The Racers

The Racers

A Story by Paige
"

This is a story that I absolutely fell in love with while developing. It only has a loose plot as of now, and I haven't worked everything out, but here's what I have so far!

"

Chapter 1

I first saw the Racers when I was five.

Of course, they had come the year I was born.  Greta never told me if she had brought me to see them, and I’ve never bothered asking her. I wouldn’t have remembered, so it didn’t matter.

It was the year our crops had failed.  Shelda, Greta’s real daughter, one year my senior, had died in the cold hunger that followed.  I was frightened; Greta had been distant and reluctant to accept me into her family the five years she had cared for me, and I worried that this new loss would make her push away from me for good.  It was a selfish thought, even I knew that, young as I was, but I should not have worried.  Instead, she seemed to look to me to fill the hole in her heart that had formed with the death of her only birthed child.  In all my innocence, I tried my best.  When I would see her crying, in the tender days after the other girl’s funeral, I would crawl up onto her lap and press my little hands to where her broken heart still beat beneath her breast.  In that position, I would bravely say, “Greta"Shelda’s here and she’s telling you not to cry.”  She would laugh a little, take one of my hands and press it to her lips for a moment, then stand to get me something to eat from our dwindling stores.  I would scamper after her, my young mind already drifting off to dread the next time I would carry water up from the village.

Though that year had been the famine, and the small children down at the village would cry out with hunger, my stomach was always full.  It wasn’t because we were any better off than others in the village, just that Greta always made sure I was fed.  The woman, however, grew thinner every day, giving me the best of the meals, taking little for herself.  I never noticed it then, I was too young; naïve and carefree, even though Shelda couldn’t play with me anymore.  As I grew and wondered upon it, I decided that she was grieving for her daughter.  But now that I have grown even more, it was because she truly cared for me.  She did not want me to die as Shelda had.  The thought touches me, even though I barely see Greta anymore.

The year of the famine, I was never short of work.  With only the two of us in Greta’s cabin, a mile from the mountain village Adendale, there was always plenty to do. Though I was barely five, I had many of the responsibilities of a much older girl.  One of the jobs Greta placed upon me was carrying the large wooden bucket down to the village square, fill it to the brim with the icy cold water, then lug the heavy thing back up the mountain again.

When Greta first told me the job was to be mine, I screamed and cried and threw a rather impressive tantrum.  Greta always said that I threw the biggest tantrums of anyone in the Skriss.  But my adoptive mother was firm on the matter, and placed the bucket into my hands the very next morning, instructing me to carry water every third day.

Greta accompanied me at first, showing me which of the rocky paths to take, demonstrating how to pump the icy water from the ground and how to hold the bucket so the water wouldn’t slosh out the sides.  I firmly told myself, as we started back up the rocks, that I would spill as much water as I could when Greta wasn’t looking.  By my logic, when she saw how poorly the job was done, she would decide making me do something I didn’t want to was more trouble than it was worth, and give the project up for a loss.  But as I turned to look back at the houses clustered around the square, after scrambling up the first set of rocks, the view took my breath away.

It is difficult to explain what I saw.  The world for us is a colossal mountain surrounded by water"called the Skriss.  It is the only land as far as one can travel, at least to our knowledge.  But the size of the mountain makes up for that.  It is dotted with villages, less than a hundred people in each, surrounded by a dazzling, never-ending ocean.

It was that ocean which I saw now, blinking my blue eyes which had darkened over the years.  I looked over the gray, brown, and white of the mountain to the swirling blues and greens of the ocean.  It captivated me, seeing the world as if I owned it, as if I were seeing it for the first time.  I let my gaze wander from the water, back up to the mountain, up past our cabin.  The nearest village, Dismond, was a tiny speck in the distance, farther than anything I had seen"or at least cared to notice. I looked higher and higher, until I could see the very top of the mountain, craning my neck so I looked almost directly up.  It was cold and alien, fuzzy because of the fog and swirling snow"but somehow sharp and clear, like looking through frost on a window.  I searched halfheartedly for the Top Village, but though I strained my eyes, I could see nothing but the general shape of the Skriss’ peak.  It came to me gradually, but I eventually realized that I was seeing something almost impossibly far away.

Adendale is one of the lower villages"that is, it is located towards the bottom of the mountain.  It is well-built and clean, but not highly thought of.  Traditionally, the higher up on a mountain the village is built, the more respected that village is.  As I understand it, it’s something to do with the harsher conditions that are found higher up on the mountain.  When traders from Alu came to visit, I learned that people from higher villages are snobs.  It’s silly, really, the things that normal humans come up with"no one lives higher than the Racers.

But already, I am getting ahead of myself"I’ve always been that way with storytelling.  I stood dumbly for a few moments, taking in the beauty that I hadn’t ever realized that was there, the crispness of the Skriss and the wildness of the ocean beyond.  Greta, some ways ahead by now, turned and realized that I wasn’t following and barked for me to hurry up.  I hastily followed her, peering out through the corners of my eyes at the world around me.  When we got back, I pestered her with endless, pointless questions, the answer to most being an exhausted sigh and the words, “You’ll learn when you’re older, Fae.”

From that day on, I loved and hated the job.

I hated it for the time it took, the energy it demanded.  I hated it for the cold that worked its way through the snug Wolf-furs that were bound tightly around me, chilling me to the bone.  I hated it for the burning it gave my arms and the blisters that sprung up on my fingers from gripping the handle.  But I loved it for the view it gave me, and the world that I could see around me, always the same but drastically different every day.  I loved it for the faces in the village, some out in the square around me, some peeking curiously out of the windows at the lives going on outside of their doors.

I barely noticed the first day Greta did not accompany me down to fetch water.  I did not even realize that I was alone until I was about halfway down to the village.  She had grown quieter on our trips, letting me lead as she trailed behind, although she scolded me whenever my attention wandered.  She had needed to say less and less, until I barely noticed her with me.  That morning, I had gone to the shed as usual and grabbed the heavy bucket, swinging it over my shoulder and starting down, sulking and excited as ever.  When I realized that I was walking alone, I jumped a little and turned, looking back toward the house.  I saw Greta sitting on a rock, looking in my direction.  I raised my hand in a sort of wave, and though she could not have missed me, she made no move to wave back.  I was confused… had I counted the days wrong?  But I was already halfway down, so, flipping my dark hair indifferently, I decided to go on alone.

I was working the pump to the well, using both hands and throwing all of my weight on it to get it to work when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  Startled, I looked up, expecting to see Greta caught up at last, but a large bearded man looked back at me.  I giggled, wanting to touch the strange hair on the man’s face; but his grave, dark eyes stopped me.  “Something wrong with Greta, Fae?” he asked.  His voice was very deep.

I wondered how he knew my name.  “I don’t think so,” I replied, pushing the hand off my shoulder and standing taller.  “Why?”

“Well, she’s not with you, is she?”

“No, I’m by myself,” I said.  “She didn’t come with me, today"I’m big enough to go by myself!”

As the bearded man’s eyes crinkled around the edges, I remembered that it was Olaf, the blacksmith of the village.  Yes, his hands and face were blackened with soot stains.  “Well, you take care of her, girl, you hear?” he said gruffly, turning away and striding back to his forges, whistling a tune.

I excitedly pumped the water, scrambling back up the mountain.  A grown man had talked to me!  I was too young to be scared, but was only proud for some silly reason that is beyond me, now.  As usual, the bucket hurt my arms and back, and I was tempted to leave it.  But then Greta might not let me come down anymore… and my beautiful view would be gone.

I made it back up the mountain, though Greta was gone from the rock when I arrived.  I walked inside, my breath coming out in clouds until I walked into the warmth of Greta’s hut.  She was there, working busily with her salves.  I put the bucket by the stove and looked at Greta.  “The man who works with the fire wants to know if you’re sick,” I said.

She smiled, and told me that he didn’t have to worry.  “You’re ready, now, to do some things yourself,” she reminded me gently.  “You’re a very strong little girl, and there is always work to be done.”

I smiled and told her that I had said the same thing to Olaf, and she laughed before sending me off to scrub the pots.

Greta watched me from the rock the next couple trips, but she must have decided that I could carry water well enough, and left me alone to it.  Carrying the bucket was the first of many jobs that she had me do.  Soon after, I watered the plants in our greenhouse, the few that had survived the cold.  We grow our food in warm glass houses, because it wouldn’t survive in the harsh mountain environment.  Even so, they often wither and die from our meager resources long before they can be of use.  I mended clothing, put out food for Wolves so they would not grow too hungry to attack the village or our home, and even haggled prices with traders when Greta was away, which was much of the time.  They would laugh and smile, thinking that they would strike a deal with the five-year-old who surely knew nothing of coins, but I was a formidable opponent, and argued prices down to the copper piece.

Greta said I was special"the villagers often called me unnatural.  Not only was I smarter than I should have been for five years, able to haggle with full-grown traders, I was stronger and faster as well.  Mothers would often not let me play with their children, because they always came off worse when we wrestled.  I never worried about what girls should worry about, never sought out the best dresses or skirted every puddle of water.  As a matter of fact, I went out of my way to get muddy and dirty.  After putting up with countless stains and ragged tears, Greta finally made me wash and mend my own clothes.  I never minded"to me that was the freedom to do whatever I wanted without having to worry about getting filthy.

Greta was away a lot.  She was the village healer, so it was her duty to help the sick when called.  Because of the awful famine, the villagers required all her skill.  Often, I’d wake up with her gone from her bed.  It scared me at first, but like the other new responsibilities I had, I grew used to it… even began to enjoy my solitude. 

 

 

Chapter 2

I remember everything that happened that day, because it was the day that sent my whole life spinning onto its course.  Greta had taken me down to the village"I was happy for the chance to explore and have fun in the village without having to worry about numbers, blisters, or traders with long words to confuse me.  I was happy to be able to be able to romp with the village boys to my heart’s content.  The girls still refused to play with me, but the boys seemed to accept me as one of their own because I could keep up with them"surpass them, even.  I could tell their mothers did not approve of the village freak running about with their precious boys, but for some reason they made no comment.

Of course, I knew the real reason everyone was in the village square.  The Racers were visiting our village, as they did every five years.  I tried to sound excited for Greta’s sake"she talked about them little, but when she did her eyes would always betray the awe she had for the legendary protectors of the mountain.  But I was only grateful for the chance to wrestle, race, and get as filthy as I could on the frozen ground.

Not that I was not looking forward to the Racers’ visit.  I had understood little of what was said of them from the village folk and Greta, because almost everything about them was surrounded by mystery.  Some people said that they were ordinary humans, and others said that they had feathered wings like Wolves and sharp claws like Snow Cats.  Some said that they preyed on disobedient children in the dead of night, and others said that they were put on the mountain by Kreen"the heavenly being who watched over everything living on the Skriss"and were here to protect all of His creations.  I didn’t know how much to believe, so I told myself I would believe none of it. 

It was always hard, however, to pay no heed to the stories of the Racers.  No matter if people thought they were saviors or demons, every person seemed to have a certain level of respect for them.  Without meaning or wanting to, I savored and collected every piece of information about them.  Though portrayed many different ways by different people, there were things that always stayed the same.  Racers were known by their incredible speed and strength.  They were masters of the mountain, able to navigate through its drops and peaks and unpredictable weather, able to fight off Wolves and Cats of all three breeds"Stone, Snow, and Ice.  They protected the Skriss from outsiders who did not belong here, those who had come from lands unknown and uncharted who wanted to harm the people. 

It was always confusing when those who tell the stories talk about who the Racers fight.  All the stories I had heard in the village say, “They devote their lives to fighting for the mountain.  Not for the people, but for the mountain”.  My young mind had difficulty portraying that.  Why protect the mountain but not the people?  What could possibly be so big and important that it would hurt the mountain?  But when a five-year-old asks these questions, the answer is a hard stare from an adult who does not approve of freaks thinking beyond their years.  Often I would leave before the whole story was told, chased away by the glares and whisperings of the people of Adendale.

“Why am I so different?” I once asked Greta as we worked outside our house, fixing offerings for the white-winged Wolves.  “And why does no one like it?”

Greta had smiled absently, then, though I noticed whenever I asked these questions that she would grow tense in her thin shoulders, as if holding back anger.  “You are special, Fae,” she would say gently but firmly.  “You are strong and quick to learn, and there are reasons for that.  Adendale does not understand these reasons"they do not want someone as special as you outshining them.  It makes them feel uncomfortable.”

“But why?” I had asked, half-whining because of my hurt.

Greta had sighed and straightened up, working the kinks out of her legs and arms and took a while before answering.  “It is human nature, Fae.  When people see something out of the ordinary, they do two things.  First, they will fear it; claim that it is not real, even if it is right in front of them.  Then they will hate it.  They hate it because they fear it, and they fear it because it is different.”  She had knelt and cupped both of her old, gnarled hands around one of my own, and looked into my defiant young eyes.  “Do not let their fear and hate get to you.  There are many in the village who love you"Olaf, for one.  He always has good to say about you.  That is another part of human nature, however.  Those who hate make their hate known.  You have to search for others’ love.” 

She had stood, then, wiped the blood from the meat off her hands onto the rock and strode back to the house, leaving me staring after her, processing what she had told me.

So, my many questions about the Racers remained unanswered.  Even Greta seemed to have acquired a general aversion to the subject, turning a deaf ear to my queries.  Eventually, I dropped the matter, gleaning information I could at the edges of a crowd listening to a grandfather’s story.  It had become a sort of game to me, to see how much I could “accidentally” find out about the Racers.  I pretended to have no interest in the matter, even when it burned me up with excitement thinking about them.

The day the Racers came was filled with foul weather; cold and overcast, though no rain fell from the heavens. I would hear mutterings among the villagers as I romped among them"that the gloomy skies were a sign of the evil of the Racers.  I paid no heed to these ridiculous grumblings, but joined the village boys in their tussles in the dusty roads.   I had pinned the arm of one eight-year-old behind his back until he cried for me to let him go, when I heard a shout.  I dropped the older boy immediately, assuming a mixed guilty and innocent expression.  I had expected to get scolded by parents for my rough play, but for once the attention of mild interest was turned from me.  I looked around to find that my comrades had left me to cling to their mothers’ skirts and sleeves, looking wide-eyed at something up the mountain.  I turned to help the other boy up"Adam was his name"and muttered an apology.  Eagerly, wondering if the Racers had come at last, I pushed my way through the crowds to search for my caretaker.

There was movement up the mountain, much closer to Adendale than to Dismond.  Giving up my search for Greta, I climbed up the side of a small storage shed for a better look.  I squinted my eyes"I could see much better than the others in the village"and made out shapes among the flying powdery snow.  The figures were human, yet they moved with a speed and a grace that did not seem to be possible, rocketing down the mountain at speeds greater even than a diving hawk, navigating among the treacherous rocks and crevasses scattered along the Skriss’ side.  They darted from side to side, weaving and turning among each other.  Glints of violet orbs shone through the white, and my heart picked up its pace.  The Racers…

They were not long in coming.  They did not enter straight into the square, but rather divided into two groups, much like the way water flows around rocks in a stream, and headed for the steep slopes under our village.  Shouts of delight and excitement filled the air, and I tore my gaze from the Racers to look down upon the crowd of people.  Their hostility and suspicion towards the Racers had evaporated the instant they had been in sight of the village.  Now, anticipation lit up every face, as the crowd pushed back, the people making for the slopes, following the Racers.  Not planning on being left behind, I jumped from the barn, falling ten feet and dropping to one knee as I landed to absorb the shock.  I straightened, running after the villagers, my tiny arms and legs working hard to catch up to them.  I pushed my way to the front, the front, and all at once the crowd stopped.  I ran ahead a few paces before I froze as well, puzzled and looking to see why no one was running anymore.  Not a single face was turned towards me; everyone was tense with anticipation, looking towards the top of the slope.

I turned as well, wondering what everyone seemed to be waiting for.  In a flash, a person appeared on the slope, racing down in a tight ball.  He was still, though he moved fast, and I wondered if he was sledding.  But there was no sled under him.  Instead there were…

Skis.  The Racers wore skis!

The Racer who had appeared on the slope suddenly straightened.  I saw a rock before him, and opened my mouth wide, not knowing if I was going to let out a strangled gasp of horror or to call out a warning.  Before I could process it, the Racer had hit the rock, flying far overhead, over us all, twisting through the air.  I heard gasps of delight from the crowd as the Racer fell back towards the earth… and landed on his feet (or skis, rather) a few hundred yards before the crowd, still rocketing towards us.  He turned his skis to the side, sliding along sideways and coming to a halt, spraying the crowd with white powder.  I blinked, a beaming smile creeping unwillingly onto my face as the Racer opened his mouth.

“People of Adendale!  Five years have passed since our last visit, and now the Racers come again!”  At his words, a loud cheering erupted from the crowd as the people clapped their hands, stamped their feet, and roared with approval.  I heard myself join in, shouting until my throat was raw and my voice broke.  Three more Racers appeared over the slope, flying into the air, twisting, moving their strong, supple bodies with the grace and strength that should have been found in a Stone Cat, not a human.  The rocks, I realized, were used as ramps and jumps to let the Racers soar expertly through the air, as swift as eagles or Wolves on invisible wings, performing a stunning display of acrobatic tricks.  There were many that had come"many bodies flew through the air, many pairs of purple eyes glinted with a savage delight at their speed and strength on the slope.  In the excitement that had taken hold of me and the rest of Adendale, I did not bother to count them, but let the wonders unfold before my eyes.

I found Greta at last; hours after the Racers had come.  She laughed and scooped me up, placing me on her shoulders for a better look.  I squealed with delight and waved my small hands in the air, wanting to fly through the snow like a Racer.  They moved uphill almost as fast as the skied down, using their powerful legs to skate back up the steepest parts of the slope. 

Though the Racers had begun with flying off jumps, twisting through the air and landing with acute accuracy, their flying maneuvers were not the most exciting event.  I would not have been able to ever choose, then, which part had been my favorite.  Groups of Racers skied in tight formations, spreading out like blooming flowers across the hill, different-colored furs draped over their bodies coloring the pictures they made as they sped across the snow.  They set up lanes and sticks, competing against one another, challenging one another’s speed, strength, and endurance.  The victor of these events often would kick off his skis and hold them above his head, and the crowd would pick him up and lead him away, carrying him on their shoulders.  I saw faces that were as old as Olaf the blacksmith and as young as ten years of age, beardless and rounded.  None were as old as Greta or any of the elders of the village, though I did not question.  I was too caught up in the excitement.

I could name a thousand great things the Racers did that day, some that I thought must be impossible.  The events lasted days, but I had no awareness of time passing.  At one moment, I would need to shield my face from the glaring sun to see the shapes moving down the hill, and the next I would look up to see the stars and moon emerging in a navy night sky.  Then the sun would break over the side of the mountain and it would be morning again, just like that.  I ate the food that was pressed into my hands, slept where I sat watching the events, waking to see the Racers still speeding down the slopes. 

It must have lasted days.  I was so caught up in the fevered excitement"madness, even"that had taken hold of the people that it was all I could do to watch, wide-eyed, listen and cheer for the Racers.  It was the one time that the villagers treated me as one of their own, someone normal.  I received pats on the head from parents who had once warned me away from their homes; I sat on laps of old storytellers who had once driven me from their crowds of listeners; I was offered food and drink by people who had glared at me in distrust while I worked the pumps.  It was a wonderful time.

And all too soon, it was over.

I woke up on Greta’s lap, having exhausted myself by running among the crowds, trying to see everything at once.  The heat of celebration had died down, and the Racers were moving around the crowd.  From the hugs and kisses a few received, I got the impression that some of them had once lived in Adendale!  I fidgeted, wanting to meet one of them, though I feared the label of “freak child” following me among these superhuman figures.  I slid from Greta’s lap and turned, jumping high up onto a large rock, sitting on it and watching the crowds, spotting the Racers by their strong bodies, generally dark hair, and gleaming amethyst eyes.

One of them turned to me, and I was surprised to see his long silver beard and white hair.  He was much older than the others, though a wiry strength still showed in his shoulders and limbs.  He looked at me, surprise and confusion written plain across his face.  He turned and tapped another on the shoulder with a long, white finger.  The second Racer straightened and turned, revealing a strong, square jaw and an ugly scar across the side of his face.

I shifted on the rock, wanting to approach them and talk to them, wanting to know of their adventures, free on the mountain.  I wanted to ask the younger one how he had gotten the scar.  But I shifted even more uneasily as the scarred one caught sight of me, puzzlement in his violet eyes.  The two Racers whispered to one another, glancing up at me from time to time.  Sick of it after awhile, I slid off the rock and into the crowd again, trying to hide from their intense gazes.

I found Greta again, running to her side and clinging to the hem of her dress as she sat, stood and talked, then sat again.  She told me that the Racers were leaving, and I felt my own face crumple with disappointment.  I no longer pretended that I wasn’t interested in the Racers.  I had seen too much that day to ever half-convince myself that they were just people surrounded by the misty uncertainty of myth.

Greta stood to get something to drink and say her last goodbyes, and I turned to find some of the other boys.  As I turned, however, I ran straight into another person, nearly knocking him over.  My cheeks flushed with embarrassment, I stammered a quick apology, looking up into his face.  I froze, feeling like a trapped animal, as I recognized the old, silver-bearded man who was the Racer I had seen before.

His brow furrowed as he studied me, a peculiar expression on his face, one that I could not name.  He looked me up and down, as if sizing me up for a fight.  My gaze traveled from his eyes to the skis slung across his shoulders.  I wondered what they were made out of.  Wood?  But wood was rare, and it would not bend the right way to use on the jumps.  Rock?  But the way the man carried them made them appear light, and rock was heavy. 

The man seemed to notice my gaze, for he looked at his skis as well, chuckled, then asked, “What did you think of our performance, hmm?   Anything you think we might need?” 

I caught my breath.  Here he was"an old, experienced Racer, talking to me!  Asking my opinion!  As if I was a normal child who would have any thoughts on the matter.  “No, no it was good!” I said, wishing I could craft words like the sly traders who tried to trick the villagers from a fair price.  “Very, very good!  I want to do that!”

His eyes crinkled around the edges as he smiled.  “Perhaps someday,” he said, his voice reminding me of Olaf’s.  “What is your name, youngster?”

“Fae,” I replied proudly.  I liked my name; no one else had it.  It was the one thing I could call completely my own.

He looked at me, that strange expression in his eyes again.  “Well Fae, I hope to see you again in five years.”  With that, he slung down his skis, clicking them into place on his feet.  I looked at them and realized that he had hard, molded boots, like bright orange rock, specialized to let his skis click into place.  The edges of the skis, I thought nervously, seemed to be sharper than knives and the two swords that hung above the well.  The bearded Racer nodded to me, and was gone in a flash, speeding away with the other Racers.  I ran after them for awhile, along with a few others from Adendale.  We never had much chance of catching them, but I wanted to see them for as long as possible.  Finally, they had disappeared from view, headed for some place unknown to me.  Another village?  Or perhaps back to their home"to the Top Village.

The people of Adendale broke up, moving back to climb the slope, which was now a twisted array of two-lined tracks made from the Racers’ skis.  Parts of it were packed down flat and solid, and were easy to stand and climb on.  Greta and I left the villagers to their homes, and climbed back up the familiar route to our cabin.  I scampered from rock to rock, trying to slide down on my two feet like a Racer.  Greta would limit her conversations to tires smiles as she trudged wearily up the mountain path. 

As we reached the cabin, I laughed and ran to her.  “Greta, Greta!  I’m going to be a Racer!  I’m going to go back with them to their Top Village next time they come, and I’m going to learn to fly like them!”

Greta turned, energy warming her eyes again, and she scooped me up, slinging me onto her back, where I clung for the last few steps before the cabin.  “I’m sure you will, Fae.  You’ll be the best Racer of all.”

As we entered back into our home, falling onto our best for our first good sleep in days, I had no idea that my new dream was impossible.  Being young and driven, I had missed the most important fact about the Racers.

In all of their history, not a single Racer had ever been a girl.

 

 

Chapter 3

I was a fool to hope it would last.

I was accepted when the Racers had come.  If not accepted, I was tolerated, or at least looked over, rather than scorned and shunned.  I was only five years old, but I had never really known what it was like to be loved and wanted"to be a part of something.  Greta loved me, in her own way.  But I knew that she was always grieving for the daughter she had lost"wishing, even, that Shelda had been the one of the two to live.  I understand that now, even if I hadn’t when I was a child.  But even then I’d had a feeling that knowing Greta’s love wasn’t truly belonging.  What had awaited me when the Racers had arrived was something I had not been prepared for.  What I had known was happiness.

I had always thought of myself as happy before"struck with wonder whenever I saw the beautiful view the mountain gave me; filled with awe when watching the Wolves soar over the hut, the air filled with their beautiful, haunting melodies; content when I had managed to sneak in a tussle with the other village children without their parents calling them back.  But I had never felt the scale of emotion that I had known for a few short days.  And now, I only wanted more of it.

The next day, as I set off with the wooden bucket to visit the water pump, I was eager to visit the village again.  I thought that this had finally broken the impenetrable barrier between me and the daily life in the village.  I would be able to hear stories, I had thought eagerly.  I would be able to taste whatever the bakers were baking.  Even hear stories of the Racers; the real stories, rather than the suspicious tales laced with superstition and fear.  But the Racers had been to the village before, and everyone was just as suspicious.  Still, I’d expected it to last a day.

The moment I entered the village, looking hopefully at the faces around me, I realized that it was not so.  Heads turned my way, and the villagers whispered to one another in voices that would have been too soft for me to hear if my ears were as weak as any humans.  I felt my own surprise at the words I heard"words that had always been common but for the past few days during the festivals.  They were words such as “freak child” and “doesn’t belong” and “abomination”.  I had grown hard to these words the months I was forced to put up with them, to the point where I remained aloof and calm as I made my way to the water pump at the center.  But today, unprepared as I was to hear the insults again, I ducked my head and burned with shame as I walked forward, struggling to collect my dignity into a protective shell around my true feelings. 

So, they had already shunned me, not even a full day after I had known acceptance.  It was cruel, really, to give a child something close to love and take it away before they truly realize what it means.  I raised my dark blue eyes towards the people who hurried by, trying to catch the eye of someone who would remember that I was a part of the village, too.  The mothers glared at me and pushed their children behind them.  The older boys who I had spent time with during the festival avoided my gaze.  As if a five-year-old girl was a demon who would murder them and their loved ones!  I angrily swung the bucket and tossed my long, dark hair, stomping off in a rage to the pump.  My display of suppressed anger, I assume, did not improve the villagers’ opinions of me. 

As I was working the long arm of the pump, drawing water from deep underground to fill my bucket, I noticed a crowd of about a dozen people off to my right.  I paid no heed to them until I heard the old man in the middle speak of the Racers.  Realizing that he was telling a Racers story, I abandoned my post at the pump and edged closer to the crowd so I could hear.  It should not have surprised me, I know, not after how the villagers had gone back to treating me like a demon.  But I couldn’t help but freeze in a mixture of anger and shock as I heard what he was saying.

“Now the Racers, you must remember young ‘uns, are a menacing pack of abominations unfit to walk this ‘ere mountain.  They got magic, see, and they bewitch them skis to follow the will of their own demonic souls.  They gots demons inside ‘em; ‘s why their eyes glow so, like rabid beasts.  They got fangs to match a Stone Cat’s and talons growing right out of the skin of their fingernails.  Some say they even got these wings, see, like bats all folded up inside those furs they wear.  You can’t never look ‘em in the eye, ‘cause they’re demons, see, and they be eatin’ up whatever life you have inside when they so much’s glance your way"”

I couldn’t stand it anymore.  I stepped forward and started to yell at the crowd.  “How can you even say that!  The Racers were just here!  Everyone here saw them, and they didn’t have claws and wings and fangs!”

The listeners turned with open disgust and hostility as they whispered to one another, the insults I was both used and unused to hearing reaching my ears.  The old man turned and spat onto the ground.  “Well, see now, they gots magic, see.  Methinks them demons bewitched us so we don’t see no fangs or them talons"”

It was the most ridiculous, unfair thing I had ever heard.  I started forward, angry, towards the man.  I don’t know what would have happened if I had reached him; I might have ended up hurting someone.  But before I could take three steps, strong but surprisingly gentle hands caught my arms.  I struggled against them, but most of my fury was in the words that I spat towards the man, “I saw you!  You greeted that one Racer as if he was your own son!  Is that it, then?  Do you have a demon Racer as a son?  Did he put a spell on you to make you long for him so?”

I felt a ripple of satisfaction as I saw the old man’s face turn an unhealthy shade of blotchy purple.  “Here now!  I won’ be told off by no devil’s child!  A girl your age shouldn’t know nothin’ about this ‘ere matter!  If ye weren’t a girl I’d think ye were one of ‘em!”

I couldn’t tell which emotion was stronger; surprise and a hint of pleasure at being compared to the Racers, or an even greater rage at it being used as an insult.  I suppose the rage won over, because I began kicking and thrashing against the man holding me back.  Half of Adendale must have been watching, as I heard endless whispers supporting the man’s words that only fueled my flame.  I struggled harder and heard a few satisfying grunts of pain from my captor.  The man drew me closer, locking iron-hard arms around my chest, which I clawed at.  My captor spoke now to the crowd.  “Shame on ye, for speaking this way to a child who’s not seen six winters!  You speak of her and of the Racers as you’d speak of the devil!”  His voice was familiar, but I was too angry to identify it.  His word made me stop attacking his arms, and glare around the crowds, trying to retain my dignity as I tried to figure out if my captor was friend or foe. 

I began struggling again as the man lifted me and began to walk backwards.  “You speak of them as if none of ye remembers what them “demons” did for us seven years back,” the man said again.  “Shame for forgetting them deeds before a decade has passed!”  As the crowd lapsed into a stunned silence, the man swung me around and half-dragged me off.  I closed my eyes, tears forcing themselves out from my unwilling eyes.  I began sobbing when the man pushed open a door and placed me gently onto a bed.  The arms finally released me, and I sat stiffly, failing to quell the flow of tears down my face as the sound of a latch clicking told me that the door had shut again.

“Here, now,” my rescuer-captor said, clapping a large hand on my shoulder.  I looked up with tear-bleary eyes to see the bearded, soot-stained face of the blacksmith Olaf.  “Don’t cry so, Fae.  Those people mean what they say but then don’ got no grounds for them accusations.”  He spoke in the Adendale accent, though it wasn’t quite as thick.  Greta had always taught me to use language properly, and words like “gots” and “them”, when I used them improperly, always earned me another night scrubbing pots.  Greta never, ever hit me"I don’t suppose she had the heart to, after losing one child.  I had been so surprised whenever I had gone down to the village and seen a mother slapping her daughter, or a man clouting the ear of an unruly son.  But Greta had always made sure I had spoken properly so “folk would take me seriously”, she said.  Funny how Olaf spoke “improperly”, yet said the same things as Greta.

After a moment, I stopped crying enough to speak.  “Am I really a demon, Olaf?” I asked miserably.  The question had lurked at the edges of my thoughts for too long, and now all I wanted was an answer.  I was disappointed.

“Hmm… there’s the question now, isn’t it?” Olaf scratched his beard.  “Why not have sommat to drink whilst we mull it over, hmm?  I suppose Greta’s nurtured your taste for tea?” I nodded, smiling weakly at the thought of this huge, sturdy man drinking tea.  Olaf stood to heat the kettle over the fire and a silence fell over us both.  After pouring the tea and handing me a cup, Olaf finally broke it.  “There’s no real way to tell if un’s a demon, Fae,” he said, fiddling with his own cup.  It looked tiny in his massive hands.  “Least I don’t know how myself, but we’ll find sommat to test.  If you’s a demon, least you’d be the good kind.”

I felt warmth towards the man at his words, so I fought up the courage to speak again.  “Was it all a dream?” I asked, my voice breaking as I asked the question that had been pressing on my mind since I set foot in the village.  “Did I imagine that… that everyone was happy?”

Olaf shook his head.  “No, the Racers did come here, and these people met ‘em with open arms.  I promise, Fae, that these people think highly of the Racers"‘specially after what they did ‘round here a few years ago.”

My interest was sparked, and I smelled a good story.  “What happened?” I asked, sipping my tea again, feeling only slightly foolish.

Olaf scratched his beard.  “Best let Greta tell you that one.”

I deflated.  “If Adendale thinks so highly of the Racers, why treat them like demons the day after they leave?”  My temper was flaring out again, and I reigned it back in before it lost control.  Before I lost control.

I’d expected him to take a long while in answering again, but his reply was immediate.  “Folk here care about ‘un another’s opinions,” Olaf said, his gaze flicking to the window.  “They see others not likin’ the Racers and callin’ them demons, so they do it themselves, even if no one really thinks of them that way in the first place.  It’s the fault of the stories, too.  Them storytellers will pass on the same story exactly the way they heard it"claws, fangs, and all.”  I opened my mouth to reply but Olaf held up a hand.  “If you’d been ‘round here ‘bout ten years ago, you’d see the festival weren’t what is it now.  After the Racers saved the village seven summers back, ‘s hard for the villagers not to respect them.  But it’s also hard for ‘em to let go of old ways and suspicions.” 

He paused, winced and rubbed at his arm.  I really looked at him for the first time and saw that he had bloody furrows on his arms and hands from where I had clawed and bit him.  I felt a wave of guilt, knowing that Olaf"ironically the only one who had spoken up for me and the Racers"was the only one I had hurt with physical violence.  “I’m sorry about that,” I said remorsefully, gesturing towards his arms.  “I… didn’t know who it was stopping me.”

“Aha!” Olaf said, clapping his broad hands once.  “There, Fae!  There’s how you know ye’re not a demon.  Demons don’ regret nothin’, and you’re full of them regrets!”

I blinked and looked over his shoulder, staring at the stone wall as I mulled it over.  “I think you’re right,” I said, half-smiling now. 

Olaf beamed, then stood and stretched, shoulders popping.  “We’d best get you home ‘fore the others think I took you.”  As if any of the people outside cared what happened to me.  “I got sommat to show you before you go, though.  Come along here, we’ll go visit my forge.”  I stood, quickly wiped the last traces of tears from my eyes, and placed my almost-empty cup on the table.  I followed the large man as he pushed through the back door and walked to the smoky building behind his house.  I blinked as I stared around me… he had weapons!  There was a bow… made of wood, of all things!  I wanted to run my hand down the delicate craftsmanship, but I was afraid to touch it, like I’d damage it.  I kept walking, keeping close to Olaf as we walked through the weapons.  There was spiked mace… a collection of silver daggers… and hanging right on the wall as we entered the room was a real sword!  It was exactly as I’d pictured it in the stories, and I walked over to gaze at it, my dark blue eyes round like twin moons.  I placed a hand on its hilt, running it over the smooth edge.  I didn’t dare touch the blade; I didn’t doubt that it could slice through one of my fingers like butter.

“Fae,” Olaf called, and I jumped away from the sword, assuming a guilty expression.  Olaf chuckled and brought out what he held behind his back.  My eyes went even bigger than they had been from the sword.  Olaf held out a pair of skis!  Not the flimsy kind the villagers and traders sometimes used for getting around, but  colorful like the Racers used, and out of the same durable but flexible material!  They were smaller than the ones the long-bearded Racer had used.  These ones were my size!

I couldn’t speak but dumbly accepted them as Olaf handed them over to me.  What a gift!  But surely these couldn’t be for me!  I eyes Olaf, waiting for him to say something.  “Yes, I made ‘em for you to use, Fae.  Thought you might want sommat to remember those Racers by until they come back in the next five years.”

I practically squealed with delight, propping the skis up and running my hand down the glorious objects.  I noticed a few differences other than the size.  The first was that, though the bright colors were there, these skis didn’t have the small patterns, symbols, and pictures that were scattered along the skis that the old Racer had been holding.  I didn’t like them any less for the fact, knowing full well that Olaf had given me a wonderful gift, complicated or no. 

Another difference was that the edges weren’t as sharp and deadly.  During the festival, one of the competitions had been sparring using the skis.  It was amazing and deadly to watch, like a Wolf fighting a Snow Cat.  The two competitors had flown across the hill, arcing towards one another and flashing their skis towards the other, who would block the blow with a similar jump.  I know it sounds as if it would be heavy and awkward, but their movements were smooth, natural.  They gave me the feeling that they had done this all their life, and that this mock-sparring wasn’t nearly all a Racer could do when facing an enemy.  Then, the edges of their skis had been padded with strips of cloth.  Wondering why, I had pushed my way forward among those to congratulate the winner.  He unwrapped his skis and I had seen that the flashing silver edges were razor-sharp.  Sharper even than the blade of the sword hanging on Olaf’s wall!  The bearded Racer’s skis had been just as deadly.  The edges of these skis (My skis, I thought) were blunted.  It made sense, too, not to let a five-year-old girl running around with deadly weapons. 

Olaf turned and picked a few more things up.  What he handed to me next were poles.  I took them with little interest, not knowing what they were for and knowing only that the Racers held them as they skied.  Perhaps they were for balance.  Olaf also handed to me a pair of colorful boots.  They were similar to the ones the Racers had used, but were much simpler. 

“Try ‘em on,” Olaf said, waving one of his huge hands.  I pulled off my leather boots and stepped into the ski boots.  Olaf showed me how to work the simple latch that let them cling tight to me feet.  I walked around a bit, giggling at the clunky noise and slow steps the boots gave me.  Under Olaf’s watchful eye, I attempted to snap the boots into the metal contraption attached to the skis.  I grew more and more frustrated as my attempts failed, and Olaf roared with laughter that made my face burn with shame.  “They don’t fit,” I said, ducking my head.  Olaf laughed again.  “Toe in first, Fae.  Then snap your heel back and the boot will click into the bindings.”

Bindings"that must have been the contraption that attached the boots to the skis.  I did as I was told and, like magic, my boots latched firmly onto the skis.  Beaming, I tried to walk and nearly toppled over at the awkwardness of the skis.  Olaf caught me.  “Skis are for skiing,” he chuckled.  “It don’ work too well if you walk in ‘em.” 

Taking the skis off was just as easy.  Olaf handed me the poles and showed me how to adjust the straps to them so they didn’t fall off.  He then demonstrated how I would take the skis off"by pushing into a small hole with the tip of the pole to shove down the back of the bindings, freeing my foot.  I undid the other foot, then slid the boots off and replaced them with my leather ones. 

Olaf took the skis from me, and my face fell.  I should have known better than to think he’d really let me keep them!  Olaf must have seen my expression, because he chuckled once again.  “You’ve got a big bucket of water to carry back,” he told me.  “Come back later today or tomorrow without it, and we’ll get these back to your home.” 

I left Olaf’s forge and walked out to the streets, head held high.  I could take the whispers and accusations, now.  I had regained my cold, hard shell to the rest of humanity, and I made my way to where my bucket was sitting half-full and unnoticed by the well.  I worked the pump again, finishing more quickly than normal.  I grabbed the handle with my calloused hands and lifted it, passing villagers who turned to stare as I began my climb up the mountain again, already looking forward to the time when I would climb back down to retrieve my wonderful gifts.

 

Chapter 4

When I reached the cabin where Greta and I lived, the first thing I wanted to do was run back down the mountain as fast as I could to where Olaf and the skis�"my skis�"were waiting for me.  I burst into the house, my hair everywhere, my eyes alight, water sloshing out the sides of the bucket I held.  “Greta!” I said excitedly, and quickly recounted what had happened during my trip down to the well.  She flicked me disapprovingly with the towel she was holding when I told her about how I had let my temper get away with me, but she seemed a angry at the villagers for treating me so.

For some reason, she was a bit reluctant when I told her about the skis Olaf had made for me.  “Fae, it is not wise.  Skiing as the Racers do is dangerous, and the villagers would scorn you even more so.” 

I glanced up at her, my lower lip pouty.  “But I have to practice!” I said.  “I have to master their art so when they return they’ll take me with them!”

Greta shook her head.  “You’re too young.”

It took two days of constant pleading and promises to work harder and do more jobs before Greta finally caved in.  She told me that she needed to help deliver a child the next day, and if I wished it, I could accompany her and accept my gifts from Olaf.  I could barely contain my excitement, skipping around the house whenever she told me to fetch this or that from the shelves.  I couldn’t sleep that night, instead laying awake under the woolen blankets and imagining myself skiing down the mountain, leaping and flying, fighting terrific battles against invaders.  I must have dozed off finally, because soon I blinked awake to see sunlight streaming through my window.

I couldn’t sit still through breakfast, or while Greta gathered up her bundles of midwife herbs.  I was ready to sprint the whole mile to Olaf’s forge when Greta opened the door, but I forced myself to walk alongside her, holding myself with dignity.  I wanted to show her how mature I was (‘I’ll be six by next month!’ I had been constantly reminding her).  When we were almost to the village, Greta turned and took me by the shoulders.  “Fae, listen to me.  You must thank Olaf sincerely, as these are no ordinary presents he is giving to you.”  She gave me a bag full of Olaf’s favorite herbs for tea that I was to give him in return.  “I want you to be responsible with this.  Promise to me right now that you won’t skip out on chores, that you won’t whine when you’d rather be teaching yourself to ski, and that you won’t do anything very dangerous or stray too far.  Promise me?”

I nodded.  “I promise… lest I be stuck in a blizzard and kidnapped by Wolves!” Greta laughed at my serious face as I gave the typical Adendale oath, and told me that I would think that was a grand adventure.  She gave me a few coins to buy something to eat and then I was free to do as I wished until I met her to go home at sunset.

I toyed with the idea of going straight to Olaf’s, but I knew I’d only have to go back later or else I’d be carrying my equipment around all day.  I noticed smoke rising from the chimney of his forge and wondered what he was shaping with his great hammer and his great fire.  I tucked the tea and coins in my belt pouch and looked for something to do.

I had never been to the village before just to spend time here, other than the day the Racers came.  I was either here helping Greta with traders or healing or I was here fetching water.  Out of habit, I let myself remain small and unnoticed, trying not to draw the attention of the villagers who would use any opportunity to remind me that I was unwelcome.  I explored, wanting to revisit the placed I had discovered a few days ago when I was running around with the boys.  There was the shallow dip in the ground that we used as a fort in our tussles.  And there was the little barn filled with sweet-smelling hay.  We had a lot of fun in there, burying each other and jumping through the piles.  I glanced around and went inside, burrowing into the hay and rolling around, giggling.  It wasn’t quite as much fun now that it was just me, but I climbed from the piles onto the rafters and entertained myself by jumping down into the piles of hay.  Just when I was beginning to have fun, the grave-faced man who owned the barn came in to find me sitting half-buried in a haystack covered in straw.  Needless to say, he wasn’t happy, and I made my exit as quickly as I could without excessive rudeness.

I headed to the other side of town, not wanting to see the owner of the barn again.  I walked through the streets and watched people’s reactions to my presence.  I studied their faces as I went by, trying to make myself feel amusement rather than resentment… trying to fill myself with my old detachment.  Eventually I resigned to counting the number of glares to the number of avoided gazes.  The majority were glares.

After awhile I got sick of it all and walked past the boundary where the snow had been cleared away, hearing the soft white powder crunch under my boots.  I shivered only a little at the chill in the air and I was glad that spring would soon come.  The hard, early winter and famine had even taken a toll on me, and some days I went to bed with my stomach still not satisfied.  I walked around in the snow, every once in awhile taking a huge leap to splatter powder everywhere, then fall onto my back laughing as the stirred flakes settled back around my face.  I had been so easily amused.

I didn’t know what I was looking for.  I probably wasn’t looking for anything.  But nonetheless, I felt an urge to wipe off the snow covering the rocks to peer at their surfaces, or to get down on my hands and knees to look into a rabbit burrow half-buried in snow.  I finally found myself standing where the festival had been when the racers had come, staring to the top of the slope.  Four days ago, I had been here, happy and excited.  It hadn’t snowed much since the Racers had left, and the tracks from their skis were still there, as well as footprints from the villagers at the foot of the slope.  I wanted to climb to the top where the Racers had gathered before the events, but I knew I had to go back to the village.  During hard winters, attacks from hungry Snow Cats outside the village were not unheard of.  I turned and walked slowly back to Adendale, wanting to go back four days in time to where everything was wonderful.

   On the outskirts of the village, I brushed my hand along one more rock.  The rock itself tipped onto its side, and something underneath caught the sunlight and flashed.  I stopped and crouched down, taking the object from the snow and wiping it off.  It was a small, crystal stone, no bigger than my thumb.  It was clear and pure as flawless ice, but the center was tinged with blue.  I gasped and clutched at the piece, pressing it to my chest as I felt a sadness tugging at me.  Shelda had been dead for eight months, but this small piece of stone made me remember her and want her back.

 

It had not been long before she died, the time of this memory.  I had turned five not long before and, as always, I was disappointed that Shelda was always a year older than me.  In every way but actual age, however, I was the older sister.  When we were playing and Shelda’s knees were scraped, I would be the one to hug her and ask Greta for bandages.  When I was hurt myself, I would refuse to show pain but hold my injuries proudly, while Shelda watched on in adoration.  She had always thought that I was the bravest person alive. 

In this memory, Greta was inside making supper while I sat in the greenhouse, watching some of the tomato plants with curiosity.  Their leaves had turned brown and were crumbling, and I thought they might be sick.  I was wondering whether we could use some of Greta’s healing poultices on them to make them better when Shelda opened the door, skipping up to me and clapping her hands together. “Fae!” she said with a smile.  “Look at the pretty rock I found!”  She opened her cupped hands delicately, like she was holding a butterfly.  The stone that sat on her hand was clear like crystal and had a dark blue center.  Shelda picked it up with two fingers and turned it.  Though it wasn’t glowing, something about the way the shape of the blue changed when it turned reminded me of fire.  “It’s the same color as your eyes,” my adoptive sister giggled, holding it close to my face.

“Can I hold it?” I asked, breathless, holding my hand out.  I remember thinking that the little stone must have been the most beautiful thing in the whole world.  Shelda drew her hand back, clutching the small stone to her.  “I’ll give it back, I promise!” I persuaded.

Shelda bit her lower lip as she hesitated.  It was her pretty stone and she wanted to keep it all to herself, and I dropped my hand back to my side sadly.  For some reason, Shelda shook her head and reached forward, putting the stone into my palm.  I held it like it was made of the most precious metals, turning it so I could see the little blue “flame” dance around.  The sides were so smooth that I wondered if they would melt like an icicle at my touch.  I didn’t hold it for long, as I could sense Shelda’s growing anxiety the longer I took, though she relaxed when I gave it back to her.  Shelda hated sharing, but she tried hard for me.

“I found it in the snow over there,” she said, pointing outside the greenhouse up the mountain a little says.  “Want to come see?”

I nodded eagerly and the two of us bundled up in our coats and scampered outside.  The cold was very, very bitter for this early in the year, and I felt the air freeze my throat.  But Shelda and I were always eager to explore, and soon we reached the spot where Shelda’s excited footprints were.  I looked eagerly for more of them, and then I heard Shelda gasp at my side.  I looked up and froze.

Standing about a hundred yards from us, as white as the snow that covered the ground like a blanket, was a Wolf.  It was much larger than I had ever thought a Wolf would be�"I’d only ever seen them from a distance.  Its wings were like those of a giant, silver bird, but the huge paws, alert ears, and intelligent eyes showed that this was no avian creature.  I never would have noticed it, as it blended in so well with the snow, but for the blood that stained its muzzle and forepaws.  Its eyes were locked onto us, and it was obvious that we were not overlooked.

Shelda whimpered and clung to me, frightened.  “It killed something,” she said.

“No…” I said, even though I was just as scared as she was.  “I think it ate the meat that Greta puts out for them so they don’t attack us.”  Shelda clutched tighter, and I scolded myself for mentioning attacks.  I wanted to run, and to shield my sister from the creature’s yellow gaze, but I didn’t move.  Some deep survival instinct told me not to take a single step, or it might attack.  I don’t know if Shelda felt the same or if she was just copying what I did, but she didn’t move either.

The Wolf was only still for a few moments before it threw back its head, showing the streaks of blood from Greta’s meat offering on its neck.  The fear within me took over, and Shelda and I took several hasty steps back as a howl burst from the wolf’s throat.  It was a beautiful sound, but haunting and carrying, like something alien.  The Wolf ran towards us with a swiftness I knew we wouldn’t be able to outrun.  Shelda shrieked, but the Wolf opened its wings and leapt into the air, lifting into flight.  My breath was taken away by the grace with which this massive, threatening creature flew.

Shelda’s arms were choking me, and her face was pressed into my shoulder so all I could see were her pretty brown curls.  “Shelda… it’s ok,” I said, turning so I could watch the creature fly away.  Shelda looked up and followed my gaze, watching with wonder as the creature disappeared beyond another ridge.  Shelda let go of me and turned, her mouth open.  “Were you not scared at all?” she asked me.

Yes, I had been very afraid, but I wanted to show her that I didn’t scare easily.  “I don’t think the Wolves want to hurt us.”

Shelda’s eyes lit up.  “You’re so brave!” she said with a smile.  “I wish I was brave like you!”  The two of us walked back to the house arm in arm, our frightening experience already turning into an exciting adventure as the shock faded away.  I told Shelda that the Wolf had probably been watching her when she had found the stone, but she hadn’t noticed it.  “Let’s not tell Greta,” I said.  “She wouldn’t ever let us leave the house again.”  Shelda readily agreed.

We walked through the door just as Greta was laying out the plates for supper.  Shelda ran straight for her, saying, “Mama, Mama!” excitedly.  I thought she was going to forget our decision and tell Greta everything that happened, but all Shelda wanted to do was show her mother the stone.  Greta didn’t ask to hold it, like I had done, and I don’t know whether Shelda would have given it to her.  But Greta did inspect it thoroughly.  “It is very special,” she said to her daughter while I watched.  “It is what is called baramite.  It grows just like plants do, but it is not a plant and doesn’t have many uses, but it’s very pretty.  Wolves like them.”

I blinked, surprised at the mention of the Wolf.  I shifted nervously, feeling like Greta might guess our run-in with the animal, but the woman wasn’t looking at me.  She had eyes only for her daughter.  “Some people use them as a talisman, to protect them from harm.”  Shelda looked pleased.

It wasn’t until halfway through dinner that I remembered about the tomato plants.  “Greta?” I asked.  “Can I have some healing plants?”

Greta had looked me over curiously from her bowl of soup.  “Why would you need herbs, Fae?  Are you sick?”  But I shook my head and told her that some tomatoes were sick in the greenhouse, that their leaves were brown and crumbling.  I will never forget Greta’s face.  She paled, then stood up, leaving her bowl of soup.  “I’ll see what I can do,” she said, and swept out the door urgently.

Shelda and I glanced at each other, neither of us knowing or understanding that the sick tomato plants would soon be the cause of Shelda’s death.

 

For five weeks, Shelda never let go of the baramite.  She slept soundly in bed with the stone tucked under her pillow, as if it alone could cast off all her fears that could enter her nightmares.  It was true that she would smile in her sleep more often and cry out less.  Perhaps the stone did protect her from harm, but perhaps it was only her mind feeling safe thinking there was a talisman that would deliver her from harm.  When she came to the table, the stone would be right by her bowl.  When playing or walking, she would tuck it into her pocket.  Her hand would often reach in to touch the stone, as if to reassure herself that it was still there.  I was jealous, wanting a talisman of my own, but I never asked to hold it again.  I knew that Shelda could be upset and Greta would be disappointed in me, so I kept my hands to myself.  I had never been one to dote over pretty baubles, anyway.

As days passed, Greta spent more and more time in the greenhouse, caring for the sick plants.  Each day when I would go in, more of them were wilted.  Greta didn’t use her poultices on them�"she said they only worked on people, and plants needed other cures.  Shelda and I got an idea into our heads that the plants were just sad, and we would often go in and tell them happy stories and sing to them, trying to make them feel better.  Shelda would sometimes even touch her baramite against the leaves, wanting them to grow again, but nothing we did helped.  I don’t think that Greta was much more successful than we were.  As days turned into weeks, things got steadily worse.  Greta separated her healing herbs from the food and separated the sick food plants from the healthy ones, trying to keep the disease isolated.  Few of her healing herbs were infected, which was a blessing considering the number of sick villagers who had come to us recently.  Everyone’s crops were failing�"their hunger growing.  Those who ate the sick plants got sick themselves.  Though the bout of illness was not difficult to cure and prevent, it meant that people could no longer eat the corrupted food. 

Greta, Shelda, and I would go into the greenhouse each day and look for the sick plants.  We had given up trying to save them, and only wanted them gone as soon as they appeared in an attempt to stay the wretched hand of this disease.  By the end of the third week, the sickness had stopped spreading but we had precious few crops considering the long winter we would have to get through.  The heavy snows came early, and temperatures dropped, freezing the village in ice.  Wood for fire, though warmer than stone-fire, was difficult to come by nowadays.  We were now depending on the firestones which were more widely used on the Skriss than wood�"the glaze-like gray rock that caught fire and blazed much like wood did and lasted a great deal longer.  However, these fires did not give off the warmth we needed to stay the cold, and Shelda and I were often reduced to tears at night, shivering in our beds and clutching each other to share the warmth we had to give off.

Some of our surviving food and herbs had been killed off by the cold, and little remained.  The cold and snows had prevented traders from other villages from traveling, and so we lacked much-needed supplies.  Finally, on the fifth week, a day came where the wind no longer howled, and the cold was no longer so bitter.  Weak sunlight peeked through the clouds to fall upon the powder drifts that built up along the mountain.  I remember the sun causing the snow to shine, like tiny diamonds were embedded in the powder, and wondering why the sun made beautiful what had caused us to suffer.

On this day, after thawing ourselves around our stone-fire, Greta bundled up what herbs she could spare and took us down to the village.  We had to fight and dig our way down the path, as the snow had built up so much that it would have been over my head had we not packed it all down.  After hours of slow progress, Greta began her rounds to the village homes, us two girls in tow as we stared at the gaunt, frightened faces of the people.  Greta gave her herbs out to almost every family that we visited, and received teary gratitude in return, though even I knew that what these people needed was food; of which we had none to spare ourselves.  Babies cried, old men sat with their faces gaunt and wax-like, but the silence in the village was eerie, like everyone was just waiting for the deaths to begin swooping down upon them.

Shelda was holding tight to her stone and clutching my arm with her free hand, which left me to lead her through the village as we followed Greta.  I received only glares of hatred and mistrust.  This was the first day that the villagers of Adendale began to hate me.

I remember when we were walking through the square and were met by a group of angry men.  I was frightened as Greta stood in front of Shelda and me, and the two of us peered around her to try and catch the conversation.  One of the men stepped forward and said, “Greta!  How dare you bring that child here?”

For some reason, I knew they were talking about me.  I missed Greta’s reply, only watching her with wide eyes as I saw the anger lining her face.  For a woman who had not even wanted to care for me as a child, she certainly defended me with all her strength in words.  Though I had barely listened to the conversation, I knew with a growing anger that these villagers blamed me for the famine, for the cold and hunger and looming deaths.  Shelda obviously did not understand.  She just watched me as she held my arm, waiting for me to explain what was going on, but I couldn’t find any words.  I was terrified of these angry people with their glares and accusations, who wanted me gone from their lives so the sun could shine and the crops could return and they would all live happily ever after.

I’ll never forget the man’s face as he stepped forward, catching sight of me peeking around Greta’s dress.  His eyes were not like human eyes at all.  They showed single-mindedness, a drive that was more beast-like even than those of the Wolf we had seen.  He truly blamed me for all that had happened, and he did not want me here.  The words of those behind him pounded at my head�"words that would soon become as familiar to me as my own name.  Demon.  Freak-Child.  Famine-Bringer.

The man scowled, deepening the lines and shadows on his face like a weathered stone that has begun to crack.  He raised a hand and, though he held no weapon, I shrank back from his accusing finger as if it were an arrow he would strike me with.  His mouth opened, and for a moment there was silence from the rest of the crowd.  “Are you happy, child?” he asked, his voice dark and nasty.  “Do you enjoy watching our misfortune? Devil.”

All at once, I caved in.  His words brought my fear and sadness forward, and like a burst dam I broke into sobs.  “It’s not my fault!” I wailed, tearing away from Shelda’s fearful grip and backing away.  The man looked stunned for a moment, as if he had not expected me to cry.  “It’s not my fault,” I repeated, turning and running away from the hot glances and jeers.  I stumbled through the snow that was blocking my way, pushing through it, wanting to run from my life and all the misfortune that had come.  For some reason, all I could think of was the sick tomato plant I had found many weeks before�"the first sick plant that had appeared in Adendale.  The man’s words once again struck at my ears; they were words from a memory, but no less painful because of it.  Like actual blows the knocked me back, and I huddled against the wall and cried.

To my surprise, Shelda was the first to find me.  Greta was calming the rage of the villagers, and Shelda had followed my snow-tracks to take me to her�"so we could all go home.  I remember her voice as she said my name, like the world no longer made sense to her.  I don’t think she had ever seen me cry as I had at that moment.  And when I refused to stand up to go back with her, she knelt beside me in the snow and put her arms around me, making the soothing noises that usually came from my mouth as I comforted her.  I knew she didn’t understand what had happened to make me cry, so I tried to tell her.  “They’re blaming me, Shelda,” I had sobbed into her shoulder.  “They think that it’s my fault that the plants died and the snow came and everyone’s hungry.”

Shelda replied that it wasn’t my fault; that it couldn’t be my fault because I was up in Greta’s cabin and not down in the village where everyone was hungry, so I knew she didn’t understand.  They blamed me because they thought I wasn’t human, and thought I brought the misfortune down like a pestilence upon them.  Or perhaps they thought that I was bad luck, and Kreen Himself punished Adendale for housing me.  And who was to say that none of that was true?  Maybe Kreen really did hate me, and hated Adendale because it was my home.

I finally had no more tears to let out, and looked up to see that Shelda’s eyes were also watering, tear-tracks staining her cheeks.  She could never see me cry without beginning to cry herself.  But her chin was stubborn as she reached into her pocket and then pressed something into my hand that was smooth and round.  I stared into my palm, watching the blue flames flicker inside Shelda’s baramite that she had given me.  It had a soothing effect on my mind, and I slowly clenched my hand around it and looked back at Shelda.  “Greta says it’s a tal-is-min,” she said, though she knew that I knew what it was.  Greta had said that it would protect one from harm and bring good luck.  “I want you to have it, Fae.”  Then she helped me up and led me nervously back to Greta.  That was the first and last time that Shelda was ever really my older sister.

 

Months later, back in the village, they lowered a white box into the ground.  Greta and I had stayed the night in the inn and I had watched as the men spent hours digging a square hole into the frozen ground.  The earth was reluctant, as if rejecting the idea of Shelda buried underneath its weight.  In a blur, I remember Greta dressing me in black, leading me outside, crying, hugging others and crying some more.  All I could do was clutch Shelda’s baramite tightly and watch as the villagers turned their looks from hate to pity as they saw me and my adoptive mother.  Greta had hardly been able to say a lucid word, and hadn’t come near me other than to dress me in black and lead me outside.  I didn’t cry, and though I understood many things at that age that I should not have, I don’t think I really understood what was happening that day.  “But she’s coming back, right?” I would ask Greta, Olaf, and whoever else came near.  “Shelda’s coming back.”  I don’t think anyone had the heart to tell me no, even though I was the freak-child.

I was in the crowd of villagers as they gathered.  People were speaking and Greta was crying.  Some were singing, like it was a happy occasion that required song and voice.  Nobody really looked at me anymore.  I watched as they lowered a white box into the ground.  I had been told that that box contained my dead sister, but I didn’t believe it.  She looked like she could have been sleeping.

After the funeral was another blur of activity that did not matter to me.  The clearest thing I remember of that day is finding myself barefoot in my black dress staring out into the falling snow.  I was clutching the stone so fiercely that I would have bled had it any edges.  I realized right then that Shelda wasn’t coming back.

I was alone�"the others were in the square still talking and mourning.  I could hear them distantly behind me, but I wanted nothing to do with their formal burials and their singing and crying.  I started crying and screaming terrible things to whatever unknown thing that had taken Shelda from me.  Now I know that thing to be death, but back then I had pictured a man made of ice with no face.  At some point, my screams turned towards my dead sister.  “You shouldn’t have given this to me!” I screamed, raising the baramite.  It was supposed to protect a person from harm, and she had given it to me before dying.  I had gotten it into my head that if she had kept the stone she would have lived�"it would have protected her.  “I don’t need it!  I don’t want it!  Take it back!  And I flung the stone out into the snow as hard as I could.  For a few seconds, the flash of dark blue was visible spinning away, and then it was gone in the blizzard.  I was still screaming, “Take it back,” which soon changed to, “Come back… come back Shelda!”

Greta came and found me standing ankle-deep in the snow with white toes and frozen tears gleaming on my face.  She had picked me up without saying a word, and I had put my arms around her neck and closed my eyes, drifting off into sleep as she carried me home.  I woke up as she sat me by the stone-fire to thaw my toes, which burned and ached as blood began to flow through them again.  I told her I was hungry, and she pressed a piece of bread into my hands, which I ate.  I tried to forget about Shelda, and was for the most part successful.  Though my thoughts were mature, my mind was young and my spirit carefree.  I adjusted quickly to life without her, and managed to put my sadness out of my mind, though some nights I would still wake up crying silently. 

Greta’s loss was far greater than my own, like an ache that neither her herbs nor my words could soothe.  She was often silent, and sometimes crying.  I always felt a need to comfort her, like I had comforted Shelda whenever she wept.  I was a child, and didn’t dwell as much over loss as my adoptive mother did.  I still wanted to play and explore and smile and laugh, but Greta was saddened in a way that only time would heal.  “Greta…” I said one day, meaning to ask her if I could go out and climb the piles of frozen snow outside our house.  But Greta looked up and, before, I could finish my request, asked me to call her “Mama”, not Greta.  I bit my lip and shook my head, though I think it made her sad.  Now I know why I refused to call her mother; Greta had looked for me to replace Shelda, and I know that it would have only lead to unhappiness for both of us.  There was a hole in Greta’s heart that I could never hope to fill, not matter how hard I could try to make myself the right shape.

And after that… life went on.

 

© 2011 Paige


Advertise Here
Want to advertise here? Get started for as little as $5

Author's Note

Paige
Any constructive criticism is well-appreciated, from grammar to spelling to what you feel I can add to it! ALso, tell me if there are any places where I ramble a bit or drag on. As you might be able to tell, I like using paragraphs for dramatic effect, and tell me if you find any of these which are pointless.

My Review

Would you like to review this Story?
Login | Register




Reviews

Hi Paige. First, this is a lot of material to work with so to do what you ask of us will take me a few readings. I've read the first chapter and will have to return to read the second. Then I will reread with editing in mind to see if I can offer anything constructive in the future. However, I wanted to tell you now that I am enjoying the concept of the work and the characters very much. It hold interest and progresses in a wonderful voice. I look forward to spending more time with the piece.

This review was written for a previous version of this writing

Posted 9 Years Ago


This is really good. I enjoyed reading it

This review was written for a previous version of this writing

Posted 9 Years Ago



Request Read Request
Add to Library My Library
Subscribe Subscribe


Stats

528 Views
2 Reviews
Rating
Shelved in 1 Library
Added on December 21, 2010
Last Updated on January 17, 2011
Tags: the Racers, Racers, Paige, Pfannenstiel, Paige Pfannenstiel, Riv, River, Riversun, GrenkaGrah, ski, ski racing, mountains, Skriss, Neal, Fae, Fantasy
Previous Versions

Author

Paige
Paige

About
My name is Paige Pfannenstiel. I'm 16, I love writing, and I have a published book titled "Skyline: The Opal Chance." However, I'm having terrible writer's block and I can't make myself keep writing.. more..

Writing
The Thief The Thief

A Story by Paige


Live the Life Live the Life

A Story by Paige



Related Writing

People who liked this story also liked..