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Mister Irving was so wrong...

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“I don’t think it’ll open like that, Tom.”

“Well, I’ve tried pushing it and that didn’t work either! So it looks like the knife is the only way to go now.”

“And what if the blade breaks? My dad will kill me if it does!”

“I'll be careful."

“I’m still not sure we should be doing this in the first place. And you still haven’t told me whose house it is.”

“I promise you it'll be fine, Ned, don’t worry about it. Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course, I trust you...”

“Then give me the knife and hold that lantern straight. I’ll try to fit the knife into this gap in the wood here, see how that works.”

Thick jittery orange light lit up the faces of two young boys, both somewhere between 12 and 14 years old. The one holding the oil lantern looked like the oldest of them two, with slightly curling chestnut hair, soft brown eyes and pale, almost translucent skin, light hints of frostbite marking it here and there. He was dressed in a neat winter coat with gorgeous fur collar, blue velvet breeches, high leather boots with woolen socks sticking out of their rim. On his head he wore a grey coonskin hat with a long stripy tail hanging down from it and on his hands there were new rabbitskin mitts.

The other - the one violently yanking the knife blade between two halves of the window frame - looked younger, but somewhat more ragged. His clothes were simple - brown wool pants, green coat a few sizes too large for him, worn wrinkled boots and thick wooly mittens. A long knitted scarf was wrapped countless times around his neck, drowning it completely and making his head stick on top of his body like that of a clumsily constructed snowman. His pointy nose crinkled as he was huffing profusely, trying to crack the frame lock open, and his intensely blue eyes flickered like a couple of aquamarine crystals in the dancing flames of the lantern, whenever he threw his head back to push away loose strands of straight black hair stuck to his forehead sweating under an oversized winter cap; his cheeks full of dark red crimson because of all the effort and exasperation.

And he had all the reasons to feel exasperated by this point. The window, which he thought would be the easiest part of this adventure, since its wood looked rather old and rotten, turned out to be surprisingly unyielding - froze shut, probably, the bloody thing! - and incredibly hard to open. Ned’s nerves weren’t helping either. Instead of holding the lantern steadily, so Tom could have a proper look at what he was picking over here, the boy kept turning around to examine their surroundings, afraid of them both getting caught in the act of breaking into someone’s house. Because as much as Tom tried to convince himself it wasn’t a big deal, the thought of what would happen if the owner of the house came back from fishing unexpectedly early sent considerable shivers down his spine and made him sweat even more so than all of that wrestling with the window lock (even though he would never, for the life of his, admit that to Ned).

He was about to start swearing frustratedly at the blasted thing when he finally heard the metal clank and felt the lock finally caving, but at that very moment something went ‘crack!’ behind their backs.

“What was that?!” shouted Ned in a panicky whisper and they both turned around. Ned stuck his arm with the lantern as far out into the gathering twilight as possible. The forest around them, however, seemed quiet and still, with only occasional snowflakes falling down onto the thick shimmering white blanket that covered everything the eye could meet. They stood there motionless for a while just to be sure and then they both quietly let out a discreet exhale, hiding from one another the true degree of their relief. Tom said, his voice laced with restored composure and authority:

“It’s nothing.”

“And what about the window?”

“I unlocked it, but it seems like the wood froze shut, so I’ll need your help with that.”

Ned put the lantern down, its bronze base clinking on the tin lining of the cellar door, on top of which the boys have climbed. They exchanged agreeing glances and, following the starter nod from Tom, pushed all of their combined weight onto the window glass, trying to shoulder it in. For a long time there was nothing except for a lot of panting and puffing, and their hats blocking their eyes, and a series of obligatory “Push it! - I AM pushing it! - Push harder!”. But then the frame gave in, the window flung open and sent both kids falling right in, knocking some noisy plant pots down from the window sill.

When the initial confusion passed and they realised they weren’t dead or hurt, and noone was immediately coming to kick their butts and rip their ears off, the wave of unrestrained giggling at their own silliness commenced. After that one dried out too, they started helping each other get unstuck and climb over the sill into the house. Once Tom was inside, Ned pulled the lantern in and closed the window, making sure the lock stayed open in case they would be in need of a fast retreat. Then he raised the lantern higher in front of him, so they could take a good look around.

The room they found themselves in was large and spooky in the uncertain light of their small lantern. There wasn’t much furniture there. A big table stood right next to the window. It had a large sewing machine standing on top of it and its entire surface was covered with some old clothes and bits of animal skin. A large box of yarn was sitting next to it on the wooden planks of the floor, with some sharp pointy objects sticking from the yarn balls (Tom leaned in to take a better look at them and realised they were knitting needles).

In the center of the room there was an old worn sofa, its backboard covered with a few layers of fur skins. When the boys took a better look around a room they realised that fur skins were actually everywhere - lying on the floor or hanging from the walls on wooden frames of various sizes. Following a row of stretched out furs along one of the walls, Tom found a weird scarecrow-like shape with some markings and lines across its torso in the dark corner of the room. Only the shape didn’t have a head and for some reason that scared him even more than if it did.
The wall in front of the sofa encorporated a fireplace, now cold and dead, with its big black mouth full of metal grate teeth sneering at the boys as if to ask if they were brave enough to come closer and get a better look at what it was that was gleaming mysteriously on the shelf above it. Ned turned to look at Tom to see he was running his hand over one of the furs on the wall. Swallowing nervously and clutching the lantern handle, Ned slowly approached the fireplace and began to inspect the contents of the shelf. And those were eerie to say the least.

First, there was a small glass jar of something that upon close inspection turned out to be a few mouthfuls of teeth. Ned shuddered and hastily moved on. Second, there was a framed cutout of a yellow newspaper page with unreadably small text and a fading photo of some man in a three-piece suit and a navy cap, sitting on a chair with his hand propped up to his face. The title under the photo informed: “Harry Goodsir, assistant surgeon”.

Next to the frame there was a dusty glass jar with some weird unsettling shape inside it. The lantern’s weight was growing heavy on Ned’s left hand, so he shifted it to his right one and put the lantern up higher to better illuminate the contents of the dusty jar. He gently blew the dust off the glass and squinted. Then the realization dawned on him and he let out an almost inaudible gasp.

“Tom?”

Tom stopped staring at the headless scarecrow and turned around.

“Yeah?”

“Come here.”

Tom hurried excitedly towards his friend.

“What is it?”

Ned handed him the jar and when Tom brought it closer to his eye level, he almost dropped it from shock. Inside the jar there was a mummified human hand, cut off right at the wrist.

“Tom. Whose house is this?” asked Ned, his eyes wide with fear, the light dancing in their glistening depths.

“Where did you get this?” asked Tom excitedly. Ned nodded to the shelf. “Are there more?”

“Tom...”

“Do you think the right hand is somewhere around here too? Give me the lantern.”

“Tommy!” whispered Ned demandingly, pulling the lantern away from Tom’s grabby hands. His voice was shaking. “I want you to tell me whose house we’re in right now, or I am leaving. With or without you.”

“All right, all right.” The boy put the jar back on the shelf. “Do you remember that story John’s dad told us? About that esquimaux witch who left her people and lived somewhere in these woods? The one who never talks because she had her tongue cut off?

“Mr.Irving called her Lady Silence.”

“Yes.”

“But Mrs.Irving told me that woman wasn’t a witch. She said Mr.Irving wanted to marry Lady Silence before John’s mother, but she refused, so he just started telling all sorts of nasty stories about her to town folk?”

“I know. But the thing is, Mister Irving was right. That woman was a witch. She is a witch.”

Ned’s nose started running, so he wiped his nose with his sleeve, at the same time trying to process what his friend, who by that point was beaming with exuberance, was telling him:

“Wait. How do you…?”

“I followed her. Nobody knew where exactly she lived, but I saw her fishing at the lake and I followed her to her house. And then I came back the next day. And the next. I watched her for a whole month and I saw many people come to her house. Some of them were white folk, but mostly they were from those reserves at the foot of the river. And they all came to her with gifts.”

“What...What kind of gifts?”

Tom leaned in closer, his icy blue eyes flickering with excitement.

“Animals. All kinds of dead animals. Like we read in that book about the rituals, remember?”

“Like for a blood sacrifice?” Ned’s eyes shot wide open.

“Yes, yes! Exactly like that!” Tom grabbed his friend’s hand, unable to contain his agitation. “Except there’s more. Those people who came to her with the sacrifices. They never came out of the house. Ever.”

“Are you sure?”

“Bet my bottom dollar! I’ve watched this house for hours and hours, hiding outside in the bushes. None of them came back.”

Tom triumphed. The effect his words caused was even more spectacular than he could have imagined. Ned’s mouth was hanging open, his eyelashes fluttering and his lower lip trembling. Tom knew he probably would have been in the wrong for scaring his best friend like that. But that was the thing. Ned wasn’t scared. And Tom knew that. A lot of things scared Ned. Centipedes, heights, blood, school lashings. But this - truly mysterious, somewhat macabre and very possibly supernatural - was Ned’s secret passion. It repulsed him and at the same time draw him in, like a moth to a dark light.

Tom saw this face of his many times before, whenever that oaf Tozer boasted thrilling stories from all those journeys to far-away lands with his father, who was a small merchant. Ned’s face always looked like he was chilled to the bone and was about to start crying, but Tom was the only one who knew that behind the trembling lips and eyes watering from terror there was endless fascination, an insidious longing for adventures, of which he - the tender home-grown bookworm - had close to none in his everyday life. The most thrilling thing he has ever done was running away from school for the entire afternoon last spring and spending it with Tom, playing in this very forest, and in the evening getting grounded for a month with no desert and “no hanging around with that Jopson kid”.

That month was the worst in Tom’s life and not just because his father was upset with him getting the master’s son in trouble, but because for that entire month he hadn’t seen Ned at all and that was the longest time he could remember, from back when they first shook hands at the Little mansion backyard six years ago. Since that incident Ned had tried not to test his luck any more, but his thirst for adventures grew stronger by the day, and Tom could see that whenever Ned was reading to him one of his terrifying books about mummies. Or ghosts. Or people buried alive in walls. His lips would tremble, his voice would shake and even his freckles would turn pale on his chalky white face, but in his eyes there would be the unmistakable feverish glint of overpowering hunger. The same glint that was in Ned’s eyes right now, when clutching his fur hat in one hand and the lantern in the other, he asked in a hushed, jittery voice:

“Tom. Are you telling me that we’re in that witch’s house right now?”

Tom nodded. Ned swallowed carefully and turned to look at the jar with a hand inside it.

“So, do you think there’s more of this stuff lying around here somewhere? Like...the bodies? Is that why we’re here? To find the bodies?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what we’ll find. But I know we have to take a look, we have to, Ned.”

“You’re right, you’re right,” said Ned rushedly, blinking fast. “And where is she now? How long do we have?”

"About three more hours. I saw her go fishing to that ice hole on the lake this afternoon."

"Let's go, then. No time to waste."

Tom flashed him an eager smile and went on to investigate the room. However, there wasn't anything more interesting or creepy than the mummy hand in here, so they decided to move on. Next to that room was a corridor, leading to the front door, the kitchen, the steep stairs to the second floor and some closed door to what turned out to be a closet full of fishing rods, hooks, nets, buckets and a few axes and shovels. There was nothing even remotely unusual here except for an overwhelming smell of fish, so Tom just barricaded the front door from the inside with a heavy chair he found in the corner ("Just in case" - "Good thinking!") and they went into the kitchen. It was small and had a little window looking out on a grim old barn in the backyard, right next to the outhouse. It seemed like an ordinary kitchen except for an unusually large pot hanging over a small mildly burning hearth with a fatty looking stew bubbling lazily in it and a few big bones sticking out of the stew. The boys exchanged meaningful looks about the bones and made their way upstairs.

The upper floor was a complete disappointment. There were only two rooms there, both of them the bedrooms. One of them was bigger than the other, the smaller one presumably being the guest room. The only remotely interesting things in those rooms were large weird pendants hung over the beds, that looked a lot like spiderwebs woven onto hoops decorated with long colourful feathers and tiny bird bones. There was also, however, one more tightly closed door on that floor. Curious, the boys creeped up to it and flung the door opened, only to find a bunch of clothes, old boots, snowshoes, blankets, as well as some old rags piled up on the floor of a closet. Tom suggested that there might be something suspicious hidden in that pile if only they took a better look, but it didn’t seem that likely and in the end neither of them wanted to stay there on the account of the old people smell that pervaded the entire floor. So they decided to try their luck with the creepy looking barn outside.

The barn had a large lock hanging on its door and Tom was almost about to start kicking it in frustration, but when Ned examined it closer, it turned out to be unlocked and so rusty that Tom wondered how it even managed to still hold in place without falling to dust in Ned’s hands. The door creaked and the boys poked their noses in. It was dark inside the barn, but even in the fainting light of their lantern they could see it was stuffed like a cabinet of curiosities.

For starters, there were deer antlers hanging everywhere. Some had parts of them sawn off, some were tied to wooden head-hoops with thin stripes of leather hanging down from them, and some smaller ones were still attached to the skulls.

Then, there were lots of different animal carcasses hanging from the ceiling, with plenty of meat on their bones, which Tom, who often saw his father harvesting game, recognized as dry stock and was left unbothered by the sight. Ned, on the other hand, couldn’t even bare himself to look up at them.

On one shelf the boys saw a few strange masks. One of them, an intricate contraption made of painted wood and leather, had sharp wooden bits sticking out of its mouth, resembling the tusks of a walrus. Next to that mask, propped against the wall, there was an unfinished wooden carving of a totem pole (Tom once saw those in a history book) with a raven on top of it, its majestic wings soaring up.

And finally, when Tom approached the furthest corner of the barn, he saw something that made all of this trip worth it. A huge brown bear standing on hind legs, his front paws stretched forward with its razor sharp claws spread wide. Speechless, Tom pulled Ned by the sleeve and turned him to face the creature. Ned’s jaw dropped.

“Wow.”

They stood there in awe for a few minutes.

“I’ve never seen a bear this huge,” said Tom.

“I’ve never seen a bear in my life. Are their faces always like that?”

“Like what?”

“So, I don’t know...Human?”

Tom looked at the bear’s face. At first glance he thought there was nothing special about it, except, maybe a large scar at one side of its mouth. But the longer he looked, the more it seemed like there was something else in it. Its expression was so calm and its eyes, intense in the flickering flame light, were so hypnotizing that at some point Tom felt like the bear was about to blink at him. Meanwhile, Ned hung the lantern on the nearest antler and pushed an empty barrel right next to the bear. He climbed on top of the barrel and took off his gloves. His palms were sweaty.

“Wait,” said Tom. “What if it’s, you know? Magical?”

“You mean, like a spirit?”

“Yeah. What if it’s guarding this place? And if you touch it, it wakes up?”

Ned looked at the bear again.

“I guess, there’s only one way to find out.”

He took a deep breath and slowly stretched out his arm. He was about to touch one of the creature’s paws when all of a sudden Tom realised what it was that was so unusual about the bear’s face. His eyes were not a couple of large black beads like that of a normal bear. They had blue irises and clearly defined round pupils, with large portions of white tissue visible on their sides.

The bear’s eyes were human.

A muffled metal clunk coming from the outside made Ned pause. Tom’s ears perked up as well. Immediately dropping any thoughts of the terrifying discovery that just dawned on him, he tiptoed to the small gap in the door as lightly as he could in his ill-fitting shoes, and stuck his nose out just enough to see someone large and covered in fur almost head to toe on the front porch of the house. By their side Tom spotted a tin bucket with a few fish tails sticking out of it and a long fishing rod standing propped up to the house wall.

“It’s her!” whispered Tom. “It’s the witch!”

Ned almost fell off the barrel he was standing on. Then he climbed down and joined Tom by the door.

“Rats!” whispered Ned watching the fur-covered shape struggle to open the door to her own house. “What do we do now?”

“She’ll see us if we come out this way. We need to find another way of getting out.”
Tom examined the walls, hoping to find some sort of a hole in their wood, or a weak rotten plank that would be easy to bust. But there was nothing. Then his glance stumbled upon an axe standing right next to the doorway by Ned’s side. The decision was made in a split second. After all, he often helped his dad to chop wood, how hard could it be with these thin planks? He took his first step towards the axe.

“Tom?” called Ned, his voice unsteady.

“What?”

“She’s coming this way.”

“What?!”

“She’s coming this way!” whispered Ned, backing off from the door as he spoke. Tom looked around, his mind sharp and clear in the face of approaching danger.

“There!” He pointed to a dark corner behind a stack of barrels and crates.

They both jumped right into that nook, covering themselves with some large empty canvas bags. Stuffed in there like sardines in a can, with almost no air whatsoever, they held their breaths and Ned buried his face into Tom’s shoulder. Tom flipped one of the ear flaps on his cap inside out, trying to catch the barn door creak.

"Oh no,” mouthed Ned, raising his head, his breath hot on Tom’s bare ear.

"What is it?"

"The lantern! I forgot the lantern."

Tom felt as if the floor turned into what he always assumed quicksand must feel like and he was sinking rapidly.

"Bring it in here, Ned, for the love of god, bring it in here!"

But it was too late. The curtain they were hiding behind flung open and they saw an old woman standing over them with her face dark and leathery, in a fur coat with a large hood, thick cowskin pants and big fur boots. In her hands there was a present for the intruders - an axe.

The boys gasped with fear. There was a split second of doubt between them, but then, without saying a word to each other, they charged right at the witch both at the same time, screaming bloody murder just like when they were playing cowboys and Indians. They pushed the woman with all their might and knocked her off her feet. She groaned in surprise and fell on her back. They jumped over her and headed towards the exit, but half way through Tom stopped and looked back. Seeing that the witch was already trying to get up, slowly and heavily, he ran to a large toboggan standing tall against the wall and pulled it down, causing it to topple and fall right between them and their pursuer. Then he looked at his friend who froze speechless by the barn door.

"To the woods! Go, Ned, go!" They bolted off and Tom soon found that he was way ahead, panting and huffing into his big scarf, his ears muffled by the sound of his own breath and the flaps on the cap. He tried looking over his shoulder, once he ran past the first trees into the woods, and saw Ned trying to catch up, knee deep in the snow. Out of the two of them Ned was the best at running. Right until last winter when he fell into a river ice skating with little John Irving and uncle LeVesconte. After being bedridden for almost two months (during which Tom used every possible excuse to visit him at the mansion), he got better, but his lungs weren't the same since then. Still, he was catching up and Tom decided they shouldn't stop until they reached their secret spot, which was a small hut made of branches, leaves and grass, about a mile and a half to the south. In the summer they would keep there their stick guns and pinecone bombs and glass bottles filled with lemonade that Mrs.Jopson, Tom's mother, made for them every week. So he shouted 'Ned, the fort!' and heard a raspy 'Okay!', because they both could find the fort with their eyes closed even in the middle of the night.

And night it most certainly was. Tom thought about how he’ll explain the disappearance of the lantern to his parents later, but at least it wasn’t that bad right now and he hoped that the moon would keep shining just as brightly on their way home. He promised father they would be home an hour ago, before moonrise. But they got lost twice on their way to that house, because it was the first snow since Tom started holding his stakeouts there and all the tree markings he left for himself before, were now covered with a dusty white coat. He didn’t want Ned to know they got lost, so he just kept on going, blessing the Lord that Ned hasn’t once asked why they were walking in circles for almost two hours.

Soon, Tom saw the fort starting to show behind the trees in front of him and slowed his pace to let Ned know they’re close. Except when he turned around, he realized he was all alone now. His heart sank.

“Ned!?”

The snow muffled the thin panicked scream and the giant empty forest remained silent and uncaring, without even his echo to comfort him.

“Ned,” repeated Tommy quietly to himself and, feeling his heart begin to race, he hugged himself tightly by the shoulders and whimpered softly. And then he heard something that scared him more than any witch. A wolf howling somewhere in the distance. A lonely hungry howl. Father told him once that you should never ever out in the forest late at night, even if you have a gun, because at night the forest belongs to no man. After moonrise it is the wolves’ realm and if you are still there when the night falls, without a cover or a shelter,they will know you and they will find you.

Tom’s neck was hot and he could feel his shirt stuck to his back, and his head was all wet under the warm cap from running so long. He took off his cap and desperately ruffled his hair, trying to air out all the sweat and fear. Another howl, this time closer and hungrier than the first one, sent an ice cold streak of terror crawling up his spine, raising all the hairs on his skin even under the multiple layers of clothes. For the first time in his short life he suddenly felt what it meant - to have death breezing down your neck without anyone by your side to turn to or tell you it’ll be okay.

But Ned was out there somewhere, in God knows what state, and the thought of the wolves or the witch getting to him before Tommy drowned any hesitation he might have had about what to do next. He turned around and walked all the way to the fort. There he took the largest and sharpest stick he could find, as well as one of the empty lemonade bottles. He went outside and hit the bottle on a frozen tree trunk, breaking its lower half off and leaving a rose of razor sharp glass teeth in his hand. Then he grasped his weapons as tight as he could and started making his way back where he came from, thanking providence that it wasn’t snowing and his tracks were so easy to follow with a little help from the moon.

Tom knew that if there really was a wolf or a witch ahead and if they took Ned, there was nothing he could do to fight them off, not really. Of course, he knew that. But leaving Ned was never an option Tom would be willing to consider even in the face of his worst nightmares, of which there were sometimes so many, and so many of them were about getting lost, being left all alone, or losing his friends. Friend. Because Ned wasn’t just his best friend. He was his only friend.

And it wasn’t something Tom felt sorry for himself about. Because Ned was always enough. There were many children around Tom, of course - children of Mr.Little’s other workers, children from nearby villages who would come to their town for the fairs, children at the school Tom went to three times a week to listen to Mr.Irving, who taught history, religion and French, and his sister, Mrs.Irving, who taught calculus, natural sciences and literature (because Mr.Little was one of those masters who firmly believed in the value of education for his workers and their families). There were many children around Ned too - at home there were his numerous siblings, at school there were boys from the families of other local land owners, wealthy merchants and politicians, at his father’s dinner parties there were children of Mr.Little’s business partners, who would come a long way to take a look at the famous Little stables and buy the famous Little horses.

But noone ever stuck to them both quite like they stuck to each other.

Exemplary representatives of the very different circles they were both born in on the outside, they both had some qualities that, once brought to the light of their circle’s judgement, always made them the outcasts, the odd sheep. Never actually hated or laughed at or dragged through the mud quite as much as Tom would sometimes see with other children who were unluckily “different”, like the timid little Johnny Irving from Ned’s school, or Enoch - the puny ratty-looking son of one of Mr.Little’s blacksmiths, Mr.Caine. No, nothing like that. But they always felt like they were one of those horses from Mr.Little’s herds with measly flaws in the form of one small spot of the wrong color in the wrong place, which never got sold and never got the chance to mate with the others, just because they were not quite one with their breed.

Tom loved books, he found that out early in his life. And he also found, unfortunately, that among his kind, he was the only one with that same level of passion for literature - poetry, mostly. He never tried to hide it, because he was never afraid to be bullied for it - noone would dare to challenge him, not since he got into a huge fight with Tozer (who was considered to be the largest strongest boy among their peers) two years ago and won. But it also meant that there was nobody to share his passion with, which was the reason why he sometimes felt so alone, he started to cry. He went to cry in peace to the lake one day six years ago, as far from anyone’s condescending glances and meddling questions as possible, when he saw a boy there - with soft brown eyes and chestnut hair, curling behind his ears and down his neck. It turned out he himself was crying when Tom approached him.

“What’s your name?” asked Tom, afraid to seem rude by asking why the boy is crying right off the bat.

The boy sniffled and wiped his cheeks with a beautiful embroidered handkerchief that he pulled out of his pocket when he saw someone approaching him.

“Edward. Little.”

Tom was six then, but even at that age he already knew that it was not his place to befriend his father’s master’s son, not to mention the boy was older than him. But there was a book on the boy’s knees and Tom, though himself on the verge of tears some minutes ago, didn’t like seeing people cry, because it made him sad too, so he asked what book the boy was reading and whether it was any good.

Later it turned out that little Edward was crying because he wanted to go to another horse ranch with his father, but he was too small for that, and his sister didn’t want to come with him to the lake that day. So they threw some rocks at fish, and dug a small hole in the ground where they hid the prettiest pebbles to come back for them later, and Ned showed him the pictures in the book he was reading (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) and when they came back to the Little residence, they shook hands and Ned said “It was nice to meet you, Tom Sawyer”, and it immediately became their silly inside joke, and later “Sawyer” and “Huck” became their codenames for each other in case they needed to communicate discreetly in the interest of some risky shenanigans. And since then they were inseparable. Tom showed Ned new places, animals and paths, and introduced him to some other kids outside Ned’s usual circle. Ned brought Tom books from his family library and read them out loud and taught Tom how to read faster, and then they talked about what they read and tried reenacting their favorite scenes, and whenever Tom felt like he didn’t have anything, he knew he always had Ned.

So, no. Leaving him was never an option.

Tom had walked more than half a mile through the snow following his own footprints, when all of a sudden he saw a weird dark shape move among the trees, with some furry bit hanging down from it like a tail. Tom stopped cold in his tracks and immediately rushed into the shadow of a tree right next to him, clenching tightly the glass rose. Was it a wolf? If so, then it was probably a pup, with his size so small and his tail so short. What did dad tell him about the wolf pups? “Even if you see that it is all alone, do not touch it, do not come near it. The mother is always nearby. She will smell you, and she won’t care if you’re just a small harmless boy, and there won’t be nothing you can do about it.”

Tom’s heart was racing and his thoughts scattered in panic, gnawing ferociously at the bars of his mind prison, as he was trying to figure out his next move. Would it be wiser to wait out here or try and make his way around the obstacle? At some point he even entertained the idea of climbing up a tree to hide (there were a few with their branches just within his reach, thick enough to support his weight, and he could hide his weapons in the snow). But his brainstorm was interrupted by a rustle coming from where the presumed pup was, followed by an “Ah, crap!”, followed by a thud and a whimper. A searing wave of relief rushed over Tom and he sprinted towards the dark shape on the snow.

“Ned!” His joyful scream rang through the snow.

“Tommy?” came the weak reply.

Tom fell to his knees in front of his friend, who was sitting with his back to the tree trunk.

“Oh my God, Ned, what happened to you?”

“I fell. Foot caught in some kind of hole or burrow or something.

“Can you walk?”

“Barely. It really hurts.”

“Let me take a look at it.”

The foot was very badly sprained. In a matter of minutes Tom tore two branches off of the nearby pine and, undoing Ned’s neckerchief (“Here, take my scarf instead.” - “No, you need it more than me”), used it to bandage the branches tightly on both sides of his foot, immobilizing it and fixating the tendons.

“Is that better?”

“Yes. Thank you.” Ned sniffled, making Tom finally realise that he was crying. And right away Tom knew it was bad.

He hadn’t seen Ned cry for a very long time now. Not even when they got into that big fight with those boys from the nearby village who saw the two of them swimming bare-butt in the lake together and started calling them names, and Ned got punched so hard that his nose bled and he almost lost a tooth. Tom remembered how Janie, Ned’s sister, who sometimes followed them on their little trips and brought them dinner that afternoon, ran off and fetched uncle Le Vesconte with her to chase off the bullies. She and Ned were twins, looking as alike as two peas in a pod, both delicate as dolls, as if they were created specifically for looking exquisitely in paintings and photographs.

Except that, for some reason, Tom never thought Jane was as pretty as Ned, just like he never really liked to look at any girl as much as he liked looking at Ned, even though Ned was often teased for being too “girly”, both to his face and behind his back. Girls were nice and their hair and dresses were always so lovely, but Tom never felt about any girl in a way that even remotely resembled the way he felt about Ned with his delicate lips and his long soft lashes and the tiny freckles, sprinkled across his nose and cheeks like chocolate on top of a cake. And now those lips were trembling and chapped, the eyelashes were covered with a myriad of tiny teardrops, shimmering like the moonlit snow around them, his eyes so large and glistening they reminded Tom of the deer fawn’s eyes, and wet streams were freezing up on that pale field of freckles. All because of him. Because of Tom.

Tom’s heart felt as though it has grown ten times and was about to leap out of his chest through his throat. And before he knew it, he leaned in and, placing his hands on both sides of Ned’s face, pressed his own dry lips to Ned’s. God knows how much time had passed before he finally drew back and opened his eyes to see a look of surprise on Ned’s face.

“Ned, I’m sorry,” said Tom quietly.

“Please, don’t be,” whispered Ned, his cheeks now red from something other than the cold and his hands clinging to Tom’s like his life depended on it.

“I’m sorry I brought you here and got you into all of this mess. It’s just that, you always loved so much listening to Sol’s stories about all of the adventures he gets to go on with his father. And I just wanted you to think I was brave too.”

“I do think you’re brave.”

“I’m not. Not like Sol.”

Ned smiled.

“Solomon Tozer is reckless and he always gets in trouble. It’s not the same as bravery, I don’t think.”

Tom shrugged.

“Maybe. And you’re not mad that I kissed you, are you?”

“No. I’m glad you did it. Even though I don’t know why. I mean, I know Mister Irving once told us that God made boys so they only like girls. But I like you a lot more than any girl I know.”

Tom’s chest filled with pride and he felt like he could hand-wrestle a wolf at that moment.

“I like you like that too, Ned.”

They sat there holding hands for a while. Then Tom looked around.

“We won’t be able to make it home now. Not with your leg and all those wolves lurking around.”

His friend nodded.

“I guess we can try to go back and ask that old woman for help. Cause no matter what weird stuff we found there, I don’t really think she’s actually a witch, you know.”

Tom rememberd the bear with human eyes, but for the time being decided it would be best not to bring that up. “Yeah," smiled Tom. “And even if she is, I don’t think we have a better choice.”

He helped Ned up and gave him the long sharp stick he was using as a weapon, so Ned could use it as a crutch, while Tom held him by his elbow with his right hand, gripping the remains of the glass bottle in his left.

It was well after midnight when they climbed onto the porch of the Lady Silence’s house and Tom knocked on her door, holding his breath and listening intently to the silence behind it.

“Tommy?” Ned’s whisper startled him.

“Yes?”

“Promise me that you won’t try impress me anymore, okay? I like you just the way you are,” said Ned with a tender smile. Tom giggled.

“I promise.”

Ned leaned forward and planted a soft warm kiss on Tom’s frozen cheek, the tail of his coonskin lightly tickling Tom’s nose, but at that moment the door in front of them opened, making Ned draw back immediately. The old woman stood in the doorway, wearing a simple home dress with a thick fur skin over her shoulders, her greying black hair done in two thick neat braids. Her glance lingered shortly on their faces, red from frostbite and embarrassment, before sliding down to Ned’s crutch and the bandaged foot. She sighed and, with a kind smile that contained all the hot tea and warm fire in the world, gestured for them to come in. Tom squeezed Ned’s hand reassuringly and, helping him over the tall doorstep, whispered into his ear:

“Mister Irving was so wrong...”