On their way home, the siblings aided an Aurorian who fell in the snow. The Aurorian stayed in the village, but in the middle of the night, a blizzard caved in the Aurorian's house, forcing the Aurorian to ask the siblings for help once again.
On the way home, it started snowing again. Darkness began to fall, with only a few loose dim lanterns about. Not too far from the house, Cruz ran toward it but tripped. He looked up and saw a shadowy figure lying in the snow. Dorothy followed Cruz's scream to find the figure coughing and struggling to get up. After making sure it was an Aurorian, albeit someone unfamiliar, she called for her brother to help the stranger up. They took the Aurorian to a shed storing firewood a few feet away. The Aurorian thanked them in a hoarse voice, slumped against the wall and fell silent. Under the faint light nearby, Dorothy could see the smattering of dry, blond hair peeking out of the Aurorian's hood, swaying to her rhythmic breathing.
It was normal to help out Aurorian strangers, so Dorothy and Cruz quickly forgot about it... Until the next day, when the news of a new resident to the village broke. Out shoveling snow, the siblings noticed the door and windows were shut on the old, dilapidated house next to theirs, with smoke rising from the chimney into the icy blue sky.
Cruz pointed to the tub-sized hole in the roof of that house and asked his sister, "How can anybody live in a house like that?"
Dorothy grabbed him by the collar and yanked him away.
That night, a blizzard hit. The siblings are wrapped inside blankets, sleeping to the sound of howling wind and flying twigs. Suddenly, there was a loud boom, followed by a litany of crashing noises, as if something had collapsed. Cruz shuddered in his dream, while Dorothy was roused wide awake, sitting up and surveying nervously.
Shortly, it was silent again, saved for the low groaning wind through the window crack. Dorothy rubbed her eyes and plopped her head on the pillow again. She woke sometime later to a knocking at her door. She carefully got out of the bed as not to disturb her brother's sleep, tiptoed up to a window with a lantern in hand and checked. A teetering figure stood outside, covered in a thin blanket, the cold wind battering her curly blond hair.
Dorothy recognized her immediately, but she didn't open the door, just holding the lantern and poking her head out. "What happened?"
The blond Aurorian pointed at the old house. "My roof fell in... Would you mind me staying with you for a night?"
Dorothy paused for a long while, looked into the darkness and replied, "I think it's better that you see the elder."
The Aurorian nodded, gripped the blanket on her and turned to leave. Dorothy then realized the blond was walking bare foot in the snow. She gritted her teeth and hesitated, before finally opening the door and calling out to the woman in a subdued tone, "You... can come in."
With help from the elder, the blond newcomer Martha moved in with Dorothy and her younger brother. Over time, the trio built a close relationship with each other.
Dorothy learned the Aurorian's name: Martha, who spent the night by the fireplace, wrapped in her blanket. When the siblings came out in the morning, they saw only half of the old house was still standing. The roof was completely gone, with bricks scattered everywhere.
Martha rummaged through the ruins, first digging out a pair of boots, which she put on after removing the snow and sawdust inside. After putting the boots on, she moved a broken beam aside to uncover a black canvas bag.
"Want one? It's chocolate." Martha took something wrapped in foil out of the bag, but Dorothy stopped Cruz when he reached for it. Martha shrugged, put the chocolate back into the bag, grabbed a vacuum-sealed bread and munched away while snow landed on top of it.
Sitting in the ruins, Martha chewed as she scanned the collapsed dwelling. "I shall repair this house as soon as I can," she swore.
Dorothy nodded and walked off with her brother.
Upon hearing the news, the elder suggested Dorothy should let Martha stay with her for a while, until the house was fixed. Dorothy was resistant to the idea, but too embarrassed to turn it down after the elder slipped her a big hunk of fermented shark.
Martha borrowed a horse from the elder. She could be seen every day moving rocks and lumber from the woods to a stockpile behind the wrecked house. Dorothy hardly ever saw Martha in the morning. Only at noon or nighttime would Martha be in the kitchen cooking or sleeping by the fireplace.
At first, Martha didn't dine with the siblings. She would just sit cross-legged, facing the fireplace and gnaw away at bread, occasionally accompanied by grilled meat and fish soup. Dorothy couldn't remember how it got started; maybe it was Martha who shared fresh rabbit with Dorothy, or Cruz and Martha sitting cross-legged by the fireplace, sharing gummy candy and chocolate. Anyway, they eventually ended up on the same table, enjoying meals together.
Martha loved cooking, and to that end, even figured out how to get salt. After listening to Martha's explanations, Dorothy got the idea of trying it herself.
Martha stopped spending all day in the wood next to the village but on making meals. She didn't like eating cold sharks and canned herrings, that led to more vegetable stews, fish soups, kabobs, and mashed potatoes on the dining table. Dorothy didn't want Martha to cook at first, since Martha is considered a guest, but compared to Dorothy's lack of culinary skills, Cruz obviously enjoyed Martha's cooking more. That compelled Dorothy to help Martha during prep work in the kitchen as much as possible, while secretly committing the recipes to memory.
Martha was not satisfied with just filling up the tummy. Once, she tasted a broth and commented, "This probably needs more salt."
"Salt?" Dorothy pondered for a long while before realizing it's a condiment the size of tiny snow pellets. "That's very hard to get," she said.
Martha nodded thoughtfully at the reply.
Next day, when Dorothy got back from doing chores for the elder, Cruz tugged on her sleeves and guided her into the kitchen, pointing to a small sack, shouting loudly, "Salt!"
Dorothy crouched, dabbed a finger into the fine white grains and tasted it. Saltiness spread across her tongue.
"Where did this come from?"
"Martha brought it back!" Cruz pointed behind Dorothy as Martha approached the kitchen with a leg of boar in hand.
"The salt... Was it expensive?" a hesitant Dorothy asked Martha.
Martha paused before answering, "I didn't buy it."
"Where did you get it then?"
Martha smiled. "The saltwater lake nearby."
Under the siblings' interrogation, Martha revealed how she got the salt: She had tracked her prey to the saltwater lake on a hunt not too long ago. She would get the water and let it freeze on shore, bring the unfrozen brine home, boil it to get the salt, then filter many times to make it edible. Dorothy and Cruz were captivated by the account, bugging Martha even when she was marinating the boar leg.
"How do you know so much, Martha?" Dorothy inquired as she imitated Martha rubbing salt all over the meat.
"It's really not hard," Martha gave a rather vague answer.
Dorothy nodded to herself, thinking it's really not hard to do, either.
Martha made supper for the siblings and from conversing with the younger brother, Cruz, she learned about Dorothy's hang ups. But that's not the point. The point is, it was dark and Dorothy hadn't returned as she should.
It was another normal day. Other than shoveling snow, the elder found a new chore for Dorothy: herding sheep to graze in the grove. As soon as Martha hauled more lumber and rocks back, she went straight into the kitchen to cook dinner. Leaning on the window, Cruz poked his head out, looked over the new ice blocks on the old house, turned and asked Martha, "Are you moving out, Martha?"
"In another week or two, probably." She sliced potatoes into a hanging pot.
Cruz ran into the kitchen, sat next to Martha, face cupped in hand and stared before finally speaking, "But I don't want you to go." Another pause. "But don't let my sister know I said that."
"Why not?" Martha stirred the pot with a ladle.
"Because she said we shouldn't rely on grown ups... Because they would just abandon us at the end."
The ladle swirled and would occasionally clank against the wall.
"Grown ups always got a lot of things to do. Dorothy said one of those would be more important than taking care of us." Cruz dipped his head, allowing the firepit to warm his cheeks. "But Martha would never abandon us, right?"
"What happened..." Martha fought hard to swallow the question she had in mind, before looking around and wondering, "How come Dorothy is not back yet?"
Cruz raised his head and peered out the window. The sky had darkened, with hail battering the house and cold win howling.
The boy started to panic. "Dorothy... Why isn't Dorothy home yet?"
Dorothy had followed Martha's directions to the saltwater lake, but a blizzard kept her from coming home. While seeking shelter, she unfortunately encountered ravenous wolves.
A shuddering Dorothy marched in snow, fighting fierce wind every step of the way. She could barely see what was in front of her, and started to regret every decision she made today. After herding the sheep back to town, she should have went home and curl up next to the fireplace. She should have realized the detour to the lake would be treacherous halfway through and turn back. Even after getting to the lake, she should have checked the weather, not waiting for the water to freeze... The blizzard roared all about. Worse still, it was getting dark. Dorothy looked around and prepared herself for the worst: Spending the night out here in the snowy wild.
At that thought, she groped her way through the boulders, searching for a crevice to take shelter in. Fortunately, she found one, just big enough for her to squeeze into. She sighed in relief as she rested her head on the slab behind her.
She couldn't help but be concerned for Cruz. Will he panic and cry? Maybe even brave the storm to beg the elder to send a search party for her? Will the elder even send one given the adverse condition? Will Martha be worried because she isn't home? Or just sit by and stare into the fireplace?
Dorothy could read Cruz's mind. He wants her to approve Martha and keep her as family, not merely a neighbor staying temporarily. But they don't even know where Martha came from. Her past is a blank slate that she never divulged.
Dorothy recalled how Martha sat before the fireplace: Her head lowered, blond hair dangling next to her cheeks, peacefully, tired, even worn. Dorothy saw Martha smile only at the dining table, a quick relief from leaving the past behind for a fleeting moment. Dorothy believed she should not trust such a person, that Martha would not make a good "family". She came here bearing secrets, and that would be the way she leaves. Dorothy had already enough of the losses...
Fortunately, Martha's house is almost fixed.
Dorothy finally realized the blizzard seemed to have died down. She massaged her numb legs, left the crevice and tried her best to plot a path in the dark. Suddenly, she heard faint noises. She felt her blood freeze when she saw green glows slowly converging on her.
In the dying wind, she could hear them breathing.
They couldn't be anything else but wolves.
Dorothy used Luminatics to repel their attack, but the pack was more than she could handle. Just when it looked bleak, someone froze the rabid wolves and saved her from danger.
Another wolf rammed into the whirling snow in front of Dorothy. She lost track of many wolves she's blocked with Luminatics.
Following her parents' death, she haphazardly discovered she could solidify air. It was just a transparent cube the size of a palm that vanished in a dozen seconds at first. But then the size expanded, as did duration. At her best, she could produce a barrier up to half of a gate in size for two minutes.
But in the dark night, she could hardly perform her best. The lunging wolves got closer and closer. She could even smell their rancid drools. Suddenly, she tripped. She looked down and saw a wolf clamping down on a pant leg, trying to drag her backward. She yelled and struck the wolf in the head with an air brick. The wolf howled in pain, yet still ripped a good chuck of the pant leg off, as its fellows prowled and growled in unison.
"Smack!" She gritted her teeth, cold sweat dripping, as she barely evaded another attack.
She knew she couldn't keep this up. Fear has nearly paralyzed her, and she was slowing down with the barrier. It was as if a clear voice was speaking in her ears: You can't hold them off. The night is still young. It's impossible.
The chill gnawed her exposed calf like a knife, but it was a long while before Dorothy realized she had been shivering the whole time. Once dread set in, it opened the floodgate for despair.
The air wall dissipated in the blizzard. She was not able to reform it. Not far from her, the green glows of the wolves' eyes still flashed malice.
A wolf charged. Dorothy raised her arms to cover her face.
Pain did not come as anticipated, though. Dorothy heard the cackling of something flash-freezing. She lowered her arms to see the lunging wolf suspended midair in a comical pose. Next second, a flash zoomed by, lifting the alpha wolf up and roughly depositing it in the snow. The wolf didn't splatter blood only because it was all frozen within. Dorothy wanted to scream but couldn't find the strength.
Someone booted the wolf aside, turned and interposed before Dorothy. The hood slipped back for flocks of flowing blond hair to caress her face. Her savior was holding a double-bladed dagger that gave off a ruthless sheen in the cold night.
Dorothy felt something warm on her face. She realized quick enough it was tears.
The new year was here in Northland. Martha and the Dorothy siblings spent it together. The bond grew stronger in the festivity of the village gathering.
That dreadful night was a long time ago. Dorothy stopped thinking about how Martha carried her back to the village, or the sled dogs that sniffed at her feet, the elder's long sigh of relief, and even less about the wailing Cruz. Now, she just wanted to finish sculpting the ice lantern so she can put it in the corridor.
New Year's was coming.
Martha's house was fixed, but the elder conscripted it as a venue for welcoming and entertaining guests of the town. For that, the elder paid a full barrel of fermented shark as compensation.
Dorothy asked Martha about the double-bladed dagger before. Martha hit a switch on the metal handle to retract the blades and put it in Dorothy's hand, telling her she won't be using it again—it belongs to Dorothy now. Dorothy knew what Martha was trying to say, accepted the dagger without a word and dropped all her guards.
Martha told her, "I've let go of the past and will never leave you two."
Ice lanterns lit up one by one. Bonfire came on in the town square. The elder ranged the bell. Villagers left their houses with various fare in hand: cheese, honey bread, smoked sausages, stews, fruit pies, bottles of snow chardonnay... Dorothy and Cruz wrapped themselves in thick, fuzzy white robes, kabobs in hand, pocket full of gummy candy, and strode out of the door.
Martha was already by the bonfire, chatting with the elder. She waved at the siblings when they came into sight, with a smile as warm as always.
The villagers gathered around the bonfire and elder, exchanging stories from the past year and sharing their food. Soon, a young girl started to sing. The villagers quickly joined in for a harmonious chorus of ancient folksongs. Another girl then began to dance, her furry skirt whirled, her Luminatics producing fiery sparks synchronized to her moves.
Dorothy sat by Martha's side, clapping to the rhythm and softly humming to the melody, her eyes sparkled like two delighted faraway stars.
As the singing died down, a smiling Dorothy closed her eyes and rested her chin in her cupped hands. Martha glanced around to see the villagers have also shut their eyes as if to pray. She whispered to Cruz and found out the villagers were making wishes for the coming year.
Dorothy opened her eyes to a smiling Martha like she was going to ask what wish did Dorothy make. But the very next moment, Martha stopped grinning, her eyes fixated on a corner out of the bonfire's illumination.
A befuddled Dorothy looked in that direction but saw only darkness.
Another newcomer arrived in the village, and Martha's unusual behavior made it clear to Dorothy that the visitor came specifically for Martha, but Martha refused to tell Dorothy the truth.
Dorothy realized the village had a new guest when she help some villagers haul firewood. An unfamiliar Aurorian with dark hair exited the elder's dwelling and into the repaired old house. When Dorothy left the house, she spotted Martha mending Cruz's garment by the fireplace when she would ordinarily be out hunting long before then. Martha was gone when Dorothy got back. Cruz pointed to the neighboring house when his sister asked where did the blonde go.
The dark-haired Aurorian came for Martha, Dorothy was certain.
At lunch, Dorothy wanted to know about the dark-haired Aurorian, but she underestimated how resistant Martha can be.
Martha remained silent throughout Dorothy's pressing inquiries before merely admitting the Aurorian is "a friend".
Dorothy wasn't satisfied with the response. She was dying to know the Aurorian's origin, intent, and any potential threat to Martha.
"Just a friend," Martha calmly dismissed her questions.
A disappointed Dorothy dropped the issue.
The trio ate in silence, until the alarm bell tolled outside.
Martha was the first to get up and open the door.
Villagers crowed the town square, some cursing out loud, some weeping, some whispering to each other. Dorothy heard the commotion and followed Martha out the door.
Dorothy's expression turned to shock when she realized what the villagers were discussing.
Eclipsites. The villagers said signs of Eclipsites were spotted in the vicinity.
The elder formed a search party and when Dorothy tried to join surreptitiously, Martha stopped her. During the confrontation, Dorothy said something hurtful.
The elder summoned all grown men in the village, split them into groups of five, and sent them out as search parties scouring for Eclipsite activities.
As the parties left town, kids scaled the arch to wave goodbye to those they know. Dorothy sneaked in among the men, clutching a hidden double-bladed dagger. The elder would never let her join a search party, but she knew she must do something.
The parties set off one by one. Making sure no one was watching, Dorothy lowered her head and walked briskly away, figuring she would catch up to the last squad to leave.
Suddenly, someone grabbed her by the arm.
"What do you think you're doing, Dorothy?" It was Martha's voice.
Dorothy struggled to free herself. "Let go of me!"
Martha spotted the dagger and seized it. "Are you going to look for Eclipsites?"
"It's none of your business!" Dorothy reached to wrest the dagger back, only to be easily evaded. "Give that back to me!"
"Come home with me," Martha offered gently, "Then I'll give it back to you."
Dorothy gritted her teeth and tore her sleeve off with a loud rip, stumbling away from Martha. Before she could run off, however, she was stopped by a pair of arms around the waist from behind.
"Do you think the Eclipsites are fun to trifle with?!"
Dorothy froze. Martha never scolded her like this before, no matter how rude she got. She gingerly turned to Martha, and the face trembling with anger she saw was completely foreign to her.
"Don't you admonish me!" Dorothy quickly recovered and hardened her demeanor. "Who do you think you are to tell me what to do?"
The arms around her waist dropped. Dorothy sprinted away without looking back.
"Are you just going to leave your brother behind like that?"
The fuming voice of the elder boomed behind her. Dorothy closed her eyes in frustration and stopped in her track.
Martha learned the cause for the death of the siblings' parents, which compelled her decision to leave Northland. She couldn't stand the guilt.
Martha shoved the house door open to dead silence. The siblings' room was closed. She approached and tried to knock, but her hand stopped midair, hesitating.
"Five years ago, the village was hit by Eclipsites. Dorothy and Cruz's father was in a search party that didn't make it back... Later, their mother followed the trail only to run into Eclipsites. She returned with grievous wounds and died shortly after..." What the elder told her still rang in Martha's ears. "Don't be too hard on them. Everyone has a past they can't forget."
She hesitated some more, finally deciding not to knock. She turned and looked outside.
"Martha," said the dark-haired Aurorian waiting on the porch, "Have you decided to leave?"
"Let's go." She resigned with a sigh.
Suddenly, the room opened. Martha felt a tug. It was Cruz. "Would you come in, Martha?"
Inside, Dorothy sat silent on the bed. She turned when Martha entered and asked, "Are you leaving?"
Before Martha could answer, she questioned, "Is it because of me?"
"About today, sorry..." Dorothy's lips trembled. "It was very rude of me to say what I said..."
"No, that's not it." Martha crouched and looked her in her teary eyes. "I have to go."
"I'm a... deserter," Martha paused, "I'm from the Illumina Federation."
Dorothy obviously didn't know what Illumina Federation was, but she understood "deserter" full well.
"I just can't fight Eclipsites anymore. None of my comrades survived. I couldn't stand the fighting, so I fled until I got to Northland." Martha lowered her eyes. "Now, one of my old buddies found me. If I don't go back..."
"You don't have to go!" Dorothy exclaimed breathlessly. "Just tell your buddy you're very happy here! They'll understand... You can plead to the elder, he'll speak on your behalf..."
"You'll never leave us, right?"
"Dorothy..." Martha wiped the tear off the girl's face, "I'm very sorry to hear about what happened to your parents..."
The startled Dorothy paused for a while, then asked, "Is that why you're leaving?"
"I just can't stay with you... Please forgive me..."
Dorothy felt herself shaking. "So you choose to run every time?"
The air was thick with awkward silence. Martha couldn't find an excuse. She was accustomed to the role of a deserter, a front she clumsily put up that everyone could see through—and a disappointing front at that.
"Just go," said a defeated Dorothy, scooting backward as if to distant herself.
Martha got up, looked at Cruz, who stood in a corner, and tried to stroke his hair, only for him to also back away. She forced a smile and said in a low voice, "Don't leave the village for the time being. Keep yourself safe."
Martha left the room, put the dagger on the living room table and walked out of the house.
Martha set off only to be halted by Dorothy. Dorothy told her she didn't mind Martha's past, but was not going to stop her from leaving, either. She did hope, however, Martha would come back to Northland one day.
It was the next morning when Martha and the dark-haired Aurorian left the village. The snow over the arch had melted, forming slushy puddles on the ground.
"Aren't you going to say goodbye to those kids?"
"It's not necessary," Martha put her hood on to shield her head from the melting snow. "They don't want to see me, anyway."
"It's easy not to get found," the Aurorian had a subtle yet complex expression. "All you have to do is keep running until all pursuers lose their patience. Illumina isn't going to waste that much time on a deserter."
Martha mocked in a self-deprecating manner, "You can let me go right now."
The Aurorian didn't respond.
"You and I both know that kind of living is meaningless." Martha listened to the fading sound of dripping snow and whispered, "I didn't flee Illumina because I wanted to live. I was tired of being treated as a weapon, tired of the endless fighting."
"Then why did you choose to go back with me?"
"Because..." Martha finally continued after a pregnant pause, "I'm a deserter, and I'm the only one who can forgive myself for that."
"That sounds like a contradiction."
"Yeah," Martha chuckled, "That's what I finally realized after running for so long."
The Aurorian stopped abruptly. "You can't see the village anymore past this bend."
Martha's lips perked and whispered, "Thanks."
She turned. From her vantage point, she could still see the arch and the ribbons drenched in melted snow hanging off the branches. Farther back, she could make out the tall black roofs, though it was still too early for the chimneys to bellow smoke.
Martha got ready to go but noticed someone peeking out of the arch. It might be quite a ways off, but she had no problem telling it was Cruz.
Her mouth fell agape, the cold wind rustled her blond hair. Her cheeks felt frigid, but her eyes felt warm.
She saw a girl in a white robe sprinting this way, stopping at a half-arm's length from her.
"It's for you..." A panting Dorothy opened her hand to show the double-bladed dagger. "I don't want it."
"You should take it back with you. It's not worth you running away. If this is your apology, I won't accept. It's nothing special and I don't care about it." Dorothy stuffs the dagger in Martha's hand and stubbornly says:
"I only care about when you're coming back."
She then flashed a grin, "You will come back, right?"
Her hand holding the dagger trembled. Martha was too choked up to speak and could only nod.
"It's a promise!" Dorothy skipped away and waved. "Goodbye, Martha!"
She dashed toward the village. Cruz leaped down from the arch. Hand in hand, the two kids walked back into town, until the wall obscured their figures.
Smoke finally rose out of the rooftop chimneys. The ribbons fluttered in the wind again. Melting snow dripped in rhythm, from the woods to the fields, from the road to the village...
Once all the winter ice melts, everyone knew the arch will be topped with children staring out into the horizon.