Their fifteenth winter is even colder than the first one the Borka robbers spent in the castle, when Birk and Ronia first became a brother and a sister. At first they keep telling each other and anyone who will listen to them that they can still spend time in the forest despite the ever-growing blanket of snow and the horribly bitter cold. After all, they’re no children anymore. Soon, however, it becomes clear that even the most seasoned robbers don’t dare to go any further than the well, returning with their beards covered in frost and eyelashes frozen together, and one morning, they hear a flock of harpies wailing as they fly overhead, unable to cope with the biting cold, searching for some kinder land. As much as they miss their freedom, Ronia and Birk are grateful for the shelter offered by the thick stone walls and the strong fires that are never allowed to burn out.
They do get restless, even so, and when the wildest robber dances leave their limbs aching with energy, they realise they’ll have to come up with something new and exciting to keep themselves occupied through the long winter. They end up exploring the forgotten parts of the castle, discovering hidden rooms and every now and then getting lost so completely that they have to wait for the other dwellers to start their dancing and feasting and follow the noise. When they are not exploring, they play games or listen to wild stories from the robbers’ golden days or help with the endless shovelling of snow. This keeps them busy for the first month or so.
It’s the darkest time of the year when something changes. Ever since their first summer in the Bear Cave, Ronia and Birk have been practically inseparable, sharing their lives with the ease of two people who have known each other for a lifetime. They do fight, of course, just as they always have, but they’re quick to make up. This winter something changes. Neither of them can name one singular event. Nothing big happens. Sometimes they just return separately from their explorations and won’t look each other in the eye for a day or two. Sometimes they end up in shouting matches over a simple game of dice or whose turn it is to feed the horses. At first, it doesn’t seem that different but slowly the rows get worse, until they actually become physical. One time it erupts over a missing jug. It starts with a few sharp words and soon they’re wrestling on the stone floor. They’re pulled apart, still hissing at each other, eyes glowing with fury.
‘You’re a disgrace,’ Borka tells Birk, holding his face in a way that leaves white finger marks on his jaw. ‘Fighting with girls.’
‘I’m not some weakling you have to protect,’ Ronia growls from her father’s firm grip. ‘If one of us is the girl, it’s him.’
‘You’re supposed to be a man,’ Borka tells his fuming son, ‘but as long as you behave this way, you’re nothing but a spoiled, bad-mannered child.’
Birk swallows his angry words and goes out to shovel snow until he can’t feel his hands anymore. The worst thing is that his father is right; he’s no longer the slender, light-footed boy he once was. He’s now a head taller than Ronia (something she despises and sometimes even blames him for, knowing perfectly well he can’t help it) and his fey-like features are transforming into something else. He knows he’s supposed to become a man, but he doesn’t feel that way one bit. Instead he feels like he’s about to explode, and somehow Ronia, his dear sister, is only making it worse.
‘I hate him,’ Ronia hisses, pummelling the dough she’s making with her fists. ‘When he’s in the room, it feels like there’s no air left.’
Finally, Birk and Ronia start to avoid each other because it gets impossible to spend time together without one or both of them storming off in the end. The worst thing is that they miss each other, but time and time again, they find that it doesn’t change anything. It’s like they both exhale some flammable gas and the sparks of their words will inevitably cause an explosion. The robbers, their fathers in particular, feel even more claustrophobic being shut in the castle with the children who usually bring them such great joy suddenly like two captured, mean-spirited harpies. Meanwhile, Undis shares knowing looks with Lovis. The signs are clear. It won’t be long now.
When spring finally, finally arrives, both Ronia and Birk run out of the castle like wild horses and go their separate ways. It isn’t until some days later that they run into each other by a pond. They eye at each other carefully, as though they were new to this. A few awkward words are uttered and they go in circles around each other. Then a fox cub tumbles out of the shrubbery, stares at these two peculiar creatures for a moment with its big dark eyes, yips and runs away. Birk and Ronia look at each other and somehow the ice breaks and they start to laugh at the same moment and tumble into each other’s arms.
‘How happy I am to have found you again,’ Birk says and all around them birds are singing and everything is so very alive and finally the winter is over.
‘I’m happy too,’ Ronia says, beaming. ‘It must have been the winter, that’s all.’
Birk agrees, but somewhere deep down they both know that it was more than the winter, and that something has irrevocably changed, even if they cannot name it just yet.
‘It was awful to fight like that,’ Ronia says and grasps his hands, ‘But you’ll always be my brother, won’t you, Birk?’
Perhaps that’s when it happens. There’s a brief moment when Birk’s breath catches, when the word brother stings him like the freezing stream water in early spring. ‘Always,’ he says, and Ronia sees a shadow cross his face and doesn’t understand why.
She gives out her spring call and starts to run. For a moment he stands there, frozen, watching her run in the sunlit forest. Then he goes after her.
That evening the temperature plummets and when the sun finally rises the next morning, a thick blanket of snow has covered the forest once more. Ronia asks Birk to play dice with her, but he apologises, says Undis has asked for his help and turns on his heels, disappearing into the maze of corridors before Ronia is ask any questions. She stares after him and shrugs and asks for Knott to play with her instead.
Birk stays away even when the last robbers make their way under the thick wolf coat covers they had already put away. Borka is about to go look for him, but Undis tells him no. She wishes she could look for her son and talk with him, but knows it won’t make this any easier. She knows he won’t say sister anymore.
The snow does eventually melt again and this time spring comes to stay. Ronia and Birk spend most of their time in the forest. They fight sometimes and sometimes there are strange quiet moments when neither knows what to say, but most of the time, it’s the same as every spring before. They enjoy their freedom and savour the tingling sensation of life filling their veins. When it’s only dark for a few hours a night, they move to the Bear Cave as they have every summer before. Once more, it’s mostly the same, but something is a bit off, something unnamed has changed.
For one, Ronia finds it’s strange to live so close to each other. When they bathe in the stream, she sometimes finds herself watching Birk, the shapes of muscles beneath his skin, the Adam’s apple in his neck. There is nothing strange about it as such, after all, she has more than once witnessed a big group of hairy robbers rolling in the snow, but this is Birk, her brother, the willowy boy who could have been her twin, apart from his freckles and auburn hair. Now he’s all edges and Ronia increasingly soft curves and somehow it makes her feel confused and causes her cheeks to burn.
Sometimes she finds Birk looking at her, too, not just when they’re bathing but other times too when she’s absorbed in the task at hand. He gets this strange new look she’s never seen before, like one does when they long for something. She’s tried to ask him about it but has never got a straight answer.
They’re at the cave that evening and Ronia is making a new wooden spoon. Birk is carrying water and stops when he sees her in the golden light at the mouth of the cave. A shiver runs through him and he wants to desperately say something but no words come out.
Then he can’t resist anymore and touches her shoulder. Ronia turns to look at him, squinting at the light of the setting sun behind him. He feels his hands quiver, but he leans down and touches his lips to hers, her breath warm against his mouth. Ronia gasps sharply and recoils, staring at him in horror, ‘What are you doing?’
Birk suddenly feels cold all over and his heart is in his throat and there is nothing he can do. ‘I-I’m sorry,’ he stammers. ‘I thought—‘
He has no way to finish that sentence, so instead he watches her eyes fill with tears and wishes he’d have fallen into Hell’s Gap the first time they played their reckless game. ‘I just thought—’
‘But then I couldn’t be your sister anymore,’ Ronia gasps, breathless from the tears she’s trying to swallow.
Birk stands there at the mouth of the Bear Cave and stares at her black eyes, bright with tears. She is beautiful in the golden light of the late afternoon and he wants to help her and can’t.
‘No, you’re right,’ he says quietly and his hands clench and unclench, as if reaching for some solution that doesn’t exist. Then he takes a deep breath, ‘I think it’s better if I sleep somewhere else tonight. Don’t worry, it will be a warm night.’
Ronia nods, quiet, and watches him go, her heart trying to beat its way through her ribcage.
The sun never goes down that night. Birk lies on a moss-covered rock, watching the sun near the horizon and then starts its rise again, calling out all the birds. He imagines wings sprouting from his shoulder blades, imagines flying towards the blinding sun, weightless without the burdens that human beings must carry. Ronia tries to sleep, but her dreams are full of colours and fire and she constantly startles awake and instinctively looks over to the empty sleeping place. She misses Birk terribly and is happy he isn’t there, all at once. Every thought makes her ache.
They try to forget that summer evening at the Bear Cave, and slowly work their way back to where they were before. Even so, there are more changes. They are clearly becoming more cautious around each other, careful not to overstep any line.
One late summer day, they’re fishing at the stream. Birk catches a big salmon that almost makes him trip on the slippery stones. He’s struggling against the strong pull of the fish, and Ronia’s running to help him when she finds herself looking at him, his focused blue eyes and his sharp profile, the red hair that is slowly becoming coarser, the way his mouth becomes a straight line when he’s focused. She thinks how beautiful he is like this, no longer the skinny boy she smuggled bread to, but almost a man, strong and full of life.
Ronia’s heart feels funny and she stops at her tracks and nearly slips off a wet stone, but manages to catch her balance.
What are you doing, robber’s daughter? Are you ill or what? she asks herself, angrily, but her heart is beating quick, not with fear, but something she has no name for, something resembling the time when they stole one bottle of that nasty stuff Matt and Borka told them to keep their hands off of and drank it in one of the hidden rooms, getting all light-headed and giggly and finally sick. The only thing she can think of is jumping into the stream, and she does just that.
That catches Birk’s attention and it’s all it takes for the salmon to escape.
‘I lost the fish!’ he shouts when she comes up for air.
‘Sorry,’ is all she can say, ‘it’s just the spring. You know how it is with me.’
Birk gives her an odd look and doesn’t point out that it hasn’t been spring for a long time, rather, autumn is already near.
Finally the relentless rains come, and Ronia and Birk return to the comfortable life in the castle. The robbers are a little wary of them, expecting the same kind of fire and fury they had to endure in the winter. It’s not like that this time. Instead they spend more time apart than they ever have. They help with a lot of the work in the castle. They volunteer to do things like repairs or tending to the animals. Sometimes there as happy they can be together, but sometimes they find it’s hard to know what to do or say.
Ronia hates it. No one else is as much fun as Birk or understands her as well, but even so, ever so often being with him is the worst thing. She feels tingly and uncomfortable and it’s hard to breathe and she doesn’t know what to say. It makes her angry. Eventually Lovis asks her what the matter is. She tries to explain but cannot. She wrings her hands. She tells Lovis she doesn’t know what the matter is, not at all.
‘But you do know what it is, my daughter,’ Lovis says, and her eyes are gentle and maybe just a little bit sad, piercing into Ronia’s heart.
Ronia shakes her head vehemently, ‘I don’t.’
‘Yes, you do.’
Ronia wants to argue, she wants to keep shaking her head, shake her whole body until this stupid feeling leaks out of her, until this illness is cured, until this parasite crawls out of her body. But Ronia knows her mother is right about most things and this is one of them.
‘It’s not that,’ she says weakly. She looks at Lovis as though she had hurt herself and this was something that could be cured with one of her mother’s medicaments or maybe just a nice big piece of peat moss, but Lovis knows it’s a wound that cuts far deeper, one she has no way of healing.
‘It’s not,’ Ronia repeats, staring at her hands, ‘He’s my brother.’
Lovis kisses her forehead and stands up to go, and Ronia presses her face in her hands.
Matt walks in, glances at his disturbingly quiet and obedient daughter, and his body goes rigid with dread when he sees her sorry state.
‘W-what’s wrong?’ he gasps, looking at Lovis for an answer. ‘How ill is she? What do we need?’
Lovis touches his arm gently. ‘It’s love,’ she says with a quiet voice, but even so eliciting a sharp exhalation from Ronia. ‘Just love, that’s all.’
Matt stares at his daughter and then at his wife, as though they were both speaking in tongues. ‘But that’s—No, she’s just a child, it’s—‘
Lovis shakes her head, and guides him out of the room.
‘Love,’ Ronia mutters, ‘love. Oh you damned Borkason, I wish your sorry lot had never made their way to our castle.’
But that thought sends another burst of that stupid heart-stopping fire through her body and she runs out of the castle and into the forest and then just aimlessly onwards until finally her legs give out and she falls on a bed of wet moss and this new sensation still pulses through her bloodstream with every beat of her racing heart.
The first real fog arrives, enveloping the castle in a white veil, and Ronia and Birk both find themselves at Hell’s Gap, making sure the harpies aren’t building their nests there.
‘I think we should talk,’ Birk says and Ronia knows what he means.
‘What good does talking ever do?’ she asks and doesn’t wait for his reply but jumps across the Gap. He stands still for a moment but then follows her.
‘Maybe nothing,’ he admits. ‘But it’s worth trying, isn’t it?’
She leaps again. ‘I just want everything to be alright.’
In the end, they’re both flying across Hell’s Gap as though they were eleven again and had never known another human child. Breathless and tingling and running both away and to each other they keep leaping, keep defying death, until Ronia’s foot almost slips and Birk makes a poorly calculated leap to help her, ending up scrambling back to safe ground himself.
Shuddering with excitement and adrenaline and fear, they sit down on the edge, dangling their feet in Hell’s Gap. Neither one of them speaks, and the world around them is eerily quiet and white. Then they hear the mournful song of the unearthly ones down in the forest.
‘Do you still feel like going to them?’ Birk asks when the song reaches a particularly sorrowful note.
He shudders when her fingers trace the faint scar on his cheek, left by her teeth once upon a time, in a different life.
‘I still feel the longing,’ she says, her eyes lingering on the silver-veiled forest. ‘I think it’s the way migratory birds must feel. Compelled by some beautiful unknown.’
Birk nods and turns his sad eyes away from Ronia.
‘If I were all alone, I think I might go, one day,’ she continues, ‘when Matt and Lovis and all the others rest with Noddle-Pete, and this is no longer a robbers’ castle.’
The thought makes her throat feel tight with tears, but she shakes it off.
‘But I won’t,’ she says, her voice strong now, and Birk can’t help but to look at her. ‘Not in this lifetime.’
His hands are cold and sweaty and his Adam’s apple feels like it’s suffocating him. He finds it hard to believe that he’d ever be able to leap across Hell’s Gap or scale down the mountain, that’s how foreign and awkward he feels in his body. His heart is drumming against his ribcage like a captured wild bird, and he doesn’t know if it’s fear or something else.
‘Why is that? You wouldn’t have anyone, then, would you?’
He takes a shuddery breath. He knows what she says next will seal his fate.
‘But of course,’ Ronia says and her dark eyes are warm and fearless, because she has finally remembered that it’s no good being afraid in the world. ‘I’ll have you.’
She watches him and sees how several emotions cross his face. At first he’s surprised and then briefly a little scared and then his face lights up and breaks into a smile and his eyes get a strange glow. Ronia can feel her own face mirroring his, just as she knows that her pounding heart is a mirror to his own.
Their legs hanging off the edge of Hell’s Gap, Birk and Ronia lean towards each other and kiss like a pair of teenaged robbers’ children with no experience and overflowing hearts do.
Then they both laugh until they get tears in their eyes and have to gasp for air. They lie on the edge of Hell’s Gap, their world no greater than this, around them a thick cover of fog and the world somewhere beyond it, far, far away. Ronia entwines her fingers with Birk’s, and they glance at each other.
An invisible tie has replaced the leather rope that once bound them together, and Ronia thinks it’s the best kind of a bind for learning how to not be afraid of love.