Gloria heard a soft knocking at the door. She sighed. She had just reclined into her favorite chair with a cup of tea and a large novel, but now she had to get up again. It must be someone trying to sell her something. The several “no soliciting” signs and the steep walkway up to the front door did nothing to dissuade them.
She got up from her chair too quickly and winced. She seemed to forget how the years were catching up to her, but she was reminded every time she walked by a mirror and was met by peppery gray hair instead of the sleek black she had been accustomed to in her youth. Having two little girls running around the house was quite stressful, but she loved kids, so even when they did foolish things, she still loved them more than anything. They were her baby chicks, and she the hen.
Slowly, Gloria made her way through the house. The rooms were tight and cluttered, but in a warm way, like getting a hug from someone loving. She had to push several stacks of papers and bolts of fabric out of the way before she made it to the staircase. Her youngest daughter, Elisabeth, was perched on the banister, swinging her feet and humming tunelessly. She perked up a bit when she saw her mom.
“Hi, momma. What’re we gonna have for dinner? Elisabeth said chirpily.
“Don’t know, m’love. I’ve got to go answer the door.”
“Can I come with you?”
“Alright, but no yammering at whoever’s knocking, okay?”
Elisabeth made a noise that Gloria assumed was a yes and hopped down from the high banister. She grabbed Gloria’s hand and said, “Come on, we can’t keep whoever’s at the door waiting!” Gloria smiled. Elisabeth reminded her so much of herself... When she was younger, that is.
They got to the door and opened it. It creaked loudly, just like every other door in the house did.
Before the open doorway stood a boy - a ragged-looking thing who looked like he hadn't had a proper night’s sleep in a long time. His eyes were big and round and scared-looking, like that of a mouse that has just avoided a cat’s jaws. He was wearing an old worn cloak that was too big for him. He looked familiar to Gloria. Did she know him from somewhere?
“Hello, sweetie, can I help you with something...?” She asked tentatively. He thought for a second then spoke.
“Mrs. Mercy, m-my, uh, dad told me to come here, if…” He swallowed and trailed off. “If he didn’t come home. For a long time.”
“Well, you can certainly come in for a while, how about that?” The boy nodded. Gloria smiled at him as kindly as she could, but a strange sense of dread was washing over her. What had happened to the boy’s father? Why wouldn’t he come back home?
“What’s your name?” Elisabeth inquired suddenly, and at a great volume, from behind Gloria’s leg.
“Ellis Valery,” said the boy. It took a second for this to sink in.
“Er...Valery, did you say?” Gloria said quietly, the color draining from her face.
“Yeah,” Ellis said.
“If you don't mind me asking, what happened to your father?”
Ellis looked reluctant to answer, but he muttered, “The royal guards captured him and- and…you know.”
“Killed him,” Gloria whispered, her worst fears confirmed. She realised she was probably not doing anything to help Ellis’s clearly fragile state of mind. She took a deep breath and turned behind her to yell to her eldest daughter.
“Oriel! Come down here!”
A couple seconds later she heard heavy footsteps coming from upstairs, then saw Oriel as she stomped moodily down the staircase. Gloria sighed inwardly when she saw that Oriel was wearing one of her especially low-cut dresses. They were no respectable garments for a young lady like her, but there was no way to get her to stop wearing them (other than to burn them, of course, but Gloria assumed that would not be the wisest decision, especially now that she was trying to improve their mother-daughter relationship).
“What do you want?” Oriel said testily. “I was just gonna take a shower- who’s that?” She had noticed Ellis standing in the doorway, and was now fixing him with a hawk-like glare.
“This is our… guest. His name is Ellis. Could you show him to the spare room next to yours so he can calm down there, please? He’s just going to stay here for however long it takes to sort things out,” Gloria said. Oriel rolled her eyes in the way that only teenage girls can properly master, but beckoned Ellis into the house all the same.
“Don’t worry, she won’t bite!” Elisabeth said happily, waving a small hand at Oriel. “Probably. But she has bit me befo-”
Gloria cast her young daughter a look that meant “stop talking, now.” Luckily, she got the message. Ellis followed Oriel into the house. As soon as they were gone, Gloria leaned her shoulder against the wall to steady herself.
“Are you…” Elisabeth looked worried, an emotion that did not often cloud her small face.
“Yes, honey, I- mommy just needs a second, alright?”
Gloria’s lungs felt like they had been just been grabbed by two hands and were being squeezed so hard that even the deepest breath felt impossibly, frighteningly shallow. Her heart was pounding. She wrenched the door open and stepped outside, the wind stinging her face and arms. She looked out on the garden that her children had helped to make. She stumbled down the steep path to the willow tree that they had planted, and sat beneath it.
She looked up at the darkening sky and counted the stars, just like she used to all those years ago.
Later, Gloria was back inside, thinking about what she should say to Ellis. It would be difficult to put it lightly. After all, this was no topic to offhandedly discuss over lunch.
She walked up the stairs to the guest room and rapped on the door. When she didn't hear a response, she cracked the door open and looked inside. Ellis was sitting on the bed. He was hunched over, his shoulders tense. He looked so… small, drawn in upon himself, that Gloria’s heart ached just looking at him.
“Ellis?” Gloria said as gently as she could. He looked up.
“Would you like me to tell you a story so you can get to sleep?” she said, sitting on the bed beside him. He nodded.
“Once upon a time, there was a little boy quite like you. His family abandoned him because he was different, and differences attracted attention from royalty - often attention that they didn’t want. The boy wandered around, looking for a home. One day, he knocked on a woman’s door, just like you did. The woman took him under her wing. She raised him like a son, and she became the mother that the boy never had. She cherished how he was honest to himself and knew in her heart he would go far.
“As the boy grew into a man, he began to get involved with the royalty - speaking out against their ideologies, which may have been a little… unwise, especially when the land was in a state of political unrest.” Ellis looked quizzically at her. “Sorry. That was a lot of big words. It just means a lot of people were unhappy with how the country was ruled. It’s still going on today. Pretty scary things happened at that time, but they seem to be decreasing a bit now that your fa- that man solved things.” Ellis’s look of confusion did not diminish. “Um, I’ll get to that part in a second,” Gloria assured him.
“Anyways, the woman feared that he might get hurt if he spoke up against the disparities he faced. The man thought he could handle himself. He did not think that what she said… mattered. The concerns she expressed to him would go unheeded.” Gloria stopped here and looked darkly at the wall. Ellis looked slightly worried. Gloria glanced at him and hastily continued.
“B-but, the woman was not angry!” Gloria looked at Ellis with a rather non-genuine, nervous-looking smile. “No, not angry. She was aware that a day like this would come - a day when they would go their separate ways. Still, it was hard for her to let him go. Sometimes she felt like the little boy who had knocked on her door, so scared and fragile-looking on the outside, but with such a brave, kind heart, had gone completely. On the day the man finally bid the woman goodbye, she felt she hardly knew him.
“A long while after he left, he came to her door, a grin on his face, barely able to contain his excitement. He told her that he now had two young children, both boys. He was so happy. It filled the woman with joy to see him so delighted. She felt like she had him back.
“That was the last time she ever saw him.”
“B-but what happened to him?” Ellis asked.
Gloria sighed. She couldn’t hold off telling him anymore. “Well, If what you say is true, he was killed by the Royal guards.”
“If what I say is-...?” A look of realisation dawned on Ellis’s face. “Oh. Ohh.” He looked at Gloria suddenly. “So, that man-”
“Was your father,” She said.
“And you were the woman?”
“Yes, I was.”
“And- wait, did you say… two boys…” Ellis looked flustered. “Does that mean- do I have a brother!?”
Gloria laughed. “Yes, you do! His name is Jordan, and I’m sure he’d love to meet you.”
“How old is he?” Ellis was bouncing up and down on the bed excitedly.
“Well, he was born around the time that Elisabeth was, so I don’t expect he’s older than 7,” Gloria said. “He’s a little younger than her.”
“Wow,” Ellis said. “How come Dad never told me?”
“Well… I’m not totally sure if this is true, but I think your father sent Jordan out to live on his own. He would be a lot safer that way. At least, he thought so.”
“But… why? Wouldn’t he be better off staying with dad?”
Gloria paused to think about how to phrase the matter. “Well… See, your father was not a bad man, per se, but he was rather strong in his beliefs… A lot of the higher-class people really, uh, didn’t care for him.”
“Why?” Ellis said.
“Most of those people who didn’t like him were very rich, and if you’re rich, you don’t want to stop being rich. Your dad was trying to encourage them to give up some of their money and power to the people like him who couldn’t eat every day, but they didn’t want to do that. There was a whole lot of negative propaganda about him, and everyone got violent, and …well. You know how that ended.”
“Oh. So, he was like, trying to get poor people money, but the rich people didn’t want to give him money because they didn’t like him?”
“I guess you could say that.” Gloria thought to herself that that was a bit of a simple way of putting it, but he was just a child.
The house was quiet, except for the sound of Oriel’s stuffy breathing coming from the next room.
Ellis flopped over onto his stomach. “I’m gonna go to sleep now,” he said into his pillow.
“Do you need anything? Pajamas? A glass of water?” Gloria said.
“Nah,” Ellis said as he wormed his way under the covers.
“Goodnight, then,” Gloria said, as she backed out of the room and closed the door.
The next morning, everyone was eating breakfast at the wooden table in the living room. Gloria was the most awake out of all of them - Oriel kept nodding off, and she nearly fell face-first into her cereal more than a few times; Elisabeth was still wearing her nightgown and was blinking sleepily; Ellis was absentmindedly nudging his food around with his fork.
Ellis looked up at Gloria. “Uh, I’ve been thinking, I might want to…”
“Yes?” Gloria said.
“I… darn. It sounds so stupid to say out loud.”
“No, what is it?” Oriel said. She was looking up at Ellis in interest.
“Would it be okay if we had some sort of… funeral? For my dad? I know we don’t have his body or anything, but… it would make me feel better to know that we... did that,” Ellis finished, somewhat lamely.
Gloria felt a pang of déjà vu. Ellis and his father were so similar.
“I’m sure we can do that this afternoon. Thank you for telling me.”
Ellis smiled a little, feeling more at home already.
Gloria, Ellis, Oriel and Elisabeth were standing outside. It was warmer than it was the previous day, and the tendrils of the willow trees swayed in the breeze as if they were underwater. Elisabeth had gathered marigolds from the garden, Gloria had gotten a photo she had of Ellis’s father off the mantlepiece, and Ellis had helped Oriel drag over a large, smooth rock over to the makeshift grave.
“Do you want to say anything?” Gloria asked Ellis.
“Nah, I think we should just be quiet for a while. Sometimes silence can be more powerful.”
Gloria chuckled to herself. Yes, she thought, Ellis is exactly like his father. She looked over at Oriel. She was being very subdued, more than normal.
“Hey, everything alright?” Gloria asked Oriel quietly. Oriel sighed.
“Yeah, I just don’t get why we’re doing this. It’s just a dead guy.”
Gloria was rather taken aback at Oriel’s insensitivity. “He’s not ‘just a dead guy’,” Gloria said, doing her best to keep her voice low while Ellis was crouched over, examining the photo of his father. “He was an amazing man and an amazing father. Doing this means a lot to Ellis and I. Can you just do something for someone else? Just this once?” Gloria had a pleading look in her eye.
“But last night you said a ton of people were pissed at him!” Oriel said agitatedly.
“Language,” Gloria hissed. “And when did you hear that?”
“You and Ellis were talking and-”
“You listened in on my conversation?”
“Oriel. That was a private talk I was having with him.”
“What, so you’re keeping secrets from me?”
Gloria put her hand on the bridge of her nose and sighed. “I’m not having this argument right now.”
“Do you trust him-” Oriel waved her hand angrily in the direction of Ellis- “more than me? Why do you even care about him!? You just met him a DAY ago, for christ’s sake!”
“Momma,” Elisabeth interrupted. “What’s that?” She pointed towards a dark shape on the horizon that was approaching quickly. It looked like a horse.
“I don’t know, honey,” Gloria said tensely.
Suddenly, an arrow pierced the ground right before Gloria’s feet. Elisabeth screamed and Oriel flinched.
“What’s going on!?” Ellis yelped, jumping up from the grave. He had a wild look of fear in his eyes, a look so raw and animal that it scared Gloria.
“I don’t know, but you need to run!” Gloria said. She had a hardness in her voice that the two girls had never heard before.
A booming voice came from the figure on the horse. “GLORIA MERCY! YOU ARE UNDER ARREST FOR RAISING A TRAITOR AND HARBORING THE TRAITOR’S SON!”
“You three, RUN.” Gloria said it with such force that Ellis and Oriel moved, but Elisabeth remained still. The man loomed in front of her.
“Move,” he growled.
“No,” Elisabeth said shrilly.
The man swung his arm down on her head with a horrible thud. Elisabeth toppled like a house of cards.
Gloria roared and flung herself at the man. He picked her up as easily as if she were a sack of flour and cracked the horse’s reins. It sped forward, too fast for Oriel to catch up with, even with her long legs.
“NO!” Oriel screamed at the sky. She whipped around to face Ellis. “You know this is all YOUR fault, right!?”
Ellis looked terrified. He approached Elisabeth to see how bad her wound was, but Oriel leapt forward and shoved him out of the way. “Don’t touch her,” she spat.
Elisabeth stirred, and gave a sharp yelp of pain. There was a lump on her forehead that was beginning to bruise. Oriel leaned over Elisabeth, making soothing noises as she stroked her hair.
“Shh, shh, you’re okay,” Oriel said, but she wasn’t sure if everything was okay. The thought Elisabeth might have have a concussion, or something worse.
Ellis tried again to get a look at Elisabeth. “Is she going to be oka-”
“Shut up, just shut UP!” Oriel yelled at him. Ellis’s shoulders slumped.
“You… you really don’t like me, do you,” he said.
“No! Why the h- I mean, why should I!? It’s your fault that- that she’s gone! The only way I’ll ever like you is if you help me get her back!”
“I can do that,” Ellis said.
“I know the route to the palace. I’ve been close to there before because I have a friend that’s kinda rich who lives close to it.”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Oriel said with hostility.
“It, uh, didn’t seem related to anything,” Ellis said.
“Well, it was. Can you just help me get my mom back?”
Oriel walked back towards the house. A few minutes later she came back, holding three satchels and coats.
“I’ve got everything we need. Which direction is it?” Oriel asked while she picked up Elisabeth.
Ellis pointed towards the hills.
“Listen, I’m sorry,” he said.
“S’okay,” Oriel said gruffly. “You can’t change what’s already happened. All we can do now is try to get her back.”
They began their journey.