Abelone stopped sweeping the kitchen floor for a moment, and gazed out of the window into the night. She felt uneasy; restless. It was an unusual feeling, and part of her savoured it, just for being out of the ordinary.
Everything about Abelone’s life was ordinary. Living in the small town of Barley all her life meant that she knew everyone, and she knew she fit in perfectly. Outwardly, at least. Outwardly she was unremarkable; a little shorter than most of the other girls her age (though still taller than a few), with unruly brown curls and wide green eyes.
At twenty she looked much younger – travellers passing through would usually mistake her for a schoolgirl barely older than fifteen, but when she groused about it to her father he would smile and stroke her hair, and tell her that her mother had never looked a day over sixteen. Then his gaze would slide away from Abelone, and he would say almost to himself that her mother had been the prettiest girl in town, just as his Abby was now. Abelone knew she wasn’t the prettiest girl in the town, but she knew she wasn’t the least pretty either, so she didn’t mind too much.
She ran her hand through her untidy hair, noticing absentmindedly how grubby her nails were. It would be best to remember to scrub them before the following evening, she thought. Aunt Brynna would be less than impressed if her wayward niece didn’t look pristine on the most important night of the year. And if Aunt Brynna was less than impressed it would likely lead to some pointed comments about how Abelone had still not managed to find a husband, and how she couldn’t expect her youthful looks to go on lasting forever. Abelone knew at that point her aunt would feel bad, and tell her that there was still plenty of time for her to start a family and she mustn’t worry, but the words still resonated.
“Abby?” A voice called from another room. “Are you finished yet?”
“Almost,” she called back. “I’ll be through in a minute.”
She gave the floor a few more half hearted sweeps before leaning the broom against the table and padding toward the kitchen door. It was considered bad luck to open a door to the outside after dark had fallen on the night before the Festival, but she felt rebellious. And maybe a moment or two outside would dislodge the feeling that kept niggling at her.
Quietly unlocking the door and pushing it open she slipped outside. The air was crisp, with flakes of ash and the smell of burning wood on the breeze.
She shivered a little and pulled her shawl round her shoulders before breathing the night in deeply. If anything, the feeling was worse out here, and she frowned, trying to place it. It was as though she had forgotten to do something, or as though she had been lost in thought and about to come to an important realisation when something had distracted her. She shook her head. It was an odd sensation.
Dismissing it from her mind, she settled down on the doorstep. It was nice, she decided, being outside when everyone else was safely tucked away indoors. It felt right, somehow, to be out here, on this night.
The house she lived in with her father was right at the end of the town, on a slight hill. Perched as she was on the doorstep she could see the path meandering in the moonlight past rows of houses, over the river and almost all the way down to the square, which was, from the look of the torches bobbing around and the sound of the hubbub that carried up in the breeze, still in the process of being set up for the Festival.
She pulled a strand of hair through her fingers and glanced towards the dark trees of the forest that bordered the town on three sides, but looking in that direction only increased her uneasiness, so she turned her attention back to the organised chaos of the town square, and hummed a snatch of the tune she’d heard her aunt singing earlier whilst preparing the pie for the Festival meal.
“You’re asking for trouble, you know,” a voice said by her elbow, and she jumped. A small grey tabby cat melted out of the shadows and blinked greenish-amber eyes at her.
“I am?” she asked, not sure of what else she could possibly say in such an unexpected situation.
“Of course you are,” the cat told her, brusquely. “Coming outside on this night of all nights, sitting there and singing song magic. Who are you calling to, that’s what I wonder.”
“I wasn’t calling to anyone,” Abelone told the cat. “And besides, I wasn’t singing. I was humming.”
The cat snorted.
“Oh yes. You expect that makes a difference, do you? Magic doesn’t care about nuance. Silly girl. I expected more from one such as you.”
“One such as I? What does that mean?” Abelone asked, feeling as though she was on the cusp of something important. But instead of answering, the cat spun round as though someone had stood on its tail, narrowed its eyes and sniffed the air. Abelone looked around, wondering what had startled him, and felt something – nothing tangible, just a quiet shift of the ash motes floating on the breeze in the light from the kitchen window, but it none the less sent a warning into some forgotten part of her brain. “What was that?” she asked sharply.
“Never mind, never mind,” the cat said hurriedly. “You go inside now. Quick, quick, in you go!”
“But what did you mean, one such as I?” Abelone asked again, as she scrambled to her feet.
“Doesn’t matter. Go inside. You’ll know soon enough.” With that the cat darted down the path and merged into the inky black shadows around the gate. Abelone shivered again, but not with cold this time. She slid back into the kitchen, and made sure to lock the door behind her.
That night, as she was preparing to go to bed, there was a knock on Anelone’s bedroom door.
“Come in,” she called, brushing her hair. Every evening she would brush her dark hair until it shone, plait it neatly in a rope down her back, and every morning it looked the same mess it always did, but still she never missed a night. Her father, Marten opened the door, peering though his glasses short-sightedly at her.
“I just thought I’d have a quick chat with you, before tomorrow,” he said, sinking into the old armchair by the bed. “You’ve been very quiet, tonight. Very unlike you. Are you alright?”
Abelone nodded and sat on the bed, folding her legs under her comfortably. “I’m ok, Pa,” she said. “I just had an odd thing happen this evening.”
“Mmm hmmmm. Your mother used to mention odd things that would happen to her. They started when she was a bit younger than you, and got more frequent around this time of year, just before Festival. I did wonder if it might be something like that. What happened?”
Abelone hesitated. As understanding as her father was, she didn’t quite feel ready to tell him about her conversation with a cat. Also, she knew she wasn’t supposed to have gone outside, and didn’t really want a telling off – especially not when her father seemed willing to talk about her mother. It was unusual for him to bring up the subject of his long lost wife, and Abelone was eager to hear more.
“It was nothing, really,” she said vaguely. “I looked through the kitchen window earlier, and thought I saw someone outside. But when I looked again, there was no one there.”
“Who did you see?” asked her father, looking up keenly, and Abelone’s heart sank. What a foolish lie, she thought – of course he would think she had seen her mother, and now he would torment himself with the possibility of her return.
“A boy,” she said quickly. “A boy with green eyes, and messy hair like mine. Probably just my reflection in the glass – I should probably try to look after my appearance a bit more, like Aunt Brynna keeps telling me.” With that she self consciously started to pull the brush through her hair again.
“She used to do that, you know,” Marten said, quietly. “She would sit on the bed, just as you are now, and brush her hair a hundred times before sleep. Never did any good though.”
“I know,” Abelone replied. “I remember watching her.”
There was a silence, and Abelone suddenly decided to ask the question she had always wanted to ask but had never quite dared to mention.
“Why did she leave?”
Her father sighed, and shrugged.
“She was always a flighty thing. She just turned up in the village one day, when she was about five. I was seven; I just remember this grubby little slip of a thing being taken in by the people who lived next door to my parents. Who knows where she’d been, she couldn’t even talk when she arrived, and later on she would tell me that her first memories were of her new family, and of me. She used to follow me around everywhere. It was annoying, for the first ten years, and then one day I looked at her and realised she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. A year later we were married, and a year after that, you turned up. We were very happy, but there were times – especially at this time of year – where I felt she wanted to be somewhere else, And sometimes odd things would happen. I remember her having a long conversation with a squirrel; at the time I thought she was just amusing you, but afterwards she swore that the squirrel has been talking back to her. It sounds so strange now, but at the time I believed her. I think I still believe her, even now, even after all these years. But to answer your question, I don’t know why she left. It was the night after the Festival – had I told you that? Her first Festival. So she’s been gone eighteen years ago tomorrow. I still hope…” With that he trailed off, and Abelone knew enough to leave it well alone. After a moment her father shook his head, as though to dislodge his memories, and smiled at her.
“Are you excited about the Festival tomorrow? You will be careful, won’t you? You can take the yewstick, if you like.” The yewstick was a thick staff that came to Abelone’s elbow. Marten used it as a walking stick, and rarely let out of his sight, because Abelone’s mother had made for him years ago. He offered it casually, but Abelone knew that parting with the yewstick was a hard thing for him to do, and she saw how worried he was for her.
“Of course I’ll be careful,” Abelone said, trying to sound reassuring.
“But you’re not excited?” he asked shrewdly. Abelone shrugged.
“I don’t know. It will be interesting. But I think with the bonfire, and the dancing… I think it’s much more enjoyable if you go with someone.”
“Are you lonely, Abby?” Marten asked suddenly. “Why don’t you find yourself a husband? I don’t mean to sound like your aunt, but she’s only worried about you – you need to start living your own life, get married, have babies. You don’t want to be stuck here all your life, with me. Is that why you don’t find yourself a man? Are you worried about leaving me?”
Abelone looked away. It was true that she worried about the day she would have to leave her father alone in their little house, although with Aunt Brynna living next door it was unlikely he would ever get a moment’s peace; but it wasn’t the reason why she hadn’t started courting. That was for a far simpler reason: none of the boys – young men now, she corrected herself – none of the young men in the town ever held her interest. They were nice enough, and some of them were pleasant to look at, and plenty of them had tried to spend time with her, but she just never felt any kind of connection.
“I’m fine, Pa,” she said, sincerely. “I don’t want anyone. I’m in no rush.”
“Well,” her father said comfortably, “Perhaps one day you’ll just meet someone, and then you’ll know. That happened to my brother and his wife – your Uncle Conrad and Aunt Essa. She was just travelling through the town – I don’t even know where she was going – she met your uncle, and then a month later they were married. Olun turned up pretty soon after that, and look how happy they are together. Maybe a similar thing will happen for you.”
“Maybe,” Abelone replied. “I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything yet. I don’t seem to be getting any older, anyway.”
“Your mother was just like that, you know,” he told her, getting up from the chair and making his way to the door. “She barely looked a day over sixteen. Prettiest girl in town. Good night, Abby,” he said fondly, and shut the door behind him.
Abby sighed, and put the hairbrush on the dresser, skilfully twisting her hair into a plait that undoubtedly be unwound by the next day. She curled up under the sheets, grateful for the brick warmed in the oven and wrapped in cloth at the foot of the bed, and blew out the candle. The dark engulfed her, and for the first time in her life it made her feel a little uneasy. She closed her eyes and burrowed into the blankets. Sleep held off for a while, and when it finally arrived, it brought with it tangled dreams that wove the events of the day and the expectations of tomorrow into a cold warning of what was to come.