Katie in the Winter
The wind blew. Not hard as such, but persistently. It seemed to suggest that it wouldn’t be stopping any time soon, and I, much to my displeasure, agreed. Winter wasn’t one of my favourite times of the year. I heard a knocking sound. At first I thought it was my imagination, no one ever came to our house in the middle of winter.
I heard the sound again, and at the same time, Sarah called from the kitchen, “Answer the door, could you?” So it hadn’t been my imagination.
A small brown Ixi sheltered in our door way, her face turned down. A cloth bundle gripped tightly to her chest.
“Hello,” I said perhaps a little coldly. The wind was blowing cold air and snow across the living room.
The girl raised her face, her brown eyes meeting mine. “I need help.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Oh, you poor dear.” Sarah was right behind me. “You must be so cold,” she said, nudging me to one side and ushering the Ixi into the small room.
I closed the door and turned to look at the pair; they seemed quite content sitting by the fire.
“Oh my,” I heard Sarah whisper. The cloth bundle was actually a baby Kacheek, perhaps a month or two old. I didn’t know what to think; babies weren’t really my area. “Is she yours?” Sarah continued.
The Ixi hung her head sadly. “In a manner of speaking. Her parents are dead.” The girl spoke with a strong Shenkuu accent, but neither Sarah nor I passed comment.
“And you would be?” I said roughly interrupting their quiet conversation.
“Her nurs... aunt,” the Ixi said.
I was intrigued, but said no more.
“She needs a home,” the girl said, “at least for the next few months.”
Sarah smiled. “Yes, it would be wonderful to have a child in the house.” Her whole face seemed to light up at the thought.
The Ixi smiled. “Thank you so much. You have no idea what this means to me.”
The next two months weren’t the highlight of my life. The winter was hash, but that was no different from normal. The baby cried; that was new to me. I don’t know how many sleepless nights it cost me. Sarah didn’t mind; in fact, she adored the small Kacheek, and I wasn’t going to be the one to spoil her joy. We had no children of our own, and in the winter we were isolated from all those around us.
The first day of spring, the snow had melted and Sarah and I were preparing to go down to the village, a trip of a mere two miles that we would never have dared to take in the winter. Katie, that’s what we had decided to call the baby, was coming as well. She was in a pretty white dress Sarah had made for her.
It was Sarah who answered the door when the knocking came. I was busy colleting up all the things we’d made over the winter to sell at the first spring fair.
I heard the small gasp escape her lips. It was mostly shock, but to my keen Gelert ears, there was also fear. I put down the basket and headed back to the living room where I could see who had surprised her.
It was Katie’s aunt, but she was different now. More relaxed and superior, a dark red dress brushing against the still damp grass. “You’ve come for her, haven’t you?” I heard Sarah whisper.
“Yes,” the Brown Ixi said.
We didn’t go to the village that day. Sarah cried and I did my best to comfort her, though I didn’t understand the loss she was going through. Katie was gone, and we told ourselves that we’d never see our baby girl again.
We went to the village the next day, by which time the rumours were everywhere. During the winter there had been a civil war in Shenkuu. The emperor and empress were dead, and their daughter was missing.
I looked at Sarah and saw the shock and realization etched across her face. Was our little Katie the missing princess?
Nine months later our suspicions were confirmed.
Winter was setting in again, and Sarah was sad the snowflakes whirling past the window reminded her of Katie, the little Kacheek that even I still thought of as our daughter. We wouldn’t be going out again, except to collect firewood from the wood shed a mere three yards from our door, that winter.
The knock on the door startled me from my book. Sarah was in the kitchen, immersing herself in cooking, in the hope of drowning the memories.
I answered the door, and was shocked to see the Ixi standing on our doorstep and bold as brass, Katie, now a small Royal Kacheek, nursed on her hip.
I was about to close the door in her face, after the heartache she caused Sarah. I didn’t want her in our life. But the Ixi stopped me. “Please,” she whispered. “Just let me explain.”
Sarah was behind me again; she must have heard the noise. “Let her in,” she said softly. To me it was clear that she was overjoyed to see our daughter again, but also terrified that she wouldn’t stay.
As Sarah led the Ixi into the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of a coach though the whirling snow. Along with the Yurble driver, there were also two Draik Guards. I closed the door, still unsure of what to think of this strange Ixi. How dare she show her face here again? But deep down there was a longing to let us keep Katie.
The Ixi was seated at the kitchen table, and Sarah bustled around making tea. I sat opposite eyeing the girl suspiciously She looked to be about twenty-one at the oldest.
Sarah paced the cups down and sat between us at the small circular table. While the Ixi and I sat on normal, quite simple chairs, Sarah sat on a small stool. We only had two chairs; until today, there had never been a reason for more.
The Ixi passed Katie across to Sarah. Sarah was delighted to be holding our little girl again. The Ixi tried to explain, “I couldn’t let people know that I’d given her to you to look after. In the winter time there’s nowhere safer for her, but for the rest of the year it could be dangerous.” she said a little hesitantly.
Sarah nodded; it was quite clear to us now that our baby girl was the missing princess.
The Ixi took a sip of her tea before continuing. “I’ve found other people to look after her the rest of the year, more suitable people,” she said. The way she said it was so offensive, but Sarah took no notice and I followed suit. “But they are all with company through the winter,” the girl explained. “I need a home for her through the winter, somewhere where she’ll be safe.”
I knew she didn’t like it, I didn’t like it, but for her three months a year with Katie seemed worth it. I looked across at Sarah; she nodded. “Okay,” I said slowly, “we’ll look after her.”
The Ixi smiled. “Thank you,” she said, then she did something I hadn’t expected; she reached from her pocket and pulled out a purse.
Five thousand neopoints! That’s what she’d left us, five thousand and our baby girl. It was mostly silver 200 NP pieces, but there was some gold glinting in the stacks as well. “She didn’t need to,” Sarah whispered. “We don’t need it and we can’t spend it till the winter's over and Katie’s gone.”
“It’s a warning,” I said, “and a message. Katie will be back every year, and she will leave with them every year. They’ve got power and neopoints behind them.”
Sarah shrugged. “It’s better than nothing.”
We never had children of our own. Katie was enough. The sight of her running up the path on the first day of spring always made me smile. Her leaving was always hard but we grew used to it.
We raised her as best we could, with no idea how she spent the rest of her year. She never went to school when she was with us, but she was bright and I always suspected that the rest of her year was filled with schooling. We tried to teach her skills that would be useful if she ever went to rule Shenkuu, though we never spoke of the empire.
The Ixi who we came to know as Aunt Kima came back every year without fail, bringing with her Katie and a small purse of coins which we always tried and failed to refuse.
“DAD!” Katie raced from the coach up the garden path. It was late autumn and the first snows were expected for the next day. She’d grown it into a beautiful Royal girl, of nearly 16 since I last saw her. I held out my arms and we embraced. Sarah was close behind me, having dropped everything to come and see our daughter nearly all grown up.
Katie was filled with joy, it seemed, so happy and cheerful, the only ray of light though the cold winter. The money Kima kept giving us had turned the house into something closer to a palace. It was still the three room cottage it had always been, but in the wintertime it was filled with beautiful things. In the spring, after Katie had left, Sarah and I always packed them away again. We didn’t want people to question where the money came from. A family might be able to afford a pretty vase from the Lost Desert but they couldn’t afford three and toys from the Citadel, and a dresser from Neovia... it all added up.
Her birthday was a grand affair just as it was every year. We didn’t want to spoil Katie, as much as we would have liked to; it would harm her personality. Normally she’d have a few small gifts from each of us. Often the things were handmade, but this year was different.
I walked out to the wood shed. These days it didn’t just store the firewood we’d need though the winter; in fact, the wood was now stored beside the door, with most of the weather kept off by the eaves and an oilcloth covering. There just wasn’t room in the shed anymore. In the months when Katie wasn’t with us, it stored all of her things and treasures we’d collected from her, but even in the winter months the small place was still quite full.
Katie was waiting in the living room, her mother standing in the door to the kitchen watching, as I entered the house again. Katie gasped. “You didn’t?” she said with delight as I placed the small petpet in her arms. She giggled softly as the little Biyako wiggled around.
In two months, Kima had been back and yet again Katie had been whisked away from us. The following winter she didn’t return. I consoled my wife that Katie would be seventeen now. Even though we celebrated her birthday in the middle of winter when she had first come to us, it was probably a month, maybe two after her actual birthday.
Sarah smiled weakly. “Yes, you’re right,” she had said. “She belongs with her people.” So when the news reached us the next spring that Shenkuu’s lost princess had returned and its people were rejoicing, we celebrated also, to think that that fine princess was our little Katie.