|Snow and Stones

|Chapter 4

|Children

Contrary to popular opinion, butterflies are rather slow creatures - at least when it comes to getting to a specific destination. Navigation is not the easiest skill to master when you have wings twice the size of your body, and eyes that see far too many angles for a brain the size of a grain of rice to process and comprehend. However, empathy and understanding for insects is not a skill practised by many a hero either. It had taken what seemed like an age for the dithering little insect to reach the bridge. It never travelled in a straight, or even decisive line. Constantly flitting about as if it were dodging the flying paws of an invisible cat.

"This has to be some kind of jape." Reaver complained exasperatedly. "That brainless little …thing has stopped on god knows how many flowers already." Oh, how he longed to shoot the blasted little thing!

The ocean blue butterfly had settled upon yet another pale paper-like flower. Patient and seemingly unfazed, Sparrow watched the insect slowly flex its wings with an eye of intrigue.

"Is there even any nectar in these lifeless flowers?" he frowned, annoyed. It made no sense.

She was curios now. Taking his question quite literally, Sparrow crouched down among a cluster of flowers by the butterfly and did something rather strange. Reaver had to angle himself to see what she was doing; as she stuck her tongue deep into one of the flowers and licked its centre wet, like a thirsty dog. Abruptly, she sprung back up into a standing position, quickly wiping her mouth as she did so - like a child who'd been caught doing something she oughtn't:

"No."

"No what?" he asked - almost whimpered. What the hell was she up to? What kind of mind game was this?

"No nectar." she replied simply.

There was an elongated pause. Sparrow gazed blankly at Reaver, as a charmed smile tugged at his lips, his brow slipping into a queer expression:

"You mad strumpet." he chuckled; before the butterfly rose up in the wind-empty air to flutter over the bridge, with the purposefulness of a dizzied man. Discarding their flimsy conversation, they followed it towards the glowing crop fields.

The heroes' features creased as a blinding white light flipped over the horizon, though there was no sun to shine it. Again, they crossed the bridge and ran northwards, passing the two oak trees. Subconsciously, Sparrow's eyes were momentarily caught on the children's' drawings. Their shaky pastel coloured lines imprinted on her vision, and flashed violently at her when she blinked. She still hadn't figured them out yet, and it was irritating her no end. If only Garth were with them, he would surely be able to identify and understand them.

The butterfly flitted into the wheat fields, keeping to the smooth stone path like a human. The crop fields had a particular lunar glow about them, as each waist-high stem swayed almost sorrowfully in the breezeless air, as if it were lamenting the absence of the villagers. To Sparrow, the air felt as if it were filled with the loneliness of dozens, upon dozens of souls, as she felt her heart soften with empathy. The heroes slowed their pace as they reached the fields. From within the ghostly grass was the perfect place for an ambush. The crops were so densely packed, almost anything could lurk unseen within them, like murky swamp waters. Only then did Sparrow curse her haste in which she had entered this world - she so longed to be clutching her mace - which, in her rush, she had abandoned back in Bloodstone. It sat, painted in her mind, rusted and propped up against the tiled fireplace of Reaver's manor, loitering idly.

The butterfly's speed increased as it approached the gates at the far end of the path. The gates were tall and black, but they were not imposing. Their iron bars were crafted with elegant and decorative swirls, as the top of the gates were curved in a welcoming arch shape stretching toward the heavens. However, it seemed that it was not the gates that attracted the insect, but the child behind them. A boy, perhaps of just over ten years of age, stood with his slim arms outstretched through the bars. His tight-skinned hands spread out, as if frozen in the midst of a clapping motion, ready to catch the bug.

With tattered, coarse looking clothes, and hair as unkempt as an elderly chicken's feathers, he seemed to fit this world's quaint country setting. However, he did not exactly fit into his setting. He had colour to him. If a storyteller were to romanticise the scene, they would say that the boy was like a ray of sunshine in the desolate, dead landscape; though, this was not the case. He appeared to the heroes as more of a stain on the perfectly clean and white world; deep, stubborn and unmissable. As the butterfly approached him, his expression was not one of gleeful anticipation, but of boredom, as if he had been assigned a chore. His listless hazel-grey eyes took no notice of Sparrow or Reaver - they only gazed down at the pathway as he stood in wait.

Both heroes stopped and observed him.

"A child…" whispered Sparrow cautiously "He must've been the one who drew those diagrams."

"Looks can be deceiving." replied Reaver in the same low whisper, hypersensitive to this world's treachery, as traitors often are "He may not even be a child."

The butterfly was now in reach of the boy. A change came over him, sudden but fluid, like the first ripple on a calm pool's surface. His empty gaze locked onto the insect's body…

Slap.

Squish.

As abrupt as a Venus flytrap snaps its leafy jaws, the child had clapped his hands on the butterfly, before slowly grinding his palms together and crushing the insect into a meritless pulp. Silence sank deep into the atmosphere. Sparrow blinked at the boy, dumfounded. Thoughts of injustice and frustration lit her mind, only as bright as yearly mourning cinders. They had gone through some trouble to fetch that dammed butterfly, only for it to be crushed. Then again, there was a good chance it knew its fate. What was it to her anyway?: A means to an end, another small link in a long, long chain. The heroes shared a glance. It was plain to the both of them that they would have to persuade the child to grant them passage through the gates.

"I do so love children." sighed Reaver sarcastically, as if to say to Sparrow: "You deal with this." Ignoring him, Sparrow approached the boy:

"Gatekeeper," she addressed him. As a child, she had always loathed being called "girl" or "kid" by strangers. "Would you let us though?"

The boy looked up at her as he wiped the deceased insect onto his cause, shabby clothes. He said nothing.

"I… We're here to help you." Sparrow tried again; while in the background Reaver snorted at her use of the word "we". "What's your name?" she coaxed him again.

There was another silence. Her patience endured.

"You're from here, aren't you." replied the boy at long last. His voice was small, but adultly apathetic, rolling on his tongue with an inoffensive imperfection, like small bumps in the road.

There was an awkward silence. Sparrow looked to Reaver, assuming the child was addressing him, and gave him a sharp look as if to say he was being rude for not answering.

"I meant you…" muttered the boy, sounding almost fed up.

"No. I've never been here." Sparrow replied bluntly.

"You have relatives in the graveyard, even if you weren't born here." said the boy with no politeness in his voice, as he gripped the bars and looked up at Sparrow. His voice was mature, far too mature to be coming from his infantile mouth. His eyes were hard and cold. "Isn't that why you're here, out of loyalty to them?"

"How would you know that?" Sparrow asked, now with an undercurrent of distrust in her voice.

"We knew that you'd be coming." explained the child matter-of-factly. "And we knew you'd be bringing him back with you."

"Who's we?" asked Reaver, a snarl twitching at his cheekbones.

The boy glared up at him. A jealous glare that Sparrow had only seen on the face of adults: "Surely you must remember some of us. You must at least remember her. She's anticipated your return for so long now…"

"You won't speak her name?" Reaver questioned the boy. Though he was wearing an expression fit to intimidate any man, Sparrow could see the fear beneath it. As the silence thickened around them, she could almost see his defences building stronger around him. He was afraid of the unspoken name. Her name.

The child shook his head: "I am under her orders not to open these gates until you say her name."

"Like a password?" Sparrow confirmed. The child nodded.

Reaver squeezed the butt of his gun and inhaled slowly through his nose, venting out hot anger, before he growled, lower than a rumble of thunder: "Don't be petulant boy; open this gate."

Sparrow said nothing, she daren't breathe; but she stared fixedly at him, powerless. The child eyed Reaver's pistol and stepped away from the gates, his features wrinkled as if from disapproval.

"What are you going to do with that?" asked the child with no emotion except for confidence. "What use is a gun on those you have already killed?"

Frustration boiled Reaver's blood, rising like a heat wave, as his gaze met with they child's. A boy had trapped him. A boy had cornered him like some whining, common, street rat. He had not spoken her name in over a century. He had not even allowed himself to think it. And now he was to be forced to say it by a child. Oh, how he wished to crush the cocky little pipsqueak, just as he had disposed of the butterfly.

Sparrow had now decided that she did not like watching Reaver squirm. She thought she would have relished the sight of the mighty and arrogant Reaver being debased and threatened, but she did not. It was thoroughly unpleasant - like watching a worm writhe, skewered on a fishing hook - it caused a lump of disgust and pity to rise uncomfortably in her throat, and try as she might, she could not force down.

"Whisper it if you must." she grunted, refusing to look at him as her voice filled with impatience. "Just get it over with, this is pathetic."

With her words, Reaver's tenseness seemed to melt away from his expression, to reveal a teasing smile on his face;

"My dear Sparrow, could this be jealousy fuelling your scorn?" he chuckled.

"What?" she snarled back at him, masking her utter surprise at his sudden change in tone.

"Now, now, there's no shame in it." he continued, puffing his chest forward and flicking his hair from his face. "Many a woman - and in fact, many a man - have been sparked into a jealous feud over moi. It's perfectly natural that you should envy any maiden who has been blessed by my courtship-"

"Envy?" Sparrow spat incredulously back at him. "Those poor women are welcome to you, and you to them."

"Come now, there's no need to shun your natural desires so r-"

"The only desire I have concerning you," interrupted Sparrow though gritted teeth. She was containing herself. She would not allow herself to get angry over his comments. This was such a small thing; not worthy of her fury. "Is to be the one who cuts you, and your steal mask of an ego down to size."

"Aw, I'm hurt." he pouted arrogantly, as he laughed internally at his own joke.

"Just give him the password." she ordered him airily, yet again not allowing herself to look at him.

Pride warmed Reaver's heart at how easily he could irk Sparrow. He felt empowered, like a cat with its claws hooked deeply in a struggling rodent's skin. However, Sparrow was no mouse, and so - for now - he would follow her orders. Flashing her a coy, knowing smile, Reaver knelt down and whispered the password to the boy, who defensively twitched back, as if Reaver's words had stung him.

Hatred narrowed the child's eyes as he unlocked the gate. A slim, warn rope was strung around the boy's neck, from which hung a plethora of mismatched keys, one of which matched the gate. They hung together in a tangled clump, looking strenuously heavy around his neck. Sparrow could picture the terrible sores that would loop around his neck because of their weight; hot blotchy marks, sticky to the touch. Though, if the boy had any injuries, he had hidden them well. It was likely that he had every key in town dangling heavily over his heart. Perhaps, he had placed the blue key in the chalk box for them to find…

As the three of them made their way up the path toward the carriage bay, Reaver looked about the world with an unimpressed look of boredom, and the slightest flicker of disgust. This was the place he had been expected to spend the remainder of his pitiful life? With some buxom, red-cheeked mare and a mundane little job? He could picture himself - all too clearly - chopping wood through the seasons, and loving his common country brats unconditionally, until the dark cloak of night crept in - then all that would be on his mind would be a dull, unadventurous fumble with his beloved. The mundane creak of bedsprings causing a tremor throughout his dim, claustrophobic, four walled home. How quickly his life would have ended, almost mercifully. The disease of age would end him. His hair would grow grey, and his bones would begin to creak. It sickened him, the life he had been "assigned" to. Had he remained here, he would have amounted to little more than an un-extraordinary gravestone, in a crowd of so many more like it.

The very thought of it made him come over in a trickle cold sweat. Nevertheless, he had avoided that fate. He had cheated his destiny.

In front of him, Sparrow attempted to speak with the child again, in the most pleasant of tones - much like her smile, it did not befit of her:

"I was wrong…" she began.

"Wrong about what?" asked the boy, eyeing her warily.

"You're not the gatekeeper." she replied briefly, as pleasantly as she could. "You're the key-keeper."

"Don't call me that." he said, his voice as dull as a tired old man's. "You make me sound like a jail warden."

"What else was I to call you if you won't tell me your name?" Sparrow's civil tone slipped away from her voice, if not for only a second. Sparrow could not remember the last time she had had to hold the company of a child.

The slightest shadow of remorse dented the boy's brow, only for a moment.

"For a second…" he began his voice less hostile now. "I thought you meant that you were wrong about him." said the boy, as he tilted his head towards an oblivious Reaver who was checking his fingernails for imperfections.

"What do you mean?" replied Sparrow, again with suspicion.

"You see good in him…" elaborated the boy. "You don't think he is entirely evil."

Sparrow looked back at him. His pace had slowed significantly since he had procured a small hand mirror, within which, he was studying his eyebrows with unwavering concentration and intensity. She had known evil - she had seen it, as she had fled the afterlife to be resurrected, and in Lucien's eyes, as he emptied his pistol's burning bullets into her chest. Sparrow had seen incomprehensible selfishness, and even spite in Reaver, but not evil. He was too fearful of death - too weak at the knowledge of its prospect - to be considered evil in her eyes.

"No." she replied softly. "I can't believe that he's evil…"

As the words left her mouth, Sparrow realised how trusting she sounded. Trusting, of Reaver? ! What had happened to her?

"That is an insult." replied the child, affronted, his eyes growing cold as cemetery stone "Look at what he's done to us. If this is not evil… if there are crueller acts than this, then I can't imagine the world you live in."

Sparrow was about to open her mouth and protest that Reaver did not know that the souls would be trapped, and how he didn't know how the people of his village would suffer. But, he would have known that they would die, and he would have understood that that would have entailed a great deal of suffering. He was not stupid, but his underlined selfishness and fear would have rendered him ignorant. His horrific nightmares that haunted him and corrupted his slumber into torture would not be penance enough for the deeds he had done. Besides, she wasn't about to defend Reaver. She was - after all - the one who had dragged him back to this cursed land to face his demons.

"Who is us?" she asked. "Is the whole town still here?"

Not looking at Sparrow, the boy paused, and twisted one of the keys between his fingers:

"Not everyone…" he spoke quietly, as if he were repressing himself from showing emotion. "Only those she chose to follow her down the well were spared."

"Who did you follow?" asked Sparrow with less courtesy than she could have used. She did not like the fact that she was the only one within their company who did not know the name of this mysterious woman.

"I don't say her name, as a mark of respect." replied the boy plainly

"Then how do you address her?" enquired Sparrow with an irked tone.

"As Madame, how else would I address her?" the boy cocked an eyebrow before Sparrow gave a tut and severed herself from the conversation.

How this woman had the power to shield a handful of people from the shadows perplexed Sparrow. She could not have been an ordinary country girl. There was a chance, she may have been a Will-user, and a strong one at that. Sparrow had battled the shadows before; they were quick, too fast for any eye to follow, and thin as smoke. If someone were to be cornered by them, they were but walking - cowering - shadow meat. They could rip the bravest worrier to ribbons without a second thought. They could only communicate through backward screeches, which made the most irate cries of the night bats sound tuneful. There was no reasoning with them. They had no hearts to feel pity. Not even Reaver's silver tongue could manipulate there minds, or weave their paths in the way he wished.

This woman had to be her. The girl Reaver spoke of in his diary, and whose name was whispered as the password. Sparrow did not know Reaver's "type." It seemed to be anyone who was remotely desirable, which was the majority of people with whom he associated. However, none of them - no matter how rich, beautiful or talented - had managed to impact upon Reaver as this woman had.

Suddenly, it hit her, catching her off-guard like unexpected blow to the stomach.

It was so obvious; Sparrow could not believe her denseness. The only thing Reaver truly desired - truly obsessed over - was power. As her thoughts grew deeper and deeper, Sparrow began to understand why he was the way he was, and why he acted the way he did. He was so afraid of death because he was powerless before it. The night of the Spire and Lucien's death, Sparrow had returned from the dead unharmed, having not participated in any foul play whatsoever. She was the weapon the three heroes had created. What power and chaos she had displayed that night… She had a greater power than Reaver himself, and he hungered after it. He was transfixed upon her power, like a starving hound upon a fresh, bloody slab of meat, tantalisingly dangling before his eager twitching snout, its scent ensnaring him. However, he was not so mindless - he was manipulative and calculating - more like a fox than some common dog.

Now she understood why Reaver had not made to kill her sooner. Now she understood the hunger that glazed over his eyes at the mention of her name.

What had this woman done to earn Reaver's attention? A bitter, childish voice piped up inside Sparrow's mind, as snide and spiteful as the flick of a snakes tongue: "I bet she wasn't as powerful as you. After all, she has been trapped inside this snowglobe's glass walls for years. You could crush her quicker than she could sight you."

Ashamed, Sparrow ignored this voice; what else could she do? The cobbled path made a sharp change that led the three of them into the main residential aria of Oakvale. Small, thatched-roof cottages encompassed a large ancient looking oak tree. Its grey leafy branches seemed to stretch out towards the surrounding houses, as if it wished to stroke their roofs, as a doting parent pats the head of a child. It was not hard to picture this place steeped in summer sunshine and merriment. There was no denying it; this small town had been a joyous place to live before Reaver had burnt it to the ground. Sparrow was not without understanding and empathy; she understood perfectly why he had done what he had done. What she did not understand was how he could live with it so calmly, without regret. Had Sparrow lived in this idyllic land, she would have fought tooth and nail to protect it.

At the foot of the tree stood a small kissing well. Before neither Sparrow nor Reaver could say a word, their guide boy spoke up:

"That's not the well." he groaned, as if speaking to dim children. "It's behind this house."

The boy indicated to the nearest house, around which a lightly worn path had been trod down. Sparrow looked about the small grove of houses before turning to Reaver, who's decedent red clothes shone out against his white backdrop like blood flowing through snow:

"Which of these houses was yours?" she asked, her voice was quiet and soft as the summer breeze.

Just as his contemplative gaze met hers, the boy piped up again:

"It doesn't matter, because we're going down the well." he said imperatively as he made his way down the little worn path.

"What makes you so sure of that?" asked Reaver quizzically "You may have attained her trust, boy, but you certainly don't have mine."

"You want to get out of here, don't you?" replied the boy sharply, mimicking Reaver's tone.

Reaver's expression soured, as he and Sparrow followed the boy round the back of the cottage. Backed by yet more rocks and a slim silver birch tree was the well. Made from crumbling stones, this well was wider than any well Sparrow had ever seen. It was crudely made, like a pottery apprentice's first attempt at throwing a pot. A great deal of the well's rim had fallen away, and a long thin ladder plunged into the deep darkness.

"Are we going down?" Sparrow asked the boy tonelessly.

"I don't know." replied the boy plainly, "Are you?" With those words, the boy swung his short legs round onto the weak looking ladder.

"I would recommend that you follow me." he added, "The shadows will be coming out soon…"

Before the heroes could question him, the child had scuttled down the ladder, quicker than a frightened beetle, and was swallowed swiftly by the darkness. The heroes looked to one another for a decision.

"Well this looks dark, ominous and dangerous," commented Reaver, with an air of anticipation "It should be, memorable… ladies first."

Sparrow scowled at him, knowing that if she were to come to an unfortunate end before he reached the bottom of the ladder, Reaver would most likely flee the darkness of the well, quick as a cat leaping from water. Begrudgingly, she climbed into the well and made her way down. Before her pearly white face had been obscured by the shadows, Reaver followed her, light and silent as the thief he was. At that moment, Sparrow was faced with the fullest view of Reaver's behind. Her cheeks pinked. Why had he chosen to wear his trousers so tight…?


It was so dark inside the well, Sparrow was beginning to doubt whether she had opened her eyes. Without having to think, Sparrow conjured a small fist sized flame in the palm of her hand, just in time for Reaver to drop gracefully down to ground level. His cape swooshed at his shoulders, causing the lightest slapping sound to deplete through the still air.

As the orange light flickered upon Sparrow's pallid face surrounded by darkness, she looked menacing, even evil. That was until Reaver saw the look of innocent wonderment in her soft, dark deer-like eyes; eyes he had seen somewhere else, a long time ago.

This was no ordinary well; it was the opening to a complicated network of underground corridors, which ran beneath Oakvale's surface like veins. Dewy white roots hung from the low ceilings, dripping down on the damp uneven floors. The walls were made up of pale gray rock, that looked as if it were melting around them, appearing like cooled frozen magma. The passages were cold, and eerily silent. The sound of Sparrow and Reaver's breathing filled the icy air around her, slow and smooth as thick flowing honey, making her spine tingle uncomfortably. Sparrow cast her eye about, looking for the boy who had led them down to such a dank and gloomy place - but he was nowhere to be seen. They had lost their guide.

"Have you ever been down here?" asked Sparrow, her voice sounding louder than it truly was as it echoed down the hollow passageways.

"I can't say I have," replied Reaver with a blatantly aloof tone. The flame's light flickered on his face, highlighting its shadows. He looked so much older in the dark than he had in the white light of the surface. "It is rather curious though, isn't it? I lived in this dreary little town for years and never once stumbled upon this little hidey-hole. For someone of my brilliant skill, it's rather embarrassing…," he added, as if his ignorance was something worth laughing heartily about.

"Then we'll have to make our way blindly." sighed Sparrow listlessly, her flame's light swelling and decreasing like a pumping heart.

They took only a few steps before they heard the quickest, daintiest dripping sound. They stopped dead, as the dripping echoed through the corridors and faded out behind them. There was water in this well. The heroes pace quickened as they began to rush through the pathways, heading for the dripping, as the stones beside them began to blur. Sparrow wondered if these stones had memories of water flowing over them, or if they could remember the dancing, quick shifting shadows of the villagers cast upon them, as they fled through these tunnels and away from the flames. The dripping sounded again.

A light sparked up in the dark distance, lighting up the almost yellow-skinned face of their young guide:

"My, you two are slow." he commented, suppressing a smug tone. "I thought skilled heroes where meant to be quick like foxes, but you're more like butterflies…" he said before muttering beneath his breath, as he turned: "…dumb and dithering."

"Where exactly are you leading us?" asked Reaver with a raised voice thick with impatience and snobbery. "You may be used to scuttling around this underground maze like gritty blind rodents, but I'm certainly not."

"Who are you to insult us?" asked the boy, his voice sounded hurt, and angered as it quivered, like fine china being beaten by the rain. "You don't even have a name…"

Reaver was about to protest and boast of how his name was finer than any name given by any mother, but Sparrow scowled him into silence, her expression sharper than most sour fruits.

"How can we be sure you even have a name?" she asked, the suspicion in her voice gave way all too easily to the pity she felt in her heart for the nameless child. However, the boy ignored her, and her concern:

"I'm taking you to the heart of Oakvale, to see what has become of the people of this town." he uttered dully, with his back to them. "Maybe then you'll prove yourselves to be more than dithering butterflies."


A/N Thanks for reading!

The next chapters are going to be really difficult to write since they're quite eventful (I still haven't decided whether I'm going to use flashbacks or not.)

I took quite a long break from writing this, so my style may have changed and maybe the tone of the story as well. I hope it was a change for the better. The next chapter will be titled "Marbles," which… I've just realised tells you nothing of what's to come. Oh well ^ ^;'' Please tell me what you think ~ ! !