Somber and quiet, Emma stood on tiptoe to reach the rope strung across the back porch of her family home. She tugged a fold out of the bedsheet and shimmied left to the nearest spot of empty line. Kimber, at her side, handed up one of her mother’s dresses, a sopping wad of dark green cloth. Emma smiled at her little sister as she took the bundle of fabric.
The girl had changed much from the dirty, bruised waif who’d shown up at her doorstep selling pitiful apples three weeks ago. Had Emma not known better, she’d never have believed them the same person. Waist-long curly red hair fluttered in the breeze, framing a pale, freckled face covered in a broad grin, and her bright green eyes glimmered with happiness. Kimber clutched a basket of damp clothes to her chest, creating a spreading wet spot on her white cotton dress. Water dripped from the bottom of the basket, pattering around the girl’s toes.
Somewhere out in the rolling patch of meadow behind the house, Tam roared and yelled war cries amid the crunches and whiffs of tall grass dying in valiant battle.
“I’ll beat alla goblins!” yelled Tam. A wooden sword rose out of the green and chopped downward out of sight. “Yah! Take that!”
Despite Nan’s assurances the Banderwigh’s curse would’ve killed that man anyway, Emma couldn’t help but feel Da had somehow made a mistake. She busied herself hanging two of her brother’s tunics while trying not to think about the look on the poor man’s face. Carefree humming to her right made her glance at the big grin on her sister’s face. Soon, the shroud of gloom hanging on Emma’s shoulders receded under Kimber’s cheerful light. After giving the younger girl a conspiratorial grin, she turned to the line, hurled Mama’s dress up and over, and smoothed it out to dry.
“Wha’s wrong?” Kimber sidled closer.
A cold drip of water landed on Emma’s right foot and trickled to the wood. “I feel sad for that man.”
Kimber handed her one of Tam’s tunics. “Nan a’said he’as dead an’way.”
“Yeah.” Emma tossed her head to clear hair from her eyes as she hung another of her brother’s shirts.
The hiss of wind amid the boughs of Widowswood caught her attention. Emma paused, one hand on a pair of Da’s pants, and stared into the forest. The occasional snap of a running deer or flash of a cruising bird caught her eye, but nothing at all seemed scary about the dark.
“Is we bein’ watched?” whispered Kimber, leaning so close her chin hovered at Emma’s shoulder. “You’s starin’ a’ the woods ’gain.”
“Aaah!” yelled Tam. He came running out of the meadow-grass holding his side as if he’d been stabbed. “Em!” The six-year-old did a pratfall on the little two-step stairway between the porch and the path to the privy. “Goblin arrow! I needa potion or Im’a die!”
Emma grinned. She hurried to him, pretended to open a satchel on her side, and poured the contents of a nonexistent bottle into his mouth. Tam sprang upright and ran back into the meadow, waving the wooden sword overhead.
Kimber handed over another of Mama’s dresses. “Em?”
“I’m being careful.” She returned to the line and swept her gaze across the forest, all the way from the left corner of the house around to the right, where the patch of meadow behind their home opened out into rolling plain. “There’s nothing scary.”
“Whew.” Kimber exhaled. “I’s don’ wanna be put inna cage.”
Emma hugged her. “No one’s putting you in a cage. The monster’s gone.”
A few minutes, and six pieces of laundry later, Kimber darted inside with the empty basket while Emma fussed with one of Nan’s dresses on the line. The rope didn’t have quite enough room left for it, but she arranged it as best she could to let the air have at it. She went inside and took up the broom while Kimber ran about dusting. Nan sat in her chair at the corner nearest the hallway leading to her bedroom, knitting. Emma returned to the back porch and swept it before heading around to the front and repeating the process.
She stood the broom on its bristles and twirled it back and forth while stealing a glance at the woods. A momentary feeling of being watched came and went, but it didn’t carry the same strange dread it had before the Banderwigh appeared.
“Probably just a trapper or something.” She looked around for a moment, found nothing, and hurried the broom to the left side of the porch.
Mama appeared on the road leading to town, walking home from her morning rounds. Emma rose up on tiptoe and waved to her before hurrying to the top of the stairs and waiting for her mother to reach the house.
“Is Mr. Parr okay?”
“He’s fine.” Mama patted Emma on the shoulder. “He fell into a bit of Creeproot is all.”
Emma’s skin crawled at the memory of when she’d discovered the irritating plant, itching bright red patches from the tips of her toes halfway up her thighs. Mama’s salve had made the itching stop, but even air blowing across the spot hurt for a few days. “I don’t like Creeproot.”
Mama pushed the door open and went inside, Emma behind her. “The root itself won’t bother anyone. It’s the sap inside. If the root doesn’t break, it won’t hurt you.”
Emma set the broom against the wall by the door. “Sweepin’s done. Clothes are hanging.”
“I’as finnish a’ dustin’,” chirped Kimber. “C’we play?”
Tam’s war cry echoed out back.
Mama laughed. “Go on. Don’t get too far away. It’s almost time for lunch.”
Kimber cheered. She took Emma’s hand and led her out to the meadow. After a little less than an hour of ‘faerie tea party,’ Mama called them inside to eat lunch. With a belly full of warm bread and jam, they returned to the meadow for a while more.
“Let’s find faeries!” said Kimber.
Emma drew in a breath to declare no such things existed, but bit her tongue. Even if they didn’t, she couldn’t crush Kimber’s eagerness. As the girls headed toward the woods, Tam scurried up behind them, wooden sword hung on his rope belt.
“It’s dange-rous inna woods. You need a knight.”
Emma smiled. “Oh, how foolish of us. Will you be so kind as to protect us?”
Tam puffed up his chest. “Aye.” A few steps later, he turned his head to her. “What be your quest?”
“We’as gonna find faeries,” whispered Kimber.
“Oh.” Tam’s face collapsed with a look of severe disappointment for a few seconds before he grinned again. “Goblins eat faeries. I’ll pa’tect them too.”
“Eww!” whispered Kimber. “Tha’s bad!”
Emma couldn’t help herself and giggled.
They came to a halt near the stream where they usually swam, and hid in the bushes.
“Where a’ faeries?” asked Tam.
“Shh,” whispered Kimber. “Donn’ae make loud. Scare ’em ’way. We keep quiet, ’an they come out.”
Patience gave way to fidgeting before long. Kimber’s eagerness faded to sorrow, but Emma pulled her upright before she could cry.
“Wanna swim?” Emma pointed at the stream.
Not waiting for an answer, Tam flung off his tunic and ran headlong into the water.
“I’as cann’ae.” Kimber looked down. Her posture stiffened and a hint of a tremble took her. “Donn’ae like water.”
Emma remembered Old Man Drinn holding the girl underwater in the horse trough as punishment for not bringing home enough copper from begging. Oh no… Without thinking, she grabbed on and hugged her tight. “I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“Is okay.” Kimber sniffled.
“Let’s just sit in the grass.” Emma led Kimber a little closer to the stream and plopped down where she had a clear view of Tam.
Kimber relaxed and watched the boy splash about. The stream came up to his armpits at the deepest point. The girls studied the forest, still on the hunt for faeries, but spotted only a small boar and a pair of badgers.
“I’as sorry for keepin’ yas from swimmin’.” Kimber glanced at her lap. “You ’kin if you want.”
Emma smiled. “I don’t mind.”
The redhead gave her a sidelong glance, shifted her eyes toward the water for a few seconds, and back to Emma. “Do I’as ’ave ta put m’head unner?”
“You don’t have to put one toe in if you don’t want to.” Emma squeezed her hand.
“’Kay.” Kimber stood. “I’as try little.”
Emma let her lead to the edge, and stepped in with her until the water hovered within an inch of the younger girl’s dress. Since Kimber hadn’t pulled a Tam and flung her clothes off, Emma figured she had no intention of going much farther into the water than shin deep. She stood quietly at her side, holding her hand.
“Kimber, look.” Emma pointed up at a blue bird with a long shimmery green tail glinting like metal.
“Faerie?” asked Kimber, wide-eyed. “Oh… bird.” She smiled. “E’es pretty.”
Tam, spotting the girls standing in the water, pivoted toward them with that look in his eyes.
Emma shot him a stare and shook her head ‘no.’ He tilted his head in confusion. Emma indicated Kimber with a flick of her eyes and shook her head again. Tam shrugged and dove under. Over the next half hour or so, Emma pointed out the occasional bird, deer, or passing fish. They walked a little and picked at submerged rocks with their toes. She let Kimber decide how far off the bank to go, but the girl never strayed deep enough to have to hike up her dress. Emma kept holding her hand and talking about anything and everything she could think of other than swimming. Kimber’s trembling ceased, but she still seemed stiff… until a small silver fish nipped at her foot. Squealing, Kimber tried to leap away, but slipped in the muck. Emma caught her, and they both burst into laughter.
“I’as not a nibble!” Kimber pointed at the retreating fish. “Donn’ae eat me!”
Emma managed to sneak a few words in between laughs. “Fish just wanna tickle us.”
When the giggling died down, Kimber appeared more relaxed. They stood for a while more in the shin-deep water before she pulled her dress up enough to squat without getting it wet. Emma hovered protectively over Kimber as the girl swished a hand back and forth in the water, as if trying to measure if the stream would hurt her. The redhead eyed Tam, looked up at Emma, and bit her lip with a sudden hint of fear or guilt.
“Okay. I’as safe wi’ you.” Kimber managed a weak smile. “But I’as don’t wanna duck under.”
Kimber threw her dress onto the grass past the water and lowered herself to sit, emitting a squeal as the chilly water rose over her ribs. She looked up with a strange unsettled expression. Emma removed her dress as well and threw it onto the bank, then sat next to her. Emma grimaced at the sensation of sitting on cold, squishy mud, and understood the weird look on Kimber’s face. She scooted a few feet to the left until she found a mossy rock to perch on. Kimber followed, squeezing up against her so they could both fit on the same stone. Emma put an arm around her, holding her close in an effort to be reassuring. Kimber’s shivering lessened as she occupied herself playing with her hair where it became a cloud of bright red below the surface.
Flowing water glided around her middle, refreshing if a bit too cold. Wind carried the fragrance of leaves and forest, and added a faint whisper to the branches overhead. She couldn’t have asked for a more peaceful moment. She smiled at Kimber, hoping to chip away the bad memories the girl had about water.
They spent a few minutes burying their feet in the mucky bottom and lifting them out, making wispy trails of mud that carried off in the current. Tam kept giving Emma the ‘come and play’ look before resuming his quest to find treasure at the bottom. It took a little while for Kimber to relax her death grip on Emma’s hand.
“Tam wann’ae play wif you. I’as gonna stay here.” Kimber’s smile still held a bit of worry.
“Are you sure?”
Kimber nodded. “I’as onna rock. I okay.”
“Okay. I won’t go far.” Emma slipped into the middle of the stream to swim around a bit with her brother. She initiated a brief splash war, which she could tell Tam had been dying for. Every time they went swimming, at least since he’d been old enough to swim without someone holding him, he adored throwing water everywhere. They traded splashes and sprays for a little while before Tam jumped back.
“Aah!” yelled Tam. “A black water dragon is trying to eat me! I’m t’rowing a fireball!” He jumped up and fell to the side while slapping his hand at the surface, throwing a big wave at Emma.
She frowned at being called a ‘black dragon.’ “Aren’t you a knight? They don’t use fire magic.”
“Imma knight-wizard now.” Tam jumped left, sending another big splash her way.
Emma snarled and spread her arms wide. She roared and lunged forward, burying him with a massive splash.
He bobbed to the surface a second later. “Shield spell! You dinna kill me.”
She growled as if annoyed, but couldn’t stop grinning.
Kimber remained seated on the small submerged boulder, but smiled at the two of them kicking up a ruckus. Now and then, she screamed or squealed when curious fish got too close, but her shouts always broke into giggles afterward.
Emma glanced upward, noting the afternoon would soon be evening. She herded Tam to the bank. “We’ll need to go home soon. Time to dry.”
Kimber wasted no time moving back to dry land. They lay in the grass for a while, picking animal shapes out of clouds. Eventually, Mama’s voice carried over the field, beckoning them back.
“Come, Tam. It’s time to go home,” said Emma. “It’s going to be dark soon and Mama wants us close enough to see.”
Mostly dry, they dressed and hurried back across the meadow. Once home, Emma and Kimber helped Mama prepare dinner while Tam weaved around them in an effort to sneak an early taste. Perhaps twenty minutes later, Da hurried in, grumbling about the upcoming feast. He pulled the boy away and occupied him with sword lessons out back for the time it took the food to cook. Much to Emma’s disappointment, no sooner had they finished eating than Da offered the briefest of hugs and ran back out to attend to his duties with the Watch.
Emma helped clean the table and dishes, then went straight to the porch and sat while Tam resumed his knightly quest of goblin slaying in the meadow a short distance from the house. Kimber raced up behind her, holding a hairbrush. After handing it to Emma, she sat on the edge of the porch.
Emma scooted up behind her, both their legs dangling, and proceeded to work the brush over the tangled mass of red in front of her. She took the younger girl’s hair in portions, holding a clump until it brushed smooth to keep the tension from pulling too hard at her head. Kimber clutched the floorboards between her knees, squirming and gasping with each knot that snagged the bristles. She spent a good fifteen or so minutes working on her sister’s hair before the snagging ceased.
Fiery orange spread across the clouds at the level of the black treetops and streaks of yellow-green appeared in the meadow from fireflies zipping about. Tam had been quiet for too long. Emma’s breath caught in her chest. Still drawing the brush through Kimber’s hair, she searched the area for any sign of motion.
Her mother’s face appeared in the window. She smiled at Emma and spent a moment trying to locate Tam in the grass. Emma pointed. Mama gave her a look that bade her bring him in soon and vanished back into the house.
Tam burst out of a mass of thick weeds taller than him in pursuit of a particularly large firefly. The insect outpaced him with ease, though he showed little sign of giving up. Soft thuds in the floorboards at her seat suggested Mama had returned to the window.
“Tam,” called Emma, “it’s getting dark. Time to come in.”
She drew the brush down Kimber’s lush hair in a series of easy passes. “I know you heard me, Tam.” Emma scooted back, pulled her feet up, and stood. “Tam, don’t make Mama come out here.”
“’Kay,” yelled the boy, sounding less than happy about it.
Emma sidestepped as Kimber crawled backward. She sat on the edge and handed the brush over her shoulder. Fortunately, the eight-year-old had learned the fine art of hair brushing with less difficulty than bathing. A brush, at least, she could practice on dolls. Emma kept her knees tight together, a death grip of floorboards on either side of her legs. She braced for it to hurt, but Kimber took gentle care and broke into a whispery rhyming song. Something Mama usually sang to herself, though the babble behind her made it clear Kimber had no idea what the words really were.
Tam barreled out of the grass and took a seat beside her. Coupled with the quiet song, the continuous tug of the brush down Emma’s silken black hair started to lull her to sleep. Tam bumped her awake a moment later, stabbing his wooden sword out at the meadow.
“Goblins are hiding.” Tam slipped the weapon into his rope belt. “I scared ’em off.”
“You sure did.” Emma put an arm around his back and patted his shoulder. “Silly goblins should have known not to challenge a knight.”
The boy puffed up his chest, nodding.
“I’s a’done,” mumbled Kimber. “I’s do okay?”
Emma swiped her fingers at her hair once on either side before she smiled over her shoulder at her. “It’s perfect.”
Kimber grinned so hard her eyes shut, and handed back the brush.
The door opened with a faint squeak. “All right you three,” said Mama. “Time for bed.”
“Yes, Mama,” said Emma and Kimber at the same time.
“Is too early for knights ta sleep,” muttered Tam.
Mama padded out onto the porch and picked him up. “The dragons are all sleeping. If they get more sleep than the knight, they’ll be too strong to vanquish.”
He stuck out his bottom lip, but offered no more protest than a sour face as she carried him to the privy. Emma stood and took Kimber’s hand, following. She became nervous at the sight of the forest behind the outhouse. Ever since the Banderwigh had taken her, she’d been afraid to be near it without Mama or Nan close by. Of course, she acted brave for Tam, but he had to know.
She ducked into the little wooden booth at her turn and wasted no time, eager to be inside the house before full dark. Mama held Tam’s hand as they returned to the house, Kimber and Emma running astride in front of her. Emma slowed to a walk as soon as she reached the porch, and left a trail of grass-damp footprints across the little rear alcove. She went the long way around the table, looping past the front door, and headed to the left. Kimber pulled her dress off over her head before they reached the bed, folded it, and traded it on the shelf for the pink nightgown Da had bought her.
While Emma changed into her plain white nightdress, Tam made a drawn-out show of hanging his wooden sword on the wall in a place of reverence. He flung his tunic to the floor and climbed into bed after them in his skivvies.
He perched on his knees, twisting left and right, searching the room. “Mama, where’s Nan? Story?”
Mama pulled a nightshirt down over his head. “Nan will be back soon. Even as a bird, the Griffondark Wood makes for a long trip.”
“Aww.” He whined while wriggling his arms loose.
Emma rolled onto her side, back to the room, the wall inches from her face. Nan hadn’t said much about why she’d gone to visit another group of druids in the east: only that the trip was nothing to worry herself over, and she would be gone for a few days. Emma clasped her hands at her chin, fussing with the thin silk ribbon at the neck of her nightdress. Why does Nan have to be old? Fear that her grandmother might not return made her eyes wet, but she kept still and quiet.
Mama twisted the lantern, plunging half of the house’s main room into darkness. Kimber scooted close behind her and Tam threw his arm over both of them. They didn’t have to cram against the wall like that until Mama and Da went to bed, but she didn’t mind. Having her siblings close eased her worry over Nan.
“Sleep tight.” A soft kissing noise came from behind.
“Night, Mama,” whispered Tam.
“May the faeries guard your dreams.” Another kiss.
“Night, Mama,” said Kimber.
Hair tickled the side of Emma’s face as Mama leaned down close, looking into Emma’s ear. “I don’t see any spiders hiding in those dreams.”
Emma smiled as a kiss landed atop her head. “Night, Mama.”
The house hung in quiet for a few minutes after her mother went outside to the front porch. Once again, Da had a late night with the Watch, though it had to be something boring, as Mama didn’t seem worried.
Kimber’s fingers dug into Emma’s side. A sniffle broke the silence at the back of her neck.
Emma reached up and grasped the girl’s hand. “What’s wrong?”
The younger girl clung tighter. “I’as happy.”
“Happy doesn’t cry,” grumbled Tam. For all his complaining about having to go to bed, he sounded exhausted.
Kimber sniffled again and put her chin on Emma’s shoulder. “I’as don’ wan’ me bad Papa tae show up an’ take me ’way.” Fear and urgency elevated her whisper to a voice. “I’as wanna be wif my family.”
Did she forget?
Emma patted and squeezed the girl’s hand. “Kimber…”
She squirmed enough to make eye contact, their noses almost touching. “He can’t take you away from your home. He’s dead.”
Kimber’s tears stopped. Her emerald eyes widened. “Dead?”
“Dead, dead,” muttered Tam. “Dead like the Bandy-wee.”
“Tam,” snapped Emma in a whisper. “Don’t say such things. That man is not going to come back.”
“I hadda ni’mare.” Kimber shivered. “You’s right. He’s gone.”
Emma wriggled around to put her back to the wall, facing her. “I’m sorry.”
“Mmm.” Kimber nodded, wiping her eyes. “He didn’ wan’ me.”
“Dead like the Bandy-wee,” muttered Tam in his sleep.
Much to Emma’s surprise, Kimber giggled. “Like th’ Banderwigh.”
“Yes.” She tried not to think of the last mournful stare the poor man had given her when Da killed him. Something told her she’d picture that face in her dreams for the rest of her life. As horrified as she’d been, the cursed man collapsed with a contented look on his face. “Dead like the Banderwigh.”
Emma rolled flat on her back and closed her eyes. Kimber snuggled close.
Uruleth, if you’re listening, please help that man find his way in the spirit world. She resigned herself to sleep, hopefully without dreams of spiders, cages, or monsters sneaking up on her in the dark.