curse-jar is full anyway and I can’t stand berberries!” She loved berberries. They tasted sweet like the first warm days of Eltos.
Her gaze wandered towards the large forest at the foot of the snow-covered mountains. The trees stretched for many miles to the borders of their land. It was called: The Northern Forest. ‘The people who named the bridge should have met those who named the forest,’ Arthema thought.
The timberline was maybe a quarter-hour walk away and the shadows of the trees stretched their dark fingers more and more their way. Adela was still shining, spending light and warmth, but she would soon be sleeping and then her sister Cora would rule the night. Finding a sheep in the forest was already hard but at nightfall with a storm over your head… If a falling branch did not kill her, a lightning strike surely would.
“Go get Ira and lead the sheep home,” she said. “The storm will be here soon.”
Finnán called for their sheepdog Ira. The big brown and furry dog barked from one end of the herd and trotted leisurely towards them. The sheep made room for the dog and then closed the gap immediately after her like she was wandering through a cornfield. Now and then a sheep bleated.
“And what will you do?” Finnán asked as Ira plopped down beside him, poking him in the side until he started petting her.
“Well, I will search for our missing sheep.”
Her brother looked as if he wasn’t pleased with her answer. “How do you always know that there will be a storm?” He stopped petting Ira and waved his arms around. “Adela is still shining, the sky is blue and there are no clouds to be seen and no wind is blowing!” In support of his arguments, Ira barked.
“Fin, how many times have I predicted the weather?” Arthema asked.
“Too many times, if you ask mother.”
“You know how dangerous magic is! Mother always says— “
“It’s no magic!” Arthema cut him off. “It’s just… I don’t know. It’s like…” She pushed her lower lip forward. “A feeling in my stomach?” Fin raised an eyebrow.
“You know, like last time when I ate too much of aunt Aina’s berberry pies.”
Her brother’s expression got strained for a moment. Then he smiled and said, “So you know a storm is coming when you have to puke?”
Arthema hit her brother playfully on his head. “You’re as stupid as a stone golem!” she said, laughing. Her brother joined her. “And another one for the curse-jar!” he said. She stuck out her tongue, winked and pushed him softly. “Away with you!” He stumbled against a sheep before moving towards the end of the herd. “Ira! Up!” he shouted. Ira joined him and together they were starting to rally up the sheep and leading them back to their home. The first few sheep passed her and bleated her goodbye. Arthema watched them, lost in thoughts.
Magic. Forbidden by law and punished by exile or worse. She remembered how furious, angry and scared her mother had been as Arthema had told her, she could feel when a storm was coming. She was never allowed to tell anyone about it or the inquisitors and their hounds would find her and take her away. Her father had just looked at her without saying a word; a sad expression on his face. At that time she was completely confused because she thought she had a gift and that it would make her parents proud.
That was a few summers ago and they had never talked about it since. She had hoped that this gift – her curse as she was now calling it – would fade away. But as the summers passed, it only grew stronger. There were moments when she could see where her brother or her parents were, even if they were in another room. Their silhouettes would shimmer through the walls like the sun through a curtain. She felt, she could do so much more if she just reached out and grabbed that power. And that scared her like nothing else in the world.
“Ema?” her brother said, snapping her out of her thoughts. All the sheep already passed Arthema and were on the road back home. Ira drove them before her and barked at them, as if to say they should move faster. “Huh?” Arthema said, clearing her thoughts. Her brother suddenly hugged her tightly. “Be careful, will you?” he said. His voice muffled as he had his head buried in her jacket.
She smiled, closed her eyes and hugged him back, her chin resting on his head. “Always.” They said goodbye again and Fin rushed after Ira and the sheep.
Arthema took a deep breath and started walking towards the forest. Dark and quiet it stood there; the upcoming wind made the trees sway hypnotically. The wind was always the first sign which proved her forecast right.
The closer she came to the tree line, the stronger she could see the light of their missing sheep. The light was small which meant that the sheep was still a long way to go. It had to be the youngest and fastest one.
Just before Arthema entered the forest, she took one last look back. Fin, Ira and their flock were long gone behind a hill, but she could still see them shimmering through all the grass and all the hills, like stars through a cloudy night.
Either the sheep was dead or her curse was suddenly gone but she couldn’t hope for the latter so the sheep had to be dead.
After Arthema had been wandering about an hour in the forest, the light of the sheep suddenly started spinning around like a firefly. And as sudden as it started, it stopped and went out. She stopped, too, listening. However, the only thing she could hear was thunder and the ever-increasing storm which made the trees creak menacingly above her.
She cursed. The light was so close before it went out, only about half an hour away she guessed. It was hard to see very far with the trees so close together and the dwindling light.
Should she turn back? Father would be very angry with her, if she returned with a sheep less. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be the first time a wolf tore a sheep. If it was a wolf at all. The forest was home to more dangerous beasts than wolves. Maybe that was the reason her parents warned them not to wander alone through the woods.
Either way, she had to make sure, if the sheep was really dead. Explaining to her parents that the magical light of the sheep went out and that this was the reason she knew the sheep was dead would not be such a good idea.
A lightning strike cut through the dusk, burning shadowy outlines of the trees in Arthema’s eyes before she could close them. Eyes still closed, she did not have to wait long for the booming thunder that followed the lightning. She had to hurry because the storm was close.
The first few raindrops drummed on the canopy as she reached what was left of the sheep. Now she was glad that the sun had almost set so that she could only see vague outlines of what had once been the sheep’s head. The lower jaw was missing. Where a body should have been, she could only recognize a spine. Blood and slippery intestines were scattered across the forest floor and the undergrowth was completely plowed up. Whatever had messed this place up; it definitely was not the work of a normal wolf and she had no intention to stay and find out what it really was.
“Poor sheep,” she said.
“Poor sheep…,” came a distorted voice behind her back.
Arthema spun around, her eyes wide open in shock. A small creature was sitting in front of her, an arm’s length away. The storm and the setting sun had almost washed away all colors and light but she knew immediately what it was, although she had never seen one before. An imitac cowered before her. It was as big as a cat and had dark-brown fur that was almost black in the fading light. Its head was bigger than its body, with two pointy ears and small but vigilant eyes. Instead of front paws, it had two very sharp-looking claws. Its throat was wide and baggy, so it could devour prey which was much bigger than itself.
Father had showed Arthema and her brother paintings and described the creature in one of his “Don’t wander alone in the forest” lectures. They can mimic nearly every sound they hear, be it animal or human. He had told them that even though they look cute, they are very dangerous and most importantly, they never hunt alone.
“Poor sheep?” asked the imitac again with his head tilted to one side. Arthema flinched. His voice sounded too much like hers.
Very slowly she took a step backward as a sheep suddenly bleated from a tree above her. A young one. She looked up and regretted it immediately. Half a dozen imitacs were hanging in the tree above her, starring at her with their tiny eyes.
“No…,” she whispered, her stomach felt like she had swallowed a rock.
“Poor sheep?” the imitac asked.
“No? No!” another one answered. All of the creatures were now talking. They seemed to discuss which part of Arthema they would eat first.
“Poor sheep…,” they finally said sadly, followed by more bleating and a very high and animalistic scream that drowned everything else. It sounded very much like the death cry of a certain sheep.
Arthema joined screaming, spun around and started to run as panic gripped her. One imitac jumped on her, bleating madly. It left a deep cut in her back before she somehow managed to throw it off.
She tried to dodge trees and jump over roots but it was more of a tripping and fighting to stay upright than running. The heavy rain that had started did not help either. Her clothes greedily soaked up the water as more and more poured down on her; the canopy was almost no protection against it. Nevertheless, she kept running. She could feel and hear the creatures behind and above her. Bleating and screaming, shouting “Poor sheep!” and “No!” the whole time. Suddenly, the distance between the trees grew bigger. Her pumping heart nearly jumped as she could make out a clearing in front of her. If she made it there, she would be safe, or so she thought. With that thought in mind, she started to sprint the last feet, ignoring her burning lungs and her aching body.
Arthema burst out of the forest and into the clearing. What she had not known before was that the terrain in front of her suddenly dropped steeply. The girl wanted to stop but she was too fast and it was too late. She stumbled and crashed to the muddy ground where she skidded and rattled down the hill until a giant erratic block violently stopped her. Bright flashes of light exploded before her eyes as she hit the rock with her shoulder. Arthema screamed and cursed, gripping her hurt shoulder as new pain erupted from the impact. She wanted to move. She had to move but the impact made her head spin and the blinking and dancing lights before her eyes did not help either.
Finally, after many deep breaths she got herself slowly in an upright position, groaning and cursing with every move. Arthema tried to brush her black and wet hair out of her face to inspect her surroundings but the ever pouring rain washed them right back. She could see that the clearing was in some kind of valley. More boulders were scattered everywhere. The giant one that she was leaning against and the valley protected her a little from the storm.
A dozens of heartbeats later, Arthema still could not make out any movement from the timberline. Her tension eased and her muscles relaxed. After all, imitacs lived in trees and they were very slow on land. Maybe they gave up on hunting her down.
Lightning bathed the clearing in white light, revealing seven imitacs coming slowly out of the forest. The following thunder strike let the creatures flinch for one moment, before they continued towards Arthema.
She cursed and stood up, leaning on the stone with her unharmed arm. Arthema knew she should run but this thought alone let all of her muscles cramp. She looked around in search of something that she could use as a weapon but only mud and grass were around her.
Then she suddenly broke into laughter. There were a few stones as big as apples behind her. She picked up as many as she could, remembering how Fin and her had broken all the windows of the old abandoned mill which they had found last matos. After that, they had searched for glasses and bottles inside the mill to use as new targets. Fin had been very angry this day because Arthema had always hit them all with her first throw.
As she was lost in her thoughts the creatures toddled slowly and awkwardly down the hillside. Two of them slipped and bowled down the hill, stopping dangerously close to her. Arthema jumped and took a few steps back. The rest of the pack hesitated and curiously watched their two unlucky siblings. “No!” they creaked. “Poor sheep?” The two imitacs shook themselves from the fall and continued their approach. The remaining ones watched curiously and after a heartbeat they tumbled down the hill, too.
Arthema cursed, took more steps backwards and threw the first stone. It hit the closest imitac right in the head. It grunted and fell to the side where it remained motionless. The rest of the predators screamed in anger and quickened their steps. Arthema backed away more, throwing another stone. It hit one imitac in the side and stopped it from jumping on her. There were still five imitacs left and only the gods knew how many would soon be crawling out of the forest. She had to flee.
But where would she go? The clearing was too wide and open to hide somewhere, even in the darkness. And if she went back into the forest, the imitacs would take advantage and surely hunt her down.
She cursed and threw another stone. It knocked out another one of these damn creatures. Tears started to well up in her eyes and got washed away by the rain. Why did she have to look for that stupid sheep? She should have gone home with Fin. Father would have been mad, yes, but at least she would still be alive.
She clenched her teeth and threw another rock as she backed further away. Her target yowled and stopped. “No!” it shouted. “Poor sheep!”
“Poor sheep your arse!” Arthema screamed and threw her penultimate stone. The hit imitac gargled and remained motionless.
Arthema stopped and looked down at her hand. She had closed her fist so tightly around her last stone that the sharp edges of it had cut in her skin and released small trickles of blood. It got washed away by the rain like her anger and frustration had washed away all of her fear.
She breathed heavily and squinted as more and more tears flowed down her cheek. Why hadn’t she gone home? Her arm trembled and her heart drummed madly in her chest. She couldn’t tell if the buzzing in her ear came from the wind or her pumping blood. “No…” she whispered and shook her head. “No”, she said louder. She would not die here tonight.
She jerked her head up, screamed out all of her anger and threw the last stone. At the same moment one of the last two imitacs jumped at her, his sharp claws outstretched towards Arthema and his mouth opened wide, revealing its needle-like teeth.
Then suddenly everything froze and all sound stopped. At least that’s how it felt for Arthema. The imitac in front of her floated in midair and her stone had not even left her hand. Rain drops hung all around her like tiny insects made out of marbles.
She stood completely still but at the same time she was somehow moving. She felt like she was everywhere; touching every stone and every blade of grass. Caressing every flower and shaking every tree. She felt a streaming through her clothes and roughing up her hair. She even felt the fur of the imitacs.
Something inside her wanted to give that feeling a name. It gnawed and itched at her mind. It shimmered just outside her field of view. It was like a long forgotten memory, waiting to get dug up again. Like… Like what? She reached out deeper in her mind, like she was searching for something inside her jam-full cabinet at home in her room. It was like…
And then, as if it had always been there, it occurred to her: She was the wind.
A stream of energy rushed through her body. With a deafening bang, time moved again. The stone vanished but so did the imitac before her. It exploded in blood and gore as the stone shot through its body with a speed too fast for a human eye to follow. The remains of the poor creature and its unconscious or dead siblings on the ground followed the stone. So did the rain, the grass, the branches and the small stones. In half a dozen feet radius in front of Arthema everything got blast away in all directions.
Not that Arthema could have seen all that because the shockwave of the wind magic she just released, propelled her a dozen feet backwards where she crashed through several bushes and against a lonely tree. The air was pressed out of her lungs and her head slammed hard against the tree trunk. The last thing she saw before blackness took her were three bright stars in the distance, coming closer.
Arthema slowly opened her eyes as consciousness returned to her and with it the pain of over a dozen bruises, cuts and a splitting headache. As she tried to sit up, another source of pain – this time from her left shoulder – added itself to her agony and her vision became blurry. Her clouded mind immediately wished it could succumb once more to the sweet darkness a few moments ago. She grunted and sunk back into her pillow.
Her pillow. Forests should not have pillows. She sat up slowly and flinched as the throbbing pain in her head increased. She was lying in her bed. That would explain the pillow. And she was in her room or rather the room she was sharing with her brother. It had to be night or still very early in the morning because the only sources of light were a flickering candle on her bedside table and the half open door to the corridor.
Fin was sleeping beside her on a chair. It looked rather uncomfortable how he had slumped in there like that. And was he snoring? She giggled. “Ow!” She groaned. Giggling was not good. She touched her head and realized it was bandaged, just as the rest of her body. What happened? Arthema thought.She could remember entering the woods and searching for her lost sheep. She had found it, but it was already dead. And then she ran. But from what?
Loud voices from down the corridor tore Arthema out of her thoughts. It sounded like her parents were arguing about something.
“They are like this since we found you and brought you home”, her brother said suddenly.
Arthema nearly jumped out of bed. “Fin! Don’t scare me like that!”
He looked at her and stuck out his tongue. Then he jumped up from the chair and hugged her tightly.
“Ow ow ow! Be careful, please! I feel like every bone in my body broke and got glued back together again,” she complained half-hearted but soon hugged him back. Just feeling his presence seemed to drive away most of her pain.
“I was so worried,” he said, his voice trembled.
She closed her eyes, smiled and hugged him tighter. “It’s fine now. I’m home.” After a while they let go of each other. Fin coughed and hurriedly wiped away some tears. She herself had to swallow a lump in her throat. “Fin, could you bring me some water?”
“Sure.” The boy rushed to a small table at the other side of the room and came back with a cup of water. She took it and drank. Her lips and her throat were bone dry and soaked up the water like a sponge. After a few sips however, she coughed and stopped. Fin reached out to grab the cup but she shook her head, calmed herself down and drank the cup empty. She let out a long sigh. “That’s better, thank you.” Fin took the cup and placed it on her night stand. “Fin?”
Her brother looked up.
“What happened after we parted?”
“You don’t remember?”
“It’s all blurry and foggy”, she said. “I remember finding the sheep but it was already…” Slaughtered, she thought suddenly, as memories flashed up before her eyes. She shook her head and continued, “Dead.”
“Poor Myka…” Fin said and looked down.
“I’m sorry. I know she was your favorite one.”
Fin looked up again and scratched his head. “Well, that’s life, Papa always says.”
Another memory came back to her. Three lights in the distance, coming closer. “You looked for me, didn’t you? You came back with… Papa and Ira?”
Something rustled suddenly after hearing her name and Ira’s head popped up at the end of her bed. The sheepdog hesitated not one second before jumping onto it and cuddling herself carefully but determinant on Arthema’s lap. “Ow! Careful Ira!” The dog just mumbled pleasantly as she started ruffling its head.
“Yes! After I’ve led the sheep home, I’ve told Papa that you went looking for Myka. He cursed, like you–” he said and smirked.
Arthema stuck out her tongue.
“–and then we were looking for you. The storm was becoming stronger and we feared we might not find you in the dark and in the storm.” He paused and ruffled Ira, too. “But Ira here has never lost your scent.”
“And then?” Arthema asked. Images of something chasing her drifted to the surface, like dead fish in a pond.
Fin hesitated and looked away. “Then we found you lying against a tree on the clearing,” he said, way too fast.
The clearing. Another memory came back to her. She was surrounded by… creatures. And rocks. There had been blood and pain. And the wind had lashed rain in her face.
The boy suddenly stood up from his chair. “I should get mama and papa. They told me I should get them when you’re awake. Yes, I should get them.”
Her brother flinched and stopped. Something flickered in his eyes. It was just a moment but Arthema could have sworn it was there.
With a sigh, he sat back on the chair, his head cast down. His voice was almost a whisper now as he spoke. “There were dead imitacs everywhere.”
Imitacs! With almost a physical force all the memories came back and flooded her mind. She took her head between her hands just to stop it from spinning as more and more images attacked her. Images of imitacs jumping at her; gargling words and sentences. Mocking her. Clawing away flesh and spilling blood. Her blood and blood of the imitacs. Arthema had killed them all with stones and rocks. And with the wind.
“We counted six,” her brother continued, still not looking up.
The spinning in her head slowed down as a grave realization hit her: She had used magic. She felt so sick she almost had to puke. “Seven,” she said.
“What?” Fin asked, looking up.
“There were seven imitacs, Fin.” She could no longer hold it together and started crying. “Seven!” Arthema sobbed. “I killed them all with the wind!”
Fin was confused, scared and did not know what to do because he hadn’t seen his sister cry before. She had always been the strong one and had protected him again and again. But she did it in such a subtle way that it did not look like he was a helpless wimp. And for that he loved her.
It was only last week that she stood with him against the Thorlakson twins. They were lying in wait for him on his way home from the market. Not only were they two years older than him, they also were two heads bigger. And of course there were two of them. He was quite sure that he would have beaten at least one of them to a pulp, but two?
Thankfully he was not very far away from home at that time. So as they jumped out from behind a bush and demanded his goods, which he had bought at the market, he pushed one to the ground, slipped through the grip of the other and sprinted like Vac himself was after him. With burning lungs and no more breath, he collapsed at the hill from which one could see their farm; the two bullies only a few dozen feet behind him.
“We’ve got you now, sheep-boy!” one of them shouted.
Fin looked down the hill to their farm and smiled. His sister was running towards him, with stones in her hand and a wicked smile on her face.
“Fin!” Arthema gasped suddenly and tore him back into the here and now. “I– can’t– breathe–!” Her breath came in huffs and her eyes were wide open.
“Ira! Go get Papa! Go!” Fin said. The dog barked, jumped from Arthema’s bed and rushed out of the room.
Fin looked at his sister. Her breathing got faster and faster. Uncertainty and fear grew inside him. It laced around his chest like wire. He took her hand and pressed it. Her hand was sweating but warm. He got angry because he felt so useless. “I don’t know what to do!”
She tried to smile, her face still wet with tears. “Just– stay– and– hold my– hand,” she huffed and pressed his hand back. Her warmth loosened the wire a bit.
“You have snot on your nose,” Fin grinned.
Arthema made a grunting noise which should be a laughter he guessed. “You– are– a– snot!”
Ira’s barking made Fin turn his head to the door. The sheepdog rushed in, wagging his tail. Fin’s parents stood outside on the hallway and they both looked as if they hadn’t slept well. His father’s gaze switched between him and his sister. Brennard was still wearing the same clothes as he was when they went to look for Arthema. Spots of dirt covered his mottled gray beard. He was a tall man. If Fin was as big as his father some day, the Thorlakson twins wouldn’t bully him anymore he thought.
“Papa! Mama! Arthema can’t breathe!” Fin said, still holding his sister’s hand.
Both his parents entered the room after a moment of hesitation. His father told him to make some room, so that his mother could take care of Arthema.
Elna was not as big as his father and had no beard. But she had black hair, just as Brennard, only longer and tied to a braid. Her eyes were red and teary. She sat down on the bed and placed a hand on his sister’s head. Ira wanted to jump back on the bed, too, but a sharp “No!” from Brennard stopped the dog.
After a moment Elna wrinkled her forehead and placed her hand on Arthema’s chest. “Arthema, sweetie, look at me,” she said. Arthema’s eyes were wide open and teary but she did as she was told. She was still breathing intermittently. “I want you to focus on my hand on your chest. Imagine that your chest is glued to my hand and can only move when my hand moves. Can you do that?” Arthema nodded. Fin thought that his mother had a beautiful voice. He could feel everything was going to be alright by just hearing the soothing sound of it. Arthema also seemed to calm down a bit.
“Now close your eyes and focus”, his mama said. She moved her hand slowly away from Arthema’s pumping chest. His sister tried to follow the hand but the effort made her face look all distorted. “I– can’t–” she gasped.
“Don’t speak!” Mama said sternly. “Just focus, listen to my voice and feel my hand.” She pushed her hand against Arthema’s chest and started to sing.
It was a sweet and quiet song without words, more like humming. It brought back memories from a time when Fin was younger. He was very sick that time but he didn’t remember what sickness it had been. All he could recall from that time was the almost magical and healing powers that this song had on him.
The rhythm of Mama’s song mirrored her movements. As her hand moved forward, the melody got stronger. And as it retreated, the song got softer. With every movement, the melody spread wider and wider into the room. It pulsed from his mother and wrapped them all in some kind of hypnotic dream. Fin caught himself breathing in the rhythm of the melody.
After a while, his sister’s face relaxed and her breathing calmed down. And as Mama finally stopped singing, Arthema could breathe normal again.
With the end of the song, the dreamlike aura which had filled the room faded away. It was as if the scent of fresh flowers slowly evaporated, leaving behind the old and stale air of a long unused room.
Arthema opened her eyes.
“Feeling better?” Mama asked with a smile.
Fin let out all his strain in one big sigh. He could hear his father behind him doing the same.
But then Arthema’s calm face crumbled as she threw herself crying into Mama’s arms. “I’m sorry!” she cried.
“Shh,” Mama said, hugging her tightly and stroking her head. “It’s fine now. You are safe with us.”
A moment later she loosened the embrace to look Arthema in the eye. “Tell me what happened.”
So Arthema told them what happened. How she searched for poor Myka and found her or what was left of her. How she ran away from the imitacs and killed most of them with stones. And how she threw her last stone and thought she was going to die. “And then,” Arthema sobbed, “I…” She stopped and looked at him, then at Papa and then at Mama. His sister looked so scared. Fin didn’t understand. She was safe now, wasn’t she?
“Go on, sweetie,” Mama said.
“I… felt the wind,” she finally said. “But not just like on my skin or on my hair. It felt as if I was the wind! And… And as I threw the last stone… Ma? Pa? I… I think I used magic!” She started crying again, burying herself deeper in Mother’s arms.
Fin looked at both his parents, confused. “Magic?”
“Bloody sheep shit!” his father cursed and threw his hands up in horror.
His mother’s face went pale. “Are you sure, sweetie?”
“Of course she is sure!” Papa said angry. Fin flinched. Arthema was crying harder. Why was his father angry?
“Have you seen the place, Elna?” Papa continued. “I’ve told you! It looked like a bloody mess! Everything was blown away. The imitacs were scattered across the bloody clearing all the way to the timberline. Every blade of grass–“
“Enough, Bren!” Mama said sharply and cut Papa off. She stared at him and the look she was giving him made Fin shiver.
His mother was the warmest and nicest person he knew. But on the other side she could also stare a timberwolf down and let him run away whining with his tail between his legs. At least that was what Fin believed. He only saw it once as Ira tried to eat some meat pie from the kitchen table. Although Ira wasn’t a timberwolf, Fin was sure his mother’s stare would have had the same effect on one.
“Arthema, listen,” his mother said. Her expression returned to the calm and soft one she had before. She gently pushed Arthema back. His sister wiped away tears. “Everything will be fine. You hear me?” Mama continued. Arthema sniveled and nodded. Mama pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to her. She blew her nose with it. “And the most important thing is: it is not your fault”, Mama said, stroking some hair out of his sister’s face. “And we all love you no matter what, don’t we?” Mama was looking at Fin and Papa now.
Ira barked, his father grunted in acknowledgement and Fin nodded. Of course he loved his sister, but that was something he would never admit aloud.
Arthema’s eyes began to fill up with tears again. Then she mumbled a “Thank you” and threw herself back into Mama’s arms.
Fin smiled. Everything was good again. In a few weeks, Arthema would be healthy enough to go outside with him. Maybe they would visit the old mill again, throwing some stones. Fin had secretly trained his throwing skills and this time, he was sure he would beat her.
The events of this night were already fading from his memory. He had already forgotten the destruction, Arthema’s wind magic had caused at the clearing. He hadn’t seen much anyway. His father had told him to wait with Ira at the beginning of the clearing, while he searched for Arthema.
“Elna,” Papa said after a moment. “We must hurry; they should be here soon.”
“Who?” asked Fin. He looked at his father. They? Did he mean the old town healer? But Mama had already taken care of most of his sister’s wounds. Well, maybe he just wanted to check if Mama had done everything right.
After Papa’s words, his mother’s expression changed. She looked out the window into the dawn. “Maybe they haven’t felt it,” said Mama, still holding Arthema in her arms.
His father sighed. “Elna…”
“It could be! Arthema was way out in the woods! Maybe, with all the trees…”
“Elna, the bloody dogs can smell magic from over a hundred miles away! You remember the boy from old Faran, down at Churchmill?”
What were they talking about? Fin wrinkled his forehead and petted Ira. What dogs? And which boy? Churchmill was a day’s riding away. He had been there once on the fire festival. He remembered the fireworks. They had lightened up the night in many different colors. And the sweet fire apples! Their taste still lingered on his tongue. They were even better than berberries he thought. But he couldn’t remember seeing dogs. Nor did he know anybody named Faran.
“I know!” Mama suddenly shouted. Fin flinched and Ira barked. “I just thought…” She looked away.
A few moments later, Arthema looked up. “Mother?” she said.
“Everything is going to be alright, sweetie,” Mama said. She was smiling again. “But now we have to pack up and leave for a while. Do you remember why?”
Arthema hesitated. “Yes,” she said after a moment.
“I’ll help you, sweetie. Fin, go get your stuff. Just pack up the most important things and a few clothes.” Fin wanted to speak up but his mother continued, “Warm ones.”
Suddenly, his family started packing and hurrying around. His mother helped Arthema out of bed and over to her wardrobe, where they packed clothes in a small brown backpack. His father turned around and was about to leave the room. Everybody seemed to know what to do or why they were doing it. Even Ira looked as if she wanted to prepare a small backpack with her toys in it.
Fin got angry. He hadn’t got a clue what was going on. “Stop it!” he shouted. Everyone stopped and looked at him, even his father turned around. “What is going on?” Fin asked, his voice broke at the last words and tears were forming in his eyes. “Where are we going? And who is coming?” He stood up so fast that the chair flipped over. “Bloody shitting sheep-shit! I have no clue what’s going on!” He regretted his words immediately and covered his mouth with his hands. Arthema’s laughter broke the shocked silence after a few heartbeats.
“Finnan!”, scolded his mother, her look was stern but not as stern as usual.
“He got that from you,” father said with a smirk.
Mother just looked at him, now really angry. “Why don’t you tell your son what’s going on? Arthema! Stop laughing and start packing!”
“Yes, mother,” his sister said, still chuckling. She continued packing.
His father left the room and motioned for him to follow. On the hallway, he kneeled down in front of Fin and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Fin, listen,” he started. “Your sister has used magic. You know what that means?”
Fin wrinkled his forehead. After a moment he answered, “Yes… I think. It’s forbidden, isn’t it? Does she get into trouble now?”
“Yes,” said Papa. He suddenly looked a lot older, Fin thought. “Very big trouble. They… want to take her away from us. For… For a very long time…”
Fear gripped Fin as the words of his father sunk in. His stomach tightened. “No!” he shouted, shaking his head. “They can’t! I won’t let them!” They cannot take Arthema away, not after finding her again.
Papa smiled sadly and ruffled Fin’s hair. “I know you won’t,” he said. Then he brought out a dagger behind his back. “And we won’t let them take her.” He handed it to Fin. “Here, take this.”
Fin’s eyes widened as he looked at the dagger. The curved blade was nearly as long as Fin’s forearm. It had no hilt and the brown shaft continued the curve form of the blade. Fin knew that it was very sharp. He had often watched his father skinning animals with it. And not just once had he cut himself in the process.
Fin looked at his father. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Take it.” Fin slowly reached out and grabbed the dagger. It was heavy.
“Now listen, son,” Papa said and grabbed Fin’s other shoulder. “Soon people will come and they will try to take your sister away. But we won’t be here when they come. So that’s why we are all packing. We are going to hide in the mountains where they can’t find us.”
“And how long?”
“Until it’s safe. We will know.”
Fin nodded. The mountains. He remembered hearing Mama and Papa talk about the mountains some time ago. Something about the resist… Or was it the resistance?
“But if something happens,” Papa continued, “I need you and Ira to protect her, no matter what! Do you understand?”
“Yes, father,” Fin answered without hesitation. Father’s words seemed as heavy as the dagger in Fin’s hand. There was a finality in his words, Fin could not yet understand.
“Good,” said Papa. He ruffled Fin’s hair again and stood up. “Now hurry and pack some stuff!”
Fin looked up to his father with big open eyes, the dagger still in his hand. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll ready the horses and the cart. Go on, Fin, we must hurry!” With that, he pushed Fin gently towards their room and hurried down the dimly lit corridor.
Fin stood there for a few more heartbeats and looked down on the weapon in his hand. Then he slowly pulled the dagger out of its sheath and touched the blade very carefully with a finger. “Ouch!” he cried, more out of shock than pain. He put the bleeding finger in his mouth.
“Fin!” called his mother. “Where the bloody night are you? Come on in and help us packing!”
“Coming!” Fin put the dagger back in its case and stuffed it under his belt on his left side, so everyone could see it. He rushed back into the room to help his mother and sister. “Hush now,” Mama said. As she spotted the dagger on Fin’s side and the (still bleeding) finger in his mouth, she shook her head and sighed. “Just like your father.” Fin just grinned stupidly and walked to the opposite side of the room to his closet to search for clothes.
“Warm ones, Finnán! It’s cold in the mountains!” Mama said behind him.
“Yes, mother!” said Fin and rolled his eyes. Of course he would pack warm clothes and of course he had heard Mother the first time she had said that. He was no child anymore. He touched the dagger on his side and smiled.
“Mama?” Arthema asked after a while of silent packing.
“How long do we have to stay there?”
Fin spun around and answered before his mother could reply something, “’Until it’s safe’, Papa said. We will know!”
Arthema aped Fin and stuck out her tongue. Fin replied with his.
“Fin! Packing!” Mama commanded. Fin turned around again, stuffing more clothes in his back bag. Warm ones of course.
“Your brother is right,” Mama said. “Until it’s safe.”
Suddenly Ira started barking. Fin’s hand moved instinctively to the dagger on his side. He turned around and looked at his mother and Arthema, both frozen in their current movements. Motionless, they looked back at him. Mama put a finger to her mouth, signaling him to keep quiet. Fin nodded. Were they here already? But what about Papa? Has he scared them away?
Soon, loud and fast footsteps were echoing through the hallway, coming closer.
Fin was about to draw his dagger as Papa appeared in the door frame. “They’re coming,” he said.
“How long?” Mama asked.
“They are already up the hill. A quarter of an hour, not more.”
“Then we have to run,” Mama said. “There is no more time to ready the cart.”
“No,” Papa said.
Both his parents looked at each other for a long time. Finally, Mama nodded heavily and Papa said, “I keep them busy. I know Karson from when we were kids.”
Mama stood up, rushed to Papa and hugged him tightly. “Be safe,” she said. Papa kissed her and said, “You too.” Then he looked at Fin and Arthema. “Come here you two,” he said and beckoned them to him. Both children rushed to their parents where they were embraced in a strong and warm hug. Fin buried his face in the clothes of his father. They smelled like wood and rain.
“Protect the children,” Papa said after a while and broke the serenity. Mama nodded and kissed Papa one more time.
Fin suddenly felt a knot in his stomach. “Wait!” he said and looked up to his father. “Are you not coming with us?” he asked.
“You go on ahead. I will follow you after I talked to Karson and his men.” And before anyone of them could say one more word, he hurried away.
“Ma?” Arthema asked.
His Mother stared into the hallway, before she answered, “It’s going to be alright, I’ll promise. Now come on, we must hurry!” She shouldered her and Arthema’s backpack and hushed them out of the room. Fin grabbed his own backpack and followed them, Ira by his side. After they put on jackets and shoes, Mama led them down the hall to her and Papa’s bedroom.
Fin hadn’t been there for a while now. After having a bad dream, he sometimes sneaked into their bed secretly. But only sometimes.
Mama opened the only window in the room. The still strong wind blew in and let the curtains dance in the upcoming twilight like some spooky ghosts from his nightmares.
Arthema climbed out first, with help from Mama. “Are you alright, sweetie?” she asked.
“I’m fine, Ma,” his sister said. But as she climbed out the window, she grimaced in pain.
“Fin, you’re next!”
Fin ran to the window and started climbing out. “Don’t need your help, Ma!” he said and jumped the last few feet down to the muddy ground. He had never called his mother ‘Ma’ before.
Mother just raised an eyebrow and said, “Fine, fine!” Then she climbed out and called for Ira. The sheepdog jumped gracefully through the window and landed next to Fin in a big puddle of mud which got sprayed all over Fin.
“Eww, Ira!” Fin shouted.
“Were are we going?” Arthema shouted, because of the strong wind. Her hair swirled around her head. She pulled her hood up to stop the swirling.
“North!” Mama said. “We follow the road ‘til Old Black Mill and then we head straight to the mountain path!” She and Arthema started to move but Fin stopped after a few feet and turned around, looking at the place which he had called home for all his short life.
Why did it feel like he had to say farewell to the house now? Papa said, they would come back when it’s safe. Was it ever safe again? So much had changed in the last few hours. He touched his dagger and hoped his father would be safe. Then he turned around and saw that his mother and sister were already many feet ahead. “Wait!” he shouted and ran after them.