Every night, Benyamin of the village Bundene would climb on top of his thatched roof and watch the night sky, which spread uninterrupted until colliding with the flat land of Eraska. Benyamin lived beyond the forest, rolling hills, cliffs, and waterfall of his kingdom, where the land of Eraska plateaued before a mountain range obscured it from the rest of the continent. There, lying back with his elbows crossed underneath his head, with an owl who occasionally landed on the roof and kept him company, he entertained himself using his unique gift. Night after night, he watched the infinite number of stories the stars had observed. Sometimes he’d pick one and see the images unfold in front of his mind’s eye, other times he’d look at several, seeing several different stories or the same one just from different perspectives. He loved that stars, like humans, had their own preferences for stories.
Benyamin had learned many things from his years of watching the stories of the stars, but most of all, he had learned that nature could perform magic—as surely as the wind buffeted his face or the night sky curved overhead. He had learned long ago to keep this knowledge to himself, for there was no way he could present anyone with the necessary evidence. His family would only insist that he take his healthy spirit tincture if he ever were to utter a word about magic. Establishing traditions to nature’s magic was a futile attempt. It was nature’s nature to scatter standards apart and create a path for magic to flow through and create its vision. When it interplayed with humans, magic was either enormously present in that it appeared normal and went unnoticed, or remained hidden when on the brink of being discovered. But if anything, magic was real, so very, very real. At least that was what Benyamin chose to believe.
“Ilvy, will you still be one of us after the baby is born, or are you going to go back to being an adult and never chase butterflies again?”
Ilvy nudged her wooden sled forward with the tip of her boot to the crest of the hill. She reached over her belly and pretended to adjust the sled while she thought about how to answer Elvin’s question. With full cheeks and curious, seagrass green eyes, Elvin always found a way to poke at the most uncomfortable of subjects, but she couldn’t help smiling when she thought of the first time she had chased a butterfly during her pregnancy. That was also the first time her baby had taken control of her body, though Elvin didn’t know that. No one knew of her baby’s abilities.
Last summer, while turning the hay with her rake, a warm force had spread from her belly into her head. At first she thought it was because she had stopped taking her tincture for nerve illness. Oliver, the healer, had told her not to take it if she was with child. But then the force lifted her chin up and focused her eyes on a purple-winged butterfly. Yes, her nerves often got the better of her, but never before had something taken control of her body while she was in one of her states. She felt the butterfly’s sporadic dance in her belly and under her skin, making her body tingle all over before she chased after it without thinking. Once the butterfly flew away, the sensation ceased, but for the rest of the day it had been impossible to walk a straight line. Her best friend, Merle, had asked Ilvy if she had accidentally drunk the strong ale that morning.
Today, Ilvy’s afternoon plans had been to stay home while her husband Ernest took their son Ambro out on on the boat to fish. She needed to weave a new basket since the one forgotten outside had been stripped for nest pieces by the early morning birds. However, the water carriers had returned with news that had stirred the baby—the snow was still intact in parts of the woods. Warmth spread from her belly to her legs and there was nothing she could do to stop her body from finding a sled and inviting Elvin, Maurice, and Kristen.
“Yes, Elvin,” she finally said. “I will still chase butterflies.” She honestly hoped she would.
She looked down at the three, her solaces, scratching their temples under their wool hats. Unlike her friends, Agatha and Bee, who had assembled a village meeting after having caught Ilvy climbing an elderberry tree and forced Ilvy to endure a speech on the dangers of acting like a jester in her state, the children adored each and every one of her childish endeavors. However, she couldn’t tell anyone the whole truth: that her baby had made her do these childish things. Pregnancy delirium they would have called it. A bad omen.
“Now, on to the matter at hand,” Ilvy said. “Who sleds first?”
“Let’s pull sticks!” twelve-year-old Kristen said, gathering several muddy twigs. “We will have to watch the tracks. And avoid the areas with grass showing through. We’ll save a lot of time cleaning the mud off the sled and avoid getting stuck. But no matter what, watch out for the birches.”
“Watch out for the birches,” Ilvy repeated in chorus with Elvin and Maurice.
Kristen wrapped her hand around the bundle. One by one, they each pulled a stick.
Ilvy gasped in delight. First! It was her lucky day.
Elvin took his hat off and gave his sweaty matted hair a shake. “And if someone comes along? Agatha told us not to allow Ilvy to act like a jester,” he asked. “Does sledding count?”
“According to The Tales of Geraldus and his Travelling Jesters, pregnant jesters don’t perform stunts, but they can dance as long as it is ten backflips away from the nearest steep drop,” Kristen said. “Or was it nine?”
“That’s just a story—” Ilvy started.
“Definitely ten!” Maurice exclaimed. “Mother read that story last night before bed.”
“Ten backflips, it is,” Kristen said. “So now we must decide whether or not sledding is considered a stunt. I say it’s not. And if someone were to come along, as long as Ilvy is not on the sled, we can just say she was watching us.”
Ilvy grimaced in shame. It was not right to make the children tell fibs for her.
“If someone comes along, each and every one of you will tell the truth,” Ilvy said, “and, Elvin, pull your hat back down or you will get sick.”
“I told you Ilvy was still an adult,” Maurice murmured into Elvin’s ear, just loud enough for Ilvy to hear.
“She’s not. If only I could get her to sneeze on someone, I’d finally have proof.”
Ilvy rolled her eyes and took a seat on the sled. Elvin was referring to a tale she had come up with herself—the one about the fairy who sprinkled a woman with fairy dust to turn her into a child again. And not just any child—a child with a magical sneeze. In the tale, each time the woman sneezed, fairy dust would splash onto other adults and they would become children again.
Ilvy wedged the heels of her leather boots over the wooden runners. As the sled balanced over the steep, narrow drop, she eyed the smattering of birch trees below. No matter—she could avoid them with focused maneuvering.
“Big push or little push?” Elvin asked.
“Big,” Ilvy said.
Ilvy’s hood flew back and her wheat-yellow hair rippled behind her. She prepared to lean away from the first birch. The sunlight flickered against her cheeks as the sled flew by tree trunks while sparrows raced alongside the branches. Snow splashed into her golden eyelashes again and again, but not once did she blink.
The hill merged into flat ground, but the sled did not lose momentum. The frozen stream ahead hurtled toward her. The sled was going too fast. She squeezed her eyes shut, bracing for the impact with the cold water and stones, then opened them to realize she was not shivering wet when it came to a halt. Right at the edge. Lucky. She clapped her hands while the children raced down the hill after her.
“Ilvy! You almost went into the water!” Elvin cried.
“Ah, a little water never hurt anyone anyway,” Ilvy said.
A sharp pain in her belly forced her to crouch forward.
“Ilvy!” cried the children.
Her jaw shook in an attempt to breathe through the shock of the pain. Another sharp cramp pierced through her nerves, an awful ripping sensation that spread all the way into her forehead, paralyzing her balance. She swayed forward.
Kristen dropped to her knees just in time to steady her. “The baby is coming,” she stated calmly, though her brown eyes were wide with fear.
Ilvy pressed her palm over the midsection of her wool dress. “Yes.” A strong, invisible pull lured Ilvy’s attention across the stream to a willow tree. Heat pulsed from her belly. Ilvy broke out in a sweat. Is that where you want to go, little baby? Ilvy thought. As if in response, the sensation began to burn like fire. Yes, her baby seemed to say. “Kristen, help me cross the stream so I can sit under the willow.”
Kristen turned Ilvy’s shoulders so that they were eye to eye, meeting Ilvy’s gaze with an expression of a much older woman—a woman who understood the importance of Alonia’s birthing tradition. The dangers awaiting Ilvy. Every child was born in the village center, as a true Alonian part of a larger village family. “You will not be like Thilda, not in my hands. I know the village is a long walk away, but I will pull you on the sled the entire way. ”
Ilvy shuddered at the thought of Thilda, a woman who had wandered too far away on the beach when she went into labor and didn’t make it back to the village. Thilda’s baby had not survived and Thilda, overtaken by grief, wandered into the woods and was never seen again. What if Thilda’s baby had also had special abilities? What if the baby had made Thilda walk so far away on the beach?
Ilvy bit her lip. She did not want to be like Thilda. She looked down at her belly. There will be plenty of time to go by the tree when you arrive. “Kristen, take me home.”
Kristen nodded but before she stood, she touched Ilvy’s forehead, a sharp crease forming between her eyebrows. “You have a fever.”
“I am well. Do not worry.” Ilvy smiled, which only made Kristen’s face grow more concerned. But what could Ilvy do? She wished she could explain that it was the baby’s ability to send waves of warmth through her body, not the feared labor fever. However, Kristen’s worry was a fair exchange if it meant that no one would speculate that her baby may be a bad omen.
By the time they reached the wheat field waiting to be ploughed, Ilvy was ready to rip her hair out between the contractions and fighting the baby’s urge to run back to the forest. Beyond the field stood about fifty circular stone huts with thatched roofs. Through her blurred vision, Ilvy could make out several figures carrying wood. Her baby thrashed against her insides at her sight of them. Warmth poured from the left side to the right side of her body and threatened to knock her off the sled. She gripped the edges and the warmth rushed to her lips instead. Ilvy ground her teeth to stop herself from shouting to turn the sled around as Kristen pedaled her feet against the mud. A contraction weakened her control and the baby won. In one powerful swoop, the baby knocked her off the sled and forced her to claw her way toward the forest.
“Help!” the children called.
Ilvy threw images of Thilda’s story at the baby, hoping the baby would understand the urgency of getting to the village. If you win and take us away from the village, we both die.
The exclamations of the villagers arriving at the sled were unbearable to Ilvy’s ears. Someone grabbed her underneath her armpits and lifted her to her feet. Questions filled the air around her, making her ears ring.
“Why didn’t you tell someone you were going into the forest?”
“Kristen! How could you have allowed Ilvy to go sledding?”
“Stop scolding her and fetch Agatha! Can’t you see she has a fever?”
Ilvy felt trapped in a swarm of bees. She swatted at the direction from which the voices were coming in an attempt to keep them away. The baby kicked frantically, attempting the same. “Quiet!” she shouted, her voice cracking.
Everyone stopped and stared. Ilvy had never shouted at anyone before, let alone in such a petrifying voice, but she didn’t care.
“Quiet,” a voice echoed—deep, warm, and steady. It was the only voice that could calm the kicking in her belly, the unbearable heat rushing to her limbs. A voice she had fallen in love with over and over again.
In a flash, Ernest’s strong arms lifted her from the sled. The smell of the sea on his hide coat rippled memories of comfort through her. Her urge to return to the forest dissipated while her pains mellowed. Ernest carried her through the paths that wove between the stone-hut homes, where countless footsteps of Alonians were imprinted into the dirt. The baby moved in her, bringing her attention to footprints for some reason.
Once they reached the center of the village, Ernest paused around the hearth. Ilvy heard several villagers barging into homes, asking for Agatha’s whereabouts, for she was the one always in charge of deliveries. Ilvy noticed a pair of footprints in the dirt that matched Agatha’s—they were of boots comparable to the size the men wore and were spread rather wide apart.
Before she could suggest to the others to track Agatha using the footprints, Ernest ducked and carried her through the entrance of Agatha’s home and lowered her onto the straw mattress as if she were a fragile seashell.
Ilvy sighed with relief. She had made it and the baby was not fighting her anymore. See? This is the perfect place for you to come into the world.
Ernest took hold of her hand. “Don’t worry, they’ll find Agatha soon enough.”
“You mean Agatha will find us soon enough. She has the instinct of an owl hunting a mouse when it comes to knowing when a woman is in labor.” Agatha had never missed a delivery, and even if she were on the other side of the forest, she would find a way to Ilvy right now. In spite of the pain coursing through her, Ilvy giggled, picturing Agatha swinging from branch to branch toward the village.
Ernest brushed a strand of hair from her face. “What are you laughing about?”
“I think I’ll wait to tell you until later. It just might have to be my next story,” she said.
“Then I look forward to hearing it." The skin at the corner of his eyes creased. Ilvy, like all Alonian women, was an expert at detecting her husband’s smile by his eyes rather than his mouth, which was hidden behind a beard and mustache. Alonian men avoided the tedious task of trimming and shaving unless they did it using a sharp piece of flint to occupy their time while searching for eels hiding amidst the sea grass.
But there was something else besides a smile that she noticed in Ernest’s eyes as he wiped the sweat off her forehead. Tension was hidden in them, and there was no doubt he feared that she had labor fever, like Kristen had thought.
He was the only one she had wanted to tell about their baby’s abilities; however, every time she started to, the baby’s warmth raced to her lips and prevented her from shaping the words. She had a feeling the baby wanted to keep its abilities secret. Her mind was on the brink of sinking into a quicksand of unanswered questions—but she gathered herself. Right now, Ernest needed to have his mind put at ease the same way he had put the baby at ease about coming to the village.
She pressed her palm against Ernest’s cheek. “Have you thought of a name for if it’s a girl?”
He nodded and a glimmer returned to his eyes. “Herlot,” he said.
Agatha squeezed through the small opening of the stone hut, carrying a bucket of hot water. Her rust-colored hair was pinned up with twigs and she was breathing heavily. “See? I told you. Instinct,” Ilvy whispered to Ernest.
Without a word, Agatha marched to Ilvy’s side and checked her forehead. Then she began to search through a chest on the dirt floor, pulling out every oil jar she could find. Agatha hummed a merry melody, but through gritted teeth. The fever is not what you think, Agatha, Ilvy wished she could explain.
When Agatha ran out of oil jars to pull out, she cleared her throat and sent Ernest on his way.
Normally, Ilvy was fond of Alonian childbirth traditions. If she was not one of the helping hands inside the birthing home, she was outside leading the children in rehearsing poems that would be recited to the mother and newborn child, or placing hot stones from the fire into a bucket to keep the water warm. But right now, she despised it. The pains returned, twice as malicious as before, as if a boar was trying to tear its way out of her, and she cursed tradition for forcing her to give birth inside a smoke trap that made it impossible to breathe.
Ilvy managed to catch a reflection of herself in Agatha’s eyes as she lashed at the hands attempting to help her. She did not recognize the bewildered woman in the reflection and the white skin of her anguished face.
“No worries, my friend. Any moment now, you and Ilvy will bring a fresh, new story into our world,” sang Rudi of Alonia. He handed Ernest a cup carved from oak and filled to the brim with ale, then sat next to him on a stone warmed by the fire.
Moments ago, Rudi had retreated home with the rest of the Alonian villagers who had waited with Ernest at the hearth to welcome the baby. The others had left Ernest because it was rude to keep up celebratory pretenses while Ilvy was struggling so—Alonians knew the difference between the sounds of birth pain and of dying in childbirth. Ilvy’s were the latter.
However, Rudi could never leave his friend in such a time. He had left with every intent to return with ale and a friend’s support for the father who could be left without a wife and child tonight. The moonlight streamed in through the hearth, pouring its light onto Ernest as if announcing to the entire night sky that there sat a soon-to-be lonely widower. No. Rudi would not allow the moon to make a spectacle of Ernest tonight.
Another shriek erupted from Agatha’s home. Ernest winced as if the fire had spat sparks at his face. He closed his eyes until Ilvy’s cries ceased.
“A fresh story,” Ernest thought out loud. “A new story… is there really such a thing?”
Rudi stuttered. He had meant to ease Ernest’s mind about the childbirth, not trigger a complicated discussion. But, at the moment, it seemed to have done the trick and given him something to ponder.
Ernest took a sip of the ale and then stared into the fire. “It seems to me that our lives are nothing like the stories we tell. No clear beginning. My story started with my father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and beyond because, without them, I would not be here. How far back does it go, do you suppose? Ah! And no finite endings either, now that I think about it. We leave behind legacies of which we will never know. Just imagine, Rudi, all the toy figures you carve! After you pass, think of how many children of Eraskan land will still play with them. Is this not strange to you?”
A gust of wind blew the fire’s smoke at Rudi. “Yes,” he managed between coughs. He loved the idea. It felt as if he had travelled to all the places his toys had and that a part of him would continue travelling even after his time came.
“I have a wish for my newborn,” Ernest said, looking at the stars. “My child, may your life be a new, fresh story. May you face life’s challenges with an open heart, and may you dance in your legacies before it is your time.”
That was lovely, Rudi wanted to say, but he stopped to think of a more masculine expression. Enchanting? No, that was for fairy tales. Delightful? No, that was Merle’s favorite word when she drank milk, and Ernest’s wish was much more… lovely. Well, then. He would just have to say lovely because there was no other word for it.
“That was lovely, Ernest,” a woman’s voice interrupted. Bee hunched through the opening of her home, careful not to step on her hair that dipped into the dirt. She straightened and lifted a wool blanket off a rope line.
Rudi scowled. “Now, Bee, last I heard, you were in charge of getting the young ones to practice their welcome poems for the baby, but instead, you’re eavesdropping on our chat and snatching my words. I have heard nothing but silence from the wee poets since the moment that there log began to burn, and if those children sound like a jumbled thatch endeavor, I’ll be the one to tell Ilvy exactly why that is so,” he said, then crossed his arms and slouched.
Bee folded the blanket over her arm and reached for another on the line. “The children,” she articulated, “are resting so that when the time comes, they do not sound like a grumpy man who has run out of things to complain about.” She tossed the blanket, and it landed on top of Rudi’s head. “I suggest you join them.”
“That might not be a bad idea,” Ernest agreed.
Rudi refused to unwind his frown as he watched Bee pat Ernest’s shoulder and offer him the other blanket. “Forgive my interruption, but your wish really is lovely and I think it would do everyone good to hear it. Rumor has it that Sira and Viktor wished little Manni a chest of gold. A chest of gold! In Eraska! Imagine that. The skies only know where their heads were when they thought of that.”
“If it’s true, let’s hope it is only the skies that heard and not Cloudian. It’d break the old king’s heart. I hope our people know better than to spread such a lie,” Ernest commented.
Rudi agreed. He’d be the first to disclose Sira and Viktor’s betrayal to King Cloudian if it were true. It was the only law in Alonia and the other five villages of Eraska: neither the citizens nor their kings would seek gold. It had been like that for generations. It was why he had the luxury of living a peaceful life of woodwork and carving without having to worry about greedy, gold-seeking thieves—or kings—invading his home.
However, no one knew the real reason why no one was allowed to seek gold in Eraska. Only King Cloudian and one chosen person from each of Eraska’s six villages knew. And Rudi was Alonia’s chosen one.
Not even Rudi’s wife Merle knew about his secret duty. He was King Cloudian’s eye in Alonia, under oath to help the King in a mission outlined in a letter that had been handed down to each King of Eraska. The letter had been written by a Wiseman named Brom who wrote of an awful tragedy that he had caused, a tragedy that he had too little time to fix. He begged the Kings to ban gold from Eraska and believed that if this law were abided, a solution to the misfortune he had caused would arise. Brom wrote that nature would send a sign upon the arrival of that solution.
Rudi hummed with the thought of this responsibility, somehow heavy and light at once. Or similar? What Brom’s tragedy was was unclear, but Brom warned in the letter not to seek it.
King Cloudian was desperate for the solution. Rudi was, too. How many ages had gone by in this strange hold of knowing and not knowing? Of waiting? Yes, Eraska was at peace, unlike the other kingdoms of the world, but how much of the world were they being deprived of because of their isolation? And how much longer could Cloudian keep Eraskans isolated from the other gold-bearing kingdoms of the world? More and more often sailors docked and visited Alonia while world wanderers visited the other villages. They carried gold, and many Eraskans caught a glimpse of the precious metal. What would happen if Eraskans found out that the glory of owning the precious metal had been taken from them all because of a silly letter? How long could freedom from invasion and a promise of peace be a good enough reason to withhold the desire to touch it, to own it? Rudi even wished he could touch it, even if just for a moment to see what it felt like.
Rudi had to admit that Brom’s letter sounded like an Alonian story. He could even imagine Ernest spinning it. But what if there really had been a tragedy and a solution that would arise all thanks to centuries of Eraskans keeping their land free of gold? What if they were part of something bigger, something even bigger than the adventures people outside of their kingdom were having?
Rudi would never forget the first time he had touched the letter. Up in King Cloudian’s tower on a windy night, his father and the King had told him the story and informed him of his task. He didn’t believe it until the letter rested in his hands. The writing was on a grey material that had the texture of a leaf. And it felt warm, alive. There had to be something different and special about Brom and the world he lived in. No piece of parchment in their times could compare to the mysterious material of the letter.
Rudi drew circles in the dirt with a stick as he listened to Bee talk to Ernest about a new story she had read. Neither one of them knew that the only reason their ancestors had learned to read and write was because of Brom’s letter. Alonia was the only village close to the sea, which stimulated many curiosities about the outside world. Rudi felt bad for the fellow who had been the King when Alonians by the dozens arrived at the fortress to see a docked ship and to speak with the sailors. He could almost see them eagerly asking to go on the ship. The exact opposite of isolation indeed, Alonians sailing off into the horizon to explore the world of gold. The only solution was to quench their thirst about the outside world, and what better way than to give them stories and the means to read and write them? And here they were today, eagerly awaiting King Cloudian’s stewards to come by several times a year with all sorts of goods the King traded for—boots, coats, tools, glass jars—and for Alonians, books, parchment, and ink.
The sound of a clay pot shattering sounded from Agatha’s home, followed by a thud. Rudi spilled his cup of ale as he rushed after Ernest toward Agatha’s.
“Ilvy! Stop!” Agatha cried.
Ilvy of Alonia stumbled out of the dwelling, looked both ways, and then took off in the direction of the forest at a pace more inclined toward challenging a deer than a human.
Rudi blinked, stunned. That was not Alonian tradition. That was not like anything Rudi had ever seen. He was right behind Ernest as they charged after her. Once they reached the brink of the forest, Ilvy was nowhere in sight. Rudi stopped in his tracks, distracted from a flash above. He gazed up at the night sky and watched in awe as all the stars pulsed in unison. He came to the realization that he was witnessing something very out of the ordinary. For the first time in his life, he stepped into his role of being King Cloudian’s eye in Alonia as he entered the forest in search of Ilvy.
Crisp air poured into Ilvy’s lungs. Now that there was no smoke, she could finally breathe. The full moon beamed. Soaking in the natural light of the white birch bark, she knew that she had never made a better decision in her life than to grant her baby’s wish to leave the birthing hut. No, she was not Thilda. She would not be cursed for delivering her child outside the village.
The pains were still there, but they grew gentler now. She wasn’t sure where she was going, but the baby seemed sure, having taken full control of her legs.
All the wildlife background on her favorite path for picking berries seemed to emit a pulse that she felt in the air around her—even the pebbles on the path. Ilvy knew the names of many plants and trees that grew in the forest, but now it was almost as if each plant, blade of grass, and tree had a unique name of its own, each singing a unique tone. She attempted articulating one of them. What a lovely sound, she thought. I didn’t know my voice could do that. Joy whirled in her belly, a sign that the baby liked the sounds. Ilvy continued to sing the mysterious tunes.
Soon she found herself in an area where a family of willow trees stood by the stream. The warmth in her legs receded slightly and slowed her pace. Still singing, her attention was drawn to the sway of one of the willow tree’s leaves. Her receding pains transformed into waves, mimicking their rhythm. A tide-like pull invited her to approach the willow, and she laid down under its canopy. She sighed and closed her eyes, the ground more comfortable than even the freshest of mattresses.
The leaves brushed soothing patterns and shapes across her belly. These, she realized, were the assisting hands her baby had called for. When Ilvy opened her eyes, she gasped: a scene of magic greeted her that even the most imaginative storytellers would not have been able to come up with—several leaves supported her baby’s head and the rest wrapped around the torso until her little girl swayed above her, cradled, her sweet cry joining the melody of the forest.
“Holy Basil…” she whispered in wonder. Her eyelids grew heavy and her vision blurred. It looked like a family of fireflies was dancing around her baby, the newborn wrapped in a gentle glow. Slowly, the willow tree leaves lowered Herlot into the crease of Ilvy’s arm. That was the last image she saw before another willow leaf appeared before her and caressed her eyes, and she heeded sleep’s hypnotizing call.
Ilvy’s awakening was the most beautiful of her life. Not a single ache infiltrated her body. She felt strong, not weak like she had felt after giving birth to Ambro. The sun warmed her face through the willow leaves, and everything was a perfect pitch of quiet. The morning birds singing, the water rolling over the rocks in the stream, and most beautiful of all, her daughter’s cooing—and Ernest’s humming.
Ilvy looked to her right to see her husband sitting alongside her, his back resting against the trunk of the willow tree with their daughter in his arms. Several images of the willow tree leaves reaching for her and the delivery flashed across her mind, but reason flushed them away. It must have been a dream. She must have run off in a labor-fever delirium and collapsed by the willows when she finally reached exhaustion. It was a miracle that she had even been able to deliver her baby and she wished she could remember it.
She watched Ernest and her daughter as her breaths grew deeper, enjoying the sight of them. What would he say of her running off? How did he find her? But the questions didn’t last long. Ernest soon noticed she was awake. They could always tell when the other was awake just by sensing the change in their breathing pattern.
“Good morning.” Ernest leaned forward to give Ilvy a better glimpse of their daughter.
Love burst into her cheeks for every part of her precious daughter’s face, especially her small nose, so intent on breathing, and the delicate hairs matted to her forehead. “Good morning, Herlot,” she said. Her smile faded when she glanced up at Ernest’s exhausted face. How long had he been looking for her? “Ernest—”
“Don’t apologize. You are safe. Herlot is safe. I would like to know why you ran, though.”
Ilvy swallowed. A lot of people would be asking that question.
“It was so hot in there, and I had a fever. There was so much smoke and I couldn’t breathe. All I remember is wanting fresh air. Oh, Ernest. What will the others think? How can we convince them that I am not like Thilda?” Or was she?
“We don’t need to convince them of anything. Herlot is alive. Thilda’s story was a tragedy, but it does not mean that a mother and her child will suffer an ill fate if the child is not born in the village.”
If only everyone thought like Ernest. She needed him to reassure her. “I don’t know if I can go back there yet.”
“You’re right. They may be suspicious at first. And I’ll gladly stay in the woods with you for ages, but what about our home and friends? Look at our daughter, Ilvy. All they need is time to see that everything is fine and they will love her like every child. They are our family, too, and I know that we both want Herlot to grow up with them.”
Ilvy’s eyes found her daughter. “What do you say? Is it time for you to meet your village family?”
They entered Alonia from the south, where their home stood. It was farthest away from the center hearth and closest to the forest trees. Ilvy set her jaw tight as Alonians, busy with chores, came into view—but it did not stop her lips from trembling. What would they say? Brooms brushed against the dirty entryways, eggs were inspected, and hands were nudged aside by calves well aware of their right to drink first. Those who did regard her entrance only threw a few scowls the baby’s way. Sira lifted her daughter, Manni, away from the carrots in the vegetable garden as if she were protecting her from some danger.
She was about to break into tears when she noticed Elvin helping his mother carry fish into the smokehouse, waving at her. He dropped the fish, slipped from his mother’s attempting grip, and skipped over to Ilvy, folding his hands in front of him.
“Welcome to our home for you,
From all of us not just a few,
Even though you are still new—”
He seemed to have forgotten the next phrase and fell deep into thought as Ilvy’s heart delighted at more welcomers—her best friend Merle holding her three-year-old son by hand. Just when Merle opened her mouth, most likely to help Elvin with the poem, he shushed her. It looked like Elvin had decided to make up his own phrase.
“And one day we’ll have to share my favorite stew,
As long as the sky is blue,
My home is open to you!”
He stood up on his toes and kissed Herlot on the cheek.
“Oh, Ilvy, she is an orchid. May I hold her?” Merle asked.
Ilvy nodded and rubbed a happy tear away. Along with the others, Ilvy sat on her heels as they got a closer look at Herlot. Ilvy delighted in Ambro’s first moment with his new sister, as he brushed Herlot’s cheeks with the side of his finger. Then he did the same against her hands, which were curled into fists. All of a sudden, Herlot was scooped away by Ernest.
A cold voice penetrated the air. “She wasn’t born in the village. It’s a bad omen.”
Ilvy turned around and almost stumbled back when she was met by Sira’s scowl. Behind her stood the entire village, each wearing the same scowl. Fear plucked at her heart. How had they gathered so quickly?
“Out of my way, superstitious fools!” Rudi’s voice rang. Ilvy caught a glimpse of him as he shoved his way through the crowd that had assembled, hopping on one leg between two women who were stubborn in letting him through.
“Holy Basil, do I have news,” he announced. He leaned over and kissed Herlot on the forehead. “Welcome, princess. You really are a fresh and new story.” He winked at Ilvy before he faced the others. Whatever the wink was about, she was certain he felt confident about it. She hoped with all of her heart that it was something to save her daughter from being deemed a bad omen.
“Alonians! I have news that will make even your shadows turn to light and help you forget your silly fears. Eraskan bells would not ring if Herlot were a bad omen. Come! Follow me! To the sea cliffs!”
Everyone broke out in curious murmurs. Bells? What in the world was Rudi speaking about?
“Eraskan bells?” Bee’s husband said.
“But there are no bells at the fortress! King Cloudian said so himself!” Sira said.
“No, no, no. He said there were bells but they were broken,” Bee said.
Impossible, Ilvy thought as she followed the crowd down the path to the sea with Ernest and Ambro at her side. Even from the seacliffs, the fortress would be too far away from them to hear the bells if in fact they had been fixed.
Then she heard them, even over the sound of the vigorous waves splashing up water at the protruding cliff as they crashed into the jagged rocks below. Ringing and vibrating metals alternated in rhythm in two distinct pitches. Beautiful, much more so than the clanking of iron pots that she had imagined.
One by one, she watched everyone line up to greet Herlot in Ernest’s arms.
All of a sudden, Rudi’s arm was around her shoulder. He gazed at the crowd as if watching a sunset.
“I hope you are feeling very proud of yourself,” Ilvy said.
“Ah, yes, yes.”
“As you ought to be. But, Rudi, how is it possible? How can we hear them from this far away?” She gazed at the fortress that was but a dot on the horizon where the sea met the shore. The bells were too far, yet the ringing was deafening and seemed to be right there next to them on the cliffs.
“Let’s just be grateful that everyone is too caught up by the beauty of the sound. There couldn’t be a clearer sign that Herlot is not a bad omen. Hey, Agatha,” Rudi waved over Agatha who still stood on the path with both hands on her hips. Slowly, swaying her hips side to side, she walked right by Ernest and Herlot and squared her shoulders off at Ilvy.
“I stubbed two toes trying to go after you,” she said.
Rudi covered his mouth and whispered under his breath. Are you sure it wasn't your toes that stubbed the chests?
“I’m so sorry, Agatha. Really—” Ilvy started.
“And you know what the worst part was?” Agatha’s whole face trembled, and her eyes squinted shut. “I was so worried about you and the little one! I used up three candles waiting for you to come back. I even promised that as long as you came back, I wouldn’t ever deliver a baby again.”
Before Agatha could get any more riled up, Ilvy threw her arms around her. Never, ever, would she want someone else delivering babies. “I am so, so sorry for causing all this trouble, and every mother and child are lucky to have you. I just needed some fresh air. That was all.”
Agatha wiped her nose on her apron. “Just fresh air? Well, this is good to know.” And at last she looked at Herlot. “Can I hold her?”
“Of course,” Ernest said and placed Herlot on Agatha’s chest. Agatha rocked side to side to the rhythm of the bells until Rudi asked for his turn.
Ilvy couldn’t believe how wonderful the morning had turned out. She had the best home in the world. Each one of them was lucky to have been welcomed into the world with so much love. The only thing more pleasing was seeing her own child be on the receiving end.
“Hungry,” Ambro tugged on Ilvy’s dress.
As if awoken and reminded, Ilvy’s stomach grumbled.
“I agree,” Ernest said. “What do you say, friends? Shall we celebrate this wonderful morning with hard-boiled eggs?”
A high-pitched, continuous cry emanated from Herlot and Ilvy’s arms extended for her. “Sounds like we aren’t the only ones who are hungry,” Rudi said.
Then, right as Ilvy and Rudi’s arms touched, Herlot between them, Ivy’s hair flew into her face from a wind so strong it threatened to unravel Herlot from her blanket. It slid over the top of Herlot and then turned to glide underneath, carrying the ringing tone of the bells in a circle around her. Based on Rudi’s dropped jaw, Ilvy knew he was just as shocked as she was. They stared at one another, each holding onto Herlot, afraid to move for fear of the wind sweeping her away. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. The air was void of any bell ringing, only the waves and seagulls could be heard like on any normal day at the sea cliffs.
Ilvy held Herlot close to her chest, readjusting the blanket. Rudi seemed unshaken. Had she imagined that he had witnessed it, too? He simply stared off into the distance, toward the fortress.
He just kept staring. She nudged him with her shoulder.
He turned to look at her, brows furrowed together. “You go on ahead, Ilvy. I’ll catch up,” he said and smiled sadly before turning back to look at the fortress.
Ilvy rushed toward the path, her only wish to get Herlot away from the cliff. While everyone celebrated her daughter over breakfast, she couldn’t stop thinking about the wind and the bells and how the wind had targeted her daughter. She was stirred out of her thoughts by a tap on her shoulder. She turned to look down at Elvin who had a half-peeled egg in his hand.
“I just saw the first butterfly outside. Come, I’ll show you and you can chase it.”
Ilvy frowned. “Elvin, why in the world would you think I’d want to chase a butterfly?”
“You said you would still chase them after the baby was born.”
“I said no such thing.” Ilvy took the egg from Elvin and peeled off the rest of the shell. Sometimes children had the silliest of ideas. Ilvy hadn’t chased a butterfly since she was a little girl.
King Cloudian raced barefoot and robeless up the cracked stone steps of the fortress, his morning routine utterly forgotten. His stewards were right on his heels as Cloudian pushed the ceiling door up, pulled himself onto the plank, and gazed up at the bells swinging—no bell ringer or ropes in sight. It was as if the wind itself was pushing them like a child on a tree swing. A sign from nature. His knees buckled in relief and hit the old, wooden floor. He didn’t even notice the screw that dug into his worn skin as he dropped his face into his hands, relief pouring out of his pores like a maple tree’s sap on a warm day in spring.
Cloudian grasped for the large amulet that hung around his neck and took out the small scroll that was hidden inside. Like every king before him, he had sworn a secret oath only shared between one Eraskan king to another. He had promised to sacrifice any desires for gold in duty to this message he often questioned was real. He skimmed the words that he had recited on so many occasions when he was certain his life as a king was of no worth. No gold, no cities, no army. He had nothing compared to the rulers of other kingdoms in the world.
But he did have this letter. If the contents were true, maybe he had something that was just as valuable, if not more.
Dear future King of Eraska,
I have done something terrible and our world suffers endless wars over gold because of it. For years I have studied my mistakes and my enemy—our enemy—and believe that I have found a solution. I cannot tell you more than this, for if I share my knowledge of who our enemy is, your life will be endangered and you are not strong enough to face him. Trust me when I tell you that it is complicated beyond sense and requires a long time for crucial events to unfold. By this time, not even a trace of my existence will be remembered by anyone in your world. My solution requires crucial events to unfold, and it is imperative that you not allow a single Eraskan to possess gold. Our enemy has already won, but if you follow my instructions, we just may have a chance of not letting him win forever. Keep your people isolated. Support their joy and peace in any way you can. This, I believe, will foster a place, if given enough time, for my solution. The wind will give you a sign when you are on the correct path.
With shame and hope in my heart,
Goosebumps spread across King Cloudian’s body as he felt the power and changing direction of the wind above, as if ignited by an important message that the clapper was beating against the bells’ hollow insides. If this was not the sign every king had waited for, nothing would be.