The corridor was quiet - a heavy kind of quiet that made the hardwood floor out of the candlelight's reach seem to gleam with malice and the walls to loom closer, leaning in. Constantine could see the light from the sitting room coming from downstairs and hear the cordial laughter of bored, but socially obligated, adults conversing. A spot of hot wax dripped onto his hand and he gripped the candle tighter, biting his lip.
Aspen had wanted to use a candlestick. He had called her stupid and said that the old nurse left to baby-sit them would be sure to notice a piece of silver missing when she woke up from her nap. He would never admit that he had since come to the conclusion that undamaged hands would have been well-worth the risk of being discovered.
The boy whirled on his companions and hissed for them to be quiet. Aspen raised her eyebrows and frowned, folding her arms across her chest, but little Jana - who had spoken - looked terrified.
"We can talk when we get outside," he explained in a whisper.
Aspen looked angry - her brow was knit and her glassy gray eyes seemed to bore into Constantine. He knew she was probably still sore over the candlestick spat - there was no doubt that she had noticed the trail of melted wax they were leaving. She was probably glad of the wax splattered on his hands too. She always did get ruffled and vindictive when he played the age card.
It was not as if their ages were too far distant - his birthday was only two months before hers - but he was older and had always used that fact as much to his advantage as possible.
The stairs made muted creaking protests as the trio clambered down them, pausing with bated breath every time the wood let out a particularly loud groan. Halfway down, Jana stumbled and Constantine glared at Aspen, hissing at her to "control her idiot brother."
Aspen hissed back in her brother’s defense. Constantine told her to shut her mouth and keep quiet. Jana looked as though he was about to cry or wet himself. Or both. Looking at the trembling boy, Constantine swore to himself that he would never let the cowardly child come along with them again – he was far too great a nuisance.
The children crept past the parlor where their parents were chatting over tea. The butler standing in the doorway noted the misshapen shifting shadows of the impish three and inclined his head slightly in response to little master Constantine’s stern look. He would not reveal their secret – at least not until after tea. He saw no reason for the children to remain cooped up in the dreary house as their parents wanted them too. And considering the young master’s track record with mischief while under confinement when he was in the company of little lady Aspen, the butler could not imagine what Constantine’s parents were thinking leaving them alone together.
The door swung open silently on well-oiled hinges and the children dashed out of the house and down the back steps, exalting in what they considered to be a brilliant and narrow escape.
The yard was inhabited by thick shadows, the sun sinking low below the woody horizon. Constantine held the candle up triumphantly. “Ha, made it.”
He looked down on his companions. Jana still looked about to cry. Constantine thought him much too sissy to be considered a real boy.
“What should we do now?” he queried, speaking only to Aspen – a companion perhaps worthy of his notice.
“How should I know?” she tossed back, rather irritated by his behavior. She could see from his eyes and body language that he was ignoring her little brother, an unforgivable offense even for her longtime friend. “You said we would explore the woods. Unless you are afraid? It is almost night now. It will be dark soon.”
Constantine stiffened; offended that she would dare question his mettle – she who had witnessed his bravery on so many occasions. “I only thought you might have changed your mind because precious Jana looks about to soil himself in fear.” He taunted.
Aspen bristled, but before she could retort, Jana responded. His large, grey eyes, so like his sister’s, looked at the older boy so admiringly. “I want to go in the woods. I am not afraid.”
Constantine raised his eyebrows. “You hear, Aspen? Perhaps your brother is a boy after all – perhaps you have not entirely corrupted him.”
“He never said he was afraid of the woods,” she responded. “You only assumed he was – perhaps you were looking for an excuse to go back inside to the safety of your Nurse’s arms?”
Constantine scoffed. “I have no need for that hag; you must be desperate to resort to such ridiculous claims.”
Aspen did not return his taunt. She knew that she had hit a nerve and that he was embarrassed to even still have a governess. She did not need to press the subject to triumph over him – she had already won. Instead, she turned toward the woods. “The woods await, then, little lord.”
He brushed past her, hackles raised in indignation. Aspen could not help but smile, Constantine was far too easy to tease. He believed himself in perfect control, but she knew exactly what to say to push him off his throne. His shoulders – grown broad the last few years – were set in a stiff line as he walked away from her, but she knew he would forget the slight soon enough. His ego was nothing if not self-repairing.
Jana followed close at Constantine’s heels, subconsciously mirroring the older boy’s gait and straight shoulders. Aspen almost laughed. For a boy of hardly nine, the walk was absurd. She followed at a distance, content to watch her reckless, heady friend and approval-hungry brother in their incongruous waltz.
The woods were already far darker than the sky, but the children did not seem to notice. Constantine soon turned back to his companions, his expression cheerful and pink-cheeked in the cold and candlelight, to challenge them to a race. Though it was almost too dark to see, the candle was set aside to flicker on its own, and the children ran free of the constraint of its light.
The candle burned low and the children’s laughter began to echo eerily in the woods – black as night. They were not too far away. Aspen had been more cautious than the boys, certain to keep the light within her sight. She glanced back at it as she noticed Jana begin to peek into the looming trees, his eyes frightened though he would never say so.
“We should find the candle, Constantine.”
The older boy nodded. She knew he would never admit it, but he was getting cold and bored and perhaps even scared. She could tell from the wideness of his eyes and the goose bumps on his arms. Constantine was ready to go home, though he would never have been the one to bring it up.
The candle was really not too far away. They walked quickly toward it though, their backs to the open, sinister woods. The noises of the night had begun in the woods – the creaking of the wind-blown boughs and the rustling of unidentified creatures. Far off, a wolf howled and all the children started – laughing a little at their own fear.
Though Aspen had been leading the way, it was Constantine who reached the candle first – bounding ahead of his companions to seize the candle. He was trembling, Aspen noticed.
He turned back to them with a nonchalant smile. “Beat you.”
Aspen rolled her eyes. Jana looked stricken – as though it had been a race from the beginning and he had been too slow to notice, as though he had to be mortified by Constantine “beating” him. Aspen sighed. Constantine was so easily able to torture her brother, sometimes without even knowing he was doing it.
They could almost see the house through the trees – it was just far enough away that they could not make it out, but close enough that they were certain it was “just ahead”. At first, they were too focused on their own conversation – on finding the house – that they did not hear the sound.
The rustling of wings swept through the woods, mixed with the squeaking cries of the bats. Aspen noticed first, looking around for the source of the noise.
A flood of winged creatures suddenly engulfed them, pouring out of the trees. Jana screamed and Aspen cried out to him. Constantine was not sure if he cried out or not – he could not hear himself above the shrieking bats.
They fluttered around them in a moving, pulsing torrent. Their fine-tooth mouths cried in their faces, their clawed wings beat against them, closing them in. Aspen could not breathe – she could not find Jana; she could not find Constantine – and the bats were crawling over her, writhing against her skin in convulsive creeping motions that made her shudder. Some had landed on her, latching their claws into her clothing and climbing on her.
Constantine was crouched close to the ground, claustrophobia overtaking him. It was even darker inside the flood of bats than it had been in the forest – closed in, a shrinking space. His breathing was ragged and it echoed off of the flying bodies.
Then as quickly as they came, the bats were gone. It was deathly still – the candle was out and the sun had set fully, leaving the world in a state of bated silence.
“Jana?” Aspen called, her panicked voice piecing the silence.
“Aspen?” The anguished voice that answered was not her brother. The two children groped their way toward each other.
Aspen found herself embracing a shaking Constantine. His fingers bit into her skin. They were breathing hard.
“Where’s Jana?” Aspen asked.
Constantine shook his head, composing himself and changing the tone of the embrace, painting himself the comforter. “I do not hear him.”
“Jana!” Aspen broke away from her friend, feeling around in the dark. She was afraid to find a prone little body – unconscious or hurt or simply terrified. Where was he?
“Aspen!” Constantine grabbed at her. He knew they would get lost if they were separated. He might never find her again. He might lose her.
“Jana!” Aspen’s screams turned into sobs. She could not find him. She could not hear him. Jana was gone.
Constantine caught up to her and wrapped her in his arms – not only to comfort her, but to try and confine her. His eyes had adjusted a little. He could tell Jana was no longer anywhere near them. The boy really was gone.
Constantine could see the snuffed out candle laying on the ground several feet away – a patch of white on the dark ground. He had a flint in his pocket to light it. He ached for the extra light to drive away the shadows, but he was afraid to let go of Aspen; afraid that she might bolt back into the woods in search of her brother.
He inched toward it, pulling Aspen with him. She resisted. “No, we cannot go back without him!”
Constantine let her go for a moment and snatched up the candle – warring with his fears. Was it worse to lose Aspen or to be trapped in the dark? He tangled with her, managing to light the candle without letting her completely go. She did not try to go into the woods, but that fact did not assuage his fear. Her eyes were glazed – she stared into the trees, expressionless.
He felt calmer as the candle spread its glow around them; he felt more in control. “We should go back.”
Aspen’s eyes turned wild and she clawed at him, trying to pull away. “No! We have to find Jana!”
“We have to tell our parents,” Constantine argued, pulling her in the direction of the house. “They can help us find him. We will get lost if we stay out here alone.”
“No, we cannot go back without Jana! We cannot leave him alone in the dark.” Aspen scrabbled at him like a trapped animal.
Constantine struggled to hold her, to keep her from running. He finally sat down, dragging her with him. He clenched his arms around her until she stopped struggling.
“We can look for Jana in the morning. We will only get lost.”
Aspen did not look at him, but he felt her stiffen. “I would not even leave you in the dark,” she spat. “I will not leave him alone.”
Constantine bit his lip and held her tighter. There was no way he could drag her back to the house with her like this. No one would hear him if he screamed for help. Constantine held Aspen close, watching the candle burn lower and the melted wax drip down while the wood’s shadows crept closer.
Notes: This has been written for a while, but I had to start somewhere.