Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 4

Week four already! Goodness, how quickly this is going. I just wanted to remark, before this week’s story begins, that these characters will probably turn up again. When I say ‘probably,’ I actually mean ‘most certainly.’ Some things take on a life of their own…

*

Walter and the Children of the Day

by H. M. Snow

There is a certain tone in a child’s scream that wakens the parental instinct in even the most nonparental of adults, especially at an elementary school during recess. When that particular scream ricocheted from the walls of Tenney Elementary School, every adult within earshot sprang upright. On the playground, staff members ran to the corner where an ashen-faced boy still screamed without ceasing. Tall oaks overshadowed him so that his pallor stood out boldly. He lay sprawled on his back, facing the depths of the trees’ shadow. The heels of his sneakers dug shallow grooves in the hard-packed ground as the boy tried weakly to retreat. He struggled against the adults who clustered around him. None of their proffered comforts distracted his gaze from the empty shadows or stopped him from screaming.

One of the teachers who arrived with the second wave insinuated herself through the concerned crowd so that she knelt at the boy’s back and dragged him backwards into the sunlight. From her pocket she took a small mirror. Without speaking to the boy, she held out the mirror from behind him so that the sunlight reflected into the shadows. The mirror’s convex surface scattered the shadows. “See?” the teacher whispered in the boy’s ear. “They’ve gone.”

He calmed enough to stop screaming, though his body trembled mightily.

The surrounding staff members relaxed. One of them said, “That’s Miss Brown for you!” and the others chimed in with their agreement, as though affirming Miss Brown’s mysterious ability to calm the most agitated of children. They began to drift back to their stations around the playground, except for a compactly-built black man in a fine gray suit. Suit notwithstanding, he crouched down to study the boy. “You aren’t a student here, are you?” he said pleasantly. “Or is this your first day?”

When the boy averted his face and refused to speak, Miss Brown spoke instead. “You have a good eye for faces, Dr. Wade. He doesn’t go here. He appears to be in considerable trouble.” She leaned forward again to speak in the boy’s ear. “If you want, I can help you, but I need to know your name first. Will you tell me your name?”

He grabbed her hand, the one holding the mirror, and raised it until the reflection illuminated the shade once again.

Dr. Wade started to speak, but Miss Brown intervened with a question– not for the boy, but for the principal. “Dr. Wade, do I have your trust?”

“Faina Brown, if I couldn’t trust you, I couldn’t trust anyone. Why?”

“I know how to help him, but it means taking him somewhere else. I can’t explain.”

“I’ll let Maggie know to find coverage for your class.”

Miss Brown smiled. A faint blush touched her high Slavic cheekbones. “Thank you.”

“We depend on you, Miss Brown. I hope you know you can depend on us in return.” Having said that, Dr. Wade stood up and returned to the school building.

“Quickly,” said Faina Brown to the boy. She raised him to his feet with surprising ease for a lean frame such as hers. Then she towed him by the hand to the parking lot. One of the keys dangling from her lanyard let them into a little gray BMW roadster. Miss Brown started the engine and pulled out of the school parking lot. “Let’s see where they went,” she remarked aloud. “They won’t have gone far.” She drove the perimeter of the school grounds at a leisurely pace. “I knew it. There they are.”

The boy shrank down into the passenger seat with a shuddery moan.

“Don’t be afraid anymore,” said Miss Brown. “We need them to follow us away from the school, or who knows what kind of troubles they’ll cause. They won’t catch us in this car, though, so cheer up. I still don’t know your name. Are you ready to tell me? My name is Faina Brown. The kids all call me Miss Brown, but I’ll let you call me Faina, since you’ve seen them.”

“Walter,” the boy whispered. “I’m Walter.”

“How do you do, Walter? That’s a nice name. It sounds very grown-up.” As she pulled onto the freeway entrance ramp, Faina opened the convertible roof. “Let us fill ourselves with the sun while it shines!” Then her foot lowered on the accelerator and the wind filled their ears.

They traveled the freeway for a good hour under the afternoon sun before Faina exited in favor of a rural two-lane highway. She kept to that highway for almost another hour, then made a left turn onto a smaller highway that turned into gravel after twenty miles. From there, their route consisted of increasingly narrower country lanes, until Faina made a right turn onto what appeared to be a path of leaves under a low canopy of birch and aspen. Then she raised the convertible roof. The rumble of tires over rutted tracks made her raise her voice a little. “Take a look in the side mirror, Walter. Can you see them?”

Walter leaned forward to check. He shrank back into his seat almost at once, shuddering.

“They’re ugly when they aren’t trying to take shape, aren’t they? Not to fear, Walter. I’ll give you this to hold. It will keep them away from you.” Without removing her gaze from the rough track ahead of her vehicle, Faina took the small mirror again from her pocket and gave it to the boy. “Have you seen what they really looked like before now?”

Walter shook his head.

“How did you first meet them? Can you tell me?”

Walter gripped the mirror between his hands and stared dully at it. After a time, he said, “Come to the door one night, man in a hat. Said he’d make us rich.”

“They do that. Who said yes to him?”

“Mom. Her boyfriend just dumped her an’ took his cash with him. She wanted lots of cash.”

“Is she still okay?”

Walter shook his head vehemently.

“Do you have any other family you can stay with?”

Again he shook his head. “Just Mom.” He started to tremble.

Faina reached over to rest her hand on his disheveled head. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll help you. Would you like to know what they are?” When his head bobbed under her hand, she went on, “I was born in Russia, where they tell the story of Goryshche the twelve-headed dragon and Dobrynya Nikitich who slew her along with her many offspring, and the Chudo-Yudo of many heads slain by Ivan Buikovich. Russia likes her monsters many-headed,” Faina added fondly. “This is one like those, but different in certain aspects. We do not name them; we call them ‘enemy’ and leave it at that. ‘They’ are many and yet one, with a single body hidden somewhere deep under the earth, many heads roaming the world, and many more offspring that swarm any human careless enough to invite them into the home. You know what that means.” She rubbed his head. “You’re blessed, Walter, did you know that? It was one of the heads who came to your mother’s door, and yet you escaped. We won’t let that go to waste.”

The tunnel of trees thickened as they followed it. Walter uttered an involuntary shriek when Faina veered left into the unbroken darkness of the mountainside. Her headlights showed the rugged walls of a cave tunnel just wide enough to admit two vehicles abreast. The long darkness brought a change to Faina’s expression, but Walter was in no position to notice. He was gazing raptly at the mirror he clutched between his hands. From the convex glass a faint amber-tinted light glowed, illuminating his young face. The amber light glinted from the semi-precious stones set into the mirror’s frame.

The convertible surged out of the tunnel’s exit onto a plateau and skidded to a halt. People came running from the assortment of buildings. Walter, still mesmerized by the glowing mirror, paid them no attention, but Faina jumped out of the convertible to greet them all with one terse statement: “We have a head approaching, attended by at least four dozen offspring.”

Those words sent everyone scattering, not in a panic but in practiced maneuvers to take up battle stations. The only one who did not turn back was an elderly man, tall and spare with sloped shoulders, who was still approaching from the chalet that dominated the plateau. His unyielding gaze swept Faina in one rapid assessment before taking in the boy Walter. Not satisfied by a look, the old man reached into the car and lifted Walter into the air at arm’s length, staring hard at the boy.

“You’re frightening an already frightened Walter, Eirian,” said Faina gently. “They didn’t touch him. I made sure before I approached him.”

“Yet a shadow covers him.” Eirian’s voice was as harsh as his features. “Why must you take such foolish risks, Faina?”

Faina circled around the car. “Stealing their prey from them and leading them away from humans in a strategic retreat counts as a more foolish risk than fighting them on my own? This is the first I’ve heard of it.” She waited for the old man to set Walter down. Then she clasped her hands behind her back and pivoted back and forth like a coquettish young girl. “I missed you very much, Eirian. Did you miss me at all?”

“Everyone missed you.”

“Boo.” Faina made a wry face. “That isn’t what I asked.” Then she abandoned restraint and threw her arms around Eirian’s neck. “There’s no use in my going away if you don’t miss me.”

“You are wasting your efforts, Faina.”

“And I shall go on doing so until you give in and accept me as your wife,” Faina replied sweetly. “I’ll give you a gold star for stamina, though. I was so sure you would have started your renewal cycle by now. Why are you so stubborn? I’m not speaking about my own interests now, Eirian. It isn’t good for you, dragging things out this way.”

“Now is not the time for your frivolity. The enemy head is near. Guard this human child.”

“His name is Walter.”

The old man pulled free of Faina’s embrace. Taking a knee stiffly beside Walter, Eirian spoke to him as sternly as to an adult. “You must watch what happens. You have seen the strength of them, and it has left on you a dark shadow. Now you will see the weakness of them. I will show you it, to take the shadow from you.”

Faina sighed. “I’m sure it’s no use to tell you that, developmentally speaking, this is a highly inappropriate amount of emotional trauma for a boy his age.” She whistled sharply. “Peter! Change places with me, please.”

“Faina…” Eirian’s gruff voice took on a warning tone.

“Peter may be my elder by a generation, but his latest renewal is still in its early stages. I am strong enough to stand at your side, Eirian. I will not be turned away from finishing what I started.” Faina stood with her fists propped on her hips and met Eirian’s scowl with a dancing devilry in her eyes.

Eirian exhaled audibly. “So be it.” A pure amber radiance enveloped him, first as a second skin and then expanding until it took ethereal shape as leaves of light. “They are here.”

Faina snatched at one of the leaves.

Despite himself, Eirian flinched. “A little warning would be more seemly.”

“A little warning, and you would deny me again.” Faina began to radiate light herself. Hers was a piercing silver-white. She plucked one of her own ephemeral leaves from the emerging cloud. Running to the chalet, she called out, “Marta! These are for new mirrors. Would you blend them together?”

The lean middle-aged woman who answered her call accepted the leaves dubiously. “This is enough for two mirrors.”

“Exactly. Two mirrors, his and hers style, but make sure they’re blended.” Faina loped back to where she had left Eirian. Faina redoubled her radiance until she cast shadows from every blade of grass and small rock on the plateau. “Walter! Be sure to watch and not be afraid. This is why we live, after all.” Her silver leaves spread out beyond their original cagelike framework and flew all around and above her. White light in the shape of eagles began to swoop around Faina.

Her radiance revealed an oily mass flowing over the lip of the plateau. When the mass stopped flowing, it congealed into one central mound of viscosity, surrounded by dozens of smaller droplets. The central bulk of it rose up into a column. Whiplike feelers stretched out on all sides, and the surrounding droplets grew small wings. As the column grew increasingly slender, its smaller offspring orbited through its chaotic storm of whipping feelers.

With a clatter the shutters of the surrounding buildings flew open to reveal an array of broad convex mirrors. Faina’s light in particular, when reflected from these mirrors, flashed like lightning. She called out in challenge to the enemy, “I am one of the children of the day. I will drive you from this world.”

A voice drifted from the black whips of the column. “I am the third head of the Yugra. I will not be driven from a world that is mine by right.”

“We shall see.” Faina’s blinding radiance could not disguise the mischief in her voice. “Whatever happens, I won’t let you go near Walter again.” The lightning that flashed from the mirrors behind her lit up the heights of the mountain. All around her, the other combatants under Eirian’s command cast their radiance to erase even the smallest shadows surrounding the enemy. Then Faina sped forward to attack, leaving the rest of the children of the day to rush after her with their battle cries echoing like untamed music through the skies.

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hmsnow1

Fantasy novelist and essayist H.M. Snow, author of the Last Book of the Kings series and the novella Faerie Tales for Travelers.

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