It was a beautiful day in Neovia.
The sun was shining.
The birds were chirping.
A gentle breeze was blowing through the long green grass.
And Benjamin Hallcroft Evans, apprentice tailor, was not happy at all.
He sighed, resting his elbows on his knees. He know that he should be enjoying such a beautiful, sunny day- weather such as this in the Haunted Woods was rare. He could see his sister, Annabel, playing with her friends not too far away, enjoying the rare sunshine. But no matter how hard he tried, Ben just couldn’t get into the spirit of the moment. There were a dozen other things weighing on his mind.
His birthday, for example.
As far as the blue Lupe could remember, his birthdays had never been very enjoyable affairs. Every time a new year came around, it seemed to carry a new responsibility- looking after his sister on weekdays, going to school. Getting apprenticed to that penny-pinching old miser, Levi.
He heaved a sigh. No, his birthdays never seemed to be very happy at all. And now that number sixteen was looming around the bend, Ben was sure that there was an unpleasant surprise in store. He wondered what it was for a moment, then forced that subject from his mind.
Best not to dwell on it, he decided. These sorts of things have a nasty habit of doing exactly what you don’t expect. If I expect something, then I’ll probably wind up with something much worse.
He turned his eyes to the sky, squinting at the sun. Well, it can’t be much worse than the time Aunt Lynne came to visit. He smiled in spite of himself. Eleven, his parents had decided, was old enough to be entrusted with his very first sword. Ben nearly impaled his aunt in a misplaced thrust before they decided it would be best if he received lessons- even four years later, after months of practice sessions, he had never really gotten the hang of it. To tell the truth, he was an atrocious swordsman.
He felt a tug on his shirtsleeve. “Bennyyy,” a high pitched voice said, “I’m hungry.”
Sweet-faced Annabel stood there in her new blue dress, eyes wide in her face as she gazed up at him pleadingly. Ben smiled as he looked down at her. For some reason, Annabel never failed to make him smile. With her creamy blonde fur and adorable blue eyes, she made a sweet figure, and her charming laugh endeared her to all she met.
“You’re hungry, are you?” he said, pushing himself up from the bench where he sat. “Let’s see if we can’t fix that, hmm?” With an exaggerated groan, he hoisted the younger Lupe onto his shoulders. She squealed with laughter.
“You’re getting big, ‘Belle,” he growled playfully, tickling the bottom of her foot with his fingers. She giggled. “Why, it won’t be long before you’re carrying me!”
She hugged his neck as they headed back to the house, Ben walking slowly so as not to let her fall. “I could carry you now,” she said, resting her head on top of his. “I just don’t feel like it, that’s all.” He chuckled and kept walking, the house looming over them as they approached.
It was a massive thing, built of stone and wood and standing on a hill overlooking the rest of Neovia. It was ancient, but sturdily built and well-kept; no stray pieces of wood littered the ground, no shingles were missing from its perfect twin peaked roofs. Its large paned windows peered out at the surrounding town, their shutters painted a cloudy gray that matched that of the house. Surrounded by a cast-iron gate, it dominated the landscape, like some massive beast slumbering atop the hill. The double doors were its mouth, the windows its eyes; the lone tower sat like some absurd hat upon the crown of the mansion.
Yet despite its ominous appearance, to Ben it was home- the only home he’d ever known.
The cool air of the Month of Collecting chilled him, and he shivered, quickening his pace. It was early in the month, but despite the sun, the winds had already begun to grow deathly cold, worming their way through the Lupe’s thin summer pelt with ease. The farmers worried for their crop; at this rate, they said, not half would make it through the harvest. It would be another lean winter.
Such was the price of living in the Haunted Woods.
As they neared the double doors, Annabel chattering inanely about whatever came to her mind, they swung inward to reveal a potbellied brown Shoyru in a frilly white apron, hands on her hips. “Benjamin, Annabel, what are you thinking? Get in here quick, before you catch your death of cold!” She held one door open and Ben stepped inside, Annabel holding on to his ears like reins. Carefully lifting her off his shoulders and setting her on the ground, he turned to the housekeeper and tried to apologize. She would have none of it, and she told him so. “None of that nonsense now, master Benjamin. I don’t care how nice it looks out there, it’s as cold as death. And don’t tell me you were watching Annabel, either. Look at this! She’s covered in dirt!” Frantically, the Shoyru bent over to dust the soil from Annabel’s blue dress, muttering to herself in discontent.
“Evvie!” Annabel protested, dodging the persistent housekeeper. “I’ll be fine.” She looked up, her big blue eyes begging. “Can we get something to eat?”
Evvie grunted, but her face softened somewhat and she straightened. “Oh, fine,” she said, leading the two into the kitchen. “But don’t come crying to me when you catch cold.” She waddled in, tail swinging behind her. “Dove!” she shouted over the repetitive drone of the stove and the clinking and rattling of pans. “Dove! Come here, girl!” A young green Zafara bustled over, looking frazzled.
“What do you need me for, miss?” she asked, pushing one long green ear out her face wearily. Dove was head of the kitchens, and rather beautiful in her own right. She had a soft pelt of mossy green fur scattered with small black spots like little freckled on her ears and tail. Her wide black eyes were framed by delicate lashes in a soft, gentle face with dark speckles across the nose. Her only flaw was a long scar, about three inches long, marring her left cheek.
“Some sandwiches, Dove, and be quick about it,” Evvie said sternly. Dove might be head of the kitchens, but Evvie was queen of the household, and everyone- even Ben’s parents- obeyed her command. The green Zafara bowed hastily and hurried back into the kitchens, elegant feathered tail held just above the ground. She returned a moment later, holding two sandwiches stuffed full of sliced ham.
“Here,” she said, offering them to Ben and Annabel. Ben took one and held it in his paw, knowing better than to eat it here. Evvie would smack his paw like a troublesome child if he tried. Better to wait until he was somewhere safe.
“Well, go on, then. Shoo!” Evvie said, flapping one hand in dismissal, and Annabel ran off with her prize, Ben following at a more dignified pace. “And stay inside, you hear me?” she called after them, her voice echoing down the hallway. Annabel giggled in reply. “Kids today,” Evvie sighed, quietly enough so that only Dove could hear. The cook smiled.
Meanwhile, Ben made his way to the second floor storage room, where cleaning supplies were kept. Checking to make sure no one was around, he reached up to tug at a string attached to a barely discernible piece of wood, which swung down to allow a ladder to fall into the room below. Holding the sandwich in his mouth, Ben climbed up through the trapdoor and into the tower room.
He had discovered it a couple years ago while hiding from Evvie, who had a disturbing affinity for castor oil. Huddled in a corner of the storeroom, he had listened with fear to the sounds of her approaching footsteps before noticing the string. Tugging on it, he had managed to scramble up the old ladder and close the trapdoor before Evvie entered the room. Thinking he must have snuck elsewhere, she left, and Ben was left to enjoy the rest of his day in peace.
Now the tower was his secret room, piled high with books smuggled from the library and furnished with a table and a couple of cushions he had managed to squeeze through the trapdoor. With a massive sigh, Ben collapsed onto one of the cushions and began to devour the sandwich- he hadn’t realized how very hungry he was until he had begun to eat. Finishing, he wiped his mouth free of crumbs and looked out one of the tall windows set into the wall of the tower.
The tower room overlooked almost all of Neovia, allowing Ben to watch what went on in he town below. It was the height of noon, and people were bustling about their business, chatting casually and laughing as they strolled down Pine Street. He saw people walking in and out of shops, emerging with bags that were much heavier and purses that were considerably lighter. Everybody was getting ready for the long, bleak winter that lay ahead.
From the corner of his eye, Ben noticed a group of boys about his age gathered at the edge of the Haunted Woods. One ran forward to touch one of the ancient trees just on the border of the forest, then retreated, his legs moving as fast as they could carry him. He looked over his shoulder to see if anything had followed him, and his friends burst out laughing.
I wish I could go join them, Ben thought morosely. He would love to join in those games that all the other boys played, to be with one of those little groups that he saw from his tower window, but deep down, the Lupe knew that he was too different. As the son of the richest landowner in town, Ben was expected to be cool and dignified, not to go running of on some adventure. Although he had only been apprenticed to a tailor, he was expected to be well-educated and eloquent, able to carry on a good conversation with someone twice his age. Even if he had been poorer, Ben doubted that he would have been able to join in their games; he was a recluse by nature, absorbed in his books and studies and shy around anyone who was not immediate family.
Resting his head on the windowsill, Ben sighed. I wish- just once- that I could go on an adventure, he thought. I wish, just once, I could be a hero...
To be continued...