s that all you ever do Caroline - read?” Jonas was once again pestering his older sister in that unique way that little brothers seem to take so much pleasure in. Jonas was thirteen and acted it, while Caroline was sixteen and acted anything but. So she ignored the question and continued to lose herself in her book, sprawled out on the deck near the river, enjoying the day. Of course, that didn't deter Jonas, it only encouraged him to continue.
“So, what'cha reading?” He bent his knees and leaned down to look at the book's title. “Akari the Dragonslayer.” That again? You know our uncle's not going to rise from the dead just because you keep reading that book, right? Akari is long dead.”
He then held his arms out straight and walked stiff-legged, as if his legs were sticks -- imitating the way he imagined a dead person would act upon returning from beyond the grave.
Caroline rolled her eyes. “Yes, I am aware, thank you Jonas. Don't you have anything better to do? Why don't you go finish up your chores before dad returns.”
“Don't have to. I made a bet with Mouse and he lost, like usual.” Jonas walked onto the dock and plopped down in a sagging chair beside Caroline. He gestured with his thumb, pointing toward a wooden building with a thatched roof - their father's workplace. “He's sweeping up the foundry now.”
He took a handful of small stones from his pocket and started flinging them one by one into the nearby Great River, acting as if he did not have a care in the world. Caroline found this very obnoxious.
“Jonas, why don't you go help him? He's always doing your chores. It's not fair,” Caroline complained.
Jonas threw another stone into the river before responding. “Well, he needs to learn how to fight better if he's going to be this great warrior like that old wizard Wallary told him, don't you think? Even if we were using broom handles instead of swords.”
Caroline blanched at the mention of the old wizard. During her 14th birthday reading, an Ambrosian custom where one's Fate was determined, the ancient Wallary told her that she was going to be married to a great warrior - not a great warrior herself, but simply the wife of one. The very idea made her sick.
Caroline shuddered but forced herself to move her thoughts back to Mouse, a nickname he had earned the day that he came into their lives. His real name, Alexander, never seemed to fit as well. “Mouse” seemed to describe her adopted brother perfectly and there was no getting around it.
She looked at Jonas and sighed in resignation, conceding his point though it pained her to do so. “I guess that's true, but that doesn't mean you can't go easy on him once in a while - maybe let him win a contest once or twice? Give him a little confidence? He hasn't had the easiest life, you know.”
Those words caused them both to look back at Mouse, the small boy barely taller than the broom he was using to sweep out the foundry where their father made his living as a weapons maker. Caroline liked to think of him as her brother by circumstance, no less of a brother than Jonas was, and no less of a son to her father. She could not fathom how he would ever become a great warrior, but her place was not to question the Fate that had been chosen for him.
Or at least that was what she had been telling herself, as difficult as that was. It would not do to let it be known that the more she thought about the preposterousness of a system that told you what the rest of your life would be at age fourteen, the more it made her furious. But what could she do? There was no changing her Fate, as she had been tattooed with the mark stating her lot in life -- and that was that.
Jonas felt a pang of remorse as he watched Mouse hard at work and thought over what she had been saying. “Well, maybe you're right Caroline.”
But Jonas being Jonas, his sympathy quickly passed. “All I know is if that wizard told Mouse he would become a great warrior, I can only imagine what they're going to tell me next week. Why, I could be Chief Knight, like father!” He took another rock and threw it as hard as he could - it landed halfway across the wide river with a small “plunk.”
“It's very possible, Jonas. I just hope you get a better reading than I did. But you know they don't tell anyone they will be Chief Knight on their birthday - that's up to the King when the time comes. No, they'll just say you're going to be a great warrior or something, and while you're off on great adventures I'll be waiting at home, hoping that I won't hear bad news about you, or Mouse, or my husband, helpless to do a single thing about it even though I'm as good as anyone with a sword or a bow. What a life!”
Caroline shot up from her chair and kicked at a pile of sticks and leaves lying on the dock, then tried to compose herself as she watched the rubbish fall into the water with Frogs diving deep to avoid her tantrum. While looking into the water, she saw her expression and almost had to laugh at her pouting face. She knew she was acting childish, and seeing herself caused her to quickly regain her composure and act the leader that she was. With that, she looked back at her brother Jonas.
“Jonas, father should be back any minute. Why don't you help Mouse finish up real quick and as soon as you're done, come back down so we can all meet him together.”
In a pleasant surprise, Jonas said nothing and walked up the hill to join his brother. In between his frequent obnoxious spells, Caroline thought, she really liked her brother. But he sure did not make it easy at times.
Caroline shifted her gaze from Jonas to down river, where she was eagerly looking to see her father -- standing on his canoe as it came around the bend -- using a pole to push off the bottom of the river to propel himself upstream. It was tough work, she had tried it herself, but somehow her father made it look easy. Though he was getting older, he remained surprisingly strong.
Seeing no sign of her father, she returned to her book. It was her seventh time reading it, yet she still found herself enthralled. Good books were often that way, always happy to be cracked open and read again, revealing something new each time.
It was a perfect late spring afternoon for reading - the air was warm and pleasant and the sun was shining down from a clear blue sky after seemingly being lost forever during the cold, dark winter. There wasn’t even a hint of chill in the light breeze that blew over the Great River and into her face.
As she sat at the edge of a dock, with her feet dangling over the swells of the river, with her chores over and her mind fixed on “Akari the Dragonslayer,” -- she couldn’t ask for a better day. All was right in the world.
That sense of wellbeing almost always seemed to be the case in their pleasant little town of Frogpond, named after what seemed to be an endless supply of sleepy little pools of water that gave home to turtles, otters, and of course, frogs.
Caroline sipped from her iced tea and stretched her legs out. As perfect as it was, she had a hard time focusing on the printed words because of what awaited - her father had promised to bring back an especially interesting book when he returned. Caroline could not recall him having made such a promise before, so naturally she could not wait to see what was in store. She especially hoped that it was the second book about Akari, one which would cover his later adventures as Chief Knight of the Ambrosian Army. But Caroline tried to put those thoughts away and turn her attention back to the book she held in her hands, awaiting her father’s gift.
After she had read a chapter or so, Jonas and Mouse arrived and sat beside her on the deck. She closed the book and greeted them. “Hi Mouse. See Jonas, that didn't take long, assuming you really are all done with your chores?”
“Yep, everything is cleaned up,” Mouse answered for the two of them. He craned his neck to peer down the river, hoping for a sign and found nothing. “Don't you think dad should be back by now?”
Caroline looked in the sky and noted the sun's placement. It was a little later than normal for her father's return, although not unheard of. Nothing to get worked up over.
“Oh, he's probably just running a little late today. He'll be back soon. So, everything look good up there? You know how father can be about keeping the shop clean.”
“It’s spotless!” Mouse replied. “Say, are you reading that book again, Caroline?” Mouse winked at Jonas, who had put him up to asking her about it.
Caroline put down the book and threw up her hands in exasperation. “Geez, yes, I am! What's the big deal? I like it! So what?” She stopped as Jonas and Mouse both laughed, realizing they were just teasing her. Caroline sighed. “Ugh, you guys!”
“Sorry Caroline,” replied Mouse, smiling. “But it does seem like you're always reading that book. Anyway, I hope dad is back soon - hey, there he is now!”
Mouse pointed to a figure coming around the bend, standing on a canoe and making his way very slowly against the current of the river. He was using a large pole, dipping it in and out of the water to push forward.
They watched the figure intently as it drew nearer.
Excitement filled Caroline, giving her a light giddy feeling. Yes, she was excited to see her dad as he had been gone all day, but she'd be lying if she was not even a bit more excited to see what he had brought for her.
As the figure drew nearer, her mind began to race as she realized there was something unusual about it. She rubbed her eyes as the image she expected to see did not jibe with the one she was seeing - there was no familiar cloud of smoke and no beard. Soon, the figure was close enough for there to be no doubt - the man using a pole to push her father's canoe was not her father.
Dread instantly filled her heart. Her desire for a simple book was cast aside, as an awful, terrible feeling pulsed through her body. Her legs felt so weak she could barely stand. Worse, there was nothing to do but sit and wait for the canoe to draw close enough to find out what was going on.
The suspense was terrible.
“Jonas! Mouse! What’s happening? Where's dad?” she called out.
She took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. She was the oldest and her father had impressed upon her numerous times that it was her job to set an example for her younger brothers. It was not always easy to do, but now was the time to prove that she could lead the way.
The canoe was nearly there and Caroline watched it, disbelieving. An old man was slumped over as he dipped the pole in and out of the water, panting heavily and perspiring profusely. An old man, but not her father.
Caroline was beside herself. It was their father’s canoe, but he wasn’t there. What had happened to their father?