Snow has fallen heavily this week. The normally green and
yellow fields are hidden in a thick layer of cold, white dust - as are the thatched
rooftops and the golden bricks of Castle Meridell. It's a beautiful sight to behold,
but for me it means only one thing - the return of winter.
Winter is a harsh season for us, and not just
because of the cold. No crops grow in frozen fields, no fish swim beneath the
surface of frozen ponds, and many of the poorer people starve before spring
I've made it through nine winters out here,
and I fully intend to get through nine more, if I have to. But, somehow, I don't
think it will come to that. This year, I will face my fears and go back to where
I belong. This year is a year of closure, for me and many others with the memory
of what happened at the old house, such a long time ago.
The very event I've been trying to forget since
the day it happened, but never will - because it's burned into me. It's irrevocable.
And, as much as I hate to admit to it, the whole thing was entirely my fault.
It was very early on the morning of the first
day of Hunting, 2005. It was also the day my life would change forever. For
an instant, I wondered why my heart was racing with excitement; something special
was happening today. My brain, still clinging to the last threads of sleep,
refused the unexpected wave of emotion.
Then it dawned on me, crashing like a wave on
the banks of my mind. All thoughts of tiredness were forgotten; there was no
time for sleep.
I hurtled down the halls, still wearing my night-dress.
My paw brushed an invaluable antique vase; it fell harmlessly to the plush carpet.
I did not slow until the pale, pretty face of my mother poked out from behind
"Mirage, what do you think you are doing?" I
paused, trapped in mid-step, heart sinking. I could tell she was angry. "I know
you're excited. This is a special day for you, after all, but do try to control
yourself," she hissed. Then, as if nothing had transpired, a grin spread across
her face. "Happy birthday, love! Breakfast is almost ready." With that, she
vanished as suddenly as she had appeared and I breathed a sigh of relief. I
had escaped punishment.
More cautiously, I continued
down the hall. My mind was on the one gift I knew I was going to get, the one
I had seen beforehand, waiting in my parents' room. It was a magnificent, magical
mirror - one with shining crystalline glass and minutely shaped filigree-gold
edges that depicted a number of scenes in wonderful detail. Every inch of it
had a story to tell.
It was no surprise when, as the old arched doorway
swung open to reveal the familiar splendour of the central hall, the mirror
was there waiting for me. Stood beside it were my two parents, wearing identical,
pearly white grins; I couldn't help joining them.
"Happy birthday, Mirage." My father laughed.
I peered at the mirror with intent; it was obviously full of magic, even a child
with no knowledge of such things would have felt it. Energy seemed to cascade
outwards from it, invisible and yet unmistakably real.
"We gathered our funds together to buy you one
big present this year. We know you've wanted a magical mirror for a long time
"Thank you," I said, realising how much it must
have cost them. "It means so much to me."
I meant what I said. This strange looking-glass
was my pride and joy. Mirrors, even of the common variety, are said to have
magical powers - there are even rumours that they represent openings between
this world and others. Standing in that room, with that particular mirror, I
found it very easy to believe this.
"Breakfast is served!" came the cry from the
kitchens, and an elderly red Krawk strolled into view, carrying a silver tray
laden with food. She, too, was wearing a grin, although her teeth were yellow
with age and lack of care.
"Thank you kindly, Evra," I said, making an effort
to be polite.
Breakfast was muffins with white chocolate syrup
and asparagus - a true delicacy, although many say it's an acquired taste. I
ate three servings before deciding to leave room for the cake, which Evra was
busy baking in the kitchen.
A sharp, echoing knock ran through the room
as I finished the final plate. It was our friends, of course, coming for the
party. I stood up to answer the door, but Mother was faster, and before long
every seat at the table was filled. Many of the faces were unfamiliar to me,
but I made a point of smiling and nodding at each guest as if they were my closest
They all brought gifts of their own - only small
ones, but nice things, like Draik eggs and rare paint brushes. I thanked them
all with a polite smile, and carried the things up to my room to store with
the treasure I had been given the previous year.
For the rest of the morning, I danced and ate
chocolate and shared meaningless secrets with the guests that I knew, but I
never forgot the mirror, which stood patiently in one corner of the hall. None
of the guests seemed to have noticed the thing at all.
Finally, morning gave way into afternoon and
the elderly Krawk reappeared. This time, her face was almost completely hidden
by a titanic chocolate cake. It was covered in fresh, sliced strawberries; thick,
sticky rivers of golden treacle and white chocolate coated them and (as a final
touch) a set of thirteen silver candles perched on the very top tier.
Silence fell as the cake was lowered to the table.
After a moment, the candles flickered into life, as though lit by tongues of
invisible flame. Everyone took a fresh, white plate from the tray; I was the
last to do so. I was still thinking about the mirror.
When first slices of the cake had disappeared
from their respective plates, the hissing sound of whispered conversation picked
"Wow, Evra! I think this just may be the best
cake you've ever served!"
"Wonderful job on the chocolate."
"Are those strawberries grown here in Meridell?
The cake, though it looked delicious and should
have been, had no flavour and I hardly spoke throughout the meal. My mind kept
drifting across the room, wondering if there really was a world on the other
side of that sheet of glass.
"Is something wrong, dear?" I looked up to see
who had posed the question. It was my mother, Ardelia, the queen of this small
village on the outskirts of Meridell. Her face was twisted with fake concern.
She knew I was fine, I could see it in her eyes; but she had to ask, anyway.
It was proper to ask.
"No. I'm just thinking." She looked at me strangely,
as if I'd told her I wanted a battle duck for dinner rather than chocolate cake.
"Okay, dear. You can tell me if anything worries
you," she promised, as she always had, and (I felt sure) always would do, even
when I was eighty and she a hundred.
Once the cake had gone, the party was over. The
crowd of guests thinned, little by little, and the echoes died into the night.
By the time dusk had fallen, only three of them remained. All three were Aishas,
just as we were; but their faces were sharp and cold, their eyes glinting savagely
with something that might have been avarice or anticipation.
I was still sat at the table. My legs felt stiff;
I had been seated in the same position for hours and was suddenly eager to move.
I think a part of me wanted to get closer to the dark door, where my parents
stood talking to the three sinister Aishas, and perhaps make an excuse to have
them removed. There was no real reason for my fear; it was merely a strong compulsion
that these three, whoever and whatever they were, should be avoided at all costs.
My feet slid slightly on the floor as I stood
up and started towards them. I knew they would hear my footsteps echo in the
ceiling, and would then retreat into the dark doorway and leave me alone in
the hall. By that point I was desperately afraid, and though I knew it was unreasonable,
I continued towards them.
I drew within three feet without being seen.
Then the female Aisha turned her head a fraction of an inch and caught my eye.
It seemed empty, soulless - for a moment I didn't realise why. I looked again
and saw it - the eye, unlike that of every other mortal pet I had seen in my
lifetime, was a vivid, piercing red.
I stopped in my tracks, paralyzed; now there
was no mistaking it - my instincts had proven true. There was something decidedly
strange about them, if not downright evil. In the same instant, as if to confirm
my fears, one of the other strangers let out a short, sharp laugh.
"Ah, but this is no place to discuss such matters.
Perhaps we ought to retire to the sitting room?"
The moments drew themselves out into faceless
expanses of time - one by one, as I had known they would, they stepped into
the darkness of the room beyond the ancient wooden doorframe. I watched my father
disappear, too, the last of the five, and the door began to swing shut. I wanted
to put a paw out and stop it, but in the end my nerve failed me.
"I'm sorry," I whispered to the lifeless air,
not knowing the meaning of what I was saying, no longer sure that I was sane.
The one thing in the whole place that felt completely right and safe was the
mirror. If I could make it to the end of the room in time, everything would
My feet still felt heavy and reluctant to move.
I forced them forward as quickly as I could - in long, hurried strides, half-walking
and half-running. Everything was out-of-focus; only my goal was in clear view.
Taking small, careful steps, I drew closer and
closer to the mirror. My reflection became clear in the surface, and it was
unrecognizable. The Aisha in the mirror was no longer the beautiful Royal Aisha
girl that I knew myself as. She had a drawn, fearful face and wide, staring
eyes; her fur was longer and darker, and her clothes were - for lack of a better
word - filthy rags. A moment later, I realised that I was looking into my own
This was bad enough - I wondered if, perhaps,
the mirror was showing me something that had happened in a past life. An involuntary
shiver worked its way down my spine. Then I saw another thing that rendered
the first irrelevant. Just behind one of the ornate chairs sat a... thing with
jet black fur and bulging, fiery eyes. It crouched low and stock still, as if
it meant to spring on the next person to make a sudden movement.
I felt my heart catch in my throat as I turned
to face the beast, but it was gone; all I saw was a series of deep claw-marks
etched into the marble flooring where it had been.
"Who are you?" I called, trying to keep the fear
from my voice and not quite managing it. "Show yourself! I do not want to have
to bring my parents into this, but-"
A deep, guttural shriek sounded from somewhere
above me. Instinctively, I ducked under the stone table. I expected to hear
a thud; when none came, I tentatively crept back into the dim candlelight. Suddenly
the thick, rancid odour of rotten meat filled my nostrils and I almost gagged.
It was close, and getting closer.
"Is... is anyone there?" I squeaked. The only
reply was my own voice. My instincts had proven wrong, this time; the beast
was gone - gone to haunt some other, less fortunate family.
"Don't be so sure about that."
My dread returned in full force, almost flooring
me. My feet were itching in their delicate shoes, itching to run - but where
to? It felt like the thing was attached to me, and would follow me like a malevolent
shadow no matter how far I ran, or where I tried to hide.
That's when I realised what it was trying to
do. It wanted to intimidate me. It wanted me to run. Instantly I realised what
had to be done. Some things have to be faced, rather than ignored; I sensed
that this was one of them. With any luck the beast would tire of the game and
Recoiling, I almost went back under the table,
then decided against it. Some things have to be faced, rather than ignored;
I sensed that this was one of them.
"Tell me where you are," I hissed. "My parents
will have a fit when they see what you did to the floor!" A deep, contemptuous
laugh shook the ceiling of the room, sending down a shower of dust. Suddenly,
the air was full of what sounded like wings beating.
"I can do a lot worse than that, princess. If
I was really trying, there would be nothing left of this house or of you."
"Stop toying with me and get out of our house!"
"You know nothing of what I am or what you're
getting yourself mixed up in. I came for the mirror specifically, but if you
argue with me... "
I felt suddenly faint. This thing, I felt sure,
dealt in magic of the worst kind possible - and this realization moved me into
a state of fear so intense that I felt like a spectator of some kind, floating
far above and watching the scene unfold. I watched as my legs picked themselves
up and began to run. Run, run, run. A heavy rain was falling outside, almost
in slow motion; for once, I didn't care that my fur would be ruined. The great
door swung open with an almost ominous creak, and I was free.
The ground beneath me was soft with mud and water.
Twice I slipped and fell into a puddle, but I never stopped, never looked back.
I knew what I would see, and I didn't want to; it was a reminder of my cowardice
A voice, alien and distant, broke into my consciousness.
It was a rough, deep voice, sounded like a Lupe.
"Why, look who's mixing with the commoners!"
There was a thick, braying laugh from the same
direction. I staggered towards it.
"There's trouble... at the palace..." I panted
"Down this end of town, there's always trouble,"
the voice replied. There was no trace of laughter there now. "It's not like
you ever cared about that. None of you did. Why should I bother about
"I'm sorry," I started, then cut my thought off
halfway through. It was no good.
"Fair's fair," the voice muttered. I just kept
on walking. As I went, a crowd formed behind me - some concerned, some curious,
some jeering and laughing. I must have walked for miles. Eventually, the rain
slowed to a stop, and the clouds brightened to a fluffy white.
I turned and faced the crowd; they fell quiet,
as if they were suddenly ashamed of their behaviour. The house I grew up in
was a distant blur on the horizon. It looked dark and fuzzy, as if it were melting
into the sky.
"What are you running from?"
This voice was small, trembling, and seemed to
be coming from the ground. Looking down, I saw a red Cybunny clothed in a humble
cloth dress. I decided it wouldn't hurt to tell her.
"There's been trouble up at the house," I said
again. "Something... I don't know what it was... broke in and started wrecking
things." When I looked up, half the crowd was looking at me intently.
"I don't know what it was because... well...
I only saw it for a moment. In the mirror I got for my birthday. When I looked
round it wasn't there, but I heard the voice... " I trailed off, shuddering.
No one was listening by that point. I was almost relieved; the way I told it
sounded fake, a story made up on the spot. It wouldn't do, but it would have
to - there was nothing else I could really say.
A scream cleaved the air and I resisted the urge
to cover my ears.
"Fire! There's a fire at the Palace!"
"What?" I cried out, not wanting to look and
yet unable to resist. I saw what they meant at once. The house, though still
a tiny speck on the horizon, was visibly consumed with a vivid plume of flame.
Panic ensued. Many of the pets were alive with
wild fear brought on by the instinctual dread of fire and death and all associated
with it. Only a handful of pets, mostly towards the edge of the raging mass,
were able to remain calm.
"What shall we do?" one mother asked, her children
gathering around her like lost sheep. "That palace has stood since ancient times.
It cannot be destroyed." One or two of the others glanced at her nervously.
"It can," I said, startled at the quaver in my
own voice. As if to prove my point, there was a dull, distant thud, and part
of the building fell away. I knew it was hopeless. My eyes grew wet with tears,
but I could not cry in front of these people - I was a symbol of hope to them,
as my ancestors had been before me.
So I retreated. I snuck under a wheelbarrow and
curled up in the hay that had fallen beneath it. They would not find me here.
That night I slept hardly a wink, and when I did sleep, I dreamed the smell
of smoke and dark clouds on the horizon and the screaming and the rancid smell
It was morning already. The first light of the
sun crept over the land, casting fresh shadows in the valleys and behind the
barns. It was time to crawl out and face reality again.
I pulled myself out of the hiding place. My fur
was soaked with dew. Shivering, I shook most of it off and peered around the
side of the building.
"There she is!"
I raced out to meet the villagers, but as I drew
closer I began to see the fury. It was rising to the surface like a tiny bubble
of air, growing and swelling and finally bursting.
"How could you, Mirage! How could you!"
"It's gone. Everything is gone. I hope you're
happy." This time, I could not hold my tears.
"No, of course I'm not! How could you say such
"You tell me! You did it!"
It all became clear. They thought I had started
the fire, then run down to the village telling tales!
"I have told you all I know," I said. My voice
was surprisingly calm, although the fear and anger I felt at that moment must
have radiated from me. "There is no need to jump to conclusions."
"You lied to us," said one of them. "I can tell
when someone is lying to me, and I don't like it." The crowd raised a murmur
of assent. I felt betrayed, and yet I knew that they had been against me all
along. Secretly. I closed my eyes and gathered my composure before speaking
"If you don't trust me, then there is no point
in my staying here another moment. Just remember that you walk with demons,
and one day they will surface, and then you'll regret doubting me."
"And don't come back." This last was the Cybunny
child. There was something unsettling about her eyes, something I had not seen
previously, and I unconsciously moved backwards.
"Don't worry, I won't." I turned my back and
walked off, tears still in my eyes and threatening to pour again, but I held
them in. I would become very good at holding back tears in the years that followed.
You just have to shut it out, shut everything out and pretend it's not happening
for a short while.
"You're lucky we don't report you!" they called
after me. "You should have burned with your parents!"
That last one almost made me turn around and
rush back at them, charge them with gleaming eyes, knock them to the ground.
I didn't. I just kept walking.
I know: I promised not to return. There are some
promises you cannot keep. This is one of them. I have made my journey under
the cover of nightfall, ears tuned to the sound of approaching feet and faraway
voices. After so long travelling without a destination, I came to realise that
what I needed was waiting in the place I left behind. So, here I am, standing
at the foot of this hill and gazing upward at the ruins of my former home.
Suddenly I realise I don't know why I came. Have
I forgotten? Twisted, charred blocks of stone still stand at the foundation
of the building, lonely sentinels that have weathered millennia and are now,
finally, defeated. I want to take my eyes off it and run, but they seem to be
Am I looking for something? I wonder. Something
almost forgotten in everything else that has happened. Old pieces of wood turn
to ash as I walk through them and drift away on the breeze. Everything is gone,
I know that, I knew. Why did I come here? Was it hope? How foolish of me.
Then I see it. Lying there, unobtrusively, in
all the destruction - one tiny piece of life. Specifically, a tiny shard of
magical mirror. I reach out for it, carefully, and hold it out before me.
In the remains of the mirror, I see myself. I
am dressed finely, wearing my best silk dress, with the majestic scenery of
the old hall behind me. I am crying, but I look happy, and wave to myself from
the other side of the world in the mirror.
Memories are funny things; they can twist and
distort the truth like a reflection seen in a funhouse mirror, but they also
provide us with a sense of being. Looking back, it's easy to see I've changed
a lot since my days as Aisha royalty, but the true depth of that change has
remained a mystery to me. Until now.
"If only it had happened that way," I think aloud.
"But then, things never do, do they?" My laugh, now a harsh, humourless bark,
has a certain resonance in the desolation of the ruin. In fact, as I placed
the piece of mirror in one pocket and turned to leave, I could have sworn I
heard it echo back to me, as if from the ceiling of the hall that no longer