Waiting for Anna: Part Three
Anna does not go out for the rest of the week. She stays at home, drawing patterns in the frost on the windows and thinking.
The Aisha's thoughts shy away from what happened in the woods. She does not know why or how that happened. Instead she thinks about everyday things: the wheat crop, her brother's sarcasm, the smell of baking bread as it fills the house. Sometimes she helps her mother, floury up to the elbows as she kneads dough. It is comforting to be doing something in her listlessness. She knows that she cannot go back to just her small tricks now, but the enormity of the rest of the world still escapes her. The work of helping her mother helps her to ignore the questions inside of her and feel as if she is doing something.
A week and a day after her incident in the woods, her father leaves for Kelva to purchase supplies before snow fall.
The next day, he bursts into the house at noon with no supplies and his jacket undone. Anna's mother starts and nearly spills hot soup, but levels the pot.
"Henry!" she begins admonishingly, and then falls silent. Anna looks up at her father, who is frantic. His eyes search restlessly across the kitchen, and his green Usul tail is twitching.
"They're coming," he says, his breathing unsteady. "Darigan. Kass. Who cares--they're coming. We have to leave." Without taking his boots off, he comes into the kitchen. He puts his hands on the sides of the table, as if to lift it out and carry it away that moment, and stares down at the wood.
"No," Anna's mother says. Her father looks up from the table.
"No? But--Sasha--" He straightens, and his arms go limp at his sides.
"No. Here we came and here we'll stay. If they come, we can hide in the woods." She sets down the soup and goes up to him. Wrapping her paws around him tightly, she tips her head up onto his shoulder.
Anna, watching, thinks the Wocky might have murmured something into his ear, but she isn't sure. Slowly she lifts her hands out of the yeasty dough and goes to rinse them off. Staying or leaving, her parents are going to argue about it, and she has better things to do.
For one thing, now that her parents are distracted, she can go and visit the forest.
They do not leave. Darren, when Anna tells him the story, just grins lopsidedly. "What, did you think Father was going to win?"
Anna hadn't thought of it that way, but she does not say so aloud. Instead she shrugs and hurries off as quickly as the thin covering of snow on the ground and her walking stick will let her. She does not see Darren staring out at the white fields behind her, or his shake of the head as he goes back into the barn; she only sees the path under her feet as she watches it for bumps or sudden rises.
Even now she is not used to walking with her stick.
It takes her longer than usual to get there. The leaves are covered with snow, and there is no chance of her practicing tricks. She shivers against the cold.
Still, being out in the forest comforts her. She cannot quite say why. It is a peaceful place. There are many peaceful places, of course, but the silence of the forest is unique to itself.
Darigan comes, or Kass. To the people of Meridell it does not matter which one it is, and most of them do not know.
Either way, they burn and pillage the towns and villages of Meridell. Kelva counts itself lucky to be farther from the Citadel than the castle is, but it isn't too much farther, and it is only a matter of time, the people of Kelva tell each other. They know this to be true.
Holed up in their farm, Anna and Darren and their parents take turns reading aloud out of the Neopian Times in the evenings and wait for the enemy to arrive. Anna likes the comics the most, but Darren reads the articles; their parents let them choose, and they trade off days. Once in a while their mother insists on a short story or two, and though at first both children protest it, they're soon under the spell of the words. They keep track of their favorite authors.
Eventually the Neopian Times stops coming, and then they read and reread the copies they have saved.
They do not go outside, except to go to the barn. There is no reason to, and no sense in it.
Darren and Henry and Sasha know that there is no hope of their farm being passed by when Darigan--or Kass--comes, but Anna, in her own way, is as optimistic as any small child, and she still thinks of it as just another event, something to be survived. She does not think about the future, other than something that will go on as it always has.
It is nearing springtime when the soldiers reach Kelva. The next day, patrols spread out to search the homesteads surrounding.
Anna's family does not know this. They do not know anything but their house and the barn and the well-trod path in the snow between the two.
Anna is longing for her woods. The Aisha has forgotten the leaves, forgotten entirely the strange, huge magic that once took up a place inside her. She remembers only the autumn happiness she had there. She dares not try to do magic tricks with her brother and both parents always in the house. Every time she thinks of it, someone walks into the room, and she lets go of the idea for another while, sadly.
When Kass, or perhaps it is Darigan, reaches their farm, they almost pass it by. There are no footprints in the snow outside, and the tendril of smoke from the chimney is very small. But it is there, and there is the path to the barn; it snowed only the last night. The path shows new pawprints.
The soldiers go first to the barn and search it. They come up to the house on the path of trodden snow that Darren and Henry cleared, their paws near their sword hilts.
When the knock comes on the door, Darren and Anna and their parents are all in the living room. All but Anna rise to their feet; Anna struggles to hers. Despite the months of healing time, her foot is still not strong, and she braces her walking stick against the floor to get up.
Quietly their mother goes to the door. Their father catches at her sleeve, but it is too late; she has gone down the hallway to answer it.
The sound of metal against metal comes almost immediately, and their father shouts and leaps after her. Anna turns to follow them, and catches a glimpse of the hall: a confusion of metal and people, armored soldiers and her parents in the middle of it all. They are both holding swords, though Anna has never seen any weapons in their house.
The Aisha cannot see how many soldiers there are, but there are more than her parents can fight off, she knows. It seems a bigger melee than just they could provide, but they must be doing well, she thinks.
But she still should help them. Distract the soldiers. She still has her walking stick. She can help fight.
As she starts forward determinedly, Darren's paw circles around her arm, tugging her back. She turns around to face him.
"We have to--" she starts, but the Kougra shakes his head.
"No," he whispers, and pulls her back. "Not you. I do, but not you. You need to go. Be a famous magician. Be anything you want to be, Anna."
She staggers, almost losing her balance. Darren presses part of the fireplace, and it slides away to reveal a dark compartment. It is empty, except for two swords in sheathes buckled onto a belt; she only catches a glimpse of them before the Kougra sweeps them away.
"In," Darren mutters, and when she does not go, he shoves her in. The Aisha half-falls, and tries to get back up. Her brother presses the switch to close the wall. It slides obediently back over; Anna cries out as it closes.
"Darren!" she yells, but her voice is lost in the noise of the fight. He's gone, she can tell.
She lashes out at the wall blindly, hoping to hit the switch that will open the wall again and let her fight too, but it stays stubbornly closed and she soon loses the strength and willpower to go on. Sliding down the wall, the Aisha pulls her knees up and hugs them, sobbing under the sound of metal clashing on metal. She cries until there are no tears left, and when she runs out of tears, the fighting has stopped and all is silent.
To be continued...