Those who know me well know what a sucker I am for epic foreshadowing. Thusly, I thought that, perhaps, this happened on the mountain. ;)
This was blatantly inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender, from the episode, "The Puppetmaster". Also, there is a direct reference from Deltora Quest: Maze of the Beast, for Rodda fans to search for. :D
"They fled into the house, baring the door and locking all the windows. They thought for certain, that they would be safe. But… Just then—"
"The window blew open, the torch went out, and the monster jumped out of the shadowy corner to devour them all," Marie interrupted with a yawn. "Allun, you've been telling that same story for years, and it stopped being scary when we were 12. Surely, you have something scarier up your sleeve."
"Well, of course," Allun agreed lightly, glancing at Rowan. "I don't want to frighten our small friend any more than I must, though. Come now, Rowan, you're terrified, aren't you?"
Rowan hated to disappoint the man, but he shrugged. "Not really. That story hasn't frightened me since I was six. It doesn't have the sound of something real."
"Such stories aren't meant to sound real," John commented simply, adding one of their last sticks to the fire. "At any rate, we're in real enough trouble, as it is. We hardly need to be telling ghost stories just before we go to sleep."
Allun blatantly ignored his friend, and turned to the boy once again. "Perhaps you have a better story for us?" he suggested with a teasing grin.
"Then share with us! I'm curious, now."
Rowan hesitated, still unused to so much attention, let alone having adults be so interested in him. But Allun was sure to go on pestering him, and Marlie gave him an encouraging smile. John's face remained blank, because he was peeved at being ignored, but he said nothing; in fact, he was also watching him with curiosity.
And so, it seemed, he would have to share one of the most real nightmares he had ever had. He pulled his jacket closer around him, against the cold and the chilling fear of the story he was about to tell. He focused on the dancing flames, trying to forget the inquiring eyes watching him, and took a deep breath.
"Not many people know of this, but all the bukshah keepers do. We're the only ones who ever see him—the spirit of a small boy, who appears out of the wind in the dead of winter. They've called him Michael, in the past."
Allun scoffed. "It hardly does to name your ghosts," he said jokingly. "Once you name them, you start getting overly attached to them."
"Allun, hush," Marlie scolded, holding a finger to her lips. "Go on, Rowan, we're listening."
"I didn't used to think it was true," he continued, feeling a little more confident in spite of his shivering. "But then….. It happened three years ago. It was the middle of winter, just before dawn, and I was in the fields, as always. It was freezing, and so I lit a small fire to stay warm. Star even came over to let me huddle beside her, as she often does. It was a completely normal morning, and nothing unusual was bound to happen.
"Then, suddenly, a bitter wind swept down over the field from the mountain. And I thought I heard a voice, whispering: it's so cold, it's so cold. It was so soft, I thought for sure that I was hearing things. But I could feel that Star had begun to tremble, and her ears had flattened against her head as if she sensed danger. The wind grew stronger, and the voice was growing louder: it's so cold, it's so cold. I was scared, and I covered my ears and shut my eyes, wishing it would stop.
"And it stopped, as suddenly as it had begun. The wind just vanished, as if it had never picked up at all, and the voice had faded. I opened my eyes, and… There was a boy, about my age, shuffling desperately toward me through the snow, like one who was already dead. His skin was like ice, and his lips were blue, as if he were frozen. I wanted to jump up and run away but I was so scared, I couldn't even move.
"Finally, he stopped right in front of me. His eyes were so dark with fear and despair, I couldn't even so what color they were. He looked right into me and whispered…
"'It's so cold. It's so cold. What have we done?'
"Then the sun slipped over the horizon, and the dragon roared on the mountain. There was another gust of wind, and the fire went out."
Three gasps startled him out of his reverie, and he looked up to see the adults watching him in mild horror.
"What did you do?" Marlie asked.
"I screamed and ran for help, of course. I brought mother back to fields with me, but there was no one there. The only tracks in the snow were my own. She blamed it on poor sleep and nightmares, scolded me for making up stories, and went back home, leaving me alone as before. "
Rowan stared almost petulantly back into the fire. It seemed to him that his mother blamed a lot of things on his nightmares, which he couldn't help.
"But I know what I saw. And I think the bukshah knew it, also. They were nervous and skittish after that, and refused to be calmed for the rest of the morning. Before, I had thought that Michael was something that someone had made up, perhaps to stop young keepers from wandering too far in the snow. Now, I'm certain that he is real. I've never lit a fire in the winter again, no matter how cold I've been. I haven't wanted to see him again.
"Sometimes, though, in the winter, just before dawn, I'll look up at the mountain and wonder if he's up here somewhere. Sometimes, I'll see a faint glimmer of light near the summit; as if a fire's been lit, as if little Michael is still trying to get warm. Sometimes, I could swear I can still hear his voice, whispering: it's so cold. It's so cold. What have we done…?"
Something snapped nearby, and the company all jumped in alarm. Marlie even yelped in terror, and the normally imposing woman snatched at Allun's hand for comfort without thinking. They all stared into the dimness, searching desperately for the cause of the sound.
To their relief, a small furred creature darted out a shadow, marking them with wide, cautious eyes. As suddenly as it had disturbed them, it vanished back into the shadow.
The four of them all breathed a deep sigh.
"Look at us," Marlie groaned in annoyance. "Three of Rin's great heroes, jumping at shadows and wood mice, over a ghost story."
"Understandable," Allun commented nervously. "It was a good one. I haven't been so genuinely terrified in a long time. With your permission, Rowan, I'd like to retell that one to my father's people, sometime. They would appreciate it."
"You can have it," Rowan answered glumly, looking back into the fire. "I wish I could forget it ever happened."
John cleared his throat, slightly embarrassed to have been frightened so easily. "I told you all, telling ghost stories before we go to sleep wasn't wise. So now, if you three don't mind, I'm going to put an end to it. Pull out your sleeping rolls, it's time to get to bed. We have a long way to go, still, and we need our strength."
They wordlessly did as they were told, each of them silently wondering if they would find any sleep while thoughts of small, frozen Michael were so fresh in their minds. The fire would slowly burn down to embers as they slept; but once they went out, it would be bitterly dark and cold. None of them wanted to still be awake, once that happened.
While Rowan bundled himself in his bedroll, feeling its warmth sinking into his skin, he looked over to see that Marlie had settled herself near him. As if to keep a watchful eye on him, perhaps to be there for him if he woke from a bad dream. He appreciated that she would do such a thing for him; no one would have thought before to do so, because it would be seen as coddling a nearly grown child. However, instead of curling up in her bedroll, she let it lay flat and nearly uselessly over her.
That's odd, he thought drowsily, half asleep already, in spite of everything.
"Marlie, bundle up," he heard Allun say to her. "You'll end up like little Michael, that way."
He heard her groan in annoyance. "Not funny," she growled back.
Rowan sighed into his blanket as he fell asleep. This was going to be long night…