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[column size=”one_half” last=”no”]By Hannah Ogden
Illustrated by Isabella Ronchetti
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Emma O’Malley was alone. Up in her attic room of her grandmother Josephine’s farm, she could hear the rain hammering on the roof. She shivered. The lights had gone out twenty minutes ago, and the only light in the room came from a flickering candle on her dresser. Dark shadows danced across the room like untamed ghosts. She got up from her bed where she had been sitting and went to the window. The rain made it impossible to see, but she could faintly hear her parents outside. Once the rain had started, they had run outside to check on the sheep that belonged to the farm. It rained quite a lot here in Ireland, but this storm had her parents worried. Telling Emma to stay in her room, they had departed. Emma’s grandmother had gone out to the barn to check on the barn cats, and they had all been gone for nearly half an hour. Emma hated the wait. She wondered if her sheep, the one she had been given for her birthday last year and had named Katie, was all right.
Suddenly, Emma heard a crack of thunder overhead, and she jumped. She could not hear her parents any longer, as the rain had worsened. It came in sheets, rocking the house. Another crack of thunder boomed in the sky. Emma shivered. Were her parents all right? Suddenly Emma could stand it no longer. She went to her sock drawer and pulled on a pair of wool socks and a gray sweater over her T-shirt. A bolt of lightning lit up the room, and she flinched, but she continued dressing. She pulled a blue hat over her wildly curly black hair and made her way out her door. Her coat was hanging up somewhere in the hallway. She silently climbed down the ladder from the attic and down the hall. The house was freezing cold. Most of the walls were made out of gray stone, as the house was nearly four hundred years old. Emma grabbed a green raincoat from its hook, and she put it on, taking care to cover her head with the hood. Suddenly she heard the door open, and she spun around. A dark shadowy shape walked over the threshold, and the creature threw back its hood, revealing the tired face of her father.
“Dad!” Emma cried, and she threw herself at him in a tackling hug.
“Emma!” her dad answered. He hugged her tightly, the smell of wet wool filling Emma’s nose.
“Your mother is right behind me. We checked on the sheep, but the rain caused the fence to fall over,” her father said.
“Emma.” Emma turned towards the door where her mother was walking in. She shut and bolted the door behind her. Her mother pushed back her hood, revealing her tangled mess of damp red hair.
“Emma,” her mother continued, “we looked everywhere, but some of the sheep are missing.” Emma paled, her freckles standing out on her face. If her family lost some of the sheep, then the farm would not survive. They depended on them.
“Which ones are missing?” she asked.
Emma’s mother hugged her and said, “About ten others, and Katie.” Emma stiffened and drew back.
“Where is the flashlight?” she demanded. She had no idea what she was doing, but she knew she had to do something. Her mother handed her the flashlight she was holding.
“What do you need it for?” she asked, but she found out two seconds later as Emma switched it on and opened the door to the swirling darkness of the night. Emma shoved her feet into her rain boots, which were on the front step, and ran out from under the porch. The storm blasted her back. Rain pounded on her, and her feet stuck in the mud. She heard her parents shouting for her to come back, but she half ran, half battled her way on towards the barn. A faint light glowed out from one of the windows, like a lighthouse. Emma reached the huge front door to the barn just as a boom of thunder sounded. She flinched. Emma held the flashlight in one hand as she fumbled with the latch to the barn. She finally managed to pull it open, and she slipped inside. The wind banged the door shut. The rain was slightly muffled. Emma looked around the barn. Straw was strewn around on the floor, and the smell of kerosene met her nose. Emma figured that Katie and the others might be here, hiding in fear from the violent storm. She shined her flashlight around the vast room and stopped the light at the stairs up to the loft. She heard her grandmother’s voice drifting down the steps. Emma jogged to the bottom of the stairs and sprinted up them. Her grandmother sat on the floor of the loft, a blanket around her shoulders. And all around her were the barn cats. There were several of them, and they all sat clustered around her grandmother. Josephine had lit one of the kerosene lamps, and it emitted a soft glow around the room. One of the cats was lying across her lap, and another was strewn over her shoulder. At the sound of Emma’s footsteps Josephine looked up.
“Emma!” she said. “Where are your parents? Did you come here by yourself? Oh, I hope they’re all right.”
“Mom and Dad are fine. I came by myself. Grandmother, is Katie here?” Her grandmother shook her head.
“Nay, I have not seen her. Is she lost?”
“Yes, Grandmother, I have to find her.”
“I was hoping you would say otherwise. Do you really mean to go after her?”
“I have to. I can’t bear the thought of Katie and some of the other sheep wandering around in this weather. What if…”
“Child, I know what you mean. But I’m sure they will be fine until the storm ends.” But as Emma looked into her grandmother’s startling blue eyes she knew that they told a different story.
“I’m sorry, Grandmother,” Emma said as she turned back to the loft stairs and started running down them two at a time. The barn door creaked open and then slammed shut. Josephine was left alone.
“Oh, my dear girl,” she said sadly. She got up from where she had been sitting, and the cat on her shoulders jumped down nimbly. Josephine crossed the room and struggled to open the window, which faced the stretch of grassy plain where lightning lit up the sky. She hung the kerosene lamp on a latch that stuck out from the window. The lamp hung there, like a beacon in the churning darkness. Then Josephine closed the window.
Emma continued to run. She skirted around the huge field that lay behind the barn and ran instead towards the woods. On the right side of her family’s barn was the forest that had been there for ages. It was very old. Blarney Castle was a mere few miles east of it. Legends and myths hung around the woods like old spiderwebs. There was a sort of hushed feeling about it. Some of the villagers said that fairies lived in those woods, while others said for sure it was the leprechauns. Thoughts of this swirled around in Emma’s mind as she ran towards it, but she pushed them away. The thoughts stayed though, right in the back of her mind. She ran faster through the woods. The rain was still making its way down through the canopy of the trees. Water poured down from a leaf over Emma’s head, and freezing water cascaded down her neck uncomfortably. Emma jogged up a small hill and looked down. Down there the forest was dark. She shined her flashlight around, but the dimming light from it only helped her see a good two feet in front of her.
“Katie!” she yelled, but she was met with only the sound of rain. It mocked her. Emma stood there, on top of that small cliff overlooking the forest, wondering if she should go on, when the cliff made up its mind for her. The ground on which she was standing crumbled away, and she was sliding down into the darkness. Her hand hit a rock, and her flashlight was torn from her grasp. Emma was not sure how long she fell. She gave up counting the bumps that her head received. After what seemed like hours, Emma stopped sliding. She lay face down there in the mud for a minute, trying hard to get her breath back. Emma opened her eyes but then shut them again, as there was nothing to see in the hard darkness. She did not know where she was. She felt a single tear roll down her face. What have I done? she asked herself. Suddenly, Emma heard laughter. It sounded faint, and far off. Emma pushed herself up and listened hard. The laughter sounded again. It sounded high pitched, like a child’s gleeful warble. Emma looked around. She could not see where the laughter was coming from. Seeking help, Emma walked slowly, limping, towards the sound, her feet sometimes catching on tree roots. The laughter grew louder. Emma felt her hand make contact with something. It felt to be a tree. Peering around the tree, Emma saw what looked like something out of a fairy tale. Dancing around in a ring made of toadstools was a merry band of fairies and leprechauns. They were laughing as they danced madly in the circle. A sweet smell rose up from their party, it smelled of lilacs and fresh grass, of freshly baked bread and springtime. The leprechauns were dressed all in green, many had beards, and the fairies were dressed in all the colors of the rainbow. A green haze rose up from the bonfire in the middle of their ring, and no rain fell down on the party. Emma stood there, her mouth agape. Then the fairies began to sing, a sweet sound, like light rain falling down on grass, not at all like the hurricane that was pouring down. Little flowers and shamrocks sprang up from the fairies’ feet, and wherever a leprechaun stepped a tiny gold coin sprang up from the ground. A leprechaun started playing on a little flute, and the music made Emma’s heart soar. She thought she had never seen anything quite so lovely. Then, there, across the fire, she saw her Katie. The little sheep stood with the others, watching the revelries. Quietly, Emma moved back around the tree and stooped down into the underbrush. She did not want to be seen. She did not know whether it was from fear or the feeling of not wanting to disturb the dancers. Emma crawled around in the underbrush until she reached the sheep. Katie came over and pushed her nose against Emma’s arm, happy to see her.
“Hello, Katie,” Emma whispered. “Are you OK?” Emma quickly counted the other sheep. Ten. “Let’s go home.” Just then Emma noticed that the music had stopped. She turned around slowly. The fairies and leprechauns were standing in a crowd, looking up at her. The tallest did not even come up to her knee.
“Hullo,” Emma said. She did not know what else to say.
“You be human?” one of leprechauns asked. He was the flutist. He pointed his little flute at her accusingly.
“Yes, I am,” Emma said, “and I have gotten lost during the storm while looking for my dear sheep. Do you know the way out of the forest?”
“The forest is our home,” the fairies said in chorus. “Humans do not usually find themselves in the middle of our parties.”
“I apologize for interrupting your party,” Emma said, and she meant it. “All I want is to bring my sheep and myself home. If I promise never to tell anyone about this, will you show me the way out?”
“Nay, we need something more than that!” one of the leprechauns cried. “Have ye anythin’ to trade?”
“Aye! Aye!” the crowd cried. “A promise and a trade for the way out the forest!”
“Well,” Emma started, “I…” She had nothing. But then she remembered the blue hat atop her head. “Well,” she began again, pulling it off, “I do have this. Will this be a good trade?”
“Aye! Aye!” the leprechauns and fairies cried. “That is a good trade indeed!”
The flute player stepped forward and took the hat from Emma’s hand.
“Go now!” he said to Emma. “Let the lights be a way out for ye!” He waved a hand, and a long line of lights appeared. They led back the way that Emma had come, out of the woods.
“Thank you, dear sirs and ladies,” Emma said. Then she picked up Katie and whistled to the other sheep. As she walked away, she thought she heard laughter and the partygoers crying, “Tell no one of us! Promise!” And then the light led her out of the forest and back out into the night.
* * *
The rain had not let up. Emma clutched Katie tightly and continued to follow the light. Suddenly, it stopped. Emma stopped in her tracks, waiting for it to move.
“Why are you stopping?” she asked it. “We can’t be home yet, surely.” The light did not move. Emma looked around. “Well, a good help you have be…” Her voice died. There, right in front of her, was a light suspended in midair. Emma squinted, and through the rain she was able to make out the barn.
“Oh, thank you!” she cried as the light disappeared. Emma ran towards the barn and around the side. Pushing the door open, Emma herded the sheep inside and went in. Her parents and grandmother were in the middle of the room. Her mother and father were putting dry raincoats on over their wet ones. They looked as though they were going back out. Emma’s mother looked like she had been crying.
“I’m back,” Emma said, and set Katie down. Her parents turned in amazement.
“Emma!” her parents and grandmother cried, and they hugged her.
“Are you all right, Emma?” Her mother was talking. “You aren’t hurt? Oh honey, I was so worried!”
“I’m fine, Mom,” Emma said. “I found Katie and the others in the woods, they are all fine.”
“What happened in there?” her father asked. “The woods were pitch black, how did you find your way out?”
“It was hard, but I managed,” Emma said. Emma knew for a fact that she wasn’t a good liar, but she saw her parents’ faces relax.
“Yes, of course,” Josephine said briskly, but Emma thought she saw her grandmother wink. “Everything is all right.”
Emma nodded, but over the howling wind she thought she could hear laughter, the sound of a flute, and voices crying, “A Promise! Never tell! Never tell!”