People on the street stopped and stared as Edward and Amelia entered Westering, escorted by the South gate Watch. Nestor greeted a few of the townspeople by name. Ralph, who was the tallest person in sight after Nestor, walked ten feet ahead of them. He cleared the way by scowling and waving off anyone who looked like they might try to approach. Nestor said, in a voice loud enough to be overheard by onlookers, “My apologies, children — you would think we never had visitors in Westering.”
The town’s main thoroughfare was a gently curving cobblestone road wide enough for two carts to pass. Birches and maples provided frequent, though not unbroken, shade on both sides. Alleys, some paved with stone, some dirt covered with straw, branched off at right angles between shops. Some wider lanes led to groups of small houses. Some of the dwellings were stone, many were wooden, and there was a mix of thatched and shingled roofs. The buildings along the street were all very close together, if not actually joined, and were set back from edge of the cobbles about twenty feet. A few of the shops had flagstone paths leading from the street to the door, though most had an entry of clean swept sand, bordered by grass and sometimes patrolled by large red hens.
The streets were busy, but not crowded. This was good, because everyone walking had to dodge frequent piles of manure. Amelia wasn’t especially squeamish, but she wrinkled her nose after stepping around the third heap of dung and said to Edward, “Why don’t they put those leather diapers on the horses, like the carriage rides downtown?” Edward shrugged and then smiled. “I don’t know, Em. Maybe you should go into business!” A few of the shops weren’t open, some looked like they had been closed for some time. Very few of the buildings had glass windows, but they all had large wooden shutters, wide open to the morning air. Most of the vendors stood outside with their wares, under brightly colored or striped awnings. After Moira’s bakery, they passed a cobbler, and then a grocer selling corn, tomatoes, beans, squash in large, open stalls. A round-faced man was calling out at regular intervals, “Watermelons, peaches and plums!” which were all piled in baskets on large wooden tables. Most of the shops had signs with simple pictures of what they offered — a needle and spool of thread, a brown boot, a mortar and pestle. One of the larger buildings they passed had colorful flags waving over barrels and boxes of various sizes. Some containers were open to show dried fruit, loose tea and brown sugar. There were glass jars of honeycomb and molasses, and burlap bags overflowing with almonds, pecans, and walnuts. A tall man wearing a red vest was clapping and rubbing his hands together as he sang, “Cozen’s has everything you need, and things you didn’t even know you wanted! Tea from the Green Mountains! Cinnamon from the Spice Islands! Something sweet for the daring young lady, perhaps?” Edward nudged Amelia, who was busy keeping an eye out for manure. “He’s talking to you!” Edward said. Amelia looked up, surprised, and the hawker caught her eye. He flashed a broad smile, “Honey from Berila, young miss? Candied chestnuts?” “Oh! Maybe later!” Amelia said, and kept walking. The tall man nodded, “Anything you want, everything you need, come to Cozen’s!”
“Do you have a land line?” Edward asked, walking backwards along the street. “I believe we’re out, young man, but come back tomorrow! New shipments any day!” the hawker said, without missing a beat. “Edward!” Amelia glared at her brother. “Don’t be a smart aleck.”
After a few minutes of quick walking, Ralph, Nestor and the Lockhearts had picked up a small caravan of children and dogs. Some of the young people were the same age as Edward and Amelia. Occasionally, one of the braver girls and boys would run up alongside Edward and Amelia and wave to them, or say hello and lift their caps. Soon, the rows of buildings on either side of the street opened up onto a large square. The green was a level field of grass about a hundred yards wide, divided into quarters by paths of large, widely-spaced flagstones. The four paths met at a cluster of large trees in the center of the green. There, in the middle, several dozen people walked among a group of small tents and other temporary shelters. Men and women were buying and selling clothes and candles, pottery, goats and chickens, while children played all around.
As Nestor led them across the southwest corner of the green, Edward and Amelia saw quilts in colorful patterns and blankets dyed bright red and blue draped over large large folding wooden racks. A woman with a green scarf tied around her head was selling brooms and woven baskets beside a small display of fired clay pots and bowls. “It’s like the downtown street fair,” Amelia said to her brother. They had walked there with their mother just last weekend. Lucy liked to go because you could walk among the booths, looking at amateur watercolors, handmade purses, and all kinds of people. You could enjoy all of this while listening to live music, without spending more than a few dollars on lemonade and giant soft pretzels. The difference in Westering was that all of the items were practical, and there were no helium balloons, orange electrical cables snaking over the ground, or port-a-johns. “I don’t think you’ll find any cell phone accessories over there,” Edward said to his sister in a low voice. Edward was joking, but Amelia also knew that he was still sore because they couldn’t afford a phone for both of them, so she got to have one because she was older.
“The Hart is just over there,” Nestor said, pointing to a wide two-story stone building, with at least half a dozen chimneys sprouting from the roof of wooden shingles. Behind The White Hart was the Wall. To the right of the tavern, inside a small enclosure, was a small herd of goats and a wooden shed. To the left was a large, round, storehouse with a pointed roof. The White Hart itself sat alone on a low, grassy hill in the shade of a large live oak. The tree’s wide branches brushed against the top of the Wall and rose well above it. At forty feet, the oak was not the tallest tree on the green, by far, but Edward thought the tree looked very old and dignified. Its branches swept down toward the ground before curving up again, like arms gathering up long grey tendrils of moss. There were a few horses and mules tied up at the post in front of the building. The animals were quietly eating from their nosebags or stretching their necks toward the thick grass. Edward and Amelia would have stopped to pet a horse, but Nestor and Ralph went straight over the flagstone walkway to the door. Overhead hung a carved wooden sign with a painted white stag and lettering above it that read “The White Hart.” The threshold was a wide slab of worn granite, and the big iron-hinged wooden door was open. First Ralph, then Nestor and the Lockhearts stepped inside and waited a moment as their eyes adjusted to the gloom of the interior after the brightness of the green.
A group of men drinking at a table in the middle of the room looked up at the newcomers. Several of the men nodded to Nestor and Ralph, crinkled their brows at the Lockhearts, and then went back to talking. Nestor led them to the right, over to a long bar of polished wood. “Hello, Erik!” Nestor said to the man behind the bar, who was rolling a large keg against the wall. Erik turned, stood up straight and loomed over the bar. “Nestor, “ he said with a nod. “Ralph.” The tavern owner was a large, muscular man with short, blond hair and a mustache, both mixed with grey. The Lockhearts stepped up to the bar with the two men of the Watch. If Erik thought the children’s appearance was odd, he didn’t show it. Nestor introduced them, “Erik, this is Edward and Amelia.” Erik said, “Welcome to the White Hart,” as if he were required to welcome them, but didn’t really mean it. Edward and Amelia said politely, “Nice to meet you, sir, “ but got no response. Amelia wondered if Erik was rude, deaf or just extremely dull.
Nestor put his arms on the bar and leaned closer to Erik. “You may have noticed they aren’t from around here?” Erik glanced at the children, but didn’t make eye contact with them. “I hadn’t noticed, but that seems about right.” Amelia thought this was going nowhere fast, and hoped the council Nestor mentioned was more helpful than this surly bartender. As usual, Edward was making a mental catalogue of all the interesting things in the room. He was about to point out a bearskin rug hanging over the stone hearth to Amelia when a young man carrying a large wicker basket came through the open doorway behind the bar. He was tall and fair, and when he saw the two guards, his blue eyes opened wide. “Nestor! Ralph!” the boy said excitedly, setting his basket of clean dishes down on the bar with a jolt. “Mind the plates!” Erik growled. “Sorry!” the boy said, but kept grinning. Amelia couldn’t help smiling herself, and when the boy noticed her, he quickly looked away.
“Hello, Torvald!” Nestor said warmly. Even Ralph grinned and winked at the boy. Torvald tapped a small blue pendant around his neck out of nervous habit. He looked at Amelia again and then Edward with obvious curiosity “Who are your friends? I’m sure I haven’t seen them around here before!” Meanwhile, Erik frowned and started putting the stoneware plates from the basket under the bar.
“That’s ‘cause they ain’t from around here, Torvald,” Ralph said. Then, as though just recalling it, he added, “In fact, we don’t know where they’re from.” Nestor, Ralph and Torvald turned to Edward and Amelia with expectant faces. Erik kept putting away dishes, rather noisily, Edward thought. Brother and sister looked at each other. This was going to be complicated, no matter how they answered. “We’re from Kirksville,” Edward said — it sounded like an apology. The Westerings, except Erik, all looked at each other, shaking their heads. “Never heard of it.” The three turned to Erik hopefully. It seemed the locals were all half-expecting Erik would know all about their hometown, though the Lockhearts couldn’t understand why. At least this time, Erik offered something other than a grunt or a growl. “Is that north of here, in the hill country?”
“Well, no,” Amelia replied. “At least, I don’t think so.”
The Westerings all looked confused, and Ralph’s red eyebrows knit together. “How can you not know where you’re from?” he said skeptically.
“We know where we’re from,” Edward offered, “We just don’t know where it is in relation to here, in Westering.” Or when, for that matter, Edward thought. He looked very hopeful that this explained it perfectly. The looks Edward got from the Westerings said it did not.
“Like we said,” Amelia interjected, “We woke up in the forest, but we don’t know how we got there.”
“But we think Kirksville is very far away,” Edward went on. “Because it’s very different from here.”
“Yes,” Amelia agreed. “For example, we don’t have vampires in Kirksville.”
“Well, then, I’d love to visit sometime,” Ralph said with a chuckle.
“Do all the girls there look like you?” Torvald asked suddenly, looking at Amelia. “I’ve never seen a girl with such short hair, or one wearing breeches before.”
“Oh,” Amelia looked down, feeling a little sheepish. “Yes, well, it’s common where we’re from,” she said defensively, holding her head up again. Torvald blushed as he realized he had embarrassed Amelia. “Oh, no — you look very nice, “ he stammered, his eyes darting as if the right answer were written on the wall somewhere. “I mean, all of your clothes look fine,” Torvald’s gaze now stopped on Edward as the safest choice, “On both of you.” Amelia smiled and let Torvald off the hook. She thought she even caught a glimmer of a smile on Erik’s face as he watched Torvald’s frantic backpedaling. Erik said nothing, however, and soon his usual blank expression returned. Amelia supposed that someone who had lived as hard as Erik would need to be stoic. The White Hart’s windows were small and the lamps were burning low, but even with the poor light Amelia could see the many pale scars, some of them several inches long, that criss-crossed Erik’s arms, all the way up to the short sleeves of his plain, heavy cotton shirt. It was also obvious to Amelia — if the physical resemblance and the names didn’t give it away — that Erik was Torvald’s father. Amelia understood social situations and recalled personal details easily. Edward probably didn’t know if their mother had pierced ears, or their dad’s favorite ice cream flavor. On the other hand, Edward’s retention of everything he read — not just books, but street signs, menus and hymnals — was nearly perfect. Whenever Amelia toiled over a book report or took a test, she wished she could trade a little of her confidence for some of Edward’s memory.
While Torvald pretended to be very interested in something under the bar, Nestor cleared his throat and tried to get the conversation back on track. “More importantly, perhaps — how did you come to be in the forest? You said you were lost there?”
“We were lost, all right, but neither of us remember how we got there in the first place,” Amelia said. “Last night we were home, with our mother, and we went to sleep in our own beds.” Amelia looked at Edward, “Then, we woke up in those woods, under a big tree.”
“It was a really large cedar,” Edward added, helpfully, or so he thought. “There were lots of other evergreens around — it was really dark, and really quiet.” Edward shuddered a little thinking about the awful sound that broke the stillness.
Nestor nodded. “I’ve been in that part of the forest,” he said, “But that was before. No one goes there now. The hunters and the woodcutters stay close to the road you followed into town.” Ralph scoffed, “The ones that want to stay alive, that is.” Nestor gave his companion a dark look, and Ralph shrugged, as if he were only stating the obvious. Nestor continued, “What could cause you not to remember what happened?” The children shook their heads. Torvald had been listening quietly, and in the brief lull, he asked, “So how did you find your way out of the woods?” The Lockhearts hesitated — unusual clothes and glasses were one thing, but a call from their mother on a cell phone? Amelia hesitated, and was about to go with We just got lucky, when Edward chimed in.
“My sister doesn’t like to talk about it,” he said, putting his hand on her arm, “But sometimes, she can communicate with our mother over great distances.” The Westerlings’ eyes grew wide at that, even Erik stopped wiping the bar and raised one eyebrow. Amelia tried to kick Edward’s leg, but he dodged her boot and went on in a low voice. “They have a special bond.” He turned to Amelia, “Don’t you, Em?” She didn’t know how he was keeping a straight face, but now she had to play along. “Yes, I suppose we do.”
“So, your mother told you how to find the path out of the woods?” Ralph said, looking gobsmacked. Amelia nodded, “It’s not like I hear her talking to me or anything,” Amelia tried to make this story sound less crazy. “I had a dream, just before I woke up — she warned me that we should get out of the woods as fast as we could, and she told me how to find the path,” She turned to Edward and gave him a threatening look, “And she asked me to keep my little brother out of trouble.”
“Ah — a dream,” Ralph said, nodding, “My granny used to have dreams about things, sometimes months before they happened. She dreamed her youngest daughter was having a boy before Mum even knew she was carrying me,” Ralph said proudly. Nestor and Torvald seemed to accept Amelia’s explanation, as well. Then Nestor frowned and said, “But how did your mother know how to lead you out of the forest?”
“We don’t know, Nestor. She’s certainly never been there.” Nestor tugged at his beard. “You are sure?” Amelia glanced at her brother. “We’re pretty sure,” they both said. “Well, however it happened,” Ralph said in his matter-of-fact way, “You should be grateful, ‘cause it got you out of those woods alive.” Everyone agreed, and Amelia had a sudden fear that her phone, which was still in her front pocket, would somehow ring and make this situation even more confusing. Amelia felt for the mute button and toggled it without taking the phone out.
Erik looked at the entrance to the tavern, then at Nestor and Ralph. “Where are Anna and Solomon?” He growled. “I assume you sent for the council?”
Nestor nodded, “Yes, I did. I wonder what’s keeping them.” Erik shook his head. “Now we’ll have to go over all this again when they get here.”
Hearing them talk about time made Edward miss his pocketwatch again. He wanted to mention the shapeshifter, but Erik didn’t seem in the mood to discuss new topics. Edward was mulling it over, anyway, when the boy that Nestor had sent after the members of the council appeared at the door, breathing hard. Every head in the room turned to look at him.
“Max!” Nestor moved to the entrance, where the boy stood panting and sweating. “What is it?”
“Sorry, Nestor,” the boy gasped. Nestor patted Max on his back. “Take deep breaths,” Nestor said calmly. Erik and Torvald came out from behind the bar, and stood with Ralph, Edward and Amelia by the entrance. Max was wreathed in green-hued summer light against the dark interior of the tavern.
“I found Anna and Solomon with the mayor, and I was bringing them here,” Max said, looking at Nestor, “Then Henry, from the Watch, came running after us and said there was a stir up at the North gate.”
“What kind of stir, Max?” Nestor said gently. Max shook his head, “Henry didn’t say.”
“And why didn’t he sound the alarm if it was that important?” Ralph said indignantly. There were large bells at the North and South gates in case of emergencies.
“All Henry said was that Cyrus was at the gate, and he had something in his wagon that the council, and Erik, should see.” Max took a deep breath, then went on. “We were still closer to the North gate than to the Hart, so Anna and Solomon went with Henry and sent me back here to tell you.” Nestor patted the boy on the shoulder. “Thank you, Max.” Torvald poured water in a stoneware mug, and Erik passed it down the bar to the boy, who downed it gratefully. Erik drummed his fingers on the bar, and everyone turned to look at him. “Cyrus doesn’t make a fuss over nothing. Last year, when lightning hit his barn and started a fire, he told me, It was a bit of bother. We’d better go see.”
“I think it would be wise for Ralph and I to get back to the South gate, in case there is something going on.” Nestor looked at Ralph, who nodded, but seemed disappointed at missing out on the disturbance at the North gate. “I left Isaac on the Watch, and he’s capable, but he has his own work to attend to.”
“Right you are, Nestor, and so do I,” Erik gestured to the doorway, as if ushering them all out. “So let’s see what this is about.” He turned back to Torvald, who was waiting eagerly. “Not you, Torvald,” Erik said firmly. Nestor and Ralph kept walking. The Lockhearts were close behind them, and Amelia looked back to see Torvald’s crushed expression. Torvald’s build was more slender than Erik’s, and his features were more rounded. Amelia guessed Torvald looked more like his mother. In a word, he was cute. Maybe even cuter than Jeremy Buckner, though her friends Kat and Lizzie would demand proof. Amelia thought about the camera on her phone. Changelings were obviously bad, but Amelia wasn’t sure a magic picture-making machine wouldn’t also get her and Edward locked up or chased back to the woods.
“But I want to come with you!” Erik turned to blocking his son from the exit. “You have to say at here. We have customers.” Erik glanced toward the men drinking, and now whispering at the table.
“Father, please,” Torvald’s voice dropped as he pleaded. Erik sighed. “Where’s Collie?”
Torvald looked hopeful. “I don’t know — in the cellar, I suppose?”
“You suppose?” Erik shook his head. “We don’t have time to hunt for him. Stay here — I’ll be back soon.” Torvald seemed to deflate as Erik turned to go. Then, his father reached out and punched his son’s shoulder playfully. “It’s probably a dead vampire, or a two-headed calf, or some such like,” he said with a wink. “I’ll be back soon.” He rushed out to catch the others. Torvald was always surprised how fast his father could move when he wanted to. The boy picked up a damp cloth from the bar and twisted it into a knot. “I’ve never seen a two-headed calf,” he muttered. Torvald looked up at the customers.”Going down to the cellar, so help yourselves!”
Even though Donny, Sam, and the other men were regulars, Torvald knew his father wouldn’t find this amusing. It wasn’t that Erik didn’t trust his patrons, but that Torvald was breaking one of his father’s big rules — Stay at your post. Torvald wished his father would liven up his lessons about duty and responsibility with some stories of his time in the King’s Rangers. However, Erik almost never mentioned his military service, or what he and Collie did after Erik was out of the Rangers. Collie, on the other hand, was a great storyteller. Mostly, it was the old stories about the Three Lords, the Migrations, and the Wizard Wars, and sometimes he’d mix in what he said were just tales, but Torvald suspected were really things Collie had done himself. But Collie never talked about the past he shared with Erik. Sometimes, when Torvald’s father wasn’t around and Collie had a cup and a pipe, he’d let something slip about the time he and Erik were trapped in the dwarf mines, or how they sailed all the way to the Seawall. When he realized what he’d said, Collie always swore Torvald to secrecy. The boy was certain that Erik had made his old friend promise not to discuss what his father referred to as “bygones.”
Torvald put the damp rag in a stoneware pot of clean water under the bar and went to look for Collie. Maybe he was just down in the cellar, checking his kegs and having a taste. The hard cider he made for The White Hart was the best in town, after all. Or maybe he was making ghostly warriors or dragons out of pipe smoke. It might not be as exciting as whatever was going on at the North gate, but it was sure to be more interesting than pouring ale.