I’d formed a new routine when winter had started. Every Saturday I woke up so early that the others were still asleep. I quickly shovelled down a hastily made omelette, brushed my teeth, got dressed and tried to fade out my scars with makeup before I headed out. The morning air was frosty and stung my nostrils in that peppery way chilly air tended to do.
I trudged through the freshly fallen snow and got into our car, driving through a by now familiar route towards the local witch’s house. Sabine was of course still not a witch. I mean, that would be silly because the only real magic was fairies who used their powers to hide and switch up babies. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t be surprised anymore if there was a whole world of all sorts of magical creatures out there. But Sabine Bellechance wasn’t one of them. She was just an old woman who had a lot of compassion and wisdom underneath her bitter and aloof shell.
I’d worked on her garden until it was cleaned up, and then proceeded to maintain it. But when the winter rolled in, I of course wasn’t needed. Not until this year, when Sabine had asked me to help with her groceries and cleaning too. I hadn’t needed to think about it much; I’d said yes almost immediately. Not just because it meant more money. I’d done it mostly because I really liked Sabine.
She was getting older. I noticed it from the way her walking had got slower and of course from the fact that she needed a cane to walk long distances now. But despite that, she kept her back as straight as she could and insisted on walking to the store with me. She looked very snazzy in her sleek coat and her awesome purple bowler hat. She didn’t even seem to mind the cold or the people who occasionally stared at her with suspicion because of the witch-rumours.
“Oh, they need to have their gossip,” she said nonchalantly when we were making our way to the EverFresh Delights Supermarket and a couple of people had started whispering when we’d passed by, “It makes life feel more interesting than it really is here.”
“I guess…” I said, “It’s not nice, though.”
“Well, no. It’s not. But then again, I don’t care enough to let it hurt me.”
She kept her head high, and I secretly wished that I too could grow old as gracefully as she did. Sure, she came off as rather cold sometimes, but maybe it was the coldness that had preserved something important in her soul. Maybe. Whatever it was, it seemed to work for her.
But I had a feeling she didn’t think it would work for anyone else. Especially for me. She talked about it several times when we got back to her house and took a moment to sit down and chat. She especially talked about how people shouldn’t be so apathetic and let life pass them by.
“I don’t mean to point fingers, especially at you,” she said today after I’d helped her with cleaning the house and we’d gone outside to sit in the beautiful snowy afternoon, “I mean, I don’t know everything that has happened to you, but from what I’ve heard, you’ve been taking steps to live a life the way you want despite all the hardships.”
“Although, you’re also spending time with an old woman like me.”
“Maybe that’s also a part of the life I want,” I replied, idly poking the frozen plastic daffodils on Sabine’s garden table, “I like talking to you.”
“And I’m glad about that. But I also think I’m not the most uplifting company.”
“I’m not uplifting either.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” Sabine smiled, “You see a lot of beauty in the world. I read the short story you sent to that contest. You know, the one that got published on the web.”
“Really?” I blushed, “You didn’t tell me that.”
“It wasn’t too long ago. I liked it. Dark but beautiful. I especially liked the bit about the two worlds.”
I smiled shyly.
Sabine returned my smile with her own.
“Just don’t let life get you down. It did that once, and I never really got over it.”
I pondered her words when I finally started to drive back home. Sometimes I spent the entire day at Sabine’s, and this was one of those days, but I was still almost surprised to see how dark it had got. I wondered if Sabine thought that I spent time with her out of pity. Because it felt like she really had no one in her life other than me now. She at least seemed to think that her presence made my depression worse or something. It didn’t, really. I really felt like we could become good friends once she finally accepted that I did enjoy spending time with her and respected her despite – or partly because – of the slightly sour, mysterious aura that surrounded her.
I tried to remember when the last time I’d thought about the letters we’d dug up with Min had been. I was still way too curious about them, but I knew enough not to pry. It was Sabine’s secret, and a big part of me had already accepted that she didn’t want to talk about it. I convinced myself that after all this wondering, the actual answers would just be anticlimactic anyway.
When I got back home I was met with a happy greeting from Rem. He and Merrill had braved the cold weather – which to be fair had got considerably less cold during the day – and got out to build a snowman. The snow had become just sticky enough once the weather had warmed up a bit, and Rem had already rolled up most of the snowman while Merrill occasionally took a break from eating snow to pat the snowman’s sides where he could reach them.
“You wanna help us?” Rem asked excitedly, “I think we’re going for a traditional touch with this one!”
I thought about wasted time I could instead waste on reading or surfing on the internet. Then I thought about silly cheerful things that made the blanket over my mind thin.
“Sure. Why not.”
“No man snowman!” Merrill sang in response and punched the snowman’s side with his small fist.
“Merry, what have I told about mistreating other people’s work?”
“Exactly. Don’t worry, you can still stick the carrot-nose on no-man-snowman’s face, okay?”
I grinned at my brothers and joined them.
“Kielo and Alvar are going to visit tomorrow,” Rem said once the snowman was done and he had flopped onto his back into the snow.
“Really?” I asked and picked up Merrill, who was starting to complain about the cold, “They got their phones finally working again?”
“Nah. I saw them. I’m really trying to see little things so I can then maybe see the more important things without messing them up.”
Rem moved his arms and legs to make a snow angel – or a snow fairy – and didn’t seem to care that the sticky snow was quickly soaking his jacket.
“Sometimes it’s easy…” he said, “Seeing… but a lot of the times I still don’t get it.”
“Are you going back to Twinbrook again, then?” I asked, “For some more lessons?”
“Probably, yeah. Maybe tomorrow for a quick visit. I asked mum and dad and they said it was fine as long as I was back before the night.”
I remembered a time when mum and Patrick had been really uncertain to let their son go alone to study with fairies, but things had changed. It had taken a lot of visits from Kielo, and she’d even had to show mum and Patrick the forest until they’d been happy. She’d been a bit hesitant to do it, but in the end she had agreed. Now it almost felt like a devastating family secret had become a hobby of sorts. Like evening classes about wonky magic.
“You wanna come with us?” Rem asked, “Kuura especially has been asking about you a lot.”
“Maybe later. I’ve still got some schoolwork I want to do.”
“I wanna go!” Merril suddenly said.
“Sorry, Merry. Not until you’re older.”
Merrill scrunched up his nose and then turned to whisper into my ear:
“Rem is stupidhead.”
“Hey! I heard that!”
I laughed. There really was a lot of sense in not letting life get to me. Sometimes I thought that I already had, but then I found these little moments when I felt light and happy. That was when I knew that I wasn’t a completely lost cause yet.
Sure enough, Kielo managed to call us that night with her cell phone, which she had excitedly figured out about six months ago, but which kept breaking because she tended to experiment with it too eagerly. She and Alvar arrived early in the next morning after they got permission to take Rem away for a day. They looked almost convincing in their winter clothes, though I was pretty sure the clothes had been either scavenged or stolen from somewhere. They kicked their shoes off as soon as they got in, but they didn’t even have time to take off their coats before Patrick was there, hugging his biological son and welcoming them to the house.
“I guess we should visit more often and not just come here to take Rem away every once in a while,” Alvar said, and then seemed to realise how wrong his words sounded in light of what had happened all those years ago, when the fair folk really had just tried to take him away, “…sorry.”
“Don’t be,” said Patrick, “But yes, you should visit more often!”
They shed their winter clothes, and then it was time for more hugs. It had become a ritual whenever Alvar visited. Lots of hugs and pleasantries followed by Rem often leaving for the day and then returning at night. This time was no different.
“Hey there, little guy!” Alvar said as soon as he got a hold of Merrill and lifted him high into the air, “You’re growing so fast! I don’t think I’ll be able to toss you around like this much longer. Soon you’ll be wrestling all your siblings to the ground!”
Merrill giggled and flailed his arms wildly. He’d really got attached to his half-brother, and seemed to always remember him even after a longer break from seeing him. That was quite remarkable for a pretty self-absorbed three-year-old. Rem and Alvar had also developed this very natural sort of camaraderie that made me smile. Though I had a feeling it wasn’t without its tensions. They were simply very good at hiding their problems. Or then I was just being pessimistic again.
We traded news about our respective lives, and mum and Patrick asked slightly stern questions about what Rem would be doing among the fair folk this time, like they always did. Usually the anwer was more of the same: practising. Rem had been very eager to learn how to control his fairy magic powers, and he really had made good progress with it during his visits.
“I think Lumi has planned some focus training or something,” Kielo explained this time when Patrick asked her about it, “You know, practising the… doing what you want to do with magic stuff. I’m not really good at the academic terms for magic, you know. I can barely pull off my glamour.”
“I think it looks fine,” I said, “Especially the fauxhawk.”
“The what?” Kielo frowned.
“Oh, is that what you call it? Cool!”
“I just hope there’ll be some time to do stuff together too,” Rem told Alvar, who was trying his best to chat with him while holding a wiggling Merrill, “We can maybe try to finish building that treehouse for the kids.”
“Yeah!” Alvar laughed and then winced when Merrill tugged his dreadlocks a bit too hard, “Kuura, Halla and Marras have been pestering me about getting it done for weeks now!”
“It sounds like things are really going well for you,” I said, “You know, despite the pestering kids.”
“We always pull through.”
“Is the winter rough for you, though?” asked Patrick, “It’s much colder than last year. Don’t you do a lot of gathering and farming?”
“Oh, our winters are always really mild,” Kielo said, “It’s a part of having magic hiding us; it also gives us pretty good shields against the frost and snow.”
“I love the snow here, though,” Alvar said, “I wish we had more of it in the forest. It’s so beautiful.”
“And fun, right?” Rem added, “If it were a bit warmer, we could build snowmen and have snowball fights again!”
“Well, maybe next time.”
“Right…” Rem glanced at the clock on his cell phone, “Hey, I think we should be leaving already. I’ve got school tomorrow.”
“Exactly. Remember to get back in the ten o’clock bus,” mum said for the fifteenth time that weekend. Rem nodded and dashed upstairs to cram his backpack full of essentials like muesli bars, sketchbooks and pens.
They were always gone so quickly. We had a quick chat that didn’t tell anyone much about anything, and then dad was standing on the porch, waving goodbye to an excited Rem and our new-ish relatives. He always smiled after them until they were gone. Then he stood on the porch a bit too long and his expression changed to a forlorn one.
I had a feeling I knew what he was thinking. He was maybe afraid that someday Rem wouldn’t come back. That Rem would want to stay among his people instead of us. I knew that was a totally irrational fear. Rem had chosen us long ago, and I doubted a few visits were going to change that.
Especially considering that the visits were like attending school on weekends. Rem had told us in detail how it all usually played out. It involved quick hellos to the other fairy villagers, and maybe some time to spend with Alvar and Kielo before Rem had to go see the Matriarch’s adviser Lumi, who was the resident magic expert and healer. She always had a magic lesson planned for Rem, and she was stern and demanding.
Usually it began with her leaving Rem to meditate by the river for an hour while she was finishing up her chores for the day. After that came the actual teaching. Sometimes she taught illusions and magic that the fair folk could do. It was apparently essential to survival.
“If you can’t master it, you could be killed, or kill someone else with an ill-timed magic surge!” was what she’d said. Her motivational speeches were usually more on the terrifying side.
Sometimes she tried her best to teach Rem how to control his gift of clairvoyance. Because Rem’s mum had been the only actual clairvoyant in the village, there was no one there who could properly teach him that anymore. But Lumi was apparently doing pretty well with what she knew. She explained the importance of focus and of not getting lost into the visions, which I recalled had been what had killed Rem’s mum. She also told Rem about the most common symbols in visions.
I had thought that Rem’s visions were just personal things, just his way of getting glimpses of something he then usually interpreted through fairytales. But apparently there were some universal details in weird psychic powers too. Rem had once excitedly told me about what some of the things he saw could mean. About how animals often represented people and how a stormy weather in visions usually meant that something bad was about to happen.
I was especially fascinated and horrified by his description of the shadowy, silhouetted figure that was apparently an omen of death. The fair folk, influenced by their matriarchal society, had at some point decided that it was female despite not having enough characteristics to tell for sure. They had named her Tuonetar, who was apparently a benevolent if morbid figure in the fair folk’s mythology. The death goddess or something. Someone who ferried the souls of the dead to the beyond.
It had all been interesting, sure, but all I could think about when I heard the description was the black figure I had seen in my dreams after the fire. Rem had mused that it must have been because he had linked his dreams with mine, and because he had seen death. My near-death, probably. The mere thought made me feel dizzy. I also remembered the shadowy figures we’d sometimes been surrounded with back when we’d been little. Maybe Rem had been seeing them a lot and then just accidentally made me see them too. He had been so close to death when he had been born, after all. It was unnerving to say the least.
I wondered what his lessons would be like today. Maybe more of the same. Or maybe he’d be learning about fairy dreams this time. About how he had been able to link his dreams with me sometimes. Before this, Rem had done all those things mostly without knowing what he’d been doing. Now he had the chance to actually learn it.
It was hard work, definitely, and Rem often returned half-asleep and with a headache that made Patrick regret his decision to let his son go on fairy field trips even more. But the next morning he’d again be happy and jumping around like he always was. And he was always so excited about finally learning how to control the visions and powers that had previously manifested as confusing fairytale-esque metaphors. So I figured it was just good for him.
But while Rem was away, I spent the day mostly writing and doing schoolwork and helping mum and Patrick around the house. And because of that I had plenty of time to catch glimpses of Patrick’s worried face and quiet moments of regret.
In those moments I really hoped that he was worrying for nothing. And I also hoped I could have said something to make him feel better. But I could never come up with anything convincing.
But Rem came back, like he always did. He was tired and went straight to bed, and the next day he was skipping through the snow into the school bus as if nothing weird had happened. And Patrick could sigh in relief and our week could properly start. Happy. Safe. And normal for us.
After school I came home to find Rem outside on our swing set. That wasn’t anything new, really. However, he wasn’t really swinging, but instead just sitting and staring wistfully into space. He was even ignoring the awesome igloo Patrick had built for us while trying to think happy thoughts before Rem came back from Twinbrook.
“Hey, you okay?” I said.
Rem looked up at me and smiled weakly.
“Hi. It was a long day.”
“You were home long before I was.”
“Yeah…” Rem leaned his forehead against one of the swing’s chains, “Yesterday… Lumi told me that I was making a lot progress. That I wasn’t completely hopeless with magic anymore.”
He fell silent for a while, and blinked a few stray snowflakes from his eyelashes. I slowly sat on the other swing and waited.
“She told me that I might be ready to start officially becoming a shaman… their new clairvoyant.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“That’s what I wondered too,” Rem pursed his lips, deep in thought, “She did say it would mean a pretty long process of studying and practise and rituals and all… but… I still don’t know. I think they just want someone who can see the future into their village again. And I think…”
He hesitated, and I dared to finish his sentence with what Patrick was secretly fearing:
“That they want to make you stay?”
“I think they want me to feel like I have to,” he said, “They’re being nice about it, though.”
“Well, what do you really want?” I asked, “Would you want to become their shaman? I have to admit it would look awesome on a résumé.”
Rem laughed, but the laugh was clipped and not natural like it usually was.
“I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, really,” he said, “I don’t think I even have to know yet. But I… I do know that I want to stay here. But I want us all to be happy. Them too. My other family, I mean.”
I nodded slowly.
“I think that sounds like a plan. We should be able to work with that somehow. And don’t worry; we’ll all make sure no one will break us apart again. Not even if they’re being nice about it.”
Rem laughed again, this time sounding much more like himself. He kicked the ground with his feet and quickly worked up speed as he swung back and forth, back and forth. His smile lingered in the air amidst the snowflakes.
“You’re right,” he said, “At least I want to think that.”
I watched my brother trying to reach the sky and thought about how far we’d come. I wasn’t sure if I could keep my spontaneous promise of us staying together no matter what. In fact, my pessimistic, usually overpowering side said it was unlikely. But I forced myself to silence it, and closed my eyes and let the lazy snowflakes fall on my face.
Even if it was unlikely, I’d definitely do everything I could to keep us all together and safe.
“It was all a lie… You… YOU ALL KEEP LYING TO ME!”
“Please, ma’am. Calm down. What is-?”
“IT WAS REAL! YOU CAN’T CLAIM HE WASN’T HERE! THE FAIRIES TOOK HIM!”
“…They took my son…”
Author’s Note: Yeah, this is another sort of set-up chapter. I could have merged this and the previous one together but ehh… I wanted to get something out sooner so the previous interlude-thing was born. So… setting up possible conflicts and other things and desperately trying to make sense of the very random shadow-people comment in the prologue that really went nowhere because I changed my mind about the nature of the story quite a bit in the beginning. That’s what I get for not planning ahead enough!
But let’s talk about something more positive now… uh… I love how cute everyone looks in their winter hats! Yeah! And winter in general looks gorgeous. I could just take endless screenshots of the snowy scenery!
Also, Tuonetar is a death goddess in old Finnish mythology, though not exactly what I described the fair folk’s version of her being like. I figured that since I’ve used gratuitous Finnish to name every fairy in the story, it stands to reason that their gods/spirit guide-creatures also have Finnish names. I apologise for cramming my native culture down your throats… or then I’m not, because I figure I’ve done it mostly tastefully so far. Feel free to complain if it’s too much.
I’ve been having some trouble with loading some of my Fey saves. I think it’s because the saves are getting too big. I’ve been trying to clean them up and so far I’ve managed to at least get them working. Let’s hope I can keep things functional. So far my TS3 has been very kind to me so we can hope it will keep doing that.
I hope you enjoy! I’ll start working on the next chapter as soon as I have time and energy. Right now I’m pretty busy with school and all. Have a lovely time you all!