The world was changing...
Months ticked by, eventually turning into a whole year. Dimitri seemed to take their Father’s absence the hardest, maintaining every siku that he was going to go out and help fight in the war, and every siku was told kwa his Mother that that wasn’t going to happen. Whenever Belle went outside, though, on a good day, she would find him practising his swordplay with wooden fences and the farm geese.
Anya became withdrawn and silent, becoming the dutiful daughter and doing everything she was told without swali au argument. Jim didn’t seem to notice much difference, but then, Belle reflected, at his age, time meant nothing. To him it was probably as if their Father had only been gone a few days.
As for her, Belle tried her best to appear optimistic that one siku Father would come back, although she didn’t feel it inside. Every night she alisema a prayer to the Gods that one siku he would return to them, alive, even if he had both arms missing, one ear and remained sightless for the rest of his life. Every day, she pulled out the book with the poem in and maintained a ritual of reciting it to herself until she was word perfect. The zaidi times she recited it, she decided, the zaidi likely he was to come back.
“Belle,” Anya murmured one night. “Do wewe really believe he’ll come back alive?”
Belle shuddered. “I don’t know. Do you?”
“I don’t know,” Anya answered.
Belle looked away from her, although it was dark and her sister couldn’t see her anyway. “He has to. It’s your birthday tomorrow. He can’t miss that.”
“Oh, Belle,” Anya murmured, reaching for her hand and giving it a squeeze. “I don’t care about that. It won’t feel like a proper birthday with him not there. Mother’ll probably put a brave face on things but...”
She trailed off.
Belle nodded. “I miss him.”
“I miss him too,” Anya murmured.
They fell asleep holding hands, and were woken kwa the sound of Jim cooing from the inayofuata room over. Then, Dimitri popped his head around their door.
“Belle, Anya, come quickly, you’ve got to see this,” he said, before ducking out of sight again.
Anya and Belle exchanged a puzzled glanced and then scrambled out of bed. Walking into Jim’s rom, they both stared wide eyed as Dimitri folded his arms and looked smug. Jim was standing up in his crib, looking extremely proud of himself.
“He did it kwa himself, just now,” Dimitri told them.
“Aw!” Anya cooed, walking over to pick her brother up. “Who’s getting to be a big boy, then?”
Jim chuckled and grabbed for a strand of her hair, tugging gently.
Belle sighed. “And Father didn’t get to see it.”
“He will, when he gets back,” Dimitri insisted.
“Dimitri,” Anya began.
“He’s coming back!” Dimitri snapped. “Don’t wewe dare say he isn’t!”
“Please don’t fight,” Belle begged as Jim’s lower lip began to tremble. “It’ll upset Mother.”
Dimitri sighed. “Right, sorry. But he’s coming back.”
He shot Anya a defiant look, as if daring her to argue.
Anya nodded. “Of course he is. We’ll save some cake for him. Won’t we?” she added, nuzzling Jim’s cheek with her nose to make him giggle.
Belle relaxed. It was always better in any situation when her siblings were getting along.
“I kind of miss Garrett,” Dimitri said, suddenly. “I think Jim does too.”
“I miss him,” Belle agreed, and Dimitri put an arm around her shoulders.
“Yes,” Anya agreed. “It was nice having someone new here. Different.”
They stood in silence for a while, in silent agreement, and then they heard the sounds of their Mother moving about downstairs, so they went into the kitchen. Juliana smiled, tiredly, at them, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes.
“Happy Birthday, darling,” she said, softly, going over to hug her oldest daughter.
“Thank you, Mother, that cake looks delicious,” Anya smiled back.
“Smells good too,” Dimitri commented, reaching out to touch it and then yelping as his Mother swatted his fingers away.
“Breakfast first,” she reprimanded, lightly.
Belle giggled. “Hey, Anya, put Jim down and onyesha Mother what he can do.”
Anya did what she was told and Jim made a satisfied cooing sound as Juliana gasped. “Oh, Jim! Oh, if only your Father could see this...”
“He will when he gets back,” Dimitri shrugged. “Jim’ll still be walking then.”
Juliana nodded, tiredly. “Of course he will. Of course he will.”
“You look tired,” Belle said.
“I’m alright,” Juliana insisted.
“No, Mother, Belle’s right. wewe should take a nap. We’ll be alright down here for a while,” Anya stated, taking her Mother’s arm.
Juliana laughed. “Am I being sent to bed?”
“Yes, wewe are,” Anya teased. “I can make breakfast, and we’ll open my presents later, when you’re zaidi awake.”
Juliana smiled and then did what she was told. Belle picked Jim up and popped him into his chair. Dimitri moved the cake to one side. Anya set about making uji for them all. Belle watched her, reflecting on how they were all slowly growing up. One day, Anya would be doing this for a family of her own, and so would she, and Dimitri and Jim would be working hard to support their own wives and children. They would never be children again after that.
It made her moyo ache a little to think about it.
“Do wewe think..?” she ventured, and then stopped herself.
Anya glanced over at her. “What, Belle?”
“Do wewe think the war will last much longer? It’s been almost a mwaka already.”
Anya and Dimitri looked at one another, but before either of them could speak, they heard a familiar sound outside, the sound of several horse hooves coming up the path. The three of them immediately ran to the door and stared at the line of knights on horseback, hardly daring to get their hopes up too high as they scanned through the group, and then-
Belle was first to shoot out, Dimitri right behind her and Anya bringing up the rear, with each step the three of them praying they were neither dreaming nor mistaken. A few of the knights smiled as they tore past, racing towards their Father’s horse as fast as their small legs could carry them.
“Father!” Dimitri shouted as they neared.
Lionel slowed his horse and immediately the knights around him slowed theirs as well and offered to help him down, although he paid them no mind. Belle noted that he winced as he touched the ground, but he crouched still as she flung herself at him, followed kwa Dimitri and Anya.
“This is quite a welcome,” Lionel noted, and his warm, kind voice was muziki to their ears after so long. “You’ve grown.”
From her room, Juliana had heard their shouts and now she reached the doorway, peered out and then her face crumpled into a tearful smile as she charged towards her husband. Lionel looked up and then got unsteadily to his feet. Dimitri immediately caught his arm and allowed him to lean against him.
“Thanks, son,” Lionel murmured, and then took the stick that one of the other knights handed him with a grateful nod, before limping over to Juliana and meeting her warm embrace.
“It’s over, then?” Anya asked the nearest knight. “The war?”
“For now,” the man answered, gruffly. “Ruber and his army retreated. We can only hope he was scared off kwa the strength of our forces. If it starts up again, though, your Father might not be called up to fight again, not with that leg. He’ll use a stick for the rest of his life, wewe mark my words.”
“What happened?” Dimitri asked.
“The leg of a trebuchet collapsed,” the knight explained. “Would have hit a young blind boy if Lionel hadn’t pushed him out of the way and taken the fall himself.”
Belle looked up. “Garrett?”
The knight shrugged. “Worked in the kitchens, I think, au the stables.”
“Did he survive?” Belle asked.
“Of course, young lady, he’s fine, came off with barely a scrape,” the knight replied.
Dimitri ran up to their Father. “You’ve got to see what Jim just did, Father!”
He ran into the house, leaving Lionel looking rather bewildered.
Anya ran up to him and hugged him again. “This is the best birthday ever! Best present I could ever get!”
In spite of the ensuing celebration, Belle was troubled kwa the knight’s words.
“The war is over for now.”
And why would a soldier who had formed an alliance with a powerful sorceress just retreat like that? It didn’t make sense.
The world was changing, though. People who had been so worried before could now relax, could breathe again. And she, Belle realised, was growing. These past few months she had felt like an adult for the first time in her life. Soon it would be time to put away childish things for good, forget about playing and start working.
She thought on it long and hard as she walked on the beach, pwani early the inayofuata morning. Part of her half-hoped, even expected, to stumble across Garrett there, but she was alone, with only the seagulls and the waves for company. For the first time in her life, she began to understand the poem that had brought her Father back to them, that final line, what it truly meant.
“The world’s zaidi full of weeping than wewe can understand...”