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half-sick of shadows

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The boy is heavy in her arms.

She does not expect to feel it, not when the shadows curl around her like parasites, like children orbiting their mother. But the boy is still and warm, his blood dripping on the floors of the crumbling castle as she carries him.

His warmth keeps her from being afraid. Chunks of mortar and brick crash to the ground nearby, and the whole building shakes and groans, worn beyond its years. It has been a long time coming, she thinks.

One step at a time, she makes her way to the elevator. She expects the queen’s voice behind her all the way – Yorda, Yorda, what are you doing, you little fool?

She expects the darkness to come creeping up behind her, turning her again to stone. She wonders what it would be like, to live out eternity as a statue, trapped in a moment of terror and resignation.

She wonders what it would have been like, if the boy had failed.

She half-expects to be crushed by falling debris before she reaches the boat, but – suddenly, there it is. Buoying restlessly against the tide that is rising up to greet it.

The boy fits snugly into the small boat, his breathing shallow. She reaches out to cup his cheek, but the shadows stop her. They are still curled around her, suffocating her, tendrils of a monster coating her skin.

She withdraws her hand, instead finding the smooth wood of the boat. Her heart in her throat, she pushes it out into the water, and it’s soon swept away into the world beyond.

“Goodbye,” she whispers, breathes, prays.

She wonders what the boy’s word for it is. She wonders if he ever understood that she was grateful.

The water laps around her ankles, then her knees, then her thighs. Soon the boat is a speck in the distance.

Yorda, Yorda, what are you doing, you little fool?

She remembers the cage around her, the bite of the cold steel beneath her bare feet. She remembers huddling inside it, shoulders tense, straining her neck to see the sunlight outside. She remembers hearing the call of the birds, and the brief flutter of wings fly past the window.

She remembers chasing those same birds, later, the boy watching her in bemusement and calling her back to his side. She remembers how warm his hand felt in hers as she ran with him and, for a moment, felt as though she were a bird flying across the world.

Then the memory disappears, and the water swallows her whole.

She remembers falling into the water near the windmill, and the boy laughing beside her as they both clambered out of it, shivering. She remembers that she had swum, then, even though she had never known how to.

It is this that propels her forward, and she gasps for air as she breaks the surface. The sun blinds her eyes and she realises she is outside the castle, outside the falling walls. The water stretches out wide before her.

She wonders if the boy has reached the shore. She wonders if she is strong enough to make it.

She slips underneath the waves several times, each time more desperate than the last as she sucks in air. She tumbles through the currents, barely able to tell if she is dying or surviving.

She remembers the first time the boy had called to her from across a broken bridge. Jump, his outstretched hand had said. She remembers pacing back and forth, unsure, staring at the gap between them.

And then she remembers jumping, flying towards him and falling, just for a moment, until his hand anchored her. He had pulled her up and squeezed her hand, and they had kept running.

She has this memory in her heart as she collides with the sand, coughing and spluttering.

Her eyes are blurry and the sun is bright, too bright, but the shadows are no longer consuming her. Her hand, though blurry, is pale and white like it has always been.

She wonders if the water washed the shadows away, or if they disappeared with the castle, sunk beneath the sea. She wonders if the shadow things are happy now that they no longer have a queen to rule them.

She closes her eyes, feeling the heat of the sand and the sun. It is so different from the island, where the coldness of the shadows and her mother and the walls had been sharper than everything else. Here there is just warmth.

She hears a voice calling out for her – the boy’s, far off, far away. She wonders, again, what he says when he calls for her. She wishes she could run to him as she has done so many times before, but her feet do not seem to want to move.

She hears his voice again, closer now, and a shadow blocks out the sun. But it is not the same as the shadows from the castle – this one protects, it does not consume.

She opens her eyes, reaching out her hand to touch his, seeking. For a moment he looks worried, then confused, but then understanding blooms a smile on his face.

His hand grasps hers.

“Nonomori,” he whispers to her, the same word she had whispered to him when he fell, and she wonders if he knows what it means.

She wonders if everything will be all right now.