The sun had set some time ago, casting the quiet woods in a darkness penetrated only by the meager light cast from the slivered moon high in the sky. A wafting breeze disturbed the trees' branches, their leaves beginning to change colors with the coming chill. Save for the soft whistle of the wind, all was silent as the world slept.
All except for the residents of a lone cabin nestled deep within the trees, firelight flickering in the foremost window.
Out in the cold, wedged between a barrel and the cabin wall, hid a shivering girl.
Of the places Oddny longed to be at the moment, squatting in the damp grass was near the bottom of her rather short list. The ferns crumpled beneath her worn boots were still wet from the rain that had passed and soaked through the material. Huddling in the fetal position did not spare her fingers and toes from going numb; the bitter air nipping at her nose and cheeks wasn't helping.
Inside, the fire in the hearth and a bed of furs called her name. They would be more than enough to warm her bones and chase away the stiffness wrought by the chill. However, her concern wasn't freezing to death in the yard—it was who lurked within those cabin walls.
Uncle Frits was in there.
Under normal circumstances, that wasn't an issue. Tonight, though, he had chosen to drink himself stupid at the alehouse in town. It only happened once in a blue moon, but a drunk Uncle was a scary Uncle. Oddny had long since learned how to deal with him when he came home in such a state.
If she allowed him the time to shout until he passed out, she could slink back in and return to her regularly scheduled night. Of all the times he could have chosen, Uncle Frits decided to get drunk on the coldest night in days.
However much he frightened her when drunk, at least he was never violent. Sometimes, though, she wished he would strike her. It would be more bearable than the venomous taunting and mockery he subjected her to when she was within his sights. The man had a way with words, and when he was drunk he could craft up wounds more devastating than any sword or bow or fist could. He always knew just what to say to whittle at her insecurities and pierce her heart.
Should luck smile upon Oddny, he would apologize the next day. That was assuming he didn't drown his memory in alcohol—Oddny would forever be wary of him regardless. Freezing to death or nursing a head cold would be easier to endure than his tongue-lashings.
Still, she would have liked to come inside soon.
As the gods would have it, her current predicament would remain until all fell quiet in the cabin.
Oddny pulled her parka tighter around her and tried to keep her teeth from chattering. Rubbing her arms wasn't helping at all, but at least the barrels of rainwater at her sides shielded her from the cutting wind. It was times like these, when her uncle was drunk and she couldn't go anywhere else, that she missed her childhood home the most.
Even at his best, Uncle Frits couldn't replace the warmth of her mother's smile. He wasn't Father, whose ribbing was good-natured. Who offered patience and guidance. Though the cabin was warm and comfortable, it wasn't enough to keep her from missing her home in the prairie. Dragons never raided that far inland and it seemed the whole world was an open road beckoning to her and promising adventure.
Her current residence was locked away in a remote location surrounded by dragon-infested woods far from the nearest town—which he never took her to visit and forbade her from traveling to on her own. Never mind that she wasn't allowed to stray far from the yard, either.
How she longed to be free to chase the braying goats and ride the work houses throughout the plains. She even missed milking the cows and acting as a distraction to their vicious rooster while Mother collected eggs from the henhouse, however many scratching and pecking she had to endure. Accompanying Father into town had seemed a chore at the time, but Oddny would have liked that now.
She had taken all of that for granted when she had lived there.
Now all of it was gone, stolen when she was forced to make the months-long journey to her uncle's home. Her parents were still fine and home was still there. Oddny had never wanted to leave, but it had been deemed to be in her best interest when the farm stopped producing as much as it used to and money was tight. The drought had been devastating, and the livestock had fallen ill.
With no end in sight, Mother and Father hadn't had any other choice but to send Oddny to someone who could provide—and that been her Uncle Frits.
His voice cut through her thoughts. "Calla!"
There was no better proof of Uncle Frits' inebriated state than when that name escaped his lips. The very sound of it was enough to set Oddny's teeth on edge. That name was not hers.
"Calla!" he called out again, raising Oddny's hackles and increasing the frequency of her shudders. Not from the cold, but from irritation.
Calla: my flower. His wife's name.
His dead wife.
Just before Oddny had come to live with her uncle, his wife had been killed when the dragons raided Penshaw, the town on the other side of the woods. He was still distraught over her loss, and what made it worse was Oddny's uncanny resemblance to her Aunt Calla. It didn't take long for her likeness—from the light dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose to the way the mess of dark hair surrounded her sun-kissed skin—to drive her uncle mad.
When Uncle Frits had come to pick her up, Oddny had been twelve and desperate to stay with her parents. She hardly knew the man and begged her parents to let her stay. She could do more work, try harder to help Mother and Father keep the farm alive. She and Mother had cried together while Father stood by in stoic silence.
It was for her own well-being and was supposed to help both her and Uncle Frits. He was dealing with the loss of his wife, Mother's sister, and needed her company as much as she needed his support and the meals he could steadily provide. Unlike them, he would be able to teach her to read and write. None of them knew how, and they would never have been able to afford a tutor even when the farm was doing well.
Above all, it was supposed to have been temporary. When the farm was doing better, and when Frits was back on his feet, they would bring her back home to live with them.
Four years later, Oddny was still somewhat convinced it was all her fault. Maybe she didn't bring about the drought that had killed the crops and sickened the livestock, but perhaps she could have worked harder and complained less.
Maybe then they would have been able to care for her.
Maybe then she could have stayed with them instead of moving to live with her uncle.
Certainly, she wouldn't be crouched outside between two rain-filled drums, shivering and scared of her uncle. It was hard to dislike him, though. It hadn't been his idea, and she could only imagine what sort pain he had to endure after losing a wife and then taking care of a niece that looked so much like her. It had to be soul-crushing.
There wasn't a lack of pleasant recollections with Uncle, at least. Most of the time, he was pleasant to be around and treated her fairly. However, they didn't have nearly as much fun as she and her parents had.
Uncle spent the majority of his days working within the town of Penshaw, leaving her at the cabin alone to entertain herself. He couldn't properly work and watch her at the same time, so it was easier to leave her behind. It was much too dangerous for her to wander the woods alone and he had promised severe consequences should she ever be caught.
So, she stayed and ended up taking care of all the chores. There were a few, but nowhere near as many as there had been on the farm. Aside from cleaning, Oddny had become proficient in preparing their meals over the years.
He insisted that it was the entire reason she had to stay behind when he traveled to town for his work—someone had to stay and tend to the cabin while he was gone. Oddny, however, knew the truth. After losing his wife to the dragons that had plagued the town, he had grown too paranoid to put Oddny in anything close to danger.
Though there wasn't any livestock in the area to draw the scaly creatures' attention, it wasn't something he wanted to risk. Being devoured by them sounded like no enjoyable experience, so Oddny abided by his rules.
After four years of never once seeing a dragon, even in the distance, she was itching to go past the yard. Her free time back home had been spent exploring the area outside their farm, whether astride a horse or by foot. Cabin fever was setting in with a vengeance, chasing away any lingering fear of suffering the same fate as Aunt Calla.
In fact, more recently, Oddny had begun doing just that. She knew Uncle's schedule fairly well and could traverse into the edge of the woods without being found out most days. If he happened to come home, his "severe punishments" bore no more weight than an angry lecture.
The first time, she had been terrified of what he would do, but it turned out there wasn't much. She was already stuck at the cabin and had very little in the way of privilege or belongings that he could confiscate. He made her go to bed without supper after spending a good portion of the night berating her, but that was the extent of it.
So, she continued to wander the fringes of the trees, gathering kindling and making a mental catalog of what wildlife lived in the area: birds, toads, and the occasional deer. Never a dragon, though, and that was what had her the most curious. Uncle was terrified of them, but that made them more intriguing. Seeing one for herself might help her understand some of the feelings he harbored toward them.
Inside, Uncle Frits still called for her by the wrong name. Oddny shuddered out an exhale, her breath curling upwards in a puff. Her shivering had become more violent, but it was only a matter of time before he gave up.
Suddenly, the front door opened. Oddny froze and her breath caught in her throat.
"Calla!" he bellowed, his voice carrying into the forest. It never ceased to amaze her how that voice could come from such a lanky man. "If you're out there again, so help me!"
He waited and Oddny still held her breath, her eyes closed tight. The cabin wasn't all that large, so it wouldn't have taken him long to check the interior. He usually passed out before that, though, so Oddny began to think that he hadn't had that many drinks tonight.
Were that the case, it was only a matter of time before he came outside looking for her.
And if he didn't find her by the cabin, he might wander into the woods. In the dark, he was sure to lose his way—and that would be on her.
"Where are you? Calla!"
She lifted her hands to cover her ears and pressed herself harder against the cabin wall. That's not my name! I'm not her! she thought, her teeth clenched.
Something had changed since the last time he'd called out. There was a tinge of desperation underneath the slurring. His shadow spanned over the yard as he left the warmth radiating from the door, leaving the comfort of the cabin to search the darkness for her.
"Please—," he said, stumbling over the uneven ground. "I just. . .I just want to talk. Please—Please, Calla, come back!"
His words stirred something within Oddny; she was certain that, right then, he wasn't talking to her. Uncle was calling for Aunt Calla. The wound had been so fresh when Oddny had first come to live with him. He'd lived a lonely and broken life until Mother and Father had decided it would be better for both her and Frits if she came to live with him.
The sudden, devastating loss of his wife at the claws of a dragon—living with someone who was the spitting image of her—even after these four years, he still ached for her.
A wave of guilt blindsided Oddny as she sat crouched in the dark, allowing her broken and grief-stricken uncle to worry over nothing. Making him relive that awful moment Aunt Calla hadn't come home. This had never happened before. He'd always shouted himself out cold and then woke up the next morning with a headache, apologizing for his behavior.
That despairing tone, the hitch in his voice. . . .
I did this.
Aunt Calla never had the chance to give Uncle Frits a child, so he was just doing his best. He didn't know how to care for a child, just that she needed shelter and food. He hadn't been prepared to be responsible for a kid, but his precious flower's sister had needed him—his niece had needed him. So he'd spent all the coin he had to his name at the time to travel to their farm and pick Oddny up.
It was what Aunt Calla would have wanted.
"You're all I have," Uncle Frits whined, traipsing about the yard around the perimeter of the cabin, unable to even walk straight.
Sighing, Oddny uncurled from the tight ball she'd wound herself in and shimmied out from between the two rain barrels. She straightened her pants and parka, then snuck around to the front door to wait for him. He'd come back around eventually, and hopefully, he'd be more relieved to see her home okay than angry at her for disappearing in the first place.
"I can't—I can't go out there," he was muttering to himself. "But if she—I'll have to. I can't just let her. . .it's so cold and—Calla!"
"It's Oddny, Uncle," she murmured, averting her gaze. She squared her shoulders and set her chin, waiting for the coming onslaught of curses and insults and reprimands. However, as he stomped up to her, she couldn't help but glance up at the man, tall as a tree and reed-thin, and cringe.
None of that came, though. Instead, he kneeled down and gathered Oddny up in his arms, pressing her close against his chest in a rare embrace. "Thank—thank the gods."
Oddny stood in stunned silence, her back arched awkwardly and her arms hovering up by his shoulders. Uncle Frits had never been an affectionate man, offering her little in the way of attention outside of a smile or a pat on the head. Now that he clung to her, she wasn't sure how to react.
After a moment, he held her at arm's length and looked her up and down.
Maybe tonight wouldn't be so bad after all.
However, the relief on his face slowly gave way to a more familiar irritation and his fingers dug into her shoulders uncomfortably tight. "Where were you? Why didn't you, how come—why didn't you answer me when—when I was calling you this whole time?" he demanded, his chest heaving beneath his heavy shirt. Even the simple task of jogging around the house proved too much for someone living the life of a scribe.
She pulled away and dropped her gaze again. He released her without putting up much of a fight. "I—I was. . . ," she tried to rub some of the feeling back into her fingers, wishing they would move the conversation inside already.
"Well?" pressed Uncle Frits.
In a small voice, she finally said, "I was hiding."
Taken aback, brows furrowed beneath his ruddy mop of hair, Uncle Frits asked. "Hide—you—whatever for?"
"I. . . ," Oddny regretted saying it, but she didn't have an excuse ready. Now, she was in too deep and felt like she could do nothing else but keep up with the truth. Hopefully, he would take it well. "I don't like it when you drink."
A muscle tightened in his jaw and he stood up with a sigh. "Get inside before. . .you catch your, uh, death. How long were you planning—were you going to sit out in the cold?" There was a dangerous bite to his hitching words, like the calm before a storm. He could have screamed it at her or been making a polite suggestion: Oddny was more than happy to scurry inside to the fire.
"You gonna answer me?" Frits prompted, punctuating his words by slamming the door shut.
Jumping, Oddny struggled to remember what he'd asked. "I don't know," she finally responded, wringing her hands in front of the flames. "Until you stopped shouting."
Rubbing his face, Frits heaved another heavy sigh. He raised his other hand, fist clenched as if he wanted to hit something. Oddny didn't flinch, however—it happened so often and seemed to be more of an angry tick than a real threat.
"Sorry," he harrumphed. "Go. . .uh, go eat something, then get some, mm, some sleep. First thing in the morning we're going. . .going into town."
Her heart soared and Oddny turned toward him, her eyes wide. "What? Really?"
He shot her a sidelong glare. "Yes! Don't—don't interrupt. There was something. . .something else I wanted to—gods, stop staring at me like that Calla!"
No sooner had he spat the words and Oddny had dropped her gaze to her shoes.
She didn't bother trying to correct him this time.
"We're going into town first thing. . .after breakfast. You need something else to wear. And you're too thin! Go eat!"
Nodding, Oddny scurried into the other room at his command, her boots shuffling against the wooden floor. Inside the warmth of the cabin, with the fire blazing in the hearth, the circulation began to return to her fingers, toes, and face.
It wasn't quite enough to return her fine motor skills. It took a few tries before she could light the coals in the oven.
Her thoughts were elsewhere and her digits uncooperative—in these last four years of living with Frits, he had never taken her into town for anything, least of all new clothes. If she grew out of her old outfit, he would bring her home a new one after he returned from work. Usually, it was out of style and more often than not a size too big.
"You'll grow into it," he'd say.
She was always glad for an oversized parka. Her current one had started out three sizes too big, nearly drowning her in the thick fabric, but at least she'd always been able to cuddle up with it during an extra cold night. Now, though, she'd completely grown into it and it was beginning to show the wear and tear of wearing it for a couple years.
At the moment, though, she was glad that he hadn't devolved into his usual tirade of slurred vitriol and verbal abuse. Oddny was more than happy to distract herself with her current directive while his usual mockery was held at bay.
Of course, when Uncle Frits instructed her to go eat, it was a euphemism for "Make me some supper and get some for yourself."
Though he had told her to eat, she knew that if she didn't make enough for Frits, he would be upset. She found the trout that Uncle had brought back from town—a fairly large and expensive-looking one at that—that she prepared to cook.
From the other room, her uncle shouted, "You find. . .you got the fish?"
"Yes, Uncle," she called in response, already halfway through scaling it.
"I—you know that, er, I—I caught that myself today?"
She rolled her eyes, the faintest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her lips as she finished her prep work and put the fish on to bake in the oven. "Oh, really? It must have taken you all day to reel in this monster."
He snorted and sounded much smugger. "It—yeah, it sure did."
She was humoring him, of course. Uncle Frits was as much a fisherman as Oddny was the daughter of a royal family. Even if he wasn't drunk enough to spit venom, the ale was still making him spin some tall tales.
However he managed to acquire it, it would make a fine supper.
A large, iron cauldron was still sitting on a small pile of coals. She coaxed those back to life and stirred the contents; a layer of fat had formed over the top of the brown liquid.
Frits was no hunter or farmer, so he often traded his services or what coin he was paid for meat and vegetables. The stew contained boiled turkey bones, carrots, corn, and beans. It would feed them for one more day before it turned sour.
There was a small amount of stale bread left and she made a mental note to let Frits know so he could trade for more—or maybe some ingredients so she could make her own.
"Calla?" he called quite a while later. Frits was sitting in his chair, nursing a cup of water and reading over one of the manuscripts he was supposed to copy, using the light from the fire to do so. "I mean. . . sorry, Oddny. Are you doing okay in there?"
Her fleeting glance didn't halt her work and she cut up the baked trout, then served her meal on a pair of wooden plates, and the stew into similar bowls.
"Nearly finished," she called, taking a moment to clean up behind herself before salt and grime could turn into a stubborn crust. When she was finished, she brought out the food to set the table, then stepped back to wait for him with her hands clasped in front of her.
"Supper," she called.
Realizing she forgot something, she scurried back into the kitchen to grab a pair of knives, wooden spoons, and two cups of buttermilk left over from the day before. They would need more of that as well.
Through great effort, Frits stood and kept his balance long enough to sit down in one of the wooden chairs, surprising Oddny. He looked her over and huffed. "You clean up?"
A nod marked her response.
"Well, sit down an' eat. I gotta tell you what's going on."
He set down his drink and started on his food. Calla waited until then to start picking at her fish with her knife. She tried the stew, and it was already starting to taste a little funny.
Curiosity ate away at her insides until she could not contain herself. It was strange for him to eat with her at the table proper, and it was hours past regular supper time. He had been out much later this night—though that was quite normal if he'd been drinking, so she didn't think much of it. Now, though, he had informed her that she was to go into town and would shop with him. For clothes.
She had to know.
"Why are we going into town tomorrow?" she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
When he glanced up sharply at her, she looked back down at her food.
Frits grunted and shoveled stew into his mouth. Had he taken some time to groom himself and work on his manners, he might have been a handsome man. He wasn't trying to impress anyone, though. Not after his wife. "I saved up some money. Your parents want to see you. Can't go visit them looking like I haven't been taking care of you."
Oddny's mouth dried and she shifted her gaze up from her meal. All traces of hunger were replaced with several emotions she couldn't discern. "My. . .parents?"
With his mouth full, all Frits could do was grunt.
"Did they send another letter? Can you read it to me?"
"Tomorrow." He shrugged his reedy shoulders and sucked on a turkey bone with stomach-churning noises. "It came today—and you can read it."
Taken aback, Oddny nearly choked on her bite of trout. "What? But I can't. . . ."
He interrupted her with a snort. "You've gotten better. 'Sides, what would your parents think if you came home and couldn't read?"
Somehow, her appetite returned and she nibbled on her much smaller portion, allowing the stew to soak into the stale bread to make it easier to eat. She would have to brush up on her drills later. Between chores and Uncle working all the time, she wasn't keeping up like she should. It was exciting enough to know they'd sent another letter; she had quite the collection stowed away.
"Do I take good care of you?" he asked without warning halfway through the meal, his gaze aimed downward.
She found trouble swallowing her food. So this was what had been bothering him. He was doing his best, Oddny couldn't deny that, but to go so far as to say he was taking good care of her. . .well that would be a little less than truthful.
"I'm not dead," she said at last, managing a half-smile.
He chuckled and poked at his half-eaten fish, but said nothing more.
"You're not worried about the dragons?" Oddny said after some time, her voice barely above a whisper and her eyes still locked on her plate. "You don't take me into town or let me wander far from the cabin because of them, right?"
Frits froze mid-chewing and the color drained some from his face. Oddny shrunk into her seat and busied herself with gnawing on her softened bread.
"Shouldn't be a problem," he sighed at last. "There haven't been signs of them since last year."
"Last year? You mean they're gone?"
"Dunno." He shrugged and swallowed some stew. "They stopped coming into town and we haven't seen any big groups, a few every now and again in the distance or in the woods, but they haven't bothered us or tried to steal any food."
"Why?" Another question remained stuck at the tip of her tongue—if they hadn't been showing up lately, why had he waited so long to take her into town?
He glanced up at her and shook his head. "No one knows and no one's questioning it."
Oddny could understand that. One doesn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but to have them all stop the raids like that was strange. Had they found a better source of food?
In the end, she decided it didn't matter.
She was going into town!
The rest of the meal was eaten in silence. Frits cleaned his plate first and left his dishes on the table for Oddny to tend to. She ate slower, then picked at anything he left over before washing the plates and bowls. As she was finishing up, Frits called her over.
"Yes?" She kept her gaze locked on his chest instead of his face. When he was lucid he didn't mind eye contact, but when he had a couple beers in him, it tended to make him irate.
"I found a couple more furs in storage. It's getting colder so I thought you'd need them." He had a bundle of furs in his arms, and Oddny wasn't sure how he could have afforded half of them—elk, bear, wolf. . .where had he gotten those?
Most days, in fact, Oddny wasn't sure how he came up with the money to buy anything. He was a scribe, so he spent his days copying manuscripts for people. Sometimes he'd snag a big client and make decent gold, but more often than not he was writing letters for the less literate citizens in exchange for favors or goods.
However he may have accomplished it, he had saved up enough to take her home and see her parents. She'd asked to visit them so many times, but it hadn't been possible.
They lived so far away from her parent's farm. They certainly hadn't been able to come visit her, either. The letters were nice, but they weren't enough. She lost sleep some nights thinking of their faces, remembering how it felt to be embraced by them. Her uncle was nice—most of the time—but he wasn't the affectionate type.
These surprise furs and the relieved hug from earlier were about the extent of his love.
She nodded and even beamed a smile at him. Her heart was soaring at the thought of seeing Mother and Father for the first time in years, and maybe she would even be able to stay. Permanently. Surely the crops had to have had time to recover by now.
This time, she would help out more and complain less.
"Thank you," she murmured, lifting her hands to receive the furs.
"Don't mention it," he harrumphed, tossing them on top of her.
Oddny tried to catch them, but she was engulfed by the plush bundle and flailed around until she came out from under them. When she finally had them organized properly, Frits was already curled close to the fire in his usual bed, swaddled in his own furs.
She stared at him a moment longer, a new warmth for the man kindling in her chest. He was taking her home. He wasn't the best parental figure, but he had his moments.
This being one of them.
How long had he been saving for this trip and had her parents helped at all? What sort of things went into traveling that far? Oddny figured the only thing she should care about was the fact that it was happening, not the finer details.
Though she thought herself too excited for sleep, fatigue wrapped its warm fingers around her mind and a yawn seized her. She curled up on the opposite end of the room, further away from the fire but still able to feel its heat. Oddny fell asleep facing the dying flames, imagining how the reunion was going to play out.