I dropped my bag to the ground and crouched next to it, pulling it open. I needed my warmer robe out and on, as soon as possible. Ella should have suggested gloves and hats, too.
The wooden box holding the carving set was too big, preventing me from rummaging beneath it, so I pulled it out and set it on the ground, letting the candlesticks slide deeper into my bag. I had just laid my hand on the heavy wool of my winter robe when Ella’s squeal turned into a scream. She dashed behind me and I looked up to see a rat charging at us.
Not just a rat, though. A big rat. A rat out of nightmares. The kind of rat that you might invoke in a scary story designed to keep children up at night, with glittering red eyes and a hairless tail lashing the air behind it, clawed feet and teeth dripping with poisoned saliva. It leaped at us, flying through the air as if propelled by demons.
I incinerated it, of course.
And with none of that fancy drama some elemental talents throw into their work, with pointing hands and mystic gestures, lines of fire extending from their eyes or balls of flame shooting out of their fingers.
No, I just set it on fire. All of it, inside and out.
The fiery corpse was still alight when it landed on the wooden box containing the carving set.
“Oh, Lila, thank you, thank you,” Ella was saying over and over behind me, as I quickly snuffed the flames and grabbed the box. I shook off the ashes and charred bones and stared at the wood in numb horror. The surface was blackened, charred with the remnants of rat corpse.
“Oh, no.” The words were a bare breath. “Oh, no.”
“You saved us, Lila.” Ella grabbed me, trying to hug me where I still crouched. “You saved us.”
“I burned Father’s carving set.” I turned toward her, shaking off her hug, holding up the box to show her. “Look!”
“So what?” Ella shrugged off the disaster as if it were nothing.
“He’ll be livid.” I set the box down, wanting nothing more than to run away from it, but staring at it in sick fascination. I couldn’t just abandon it. If it was missing, one of the servants might get blamed. That would be unacceptable. But I couldn’t put it back in the dining room. The damage was unmistakeable. As soon as someone noticed it, all eyes would turn toward me.
“We’re not going back.” Ella reached down and grabbed the box. “He’ll never know.”
“We… we have to go back.” I hadn’t envisioned this. I’d pictured us standing by the wall for a while, long enough to get hungry, before giving up. Or, if Ella was right and the hole opened, going inside and then returning home. Yes, I’d packed, but just because Ella wanted me to. I was humoring her, not seriously intending to run away.
Ella opened the box and took out the knife, tucking the box under her arm. Clenching the knife in her hand, she jabbed it forward a few times, then reversed her hold on it, and stabbed it down. “How do you suppose one does this?”
“Does what?” I decided to defer my moment of panic until after I had my winter robe on. Pulling it out of my bag, I shook it out and shrugged into it, as Ella continued experimenting with ways to hold the knife.
“Kills things with a knife, of course,” Ella replied impatiently.
“One doesn’t.” I tucked the collar of the robe up, wishing I’d brought the scarf that should wrap around it, but any cloth was better than nothing on my bare neck. There was no wind, fortunately, but the air held the chill of a deep midwinter evening. I was surprised the hedge leaves weren’t rimmed with frost.
“You don’t, but I might need to.” She waved the knife in the air, like a painter smearing oil on a canvas.
“You cannot learn to wield a weapon all in an instant, Ella.”
“You might be right.” Ella didn’t relinquish her grip on the knife, eyes scanning the terrain. “Do you want the fork?”
“Do I? …” I gave an involuntary bark of laughter at the image of Ella and I, walking along, knife and fork in hand, ready to prepare any monsters we met for carving. “No, of course not.”
“All right, I’m leaving it behind.” Ella lifted her elbow and let the box holding the rest of the carving set drop to the ground. It landed, half open, the fork still securely wedged in the velvet sleeve.
“We can’t just…” I started, as I reached for it.
“Yes, we can,” Ella said ruthlessly, stepping forward to block my way. “I’m keeping the knife out. Just in case.”
“In case of what?” I snapped, as I finally stood up. “In case we run into a roast tenderloin?”
Ella grinned at me. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright. Her momentary dismay at the rat’s presence and her jubilance at its destruction were over and she seemed her usual insouciant self. “I’m trusting you to do any roasting that needs doing.”
“This is crazy, Ella.” I shivered deeper into my robes, eyes turning to the sky. The sketchy hedge leaves loomed above us, but I could see through them to nothingness. A great, vast nothingness. “We need to go home. Right now.” I tried to make my voice firm, as befit the elder sister in charge of the younger.
“Home so you can tell Father you burned his carving set?” Ella nodded toward the box on the ground.
I felt my stomach sink. For a moment, I’d been able to let go of that grim reality. What would Father do?
“Come along.” Ella didn’t wait for my reply, but started walking, away from the garden wall and deeper into the maze.
Sighing, I picked up my bag again and followed her.