Fractal Myth

THE SEVEN RAVENS

Chapter 6

[Michelle Whitehead ©2006]

Cate insisted on staying up until Arlys returned. He wasn't gone long, but as soon as she saw his shadow in the doorway, Cate flung herself into his arms.

"Whoa, girl! Watch out! You're getting a bit too big for that trick now!" He pretended to stagger under an immense weight, tickling Cate so that she squealed and giggled. "Look, Mumma!" He exclaimed, carrying his squirming bundle over to Lynet. "Look what I caught! It attacked me when I came through the door! Have you ever seen anything like it before? I wonder what sort of creature it could possibly be?" Can I keep it? Can I, Mumma? Huh? Huh?"

Cate's wriggling had untucked her shirt, exposing a little brown belly. Lynet seized the opportunity, blowing bubbles against her daughter's tummy. She was glad neither of them could see her eyes, or the tears that had sprung to them in response to Arlys's teasing voice, so like their missing sons. She was used to such momentary sadnesses by now, and was quickly recovered.

"Yes, Dadda, you can keep it. I think it's a friendly little tickle-monster. But just hold it there for a bit longer. I'd better blow some more bubbles to make certain." Cate squealed again, playfully struggling against her father's strong arms as she attempted to avoid her mother's undignified caresses. She was laughing so hard that her giggles turned into violent hiccups.

"Bed time," Lynet ordered, as soon as she had restored some semblance of order.

"Yes, Mumma," Cate agreed, with a wide yawn. Arlys looked at Lynet in amazement. Normally it took an hour of argument and several stories before Cate would willingly head off to sleep. Now here she was, brushing her teeth without even being told.

"Wonders will never cease!" he whispered, and Lynet stood on tiptoe to kiss him.

"Our daughter is growing up," she whispered back. "She's worn herself out today with talking, I bet."

"That'll be the day," Arlys quipped. "I've yet to see a woman worn out by talking! It's a good thing she's still my little girl. I don't want to lose her yet."

Lynet playfully jabbed him in the ribs while secretly agreeing. At first Cate had been their salvation by keeping them too busy to grieve, but more recently they had come to depend on her effervescent cheerfulness. In a way, Lynet realised, it must put a lot of pressure on the child, especially since she had learned the truth about her brothers.

There had been no real change in her since the discovery. She was still the same loving, joyful girl, but every now and then Lynet had found her sitting quietly by herself, and when Lynet had asked what she was doing, all Cate would say was that she was "thinking". She refused to explain what she was thinking about, and as she was never inactive for long, Lynet simply put it down to growing pains. That was her main reason for encouraging Cate's friendship with Aedre. At the very least Cate should have a confidante of her own age to talk to. Remembering the crowd of friends she had played with when she was Cate's age, Lynet felt a twinge of guilt. Perhaps they had come to depend on her too much. Made her too responsible for the happiness of her parents. Not in any overt way, but who knows what goes on in the mind of a child, especially one as curious and active as Cate. Oh well, Lynet consoled herself. Today's birthday party had gone well. It had been a great success, and was something to build on. Tomorrow... well, tomorrow was another day.

Cate lay tucked up in bed, watching the stars twinkle through the trees outside her window and listening as her parents prepared for bed. Every now and then one of them would poke their head around the half-open door to check on her, but each time she heard their footsteps coming and pretended to be asleep. If either of them had guessed what was going on in her head they'd have been horrified.

Ever since she had learned the secret of her brothers' fate, Cate had known it was her duty to rescue them. At the same time, she knew how much her parents needed her, so she had vowed to herself not to go without their permission. Even now she was slightly uneasy at the way she was twisting their words, but her father had given his permission if her mother allowed it, and her mother has said she could go when she was older. Well, now she was eight. That was ever so much older than seven. Besides, she couldn't bear to think of her brothers having to wait any longer. The thought that she might fail never crossed her mind. Although she had no idea of where her brothers were, or even who they were, she had a sure faith that she had only to start asking and the path would be shown to her.

Her main worry had been leaving her mother and father behind, knowing how much they would miss her, how they would believe the worst, and how they would sink into sadness without her there to tease them into laughing their sorrow away. Long before she had learned about her brothers she had felt that her parents had some secret tragedy which made it hard for them to stay happy, and she had always done her best to keep the faces she loved wreathed in smiles. Still, the time had come for her to make a choice, and having made it, there was no going back. She pushed the thought of her parents' sorrow from her, imagining instead their great joy when she arrived home again, safe and well, with all her brothers transformed back into boys again. It would be perfect, and on that day her parents would forgive her and know that their prayers had been answered and all their suffering had not been in vain.

The sounds of the house slowly faded, until finally, Cate heard Arlys close the door to their room. She stayed motionless for a while longer until she was certain they were asleep. Studying the slice of sky she could see through the window, she estimated that it was just past midnight. Perfect. She would walk all night, following the path from the village, and by morning she should have reached the busy road Aedre had told her about. Apparently all the merchants and peddlars used it, and there was a constant flow of traffic. It seemed like the ideal place to start asking for help, and with any luck she would get a ride with someone and be miles from the village before anyone noticed she was gone.

Sliding silently out of her warm bed, Cate shrugged into a pair of tough leather trousers and a warm woollen shirt. The spring days may be warm and sunny but the nights were still very chilly. Cate was glad she had pestered her mother to bring out some of her brothers' old clothes for her to wear in the forest. There was no way she could undertake a journey like this in a dress. Cate didn't know much about the world outside her village, but she knew enough to realise that a boy travelling alone would have less trouble than a girl would. She had considered cutting her hair, but eventually decided that was too great a sacrifice. Now she compromised by bundling it up neatly under a boy's cap. In the starlight she could dimly see her reflection in the mirror, and she nodded in satisfaction. Her skin was deeply tanned and she was quite strong for her age. She should have no trouble carrying off her disguise. All that remained was to gather together the things she needed to take with her.

At first, Cate had drawn up long mental lists of things she couldn't possibly do without, but gradually she had convinced herself that the less she took, the better. For a start, she would have to travel fast, and a heavy bundle would only slow her down, and, even more importantly, it had dawned on her that if she left the majority of her belongings behind, her parents would find it easier to believe that she would soon return. She was glad of her decision now, as she groped around the dark kitchen. Only a few tiny coals were still glowing in the fireplace, and she dared not stir them up, for fear of waking her parents. It would have been impossible to find anything by their dim light, except for the few obvious items she had chosen.

First, there was the little ring which Lynet and Arlys had given her for her birthday. It was woven from silver wire, intricately braided in the form of a true love knot. Arlys's father had made it long ago, as a wedding present for Lynet, and she and Arlys had decided Cate was now old enough to take proper care of it. The ring was too large for any of her fingers, but it nestled snugly on her thumb. She ran her forefinger over it constantly, to check it was still there. She was petrified of losing it, but she had decided to take it nonetheless, as a reminder of her parents, and also because there was a slim chance some of her brothers might recognise it. Lynet said she had often used to wear it when the older boys were young, but then her knuckles had thickened until the ring would no longer fit her, and she had put it aside in case she ever had a daughter. Wearing it gave Cate a feeling of security, as though it had magical powers. She felt that as long as she kept it close to her, her parents' love would protect her and keep her safe. Catching a ray of light from the fireplace, the ring shone softly. Cate kissed it, silently swearing a vow that, wherever she went and whatever happened to her, she would never forget that her parents were waiting anxiously for her to come home.

The thought of coming home reminded Cate that she hadn't even left yet. She pulled her little leather bag from the hook on the wall. Originally, she had planned to take some of the honey oat cakes from her party, but Lynet, with typical generosity, had presented them to Aedre to take home for her brothers. On the table was the large, uncut loaf of fresh bread which Lynet had baked for the next day. Cate hated to deprive her father of his breakfast, but the alternative was to go hungry herself, and she had no idea what sort of provisions she might find along the road.

"Sorry, Dadda," she whispered, as she wrapped the loaf in a clean cloth and slid it into her bag.

Next, she felt along the dark ledge of the mantel until she found the little silver baptism jug. If she was going to take food, she thought, it was only sensible to take something to drink as well. All the other jugs in the house were too large and clumsy to carry, and there was no way to seal them, whereas the little silver jug had a narrow mouth that could be stoppered with a lump of the beeswax Lynet used to strengthen her sewing thread. Cate filled the jug with fresh water from the basin set ready for breakfast, and held the wax near the warm coals to soften it. As she pressed the wax into the opening of the jug, she wondered how her brothers must have felt, the last time they touched it. Had they been eager to welcome their little sister, or had they just felt she was a nuisance? She knew next to nothing about them, other than a few individual details, and she was quite scared that, even she did find them, they might reject her as the cause of all their misfortunes. Still kneeling by the fire, she murmured a prayer that combined all her hopes and fears for herself, her brothers and her parents, in one fervent plea for help. Then she tucked the tightly sealed jug into her bag, and stood up, brushing dust and ashes from her knees, making sure they fell into the fireplace instead of marking her mother's pristine hearthstone. The last thing she needed was for Lynet to come out in the morning and curse her for making a mess!

Feeling her way to the door with the bag on her shoulder, Cate wondered if there was anything else she should take. She glanced quickly around the kitchen. Everything there was too heavy to carry and would be no use to her. She shrugged and reached up to pull her heavy coat from the wall. The hook was very high, and she had to climb onto her little carved stool to reach it. Her father had made the three-legged stool for her when she was a toddler, and it was carved all the way round the seat with twining flowers. As she bundled herself into the coat, a strange thought occurred to her. She would take the stool. It wasn't heavy, and would easily fit in her leather bag. She wasn't sure what she would need it for, but if nothing else, at least she would have something to sit on when she got tired of walking.

With her hand on the door latch she paused, sure there was something she had forgotten. What could it be? Then she realised. She couldn't go without leaving a message for her parents. Not knowing where her journey would take her made it difficult to compose a note, but after weeks of silent contemplation in the forest, and consultation with her friend, the wren, she had eventually written something which almost satisfied her. Now she drew the crumpled sheet of paper from her pocket, and smoothed it out on the table, anchoring it with the jar full of her brothers' feathers to make sure it wouldn't blow away. The glow from the fire was now so low that she couldn't see to read it, but she knew the contents off by heart.

"Dear Mumma and Dadda,
Please don't be angry with me. You have given me everything I could ever want, and I have been very, very happy. However, all my life I have known that you had a secret sadness. No matter how hard you tried to hide it, I could always tell that something was missing from your life. I was so glad when I discovered the truth about my brothers, because it meant that finally, there was something I could do to help you. I know it is not my fault they disappeared. I know you hope they will come home of their own accord. However, I don't believe that is possible. Ever since I found out, I have felt that I am the only one who can save them. The thought of them has filled my dreams, both waking and sleeping. I cannot feel at peace until I have done all that is in my power to save them. Now I am eight years old, and they have waited long enough for me. I can't ask them to wait any longer. Pray for me, as you pray for them. Whatever happens, I will send you a sign on my birthday, so you will know I am safe. Please don't worry about me. I carry your love in my heart and your lessons in my head. I will make you proud.
With all my love,
Cate."

The words rang in her mind as she tiptoed over the threshold and shut the door behind her. The cold air was like a slap in the face after the warmth of the kitchen, but Cate made up her mind to ignore it. She would probably have to face much worse before her journey was over. With one last lingering glance at the moonlit garden and the forest behind, she blew a kiss to her parents and set her feet moving towards the gate.

Once there, she looked cautiously along the road. There was no sign of movement, and Cate breathed a sigh of relief. She couldn't bear the thought of being caught and turned back now. Her nerves were on tenterhooks as she gingerly opened the gate, glad that she had thought to oil the hinges with a bit of butter earlier that evening. Even so, the gate groaned softly in protest as it swung open. She held her breath as she closed it behind her, but there was no answering sound from the house.

It felt completely unreal to be treading the dusty street in the uncertain moonlight. On either side shadows loomed, and every moment Cate expected something to jump out and grab her. 'Silly girl,' she chided herself. 'What use are you going to be to your brothers if you give up because you're afraid of the dark?' She gave herself a quick shake and set her eyes firmly on her goal, the road leading past the village fountain and out into the wide world. Once she was through the village she would be able to keep to the fields, where she would feel less exposed, but too many of the houses in town had dogs, and it wouldn't do to start them all barking by trespassing in their yards.

Cate was just congratulating herself on having made a clean getaway as she passed the fountain, when she heard a whisper from the darkness.

"Cate!"

The sound of her name startled her and she gripped her bag, ready to run. She didn't get far, however. The road around the fountain was a mess of deep ruts that caught her feet and made her stumble.

"Cate, wait! It's only me! Aedre! I need to talk to you!"

Cate glared fiercely at her friend, her fear turning to anger.

"Don't try and stop me," she whispered between clenched teeth.

"I wouldn't," Aedre responded, keeping her voice low. "Just let me walk with you to the edge of the village. I'll be able to cover your footprints on the way back, and I promise I'll tell them you went a different way. It's not much, but I want to help."

"You don't know what I'm doing!" Cate declared.

"Of course I do. Come on. I watched you all afternoon. You were obviously saying goodbye to everything, and asking me to keep an eye on your family, weren't you?"

Cate had to nod. She had thought she was being subtle, but she couldn't deny hoping that once Aedre knew she was gone, she would visit Arlys and Lynet to cheer them up. There was no point in discussing it here, though.

"All right, but we'd better not talk until we are clear of the houses. It would be hard enough to explain one of us being out this late. If they see two of us, they'll wake the whole village and my brothers will never be rescued."

Aedre drew her finger across her lips, promising silence, and fell into step beside Cate. The dark, silent houses seemed less eerie with her friend walking beside her. They walked quickly, and before long they found themselves passing the little village church. Looking across, Cate noticed, to her surprise, that the church door was wide open. Giving Aedre's hand a quick squeeze to ask her to wait, Cate darted across the road and up the steps. Inside, the church smelled sweetly of polished wood and incense. Beside the door was the little font of holy water. Cate reverently genuflected, dipping her finger in the water and crossing herself with it, just as Lynet had taught her to do before and after Mass. Then, quick as thought, she was back across the road with Aedre, and they were continuing as though there had been no interruption.

In the quiet darkness of the church, Father Bede knelt by the altar to think about what he had seen. He had not questioned the impulse which woke him from a sound sleep and told him to open the church door. He was an old man, and used to answering God's call without question. He had drawn back the heavy bolts, looked out into the empty street and sat down behind a pillar to wait. When Cate darted through the door, he had recognised her instantly. It had only taken a moment for him to realise what she was up to. The silly little girl thought she would be the one to rescue her brothers. Didn't she know it would break her mother's heart to lose her? The old priest had opened his mouth and stretched out his hand to stop her, but no sound had emerged and he had found himself temporarily paralysed. Much as he wanted to, he could not move a muscle while he watched her ask God's blessing on her journey. Then she was gone and the spell was broken. He could move again. Standing, shaken, by the open door, he watched the small figure disappear back into the shadows. "God go with you," he murmured as he knelt to pray. There would be no more sleep for him that night. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

Ten minutes later, Cate and Aedre passed the last house of the village and looked out at the deserted fields. Here and there, starlight sparkled on a dew-spangled spider-web. The moon swam in and out of a sea of clouds.

"Look after my parents," Cate pleaded, as Aedre clung to her arm.

"Look after yourself!" Aedre retorted. "I'll do everything I can to keep them happy, but you have to promise to come back safely."

"I'll do my best," Cate laughed. "Believe me! I will. I have no death wish. All I want to do is to find my brothers and bring them home so we can all live normal lives together, just like you and your brothers."

At the mention of Bearn and Gifre, they both looked around nervously, as though expecting the two boys to come bursting from the bushes at any moment.

"I'd better get back," Aedre said reluctantly, and Cate kissed her cheek.

"Thank you," she said simply, but Aedre shook her head.

"Thank you," she replied. "I'm not giving you anything except a head start. You are lending me your wonderful parents, and your beautiful forest. Now I will have somewhere to escape to when I need some time to myself. That's worth more to me than you can ever imagine."

They hugged each other once more and vowed eternal friendship. Then Aedre turned, and made her way back up the road into the village, scuffing her feet in the dust as she went.

Cate stood watching her, smiling at her good luck in finding such a true friend, then suddenly she realised she was wasting valuable time. Hoisting her bag on her shoulder so the stool wouldn't bump against her back, she turned her face away from the village and the people she had known all her life, and set forth boldly into the unknown.

The Seven Ravens:

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
~ Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

The Original Fairytale by The Brothers Grimm

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