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Whiteout (edited 27/03/17) by Hannah Dunn

© Hannah Dunn

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Whiteout
Part One: Origins

I

The two shadows stole quietly through the deserted footpaths. Daybreak was only an hour away so they had to be quick. Rhi grabbed behind him for his sister’s hand and guided her between the huts and pastures that made up their small village. It was a route that he knew so well the lack of light didn’t matter, but she stumbled and tripped over unexpected fences and buckets and more than once they froze, afraid that some light-sleeping villager would hear their progress. But no one stirred; even the sheep snored gently in their flocks.

Creeping slowly now, the two children soon reached the open fields. With no large structures to break the inky darkness it was easy to get lost and Rhi paused for a minute to get his bearings, listening for the sound of the wind rustling through the trees. By his side, Calla fidgeted. The morning breeze blew her hair over her face and she flicked it away with frozen fingers. She rubbed her hands together, trying to restore feeling, and gave an exaggerated and impatient shiver.

“This had better be worth it, Rhi,” she teased him. “If the cold burns my fingers, I’m making you do all my chores.”

“Trust me, little sister: would I drag you out in the night for anything less than the spectacular? Believe me, after you see what I
have to show you, you’ll be so amazed I’ll have you offering to clean out the sheep for a week!”

She screwed up her face in disgust, but the excitement in her eyes grew.

“This way,” signalled Rhi, and he took her hand. “Stay close, I don’t want to lose you.”

Even in the darkness, the differences between the two of them were stark: anyone who didn’t know they were related would hardly have believed it. Her long auburn hair flowed straight, like a russet waterfall around her slender shoulders; his thick, dark curls bounced around his head in a tangled halo. Her eyes were the deepest blue, whereas his were such a light grey they almost seemed white. And yet they were so alike in spirit they might have been carved from the same stone. Two curious adventurers, limited only by the boundaries of their world.

At the edge of the field was a low stone wall. Running his free hand along its ragged, mossy top, Rhi led them away from the village. The darkness was beginning to lift and a faint silvery glow dashed the horizon behind them. It took Calla a few minutes to realise where they were headed and she pulled back sharply.

“What’s the matter?” Rhi asked, glancing over his shoulder. He followed her gaze and saw what had caused her trepidation.

“Don’t worry, we’re not going close enough to get hurt. But we have to go a bit nearer - you’re not scared, are you?”

His sister shook her head and set her jaw.
“No... it’s just, you know, we’ve all heard the stories.”

Rhi knew. The Elders loved to tell the children stories about the mist. How it was full of terrible creatures that would try and drag you into its clutches, and if you breathed it in you would forget who you were. The worst one was how it would melt the skin from your bones if you let it touch you. And even though they were fairy tales, most people grew up retaining feelings of unease around it. And so they stayed well away. After all, nobody wanted to find out if one of the stories was based in truth.

They kept moving. After a few more minutes Rhi tapped Calla’s shoulder and pointed towards the mist. Anyone seeing it for the first time could be mistaken for thinking they were looking at a solid wall. In the near darkness it seemed to glow, as if it had absorbed all the light from the day. Rising above them, the mist blended seamlessly into the sky; there appeared to be no end to its reach.
Calla squinted in the half-light and tried to follow his finger’s aim. It took a few seconds, but then she saw it: a single tree rising out of the ground as if standing defiantly against an attacker. Its thick trunk showed it had been making its defence for centuries. Sprawling branches twisted outwards, reaching towards the white barrier. At the top, she could just make out a narrow platform nestled between the branches.

“You want me to climb that?”

“Uh huh. I’ll race you!”

The branches were strong and held their weight easily. Rhi went ahead, scouting the best path. Once his foot slipped, breaking through a rotten bough and sending it bouncing to the ground below, but he caught himself and gestured to Calla to take a different route. He had made this climb several times before, usually in the low light of dawn. Dragging the planks up to make the platform had been challenging, but the resulting perch had made it all worthwhile. He reached out, grabbed its solid edge and swung himself up. There was just enough room for two people to sit - if they didn’t mind dangling their legs from its sides - although this was the first time Rhi had brought a companion. A few minutes later, his sister joined him, out of breath and sporting several bumps and scrapes. She flopped down onto the bare boards where Rhi was already sitting, calmly staring out across the misted fields.

“Woah!” Calla’s jaw dropped in amazement.

Rhi turned to her and grinned. “I told you it was worth it. And just wait, in a minute it’s going to get even better.”

Ahead of them lay a sea of bubbling, endless white. It rolled out across the land like a thick layer of wool. Nothing broke the surface. Above them, a thinner veil shrouded the night sky, obscuring the Heavens…or hiding the village from their view. The stillness was matched by the silence and Calla hardly dared to breathe in case she disturbed the quiet.

“It’s like the whole world is gone, and we’re the only two people left.”

The slender glow over the horizon was spreading now, illuminating the hazy canopy above them. Behind its downy robe, the sun burst from its nightly slumber and suddenly everything was glowing with a golden splendour. Rhi had to shade his eyes against the glare and he heard Calla take a sharp breath in awe. Looking back over his shoulder he could just make out the wooden buildings that made up their entire world. The shadows were fast withdrawing and he knew soon everyone would be busy preparing for the new day. He straightened up and stretched his arms above his head.

“Time to go back: we want to get home before we’re missed.”

Finding their way was quicker in the growing light. As they hurried across the field, Rhi could see lamps beginning to flicker in the nearest houses. When they reached the end of the wall, Calla paused briefly and looked back at the mist, no longer glowing golden but restored to its unearthly silver.

“It looked so beautiful - how can they say it’s so dangerous?”

II

The village itself was made of rows of wooden houses, all of a similar size and style, and built in a roughly circular shape around a central building known as the Temple. It wasn’t much larger than the outer huts, but it carried significantly more importance within the community. At its centre was a walled courtyard filled with roughly carved wooden statues representing many different gods. It was here that the people whispered their prayers and paid their tributes. At this time of year most were for a good harvest, so the villagers turned their attention to the biggest statue, set against the north wall of the courtyard. The God of Plenty was depicted as a muscular youth; under one arm he held a sheaf of wheat, over the other shoulder was slung a slaughtered lamb. Rampant vines trailed over the wall behind him and the last few blue flowers of the season peeked among their dark green leaves. The statue itself stood on top of a stone pedestal, raising it higher than any other. Around this pedestal gifts and tributes had started to gather; carefully plaited loaves of bread, a basket of eggs, whittled figurines and a jug of milk were the current offerings. The people who had placed them there, full of hope and expectation, would return the next day; if their tribute was gone, they would know their prayers had been accepted and a fruitful harvest was assured. However, if it remained, they knew the gods were displeased and they would have to return with something bigger and offer more fervent pleas for forgiveness.

Inside the Temple lived the Elders; wise and respected men who were charged with protecting the life of the village and making decisions which would benefit its residents. It was they who arranged marriages and presided over every birth and death. They were the ones who assigned tasks and responsibilities to each family and decided what living their children should make. The previous year, Rhi had been told it was his destiny to follow in his father’s footsteps on their small farm. He had accepted it graciously, but a large part of him was disappointed: he knew in his heart he was meant for something more.

After the ceremony had finished, one of the Elders gestured for Rhi to come over. He confided that he felt differently to the others but had been unable to convince them to change their decision. He urged Rhi to come and visit him in secret and hinted that he had many things to teach him. Since then, to remedy the boredom of another day alone in the fields, Rhi often took him up on his offer.

The Elder’s room was in the northernmost corner of the Temple. It was built to be identical to all the others: four walls, one window, one door. But once inside you were transported to another world. Exotic scripts and paintings adorned the walls, parchments littered the floors and even the ceiling had drawings on it. When Rhi appeared at the window, the old man was sitting on the bed in the corner putting the finishing touches to a sketch he had made on a scrappy page, probably torn from one of those already hanging. He looked up and smiled.

“Right on time again, young man.” His voice was deep and croaky and had a soothing quality to it that made him an enthralling story-teller. Rhi checked no one was watching and swung a long, lean leg over the ledge. With a quick jump he was inside and he folded himself neatly to fit on the end of the bed.

“What have you drawn this time, Baba?” he asked, craning his neck to try and catch a glimpse.

Baba had had another name once, but it was so long since anyone had used it he had forgotten what it was. The oldest member of the village, although no one was quite sure how old exactly, he was referred to affectionately by the same name the children called their grandfathers. With creaking hands he turned the page around so Rhi could see the drawing. There, sketched in charcoal, was an animal unlike anything Rhi had seen before. It had long pointed ears and sat up on its hind legs. A small, round tail sprouted from its haunches and made it seem rather comical. Rhi studied it carefully, seriously, and then gave it a lopsided grin.

"Another one of your fantasy creatures? What’s this one called then?”

Baba was used to the scepticism and he kindly shook his head. They had had versions of this conversation many times before, and he knew it would take more than a few drawings to convince Rhi of his seriousness.

“They are not fantasy, young one. Before the mists came, there were many such creatures in the world, and when the mists go, there shall be once again. This one was called rabbit.” He held his hands apart a small distance above his lap. “It was about this big and, if I remember correctly, rather delicious.” He grinned a toothless grin.

Rhi was very fond of Baba - they were closer than most family members -but he never quite believed the old man’s claims. Everyone in the village knew the mist had descended centuries before as a lasting punishment for people’s selfishness. While many of the adults clung in vain to faint hopes that one day they would be forgiven and allowed to walk in the wider world once again, very few seriously believed they would be alive to see it. Even fewer thought anyone amongst them already had. But because Baba was thought of so affectionately, people tended to smile at his stories, politely nod their heads and change the subject. More than most, Rhi wanted to believe him. His adventurer’s spirit longed to find out if there was a wider world to be explored. But as much as he enjoyed Baba’s tales, they went against everything he and the rest of the villagers had been taught.

“It’s a shame we don’t have any then, I could do with a change from lamb.”

Baba smiled. “I have a gift for you. Here, help me up.”

He stretched out his arms and Rhi took his hands. He was surprised how delicate they felt: through the skin he could feel every joint and curve of the fragile bones. He held firm as the old man pulled himself up with a groan. He looked rather unsteady on his feet, as if it had been a while since he was last standing. Rhi was unsure whether he was supposed to let go or not - he didn’t know how much he was being used for support – and he was rather relieved when Baba reached towards the shelf and lifted down a battered wooden cane. He shifted his weight onto it and shuffled towards the desk by the door. Once there he opened a drawer and reached inside.

“We’ve spent so much time together, you and I, talking about what once was. I hope you will be the one to discover if it can be again.

He turned around slowly and Rhi saw he was clutching a heavy, leather-bound volume to his chest. It took both hands for him to hold it up and the walking stick clattered to the floor. Rhi started forward, ready to catch the old man as he fell, but Baba leaned backwards against the desk and seemed stable. He held out the book with shaking arms and Rhi took it quickly.

“In there is everything we ever talked about. I have no more stories left to tell. Use them wisely young one.”

Rhi flicked through the crackling parchment. Scores of drawings of animals, fruits and landscapes filled its leaves. His eyes were drawn to the back page. It showed a detailed landscape he had never seen before. Inky rivers wound through dark forests, raging seas batted against white cliffs and in the centre towered a rocky mountain. In the bottom corner Baba had drawn a small house and a group of simple figures standing together.

Rhi turned to Baba, who had quietly made his way back to the bed.

“Where is this?” he asked, his curiosity aroused. Baba raised a frail hand to the window and pointed.

“Out there.” His voice was barely above a whisper now; their brief conversation and his exertions had exhausted him. Baba sighed as he dropped onto the bed and laid his pale head against the pillow. Rhi took a blanket off the shelf and placed it gently over his legs, then he slipped the rabbit drawing into the book and tucked it under his arm. Bidding a silent goodbye, he climbed back out of the window, his head now filled with more questions than answers, and left his friend to sleep.

***

It was dark as Rhi walked home. His path was lit by the light spilling from the few houses he passed. If he had looked through the windows he would have seen families gathered around fires, tucking into dinner, wrapped in wools and furs to further guard against the encroaching cold. At night the temperatures always dropped rapidly, as if the mist was sucking the warmth from the village. Rhi shivered and wrapped his arms tighter around the book and his chest. At least in the village it never took you long to get anywhere.
Checking quickly that no one was around, he tiptoed to the back of the house. At this time of day he didn’t expect anyone to be in the bedroom, but he paused and listened for a while just to be sure. When he was satisfied he wouldn’t be spotted, he leaned through the window, dropped the book onto his bed and pulled a handful of blankets over the top to hide it.

A dark shadow rubbed against his hip and made him jump. He looked down to see two large brown eyes smiling up at him from above a wiry grey muzzle. Tig was his dog, raised from a pup, and his devoted companion. Usually Rhi took her with him to tend the sheep – she had been trained to guide them through the fields and keep any that would stray away from the mist – but today they had been grazing close to home and he hadn’t needed her. It was a lonely job and he was always glad of her company. He gave her ears a gentle squeeze and laughed as she leaped to her full height – easily a foot above his own head – and tried to cover his face in slobbery kisses. With her at his side, he headed back towards the doorway of his home.

III

Rhi and his family had one of the bigger houses in the village, with separate rooms for cooking and sleeping. The main room was roughly square and contained a stone fire pit in its centre. Around the edges were wooden shelves laden with various tools, a few pots and pans and several small statues of the gods. Across the room was the doorway to the bedroom. All six members of the family slept in there; Rhi in one bed, his parents in the other, and the younger children sleeping on stacks of pelts and fleeces on the floor. It was cramped and Rhi often lamented the lack of privacy, but it was better than the situation some of the other village children found themselves in, and at least it was always warm.

When he walked through the front doorway, Rhi’s stomach gave a loud rumble. The air was thick with the scent of lamb stew and he could see it bubbling away over the fire in one of his mother’s heavy black pots. Apart from that, the room was empty. He grabbed himself a bowl and a spoon from a shelf and knelt next to the cauldron, scooping a hefty portion of the broth from within. Tig retreated to the corner; she knew better than to lurk around the food and she would get her supper later.
Rhi closed his eyes and took a deep breath, inhaling the heavy scent. He loved the smell, and the quiet and the darkness seemed to enhance it. Rhi relished the stillness; in that way the life of a shepherd had always suited him. He had never understood the other boys who felt the need to be always moving or shouting.

“You know it doesn’t hurt you to wait for the others.” His mother’s voice, interrupting his peaceful reverie, was more amused than angry. She dropped a freshly baked roll into his lap and ruffled his hair as she walked past, a gesture Rhi had long outgrown, but tolerated. Before he could reply, the room suddenly burst into life. His brothers tumbled through the door, bickering and poking each other like usual. They fell into place next to Rhi and grinned cheekily at him, grabbing their own helpings of stew and bread. Their ruddy faces were streaked with mud and there was straw caught in their dark curls. Rhi guessed they’d been wrestling in the barn again, a suspicion that was confirmed by the weary look on his father’s face.

The conversation flowed around Rhi. He hardly contributed, hoping his family would just assume he was tired. Because of his duties in the fields he was up and out well before the others, so it wasn’t unusual for him to be a little distant in the evenings. Often he would go to bed as soon as supper had finished, leaving his brothers and sister to creep around him when they were finally ready for sleep. It was part of the reason why Rhi had the bed under the window; it was the furthest from the doorway so he wouldn’t be disturbed. It also gave him a way to sneak out without anyone noticing - something he had started to do more and more as he grew towards adulthood.
Rhi finished his stew and gave an exaggerated yawn. He stood up and headed for the door, hoping to get a few hours alone to study Baba’s book. He itched to explore its pages and rediscover the places and creatures Baba had talked about, especially now the belief that they had really existed was growing inside of him. However tonight he was out of luck; his father looked up briefly from his own dinner to explain he would be following soon.

“I promised Gellard I would be over early tomorrow to help with the harvest,” he explained. “He can’t manage so well on his own now. The cold is coming quickly this year, I can feel it.”

Rhi had felt it too; something in the air seemed different. It made him wonder if it was more than a coincidence he was handed this book now, or if Baba had felt the need to prepare him for whatever was coming.

“I’m sure we could use a few more hands,” his father continued, eyeing his other children expectantly. Their faces fell at the thought of an early start and less time to play. When his gaze reached Rhi, his son shook his head.

“If the cold is coming sooner, I need to get to work fixing up the shelter. The winds last year weakened the roof, I’m not sure it will hold out against them again. If I get the flock out early, they’ll have settled enough for me to get to it before it gets dark.”

His father nodded, pleased to see that Rhi was taking his role seriously. Seeing an opportunity to leave before anyone asked him anything else, Rhi slipped away into the darkness of the bedroom. There was a bowl of water on a stand in the corner, illuminated by the silver streak coming through the window. He splashed some on his face and ran his fingers through his damp hair. Taking a mouthful, he swirled the water around his cheeks, washing away the last remnants of lamb and spices, then he climbed onto the bed and pulled the heavy woollen blankets around his shoulders. He slipped the book beneath the frame, making sure it was far enough back that no one would see it. When his father entered the room Rhi kept his eyes shut and lay still, but he had no intention of sleeping. Instead he replayed his visit with Baba over and over again, picking at things that had been said and what it would mean if they were true.

His mind was racing with contradictions and possibilities. Did Baba really remember what the world had looked like before the gods sent the mist? He was older than anyone else by many years, everyone knew that, but for him to still remember the outside…well, that would have to mean the stories exaggerated how long the mist had been around. And if that was true, then why? If the tales were only decades old, instead of centuries, someone must have embellished them on purpose.
It was this last thought which kept Rhi awake long after everyone else had succumbed to sleep. Why would someone want to keep the entire village living in fear of venturing further than a few minutes from home?

***

Three weeks passed since Rhi had been given the book and he studied every drawing held within its yellowing pages. With each day he become more preoccupied with the tales of the outside world, and more determined to be the one to rediscover it. If his family noticed his growing distraction, they didn’t say anything. Only Calla occasionally nudged him back into reality.
It had been three weeks also since he had seen Baba. The old man had taken to his bed and the other Elders had declared he was nearing his time to return to the earth. Twice Rhi had tried to sneak in through the window but each time he had been shooed away by a nursemaid. It seemed that he was being well-attended…or well-guarded. Rhi wished he could tell him he was sorry for not believing him all these years and let him know he had brought a light back into his life. He doubted he would ever get the chance.

The first leaves had fallen, covering the village and its surroundings in a crispy, russet carpet. Rhi could hear it crunching under the feet of the sheep as he sat huddled inside a pile of fleeces beside the glowing embers of his fire. Next to him, Tig snored gently, occasionally giving a quiet whimper as if dreaming of something exciting. They were in the farthest corner of the fields, their backs almost against the wall of mist itself. It was the last area left for grazing before the flock would have to be brought inside and Rhi didn’t think that time could come soon enough: even under the heavy woollen pile he was frozen to the bone. He jammed his fingers underneath his armpits in a final attempt to keep them warm, but it wasn’t working.

Rhi looked to the sky. The final trickles of light were disappearing over the horizon. In the warm months they would have had three or four more hours left; now the sheep had to get their fill much more quickly. He knew if he returned now his father would be disappointed. The sheep were fine in the dark as long as Tig did her job and kept them away from the glowing grey edge of the pasture. But his spirits were low; his passion for the job had waned long ago. All he wanted to do was light a candle and curl up on his bed with Baba’s book. Maybe he would finally have a chance to show Calla what had been occupying so many of his thoughts recently.

It didn’t help that the wind had blown out the fire so much faster than usual. He gave it a hopeful poke with a nearby stick but the charred remains crumpled in a feeble shower of sparks and then the light went out completely. Rhi cursed under his breath; now he would have nothing to light a torch with for the return journey, and he risked slipping or falling on the uneven ground. He’d have to go now, while there was still enough light to see by.

He rose from the pile and started to shake his frozen limbs back to life. Tig lifted her head, watched him dance his peculiar jig, and yawned. She followed his lead and stretched out, first her front legs and then the back, giving them each a little shake as if the feeling had gone from her paws too. She watched as Rhi tightly rolled his bundle of fleeces and secured them with a thick leather shoulder strap so he could carry them home on his back. He packed up his mug and bowl and kicked a layer of dirt over the ashes. Rhi was about to send Tig around the sheep to guide them home when a sudden movement made him jump.

He squinted in the half-light, looking past the dense black, bleating mass and realised he hadn’t been mistaken. A few feet back from the sheep, a small, grey shadow quivered in the grass. As Rhi watched, a small head lifted up and sniffed the air. The animal stretched up onto its hind legs, front paws tucked against its chest. Its small nose twitched in Rhi’s direction and as it turned to look at him, two long, pointed ears raised to their full height on the top of its head. It was exactly how Baba had drawn it.

The rabbit stared at Rhi and he stared back, open-mouthed and amazed. Next to him Tig gave an excited yelp and jumped forward. Rhi shouted at her to stay but it was too late; the rabbit put all four paws to the ground and skittered away, straight into the mist. When it hit the white curtain it simply vanished, as if it had been just a figment of his imagination.

Abandoning all thoughts of returning home, Rhi, with Tig whining apologetically at his side, strode towards the place where the rabbit had disappeared. Tig’s nose fell to the ground and her ears pricked up as she searched for a trace of its scent. She paced around in circles, trying to determine whence the creature had come from and where it had gone. As she tracked its trail to the boundary of the field, Rhi called for her to stop. He joined her as she stood on the threshold of the mist, tongue lolling and chest panting. She looked at him with her big brown eyes as if to say, well, are we going in then?

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