The rhythmic crackle of logs burning in vibrant flames contrasted with the silent fall of snowflakes outside.
“Shh,” she whispered softly, a mother comforting her crying sons. Two pairs of big hazel eyes looked up at the sound of her gentle voice, her lulling tone entrancing them out of their fits. Twins; it had been quite a surprise for the woman and her husband. Although she had wanted children, she was still young and had not been ready for two. At twenty years old, she was just trying to meet the requirement of birthing her first child, one of the many rules that ensured long-lasting life at the camp. Tonight had been a good night. The twins had slept quietly and peacefully until now, waking at the sound of their mother’s sobbing. Nights like these filled her with love and joy. Nights like these made it difficult for her to do what she felt she must.
The mother laid her babies down carefully and wrapped them in their blankets, one embroidered with an “X” and one with a “K”. She looked at them both, wishing a good life for them.
“Good night,” she whispered as she pressed her lips to their foreheads. This was the last night she would say those words to both of her boys. A tear rolled down her cheek as she took her seat by the fireplace and rocked slowly in her chair.
When she saw him, her heart collapsed, crumbling inwards. The tears came strong and fast, a heavy stream that mimicked her rush of feelings.
She tried to stop herself from exploding.
The quiet chill air was pierced with emotion; her chest cracked open as anger, shock, and disbelief whooshed around, bursting from her shattered soul and whirling throughout the sky. Endless thoughts and questions swarmed throughout her brain, taking over her body like bees, stinging her skin. She couldn’t breathe, she had been betrayed, she couldn’t believe it, she wouldn’t, and yet she couldn’t deny it because there he was.
The man looked up as if sensing a shift in his surroundings. The girl stared into her brother’s eyes.
“Xavior,” she whispered. Her voice broke on his name.
She took a few slow steps before self-control became a thing of the past and she ran to him, sobbing and gasping for air as the world closed in around her. When the girl crossed the distance between them, she stood before her brother and punched him. Over and over again, she punched him and screamed his name through her tears and rattled gasps.
“How could you do this to me?” Her voice was ice laced with cracks. “You left me behind! You left me with them!” She felt herself splintering into fragments as she kept attacking Xavior, wanting to hurt him, wanting him to feel the pain she had felt during those miserable months without him. He let her believe he was dead.
The man blinked away his shock and grabbed the girl’s wrists, holding her away from his body to avoid the pounding of her flying fists.
“What the hell are you doing?” he roared, “I’m not Xavior and I don’t even know who you are!”
She stopped thrashing and pushed away from him. Tears clouded her vision.
“Xavior, it’s me. What are you talking about?” she asked in confusion.
“I am not Xavior,” he repeated slowly.
She blinked away the pain, trying to focus on the face in front of her. The details slowly became clear. Indeed he was right, this was not her brother, but the resemblance... To anyone else, the differences would have been non-existent. Her heart sank with disappointment.
“I’m sorry. I’m not the person you’re looking for.” His expression shifted, and she could tell he was struggling to remember something, as if there was a tickle in the back of his mind that he couldn’t put his finger on.
She waited, unsure of what to do.
Recognition spread across his face. “Are you looking for Xavior Wallen?”
She hesitated at the sound of her family name, then nodded slowly. How did this man know her brother?
“Maybe I can help. Come with me into camp and we can talk. It’s getting late, and whoever you are, you’re going to need a place to stay for the night. There’s an extra cottage next to mine where you can rest.”
She nodded and followed as he led the way. She was in a strange place with a strange man, but she desperately needed answers and believed he would give her just that.
Any spark of happiness at the camp was shrouded by clouds of hopelessness and misery. The heavy demeanor left the villagers feeling empty and tired, never content with their eventless lives.
Rowan’s mother was no exception. Once a beautiful woman, she had been kind and loving, not yet affected by her environment. After the old camp leaders had passed away and the new ones had taken their place, the camp had become a jail, embodying the harsh ways of this new authority.
Now, her beauty and pleasant personality were gone. She had been preparing that morning’s meal when the letter arrived. A knock on the door, brisk and firm. The woman paused her work and walked over, opening it tentatively.
“A note from the camp leaders.” The messenger spoke quickly and in a monotone voice. “No response required,” he added before leaving.
She shut the door with a shaking hand and read the note over several times. Rowan had run away. One of the leaders had spotted her fleeing late last night, but had not bothered chasing after her due to her unnecessary presence at the camp. Anger boiled deep in her gut. She would not mind a life without her youngest daughter. She did not care what would happen to her outside of the camp. The rage was there for fear for herself. The camp leaders did not tolerate what they considered criminal actions. They would make their family pay.
Whether the punishment would be later that day or not for years, it would come. And it would be Rowan’s fault.
At least now she is gone for good. That girl can’t be a burden to me anymore.
The furious woman went back to the kitchen and continued preparing breakfast.
They sat at a small round table. She was grateful for the warmth of the fire and the mug of hot tea cupped between her hands. It had been nearly a month since she had left camp, and she had missed the comfort of heat.
Kris was across from her, sipping quietly.
“Why don’t you tell me your story first, and then I’ll fill in what I know,” he offered. “Who are you?”
The girl took a deep breath.
“I’m Rowan. I used to live in a camp a little south of here, about a month's trip by foot. Life there was terrible; the camp leaders were cruel and I had no one who cared for me. I lived with my parents and two sisters, but still I had no one. I could never accept the ways of our government and lifestyle, and they could never accept me because of that.” Rowan cringed as memories of her old life resurfaced.
“I was so miserable and I became angry. I had considered running away many times before, but the camp elders always told stories of how our camp came to be: they fled their previous camps as young children and settled in a new area with their families. Eventually, the other camps died off, or so they said. They told us we had nowhere to go. If we tried to leave, we would die. I believed them, so I stayed.” She ignored the rage for those lies that left her blood boiling.
“My brother was the only other reason I didn't run sooner. Xavior was my rock. He understood why I felt the way I did about our camp, and didn’t question it. He didn’t think I was a freak or dangerous for having my own thoughts, even when everyone else thought so. He was such a good person, but then… there was an incident… and he...” She swallowed hard and fiddled with the simple ring on her left hand, a gift from Xavior a few years ago. The deep blue gem winked in the firelight, reminding her of the twinkle of stars. A calming sense of familiarity washed over her, and she let it steady her breathing.
“He died. I felt my world fall apart after that. I felt it shatter. I hated the camp leaders for letting him die. I hated my family for not mourning his death. I hated him for leaving me all alone, and I hated myself for hating him. One day I decided leaving was my best option. It meant I would discover a new life or face death alone, but either option was better than staying. I made up my mind and that night I left.”
She thought back to her harsh journey.
She shuddered and braced herself against the unbearable cold.
The wind bit at her face, violently attacking every inch of raw, exposed skin. Her legs begged her to stop, to rest for just a moment, but she pushed onwards, limbs aching and body screaming in protest. She had thought the dangerously low temperatures and treacherous conditions would have left her numb, but the weather hadn’t even granted her that. Instead, she felt the prick of frozen particles collecting on her skin, burning her flesh with icy wrath. The determined girl trudged along, feet dragging, watery eyes blinking away the sting of the cold, until she stumbled upon a cave.
Dark, ominous and eerily inviting, its open mouth sat before her, welcoming her existence with a twisted kind of grin. She looked over her shoulder at the wintery landscape behind her. At the swirling snow caught on the wind. She felt the world’s anger for what she had done in every gust of anger and frustration, every delicate flake that caught on her lashes before melting and slipping away in disappointment. The world hated her for who she was, and she hated the world for making her that way. The bitterness was tangible.
She turned back to the cave, weighing her options. This could be an animal’s territory, possibly home to a pack of wolves. If I enter this cave, there is a chance I might never come out. The thought of hungry beasts discovering her sleeping body disturbed her deeply, but just then another surge of wind and snow hurled itself at her back with such ferocity that she stumbled forward. She regained her balance and took a deep breath before making her decision and forcing her feet into motion.
As she stepped into the cave, she felt the darkness pooling around her ankles, curling and creeping up her body; a whisper, a tickle, a collection of fleeting moments. It threatened to consume her, suffocate her, but she suppressed it like the fearless girl she pretended to be. It had been a long time since she let things as silly as the dark frighten her, and she wouldn’t go back, not now. She regained control, forced herself to remain calm. Her heartbeat slowed and she walked further inside.
That night in the cave had been the hardest. Although she had been exhausted from her extensive travels, her sleep had been fitful and plagued with nightmares. Visions of the camp she left behind, her family being punished for her actions…
Another deep breath. Kris’ gaze was steady from across the table.
“I've been traveling north since then, until I arrived here.” She remembered discovering the camp.
Utter white blankness stretched around her. Although winter was fading into spring, the cold remained and had grown stronger as she had traveled farther north.
She sat perfectly still on the white-powdered hill, eyes trained on what lay before her. It had been so long, she had become a part of the landscape. The shock should have faded hours ago, but the sight was still a surprise.
The hill sloped downwards into a wide open valley, and in that valley was a camp. Almost identical to the one she had left behind, she had initially wondered if her travels had come full circle and led her back to her family, but then she had noticed the pleasant demeanor of people living content lives and she had known this was a different camp.
“When I saw you, I thought you were Xavior. I thought he had betrayed me, faked his death and fled, leaving me behind. Looking at you now, I see the differences, but you look so similar that I thought you were him and my emotions took over. I’m sorry.”
She finished, watching him process everything she had just told him.
“Well,” he started, “the first thing you should know is that my name is Kris. And my last name is Wallen.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “But that’s…”
“Your last name, I know.” He sighed before continuing. “I’ve lived at this camp since I was very young. When I was a little boy, my aunt would tell me stories of another camp. She said life there was very different from here, and I should be glad this was my home.”
It looked as if Kris was reaching deep inside him for memories he had neatly tucked away.
“She told me I had a mother and a father and that they had to make some very difficult choices. My mother was not able to care for me, so she gave me to her sister, her only remaining family member other than her husband. Her sister, my aunt, decided she would take a risk and leave to pursue a better life. My mother was sad to see her sister and son leave, but she let us go. Life with us had been too complicated, and it was a relief for us to be gone. My aunt brought me here, so this is where we lived.”
Questions formed on Rowan’s lips, but she didn’t voice them aloud. He had sat through her story, listening patiently, so she would do the same for him. She fought down the urge to speak.
“She was a wonderful woman, and her death a few years ago was very hard on me, but I eventually continued on with my life because I know that’s what she would have wanted for me. Rowan...” He paused, his expression unreadable. “Rowan, the reason my mother could not care for me is because she was trying to care for another child. Xavior was my twin. I never really knew him because we were separated at birth, but I always hoped he lived a good life and that we would meet again someday. I didn’t know… I didn’t know he passed away until now.”
Rowan struggled to understand the information as it all sunk in. “I’m so sorry… you would have loved to meet him. He was such a wonderful person.”
Kris nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry too.”
“So… this means you’re my brother?”
Kris nodded again. “I never knew I had other siblings. I left when it was just Xavior and me.”
Rowan felt sorry for her brother. She couldn’t begin to comprehend how jarring this must be, for her to just walk into his life and turn it upside down. And yet he did not seem angry, only calm and contemplative. His demeanor was so similar to Xavior’s it made her heart ache.
“How did you do it?” he asked her. “All by yourself… you never gave up.”
She considered his words. “I guess I just knew that I left for a reason and I wouldn’t want to quit on myself. I thought of Xavior through it all. Him in his home with the stars. I don’t think I would have made it through the worst times without his help.” Again she thought of the cave.
She leaned against the smooth, cool curve of the cave wall, bundled in her rags, and gazed at the stars, feeling more peaceful than she had in a long time. She drifted into sleep, and this time she dreamt of her brother and the night sky.
“Finding a better life was important for me. And I think I’m on my way to finding that.” A small smile. It faded as she remembered she had no idea what would happen next.
“What do we do now?” she asked quietly.
“I suppose we should send word to your—our—family. To let them know where you are. That you’re with me and we are both alive. There is a camp messenger who will deliver a letter for us.”
Rowan agreed, although she knew it wouldn’t do much. If anything, the letter would probably go unread.
“Would you like to stay here?” he asked gently. “The cottage next door has been vacant for years; it could be yours for now. I’m sure the camp leaders would be happy to help.”
His last sentence surprised her, a reminder of how different their homes were. Rowan thought of Xavior, how he had always encouraged her to fight for a happy life. She didn’t have anywhere else to go and she wanted to get to know her brother better and understand his way of life. “Yes, I would be glad to start over in a new camp.”
Kris smiled. They finished their tea and he brought Rowan next door.
“It’s small, but it’s nice. There’s a cot and fresh clothes in the other room where you can sleep.”
Rowan felt the exhaustion from her travels start to weigh her down. “Thank you,” she said quietly, hoping he sensed the sincere appreciation in her voice.
From his slight nod, she knew he had. “I’ll be right next door if you need me. We can talk more in the morning. Good night, Rowan.”
“Good night, Kris,” she said as he exited and closed the door softly behind him.
Rowan stripped away her dirty rags and stepped into her new clothes. She slipped into bed and thought of her family back at the other camp. She wondered if they missed her. Rowan pushed away the thought before the she had time to consider the answer, avoiding the disappointment.
She thought of her brother in the night sky. Xavior, she called to him. I miss you. I wish you were here and we could do this together. I wish Kris had met you again so he could love you as much as I do. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I think if I stay with Kris I will be okay. If he is anything like you, he will be an amazing big brother. Thank you for teaching me to have faith, and thank you for watching over me. Good night.
Rowan felt at peace and hopeful that she could have a future. Her eyelids grew heavy and she let them shut as sleep welcomed her. She knew Xavior was looking out for her. She pictured him in his home amongst the stars. He saw that his little sister was finally happy, and he smiled.
It was well into the night when she heard the knock. Unable to sleep, the woman had perched in her chair, rocking slowly before the fire. The sound startled her, and she blinked in confusion and annoyance as she went to the door.
A small woman handed her the letter without a word and slipped away into the night. She held the note and went back to her chair. She sat down slowly, examining the paper.
From Rowan and Kris was scrawled across in neat handwriting. Inside was an explanation of what had become of her son and youngest daughter.
She read through it carefully.
Then she sighed, tossing it into the hungry flames beside her, and continued rocking.