The Hovel (short story)
Title: The Hovel
Author: player of Charna Ja'Varrel'Kav
Chill air reddened the nose of the small child as she crawled up the final rung of the ladder into the quiet attic with her tiny votive. She made her way across the creaking floorboards to the chest at the top of her sleeping pallet and positioned the candle in a tiny silver disk that rested there for just such a purpose. Placing her hands upon her hips, she surveyed the room that she shared with her brothers, all of whom were currently away from home, with a seriousness that would have made them laugh.
The air swooped into the room from the whole in the yellow roof thatching, and the shiver that gripped her tiny frame made her draw her arms up around her. She glanced at the hole in the ceiling, and then back down at her sleeping pallets.
"Puppy," She said to the floppy-eared linen dog that rested upon her tiny, lumpy pillow. "My brotha's willnae mind if'n I borrow, huh?"
She tilted her head, her eyes glint with the innocent mischief that children are born with, and then pranced around the small room collecting blankets, quilts and coverlets from her brother's beds. She giggled as she went, but tried to stiffly it with her tiny hand.
After the blankets were stacked in a hap hazardous mess, she carefully blew out the candle and shuffled into the threadbare bundle. She had trouble at first, her thin nightgown kept getting trapped in the various folds and she tried desperately to keep it down around her belly, but eventually she settled into the warm pile.
Normally, on the truly cold nights, she'd weasel into one of her older brother's beds and share the warmth with one of them. However, tonight she was alone in the quiet attic; alone in the quiet hovel with her mother.
Moonlight slanted across the room, the silvery sheen trickling in through the same hole in the ceiling that the chill winds whistled through. She lifted her eyes to that light, her lips quirked in light smile. She watched, as she always did, as the light floated through the dusty air of the attic and giggled when it seemed to swirl in a playful dance across the tiny pile of trinkets that her brothers always seemed to pick up and gather for her when they were away on their odd trips.
She was the youngest of the lot, barely five, and they would always promise her that one day they'd take her away from the hovel. One day, they told her, she would travel the world and see all of the places there were to see.
The moonlight cast shadows upon her patchwork quit and she pretended that they were peaks and valleys, and that her little toy soldiers were marching across the coverlets to come to take her to see her brothers.
Her sleepy smile began to fade, her eyes fluttered closed, and soon she was asleep.
From far below, in the common room, the sound of her mother's laughter mingled with the sound of a stranger's.
From somewhere outside the house the sound of silvery laughter echoed, it traveled up the sides of the hovel and across the snow-covered yellow thatching. Lingering for a moment only, it trickled into the hole in the thatching and swirled across the fitfully sleeping child. Instantly, she stilled and her breath came in regular streams of fine mist that filled the tiny attic room. The laughter was for the child only, its gentle touch drowning out the sounds that haunted her sleep. Drowning out the sounds of her mother and the man she entertained.
Clouds drifted across the night sky bearing snow upon the woods and the hovel cradled within them. As they passed, they blocked the light of the triple moons that shown down through the yellow thatching of the tiny structure. For long moments the night was still and calm as the clouds placed a fresh sheet of snow upon the ground. The new snow clung to the old, and added an additional layer of insulation to the timeworn roof.
As the snow drifted through the hole above her bed, the child's steamy breath would consume it. This process went on for several moments, never disturbing the child's slumber. She rested peacefully in her cocoon of stolen blankets, her floppy puppy toy cradled against the curve of her pale face.
"Hush little baby don't say a word."
The nursery rhyme broke the peaceful silence of the small attic, the normally soothing sound of the lullaby twisted by the tormented throat that it issued from. As the sound reached her ears, the child began to stir.
"Mamma's gonna buy you a mockingbird."
The child's eyes flew wide, her already pale face turning paler as she tried to find the source of the eerie singing. She felt a chill that had nothing to do with the cold winter's night flood her limbs and wrap her in a kind of paralysis. Rapidly blinking the sleep from her eyes, the child willed her throat to cry out for help, but nothing would come.
The singer paused, and in that pause the child suddenly knew who the source was. A single tear slid down her cheek into the pillow as the knowledge began to free her limbs of their paralysis. Carefully, so as not to disturb the silence of the singer, and secretly hoping that they had changed their mind, she began to turn on her side.
An abrupt shifting of the shadows near the head of her bed caused her to freeze again, and a warm mist began to fill air above her face. Strands of silken tresses, no thicker then a spider's webbing trickled across her face and she held her breath.
"That mockingbird don't sing."
Directly above her, the singer ended the song upon a ragged sob and a flurry of motion brought a fist into the child's pillow where her head had been seconds before. The rhyme was left unfinished and motion erupted throughout the room. The child struggled from her blankets; her tiny limbs a flurry of trapped motion, while her attacker flailed in an attempt to find her in the pile.
She was struck upon the temple once, the blow causing her to still as spots flooded her vision. Her attack was maniacal in her attempts to get to the child, and never noticed in the dark that the child had stilled. The attacker screamed, and raved. She flung pillows and blankets alike across the small attic room. When she came across the small pile of wooden toys she began to fling them across the room. Some of the precious pieces flew into the child, down the ladder, or through the thatching of the roof. In the fresh holes made by the thrown pieces, the snow began to filter into the room.
Bruised from her struggles to be released from her sleeping pallet, the child struggled to shake off the blow to her head and avoid the painful stings of her beloved trinkets being thrown at her. Tears stained her cheeks as she crawled towards the ladder; her only means of escape from the horror that was trying to kill her. She bit into her lip to stifle the sobs as she found purchase upon the first rung.
Out of toys and trinkets to throw, the assailant struggled across the blankets, quilts, and coverlets that lay scattered about the floor. She surged forward, her screams echoing through the attic, and throw herself at the ladder. Her hands curled in the long stands of the child's hair and she yanked viciously hard upon the hair to prevent the child from escaping.
The sudden yank caused the child to cry out, her head snapping back from the force of the crazed woman's grip. She lost her balance and her chin slammed into the rung causing her to bite her tongue. As the coppery taste of blood began to chook her, the attacker yanked again, and was rewarded with a fist full of the child's long silken tresses.
Released for the moment from her attack, the child scrambled in the dark down the ladder. Her nightdress caught on a nail, and she fell the last few rungs to the ground; her breath exploding from her in a rush of air and blood. Stunned, she stared blindly up into the dark hole the ladder disappeared into where the pounding and stomping of her attacking spoke of pursuit.
A blast of cold wind swept her hair back from her face, her tears freezing in the stinging cold. Torchlight flooded the room, and she lifted her face towards the wide flung door.
Framed in the doorway was her brother, Ghrym. She scrambled to her feet, and ran to his side. Great wracking sobs coursed through her tiny frame as she clung to his leg. His enormous hand awkwardly patted her, but his eyes were for the ladder where their mother was scrambling down in a frothing rage.
Never lifting his eyes from their mother, Ghrym knelt next to the battered little girl and whispered to her.
"Run, Charna." He quietly said, "Run and no matter what you hear, never look back."
Still sobbing the child lifted her eyes to her brother's face, her gaze lingering for a moment upon the eight-pointed star that hung from his neck.
"I wont let this happen to you anymore, Charna, never again. Now run."
He said nothing more at that moment because their mother was down the steps and racing towards them. Her hands were curled into talons, and her eyes were wild and nearly white from her madness.
Ghrym placed his body between Charna's and Siofra's, and told the child again to run. Without looking back she headed barefoot into the snow. She ran as fast as her bruised legs would carry her. Bushes and trees clung to her nightdress, shredding it as she went, but she never paused.
Her flight took her away from the hovel, away from the screams that seemed to echo back to her ears. The shrill cries were horrifying, almost as frightening as what she had escaped. She brought her hands to her ears, and tried to block out the sound, but found it difficult to keep her balance. After the third fall into the snow, she had to give up the effort and listened to the sound of her mother as it set the woods on fire.
When her lungs began to burn, she started to slow but didn't turn back to look and never would. She seemed a ghost in the woods of Talador, her tiny nightdress falling in rags about her to be lifted by the stinging wind. Her feet had gone from red to blue, and then crimson tinged when she had walked them into thin ribbons of flesh.
Her slowed walk became a stumble, her eyes upon the distance. Once she thought she heard men, but fearful that they might be some of the same men that her mother took to bed she moved away from them and deeper into the woods. She didn't know where to go, but she would not go back to the hovel, not return to the nightmare.
When the sound of her mother's screams died away, she stumbled and fell down a small incline. She scraped her shoulder and twisted her leg. She tried to stand, but the pain in her leg was too much for her in her tired state, and so she curled up on her side into a tight ball.
That was how Ghrym found her, shivering and blue from the cold. He stripped his cloak from shoulders and wrapped it around her. With a care that seemed at odds to the strange crimson streaks that dripped from his fingers and face, he lifted the child into his arms and rubbed warmth into her.
"Its okay, Charna," he whispered to her. "She can't hurt you anymore. She can't hurt any of us anymore."
Exhausted from her fright and the subsequent flight, Charna rested her head upon her brother's shoulders. She never lifted her eyes to the hovel, never returned to the tiny attic that she'd shared with her brothers, never slept in a pallet filled with her brother's blankets, never wore her hair long enough to be grabbed, and never fell victim to her mother's savage madness again.