In the evening, on the fifth day of Spring, Ron decided to run away.
It was the nail in the coffin of a particularly bad week. It had been a harsh winter, and the Inn was in disarray. With the wave of springtime merchants only a few weeks away, Ron’s Aunt was strained to the point of rage. But she could not punish the harsh winter, or the rapidly dwindling time she had to spruce up the small establishment. She could punish the children though.
There were many harsh moments the past few days, but the final straw was earlier that evening, when she threw a bottle at Zima. Ron’s little sister was trying to organize the chairs around the common room’s eating tables. She tugged a bit too much, and scuffed the floor. The Aunt, who was stocking the storage, came out, cursed at the girl, and let fly the latest delivery of wine. She missed the child, thank whichever god who cared to listen, but she did order Ron to clean the broken glass. She did not bat an eye when the boy slashed his hand open.
Later, when the Aunt had gone to bed, Ron cleaned and bandaged his hand. It shouldn’t hurt too much, so long as he kept it still. As he did this, Zima was in the corner, with her legs curled up, watching a beetle scamper across the floor. That was when Ron told her his decision.
“We should leave.” He said bluntly, still wincing from the sting of his hand.
Zima’s tuft of raven hair flopped back as she looked at him. “… But it’s dark.”
“Yeah, that’s why we should leave.” He replied, “She’s an old bat, she can’t chase us when she can’t see.”
“But how do we get out? She locks the doors.”
“The old window by the kitchen. It’s very squeaky, but if we’re really quiet-“
Zima immediately turned and started to tip-toe to the kitchen, but Ron grabbed her hand. “Wait! We need some food first.”
It did not take long to scrounge together a large bundle of snacks, there were plenty of pastries and other goods from the week’s deliveries. Stuffing the snacks -along with an extra set of clothes and blankets for both of them- into a big linen sack, Ron crept slowly through the dark inn, his skinny feet carefully avoiding the boards which tended to creak. Like a mischievous housecat he slinked his way to the kitchen, where the old window stood crooked in the wall.
The window had been busted for as long as Ron could remember. It’s hinges were rusted and weak, easily jostled free, but also impeccably noisy. They would have to be very careful, and very slow.
The pair worked together to tug the window free. Back and forth their little hands pushed and pulled, painstakingly loosening the rusted hinges until the window unexpectedly sprung free with a pop. The children froze, not even daring to breathe as they strained their ears, listening. A moment passed. Silence. They were safe.
Ron hoisted Zima through the window first. She was far lighter, and landed on the damp earth outside with nothing more than a soft padding noise. Next was the sack. Ron heard Zima grunt as she caught the large bundle of goods, but she managed to stop it from spilling out onto the ground. Now it was Ron’s turn. He took a breath, and gingerly hoisted himself up through the opening; the silence was shattered as his foot struck the window.
The high pitched reeeeeeee of the hinges echoed through the inn like a deranged war horn. Ron did not freeze to listen this time. He leapt without hesitation, striking the earth below with a harsh thwump. He was already up and running before he heard his Aunt’s infuriated screams.
With the sack in one hand and Zima’s skinny arm in the other, Ron tore his way down the worn cobblestone street. Past the butcher’s stall still smelling of dried blood, and around the blacksmith’s shop with a still-glowing forge—they skirted around the light as quickly and quietly as possible, afraid the smith may be working late. They ran through the now-vacant market, past the stone mason’s home, and into the outskirts of the village, where cobblestone turned to bare earth. Ron saw the glow of a watchman’s lantern in the corner of his eye, but he did not turn to look. Instead he kept running until they reached the very edge of town, where the stables were. They snaked their way through stalls and piles of hay —much to the irritation of several sleeping horses—, ducked under a hole in a fence, and hurtled into an empty space.
The silence returned, even the children’s own panicked breathing seeming to fade as they sailed across a small field, a strip of barren land between the village and the wood. In the scarce moonlight, the forest was a wall of green shadow. A towering, twisting barrier of hunched-over trunks and whispering leaves. For a split second, Ron was afraid they would slam into that wall, as if it were solid. But before he could slow, Zima tripped forwards. Ron, his hand still clutching hers, was pulled after her, and they both tumbled that final step into the wood. It was not solid, and they were swallowed by the green.
With a chorus of snapping branches and a series of harsh thuds the siblings tumbled down, down, down, as if falling into a great overgrown abyss. More thuds, more branches, until finally flat ground met them, and the children rolled to a dizzying stop. The first thing Ron did was reach for Zima’s hand. She was there, she was ok.
Sitting up with a groan, Ron blinked repeatedly until his eyes adjusted to the low moonlight. To his surprise, the fall looked far shorter than it felt. Rather than an abyss, the two were only at the bottom of a small hollow, moss blanketing the dampened earth. Next to him, Zima sat up too, drawing her knees to her chest as she curled up instinctively, her bright eyes darting around the forest anxiously.
After a moment of silence and gradually slowing heartbeats, the little sister spoke, “Where do we go now?”
The reality hit Ron like a charging horse. They couldn’t crawl out of the hollow, and go back to the inn, their Aunt would have their heads. But if not back, then where?
“Maybe we can go back to Papa?” Asked Zima, as if reading her brother’s thoughts.
“Of course not.” He replied quickly, “He’s still very sick, it’s why we had to live with that hag in the first place. He’d just send us back to her.”
“Then where!?” Zima said a bit too loudly. She was stubborn, but Ron could hear her young voice beginning to break. “It’s dark out here! All I see are trees and trees and more trees. We’ll get lost!”
“We won’t get lost. The woods aren’t that big.” Even as Ron said the words he was already doubting it. Zima was right, there seemed to be nothing but trees ahead of them. Immense, twisting trunks drowning in curtains of moss, branches clawing out towards the sky, forever upwards. It puzzled Ron a bit. Even looking at them from across the field, he hadn’t thought they were that tall.
It didn’t matter. Zima was visibly worried, and Ron needed to have a plan for her. He pressed his hands against his head and tried to think of where to go. The bandage on his hand had loosened from the fall, and it stung, but he couldn’t focus on the pain right now. If not back to Papa, then where could they go? The only road out of town led towards- yes, towards the city.
“We should go and get Paris.” Ron affirmed.
Zima twisted her eyebrows in an exaggerated manner. “But he left! He went to be a soldier.”
“But first he has to learn to be one.” The memory came back to Ron, one Zima was too young to remember. Of his older brother standing proudly in the doorway, a sword-belt ringing his tunic and a gleaming helmet held under one arm. “Everyone in the academy gets a helmet.” He had said before he climbed into a wagon full of other young boys. “Your head’s the best thing you got, you need to keep it safe.”
“The academy is in the city, where the road goes.” Ron explained, “But we can’t go on the road yet, the bat will send the watch to find us, they’ll catch us and send us back. So we’ll walk through the woods a bit, and get back on the road where it crosses the stream. We’ll be far enough away then, it’ll be safe.”
Zima was already on her feet. She was weird that way, completely accepting his ideas the moment he explained it; it didn’t matter if the explanation was good or not. As she marched confidently off into the army of trees, Ron took her little hand, and veered her in the right direction.
It should have been very dark beneath the canopy, but the moon had started to glow bright shortly after their trek began. Surprisingly bright. It wasn’t very hard to traverse the forest floor either. There were very few bushes to push through, the ground was mostly moss and the snake-like roots of giant trees. And they were indeed giant trees, seeming to get bigger and bigger the more they walked. Ron didn’t think any trees grew so large around the village. He knew they didn’t. Yet here they were.
As much as the boy wanted to stop and puzzle over this mystery, he knew they couldn’t. They needed to get across the stream before too long. There was no time for mysteries or games.
Ron felt something prickly poke his cheek. He slowed, and looked around. Nothing.
“What is it?” Asked Zima, still affixed to his hand.
“I thought-“ As Ron tilted his head to look up, he felt another prod. Looking down he saw a thin little stick on the ground where it wasn’t before, right next to Zima’s shoes. Putting two and two together, Ron smirked.
“You little rat!” He exclaimed, picking up the twig and poking Zima in the belly. His sister immediately began to giggle.
“What was that for?”
“You aren’t fooling me now!”the boy snickered, poking her again. Zima tried to protest, but her words were swallowed up by her own giggles as brightness leapt into her eyes. She scuttled around until she found her own stick, and the duel commenced.
Ideas of vengeful aunts or dark forests left the minds of the children as they played. As their sticks cracked and scratched against each other they pieced together their narrative, shouting out new chapters every so often. First Zima was the mysterious witch in the woods, and Ron was the dashing huntsman looking for the lost princess. But then Zima wanted to be the princess, so Ron became the evil knight who wanted to take her kingdom. But knights should not be evil, so Ron became a good knight, like their brother Paris was going to be. Their brother, who they needed to find. They needed to stop playing.
Before Ron could say this, he felt another prod. Not from Zima, from behind him. He turned and looked, but saw nothing. When he turned back his sister was darting around a tree, laughing happily.
“Zima wait! We need to keep moving!” Ron shouted as he lunged after her. He peered around the tree, she was not there. He looked around another tree, and another. Still, no Zima. He felt another prod, and heard a giggle, but not Zima’s voice. He turned around once, twice. He heard a fern rustle to his right, so he started to run in that direction. More laughter, Zima’s? Someone else’s? Another prod, but he ignored this one, and kept running, looking. “Zima! The game’s over!”
Something hard and sharp slammed into Ron’s leg, sending him tumbling through the mossy floor. Seething he clutched at his freshly bruised knee, staring confusedly at the rock which had struck him. That strange giggle came again, and he saw a sparkle. Some sort of glimmer passing between the trees. A green glimmer. In front of him, then to his left, then above. It was random, bizarre. It kept giggling. Then it spoke.
Ron took a moment to find his voice. He’d been told stories about lights in the woods, but he had assumed Papa was just making things up. “W-what?”
“Name?” The glimmer repeated. “Your name? You have a name?”
“Yes! Your name! What’s your name? What’s your name?”
“Don’t tell him.” Another voice whispered from the trees.
Ron rolled over, and saw a second glimmer, this one yellow. It repeated its whisper.
“Don’t tell him. Say nothing.”
“Stop it.” Sneered the green glimmer.
“He doesn’t like you.” Whispered the yellow one. “He wants power over you. Names give power. Say nothing.”
“I said stop it.” Growled Green.
“You stop it.” Snapped Yellow. “They’re just children.”
“They’ll grow, that’s bad. They’ll be bad.”
“Let them play.”
“This is not a game.”
“ITS MY GAME.” Green suddenly shrieked, so loud Ron had to cover his ears. His bandage was gone from his hand now, and it stung horribly. Green’s light exploded into ghastly brilliance, and like a bolt of lightning it roared past Ron, chasing Yellow off into the trees. He could have sworn he saw a face in the light, and clenched fists. But it didn’t matter, he had to find his sister.
Ron leapt to his feet. His knee ached, but he could still run. And ran he did, shouting, begging for his sister to come out. The trees were impossibly tall now. He couldn’t look behind all of them. He wished Paris was here. He remembered what he had said to him, before he left, “Your head’s the best thing you got.”
A whisper from the trees; “Think, boy.”
Ron stopped running. Zima didn’t run when she was scared, she hid. She curled up into a ball and buried herself into corners. Like under the roots of a tree.
The boy walked around a few more trees, slowly, looking down rather than forwards. Within a couple moments, he found his sister, curled up in a ball under some roots. She was crying silently.
“I want to go home.” She sniffed.
Ron kneeled, and took her hands in his. He didn’t feel the sting. “Then let’s go find home.”
“Is it ok to come out? She said to wait until it was ok.”
There was a glimmer in the trees, and Ron’s head swung around fearfully. But his fear turned to relief. The glimmer, the figure, was yellow, and she was pointing off towards the right, where Ron could hear the distant trickle of a stream.
He looked at his sister, and squeezed her hands, “Yeah, it’s ok.”
Hand in hand, they walked through the moss-laden forest. The trees grew smaller and smaller, until they reached the shallow stream. They crossed it carefully, turned left, pushed through a wall of snapping branches, and onto a wide dirt road. On the horizon, over a distant hill, Ron could barely see the lights of a far-off city’s walls, where his brother was learning to be a good knight. Like what Ron was learning to be for Zima. He smiled.
“Let’s go find home.”