FROM WHERE THEY WERE hidden beneath the wooden pallet, Jean couldn’t hear movement outside the hut, but she knew the creatures were still there. The screams hadn’t stopped.
Rabbie was squirming in Jean’s tight grip. At three years old, her brother was too young to understand why staying quiet was so necessary, especially when he was too frightened to stop moving. Rabbie wanted their mother, but Jean knew that wasn’t possible. Their mother was dead. Jean had watched as shadows spilled over her mother’s shoulders. At first her mother had screamed for Jean to take Rabbie and run. She’d kept screaming, but there had been no more words.
Whether tired or defeated, Jean didn’t know, but Rabbie finally quit struggling in her arms. He gave a little whimper as his body went slack. Jean’s hand remained clamped over Rabbie’s mouth, though she was careful not to cover his nose and smother him. Jean prayed the creatures hadn’t heard the tiny sound. Now that Rabbie had quieted, Jean dared to close her eyes and wonder who or what had brought such a terrible curse upon Dorusduain.
Jean’s grandmother had taught her about curses. The old woman had died the previous year, just before Jean’s seventh birthday. It was her grandmother’s voice that filled Jean’s earliest memories. When she was a very small child, her grandmother’s stories were light and full of laughter. As Jean had grown, the tales became more somber. No longer meant to coddle or tease her, the stories transformed into wisdom and warnings.
Because of her grandmother, Jean knew to never touch a black horse that stood near the water. And she always carried a sharp knife in her pocket, should the kelpie’s spell make her lose her wits. Jean could spot a faery ring with ease. She’d held her grandmother’s hand tight when they both heard the banshee begin to keen, and she’d not been surprised when her grandmother was dead within the hour.
But all Jean had learned from her grandmother had been for naught when the shadows rose in Dorusduain, sprouting from the earth like so many wicked trees. Their black branches snaring man, woman, and child alike. Now that she was tucked away under the pallet while the village suffered, Jean racked her mind for any sign she could have missed. She could see the events of the day etched starkly in her memory. But as for warnings, she found none.
The creatures had appeared mid-morning, not at dusk or dawn when spirits are wont to slip into the mortal world. Jean’s mother had tasked her with the care of Rabbie, and Jean took it upon herself to try to teach her brother some useful skills. Rabbie was three and no longer tottered as he walked. To Jean that was good enough to help her with chores.
The day began bright and hopeful, with sunshine that encouraged swift, purposeful work because the afternoon likely would bring rain. Knowing Rabbie would be sullen about chores unless Jean made a game of it, she’d set about giving him a lesson on gathering eggs from hens.
Rabbie was delighted. Jean suffered him chasing the startled birds around their family’s hut. His chubby arms even managed to briefly capture one of the hens, though its feathers tickled him so as the hen tried to escape that Rabbie fell down giggling and the hen escaped. When her brother had tired himself enough to pay attention to her instructions, Jean showed him how to approach a roosting hen calmly. As she cooed at the clucking bird, Jean deftly slipped her hand beneath its belly and just as quickly pulled away. When she opened her palm, revealing a brown, speckled egg, Rabbie gazed at her with wide eyes. Then he squealed with delight and bid her do the trick again. Jean showed him twice more how to coax eggs from hens before bidding Rabbie try himself.
Rabbie terrified three hens and broke one egg before his face mashed up, went crimson, and burst into frustrated tears. Jean tried to reassure the little boy that this chore required patience and