“This is what it looks like,” Sig said, handing over the page where he had drawn a picture of the flower he wanted the scouting party—the children—to find. He wanted to go himself, to search for the flower, to seek help in a nearby town, but he had to stay where he was needed. “There may not be many,” he warned, “this close to winter.”
When it first happened, many of the children had joked that the grown folk were all playing a jest to goad the children into doing their chores and their studies. Sig hadn’t thought so. Some of the town’s grown folk might be daft and spiteful enough to play such a trick, but not all, not most. Still, many of the children held on to that hope for a few days. But then seven days passed, and they still hadn’t woken. One of them, old Rose, had even died in her sleep. She’d been ill and was expected to go sometime during the winter. Preparations were being made. Her passing should have been honored. Instead it went unnoticed until we heard a scream from the small party we’d sent to check all the houses. They couldn’t eat or drink while they slept. So unless this was enchantment that preserved, or unless they woke soon, they would all begin to die.
The scouting party found a flower or two in the woods just outside the town. They tried to use it, crushing it into a juice with other herbs and the acid of a tomato. They tried to feed it to a sleeper, and they waited for a day. Two days.
Sig watched from the doorway even as the children of the man and woman who took the potion knelt beside the bedsides of their mother and father.
It didn’t work.
It happened like this. On the first morn, the children who typically woke first anyway, began their day without knowing anything was amiss. As the morning hours passed, more and more children woke to a strangely quiet town. More and more children found their grown guardians still slumbering: mothers, fathers, grand-folks, aunts, uncles, teachers, trade masters, even the town leaders. Even some of those who had just passed over the cusp of adulthood, like Sig’s older brother. All were asleep and could not be roused. The children tried shaking, shouting, dousing with water, pricking and pinching. Nothing worked.
As might be expected, the children all reacted differently on that first day. Some were glad and took advantage, and it was not always those tending towards mischief and naughtiness. The mayor’s son was relieved that both his mother and his tutor were asleep, for he was to begin his private exams that very day. He had waited till the last moment to study and prepare, and had regretted it and wished for more time. He spent his morning blessing the spirits of his ancestors, tucking into some milk and bread, and then opening every book he had so he could make up for the time he’d wasted reading the adventure stories he preferred over figures and dates. Most of the children behaved themselves at first, believing the grown folk would wake and would know—as they always seemed to know or somehow find out—who had done what mischief, say if pies were missing or formerly tidy floors were scuffed with mud or grass, or items misplaced. Some were immediately frightened and alarmed, mostly the youngest and the oldest. They youngest wept and the oldest fretted and wondered what to do.
Sig, though the youngest in his household, was among the oldest who were awake. He was certain someone would take over at some point, but until they did, he gathered a few of the older children and told them to check on all the houses, starting with the ones with young children who had no older siblings to look after them.
He asked that everyone be gathered in the town hall. That’s what the grown folk always did when there was some crisis in town. When the merchants didn’t sell as many wares as they had projected. Or when orchards didn’t give as much fruit. Or if some new and difficult rule came down from the Baron or even the King. The grown folk would gather and discuss it. The leaders would mediate and assure that the discussion did not get out of hand if there were impassioned voices on either side of the matter being discussed.
Their town was growing, almost by the year, and even through a few lean years. Despite that, Sig still knew most of the children in the town, for it was still small enough for one to manage such a thing, especially one whose family had lived in the town for three generations. Sometimes his mother joked that their family made up half the town. Indeed, the children that Sig had sent to check on all the houses were his own cousins mostly, and a few close friends.
It would take a day, perhaps longer, for all the houses to be checked. Sig wanted to go the rounds as well, but he had stationed himself in the town hall, to receive the children as they began arriving. He knew they would become fidgety and hungry. So he let them play in the playing grounds that was just outside the hall. And it worked. With the children playing, the town square appeared as if everyone were on holiday, save that the grown folk could not be seen bustling about their business or watching over the children.
As they arrived, Sig counted the children and took down their names. There should have been almost a hundred children in town. He recognized most and those he didn’t were known to someone he did. So he was able to ask the arriving children to help figure out whose house still needed checking.
As the day grew older and more and more children gathered, Sig was growing nervous. None who arrived were older than him by more than a few moons, and even those were glad to turn to Sig. But close to midday, one of his school-mates, a girl who wore a monocle about her neck so she could inspect her books and the nearby forest’s insects and leaves more closely, strode up to him with a sheaf of paper. On it, she had written all the actions that she thought they must take. They had to find out what had happened to the grown folk, whether it was enchantment or disease, or something else altogether. They had to find out if whatever had happened would take the children as well, or the animals of the town. They had to send for help from the nearby towns. Or even directly to the Baron if the nearby towns were similarly afflicted. They had to make sure they did some of the things that the grown folk did so that the town would not quickly fall into ruin. To start with, someone would have to go and light the night lanterns in a few hours’ time, so they would not be sitting in darkness. And once all the bread was eaten, someone would have to bake more bread. She presented this to Sig with both confidence and humility, asking him to look the list over and let her know how she might assist him with any of the tasks or with the rest of the children.
Sig was stunned at how calm she seemed. She a year his junior. Meanwhile, he was sweating and shivering at once at the thought that no one older had yet come by to take charge. He said so and she gave a quiet laugh, and admitted that she was terribly frightened. But making the list, trying to think of what they might, and then doing it made her feel less frightened. Sig told her of his idea to have a town hall meeting as the grown folk did. She smiled. In truth, she beamed at the idea. She hadn’t thought of it. She had thought he was gathering them all in the hall so he could better manage them.
The girl’s name was Mil. Sig had her help and the help of a dozen or so others. But when evening fell, he found he was still the one who was directing everyone. Leaders emerged among the children, but they all acquiesced to Sig’s ultimate authority. All the children, even his friends, looked to him.
Sig thought he would be shouted down by some unruly types. He saw them lingering in the back. But he wasn’t. Perhaps it was because he started by assuring them he was not interested in lording over them. No one older had yet been found awake but when they were, he would let them know what had happened and give them charge of the town. Until then, he would simply serve as the hub around which they, the children, would do what they needed to do to find out what had happened and to keep their town and themselves safe. He asked for volunteers to do many of the tasks that needed done that night and the next morning. Then they would speak of what had happened, for that would be a deeper discussion, and one that would no doubt would be fraught with much confusion and worry.
Once the tasks were parsed out, and it was decided how they would do them and that all would gather in the hall again each day and night at the same hour until the grown folk were awake again, they began to speak of it.
Everyone above the age of sixteen years was asleep. Questions were thrown out, but there were no answers to be had yet.
Did anyone know if a stranger came to town and was mistreated, and might have lain a curse on the grown folk, sparing the children? What kind of a curse could circumvent the protective charms contained in their guardians, the fearsome gargoyles that both encircled the town and gave the town its name many hundreds of years past? Had their never-sleeping eyes seen any danger approaching? Did anyone know of any potion that the town’s own folk were working on that might have gone awry?
“The cows are also sleeping,” someone said. “The calves are awake.”
“We’ll have to find a way to feed them.”
“No—well, yes. But I meant the grown folk.”
They found that it wasn’t just their own grown folks who were affected. The cows, cats, dogs, and pigs were as well. The grown animals were all asleep, while their young were awake. The birds seemed the exception. The chickens were still clucking about the coops of those who kept them. Their messenger pigeons were still awake, as were the birds of the wood and the wild.
Sig had hoped it was a temporary sickness, like a fever, burning hot, and then gone, as if it never were. The first few days, the children tended their own grown folk simply by checking in on them. They spent their days mostly caring for each other, and trying to solve the mystery of what had happened to the town. The youngest children, the ones who didn’t know how to read, played. The babies were fed milk from the cold stores, and tended by a group of their older siblings. They were lucky that no one fell ill and needed a healer. Many of the children fell and bumped themselves and got into scuffles, but no one was hurt at all.
They all were restless, so restless that they couldn’t sleep those first few nights, and so they didn’t. They huddled together telling stories, or taking more treats from their larders. They waited a day. Then on the third morning, Sig sent out their messenger birds, and they waited again, for an answer. At least a few of the birds should have returned that very day, for they were only sent to the nearest towns. By bird flight, even at a leisurely pace, the closest town was only half an hour away. But after a few days passed, Sig feared that something must have happened to the birds.
Sig had wondered about sending out parties to the nearest towns or even to the Baron’s manse. But he was reluctant to after what happened with the birds. Still, there were those among the children who were daring and brave. They pressed Sig to let them try.
After seven days had passed with no change, Sig relented. He sent out the older children in teams of three to the four neighboring towns. All went on foot, for the horses slept. But the closest towns were a day’s walk or less. He sent a wagon with provisions and a team of seven to the Baron’s manse. He ordered all the parties to turn back if they met with danger, ill weather, or just discomfort.
While they waited for the scouts, the messengers, to return, the children in town noticed strange things. Days passed and none of the children tired. None slept. Sig wanted to sleep. He lay down and tried. They all tried when it got dark. But they could not sleep.
Mil had gathered a group of children to look through the town records, and scan the library’s many books and scrolls, to find clues about what might have happened. She showed Sig a few books that seemed to be written in some strange and mangled-looking hand. When Sig told her to start with the books that were in the languages they could read, Mil told him that the book was one of the town’s records and should have been in their own language.
There were no visitors to their town. No merchants or traders. No travelers going on to the larger towns farther north. No messengers crossing east to visit the Baron. The town boasted fewer visitors when the weather grew cold, but there should have been someone passing through after seven days.
They had their first true moment of horror in those first seven days, when on a check of the grown folk, one group found old Rose, the town’s archivist, and honorary elder, who never came to any functions save the celebratory ones. The children had learned to hold mirrors up to the sleeper’s noses and wait for the mirror to fog to assure that the sleeper was still only sleeping.
But that afternoon, they saw that Rose was not breathing. She lay still and pale in the eternal sleep. Sig felt sick wondering when it had happened, for they had only checked on the grown folk a few times, since they all seemed well and preserved. After that, he sent more children out to check on the grown folk twice a day, once in the morning, and once before evening fell.
They had tried to pour water down the grown folks’ throats, but they knew of no way to feed them or clean them. But other than Rose, none of the grown folk seemed to have changed. None were growing pale. None grew any bedsores as the children who studied with the healers had warned. The beds were dry and clean. That meant there was indeed some kind of enchantment at play.
Sig wasn’t sure whether to be glad or not. He remembered how his mother had cared for her aged aunt, who lay dying in a sickbed. He had always thought his mother kind and strong, but all the more so when we learned what she had to do to for her aunt, to clean her, feed her, tend her. Sig had always fled and his mother had let him. He wondered if having to give such care was better than watching their grown folk in some enchanted sleep that none of them could understand or break. He spent most of his days about the town, but he went every morning to give his mother a kiss, his father a clasp of the hand, and his brother a flick on the forehead.
The children began their more diligent checks of the grown folk, and their work of keeping the town running by cleaning, cooking, mending, guarding, searching, and chronicling. They no longer waited for the return of their messenger pigeons. They feared that the scouts would not return and feared what that might mean, but they did not speak of it at their daily meetings in the town hall, other than to ask Sig if there was any word of the scouts, and receive the answer that there wasn’t.
The town hall meetings soon came to be held only once, at the end of the day, after Sig realized that most of the children were now occupied with morning duties. They had resumed a semblance of ordinary days, only somewhat changed. It reminded Sig somewhat of the rationing days when he was half the age he was. There were five years of bad harvests in their own orchards, and in the fields that belonged to the farming towns. The entire barony had to ration their food and even beg food from the King during the last winter before the earth in their barony became fruitful again. The town had made adjustments and continued on.
The smallest children wanted to help with some of the tasks that the older children thought were too dangerous, like baking and smithing. They kept picking up tools or going too close to the cook fires anyway, so at last the older children put them to work. As expected, some of the younger children were still too clumsy not to burn themselves or mash their fingers with a hammer.
It happened often, so Sig was told. And yet none of the children were hurt. And still none had fallen ill to fevers or colds. None had earaches or scrapes. Sig was beginning to wonder if that had anything to do with the state of their grown folk.
Sig himself had become the town’s smith now, as his father would have been if he were awake. He was a leader, as his mother would have been if she were awake. Only he was more like the mayor, not just a councilman. The children had their fears, but their fears were in the backs of their minds. They had enough calm to do their tasks and even to enjoy their days.
Sig even became confident enough to pass judgement on some minor wrongdoings. The worst of these was theft. One of the boys was caught stealing, not from the food stores or anything vital. It was, of all things, a fine chair that belonged to the house of one of the younger children. The child had seen it and cried, but thought nothing could be done. The mayor’s son was the one who confronted the thief, caught him, and brought him before Sig. Some of the children had refused to do any tasks or jobs, seeing that the grown folk were unharmed but unable to stop any mischief. Sig was at a loss at first. But then he recalled something he’d once tried with one of his teachers. It was a rare time that he challenged what the grown folk told him. But he believed he had been wrongfully punished, and he had asked if he might define his own punishment.
He asked the thief what punishment he thought he deserved for stealing. As expected, the boy half-defiantly and half-jokingly said no punishment. But Sig just looked at the boy without saying anything, hoping he wouldn’t have to resort to what the grown folk did and just parse our punishment. The thief said he would give back the chair and apologize. Sig was relieved that the boy didn’t go the route of denying wrongdoing, though the punishment he chose was still too soft. The boy at last said the only thing he could think of was that he should be put in jail for a few days. But Sig wondered what the boy would learn from being locked away. And he thought that locking away should be reserved for the worst kind of criminal. Those who could not be helped, who were far too dangerous to let loose. Sig mentioned that in ancient and brutal times, thieves would get their hands cut off. A nervous whisper passed along those who were present in the hall. Sig knew that a few days in a jail cell would be a rest to the thief. A true punishment would be something else. He gave the boy a choice. Five days working at the forge with him or one day with both his hands bound—that would simulate the cutting off without the brutality and tragic permanence of actually losing his hands. The boy chose easily the one day of punishment to five. Sig approved the punishment. Afteward, someone pointed out to the thief that he would have to have help from others to do the things he needed to do.
“You’ll have to hold your bowels in for a day,” one of his friends said. “No one will help you with that.” Suddenly, the boy realized he should have chosen the other option.
Sig had feared retaliation from the boy or his friends. He had feared that others might give up, might think that their carrying on without the grown folk was a ruse, and they should stop and succumb to chaos. But his fears regarding his fellow young folk were unfounded.
When the next horror struck them, it did not come from the children.
Screams were heard again. But this time, they were not just screams of fear, but shouts of actions.
Everyone who could leave their work, who could hear the screams and shouts, converged on the source. Sig was fetched and he raced to the house.
There were almost a dozen children inside the green house by the time Sig arrived. Half of them had thrown their bodies over the sleeping forms of the man and woman in the bedchamber. The other half were lobbing anything they could find at two looming forms in a dark corner of the chamber.
“Fire! Salt! Garlic! Try anything!”
Sig could only stare as the girl who had yelled out the command, rushed past him, pushing her hand into a bag of salt. She brought out a fistful and flung it at the shadowy forms.
Two more children rushed past him. They were holding lit torches. Without pause, they swept into the bedchamber and held the torches out to the looming shadows. This time, the shadows drew back. They shrunk from the lapping, crackling flames of the torches. Sig had already seen that they were no ordinary shadows, but now they took on a more solid form. They seemed to drip as with some foul and oily mud. They stank of a bog or marsh, and they seemed to cry out in some hollow whispering cry that sounded like a low-pitched sinister wind, the wind of a storm that threatens to destroy one’s town.
The shadows seemed to melt back into the corner, back into the wall, but the advancing children were not satisfied. They called out through the open window to others who were waiting outside the walls, waiting with more torches.
Sig ran outside to see a group of torch-wielding boys and girls chasing off two dripping shadows that shambled and slipped and managed to melt away into the surrounding forest. The torch-bearers were angry. They chased after the shadows, but Sig sent a few of the cooler-tempered children to bring back the chasers.
He went into the house to the bedchamber. Six children were gathered around the bed. The six children of the man and woman who lay sleeping.
Sig looked down at the man and woman and he gasped.
“We’ve been checking on them every day and night, and nothing like this has happened,” Sig said at the next town hall meeting.
But the children began to compare their stories, and they found that they had been noting some changes in the past few days. Some of the grown folk looked pale, perhaps a bit thinner. But none as gaunt and shriveled as the man and woman Sig had seen in the green house.
Many children mentioned thinking they had seen a shadow flickering in a corner. Or something slinking in the corner of their eyes. Some, especially those whose houses were closer to the edge of town, had begun to feel nervous about their evening checks.
It wasn’t until that day that anyone actually saw the things, the shadowy creatures, slinking into their house. The shadows had latched onto their mother and father, and seemed to be drinking something, leeching something vital. Not blood as a natural leech drinks. But some vitality. The children only watched at first, not knowing what to do. When they screamed and yelled, the creatures did nothing. It wasn’t until one brave son threw himself over his mother and father that the creatures wavered. Then one brave daughter did the same. Then another child, and another, until all six of the grown folks’ children were blocking the shadow things from consuming their mother and father any further.
The six children kept asking Sig if it was too late. They had gotten his permission to carry their mother and father to the town hall, so they could watch over them always. The man and woman were alive, though pale and weak-looking.
After that, all the children wanted to bring their grown folk to the town hall, and out of their dark homes. They did not wait for night to fall to light the night lanterns. And those who lit them saw the shadows, lurking and waiting in the woods surrounding the town. Some perhaps were even waiting in the shadows of the great statues, the gargoyles that were meant to guard their town from such dangers.
“They are not enough,” one of the children said of the statues. “We must be the defenders.”
Sig let them speak, let them express their frustrations and fears, and their ideas. Some wondered what the creatures were, if they were ghouls or goblins. Some wondered if they should abandon the town. Others reminded that the scouts had not returned. Even as terror clutched his heart, Sig remained calm enough to note some of those ideas. The town hall was not big enough. It could not hold all the grown folk even if they were sitting and standing. It would certainly not hold them if they were lying down.
The nearby inn, the grand inn that had been closed up because it was too big for the children to maintain, that could indeed hold as many as half the grown folk in the town. And the houses near the town square, including the mayor’s big house, which the mayor’s son freely offered, could hold the rest.
Someone mentioned, rightly, that their stores of fuel were running low. Time had passed quickly. A few months had passed, three or four, and they were in winter. They had been using more and more fuel as the weather grew colder and colder. They needed to conserve it, else they would freeze, or be overrun by shadows.
One day, as they prepared the grand inn, another alarm sounded. Sig dreaded what else might have gone wrong, but he was delighted to see that the alarm had heralded the return of some of the scouts he had sent out.
His delight did not last long. They had strange news to report, strange and grim. They had traveled for days and days, not growing hungry or weary, and not even realizing how much time had passed at first, until one of them begun to keep track. They never reached the next town, and kept traveling over terrain that seemed familiar, as if they were almost there. When they realized that something was amiss, they turned around and headed back to their own town. Again, they traveled for days and days, fearing they would soon get lost. They despaired, but then they gathered themselves, and steeled their wills against the path. They leap-frogged, one going forth until just a speck, but still within sight of the others, then another would go farther until he or she was just within sight of the first, then another would go out even farther, each one keeping sight of two others as they went forth. And suddenly the path didn’t just seem familiar, it was familiar. It was the path to their town, and soon, they saw the watch towers and the guardians, and they raced home.
They still were not weary. They only wanted to see their families, and then help with the defense of their town against this new enemy.
Sig hoped that the other scouting parties would find their way home, and do so without being troubled by the shadows. So far, the shadows only seemed a danger to the sleeping grown folk, but he could not trust they would remain harmless to the children.
The shadows encroached. The children used torches to drive them away but every day and night that passed, more shadows arrived, lurking just outside the town. The children used more and more fuel to keep bright torches burning at all hours. The town’s night lanterns didn’t seem to cast enough light to chase the shadows away. They painstakingly moved all the grown folk into the grand inn and the surrounding houses in the town square. The grand inn was also the tallest building in the town, barring the four watch towers, which Sig now kept manned at all times.
For another few months, their town was besieged. The shadows came only at night, for the children kept sunlight streaming upon the grown folk, and were vigilant in their patrolling. But at night, only the torches and lanterns were there as protection, meager shadows themselves the torches, compared to the sun. Some of the shadow-things slipped through and managed to drink from a few sleepers before they were caught and chased off. The children forged weapons. Arrows and pikes with flaming heads. But their stores of oil were growing lighter and emptier each day. They had no way to replenish them.
One night, Sig was called to the eastern watchtower when the watchers there saw something they had not seen before.
There was a taller shadow drifting among the others, drifting toward the town. Not shambling but swaying gracefully, in the shape of a woman with flowing hair and flowing robes.
“She’s beautiful,” proclaimed one of the little girls, taking the words from Sig’s mind. The girl thought the shadow looked like the lady of their realm, who was indeed beautiful.
The other children in the tower were wary though. One thought the shadow looked like a most impossible thing—an evil-looking witch. Sig had met a few witches in his life already, for many came through their town on the way to the Baron’s manse. Most were kindly. They liked to conjure sweets for the children when the parents weren’t looking, claiming the right to spoil all good children with gifts, as good aunties do. When he’d boldly asked once what of the bad children, the witch laughed musically, and said bad children would still get sweets but only if they mended their ways and learned their lessons. There was one witch he’d seen, who seemed distant and haughty as if she didn’t like children, but then there were many grown folk who didn’t like children. And even that witch had been kind to a girl who’d fallen hard and skinned her knees, and who was so frightened, that instead of crying, she had a look of shocked horror on her face at the sight of her badly bloodied knees. The witch had sat the girl down and cleaned up her knees, bandaged them, and given the girl a lollipop with orders to eat the whole thing. There was medicine in it to numb pain, but the girl didn’t know that. All the witches were different, but all had had the same otherwordly air to them. All held power. Perhaps that was what they were seeing in that shadow-woman or shadow-witch.
As Sig watched, the tall shadow bent down and seemed to melt away into the other shadows.
It happened that way for many more nights. The tall shadow appeared and came closer, but did not try to breach the town as the other shadows did, much less did she—or it—try to come anywhere near the town square.
In the sixth month since the grown folk had fallen asleep and the month after the tall shadow form appeared, Sig ordered the children to fall back to the town square. They hadn’t the fuel reserves to defend the town proper. They abandoned the watchtowers and watched now from the highest floor of the grand inn.
Sig cursed himself for not being wiser about the fuel. If the grown folk were awake, they would have made sure the fuel they had last for many years, not mere months.
None had died. None more of the grown folk, after Rose. And none of the children, if one did not count the scouts who had still not returned. Yet it felt to them that they were nearing the end of their days. Still, they fought. They shot flaming arrows at shadows that slunk toward houses where the grown folk lay. Sentries waved torches and stabbed flaming pikes at the shadows at ground level.
Sig kept his eye on the tall shadow.
“If only the sun would cease to set,” one of the children said, rather poetically, during the morning town hall. Sig had continued the meetings, if only for the camaraderie they could give each other. He had moved them to the mornings after sunrise, for that was when the patrols could have some rest.
All quietly agreed with the child who had spoken. The sun was their strongest ally, their strongest weapon. The shadows could not breach the sunlight.
So it happened that the sun did not set that day. The day-counters came to report to Sig in what should have been the midnight hour. They did not just watch the sun and moon. They counted the hours using hourglasses and water drips. But before they told Sig that the sun should have set many hours before, Sig knew. They all knew.
The sun had not moved from its place in the sky since they had willed it to stay.
“I was not certain before,” Mil said at their next town hall. “But I am certain now, now that we have taken control of the sun.” She pointed out of a window to the grand inn across the square. “They’re not the ones who are asleep. We are.”
A murmur ran through the town hall.
“How can that be?” Sig asked. “We are here. We are awake.”
Mil shook her head. “We are dreaming this.”
“All of us? Together? In one dream? How?”
Mil did not have the answer to the last questions, but she provided a list of clues that supported her claim. None of them had the need to sleep since it happened. None of them tired or got injured or sick. They ate out of habit, not hunger. And if they forgot to eat, they did not weaken. They could not reach any other town, either by bird or traveler. No one else had come to their town. At first, that could have meant that the ways were blocked either by nature or by law. If by nature, they might have hoped that their lord, the Baron, might be trying to find a way in as the children were trying to find a way out. If by law, then the Baron might have learned of the affliction in their town and blocked the roads on purpose. But three scouting parties had returned with the same news as the first. They could not even find the paths to the other towns. It was not because they’d gotten lost. At least two of the children in each party had been running back and forth between all the towns in the barony since they could run. All of it might point to enchantment, powerful enchantment, but enchantment all the same. Bu Mil insisted that it was not enchantment that caused all the strange things, or that kept the grown folk preserved.
The sleep was not natural. The dream was not natural. But it was a dream.
“We don’t need scouts to try and reach the nearest town,” Mil said. “We need scouts to try and wake up, see if I am right or wrong, and return to us and tell us.”
Many found hope in Mil’s words. Whether or not she was right, it was something new, after many weary nights of the same unending struggle with the shadows, whose nature they had not been able to discover. A few teams of sentries had even endeavored to capture some for study, but the shadows always slipped away. Everyone felt at once helpless to save their town and trapped in their town.
As before, there were volunteers. They could not sleep naturally, so some of the healers made a sleeping draught and gave it to the volunteers. The draught did not work, but Mil realized that it was because they were already sleeping, and what they needed was a waking draught.
Sig had thought to wait until spring when that flower would grow, the one that he had tried to use before on the grown folk, the one that could wake and heal. It had not worked on the grown folk, but it might work on the volunteers. And they might not have to wait till spring.
“We can keep the sun from setting with our sheer wills,” Sig said. “So it seems. Perhaps we can grow the flower, even in winter.”
So they did. Those who had skill in growing, whose mothers and fathers had orchards, orchards that they had tried tending before the town’s siege began, made a warm place, a bright place, for the flowers to grow, with rich soil, and fresh water.
Not only did they grow the flowers, they grew them in only a day.
The potion was made again. It was given to the four volunteers, and sure enough, they fell asleep.
The rest of them waited for days, days they counted by the turns of an hourglass, for now that they wielded the power to keep the sun hanging in the sky, they could keep the shadows at bay without need for so many sentries and flaming weapons.
The volunteers never woke on their own.
Winter’s chill soon grew cold enough to produce snow, and while the day abided, the clouds covered the town from the sun’s sight.
One day another alarm was raised, for a shadow was seen in the grand inn. Though all the doors and windows were open and daylight illumined every corner, this shadow stood in defiance of the light and bent over the body of someone’s mother. Torches were lit. Sig led the attack this time and he jabbed the shadow with the fire and only when it caught fire did it release the poor woman it was draining. Her hair and dress caught fire too. She was doused with water by healers as the shadow was chased off by defenders.
As Sig had feared, with the sun’s full power blocked by the clouds and the snow, the shadows would once again gain ground in the town. They had tried at the last town meeting to will the snow and the clouds away, but it had not worked. It was indeed like a dream, where one had great and strange abilities that one did not have in waking, but where one could not always control those abilities.
The healers made a sleeping draught and gave it to two of the volunteers who had taken the waking draught. Sig hadn’t known how long to wait. Mil warned that if they didn’t wait long enough, the sleepers might only be awake for a moment. But with the shadows encroaching again, they could wait no longer. The two children woke, and Sig asked them if they knew anything.
They were dazed and troubled. They said they had dreamed that they were indeed sleeping, that all of them were sleeping, and everyone’s mothers and fathers and other grown folk were gathered around the sleeping bodies of their children, lamenting and worrying, and trying all they could to wake the sleepers. Their town’s best healer was on holiday, and the other healers could not figure out what was wrong. The grown folk too had been periodically afflicted by fever and fatigue, but oddly they spoke of fever-laden dreams of their town’s children chasing away the affliction.
The two volunteers recounted this tale and said that they thought it but a dream, but when they were dreaming it, they thought it was reality. They asked Sig which was the dream, the town they were in now, or the town they had been in where the children slept and the grown folk wept.
Sig asked the volunteers if there were any shadows in the town they had woken from. There were none. The children had grown sharp and wise in all their time tending and guarding their town. They knew there was some connection between the shadows in their town and the fever that afflicted their grown folk. More and more, they believed that they were the ones in a dream and that they must escape from the shadows.
“But if we wake, who will defend the grown folk?” someone asked. “Who will keep them from being devoured?”
They made a plan. They would wake in waves, and the first wave would tell the grown folk, as calmly and with as much detail as they could, what had transpired in their dream. They would describe the shadows and their struggle to save the grown folk. Perhaps the clues would be enough for the grown healers to solve the mystery that neither they nor the children could alone.
So Sig started sending children into sleep. As they slept, the sky began to darken, not because of storm, but because the sun was sinking. Without the will of all the children working together to keep the sun up, it was starting to return to its natural cycle.
All the furniture was moved out of the grand inn, and all sleeping folk were moved in, laying on sheets and blankets on the floor.
Sig vowed to stay behind and defend the inn as long as he could while the other children told the grown folk all they had discovered and observed.
Night fell, and most of the children were now slumbering with the grown folk. All the people of their town were in the grand inn. The few defenders left standing with him vowed to stay with Sig. Mil was one of them, as was the once-a-thief whose hands Sig had bound. And the eldest of the six children who had first dared to defend against a shadow.
The shadows came. The tall shadow came. Sig wondered if she, if the tall shadow, was their leader. He wondered if the shadows would stop if he were to stop her. He agreed to let the last defenders stay and guard the inn, but he would go down and face the tall shadow. They cried out, but none tried to stop him. They shot their arrows before him. They would defend him too, as they defended their grown folk, and their town.
Fire and sunlight were the only weapons that worked. Flame and heat. He had not the sun, but he had fire, and he had the flame that burned within. Perhaps it was the very thing the shadows sought, the vitality they needed and drank. Perhaps he would drown the tall shadow in his vitality, destroy her, destroy her minions.
He was in a dream. He could wield powers he did not really have. He summoned his vitality and suddenly grew weary. He felt a white-hot fire in his chest, in his heart. He marched toward the swaying shadow. She was in the heart of the town, in the square. Squirming all around him were shadows. Raining down all around him were arrows of flame. Spears of fire.
Suddenly the town erupted in flames. The town hall. The playing grounds. The grand inn. In the light of the blaze, Sig saw the tall shadow’s form, its face. It was not a beautiful woman, or an evil-looking witch. It had no eyes, but it was looking at Sig. It was looking at his chest, at his vitality. Its look was hungry and unyielding.
Sig strode towards it and it reached out a limb, a tendril, branch, or tentacle, something long, dripping and mucky, and plunged the limb into his chest.
The pain was bracing. He could not move, but he had to. Sig reached for the vial in his pocket. The vial of potion. He brought it to his lips and drank.
Sig remembered waking twice. Once to the sound of wailing and the taste of blood.
And once to a buzz of calm and resolute chatter. His chest still burned and all his limbs felt useless, but there were grown folk all about, awake, and taking care of him and the other children. The relief he felt was almost unbearable.
In the days to come, he would recover and learn what had occurred.
The horror was discovered. With the help of the children, the healers learned what was afflicting their town. The shadows in the children’s dream were indeed leeches of a sort. They were a kind of many-tendriled thing, invisible to the eyes of people, dogs, cats, cows, and most of the animals that resided in town, just as the children had discovered in their dream. Birds could see them.
The town’s messenger pigeons were used to find the creatures at first. Then the healers and scholars discovered a way to see them through specially forged and cured glass, and to touch them with metals that were charged with energies from elements that produced great light and heat. From flame and sunlight. Sig’s father helped forged the tongs and delicate forceps that the healers used to remove the shadow-leeches. The things were inside the bodies of the children and had to be drawn out and pulled away carefully lest some part remain and grow again.
The leeches had attached themselves to most of the townsfolk, but had fallen off the grown folk. The children fell into sleep. They dreamed a dream that was linked because the leeches too were linked, through the mind of their queen, who was not like a human queen but like a queen in an ant hill or beehive. The leeches had no gender, but this large and special one that linked them all was called a queen. By grasping her, and keeping her still in the dream, Sig had given the healers the time to find and remove her. The last defenders too had seen what Sig was doing and had woken from their dream, frantically calling for the healers to pry the thing away from Sig.
Growing stronger from feeding on the children, who slept but seemed otherwise unharmed, the shadow-leeches had begun to try the grown folk again, and had managed to stay attached to a few, who fell ill immediately. Only one had died. Rose, who had been much weakened anyway.
It was a rare beyond rare occurrence, this infection of shadow-leeches. It was no wonder that the healers had not known what it was until the waking children gave them the clues they needed. The last such infection noted had been hundreds of years ago.
As for how the shadow-leeches came to their town, a merchant had passed through some days before it happened, and had sold an ancient artifact to one of the town’s fellow merchants, who took it to a scholar to have it examined and appraised. All who handled the artifact, an ornate jar, were careful, but unknown to any, the seal inside the jar had cracked during the merchant’s travels. The most-dangerous contents had slowly seeped out.
When next the town’s leaders and grown folk met in the town hall, they were surprised to find so many of the children there. The grown folk were gracious enough to honor their children for helping them to discover the cause of the affliction that would surely have been deadly, and would have spread beyond their town if they had not contained it.
Their best healer was returning with the finest healers from the Baron’s court to assure that the affliction was indeed over.
Sig asked to speak before the hall. He still felt as if there were an ember burning in the pit of his heart, though it was seven days since he had woken, and he had no wounds that the healers could measure. He walked in careful steps, and when he reached the dais, he looked upon the grown folk with fondness and upon the children with admiration. The grown folk looked upon him with fondness as well. But the children grew proud and attentive. They were looking upon their leader. Sig had never felt such honor in his life.
The room was quiet. The grown folk had noticed the change in their children. They still seemed to fear it a bit, thinking it some side effect of the affliction. Perhaps it was.
“We slept for seven days,” Sig said to the grown folk, “by your measure. But by our measure…” He glanced about at the children, nodding to a few he knew well. “By our measure, we tended and defended our town from ruin and shadow for seven months. We kept your example. We met in this hall. We took care of you and of each other. It was not just a dream. By your measure, you saved us, you saved your children. But by our measure, we helped you to save all the folk of this town. And by my measure, every child in this hall stands equal to the gargoyles that watch over our town.” He met the gaze of each child. “For every one of you is a guardian of Gorgulya.”
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel