“Sixth grade,” Amanda said with a sigh fully intended to convey a perfect blend of satisfaction and wistfulness. “Middle school. We’re not kids anymore, kids.”
“I for one am glad to leave childhood behind,” Audrey said somberly.
“You two are sure full of yourselves,” Linda said, throwing a pillow at Amanda.
Amanda threw it back, accidentally nicking Audrey on the elbow. Audrey lifted the hefty couch cushion—the seat, not one of the lesser throw pillows—and whomped Amanda over the head.
“Only a child would complain about getting hit with a pillow,” Linda sneered, with just a hint of the old unbearable Linda.
“Pillow fight,” Thomas yelled, diving into the gaggle of girls with a squeal of glee and grabbing the first thing he could find (which, unfortunately, was Amanda’s slipper, not a pillow at all).
“Don’t, Thomas,” Amanda cried, “it has a hard—“
“—sole,” Audrey finished sadly, rubbing her leg where said sole had landed.
“Thomas, we’re going to read. You have to go away now,” Amanda said sternly.
“I want to read, too,” Thomas said petulantly.
“You’re not old enough for this book,” Amanda said.
“And it’s just for girls,” Audrey added.
“Say it isn’t so, my dears,” Mrs. Grand said, entering the room carrying a pile of papers.
“I’d hate to think only girls will read good books.”
“Why?” Amanda asked again.
“Because,” Mrs. Grand explained, “fully fifty percent of the world is made up of the male gender. You don’t want to exclude half the world’s children, do you?”
“We,” Audrey announced, “are not children.”
“Excuse me,” Mrs. Grand said. “I’d forgotten.”
“Will liked the first book,” Linda said. “Remember? Last year in detention?”
Amanda and Audrey groaned in tandem.
“You’ve jinxed us,” Amanda said.
“By mentioning detention on this, the eve of the first day of the new school year.”
“Oh,” Linda said, abashed.
“Pshaw,” Mrs. Grand said. “You brought detention on yourselves by the choices you made. You have free will, you know. You can choose to behave yourselves and avoid detention this year, or you can go off and do foolish, senseless things again, and take the consequences of your actions. There is no such thing,” she said, scooping a pillow from the floor and plumping it slightly before replacing it on the couch, “as a Jinx.”
The girls looked dubious, but assumed argument would lead to further delay in reading, and so they said nothing.
Mrs. Grand settled the book on her lap, and began.
“I miss our dear sister,” Audrey said with a sigh.
“As do I,” said Alyxandra, raking the crude wooden comb through her tangled and knotted auburn hair. “She could make sense of this mess on my head, at least!”
“Auburn!” Amanda exclaimed. “She has auburn hair!”
“Why yes, yes she does,” Mrs. Grand said, smiling bemusedly as if the significance had just occurred to her.
“Which one is Audrey again?” Audrey asked.
“The second oldest sister,” Linda said. “And Alyxandra is next. Don’t you remember? There were twelve kids.”
“Saints preserve us,” Amanda said. “Two is enough for any family, I always say.”
“You,” Audrey said, “are so weird.”
“Keep reading,” Linda urged.
“’Tis one long year since she left us,” Audrey continued, pausing in her task of filling a bucket with clear stream water.
“I thought stream water had giardia and other nasty bacteria,” Linda said.
“Not in the olden times,” Amanda said.
“Giardia comes from deer poop,” Audrey said. “Are you saying they didn’t have deer poop in the olden days?”
“They boiled their water before drinking it,” Mrs. Grand said, pursing her lips at the girls.
“Has been a good year for us,”Alyxandra pointed out, scowling as her comb hit a particularly obstinate snarl.
“True,” Audrey admitted. “Good things have come to us in goodly measure. And we had that message, from the far-off kingdom where she now resides, that Amanda is well and strong. And yet, oft it is I worry about her, and wonder whether we should not go after her, to offer aid and comfort.”
“You,” Alyxandra said matter-of-factly, “are the last person on this green earth who would go gallivanting into the wilds in search of kith and kin. You have not the adventuring spirit.”
Audrey said nothing, but hung her head. It was true, she knew. Amanda had the bold and saucy spirit among the older girls; Audrey was and had been always shy, obedient, and compliant.
“Thomas, I thought I told you to go away,” Amanda said.
“But I want to listen,” Thomas whined.
“No, you’ll bother us by doing cartwheels and picking your nose and rolling around on the floor.”
“You’re doing it right now,” Amanda said, exasperated. “Besides, you’ll interrupt.”
“And of course,” Mrs. Grand said, “we can’t have anyone interrupting.”
The girls nodded in agreement, oblivious to the irony.
“All right, Thomas,” Mrs. Grand said. “Scoot on up to your room. Dad will be up in a few minutes to read to you and tuck you in.”
Thomas reluctantly faded from view, picking his nose (guilty as charged), wandering in the general direction of the basement stairs rather than the stairs to his bedroom. This was an old trick of his, and had often gained him an extra hour or two before bedtime, as each parent assumed the other had escorted Thomas to bed, only to find him downstairs quietly playing.
“Now then,” Mrs. Grand said.
“Wait?” Three voices said.
“I’m not shy and obedient and—what is she called in the book?—‘compliant.’”
“No,” Mrs. Grand agreed. “Although you are practical, and sensible—all wonderful traits. But just wait and see. There may come a time when Audrey-in-the-book must take courage to step outside her natural character.”
“Okay,” Audrey said, sounding dubious.
A sudden noise interrupted the girls’ conversation. It was Peter, the baker’s apprentice.
“Audrey! Alyxandra!” he called urgently, crashing through the underbrush. (“There is a path,” Alyxandra muttered.) “Come quick!”
“What is it?” Audrey said, suddenly pale.
“Your father,” Peter said. “The cart fell. He was delivering wood to Baker Samuel, when the axle broke, and the wood fell upon him. He is in a bad way, I’m afraid. You must come quickly, for he is calling for you.”
Quickly was not possible, unfortunately, as the town lay far from the outskirts of the fey forest where they lived. The girls, wishing they had wings to fly, moved as quickly as they could through the woods, along the rutted track to the outskirts of town, and down the winding, cobbled streets to Baker Samuel’s home. There they found their father laid out on a makeshift bed of hay on the ground, in a dark corner. As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, the girls could just make out the mangled legs, the bloodied torso, and the ashen face, wrenched with pain.
“Father,” Audrey whispered, too horrified to cry.
“Don’t worry,” he said, summoning a ghastly smile that was clearly intended to be reassuring but failed utterly. “I’ll be fine. Just need to rest here, for a while.”
“Father,” Audrey whispered again.
“Stop saying that,” Alyxandra commanded. “What can we do, Father? Has the Barber been summoned?”
“Yes,” Baker Sam answered, approaching from behind. He had blankets in his arms.
Peter stood in the doorway, trembling and visibly aching to be useful. “Shall I fetch some water?” he said.
“Yes, boy,” Baker Sam answered, “and put it on to boil then.”
[This section withheld – you’ll just have to wait until the sequel comes out to read this part!]
Alyxandra sensibly pulled her sister out of the house, to give the barber more room and light to work. When, a moment later, they heard their father cry out, she pulled her further down the street to sit on the low stone wall beside the town well.
“He’ll be fine,” she said, but even confident Alyxandra did not sound convinced.
Audrey looked around at the town as if seeing it for the first time. The sun shone merrily on the houses and store fronts, dilapidated and grandiose alike. The birds sang, and the town’s solitary horse stamped and huffed in the yard where he was tied. Everything looked exactly as it always did, and yet somehow, Audrey knew, from this moment forward nothing would ever be the same.
“That’s it?” Amanda said. “You’re going to leave us hanging, not knowing whether their father lives or dies, or whether one of them falls in love with Peter, the baker’s apprentice, or whether they ever hear from Amanda again?”
“I thought you didn’t like romance in your stories,” Mrs. Grand said.
“That was last year, Mom,” Amanda said. “I was just a kid then.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Mrs. Grand said without a trace of sarcasm (which was in itself a rather amazing feat).
“I thought it was perfect,” Linda said, “and I can’t wait to hear what happens.”
“Once a suck-up, always a suck-up,” Audrey said, and everyone, including Mrs. Grand, looked at her in surprise.
“Wait, isn’t it my job to be tactless, and blurt out things without thinking?” Amanda said.
Audrey said nothing, and Mrs. Grand saved them from more awkwardness by announcing that there were more likely than not cookies in the pantry that were only slightly stale, if anyone was interested.
“Anyone!” Amanda shouted (a childhood game she and Audrey shared, that started when a very young Amanda had demanded to know who “anyone” was and why they would want cookies), and they scrambled to their feet to investigate.
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