Something’s hitting my right shoulder. Repeatedly. And it hurts.
“Elizabeth!” I hear someone say my name from miles away, and then my shoulder is hit again. I groan.
Pain sprinkles from the top of my head as I slowly wake up. I make a tiny squeal as I blink, and the pain subsides to a dull throbbing.
“Elizabeth!” Another whop on the shoulder.
“Ow!” I say back, more annoyed than hurt. I try to reach up and rub my head, but my arms don’t move.
Opening my eyes, I see my feet in front of me, sprawled out on the floor. My butt aches a little, so I must have been sitting on the floor for a while. I see a cot hanging in front of me in the small room, and I can just barely see out a window above it, but it’s dark so I don’t see much. That’s when I realize Finn is the one hitting me with the side of his head. He sits next to me, a wooden post at our backs, left shoulder pressed against my right.
“What happened?” I try to turn and face him, but I can’t move.
That’s when I realize my hands are tied behind the post.
“Ah, well.” He coughs a little. “I remember where I’ve heard Litatio from.”
My mind groggily remembers the festival, the huts, one of which we must be in, and the other events of the night.
“Wait,” I start to panic, breath quickening, “how long were we out? What time is it? I can’t miss Christmas! I can’t…”
Finn shushes me. “It’s okay, Elizabeth. Can’t have been more than an hour.”
“Oh.” I relax as much as I can with the ropes digging into my wrists.
“Listen,” Finn goes on in a soft but firm tone, “I remembered the name for a reason. The same reason people know of the festival. The same reason the old lady said no one comes here.”
I clench my jaw. This can’t be good.
Before he can go on, the door, directly in front of Finn, slams open. The old lady that greeted us earlier walks in, and she seems a little less hunched-over and decrepit than before. Two of the men flank her on both sides, like body guards.
“Welcome, dear wegferends.” She opens her arms wide, cane in one hand, as if she were about to hug the both of us. “Welcome to the Heims Festival.”
I feel Finn’s hands, tied next to mine, tighten into fists.
“She better not say we’re, like, honored guests or something.” I mutter to him so the lady won’t notice.
“Let’s bring our special guests out.”
I groan and glare at Finn as he lets out half a chuckle.
The two men come over and manhandle us into standing positions. When they start to untie the ropes on our hands, Finn presses his shoulder to mine, one of his inaudible warnings not to move. So we let the men retie our hands behind our backs and off of the post, and then we get led out the door and back into the courtyard.
The tone of the courtyard has shifted dramatically. No longer is there music playing and people dancing. The tables with food have been led away, and the bonfire burns low now, barely reaching the height of the huts. Some of the locals now stand solemnly in a crowd, staring at us, parted for a path for us and the old lady in front. I can’t tell if it’s just my imagination or if their robes really are a few shades darker. I see many of the locals laying on the tables and benches, or the ground, frothy drinks in hand or nearby, and I see the boy who danced with me for a split second, before he ducks his head and disappears into the crowd. What a jerk.
We halt a few steps later, the old lady directly in front of us and the bonfire directly in front of her. I didn’t notice if those wooden steps leading up above the bonfire were there before, but the sight of them makes my blood freeze. Finn must have seen my muscles tighten because he sets his jaw and gives me a small nod.
“Now,” Finn says in a large voice that would have silenced the crowd if they weren’t already dead quiet, “don’t tell me you’re planning to throw us in that fire. I thought we were getting along.”
“We thought that the divine Enchantress had abandoned us forever, but now she has sent you,” the old lady creaks.
“Yeah, she really didn’t.” I say breathlessly, trying to maintain composure.
She narrows her eyes at me. “The Chosen never know they are Chosen.”
I raise my eyebrows, in spite of the fear gnawing at my gut. “Wouldn’t that make you wonder if maybe they’re not ‘Chosen?’”
“Look, no offense,” Finn interrupts, leaning in toward the woman, “but aren’t you a little old to believe that this…Enchantress will save your people? Can anyone, divine or not?”
As the old lady hobbles closer, aghast look on her face, I consider what he just said. What’s Finn talking about?
Before I can really think about it, he goes on, in a hushed tone now that the old lady stands between the two of us, “I saw that food. Smelled lovely, but for a village like this, relying solely on farming and hunting, that wasn’t enough. Usually festivals like this are celebrating the halfway point of winter, looking forward to the spring. But you’re not getting out of the winter, are you?”
The old lady regains her composure. Me, though, I’m still kind of confused.
Finn continues. “Why else would your citizens take the same drug you used on your captives?”
Oh. The locals passed out here and there, they took the drug they drugged us with. Now I see what Finn means. All of those citizens are older, ranging from upper twenties to forties, so they must understand their situation.
“They have no hope, so they’re trying to soften the pain. You’re out of food, plain and simple. So before word spread about the Heims Festival, you must have made these sacrifices often. It’s a nice story, to blame the village’s misfortune on a malicious ceremony.” Finn taunts the woman. “So what’s the point? This won’t save you.”
“That’s the point.” The old lady hisses to us. “They have no hope. What else can I do but try to give them hope?”
She pivots so her back is to us and gives some sort of motion with her hands. The man behind me grabs the rope tying my hands and starts to drag me toward the bonfire.
“Hey!” I shout, eyes widening and feet kicking.
Finn’s pushed next to me, and we’re forced up the wooden stairs about six feet high. The two men stop a step below the top one, blocking any way out. All I process is the heat of the fire below me, the flames brushing upward and tickling my toes on the edge.
“Finn!” Now I’m panicking.
“Oh, come on!” He tries shouting over the raging fire to the old lady, who seems to be miles below us. “Seriously? You just admitted this won’t do anything, but you’re going to murder us anyway?”
I’m staring at the blaze of yellow and red, and I can’t seem to look away.
“Sacrifice, not murder.” She says calmly.
“Same thing!” Finn yells back.
Finally, I look back to the people, the two men and the old lady and all the locals. Every single person has a calm but stern look on their face, and it comes to me that there’s a very real possibility I might die. The old lady turns to her people, and they begin some sort of ritualistic chant and dance.
“Finn!” I whisper, partially to be under the chant and partially because I don’t think my voice can go any higher. “Finn, I can’t do this. It’s Christmas, and I’m supposed to be with my family, but I’m here about to die! I’m going to die here, and my family will never…”
Finn’s hand clasps mine behind our backs. “You’re not going to die. Tell me about your family. What are they doing right now?”
I start to protest, thinking maybe this isn’t really the time, but once he offers I can’t stop the words flowing from my mouth. “Mo-mom’s probably up still, in the kitchen, preparing the big breakfast we have tomorrow and mad at me. I-I t-told her I had to go into work; they, uh, they think I work two jobs. Dad’s in bed, most likely, reading some strange science novel. My sister Emmerson’s home for Christmas with her boyfriend, so who knows what they’re…”
I trail off because the chant’s getting louder, slowly but surely.
“What jobs did you tell them you worked?” Finn’s hand squeezes mine, and I can feel him fidgeting next to me.
“Uh…” My mind struggles to work under the circumstances. “Well, when I’m not at school, I usually say I’m working at this restaurant across town that my family hates. Which is a lie. Sometimes I say I’m teaching at the local dance studio, which I actually do sometimes when I’m not literally almost dying-seriously-do-you-have-a-plan?”
He stops fidgeting abruptly. “I didn’t know you danced.”
I tear my eyes away from the crowd to look him in the eye. “You never really asked.”
“So, like, you do…jumps and leaps and stuff?”
I did not expect that question. “Uh…yeah.”
Finn steals a quick glance behind us, and I finally get his meaning.
“No.” I say, control finally returning to my voice. “Oh, hell no.”
But then, he makes the choice for me.
The idiot, while he was fidgeting, had freed his hands somehow and physically flings himself onto the guard in front of him. Finn lands on top of him, on the ground below the stairs, and manages to get him in a chokehold. The other, however, throws his hands forward, in an attempt to throw me into the fire.
But, if fourteen years of dance and cheer lessons have taught me anything, they’ve taught me to keep my balance. I use the guard’s push for momentum, jumping one foot then the other, in a near-perfect arc over the bonfire.
And when I say ‘near-perfect,’ I’m referring to my landing. My right foot catches on a log at the edge of the bonfire, and I tumble forward, rolling over my shoulder on the hard stone. But as I keep rolling a few times, until I finally stop face-down in the snow, all I can recognize is that I’m alive. I lift my head to see Finn in full combat with the one guard, aptly dodging the large man’s slow blows. Shouts and screams ring out from the locals, as they try to decide whether they should help or run.
I feel something in the air change, and on instinct I roll to my right, over my bound hands, just in time to miss the other guard’s boot slamming down on the snow where my head sat a second ago. For a split second I’m hyper-aware of everything around me, and I register that I’m holding something in my left hand that I didn’t notice before. I flip it around, and my hand feels a small poke. It’s a knife. Finn wasn’t just squeezing my hand for support.
Time restarts, and I scramble backward from the man, pushing my feet on the ground in front of me and working the knife on the ropes behind me. He follows, reaching out with his hands one-by-one, and I shift left and right to avoid his grasps. But then, my back hits a wall, the front door of a hut to the left of Finn and the bonfire.
Pushing my weight against the door, I force myself up to a standing position, just as the man reaches me. Ducking and dodging, I avoid the man’s attempts to grab me, all while sawing and tearing at the rope. Just as a few of the local men step up to help the guard, I feel the knife finally cut through the ropes. Distracted, I shake the ropes off, but one of the men grabs me around the waist from behind.
The man who grabbed me pulls me around, and I catch a glimpse of Finn still fighting on the stairs, too close to the bonfire for comfort. Scraping the man’s arm with the knife, not enough to mortally wound him or anything but enough for him to let go, I face my attackers, knife out and ready, back to the bonfire, and each of them take a half-step back. I smile, glad to know they’re wary of me.
But then, as the silence finds its way to my ears, I realize that it’s not me that made them stop. Time seems to slow down yet again. Turning around, first I see the guard Finn had faced lying on the ground in front of the stairs, hopefully just unconscious. Finn’s on the top stair, back to the fire, hands up in surrender, heels on the edge The old lady stands on the stair below him, her wooden cane bridging the distance between the two of them, a second away from poking Finn in the chest and shoving him into the fire. My body moves on autopilot.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Cock the elbow back. And, snap.
The knife sails toward the fire and directly between the old lady and Finn. It catches the cane, splintering it to pieces. The sound of metal snapping wood crackles through the courtyard, and the villagers who haven’t scampered back to their huts fall silent. Both Finn and the woman stare at me for what seems like an eternity, and Finn’s heels, teetering over the edge of the stairs, land safely back on the wood.
“Well,” Finn says, his voice ringing out through the yard, “we’re glad we could visit, but…”
He gives me a quick glance then bounds off the side of the stair he was standing on, in front of the fire and in my direction. Before I can blink, he’s running past me, grabbing my upper arm to drag me away to the nearest road leading straight-outta-dodge.
My throat constricting from the cold air, we weave through the huts as quickly as possible, the sounds of a few sets of footsteps trailing behind. Then, we nearly run smack-dab into the wall of a hut at the end of the road we were following.
“Wait, what?” Finn says, turning around wildly to inspect the huts at three of our sides. “No, wasn’t the Door here?”
“No.” I roll my eyes. “We ran out the road to the right of where we came in, so the Door’s probably over…there.”
I make a vague hand motion behind us, where the footsteps are coming from.
“Well, that’s why I’ve got you, right?” He gives me a quick smile.
“I’m only around because you’re terrible at directions?”
The footsteps are getting louder.
“Well, that, and…”
Finn takes a hold of my right hand and puts it in front of my face. But I was already one step ahead of him.
Just as the villagers turn the corner to our little dead-end, I push down on the watch, numbers for Campestris already preset, and Finn and I jump away from Litatio and the horrible Heims Festival.
Bending at the knees, I stick the landing, creating a small cloud of red dust. Finn, however, nearly lands on his feet, bracing the impact by doubling over with his hands out on the ground in front of him.
The sun long below the horizon, I survey the dark red, flat landscape. We seem to have landed right outside of our small building, the lights still shining bright inside from when I forgot to turn them off when we left. I’m back. Really, actually back. Really, actually not dead.
As Finn stands, gives a little laugh, and makes his way inside, I follow, not looking up from my watch. He says something, but I’m too busy plugging in the coordinates I’ve memorized for home.
“Huh?” I say, looking up. He stands at the couch, brushing the dirt off his hands and stretching out his muscles a bit. He looks like a disheveled mess—well, a bit more of one then he usually does—with his coat all dusty and a few bruises already forming here and there. But Finn still looks as bright as he did this evening, as he gives a little chuckle, and my thought about his probably lonely Christmases creep back into my mind.
“I said, what now?” He asks. “Headed back home?”
I stare at him as he stands directly where I stood earlier this evening, next to the small table lined with knives and the remainders of my foil dinner from the fridge.
“Yeah, I think I am. Never know what you got, that’s how it goes, right?” I laugh. “But something’s still bothering me.”
He raises his eyebrows, but I just stare for a few more seconds, trying to put my finger on it. Something about him and…the table. Ah.
Suddenly, I bounce to life, forming my plan as I go. “Last week! Last week, we were doing that whole swimming practice thing, and you had those weights in that huge bag!”
He looks at me dumbfounded. “Uh. Yes?”
“Right! Go get it!”
Finn seems to ponder for a moment whether his apprentice has lost her mind, but then he decides to go with it. He goes into the hallway on the right and returns a minute later with the huge red sack, now devoid of weights.
Once he comes back, I run back to the lounge and to the fridge. He follows at a slow pace, so when he reaches me, I’m standing proudly with the door to the fridge open wide, revealing, like, at least a hundred of those food packets.. I wait for him to get it.
“What are you doing?” He stands there, looking so out of place next to the red bag. But it will work.
“Oh, come on!” I say, too excited to be exasperated. “All you need is the long beard and the sleigh!”
“You said the people of Litatio are running out of food. Well, I’d imagine we’ve got a lot of these weird, gross food packets to spare. So a great red sack full of presents, and you’re Santa Claus.”
I flash him a big smile, and he looks back and forth between the food and the sack in his hands.
After a few seconds, he finally returns my smile with a small grin. “This could work.”
“Not only does it give their people food,” I say as he kneels down to start flinging tin foil packets into his bag, “but it also gives them hope in a better story. One which usually doesn’t involve human sacrifices.”
Finn stands back up, looking down at me with a real, genuine smile. “Not bad.”
I smirk. “I know.”
He rolls his eyes. “Now, go home. I’ve got work to do.”
“I will, but first,” I look at him expectantly, hand hovering over my watch, “do the thing.”
He gives me a death glare, but when I give him one back, he sighs and growls, “Ho ho ho.”
And I jump back home, throwing my head back in laughter.
The Adventures of Elizabeth Shelley will be back in the new year.
Happy Holidays to all!
Featured Image found at: https://pixabay.com/en/bonfire-flames-wood-logs-snow-925359/