I grasp the next branch to pull me further and further up the tree. I'm the smallest in my class but it didn't ruin my love for the forest. For trees, and climbing them, and the glorious sense of accomplishment when you reach the top, because there wasn't much feeling of accomplishment in the sleepy village of Kiloft, unless you had a passion for fruit and vegetables then in that case, the best form of accomplishment would be winning the blue ribbon at the monthly farmers market. My small stature makes the whole climb more exhilarating, like I am one step closer to the experience of a bug or a bird or a squirrel. I pull myself further up the tree, making sure my feet are in the right place or I'd risk slipping and that would be the end of that. I reach forward to pull a large branch out of the way and almost blind myself by the sunlight. Once my eyes adjust, I hoist myself to the highest point of the tree so I can see the entire village and the mountain range that surrounds and isolates us from the rest of the world. I'm quite thankful for that though, because you hear the most horrendous stories from Feopolis and from the rest of Nation. I inhale the fresh mountain air tinged with a hint of fresh pine and freshly baked bread from the bakery close by. I close my eyes and listen closely to nature, until chattering from below ruins the moment.
I climb down the tree slowly, and keep a careful eye on where I step as I descended down the tree, just in case I accidentally kick at leaves that would fall down to the floor and reveal my presence. I stop once I'm halfway down, and crouch down on all fours on a thick, strong branch to see who had disturbed me. Three boys gather around the base of the tree, plumes of smoke rising from them which means they're smoking. My bag! I lean forward to see if it's still in the bush where I left it earlier, and I can clearly see the dark brown straps just a few centimetres from one of the boys' feet but, to my relief, they seem to be more engaged in their conversation and their cigarettes rather than my bag.
One flicks a cigarette away and I watch with rage as the ash of the cigarette burns a bright orange then dies down. They have to be dealt with, so I look around for something to grab. A pinecone! Nothing too dangerous but a weapon nonetheless. I take it and aim for the tallest of the group - a lanky, blonde kid who must be the leader of the group because he's doing most of the talking. I close one eye to aim more accurately and launch it at his head before retreating towards the trunk of the tree.
'What the hell was that?' the boy exclaims, and picks up the pinecone. His friends appear clueless and dart their worried eyes around. I freeze when they try and search the tree, wrapping my arms around my knees and tucking my head between my legs. I listen closely as I try to contain my laughter, and continue to throw pinecone after pinecone in any direction.
'Maybe it's one of those forest spirits,' one boy suggests fearfully, 'they live around here, don't they?'
'D'you think it's the same one that wrecked Dan's garden?' the blond boy asks.
'We better get out of here, lad,' and they finally leave. I climb back down to the bottom and retrieve my bag from the bush.
'That was funny.' I freeze, like a deer in headlights, then spin around to see a boy, around my age, step out from behind a tree. Short, tangled, dark brown hair and a face I want to punch over and over and over again. He wears the same tatty old knitted blue and red jumper that his mum made for him or something. Everyone always complained that it reeks. It doesn't smell as bad as rumours say, but I didn't want to take the risk. He has to stay back.
'What are you doing here, Nathaniel?' I ask and swipe a pinecone from the ground to throw at his stupid head. He simply shrugs, which annoys me even more. This is odd, though. He's usually the kid who would shy away from confrontation.
'It's not your forest, is it, Arianna?' He says. 'I can do what I want.'
'Shouldn't you be annoying people who have friends or something? Oh wait, you already are!'
'I've never seen you with anyone.' He pointed out with a smile spreading across his spotty face. I roll my eyes and turn to follow the path back into the village. I don't like boys, nor anyone for that matter, except my dad Sky. It's hard to admit, but Nathaniel is right about me around people, but somehow it didn't prevent me from all the unwanted popularity. Apparently being the orphan girl from Nation's capital who could kick arse and climb trees meant you were popular from day one. I can hear his footsteps behind me. What an idiot! If Nathaniel was a little more outgoing, a girl and, well, anything, I would gladly be his friend. I just hate him because the people at school were starting to talk because apparently wherever I go, little puppy Nat follows. He never spoke to anyone, except me. Long story short, I didn't like the role of Nathaniel's special, go-to friend.
'Isn't this the bit where you ask why I'm out here?'
'Not in the real world. Maybe that's what happens in your world,' I quickly reply, 'not mine.'
'Then why did you ask what I was doing here just then?'
'I just wanted you to leave.'
Fortunately, silence kills that conversation, and thankfully the awkwardness didn't last much longer as we arrive at the foot of the village and gives me a good excuse to finally leave Nathaniel to his strange thoughts, hopefully not involving me or my body in any way. I walk briskly through the village square, keeping my head down so no one would recognise me, just in case those boys had decided to hide to see who their tormentor was. However, the square isn't a good idea. Banners announcing the farmers' markets are hung all over the village. There's even a banner running from one window, across the square and into another window, with 'KILOFT FARMERS MARKET' in bright red capital letters. The atmosphere is as usual, electric but warm. Shopkeepers have their stalls with all sorts of foods all made from the local areas, from curries, purple milk to giant hogs and outside their shops, and would prepare their goods behind the windows where groups of children gather and watch in awe. I try to keep a low profile, but people keep going out of their way to say hello, ask how I am or how my dad's keeping up with his illness. People are quite direct about it, some try to get around it and some give me the over the shoulder nod of sympathy:
'How's that head of his, Arianna?'
'How's things with the family, Miss Lockheart?'
'Heard he's not got long left?'
'You and Sophie (my mother) can always come to ours when...the time comes.'
Finally, the butcher, Lokin Rhodes, rescues me from the bustling crowd. I already start to grow a crowd of sympathisers, mainly Sky and Sophie's friends and mainly old people.
'Alright, everyone, I think she's had enough of the interrogations, okay?' The crowd start to disperse back to buy and eat till their hearts content. Lokin looks at me with sad eyes, and I start to worry I'm going to get the same treatment from the rest of Kiloft's elderly. We sit down at an outdoor dining table set outside one of the shops. People keep giving me looks, but I try to ignore it.
'Better watch yourself, Miss Lockheart,' he begins.
'Why's that, sir?'
'Um, please, Lokin.' He corrects, and gives me a smile. I babysit for his little boy, Oliver, when Lokin and his wife hunt for food or leave for the capital where apparently the better meats roam. 'Anyway, some boys came into the shop talking about sprites throwing pinecones at them. There was mighty talk about going back and giving them hell. My guess you had something to do with it?'
I smile. Lokin always knew my second home was the forest. It was why he would often ask me to hunt for him when he was ill. 'I don't know what you mean.'
He smiles back, and tousles my mousy brown hair. 'I know you've been asked this a million times, but...how is your dad? If you need to be there instead of babysitting Oliver then that's absolutely fine.'
My adoptive dad, Sky, has been battling a brain tumour for several years now, but it's only been recently that doctors have announced that the tumour had spread to the point of no return and turned malignant. Mum keeps saying it could have been treated much earlier but it's hard enough to get a doctor out to Kiloft with the mountains being like that have been recently with high winds causing avalanches that claimed many lives, including the dad of one of the girls in my class, and also made air transportation impossible, so Sky has nothing to do but live out the rest of his days and make them count. I clear my throat and brush a stand of hair around my ear. Lokin brushes sweat from his forehead and stands to his full height, towering over me like a giant.
'Send me my regards,' He hands me a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied together with string. I follow him until he returns back to his shop and into his meat locker, maybe to skin a rabbit, while little Oliver sits on a stool in the corner, his arms folded and his eyes flooding boredom. I continue for home, and, while pointless, keep my head down as the mighty talk about a troublesome spirit quickly becomes the talk of the town amongst the village children. Just then, Nathaniel pops into my head. The image of him with his ridiculously large bookbag and that dumb face which...I have to admit caught my attention from time to time. I wonder if he'll tell everyone that the evil forest spite is me, and then ruin my chances of ever roaming the forest again. It's my only escape from school, the boring village life and problems at home.
I let this thought pass eventually and find myself at the picket fence surrounding my house. I lean against the fence and start to scratch at the peeling white paint. Sky made it his duty to give the fence a fresh coat of paint once every week but recently, he's been forgetful and the fences have never looked so dull. I catch something in the corner of my eye and find Sky standing in the middle of the garden. He holds a plant pot in his hands and stares at it for a moment until a thought seems to strike him and he places the tulip into the pot. I feel my stomach turn as usual. A red bandana is tied around his bald head where his beautiful blond hair used to be. His eyes are sullen, with dark bags hanging from his blue eyes that seem to still retain that lively spark. His skin is pale, like fresh paper, but despite all this, he keeps a smile as he takes the tulip back out from the pot and settles it into the garden.
Sky follows the voice, his eyes narrowing, and spots me waving at him. He stumbles towards me, rubbing his head constantly, and wraps his arms around me. I hug him back, but couldn't help hearing his strained breathing, as if he had just run a marathon. He breaks off me and opens the garden door for me. I step in and look at him once again, my eyes full of sadness. He pauses for a moment, twiddling his thumbs, but gives another big smile and awkwardly wraps his arm around my shoulders.
'How are you, my darling?' he asks, his voice slightly hoarse. 'Heard you were causing trouble in the woods.'
My smug smile betrays me but Sky just shakes his head and gives me a playful punch on the chin. Sophie would have given me the riot act, and force me to announce to the whole village of my wrong doings. Clearly, she knew nothing of pride as a child. I'm so caught up in the moment that I forget about the package Lokin gave me. Sky eyed it curiously.
'Lokin sent his regards,' I say and hand the package to him. He's been having difficulty with his motor skills and I rue the day when he will be unable to plant anything in the garden, cloth himself and even walk by himself. Sky keeps forgetting this, and it makes him so angry. He fumbles with the string but eventually gets it open and opens up the package to find two slabs of steaks, four sausages and several rashers of bacon. He chuckles nervously and wraps it up again.
'I'm sure you...' he slowly trails off to a incoherent mutter and his eyes start to wander - one of the symptoms the doctors told us via computer was that he would start talking and then forget. Sky's eyebrows twitch and he turns to the house, his arms sliding lifelessly from my shoulders.
'I'll-I'll put the steak on. Mum and me can cook you something.'
'No!' he suddenly roars, then trips over his feet clumsily and just missed splitting his head open on the steps when I jump into life, drop the package and wrap my arms around his chest and pull him back to his feet again but he shrugs me off. I only watch in horror - I've never seen him looking so defeated and mad at his illness. He takes a deep breath, croaking a little as mucus in his throat make it difficult, and lightly pats my back. He mops the sweat from his forehead, and says harshly and between deep breaths:
'Take me inside, please, dear.'
As usual, Sky has nothing to eat or drink, and snaps at either me or Sophie if we attempt to put food on his plate or drink in his glass. I play with my ravioli, watching Sky in the corner of my eye, and finally eat something when Sophie signals me to by clearing her throat. I find it difficult to cope with this, but I couldn't imagine what my mum must be feeling. She's known him all her life, the only thing she has left besides me and the house. She wouldn't even look at Sky, like he's a dinner guest no one wants to talk to. Her eyes would concentrate on the food and wine before her. I clear my throat to relieve everyone of the awkward silence.
'I get my school report tomorrow,' I begin, hoping this will lighten the mood since my reports are always good. Sophie only smiles weakly and returns back to her dinner, and Sky's attention is elsewhere.
'Hey, Ari, that hunting-hunting trip was a jolly good day, wasn't it? Your first one with me,' he suddenly says, his eyes become animated and his smile returns. Me and Sophie quickly exchange worried glances, but my guess, as always, is to go with it, and remember that day. It may have been a few weeks before he had been diagnosed and he took all of us on a trip through the forest that was important to me because it began my love for the woods.
'Yeah, you told me how to fish, right?' I add in.
'I think Arianna was talking about her school report, Sky,' Sophie buts in. I furrow my brow at that. We shouldn't remind Sky that he was, I have to admit, losing his mind and that we should just go along with whatever he says. I shake my head but turn to Sky again, smiling widely.
'Is this your first school report?' Sky asks, his eyes widening. 'I'm so proud of you.'
'We're very proud of you, dear,' Sophie says, and gives me a wide smile before returning to her food. It's heartbreaking just looking at Sophie, who had been faithful to Sky for twenty five years. She has seen him through the good times and the bad times, but this is on a whole new scale. I find it hard to remember his wavy hair, his beard and the neckbeard that connected with it, that Sophie felt it her task to remove, but ever since the cancer grew more and more out of hand, she started to miss the beard. It's like she had died the day Sky was diagnosed.
'Wait a minute, doesn't Edmund owe me money?' Sky suddenly asks. Sophie suddenly drops her fork in shock, gasping a little. I look to Sky, urging him to try and think of something else. 'Honey, Edmund hasn't given me my money, has he?'
Come on, dad. He needs to remember that Edmund had given the money he owed to his younger brother, who needed money to pay for a helicopter trip to and from Kiloft, but unfortunately Edmund was killed when he was crushed in an avalanche. I hadn't arrived at Kiloft yet so I didn't know him well, but me and Sophie had to remind him if he started on rants like this, so I had to know everything. Sky had actually been present, spoke and carried his coffin at his funeral.
'That dummy thinks he's going to make off without paying me, he's got another thing coming!' Sky growls. 'In fact, I'm going to go over there right now. Don't wait up.'
'Oh, the gods!' Sophie suddenly exclaims. Sky furrows his brows at his wife's outburst, but carries on with his plan. He reaches for his hunting coat and struggles to put it on, but manages to pull it on, walks to the door and steps outside. Me and Sophie both get up to stop him, until Sky himself stops in his tracks when he automatically scratches his head, assuming there's hair there. He starts to tremble, his knees like jelly below him.
'What....where's my hair?' he questions. He eyes us both - everyone seems like a suspect. He swings his fist, punching the air, but carries his body with him, hitting his head hard against the cobbled footpath. Sophie screams and runs to her husband's side as fast as I can blink. I run to Sky and examine his wound - a large scar on his forehead oozing blood down his face.
'Arianna, get a first aid kit! Now!' Sophie roars, cradling Sky's head in her arms. I dart into the house and run to the kitchen, littering the floor with pots and pans and all sorts until I found it underneath the sink. I return to Sophie and hand it to her and leave her to her work. After cleaning the wound, she dresses it carefully with a bandage.
'Help me get him to bed, Arianna,' Sophie says, her voice straining. I lift him up by his armpit, and Sophie carries the other side, and we walk him to his room, up the stairs and into bed. I gently lower his head into the pillow and wrap the quilt around him. Sophie gives him a quick kiss on the cheek and leaves the room as fast as she did to help him. I watch her go, get up, close the door and pull a chair to Sky's side. Gently, I place my hand on his forehead to check his temperature and find it to be normal. I wait for him to move, constantly making sure his heart is still beating, until he finally comes to. He coughs hoarsely, his lungs rising up and down, trembling. He cranes his head to me and smiles warmly.
'Did you get my money?' he asks calmly.
He only sighs, like a spoilt child. 'My brother's dead.'
I nod slowly. Although this is a good thing to remember, I try not to show my relief that his memory has briefly returned. He looks forward, continuing to smile, but I could see his lips tremble, maybe fighting the urge to cry. He gulps and moves his hand over to mine, gripping it tightly.
'I think I'm going now,' he announces, with a hint of fear in his voice. He quivers but tries to make a brave front.
'No, dad, I need you.'
'Ari, you're so beautiful and I love you with every bone in my body. I've trained you well, it seems.'
'I could do with a bit more training, dad.' He gives another rough cough. I clench my hand around his fist. 'Mum! Mum!'
My screams continue to echo through the hall until Sophie finally arrives, her eyes red and bloodshed from crying. She climbs onto the bed and holds Sky's other hand. He looks to Sophie and Arianna, and laughs lightly.
'Girls, even when you're crying, you look so beautiful.' I quickly wipe away my tears, feeling a smile. 'Let's hope I can make it through that big forest in the sky, huh? Where do you think I'll go, girls? Gairovald or Gofraith?'
I never thought about those places: the twin god worlds and the seemingly never-ending forest that somehow runs in between them. Gairovald is apparently the place to be, since it is the home of the gods but Gofraith has a much more suburban feel to it apparently.
'Fingers crossed for Gairovald,' she replies, 'I can't let you leave me, dad.'
'You're going to meet me again, kiddo...Sophie? Soph-Sophie?'
'Has-has your mother put the washing out? She said she would do that...'
Sophie pauses, unable to respond to this. I know her mother died years before I arrived in Kiloft. She purses her lips, but forces a smile:
'She-she says she'll do it tomorrow, Skylar...'
Sky smiles, and rests his head back in the pillow.
'I'm at peace,' and he closes his eyes. 'I'm okay.'