The Small Stranger – Part Two: Merowinter

There was a rumble of distant thunder; it was dreadful that such depth of sound, as of an earthquake, should be created by the sky.

Dolores pushed open the gate, with its glaring danger sign, and Otto followed her into the field towards the seated figure. It was clearly someone small, a child. Blank fear burned in his cold joints.

“Where are the goats?”

“I see them over on the far side. They’re sleeping, I think.”

Otto prayed that they were.

As they shuffled slowly through the grass he saw the stranger more and more clearly: a small girl, dressed in brilliant white, sitting on the ground, staring fixedly at them. Her smallness seemed more and more strange, and her stillness, and the colour of her eyes, bluer than Dolores’ dressing gown. She didn’t look real, like some doll left behind by a child rather than a child herself. Her skin gleamed white, her hair a pale flaxen. She didn’t seem afraid at all, or even cold in the sharp autumn air; there was no red in her cheek. A glimmer, which might not have been from their torch-light, showed in the small hole in the ground, where the fairy prince dwelt. The girl was sitting almost on top of it.

Dolores stopped. With her blazing lamp, and Otto with the heavy shotgun, both tingling with apprehension, they stared down at the child. Dolores curtsied in her dressing gown, and spoke with a faltering voice,

“Hello… where are your parents?”

“I will never tell you where he is.”

The same voice Otto had heard over a mile away in his house, but utterly different in tone.

“We won’t hurt you,” he said, trying to make the big shotgun look less conspicuous; her stare was painful. Dolores’ teeth chattered.

“Why don’t you come inside out of the cold,” she asked; Otto remembered she had bare feet, and had been walking through wet grass.

Sometimes when someone stands up it is startling how tall they are; when the girl stood up it was startling how tall she was not. Though she looked seven and seemed older, she hardly came up to Otto’s elbow. What she wore was thick, stiff, and had large buttons, not like a nightgown; rather it made him think of sailors. He found it hard not to think of her as a phenomenon, as a thing they had found like a foreign antique.

“I will go with you,” she said, “and I will see what your house looks like. I am very cold, so thank you, Miss.”

Otto began to notice there was some pink in the tip of her small nose. She held out her hand, very still in the light, which shook as Dolores fumbled to change the torch to her other hand. Otto had a sudden wish that he was the one to hold the girl’s hand, to feel what kind of hand it was. Dolores shone the light around the field, then they set off.

“My name is Dolores Bauer. What’s yours?”

“Wilhelmina Pyle. You should call me Mina,” the girl replied in her distinct, unhesitating voice. Otto completely forgot to mention his own name. They left the field, and either because of sheer awkwardness, or because they had a terrible feeling they were now in enemy country, nothing else was said till they reached the house.

The lights were on. Ted Bauer, Kitty’s father, opened the door as they approached, and a warm swathe of indoor light spread over them. Ted himself looked like something from an old Christmas catalogue, with a red tartan robe belted to his lean body, slippers, and his breath clouding. Those who knew him could tell he was very unnerved by the presence of the girl holding his wife’s hand, but he was nothing if not hospitable.

“Come inside! Where did you come from in this cold?”

“It’s quite warm where…” Mina began to answer, then half dropped her eyelids with an odd expression. Otto closed the door, and put down the heavy shotgun, feeling out of place. Kitty was sitting huddled in a chair, in her pale print nightgown. She looked very sleepy, but her eyes were growing brighter as she took in what was going on.

“This is Wilhelmina Pyle,” said Dolores, “we’re to call her Mina. Mina, this is my husband Ted, and my daughter, Kitty.”

Kitty stood up, and bowed like a bird dipping its head, her drowsy mind not thinking of anything else to do. Ted seemed quite awake.

“Would you like to sit down? Where are your parents?”

Mina only gave him a look as if to say that, being an adult, he should know not to ask that.

“Were you with anyone?” he asked.

“I was with someone.”

“Where is he?”

“Not far… but very far for you. Very far for you.”

Otto thought her accent was strong but not foreign – it made his stomach feel strange when he realised where he recognised it from: old films, and older records; he would have recognised it immediately, except he had never heard it without the scratchiness. Mina had let go of Dolores’ hand, and seated herself on the hearth, as if it was an accustomed place. Kitty was still standing, and she stared fixedly at the girl in an attitude of fascination. Mina seemed to like this kind of attention. Dolores looked at Otto.

“You said, when you came, that you heard someone talking?”

“Yes.” He looked again at Mina. “I heard you say…” He then realised he may have heard a private conversation. “Who were you talking to?”

“I was talking to the goats,” she said, her eyes very clear and still, like a princess at school.

“Oh… you like them then?” he asked.

“I love the goats.”

“So do I,” Kitty said, clumsily. Mina did not glance at her, which looked in fact like a gesture: taking Kitty’s statement in solidarity with hers, and challenging Otto to accept her answer. He was very confused and unbalanced.

“Why could I hear you?”

She appeared to be startled by this question, and lowered her eyelids again.

“I don’t know why you could hear me talking.” She glanced up at Kitty, then went on in her simple, lucid statements.

“My father and I are travellers; I was born on the road. My mother is lost, and my father…” Her lips continued to move, but Otto ceased to hear her words with his ears; instead, he heard them in his head, as if her voice had come loose from physical sound. “…must seek her, always, in the places where she was lost.” Then her voice again came from across the room. “I travel with the guardian my father gave to me.”

“Your father left you with a guardian?” said Ted, without much approval.

“My guardian is much stronger than my father!” Mina cried, with a sharp anger that startled and embarrassed them. It was an odd thing to say in defence of one’s father, but said with more force than anything she had yet said. To change the subject, Ted asked a question that was very high in Otto’s mind,

“Where were you born? I mean, on what road? the road to where?”

“The Far. The road to Merowinter. We are travellers.”

Merowinter: it was the name, an old name, of The Other World. Like the moon, they knew some had gone there, at great cost. This was why they did not disbelieve, as they might have if she said she came from the past, or the land of the dead. Their hearts quickened, as much as if they had been told a murderer was outside their house, and they felt a strangeness like they were seeing something happen exactly as they had dreamed the night before. Kitty fell against the wall, and remained leaning there. Ted and Dolores looked at each other, and Ted licked his lips. He asked Mina how she had come to be in their pasture.

“I was separated from my guardian by my enemy, who wants me very much.”

“Why does he want you?” Kitty asked.

Wilhelmina told them as plainly and straightforwardly as she had spoken everything else. Kitty swallowed hard. Otto blushed till he was nearly purple, and stole a glance at Kitty’s father, whose face was filled with dreadful disappointment. Otto knew of the subject from medical books, and of course Kitty had always known from living on a farm; however her father no doubt had hoped she would not so soon hear about the crimes involving it, at least not so suddenly and explicitly. But Otto also noticed in Ted’s eye a new and sharp glint of protectiveness for this little girl.

“What can we do to guard you from him?” he asked her.

“Do you have Williams’ Tongue wards in the windowsills and thresholds?”

“I haven’t heard of those.”

“Then you cannot keep him from coming into your house.”

A knock sounded on the door.

Go here to read the next part: The Small Stranger – Part Three: Marius

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