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 There developed over the next several days a routine of my eating breakfast with Hope and then heading off to school for the day, coming home in the afternoon and having dinner and then going off to bed.  Hope would help Mother and Grandma around the house.  She glided into our family effortlessly, becoming one of us in no time.  One would almost think she’d always been there.  Little did I realize that she almost had been, once upon a time.

            When the weekend came we ate breakfast together as usual, only this time we both went outside together, taking a long walk through the pastures.  The air had that fresh coolness of early spring, that sweet smell that seems a harbinger of the rains that precede the flowers.  The sun was climbing in the sky, occasionally disappearing behind grey clouds that hung in the sky.  Those clouds seemed heavy, as if they were about to let loose their burden and drop it from the sky.

            “It looks like rain.”  I said, pointing.

            “Those clouds have been there all week, Gwen.  It hasn’t rained yet, not since I got here.  What makes you think it will?”  Hope asked.  She didn’t sound at all condescending about my idea like some big people could.  Instead it seemed as if she thought that she could learn something from me.

            “Smell the air.  There’s this kind of wetness to it.  Eth…uh, my big brother told me about that.”  I quieted quickly, realizing that I had almost said his name, an unforgivable sin in our home lately.  Hope seemed just as sensitive about it as everyone else, even though she was newest to the house.

            She stopped and stared at the clouds for a moment, as if consulting them.  Whatever was said in that silent conversation I’ll never know, but something changed.  She seemed to shrug, then she turned to me.

            “You know, it’s alright to talk about him with me.  About Ethan.” She spoke his name aloud, the first I had heard it from anyone else in months.  It seemed hard for her to say, but once she did it was like a great weight had been lifted.

            “I know it’s sad,” She continued, “but I think that’s why we need to talk about it…to get it out, so it doesn’t eat us up inside.”

            I nodded and then put my tiny hand in hers.  I started walking again, forcing her to come with me. 

            “Where are we going?”  She asked laughingly as I hurried, my tiny little legs scampering along.  She had to walk briskly to keep pace, despite her longer legs. 

            “I want to show you something.  It’s a place I know.  We can talk there.”

            We must have seemed quite the pair on that cloudy spring morning, a tiny girl of six with long dark hair blowing carelessly in the wind as I guided us through the pastures, she a young woman with flowing golden tresses being led by the hand like a child.

            I led her through trees and we emerged by the pond.  An old fort built of rocks, lumber and logs was close at hand.  I had discovered it a few weeks before while exploring.

            “Isn’t it great?”  I asked, looking at Hope with a smile, expecting her to love it as much as I did.

            Upon her face was a look of total shock.  It seemed as if the place had struck a chord in her memories, like my brother’s room had, only this seemed a happier remembrance.

            “I can’t believe it…” Her voice was almost a whisper, but it was filled with a childlike joy.  “You found it.”

            “What?  What did we find?”  I asked, wondering why it seemed like such a big deal to her.

            “It’s from a game we played.”  She explained, going closer to the fort and surveying it, looking at every detail.  “Camelot, the Lady of the Lake…  I was the Lady, and this was my fairy palace.  We were young, just a few years older than you.”

            “That sounds like fun!”  I exclaimed.  “Who was Arthur?”

            “Our friend, Neal.  He was my age, a year older than your brother.  He led us, but Ethan created the game.  It was all his idea.”  She had sat down upon a moss-covered stone inside the fort, and was looking about with eyes as wide as saucers. 

            “Tell me about it.  I want to hear everything!”  I said, eager for stories about my brother and sister, but also curious about the game.

            “Well, back then this was your grandparents’ farm, it was before your granddad died and left it to your father.  Ethan and Genevieve were staying with them for the summer while your mom and dad went to Europe.” Hope began, spinning a story of her childhood as we sat.

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Next Chapter:  Continue Gwen’s story

or, read about the Camelot Summer in The Companions

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 The next morning I was eating breakfast with Grandma in the kitchen.  I always ate last.  Father would get up early with Mother, and she would make them breakfast so that he could get started in the fields.  Being six meant that I was still considered too small for most chores, and school didn’t start until well past mid-morning for kindergartens in the afternoon class.  Grandma ate with me, being the only other person allowed to sleep in.

            She was puttering about the kitchen, preparing our food.  Hope came in quietly just then, eyes downcast, while Gran was in the cupboards.

            “Good morning!”  I said brightly, happy to see her.  She smiled and sat down next to me.

            “Best get you some breakfast, child.”  Grandma said, getting her a plate.  “Do you good.”

            “Thank-you.”

            “My name’s Elda, but if you don’t like that, you can call me Grandma, too.”  She smiled.  “Now, what can I get you?”

            She smiled at both of us.  “I don’t need much.”

            “Oh, I’ll get you some bread, and bacon, and porridge…”  Grandma ignored her protests and began busying herself about the kitchen.      

            “Do you remember much about him?” She prodded after a moment of quiet eating.  She tried to make the question sound casual, but in doing so made it conspicuous.

            “Not really.” I answered cautiously, unsure of how much I could say.  Memories were something most of the family avoided discussing.  “He went away to school and I haven’t seen him since Christmas.  All I really have are memories of us playing and laughing, and of how nice he was.  Mother says that he seemed to love me best. 

            “Grandma, I’m finished.”  I said finally.

            “Go get washed, then.  You have school to get to, child.  Scoot!”  Grandma said, clearing my dishes and taking them to the sink.  I bounced out of my chair and rushed to do as she said, but then stopped at the doorway and looked back.

            “I’ll see you after school, Star.  Thank you for talking.”  I rushed out of the room and up the stairs before she could answer me.

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 A young lady came to live at our house when I was six.  Even now I can remember it clearly, only now I understand things better than I did back then.  My memory is so clear because that year was a pivotal one in my life, during it everything changed. 

            She came to live with us in the spring, not long after the news about my big brother and sister came.  She showed up on the front porch of our farmhouse during a rain storm and asked if she could come in.  Thunder and lightning were tearing through the sky, and the pouring rain made funny sounds all along the porch’s roof.  It reminded me of drums, a really quick staccato beat that drilled its way along the rooftop to some unseen musician’s rhythm.  For a moment it seemed almost as if the raindrops were talking:  Pitter, pitter, pat-pat, pitter, pitter, pat, you’re brother’s gone and that is that…  

            Everyone else knew who she was, but to me she was a stranger. My mother hurried her inside and got her a warm blanket and a cup of tea, never one to abandon someone in need.  We sat in the living room, all of us on the big couch and her in the big cushioned seat generally reserved for my father after a long day in the fields.  I remember thinking that she looked kind of lost with her long blond hair all wet against the side of her head and the rest of her bundled up in the big comforter.  Without realizing it, my mother had brought her one of my brother’s bedspreads.  Considering who she was, that seemed somehow fitting.

            “I knew your brother.  And your sister.  We were friends, not very long ago.”  She said when I asked who she was.  “I miss him.” 

            We all just nodded, each of us still a little numb and not willing to face the reality of our situation.  The pain was too much to even think about yet, let alone talk about.  No one could even say their names out loud.  Everyone would refer to them in the third person, saying “your brother”, “she would always…”, “her room”,  or “our son”.  Sometimes I would go outside, run far from the house and scream their names at the top of my lungs, just to hear them after the unbearable silences in the house. 

            Even though I didn’t really know her at all, somehow my heart went out to this young woman who was dealing with that same aching void in her life. We all felt that way, and that was how she became part of our family.  I was still too young to understand most of it then, but I remember that much.

            Mother gave her my brother’s room, still exactly as he had left it.  My mother cleaned out the dust whenever it appeared, so it looked like he’d only just got up and left a few moments ago.  No one would ever guess he’d been gone for months.  This caused the girl to cry, and she buried her head against my mother’s shoulder.

            My mother just stood there, stroking the girl’s hair and trying to keep her own tears back.  I stood a little back of them in the hallway, trying to hide myself shyly against the wall. 

            My mother told her that she should have a shower in the bathroom and then get into some warm, dry clothes.  My sister’s were all still there, and they would fit well enough for now.  The girl smiled slightly, just with her lips.  She nodded and went into my big brother’s room.

            I stood timidly in the doorway, watching her.  She just stood in the middle of the room, slowly turning in a circle and staring at all of my brother’s things, holding his blanket around herself.  It was almost as if she were trying to see everything undisturbed, so that some  remembrance of who he was would be sparked, some magic piece of him that would call out to her.  I stared at his things, too, having avoided his room since it happened.  I was too young to really understand an older brother who was almost a man, but I had loved him.

            Some of Mother’s books were all along the one wall in shelves, as she had never found time to choose a better place to store them since we had moved in years ago.  Most of her novels she had put in the library in the basement, but there hadn’t been enough room for these.  My brother  had grown up with them.  C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, tales of King Arthur, some Stephen King books called the Dark Tower series, a few books on myths and fairy tales, The Lord of the Rings and an illustrated Hobbit.

            Next to them was his big brown dresser, still cluttered on top with books, papers and other assorted junk.  His desk was just past this, littered with art tools and paper.  I remembered how he loved to draw, the magic that seemed to flow from his hand, creating little versions of reality.  Above it, on the wall, were more bookshelves.  Among these books were also his comics, starring Superman, and his movies, things like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Legend and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, of all things.  His bed was in the other corner, and above it were his favourite drawings.

            She walked over to the bed and perched on it with her knees to stare at these.  She peered at them reverently, raising her hand and almost touching them.  It reminded me of pictures from one of my children’s books, the one of the Three Wise Men and the Christ Child.  She had that same look, as if she were witnessing something wonderful.  The blanket made her look like she was draped in the same kind of cloths they had been, perfect for a trek by camel-back.  It seemed as if this was what she had been searching for, and the memories the pictures recalled to her mind’s eye seemed to resonate a chord, changing the very tone of the room.  Reverence became mourning as she started to cry again, tucking her chin against her chest and hiding in the blanket.

            I overcame my bashfulness then and walked slowly to her. I hopped up onto the big bed and put my tiny hands on her shoulder so I could stare into the small cave around her head created by the blanket folds.  

          “Don’t cry,” I implored in my soft voice, “I don’t want anyone else to cry any more.  Please stop.”

            She pulled her head out of the blankets, and I pulled my hands back nervously.  She sniffled and then smiled, this time with her teeth.  It was one of the most beautiful smiles I had ever seen, and only my brother’s had been as bright.

            “I’m sorry,” she said reassuringly, “I’ll stop.  What’s your name?”

            “I’m Gwen,” I told her quietly.  “I’m the littlest.”

            “You certainly are,”  she smiled again.  “I was too, once.”

             “You were my brother’s friend?”  I asked.  She nodded, and then tilted her head to the side in thought.

            “Yes.”  She said finally.  “Until I went away.”

            “Where’d you go?”  I tilted my head to the side, to look into her eyes.  They were a light brown, and seemed to me to be very pretty.

            “Away to school.  You have to do that when you get big.” She explained, staring back at me.

            “I’m big.  I go away to school.”  I insisted.  “I’m in kindergarten now.”

            “No, I mean something different.  It’s called university.”

            “My brother and sister went there!  I remember.”  I said, thrilled to have remembered what that word meant.      

            She smiled, though it seemed like a sad smile.  I thought that she was beautiful, and wished to grow up to be like her.  She had been my brother’s friend, and that made her somebody special.  I had always looked up to him, but he lived a different life than mine.  Being six meant that I never really got to know him, but this girl did:  what he was like, how he thought, felt and lived.  I was sure of that, and that she could tell me about him.

            She stared again at the drawings on the wall, and my eyes followed her gaze.  There were several drawings.  One section was filled with fantastical drawings of heroes and damsels and monsters, but she looked at the drawings of real people.  A lot of them were of the family, but there were some I could not name.

            “Do you know who all those people are?”  I asked her, never having bothered to ask my brother before.

            “They’re his friends.  Some of them are mine, too.”  She told me.

            “I only know him, and my sister.”  I pointed at pictures of both of them.  “She was so pretty.  I hope I grow up to be as pretty as her.”

            She grinned again as I continued to look at the drawings, carefully sketched and rendered figures my brother had created to capture some semblance of each person he cared about inside and outside our house.  His growth as an artist seemed apparent, as the development from year to year could be seen.  I glanced past the sketches of me as a baby, only to suddenly notice something about many of the drawings.

            “You’re in most of these!”  I said excitedly.  “More than anyone else!”

            She nodded, smiling slightly.  Tears welled up in her eyes again, but she shook them away.

            “I think I’d better have that shower now.  I’ll see you downstairs.”  She said, hanging her head so I couldn’t see the tears anymore.

            “What’s your name?”  I asked in return, not wanting to go yet.

            She looked at the drawings again, as if lost in thought, debating something with herself.  Finally, she shook her head and turned towards me again, her smile coming back.  There were bright tears pooling at the bottom of her eyes, making them shine brightly.

            “My name is Hope, but your brother used to call me his shining star.” I nodded and got up to go.  I paused in the doorway to smile at her again.  She was family now.

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 Neal expected to see a valley, maybe with trees and hopefully a road out of here, possibly a town.  Instead, he saw the impossible.  The sky seemed to be on fire.  It pulsed hypnotically with a swirl of colours, and he found that he couldn’t look away.

            “It’s burning,” he said, in the same dreamy voice Genevieve had used.

            It wasn’t, quite, but it shimmered in reds and yellows.  The earth appeared to have been scorched, a desert wasteland, like the badlands in Alberta or Arizona.  It was the kind of place where nothing lived, but where things went to die.

            “Ethan’s out there.”  Genevieve repeated in her strange new voice.  “We’d better go get him.”

            They all stepped out into the burning wastes, and knew no more.

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Next Chapter, featuring the Pitneys’ little sister, Gwen

or, skip ahead to after the Mountain with New Dawn

 One day Ethan walked along slowly, feeling sorry for himself, while Genevieve and Faith walked ahead of him on the sidewalk, chattering merrily and laughing.  He heard someone call his name, but chose to ignore it, busy with his thoughts.  It was probably just one of the other boys, looking to make fun of him again.

            “Ethan!”  The voice called again, and it wasn’t a boy, but a girl.  He kept walking though, not really interested in speaking to anyone.  That’s when the voice got his attention, by crying out “Gawain!”

            He turned to see Hope, running to catch up.  She waved and then pulled up short in front of him, breathing a little quickly from her sprint.  She gracefully pushed some of the long hair that had fallen in her face over her shoulder.

            “Hi.”  She said, smiling brilliantly at him.  “I thought you might not have heard me.”

            “Sorry.”  He mumbled his apology.  “I was just busy thinking.”

            “Oh?  And how fares the goodly knight, Sir Gawain?”  She curtsied, even though she was wearing pants and had to pretend the dress.

            “I’m okay, I guess…”  He stopped himself, and then stood up straighter.  He bowed nobly. “Forgive me, Lady of the Lake, I seem to have forgotten my manners.  It has been many moons since I have been at court, and it seems in that span of time I have forgotten how to behave towards one of your noble grace and bearing.”

            “Did you memorize those books?” she smiled and came out of character, “You looked like you could use someone to walk with.”

            “Why, of course, dear Lady.  Am I not pledged on the Table of King Arthur to defend his people?”  He bowed again, and offered his arm.  She took it, smiled, and the two of them began to walk.  He began to smile as they chatted, and once she even made him laugh. 

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 Ethan didn’t come back to school until the second month.  He picked up a virus at the doctor’s office and then got the flu.  He spent a lonely, boring month in bed, fighting fever.  Genevieve brought him his homework every day, and he actually did all of it, but it didn’t make the monotony of the days go by any quicker.  He read a lot, but he always did that, and grew tired of it some days.  He would mostly just stare out his bedroom window at the trees in the backyard for hours, just thinking.  They began to turn colours and some leaves were even falling by the time he got back to school.

            He was in Daniel’s class, but that was little consolation to him.  Dan was busy every day, playing soccer or baseball or football, hoping to have as much fun as possible before the weather turned bad.  He had made new friends, and they were none too willing to include a strange boy who was still too tired from his extended convalescence to run around for very long.  Even though he had been in the same class as many of the children the year before, Ethan had rarely spoken to them.  He was too shy.  He wished fervently that he could be good at sports like Dan, or maybe as outgoing as Alex or Zoë had been.  Maybe then people would like him.

            Evan seemed to be always preoccupied with his own thoughts, so they never played after school.  They would sometimes sit together on the sidelines of the games, taking some comfort from each other’s presence, but they never really talked.  Neither one knew what to say to the other.  Gradually they stopped even saying hello or asking how the other was, they’d just sit.

            Some of the boys actually began to pick on Ethan, both in and out of class.  His books would get smacked to the floor or ground, he’d get hit with the football if he didn’t watch carefully out on the field, and in class, when they had to put him on a team, he’d always be picked last, even after the girls.  All in all, they made it clear that they didn’t like him.

            He stopped watching the football and soccer games after he got tackled while standing at the sidelines.  The two boys that landed on him knocked him into the mud, dirtying his clothes and hair.  They apologized, saying that they hadn’t seen him there, that they were just trying to catch the ball.  He saw them snicker and grin at one another as they turned their backs on him.  That’s when he saw that Dan had been the one who threw the ball.

            They locked eyes for a moment, staring at one another across the muddy field, the grey autumn sky above them as cold as the feeling that seized Ethan’s heart, like frozen knives or claws that clutched and grabbed at his very soul.  A voice sounded in his head, just as cold as the knives in his heart.  It seemed very adult to him:  You swore an oath, on sword and table and circle, on your life, to defend me as a Companion, as a brother.  You break your oath, your life is forfeit.  Liar, liar, liar!  You broke the oath!

            Rage bubbled up, but he fought it, pushed it down.  To strike out, attack Dan or the others, would be to admit that they had hurt him, and he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.  He vowed that he would not cry, that he wouldn’t let them have that victory over him, no matter what they ever did.  Even though he ignored them and buried the feelings their actions created inside him, pretended like he didn’t care what they did, he never, ever forgot those actions, either.

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 Evan woke up on the first day of school with a deep sense of foreboding, as if he had just awoken from a nightmare or something.  He couldn’t remember if he had dreamed or not, but it was definitely a very bad feeling.

            “This is not going to be a good day.”  He said glumly as he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror.  He shrugged and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and then washed his face and brushed his unkempt hair. 

            When he got downstairs he found that his mother was already up, nursing his baby sister Chantal.  His toddler brother Carson was busy playing with his toys in his playpen.  Already eating were his older brother Mike and sister Amanda.  Mike was three years older than Evan, and Amanda was in eighth grade.

            “Morning, sleepy-head.”  His mom greeted him warmly.  “Hurry up or you’ll be late for school.”

            He grabbed a bowl and spoon and sat at the table.  He reached for the Rice Krispies, and found that the box was empty.

            “Sorry, dude.”  Mike said.  “You can have Mom’s bran flakes, if you want.”

            Evan managed to bolt down some of the bland cereal, making grimaces of disgust between each swallow, before rushing upstairs to brush his teeth and then running out the door to make it to school. 

            He made it to school on time, but just barely.  As he found a seat near the back of the classroom, he looked around for Dan and Ethan, but couldn’t find them.  He slumped in his seat in disappointment, figuring that they must be in the other class across the hall.  It wasn’t just going to be a bad day:  it was going to be a long year, since it looked like the two best friends he had in school weren’t going to be around to make the days pass quicker .

            Across the hall, Daniel was slumping in his seat in exactly the same way.  He had saved seats for both Ethan and Evan beside him, and eventually had to give them up to people who needed them, because it was obvious that they weren’t going to be there.  He totally toned out the teacher as she began introducing herself and started the day’s lesson.  He was already counting the minutes before recess so he could find Eth and Ev and get to some serious fun.

            When Daniel got outside, it wasn’t long before he found Evan, who had been looking for him.  They grinned broadly at each other, glad to have finally found someone from the group.

            “Where’s Ethan?”  They both said in unison, and then they realized that something must be wrong.  They searched the whole playground, and Ethan was nowhere to be found.  They eventually tracked down Genevieve, who was playing hopscotch with Faith and some other grade ones on the paved play area.

            “Where’s your brother?”  Evan asked.  “Why isn’t he here?”

            “He’s sick.  He caught the chicken pox.  It’s cool, I didn’t get it.” 

“Now what are we supposed to do?”  Evan groaned.

            “You could play hopscotch.”  Genevieve offered politely.

            “I don’t think so.”  Dan said, grimacing.  “Sorry, Evan.  Neal and Ethan were the ones with ideas.  I don’t know, we could go play soccer in the field with the other guys…”

            “You go ahead.”  Evan said.  He could tell how badly Dan wanted to join in the game, but he didn’t really feel like it.  “I think I’ll find Hope and see if she’s heard how Neal and Zoë are doing at their new house.”

            Dan rushed off cheerfully, while Evan shuffled off with his hands in his pockets.  Behind him he could hear the loud shouts of the boys at play in the field as Dan joined in and quickly scored.  Evan blocked out everything, deciding to be alone with his thoughts.  Unfortunately, the only one that came to him was:  This is a really, really bad day.

            He had no idea how bad.

            By the time he got home after school, for he had shuffled slowly all the way there, it was late afternoon.  He went in the front door, kicked off his shoes and hung his knapsack in the closet.  He headed for the kitchen for a snack, and that’s where he found his mother, sitting quietly by the telephone.  In her hand was a wrinkled up tissue, and it looked as if she’d been crying.

            “Mom, what’s wrong?”  He asked tenderly, putting his hand on her arm.

            “Oh, Evan…  It’s just that…” She sniffled and tried to smile, “You’re such a good boy.  You know I love you, right?”

            “Of course, Mom.  What is it?  What’s wrong?”  He was really getting scared now.  Ideas raced through his head:  Did someone die?  Was one of his siblings hurt?  What was going on?

            “Your father…”

            “Is Dad working late in the city again?”

            “You might say that…  He’s not coming home.”

            “Traffic bad or something?”  Evan calmed down a little.  Dad stayed late all the time.  However, it seemed really weird.  Dad staying late shouldn’t have gotten Mom so upset…

            “He’s not coming home, honey.  Ever.  The reason he’s been coming home so late or staying in the city on business, is because he’s…  He’s…”  She choked up, crying again.  “He’s found someone else and he’s never coming back.”

            Evan sank into one of the kitchen chairs, completely stunned.  It seemed as if someone had punched him in the stomach, knocking the wind right out of him.  He heard her continue speaking as if she were very far away, muffled by distance and a thick wall of air between them, air that was stifling him, making his head spin.  She was saying that she’d have to get back her old job and that they’d probably have to sell the house, but he hardly heard any of it.  All he could hear was that thought:  This is a really, really bad day, over and over again.

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