Mirror, Mirror!: Part Three
The babaas bleated plentifully as the sun set quietly. Alana’d forgotten how much she missed the quaint bearings of home and the relaxed atmosphere. It was no palace, certainly, but it was worth stopping to rest with. As they walked, the path seemed to stretch into infinity. The silence was oppressing as they counted footsteps, before Alana broke the unspoken spaces, musing aloud after about twelve score steps.
"It feels as though it's been years since I've been—" She paused. Her tongue traced the words 'back home' but the sound seemed to have been absorbed by something strange in the atmosphere. Perhaps the crokabek was too well timed, but 'back home' was lost to the evening. She tried to press on, and found a phrase that seemed to fit well, if not better, "Since I've been this happy."
Norward grinned over at her, chuckling, "Only glad we could help."
Arms were flung around each of the other's corresponding shoulders as they reached the ramshackle gate to home, which held itself up with strings and bits of spare wood. As Ferval waved goodbye and wandered his way to his own home, a small hovel down the path another third of a mile, she wondered how long the gate had been there. Years? Centuries? She knew even the oldest in town thought it was old, so she assumed it to be ancient. How it held together was nearly as magic as the stones on the hilltop: it shook in even the slightest wind and groaned at the slightest touch. The wood was old and near rotted through, no matter how recently it'd been replaced, and the bits of metal were all well rusted.
As they passed it and shut it behind them silently—a fact that did not escape her notice—Norward dropped his arm from her shoulder and smiled softly.
"I'm going to go check on the storage shed, make sure these fellows get in their pens and stay there. I'll meet you in for dinner."
She nodded. "Certainly not a problem, brother. Remember the third gate doesn't stick as well!"
He chuckled. "Wouldn't forget it ever, sister."
They parted ways as she watched him a moment, shaking her head. If she hadn't left, she was sure he'd been destined for great things, but she had no way of knowing what had happened to him after she left. Seeing him here, though, he was sure to have stayed. Safety and happiness at home, after all.
He was quite a brilliant boy, she considered, and he knew quite a bit outside farm work. He could do anything, certainly, but here he still was, still as gold as the day she first met him. Alana's thoughts faded, however, as she moved inside through the little doorway.
Dinner would be cooked up soon, but exhaustion claimed her legs almost the moment she stumbled into the dimly lit room. The smell of a home-cooked meal hit her like a wall, and she nearly moaned in hunger, her stomach roaring over the noise of fire and slowly simmering stew. Just like she remembered—and here it was! Here and now to be home and have such wonderful things. She slipped into the room that served as kitchen, dining hall, parlor and her father's sleeping chambers. A small ladder crawled to the loft that held her and Norward's cots, behind this latter snuggled the quiet stove-top and fireplace against the far wall, where a heavy iron-cast pot was stirred by a slightly hunched Bruce with graying whiskers. Alana felt herself grinning as she ran over, wrapping her arms around the slightly startled old fellow.
"Da! I-I've missed you!" Her exhilaration faded quickly to hot shame as she stepped back, looking down, face flushed, voice becoming more subdued, "I'm so sorry I left."
He turned, adjusting the frames of broken, dusty glasses and furrowed his brow. "Left? Child, someone needs to tend the sheep." He broke into a slow smile, shaking his head, "Land's sakes, girly."
His eyes shone, forehead crinkled with wrinkles of time, age and hard work. His flippers were dusty and stained, and Alana looked up quietly, trying to force a smile. Despite herself, prickling formed at her eyes and she shook her head, fighting back hard tears, struggling to keep composure. Perris, her father, looked briefly startled, and laughed a little nervously,
"Dear, why, it's only been since this mornin'. Nothin's gone the worse, and I don't think this stew smells all that bad, now, does it?"
His genuine and sudden concern as he turned back to the stew and waved at the steam hurriedly, looking worried, broke the strange barrage of tears. She wiped her eyes and found herself chuckling.
"N-No, P'pa! It's alright-"
He turned, his friendly blue eyes shining at her. "Good, I was scared a moment there."
That strange feeling of revolution turned in her mind again like a raging war-Uni, rearing back. No! A voice in her mind screamed, sounding eerily like herself, and boomed through her skull. You know his eyes were brown!
He blinked quickly and looked down the wipe at the bedraggled spectacles, as though suddenly worried for their wear, and looked up. His eyes were now as brown as they ever could have been. The voice in her mind fell silent, and a shudder crawled its way up her spine. Something deep within her told her that this was all wrong. She pulled herself away from her father briefly, and frowned deeply. He wrinkled his forehead and moved the spoon atop the pot carefully, so as not to loose it in the mix or the fire. "Is everything alright, dear?"
She felt herself smile and agree. "Yes. It's alright p'pa. I'm just tired." She saw him nod.
A panic rose in her stomach, a scream scratched at her throat, and her inner voice that had so faithfully corrected her vision, and which so often told her who to trust and who to avoid, which alleyway to duck into and which shadow to hide under, blared over every single sense and notion, screaming that something here was very, very wrong.
Her father returned to the stew as though everything was fine, and she put a hand to her stomach, nearly doubling over. This did no go unnoticed.
She swallowed and smiled, "I think I may go get some water, my-my stomach. It isn't feeling well."
The lie crawled through, and she felt far better. She had said that, not... not whatever else was going on here. He nodded, almost nervously, but kept the smile.
"Dinner will be ready in about a half hour. Wash up, yes? If you're feeling up to it, could you fetch the milk from the creek bed? It should be chilled enough along now."
Hesitantly, she nodded, "Er, certainly." Making her way out, she glanced around the small, cramped cottage. Everything seemed to be in place: the faded, old quilt on the straw mattress along the wall, the pteri-feather stuffed pillow, the only one in the house, and the few pitchers and plates. The straw on the floor was fine, dusty if anything, and the window let in just the amount of light it needed too, for something so caked with dust in the evening time. She paused to light a lantern as the darkness began to settle across the land and sky, stepping outside into the chilly evening.
The fire behind her and under the kettle crackled as it should as the door shut behind her, and she shook her head. She really was quite tired, and although some things felt out of place, she was sure it was just her mind playing tricks. It had, after all, been quite a long time since she'd been back.
As she made her way to the creek bed along the dusty path partially paved with stones, she passed the small pen for shearing the babaa. Tacked to the outside wall, aglow in the falling light, was the dented bottom of a tin, kept for watering down the creatures if they got too startled while cutting their wool. It'd served its function as a good pan for a few years, until a start in the night had caused Norward to bruise its outside. It still held water, but for baking it was worthless. The whole thing was quite reflective, though, and they all thought it'd doubled well as a mirror. Glass was expensive, and anything worth seeing in was worth keeping. Some enterprising mind—perhaps Ferval—had suggested it face the hills and stream so they could check in it for lost strays while they weren't using it. Anyway, such frivolous things as reflections belonged outside the home; one could see one another fine. Seeing one's self was a luxury reserved for vainer fools. No need to go on gazing at one's self while things needed tending, her father had said.
Yet, as she passed, Alana caught sight of her reflection briefly. She had to stop and backtrack a moment, due to the start she'd received.
Surely her eyes were playing tricks on herself. She held up the lantern and looked down to her dress. It was an unflattering thing, meant for working in. You had to wander through muck and filth, to climb rocks and wade brooks. Babaa weren't picky where they went, so you couldn't be either. You had to fight off thorns and rogue Lupes, ghosts, and cold nights in a dress like this one.
But the dress she wore and the dress reflected in the bent pot were different. The reflection showed a dress that, apart from the half-hearted wear on its hem, was a dress conjured by someone who had only an idea of what working shepherds wore, someone who lived on fairy tales and vain children's stories. Someone who, if she'd had to guess, had never been outside. This dress had frills. It had lace, and, oh, gracious, it had ruffles. It was blue checkered—checkered, Fyora forbid! This registered to her as absolutely, entirely inappropriate. Checkers were garish and noticeably visible far away.
She shook her head, disgusted, captivated, and all at once horrified. Looking away from the mirror, she looked down. It... It had had frills, hadn't it? But there, as it had always been, was the heavy, woolen dress with dirt and grass stains. The dress she'd chased lightmites in, which she'd fought Ferval with in the snow, the dress that saw her through everything.
She looked back to her reflection, startled and trembling.
It smiled back.
To be continued...