The sun was warm and bright that day, filtering through the canopy above and bathing the three of them in green-tinted light. They lay on a thick bed of brown leaves, leftovers from the previous autumn, and stared up through the trees and up at the clouds peaking between them. They were quiet, for a time, all three watching intently, faces beaming with excitement. "Eldred-" A hand shot into the air, pointing to a particularly fluffy cloud that was barely showing through the leaves. It waved above the three of them, belonging to the smallest. " -Look at that one! It's so big!" The boy grinned, gazing up at the cloud, which towered above in plumes of white. The girl to his right pulled a face, squinting at it.
"Maybe it'll cover the sun," she said, putting up a hand to shield her eyes. "It'll make everything go cold."
The small boy's hand fell, dropping to his side with the sound of crunching leaves. His smile faded, and he turned his head to look at the girl. "Well... I guess..." he muttered, enthusiasm all but gone.
The trio fell into silence again.
"So what should we do now?" the other boy asked, sitting up.
The girl sat up as well, shrugging. "Shouldn't we be going back now?"
Last came the small boy, letting out a long, disappointed sigh. "We went home early yesterday, though..."
"My Mum doesn't like it when we get back late, though," muttered the third, squinting at a distant tree. "She gets worried- especially when we go into the forest."
"Your mum's weird though, Eldred. 'S 'cause you don't have a Dad," the small boy said, pushing himself to his feet, and brushing the leaf fragments from his trousers.
Eldred cast him a glare, scowling. "I do have a Dad! He's just on... on very important business." He paused thinking. "He's in the army."
The girl stood up next to the small boy, frowning. "But my Mum said-"
"My Dad said that your Dad left when you were a baby," the boy interrupted, nodding to himself. "He says he ran away."
"That's not true, Siarl! My Dad wouldn't-"
Just beyond their sight- somewhere amongst the trees- a branch snapped. A flock of crows rose from the leaves like a wave, swarming into the sky, cawing their displeasure, and the air was filled with the sound of dark wings beating the air. The trio froze, Eldred crouched as he was standing up.
Leaves rustled in a light breeze, and the crows circled above. After a few moments, Eldred spoke again.
"I- I think we should go home," he muttered, voice as low as possible for a seven-year-old. The other two nodded furiously, and the three started to back away. Eldred trailed behind a little, as he staggered to his feet, wincing at the sound of the leaves crackling beneath his feet.
The sound of something moving just beyond their field of vision made them all freeze again, and the large cloud moved in front of the sun, dulling the light it cast. Without the warm rays, the forest got considerably colder. The three started to shuffle backwards, their eyes fixed on the spot where the sound had come from. Siarl whimpered, and Eldred stumbled, while the girl shuddered. A deep growl rose from a clump of bushes before them, long and menacing, and the children turned and started to run.
They hadn't gone far from the village- only a few hundred meters into the forest. As soon as they had started to run, darting between dense trunks, running toward the way they knew was homeward, whatever it was in the bushes started to follow. They could hear it crashing behind them, fallen branches snapping like twigs beneath its feet, kicking up a storm of decaying leaves. Eldred stumbled again, his foot catching on one of the many roots, and he fell to the ground, his head hitting the tree in front.
Heat rose in a wave and his vision swayed. He let out a groan, his two friends already too far away to hear. His mind was swimming, thoughts swirling around in a warm mess. Somewhere behind him, he could hear footsteps getting ever closer, until he could feel hot, sticky breath on the back of his neck. Eldred shuddered, trying to turn himself around, hands slipping on the smooth roots on either side.
He scrambled around, landing heavily on his back, face to face with something large, with a lot of teeth. A shriek escaped his lips, and he tried to push it away, kicking at it with one foot.
Whatever it was flew backwards, slamming against one of the many trees behind with a loud crack. Eldred winced, blinking away the last of the fuzziness, and sat up, staring at the heap.
Leaves shifted a meter to his left, and he whipped around to find the source, finding himself looking at an armoured figure, holding a pale whip. He started to push himself away, using his hands to shuffle backwards, unsure of which to be more scared of- the armoured figure, or the monster.
The figure payed little attention to him, striding through the leaves as though the armour weighed nothing, and standing before him, facing the monster. Eldred swallowed his fear, scampering to his feet, and running after his friends. He had no wish to stick around, he knew when his imagination was playing tricks on him.
As he reached the edge of the forest, he saw his two friends, bent over and looking nervously into the trees. He crashed through bracken that lined the beginning of the trees, and tripped again, landing at his friends' feet, breathing heavily.
"What happened, Eldred? Me'n May thought it'd caught you, how'd you escape?" Siarl held out a hand, pulling the other boy back to his feet.
He didn't say anything, a troubled look taking residence on his face. "I should go home," he muttered, starting to walk down the hill.
Siarl frowned, raising a hand and opening his mouth as though to call. He was stopped as May put one hand on his arm, shaking her head. "We can ask him about it tomorrow, right?"
“…” He let out a long sigh, having caught his breath, and turned around, facing the eastern area of the village. “I guess…” he muttered, starting the walk back home.
May lingered atop the hill for a few moments, looking down at the village below, as it nestled in the valley, before she followed after Siarl.
The sky was filled with clouds by the time Eldred returned home. Dark storm clouds built up over the deep blue, obscuring the sun. As he walked, he looked back occasionally, always toward the woods. Nothing had followed him, and he hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary since he had left. Shuddering, he reached the low garden wall, and hopped over it, jogging the last few steps to the back door of the home he had known his entire life. The upper half of the thick wooden door was open, swinging outwards and opening a window to the kitchen, just the right height for him to peer inside.
It was empty- his mother wasn’t there. Yet.
Opening the door proved a challenge, as usual. The bolts that held it in place were at the base of the door, just a little bit further down than the length of his arm. To lift them, he had to stand on his top toes, bending over and leaning on the edge, fumbling with the bolt until he could hold it.
The door swung open, and he walked inside, shutting it again beside him and dropping the bolt silently. He peered over the counter, noting the large pot atop the stove, and strode over the flagstones as he headed for the main room of the house. He and his mother lived in a large house for just the two of them- it had far more rooms than they actually needed. Most were out of bounds to Eldred, his mother keeping him within the main four rooms as much as possible.
Edging into the room, Eldred kept his back pressed against the white walls, inching forward as he looked around the kitchen door. It wasn’t so much a door as an arch- most of the rooms in the house were lacking doors. He found his mother sitting in one of the chairs before the fire, stitching a hole in one of her dresses as orange flames crackled around a small bed of wood. She looked up at him, her facing lightening a little as she saw him. “Back already?”
Eldred nodded, stepping away from the wall, and walking over to where she sat. She smiled at him as he sat down on the floor beside her, tracing patterns with his finger in the dulled rug that covered the stone.
They sat in silence for a while, as they often did, his mother stitching away, commentating to herself as Eldred was left to trace patterns and think. He liked this time- it gave him time to think, allowed him to chase his dreams as he sat by the fire. The silence was mutual- neither of them protested, enjoying the simple time where no words were needed.
Quiet bubbling was what broke the silence, as the pot on the stove began to boil a little too vigorously. Eldred’s mother rose, placing her sewing down on the chair she had sat on, and leaving the room without a word. Eldred looked up, craning his neck to try and see his mother as she moved around the kitchen, placing things in the pot and chopping vegetables to go in with what he assumed was the leftover meat. Unable to catch a glimpse, he resigned to stare out of the window instead. The sun had begun to set, and long shadows were being cast over the already-dark landscape. Trees stretched long, shadowy fingers toward the village, and the walls seemed to grow in size, ready to barricade the village in its own little area of light.
“Eldred?” his mother called, not leaving the pot on the stove, “light the candles, would you?”
On command, he stood up, heading for the small cabinet toward the opposite end of the room, reaching inside and pulling out the lamps and the candles saved from the previous night. He placed them on the surface of the cabinet- different candles of many different colours and shapes, along with their one oil lamp, and shut the door. He took the longest of them, lighting it in the fire before returning to light the lamp and his own short candle, wincing as hot wax dripped onto his bare hand. He blew out the candle, and took the oil lamp to his mother, rubbing off the quickly cooled wax, and returning for his own candle. He left the others on the cabinet, unsure whether they would need any more that night.
He picked up the lit candle, and went back toward the rug, placing the candle and its holder carefully on the hearth, and retaking his position beside the fire. Eldred took a deep breath, and leaned back until he was lying flat on the ground, looking up at the ceiling. Their house was old- older than any other in the village. It had been around for centuries, and was the very first house that was built as part of the village. His mother had told him this when he was young, telling him that his father would have wanted him to know. A frown crossed his face briefly.
A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts.
“Would you answer the door, Eldred? I’ve got my hands full,” his mother said, peering around from the kitchen, watching the door suspiciously.
He sat up, glancing over toward the windows by the door, observing the orange glow from outside- the glow of candles and lanterns. Eldred pushed himself to his feet, staggering a little as he walked toward the door. He put one hand on the handle, lifting the latch with the other, and heaved it open.
He was met by a disapproving glare, one that came from many pairs of eyes. They bored into him, and he shrank back, unsettled. This was a glare he had never experienced before- one of hatred, and fear.
One of the townsmen pushed him to one side, striding into the house.
“Talaith.” His voice was stern, and Eldred recognised it as May’s father.
Eldred’s mother moved into view, worry creasing her brow. “What is it you need so badly that you come barging into my home, Orwel?” Eldred heard the sound of one of the heavy pots being placed onto the stove, hearing the metallic ching of metal on metal. It had been put down with force.
“The boy, Talaith,” Orwel growled, pointing toward Eldred, meeting her worried glance with a glare of his own. “The boy’s been drawing them to the other children, putting their lives at risk.”
Talaith frowned, her stare flickering toward Eldred. “He has done no such thing,” she stated, worry melting away from her tone to be replaced with cold. She took a step forward, taking Eldred’s hand and yanking him to stand behind her, just inside the kitchen.
Orwel took a step to the side, allowing the other men to enter, and shook his head. “There’s no one else that could have led one of them here, you know that as well as any of us.”
“He did not bring one of them into the town borders, what on earth has inspired you to make such bold claims?” Eldred shrank back behind her, hiding behind the dress, grip tightening around his mother’s hand. She squeezed back reassuringly, taking a slight step further back. The pot on the stove had started to boil over again.
“This afternoon, my daughter and Siarl Biven saw something chasing them out of the woods,” Orwel stated, taking a step forward to retain the distance between the pair of them.
“They are children, Orwel. Eldred saw no such thing-” Eldred winced, his grip loosening a little. Talaith stopped mid sentence, and frowned. Suddenly the world had become a lot smaller, and Eldred could feel the anger building in his mother. “Eldred…?”
He tried to force his fear down, taking a step back, shaking his head, eyes widening. “I-i-it came out of nowhere…” he stuttered.
Orwel gestured toward him, watching the back of Talaith’s head intently. “You know what we told you when you and that man decided to settle here.”
Eldred’s mother turned, anger redirected toward the few townsfolk that were entering her house, standing square in the doorway. “I don’t care, you can’t have him,” she stated, placing her hands firmly on her hips.
He narrowed his eyes, sighing with genuine disappointment. “We didn’t want to have to do this, Talaith, but we must protect our children.” He took another step forward, closing the gap in one stride, and pulled her out of the way by the shoulder. Talaith stumbled, but straightened just in time to be hit again by one of the other men. Orwel ignored it, turning back to Eldred, who was backing away slowly, tears starting to well up in his eyes. The man advanced slowly, speaking calmly. “It’s all right, boy, we’re just going to take you back to where you belong. It will be painless for you if you cooperate with us.”
Eldred shook his head, backing off further. On the stove, the pot boiled over, water dribbling down onto the hot plate of metal, sizzling with the heat. Steam rose in small tendrils, slowly forming a cloud above the stove.
Toward the front of the house, the door opened again, and Orwel lunged at him.
Everything went fuzzy for a while, and the world started to spin as his vision went sideways. Eldred could see someone on the ground in the main room- a feminine figure, curled up in a ball, with taller shapes standing around. They had all straightened, looking toward a dark shape in the doorway. The door was wide open, and most of the candles in the house had been extinguished by the resulting breeze. The man before him- Orwel- moved toward him, obscuring his view for a few moments, before Eldred was aware that he was being picked up, his back toward the front door.
He heard the sound of something hard falling to the floorboards, and one of the men yelped. A rush of footsteps followed, before he heard a mixture of screams and yelling. Orwel had started to back away from the front door, and Eldred heard him yelling something- unable to make out the words in his daze- before he was being put down carefully on the floor, and his vision blacked out completely.