The Small Stranger – Part One: Beneath the Shadowed Moon

Autumn arrived like a newborn child: very loud, messy, bare, and filling the heart with warmth and wonder. He would grow into a strong and lusty winter. His teeth came in small, but very sharp. Those were the days ruled by the moon, as a symbol of change and season, and as the nighttime of the year drew closer.

Otto Kunger could not sleep, so to calm himself he pulled his heavy quilt tight and thought of Else Verboom, his sweetheart. It had been more than three months since she had defeated the zonnestrider, saved their lives, and impressed the deeply unimpressible Prof. Morhier, their teacher of Magic at Cancer Independent. Nothing so supernatural had happened since that dreadful time. Dr. Tom Kikkert had warned him and his friend Kitty Bauer not to disturb the fairy prince in the Bauers’ pasture:

“He’d be offended if you conferred as a casual thing; it must only be as a ruler seeks a ruler, to give aid, or to ask for aid.”

They had not needed aid, and the fairy had not made any sign. There had been other notable events: a transfer student, an eclipse, a severe illness that had kept him home from school, a last rain party before the colder weather…

Suddenly Otto sat bolt upright; his heart was beating fast, and there was sweat on his forehead. He felt for his glasses and put them on with trembling fingers. Though he had heard nothing, it was as if he had heard some beast breathing in the hall, or a scream in the night outside.

Then, he did hear something, and it was the more frightening that he heard it inside his own head. It was like seeing his arm move by itself to hear a thought that he was not thinking. A voice spoke, a young voice, indistinct like one talking in their sleep or in a different room – but this seemed due to his own bewilderment. Then a few things came out clear and low, as if spoken at his very shoulder:

“…I love you, I love you,” (it was not speaking to him,) “don’t be afraid… a perfect place, how lucky. Goodbye… thank you, my noble…”

A little girl’s voice, yet it had the awful effect on the soul like a roll of distant thunder; the hair rose on his arms. He got out of bed shaking, and made his way to his parents’ bedroom. As necessary as it felt, he was timid to approach the great hill his father made in the bed, and to interrupt his deep, rumbling snore with a whisper. His father’s sleep was well entrenched; it was his mother who woke instead, and sat up beyond the hill. No doubt she was practiced at waking to tend Otto’s baby brother, who slept in the cradle on the far side of the bed. She looked somewhat sour, but patient enough, as she peered inquiringly over the great mound of Otto the first, her husband. Otto the younger immediately felt more calm, but the urgency in him was frightened by this calm, and surged back through him, tingling in his skin.

“Mother, there’s something wrong over at Kitty’s place, in the pasture…”

He knew this the way he knew things in dreams, like a memory. His mother’s reply surprised him, but seemed perfectly natural.

“That’s no reason to waken your father. Next time you just leave a note to say where you’ve gone in case you need to stay. Now go along: there’s no use in supernatural warnings if you dawdle and come too late.”

So he hurried away, the tingling in him feeling more strange by the moment. He slipped on his rubbers because it was quicker than shoes, and pulled a coat on over his striped pyjamas. Outside, the moon was shining clear and riding high, having just reached its full width. It turned everything into a moonscape, as if the trees and grass were growing on the moon, as if the house and road were built on the moon, and as if the biting air was the air of the moon.

Otto took the shortest way, over the fence, through the hollow and the gap in the corner of the hedge, then around to the front of the Bauers’ house, though he usually went to the back. Approaching a house where people slept was like approaching a sleeping person. He didn’t want to touch and wake the house, but he had to; he rapped on the door smartly, waited, then did it again. When he was about to knock a third time he saw a movement in a window which made him jump; someone must have pulled a curtain back to see who was knocking. Some moments later he heard the door being unlocked, and then opened. With some difficulty he made out Dolores Bauer, Kitty’s mother: less than a head taller than himself, dressed in glasses and a pale dressing gown.

“What is it Otto?”

“There’s something wrong in the pasture; I heard someone talking. In my head, just now…”

Dolores paused with her mouth open in indecision for some moments, looking in the low light almost exactly like Kitty, except for the glasses.

“Just a moment,” she said, and disappeared into the house. Otto felt suspended in the sharp air and cold light. Two green eyes gleamed from under the far hedge, and a prickle of fear ran through him before he remembered the Bauers’ cat Jackalope. Dolores reappeared carrying a shotgun and a large torch.

“Can’t find my sandals,” she grumbled, and hopped out in her bare feet, turning to hastily lock the door again. When she switched on the torch Otto could see that her gown was light blue; he wondered how cold she felt without so much as a hat. They set off up the old lane at a brisk walk, the torch-light chasing out the shadows which the moonlight left. Otto’s strange warning had thrust him into a strange scene: outside with his friend’s mother in their nightclothes and carrying a gun.

“Will that hurt your arm if you fire it?”

“Oh, right,” Dolores said, and handed the shotgun to him. That wasn’t what he had meant; he was certain it would hurt his arm at least, and clutched it nervously, his heart suddenly beating harder than it had been already.

Thick clouds blocked out the moonlight; to them it was as if something vast had risen up behind them and was drawing near. With the still, motionless light of the moon removed, all they could see became filled with the movement of the jostling torch-light as they marched, and stirred in the frigid breeze that came with the change, so that the darkening of the night was almost like the coming of an earthquake. Otto swallowed, hoping he would be up to whatever they were hastening towards.

“Is Mr. Bauer awake?”

“I would have got Ted, but the fairy hasn’t met him yet. I suppose three people…”

All at once Dolores made a sound in her throat as if she had stepped into an icy pool, and twisted round to shine the light behind her. It lit up the hedge, which here was tall and leafy; a gust of the wind made a deep V in the leaves as if something was being dragged there, or like the wake of some swimming beast.

“What was it?” Otto asked, as soon as his throat had loosened enough to speak.

“Someone put his hand on my shoulder; it felt all soft and damp.”

Otto became very aware of the gun in his hands, and the responsibility it meant for him. He felt like the two of them were staring up at a policeman, or a dour soldier, though they could see no one. The feeling departed, and, breathless and hesitant, they continued up the lane.

When the gate came into view – a sudden dark interruption in the wall of the hedge – the danger sign on it gave Otto a start. The fairy prince had asked that they leave the sign there because he liked it; Otto had not seen it in the night for months; it brought back dread memories. Lurid and stark in the electric beam, more than a warning it looked like a threat. Walking straight up to the gate was like putting his hand into a dark hole where he had seen some unknown scurrying creature vanish.

Dolores was just tall enough to peek over the top of the gate; Otto looked between the top two boards. He saw something on the ground near the middle of the pasture, bright in the torch light which faded into the surrounding darkness. He couldn’t make out what it was, and couldn’t see where the goats might be…

It moved, and Dolores caught her breath next to him, making him jerk.

“Otto!” she whispered hoarsely, “Otto, there’s someone there!”

Go here to read all posted so far of: The Kitty and Otto Stories