A/N: Second one-shot of four, following Autumnal Alteration (Rotg/Httyd), featuring the Big Four as Seasonal Spirits with individual canons left intact for the ride. Hiccup came first, and now it's Merida's turn. Rapunzel shall follow.
As an aside, I cannot trust myself to reliably write a Scottish brogue. As such, all dialogue is written as normal English; I'm certain you can put it in the character's voice in your mind, accent and all.
Merida/Young MacGuffin to be found here. Also, I'm not sure how I did in terms of emotional impact, so if I somehow make you upset...I'm sorry?
"Merida's gettin' married, Merida's gettin' married, Merida's gettin' married!"
The three-part chorus echoed gleefully down the old stone corridors of the castle, sounds bouncing and distorting so that one could hardly tell from whence they came or where they were headed. These words had been chanted in teasing tones on and off over the past week, ever since the Lords had returned for the ceremony and inevitable celebrations; only today, however, had the singing (of sorts) become non-stop and so particularly boisterous.
"MERIDA'S GETTIN' MARRIED!" the triplets screeched as they burst through the study door, laughing in a still-squeaky imitation of their father's standard guffaw.
"Yes, I am; that's been the state of things for a couple months now," Merida stated wryly from her cross-legged seat below the window. Her bow, unstrung, lay across her lap and a polishing cloth was gripped in her right hand. "I don't know why you think it's so funny."
"You weren't ever, ever gonna get married," Hamish informed her.
"Ever," Harris nodded wisely.
"You said so," Hubert added.
"When did I ever-?"
"When the lords were here."
"And we were bears."
"I said no such thing then," Merida said, whipping her cloth into a folded square and setting it aside. "What I said was, let us do this in our own time, our own way, as our own choice. No contests, no forcing the matter. And we have done, and it's been five years, and we're ready now, so there."
That gave them pause.
It didn't last long.
"You're gettin' married!" they pointed, snickered, giggled and laughed.
Merida rolled her eyes and stood up.
"Oh, laugh it up now while you can. In some years you'll be doing the same, and then it'll be my turn to giggle at you and sneak around planning shows for your weddings on the sly."
That shut them up abruptly.
"You know?" Hubert demanded, his eyes growing wide.
"About the knife juggling? Yes I do. Are you trying to give Mum a heart attack?"
"It was supposed to be a surprise," Harris all but wailed, dragging his hands down his eleven-year-old face.
"You weren't supposed to know about it!" Hamish scolded her.
Merida held her hands up.
"I've told no one," she swore, "and I'll act surprised. I don't know all the details anyway, just that there's a reason half the cutlery in the kitchen disappeared a few weeks ago and that those scratches aren't from picking blackberries in the woods. Oh, not to mention the sausages and pig's blood that vanished this morning. Planning a really spectacular fake gutting, are we?"
The triplets looked at her as though she had just put an arrow through the chest of their favorite hunting dog. She grinned and winked at them, then quickly strung her bow and grabbed her belt and quiver up from the table nearest the window.
"Seen Mum anywhere?" she asked, knife-juggling conversation apparently forgotten. The boys mutely shook their heads; they were still collectively processing the ramifications of a ruined surprise.
"Ah, well, then I'll try the kitchens first...see you later, lads!"
With a rustle of dark blue skirts and bright red hair, Merida whipped around the doorframe and was gone down the corridor.
For several seconds, the room was silent. Then a high-pitched whine of horror rose in Harris' throat, Hubert stomped both feet and said a word their mother would have scolded him (and their father, as the source of said word) severely for, and Hamish slapped both hands over his eyes as though the action could erase the last several minutes from existence.
"She knows!" Hubert moaned.
"We know!" Harris reminded him, the whine lingering in his words.
"I know!" Hamish yelled, hands flying from his face to clap together excitedly. His brothers immediately gave him their full attention.
"—what we're gonna do now?"
"A three-way duel?"
Hamish shook his head frantically, red curls flailing with the motion.
Hubert and Harris looked at him like he was an idiot. Before they could protest, Hamish raised a finger and leaned forward, hushing his voice.
Identical grins split three pre-pubescent faces.
Within minutes, the room was utterly devoid of human presence.
Merida felt Fortune smiling at her that day. The sky was clear and blue, the air was warm and welcoming, and her mother was indeed in the kitchen and much easier to draw out of it than Merida had expected. Sure, she didn't stop throwing extra instructions over her shoulder at Maudie until the door, propped open to let the air outside circulate through, was out of sight, but the fact remained that she allowed it out of sight at all.
"Merida, really, today?" she asked once her advice and orders had petered out. Her hand was gripped securely in Merida's as the princess dragged her toward the rickety old stables, where old Angus and Finley and the other royal horses still lived. They passed the just-finished new barn at high speed as Merida answered her mother's question.
"Yes, today, it's practically our last chance before tomorrow and all that!"
"But there's still so much to do!"
"Mum," Merida said, dropping her mother's hand outside the stable and pulling out Finley's saddle. Her mother's white horse poked her head out of the stall and whickered, recognizing the humans outside. "Don't worry. Most everything's as ready as it can be – just some cooking and a little more work on the game fields so the lords can show off. Nothing'll go to rack and ruin if it's without your hand in it for one afternoon."
Elinor looked into her daughter's eyes and realized suddenly how quickly she had grown up. Merida had attained one last growth spurt in the last five years, just enough to look her mother in the nose; she would never reach the full height of either of her parents, taking more after Elinor's own mother in that one way. Her wild hair was as untamed as ever and her blue eyes bright, but her face had lengthened ever so slightly, still perpetually round in form but recognizably older, more mature. She was no longer a child, no longer a teenager. She was a young woman, and by this time tomorrow she would no longer belong just to her parents and brothers, nor would they be the only family belonging to her.
Elinor took the saddle from Merida's hands with a smile tinged by sadness.
"All right, dear."
Merida's own smile was blinding with joy.
Merida took the lead out of the gates, and then she let Angus have his own way. Out of habit he galloped down the forest path Merida had long ago turned into a riding archery course, and out of nostalgia the princess took her bow from her back and pulled an arrow against the string.
The targets were no longer wholly those of her girlhood; time had taken its toll on them, as it does on all things. Some finally broke in two under the stress of too many arrows having notched their surface. Others were taken by wind and storm, either by snapping the ropes that held them up or by shattering the branches that held the ropes. Even the path itself had changed subtly, a tree having fallen here and a rut worn there, and new movements were required to navigate it.
This didn't stop Merida from striking the bull's eye every time.
Before they reached the final target, she reigned Angus in. The horse snorted and danced, wanting to keep running but too well-trained to disobey without reason. They waited only a moment before Finley and Elinor pounded into view behind them. The Queen was smiling and breathless, and seemed happier now than she had in the kitchens not fifteen minutes before.
Merida held out her bow and an arrow with a grin.
"Here; the last target's yours."
"Merida, you know I cannot hit that," Elinor protested, eyeing the red-painted board swinging lightly in the breeze. Hanging some eight feet above the ground and clearly visible, the target only presented any challenge at full gallop. Merida herself had more trouble retrieving arrows from it than hitting it; unlike many others, it was not situated half-behind or between other obstacles. At a standstill, with plenty of time to line up the shot, it was all but child's play to any archer.
"Yes, you can," Merida insisted, edging Angus closer and pressing her bow into Elinor's hand. "Just remember what I taught you."
"I'm no archer," Elinor reminded her daughter, but she took the bow regardless, examined the arrow's fletching to figure out which way to notch it, and raised the weapon uncertainly in the target's direction.
"Elbow up," Merida murmured, "flex your other arm. Draw back further; good. Whenever you're ready..."
The arrow left the bow with a hiss. It struck the bottom edge of the target, sending the board dancing in the air.
"Not bad; you hit it, at least." Merida offered another arrow with a cheeky grin. "Again?"
"Just the one," Elinor allowed, taking it and trying the shot once more.
Merida managed to wheedle her mother into five more attempts before the Queen laughingly pressed the bow back into her hands.
"Enough, please!" Elinor smiled even as she blew on her fingers, trying to cool the reddened stripes where the bowstring had pressed. "I've shot well enough for my tastes!"
Merida maneuvered Angus close under the target and stood up on the saddle, balancing carefully. The well-trained horse didn't stir, holding himself as solid and steady as a mountain under her feet, and she yanked five arrows from the wood without incident. Two were, unfortunately, lost in the woods; she'd have to go find them soon.
"You have gotten better, mum," Merida informed her happily, sliding back down into her seat. "That last one was only an inch from the bulls-eye. With some more practice, you could very well hit it, not just occasionally, but again and again."
"I think my hands are best-suited for stitching tapestries and writing treaties, not drawing bows and swinging swords."
"No reason you can't do the lot; I've managed. Well, sort of," Merida allowed with a grimace. Once she'd made a more willing attempt at learning the finer arts of maintaining a household and running a kingdom under her mother's tutelage she found that these skills were not quite so out of her grasp as she'd always maintained them to be. Still, she doubted she would ever reach her mother's expertise in any of it, nor did she particularly want to. The Queen made everything from organizing the kitchens to penning diplomatic letters a form of highest art. Merida had come to view the lot as necessary evils which fell to her and could not easily or reliably be passed off to somebody else.
"Well, the MacGuffin castle might be a bit drafty for want of new tapestries, but I expect you'll fair marvelously against any Vikings that dare show their barbarian heads," Elinor agreed in a bout of dry humor.
"I'll give their helms new horns!" Merida declared, waving an arrow emphatically through the air to demonstrate just what said horns would consist of.
"Quite, though I pray it never should come to that. Just in case."
"No worries even if it does. What was it Old Lord MacGuffin said about Roderick that first time? Something about Viking longships, bare hands, and two thousand foes? Between me and him, those dogs wouldn't dare, or else they'd learn not to."
Elinor only smiled, her face growing wistful once more. Merida caught the expression and quickly dropped the arrow back into her quiver.
"Let's ride along the shoreline," she declared, "and perhaps see the Firefalls before the day becomes too late. I think I'd like to climb them again; I've not done in months."
"Only if you're careful about it."
"Mum," Merida said, shooting a grin over her shoulder and nudging Angus forward along the path, "I'm always careful!"
With a kick and a shout, she sent her horse surging onward and left Elinor laughing and urging Finley to catch up.
The boys met, as usual, in the newly-built barn Lord MacGuffin's men had constructed as a gift to Clan Dunbroch, a massive construct compared to their old stables, with stalls enough for twenty horses and space besides to store feed and hay. Its size had made Fergus joke that the old Lord MacGuffin was trying too hard to one-up his gifts of various livestock and transportable goods, all of which would return to the MacGuffin castle, along with Merida, within the week. As part of the joke, Fergus had then thrown into the stock of items several of those bear-themed wooden carvings Merida had been forced to buy five years ago, declaring that their addition made them more than even.
At the moment, bear carvings were the last things on the boys' minds.
Hubert toed a patch, lifting a few straws on the tip of his boot and watching them tumble back down to the wooden floor.
"Hay," Harris confirmed, shifting the bucket of water in his hands.
"But they haven't even moved the horses in yet!"
"So? Mum had bedchambers made up before the Lords even got here. It's probably the same thing."
"Horses aren't Lords."
"Tell that to Angus. He acts it sometimes."
"We'll just clear a patch."
"We might need more water..."
"Nah, we'll be fine," Hamish insisted. His brothers thought it over, agreed, and the trio quickly set to clearing space in one of the stalls, shoving hay in a great pile out the door and into the corners. Two full buckets of water were promptly placed inside, along with some lamp oil snitched from the household, a flint, and several sharp knives. Once satisfied with their preparations, the boys took a deep breath and Harris reached for two knives to start with. He dipped them carefully in the oil, tapped off the excess, and held them out for Hubert to light. The sudden roar of fire near his hands made him flinch, but he kept hold of the hilts and waited until he grew comfortable with the heat.
Finally, he flipped a knife and, with the skill of long practice punctuated by painful errors, caught it again at the correct end.
Emboldened by this initial success, Harris continued to juggle, picking up speed and a smile as he went.
Then, suddenly, he missed a catch. The knife dropped to the wooden floor, clattering and burning, and smoke began to rise...
Hubert seized the knife and Hamish splashed water across the floor.
The boys stared at the blackened wood.
"We're gonna have to cover that when we're done," Hubert suggested, burning knife in hand.
Hopefully nobody would notice – at least not for a very long time.
"That was good, though," Hamish said. "Think we can each get up to three at a time before tonight?"
The other two grinned at him, accepting the challenge as their own.
The setting sun blazed in the Firefalls, fiercely orange and golden. If color had a sound, it would have roared as loudly as the falling water itself, doubling the cacophony that filled Merida's ears and head with giddiness. She dashed the fiery water across the rock with her fingertips, cupped her hands under it and drank quickly, as though her speed could keep the color from leaving the cold liquid as it disappeared down her throat.
MacGuffin's lands sounded wild and wonderful in their own way, from the enthusiastic descriptions Roderick gave her when she first expressed her curiosity, but they had no Firefalls, no flaming water. This could be the last time Merida could drink the fire, and the saddening thought drove her to make the best of this opportunity, to fill the day with as many sensations as she could of what would soon be the home of her childhood alone.
And so she stood with her face turned to the sky, a spray of cool orange water on one side and warm rays of orange sun on the other, until Elinor's call from below brought her attention back to the present, to the earth on which she stood.
"Merida? The sun will have set soon; we should be going home now. Are you finished?"
Merida huffed a little at the reminder – useless, since she had no plans to be reckless on the climb down – but where as a teenager she would have rolled her eyes, as a young adult she only smiled and shook her head before starting her descent. Elinor worried because she cared, because she was a queen mother of one all-too-daring girl and three all-too-mischievous boys, and that would drive most to madness at the least.
"There," Merida said upon touching the solid ground once more, spreading her arms out for inspection. "All in one piece...just like every other time."
"Hush, you," Elinor laughed. "I hope your future children are every bit as terrible as you ever were."
Neither one commented on the fact that these nebulous future individuals were far closer to the present than ever before; neither one needed the reminder that parenthood was an expected consequence of marriage, strange as the thought seemed for a moment.
Merida mounted Angus, who had taken the opportunity presented by her climb to crop some grass and rest his limbs. Though not an elderly horse by any means, he wasn't as young as he once was, and an afternoon spent running about the countryside taxed him more than it would have five years ago.
Soon, he and Merida would have a new countryside to explore.
Sparing a moment to be glad Angus was coming with her, Merida patted his broad neck and gathered his reigns.
"Ready?" Elinor asked, and they were off at a steady pace, heading toward home.
As they approached the castle, however, both noticed something was wrong.
"Is that smoke?" Merida asked, sniffing the air and frowning. Angus whickered and jolted beneath her.
"Is that fire?" Elinor said, pointing out the orange glow, just visible in the waning light of evening, beyond the castle wall that had come into sight.
They exchanged a glance and, without further words, spurred their horses into a gallop, riding home as though the fire was behind them and not before.
The triplets couldn't remember ever being so terrified. Not even turning into bears could compare – most of that experience had been wrapped up in the fun of teasing Maudie and playing tricks through the castle, and the really scary bit was little more than the fuzzy recollection of a panicked ride through a darkened forest and the sight of their bear-form mother surrounded by men with swords and spears, the memories dampened by time and by their own innocent age.
Now, coughing and trapped in the corner of a horse's stall, fire and smoke visible every which way and the three of them still too short to climb out over the walls separating stall from stall, they were struck by an epiphany so stark and simple that it knocked what breath they could gather right out of their lungs.
They were going to die.
They were going to die on the eve of their sister's wedding because they'd made a stupid mistake, had one simple accident, stepped too far back trying to catch a knife and knocked over the pail of oil and missed their timing in shock and for a new barn with new hay wasn't everything burning too fast...?
People were shouting outside, lining up with buckets and buckets of water, but the roar of the flames and their own coughing drowned the triplets' ears in noise. To the best of their knowledge, they were alone.
A support beam creaked, cracked, and crumbled, crashing to the floor in a furious billow of fire and sparks; it was one at the far end of the barn, but more were groaning and crying out, and how long until everything came down over their heads?
The boys cried out and gripped each others' hands, looking for an escape once again.
Nothing, nowhere. One solid wall behind them, a solid floor below them, two half-size walls on either side that were too tall to climb and none of them were going to be left behind (they were three and they would always be three) and a blazing pile of hay and oil before what should have been their easiest escape route: the door of the stall.
A board above them creaked and the fire snapped. Another heavy beam crashed to the ground, scattering the flames and blocking off the stall door further. Sparks flew like a cloud of glowing mites, blowing and biting, and a rush of flame snapped out straight toward the boys huddled in the corner.
They couldn't help but scream.
The barn was in flames.
Merida pulled Angus to an abrupt halt in the courtyard and leapt from the saddle with a silent promise to apologize for his treatment later.
"What happened?" she demanded of a warrior in MacGuffin's clan colors as he rushed by with a bucket. She followed him to get an answer.
"Don't know!" he roared shortly, throwing water across the flames. They fizzled, then surged back like an undefeatable army. "Just happened," he threw back at her as he rushed off for a refill.
Nearby, lines of men had formed, passing buckets back and forth in an effort to be quicker and more efficient than those running from well and stream to barn again, yet even they were making little headway. Merida saw her father in one of them and hurried over to him.
"Stay back, Merida!" he called, passing a bucket of water on to one of his men as though it weighed next to nothing. "There's no wind, but I don't trust those sparks."
"What happened?" Merida tried again, hoping her father, as the King, might have the answers an ordinary warrior lacked.
"I don't know – nobody knows. One moment all's well, the next Maudie saw smoke rising."
"Nobody was inside?"
"No; all the work's done, so the warrior's've spent the day finishing out the fields. At this rate it's a lost cause; half gone and hardly worth fighting anymore."
"It's a shame," Elinor said from behind Merida, having caught up at last. "It was a fine building and did the MacGuffin clan proud. Accident or no, we shall have to get to the bottom of this."
"Aye," Fergus agreed, then raised his voice. "FALL BACK! Let it burn – the thing's done for."
The last few buckets were thrown onto the flames in a final act of defiance against the inevitable, and then the lines of men shrank back to watch the building – months of work many of them had taken part in – finally fall.
It was in this lull that Elinor noticed something was missing.
"Where are the boys? Is Maudie keeping them inside?"
"Must be," Fergus allowed with a shrug, scratching his head as he also looked about for the troublemakers, "else they'd be out in the middle of all this."
Merida felt something stir in the depths of her heart and gut, a nearly-physical sensation of something being wrong. The fire roared and crackled, filling the air, but beneath that she thought she heard something else, something that filled her with terror.
In an instant, she recognized it: a trio of high, thin screams.
"The boys," she cried out, and ran toward the burning building without a second thought, oblivious to her parents shouting behind her and reaching forward too late to catch her.
Her brothers were in there; she couldn't just leave them.
In an instant she dove through the flames eating away at the barn's massive doors, and then she was gone.
They didn't believe she was truly there at first. When Merida came bursting through the fire with one arm cocked over her nose and mouth, hair and eyes wild and heavy dress already smoldering, the boys thought her a hallucination brought on by smoke and fear, or else perhaps a vision of fiery Death coming for them at last.
Then she'd fallen on them, gathered them into her arms in a fierce embrace. They blinked tears from her eyes and scrabbled for a hold on her, equal parts relieved and terrified, sobbing wordlessly.
"Hurry," she said, and kicked hay and fallen timber aside, too determined and focused on her brothers' safety to dwell on the bite of the embers and licks of flame that found their way under her dress and over her boots.
With their way suddenly cleared and someone there to guide them, the boys lost no time in heeding her instructions...but the barn was falling.
They were mere steps from the entrance, from throwing themselves (or, perhaps, being thrown) through the fire there to roll across packed dirt and tufts of grass and into the arms of their parents, when the doorway collapsed.
The boys skidded to a halt, distressed wails rising from their throats, but Merida surged forward, ducked down, and caught a sagging beam across her back. She choked on a scream; the triplets watched in renewed horror as the ends of their sister's wild red hair twisted and burned, and flames licked down the sleeves of her dress.
She turned watering eyes on them.
"Go," she gasped, jerking her head at the gap below her, the gap she held open between the beam across her back and the floor beneath their feet.
"Merida," Hamish ventured, his voice small and beseeching.
"Go! I'll duck out after, just g...get out. GO!"
Another roaring groan sounded above them. The boys scurried out in a line, ducking and scrambling on their hands and knees. Hubert, the last of them, turned around immediately once outside, though he was still in reach of the flames.
"Merida!" he urged, reaching for her even as Elinor grasped him about the middle and hauled him back and Fergus rushed forwards, heedless of the fire just as his daughter had been. Hubert caught a glimpse of blue fabric and soot-smudged skin, a sudden jerk of movement which he thought might have been Merida attempting to do as she had promised and throw herself out from under the weight of the burning beam. He couldn't be certain; it only lasted a moment before being drowned out by the sudden rushing collapse of the entire front end of the barn.
Fergus' bulk blocked Hubert's view; for one wild, hopeful moment he thought Merida had gotten out, that their father even now was grasping her and pulling her away to safety as their mother had done with each of the boys.
Then Fergus screamed her name, fell to his knees and tore recklessly at the rubble, burning his hands and crying in a voice fit to shake the heavens, and young MacGuffin was alongside him, begging her not to do this, to be all right, for this not to be so, and the boys all suddenly, collectively knew.
She was gone.
The next morning dawned clear and cool and bright: a perfect day for the wedding that had been planned, but a terrible one for the funeral that was held.
They never found anything that could be clearly identified as Merida's remains.
That was the first thing she was aware of.
She saw and heard nothing, but felt a great weight pressing down over and around her. She couldn't breathe.
Then, suddenly, a glimmer of silver light caught her eye. It seemed to reach for her, caressing her brow like a loving parent. The weight shifted, lessened, and she felt herself drawn up out of the dark, rising into the clear night air under the light of a full moon.
"Merida," it whispered to her. "Merida Dunbroch..."
She waited for more, but it merely lowered her slowly, letting her feet touch the uneven ground from which she had risen. She looked down instinctively to be sure of her footing, and she saw ash and blackened lumps of wood.
Memory stole her breath away.
"But I'm dead," she said, disbelieving as she turned her pale, unblemished hands over in front of her face. She patted down her dress – unmarred – and tugged at her hair – undamaged – and tried to remember how to breathe evenly. "I should be dead!"
The moon had nothing to say to that.
"The boys!" Merida recalled. She needed to see them, needed to be sure they were alright, and for a moment she wanted so badly to be with them that something in the region of her heart surged with heat...
And she found herself crouched in the embers of the small fireplace in the boys' room, shocked yet unwilling to dwell on it when she caught sight of three small eleven-year-old bodies huddled beneath the covers of Harris' bed.
She rushed to their sides, examined them with her hands hovering over their curled forms, unwilling to risk touching and waking them. What little could be seen of them was swathed in linen bandages, and the heavy smell of herbal burn paste hung in the air like a cloud. Their faces, though lax in sleep, were streaked with tearstains and red about the eyes and noses, whether from pain or from thinking her lost.
But they were alive. They were alive, and she would see their faces happy again in the morning.
For now, however, Merida would let them sleep.
"I love you," she whispered to them. "Rest up; you'll be fine. I promise. It'll all be better when you wake."
Slipping out the boys' door and into the hall, she was hit with a conundrum: who to visit first, her parents or her soon-to-be husband? Their rooms were in different directions, and any of them were likely to be asleep at this hour anyhow.
In the end, she decided to check on Fergus and Elinor before Roderick, and slipped through the silent halls like a wraith. Nobody, it seemed, was up and about to see her, and the few night guards were surprisingly easy to sneak past.
Surprisingly, there was candlelight spilling under the door of her parents' room. Merida hesitantly rapped on the door, and when there was no answer, she pushed it slowly open, just enough to slip through.
Fergus and Elinor were seated on their grand bed, and the queen was sobbing into her husband's chest. Fergus' own cheeks were hardly dry, but he was silent but for the occasional great, heaving breath as he stared into nothing.
Fergus' eyes drifted her way, and for a moment Merida thought they lit on her. But then his gaze remained torturously sad and distant, and he merely muttered something about the latch on the door before tightening his hold on Elinor despite his heavily-bandaged hands and forearms.
"Dad? Can't you see me?" Merida shuffled closer, reaching out to them in confusion. "Mum...can't you hear me?"
There was no reaction – none at all.
Taking a deep breath, Merida stepped fully up to the bed and stretched out her hand to tap her father on the shoulder.
With a glimmer of wispy blue light, her fingers sank through him, and a faint pins-and-needles sensation shot up her arm. Merida jerked back with a gasp, then stumbled backwards into the wall with heavy, clumsy steps. Not a sound she made stirred her grieving parents' interest.
"No. No, no, no, no..."
Panicked, she dashed from the room and down the corridors, no longer sneaking but pounding her feet purposefully hard against the stone. The thuds of her boots against the floor rang loudly in her own ears and she keenly felt the shock of each heavy footfall as she would have were she alive, yet once again, not a single night guard showed the slightest signs of alertness when she approached, nor did they so much as stir when she ran by.
She reached the Great Hall, stopped, and shouted at the top of her lungs. She stomped her feet, clapped her hands, knocked her fists against the wooden tables already dressed for the wedding feasts which would never be, and let the cacophony die away in echoes down the long stone halls.
Once again, not a sound she made was heard.
Stunned, she sank into a crouch and wrapped her arms around her legs, then wished very hard to see Roderick once more, as she had wished to see the boys. The heat in her center surged and she found herself whisked away to his fireplace. She crawled out of the ashes and embers, not bothering to dust herself off because none of them clung to her, and stood up in his room.
Unlike her parents, Roderick was asleep. Unlike the boys, he was crumpled up on his window seat rather than put neatly and soundly to bed. And like them all, his face was tear-stained and the skin around his eyes reddened, and bandages like Fergus' swathed his hands and arms.
"I'm so sorry," Merida whispered, reaching out to him. Even if she couldn't touch him, she could at least pretend...but then, to her surprise, her fingers met the skin of his forehead rather than passing through. Quickly, in case this sudden ability to touch others was a sporadic and limited thing, Merida dropped her upper body across his chest and gave him the fiercest hug she could manage given their relative positions.
"I'm sorry, Roddy," she said, muffled because her face was pressed into his shirt.
Then, and only then, did she start to cry, mourning their lost future, weeping for the pain of everyone she loved who grieved for her.
She stayed there until morning came and Roderick began to wake. The closer he came to awareness, the more insubstantial Merida felt herself become against him. She reached up and kissed him quickly before all contact could fade, and Roderick finally woke with the tiniest hint of a smile on his face.
The smile quickly crumpled as he assumed whatever he felt of Merida's presence to be a dream and the waking world a nightmare, and Merida turned away from the heartbreak that spread across his expression.
Quietly, she wished she were somewhere, anywhere, else.
In a sweeping burst of heat, she found herself outside under the pink-grey dawn sky, standing on the very same heap of ash and charred wood she had died beneath, and beside her feet was her bow, though neither quiver nor arrows could be seen.
Merida bent down and picked it up. The grip was warm beneath her fingers, and the grain glimmered with streaks of deep red light, as though the bow burned from within.
She would test it later; for now, she simply tucked it across her back and shoulder, and walked across the courtyard, invisible to everyone save the fading moon that hung low in the western sky, a moon which could only silently apologize for her grief and for the pain she would experience in decades to come as she watched her family grow and age and die without her.
The Man in the Moon wished now he had done something, anything, differently. He wished he could take her sorrow away, but it was too late now.
All that the Spirit of Summer could do was someday learn to let go, and to be free once more.