As far as Sofia knew, she had been brought to the Border Village as a baby. An avalanche had killed most of the inhabitants in the mountain village where her family had lived, but some of the small children had been saved and given to people in border villages, where birth rates were low.
Sofia had never given much thought to this strange and fragmentary story. It was a distant fact, a story to concern historians more than herself. She knew that she’d had parents, and that they had died, and that this was sad. But she didn’t feel any of this sadness, except for the vague feeling of tragedy that loomed over life in general.
She had assumed that Pip and Tin had been brought to the village from the same place as she, even though their appearances were very different from hers. Sofia was strong and tall and dark, and the boys were white and small and round. They had never become friends and had never felt any sort of kinship towards each other.
But now that Pip and Tin had gone missing, she was frightened. For the first time in her life, she felt like she might be in danger as well and that her fate and that of the twins might be intertwined after all.
Aunt Sybil led Mr Borrealis into the kitchen. He sat down heavily, accepting a glass of hard liquor from Uncle Tomas. For once, Aunt Sybil did not protest at the sight of the bottle, though she refused a glass for herself.
“When did you last see the boys?”
Mr Borrealis looked unhappy.
“Yesterday afternoon. They were playing outside the store. I was unpacking a delivery of linen and called out to them to make themselves useful and help me. I said that they could keep the box afterwards, as a kind of incentive. They always build playthings out of the packing material. I got no answer, and when I went outside, they were gone.”
“Gone?” Sofia repeated.
“I didn’t think anything of it. I thought they had run off to avoid having to lift one of their lazy fingers. I was quite angry, I admit. They had even left those strange stones they are always playing with on the ground, so I figured they must have been in a hurry to get away from me. When my wife went to pick up the stones in the evening, I told her not to. I said that we should not always clean up after them, that they needed to be taught a lesson. Mrs Borrealis was not happy.”
“Are the stones still out there?” Sofia asked.
Aunt Sybil looked scoldingly at her.
“I don’t know about the stones,” Mr Borrealis said. “But the boys – they didn’t come back that evening, and Mrs Borrealis and I were very tired. We fell asleep early, and didn’t think anything of it.”
“You were always too lenient with those boys,” Aunt Sybil said. “It does not bode well to let children do everything they like.”
“That’s not helpful, Sybil,” Uncle Tomas said.
“It needed to be said.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to cause any problems,” Mr Borrealis said. “I know this is my fault.”
“It’s not,” Uncle Tomas said. “We should have known that these troubles would reach us, too.”
“What troubles?” Sofia asked.
“Tomas!” Aunt Sybil said in the same scolding she used for everybody, be they children or grown-ups.
“You know very well what I am talking about. I know that’s why you’ve been keeping a close eye on Sofia.”
Sofia frowned. She hadn’t noticed any difference in her aunt’s behavior. She wondered if she knew about Orì after all, but she couldn’t imagine that she would have kept quiet about it. It was like her aunt at all to let things slide.
“This is not appropriate talk,” Aunt Sybil said. “Sofia, it is late. You should go to bed.”
It wasn’t late at all, but Aunt Sybil’s expression didn’t allow for any objections, so Sofia got up. She left the room slowly, with a sullen and angry expression. To complete the act, she closed the door with more noise than necessary. But then, as soon as she was out of sight, she hurried to her room where she moved her bed away from the wall, just enough for a crack into which she could fit. She removed a wooden tile from the wall, revealing a gap in the size of two fingers. She could see the light from the kitchen, and shadows moving.
She heard Aunt Sybil say,
“The Assessors told me that the missing children are isolated cases, each with a very good explanation of their own. They said that there is nothing to worry about.”
“And you believe every word out of the Assessors’ mouths,” Uncle Tomas said. “If they told you the sky was yellow, you’d take it at face value.”
“They are always there for us. Everybody forgets about the border villages. Even the people living here think they would be better off elsewhere, my lazy brother being a case in point. But the Assessors care. They are reliable.”
“They control us.”
“Maybe we need controlling, like parents caring for their children. It is not always pleasant, but it is necessary.”
“Not everybody sees it that way, Sybil,” Mr Borrealis said quietly.
“Not everybody likes the inconvenient truth.”
“Why does the truth have to inconvenient?”
Aunt Sybil snorted.
“Of course, you would say that, Tomas.”
Sofia squeezed her ear against the wall. She didn’t want to miss a single word. She had no idea what they were talking about, feeling as if she was reading a book with the first few chapters ripped out. But she figured that she would collect the information like pieces of a puzzle and put it together later. If if there were pieces missing, she might still see a picture.
What missing children?
It was the first time she heard about this. There was rarely, if ever, news from any of the other border villages. Most news that reached the village came from the cities, from the castles. They chronicled events, festivities, anniversaries. Come to think of it, there was more gossip than news among what they heard from the more colorful parts of the country.
But, of course, it was wholly possible that grown-ups received different news and messages from all over the world.
The world. Sofia couldn’t picture it very clearly. Increasingly, she felt like a stranger in it. She had never been anywhere, so for her, the world might as well not exist.
“I don’t know how many cases there have been,” Uncle Tomas said on the other side of the wall. “The numbers keep changing depending on whom you’re listening to.”
“You shouldn’t listen to anybody,” Aunt Sybil hissed.
“I can’t change what I hear. Unlike you, I don’t stick my head in the sand until my ears are covered.”
“As if you could remember your own thoughts, diluted by alcohol as they are.”
There was a hard, uncomfortable silence.
“Please don’t fight on my accord,” Mr Borrealis said.
You’re not the reason, Sofia thought. They fight all the time.
“The only thing we know for sure,” Aunt Sybil said, apparently resolved to stay on the more important subject, “is that Pip and Tin are missing. Have they left before?”
“Never. They have always been odd, even as babies. They wouldn’t make eye contact with anybody but each other. Of course, they were already two years old when we got them, so maybe calling them babies is wrong. How old was Sofia when she came to you?”
“About four years. At first, she cried all the time, but I got that behavior out of her. She calmed down, and she has been a peaceable child ever since.”
Sofia held her breath. She didn’t remember anything of the kind. Was it possible that Aunt Sybil was mistaken? Or lying?
“She’s much wilder and freer than you give her credit for,” Uncle Tomas said.
“That is over now.”
“How come?” Mr Borrealis asked. Even during his time of torment, he cared enough for Sofia to not let this remark go without inquiring.
“She will become Guardian of the Bridge soon. That’ll cure her of her follies.”
There was a short silence. Sofia could feel the sadness pooling in from the other room.
“That poor girl,” Mr Borrealis finally said.
Aunt Sybil made a sound of disdain.
“Poor girl? Nobody ever called me a poor girl, and I’ve been Guardian for almost forty years.”
“We are grateful to you, Sybil, you know that we are. But it’s not a vocation I wish on anybody. Least of all Sofia.”
“She will do just fine.”
Sofia imagined her aunt’s face becoming tight and forbidding. Any objections would fall on deaf ears.
“None of this,” Uncle Tomas said after another prolonged silence during which he had probably come to the same conclusion, “changes the fact that Pip and Tin have gone missing. What should we do about that?”
He didn’t sound as if he was counting himself in with the word we.
“We will alert the Assessors,” Aunt Sybil said.
There were snorts of derision, but no disagreements.
“They will just make excuses,” Uncle Tomas mumbled.
“Be that as it may. It is the proper channel.”
“What if they never come back!?” Mr Borrealis said, with sudden desperation in his voice.
Nobody said anything, neither to soothe, nor to reason.
Mr Borrealis continued to speak.
“Everybody knows, I love the boys as if they were my own. When we were asked to take them in, Mrs Borrealis and I jumped at the chance to hear tiny footsteps running through our house. To feed the boys, to bathe them, to tell them stories at night. But since they have gotten older, it feels like they have never accepted us as their parents. Maybe we didn’t love them enough, though we tried. But I cannot imagine that they would have run away. No, Sybil, I tell you, something sinister is going on, and it is happening all around. They didn’t give us those children out of the kindness of their heart. I have long suspected that what really happened, is that they were hidden here and in the other border villages, far away from prying eyes. Almost forgotten, but only almost. And now -.”
He didn’t end the sentence. Sofia was feeling hot and cold. There was so much information, too much. She was feeling feverish. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she heard Uncle Tomas ending Mr Borrealis’ speech for him.
“Now, they are coming back for the children.”