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A Winter Storm
To a song there are short notes and rests just as there are shorter lives and deaths. For Berehan the mortal realms have a place and purpose, the short and powerful, fast and free, living and dying quickly.
“Memoir of Dame Vida the Blessed; Defender of the Song”
Library for the Cosmic and Divine Order of the Lion’s Roar
Earth, 2007 AY
Winter winds stole the breath from Anna Henly as she perched in the bough of the oak tree outside her bedroom window. Through gritted teeth she sucked frozen air and fought to keep from chattering. Her muscles shivered for warmth. Huddled deep inside a fuzzy pink robe and kitty slippers, she watched three shadowed figures march across the back lawn of her family’s house. Leafless branches clouded her view of them, but she noticed each had on thick winter coats, the hoods pulled up over hats to keep their ears warm. Each had mittens.
Three pairs of winter boots crunched the frozen snow. The leader swept the yard with a flashlight, seeking observers, failing to check the tree and bushes. The second person held a rectangle in their hands and the third carried a long object, a sword. Anna started at the sight of the weapon, clung to the branch for balance and heaved a sigh of relief when she didn’t fall. Snow fell free from the oak and Anna froze, flat against the tree’s trunk. The leader turned, flashed their light in the tree’s direction. She pressed tighter and held her breath. On the third floor of Henly House, the drop was far.
Heartbeats passed and the interlopers continued their trek to a giant fountain built against a row of barren lilac bushes. The base acted as a reservoir in the summer for water, which flowed from a mallet held in the hand of a beast with black leathery wings and fangs. King Nysrog the Just stood sentry, his other hand raised. Claws sharp and ready to strike. With a wide stance, talons on his feet and spread wings kept the muscular fright balanced. Ferocity stared down the uninvited visitors. An artist named Yew Arro had sculpted the demon king.
They ringed the fountain. The sword bearer tapped the mallet and a peal rang through the stormy air. Wind picked up shaking the branches, knocking icicles from the house. Vines slammed into the side of Mom’s walled garden to the left of the intruders. Rose bushes thrashed in time to the storm’s swells. The tolling of a gong beat softly and then clanged. The clamor came to a crescendo and stopped. Lightning flashed from the statue and Anna stifled a scream.
The light struck the visitors, their heads fell back, arms wide, and the leader dropped the flashlight and plunged the yard into darkness. The one with the rectangle regained their composure and opened the object. A book. Another flash of light threw sparks upward like a firecracker exploding and a woman screamed. Flora! The Henlys’ elder cook and housekeeper was terrified of thunderstorms.
Night enhanced the cold. The temperature dipped lower. Anna trembled.
The wind stung and burned. The branch swayed and shivers ran down Anna’s spine. Tears filled her eyes. Fingers and hands grew painfully cold. Frost bite was setting in and Anna had known better, but when the sounds outside woke her in the middle of the night, some kind of death wish drew her outside without thought. She had the intelligence of a gnat, worse than a gnat and still she watched.
Voices joined the snowstorm. Thunder roared overhead and flashes from the clouds entered the fray. “Iþ damaþ heivur Glotid eil. Iþ hvlig muln Falga.” The three chanted in a foreign tongue. Anna strained to understand. The words seemed familiar.
A moment passed and then the wind picked up, howling, a wraith’s lament. Lightning from the statue split the darkness once more and the three chanted thrice more. Flora shrieked again. The intruders scattered, their prints darted in three different directions.
Another person, Roger in his long coat chased after them, sharpened stave in hand. When had he sneaked outside? The Henlys’ driver and butler chose a target and took off, his boots crunching ice. The Irish man lumbered inches taller than the trespassers. His usual calm was gone. Roger dashed like a wolf in the wild after its prey.
Anna scrabbled off the tree, almost slipped on ice and clung to her window sill. She hefted herself inside, over the desk knocking snow onto papers, pens and the floor. Moisture soaked into the carpet. Her bedroom door crashed open and her siblings piled inside.
Caitlyn strolled into the room, the flaps of her robe flared like a thick cloak over flannel pajamas. She slung an arm around their younger brother Mark. Caitlyn was the oldest Henly child, taller than Anna, smarter, prettier. She took after their mother, the combination of Welsh, Argentinian and Sardinian heritage shined in Caitlyn.
A twinge of jealousy flared in Anna before she squashed it. Anna was shorter, a bit stockier, not a tremendous beauty despite her odd lilac birthmarks that snaked over her limbs and body. She had silver and orchid colored hair that grew wild in every direction with curls tighter than Flora’s nerves in a thunderstorm.
“There are men trying to break into the house.”
“Flora’s calling the police!” Their brother Mark chimed in. “Roger’s chasing them down with his stave. Can you believe it? Like a real knight!” he slashed the air with a wooden practice sword. Mark was seven going on knighthood. He still believed such orders existed to protect the world. None of the Henlys had the heart to set him straight. Knightly organizations had died out hundreds of years ago, as far as Anna knew. History was not her subject.
“What are you doing?” Caitlyn examined the window, her black eyes tracked the snow across Anna’s desk and the wet spot on the floor. “You were outside, in this weather.”
“Well, I heard them and went to investigate.”
Caitlyn crossed her arms. “You could have been seen or froze to death. It’s February in Minnesota!” Worry creased Caitlyn’s forehead. The wind whistled as if to taunt Anna. Negative temperatures had a nasty bite.
Anna shrugged. Her sister had an over protective streak, not like their parents who never let her leave the house, not even to attend school. She just always looked out for Anna and she appreciated it most of the time. There was no reason to argue. “You’re right.” Her sister opened her mouth, but Anna kept speaking. “I might have been seen. I might have been killed.” She rubbed her hands together and blew on them. Anna winced as warmth returned and fiery needles plunged the depths of her flesh. Frostbite. Winter in Minnesota. “I saw what they were doing and it wasn’t breaking into the house.”
“What?” Mark slashed at Anna’s bedpost leaving a mark in the wood. She grabbed the sword from him. The house was full of dents, the walls, ancient furniture, statues the whole place had dings from that weapon. Everything except the paintings and Flora’s pots and pans in the kitchen. Mark didn’t dare touch those.
“They were standing around that statue in the backyard, the one by Mom’s walled garden and chanting something. One had a sword, the leader carried a flashlight and another one had a book. They chanted in another language. Lightning flashed from the fountain! That’s when Flora screamed.” Anna crossed her arms to keep warm. The disjointed account didn’t make sense to her own ears and confusion showed clear on both her siblings’ faces. She sighed. “It looked as if they were performing some kind of ritual in a foreign language or perhaps the wind cut off their words.”
“Still, they might have hurt you. What if you fell from that tree? What if they had a gun?” Caitlyn’s voice took on a lecturing tone. The academic loved school, wanted to become a neurosurgeon or study diseases of the brain. Caitlyn was 17 going on 50. “What will Mom and Dad say when they find out?”
Anna let her sister’s words wash over her for a moment. Mark stared at the two of them, shook his head and shouted. “I’m going to see if the police have come.” He dashed out of the room, waving his sword. His blond hair bounced with each step. It was much too late for that kind of energy.
The clock concurred. It was later than one in the morning. Touching Caitlyn’s shoulder, Anna peered into her sister’s black eyes. They glistened with light. “While I am sure you’ll captivate a whole university class one day, I never signed up for this lecture.” She smiled and darted out of the room. Caitlyn snarled, still chiding.
“You know I’m right.”
“Yes, I do. I was so stupid.”
“You’re not stupid.”
Anna stumbled at Caitlyn’s hip nudge and then turned arabesque. Anna wasn’t as smart as her sister, but she had talent of a sort for ballet. She mock plied. “Okay, I’m not. Let’s see what’s going on. Maybe Roger’s back.
The two sisters bounded down the back stairs from the third floor to the first. They passed four figurines on the wall, music box statues. Anna pranced by them, let her fingers brush against a winged male with summer in his eyes and a crown of stars. Music thrummed from the box, though she hadn’t wound the device in a long time. Anna walked on her toes flowing in ballet forms. It helped to warm her limbs. They passed the parlor and dining room, the hall leading to the front foyer.
They ignored the large sunroom and great room occupying the old Victorian mansion’s space on the right. To the left down the hall sat the kitchen, the garage, and Flora and Roger’s personal rooms. Straight ahead, the girls heard raised voices spilling from the music room. The dilapidated house badly needed restoration.
Sconces on the wall provided light. Dust lay thick in this part of the house. Neglected by time and Flora’s deft hand. According to Flora, she had once kept the place immaculate, effortlessly for the many parties their grandparents used to host. The Henlys had wealth back then and some fame, as much as anyone in Saint Paul could expect. Not that Anna knew much about it. 1960 was ancient history.
Now cracks dominated the walls, chipped paint, and ripped wallpaper. Heavy, antique furniture needed fresh stain. Only the paintings and few sculptures here remained pristine, even if they clashed with the wreckage.
One painting showed demonic creatures, including King Nysrog, the same figure in the backyard. They linked arms with angels and fairies, dragons and scaled birds, feathered humanoids, and vaporous shapeshifters. Twin women dressed in green flowers danced around a rowan tree, their lips played carved flutes while a horned god beat a rhythm on a drum. Anna walked on her tiptoes and glided into a grand battement. She stepped into a développé and then her sister stilled her with the touch of a hand on her shoulder outside the music room.
“Listen,” she hissed.
Both girls stood out of sight from the partially open doors to the room, plaster molds of musical instruments lined the doors, trimmed in gold. Anna leaned against one.
Ellen and Charles Henly, their parents stood inside with Roger and Flora. Roger held his stave, the weapon had a ferrule and blade on the end. It was about as tall as the ruddy butler and driver. He huffed, his face flushed. “I’m not 20 anymore, no sir.” He leaned on the stave. “They lost me down by the river. I slid on the ice.” Indeed, Roger’s pajamas, Anna couldn’t remember ever seeing him in anything but a suit, were crusted in ice and melted snow. A puddle gathered around the man’s boots. His Irish lilt cracked as he spoke.
Flora held her hands to her face. The Welsh woman had her hair bound in curls, wore a long, thick nightgown. Her plump figure shivered, fear in her eyes kept her paralyzed, unspeaking. Shock filled Anna. Flora was about 70 years old and had always feared storms at least for as long as Anna remembered. Yet, terror crossed the woman’s features, more than fear resided behind those grey eyes.
Mom put an arm around the woman. “Now dear, I am sure it was nothing. Perhaps they thought to steal the fountain. Vandals sometimes do that.”
“In this weather? The entire Welsh National Football team couldn’t budge that thing an inch. No, mark me they’re intent on breaking into the house. It’s high time we call the police and report them.” Her Welsh accent thickened. It took a musical tone. “Honestly, every last Dragon couldn’t move it.” She shook her head, a sob escaped her as the wind gusted outside the music room’s double filigree door for the veranda. Snow piled against the pane. Flora flinched, eyes wild and darting.
“Let’s go make some tea. It will calm you. I’ll see you back to bed and Roger will still be nearby.”
“I shall not sleep.” Flora followed Mom out of the room. The two chatted on their way down to the kitchen. “I fear I am much too old, my nerves too frail for this excitement.”
Anna and Caitlyn stepped behind a large buffet and crouched down until Mom and Flora walked out of sight before returning to the music room’s door. The rosewood stage in the middle of the room caught her attention. The carved figures in the circular stage’s pillars. Oh how she enjoyed practice on that platform. The ceiling mesmerized. A celestial chorus sang in a circle centered above the stage. Why hadn’t the police come? She voiced the thought. “I don’t think the police are coming.”
Caitlyn shushed her.
Mark crept from a spot by the room’s ample fireplace. “I will help keep the watch.” He stabbed the air with his sword. “I am ready to swear the oaths.”
Dad groaned. Their father, a bear of a man with dark blond hair, had a jovial nature despite rough hands from years of working construction. Now, he looked spooked though hid it well. “Mark, it’s brave of you, but all young knights must get their rest. Off to bed now. Roger and I shall handle this.”
“I’m ready. Ephraim and I have trained for years.” His best friend Ephraim Bryce attended Winding Heights Academy of Art and Science with Mark, Caitlyn and his older brother Trenton. The Bryces were their only neighbors. The trespassers had come to a nearly vacant street off a mostly private road that serviced the two families and a medical device factory about a mile up. Those men hadn’t stumbled upon Henly House by chance. Anna knew it and somehow her little brother understood that. He set his jaw, determination in his brown eyes. “I keep the oaths.”
He held his hand over his heart. “I am a defender, a tone in the Song. My spirit sings upon the first measure. And I stand on the last. Tone to tone and note for note I and my brothers and sisters in the Song keep the watch. I watch the ways between the worlds. I defend the guardian, keeper of the key. I am a knight of Aulei.” His eyes gleamed in the murky light.
“Mark, it’s time for bed.” Dad took him by the hand and turned to see Roger mouthing the same words, hand across his own chest give a quick nod to the boy and then he nodded to their dad before striding for the exit. Caitlyn and Anna hurried away. Anna slowed her breathing as she climbed into bed. She pulled the covers up under her chin. The room grew dark as she reached over and switched off the lamp on the nightstand. Caitlyn was gone to her room.
Footsteps padded down the hall, Dad was whispering to Mark, his voice grumbling and low. She didn’t understand his words, but she understood her brother. “Ephraim says it’s all real and you’re a liar.” Her brother was crying, Dad tried to sooth him and then their voices and footsteps faded away. Sleep was a long time in coming. Cold seeped into her bones and fear. Fear spread to her mind and heart, confusion reigned. She didn’t understand Dad’s behavior or Mark’s. Caitlyn’s warning what if they had seen her, struck the girl in a peculiar way. She had never worried for her own safety before, not even with the shine.
As if to mock, the lines of her birthmark glowed in the late night. The storm raged fiercer than a gale outside. Anna found sleep elusive. Sunrays invaded through the window by the time her eyelids closed and her breath steadied.
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