Just like The Swansong, The Two Hedgehogs was inspired by a person once very dear to me. A sudden separation can be harsh, and ours was indeed; but the story remains, and it works as a perfect closure of one important chapter of my personal life.
Settled in the years of the First War of Scottish Independence, at the border between England and Scotland, the story features Wolfe Doireann and the little Penelope Redwood, two children connected through time by fate and their love for each other. After the end of the war, Wolfe is now a successful military leader, and he comes back to the mansion of his childhood, dragged by an ever-forgotten promise. A magical amulet will accompany his path, allowing him to relive some key moments of those happy, innocent years.
The structure of the tale is twisted, just like time can be. It starts with a memory, then jumps forth into the present time, and keeps doing that way, constantly until, the very ending.
All the short stories in the Cycle of Seven appear here in their first draft version. All formatting, spelling, and grammar mistakes were fixed in later versions of the stories, revised for self-publication. A link to the book will be provided when available.
«Remember me!», the little girl said, shortly before their hands parted from their timeless embrace. As he watched her leaving, with the heavy amulet around her neck, the boy felt something cold and metallic in his palm. He opened his hand, and saw his own eyes reflected into a vivid red ruby; inside, as if fluctuating in a vaporous fluid, a fugitive cloud of confused memories.
As he lifted his eyes from the ruby, the little boy had already grown up. But he couldn’t forget her once, even if he wanted to.
He looked around. Wide groups of weeds had arrogantly invaded the giant garden, left to itself in a careless state for more than ten years. Everything was different, now: its look, its scent, even the viewer itself, standing in the middle of a place consumed by time and memories.
He could swear he could see her there, so young but so mature already, being dragged away by her mother to a horse that would bring them far away, in a land of which she didn’t even know the name. She had told him not to cry, and to be strong for both of them; but he couldn’t. He never would.
He moved his eyes away from the mesmerizing power of that semi-rusted pendant, and started looking around. Darkened by the grey clouds of that day, 10th February, 1306, he saw the shape of a majestic beech tree that looked immediately familiar. With renewed and somewhat instinctive strength, he put the pendant away in his pocket and started running towards the tree, as if the beech could suddenly channel all the strength in its roots and just run away from him, on the spot. Obviously, the beech tree didn’t move; and, as the young man approached, a confused cloud of memories blurred his eyes all of a sudden.
The young man turned around. The garden was flourishing once again, featuring a circular fountain at its centre and a great number of finely-cut hedges all around. The once old, ruined mansion dominating over the garden was now shinier than ever, and even the sun looked brighter in that England of ten years earlier. Little Penelope Redwood was wandering around the garden, minding her own business, throwing corn to ducklings in the fountain and hopping all around in joy. She was followed by her father, whose face the young Wolfe couldn’t remember at all.
He saw a large number of horses approaching the garden from a clay pathway, out of a nearby forest. Time had been cruel with a good portion of his memories, but it could never erase that day from his mind: the young viewer knew perfectly who those guests were. It wasn’t the first time his own father brought his son with him to the Redwoods of Scotland, in order to discuss some diplomatic business. But that day would have changed young Wolfe’s life, forever.
When Lord Henry Redwood noticed the small convoy approaching, he whispered something in his young daughter’s ear; in response, Penelope rushed to the garden’s entrance and there she stood, proud, waiting, to greet the incoming guests with respect.
«Lord Redwood!», Wolfe’s father shouted, dismounting from his white horse. «Our last Autumn was generous on your side! You do look terrific.»
«Lord Doireann…», Henry Redwood answered, bowing in respect, with a kind smile to brighten his face. Lord Doireann approached little Penelope, who rapidly bowed to follow her father’s example.
«And this one must be little Penelope. This young lady is growing so fast!»
«Not even as fast as her mind», Lord Redwood answered. «She might be just eight, but this young woman will give a headache to anyone lucky enough to marry her, I assure you.»
«That’s not hard to believe at all», Lord Doireann answered, with a big smile. «My son is just ten, and he already looks like a man.»
Shortly after, the two lords started walking through the garden, headed to the Redwood mansion and its wide halls. But, since she wasn’t allowed to attend to her father’s business meetings, young Penelope gladly stayed behind, and resumed hopping through the garden. Presumably in search of a new way to spend the rest of her day.
It was at that moment that young Wolfe Doireann clumsily dismounted from his horse, and, as soon as he saw young Penelope wandering around the huge Redwood’s garden, he realized that there wasn’t a single reason in the whole world to follow his father into the palace. Meanwhile, not far from there, a centuries-old beech tree was staring at him from a distance, unaware of its role in the young Wolfe’s fate.
Young Wolfe Doireann was projected back to the present, standing at the feet of the same majestic tree so dear to him – and, at the same time, so cursed by the happiness of his most distant memories. That bark, fragile and crumbly as chalky rocks, always looked like a true miracle of nature to him, thanks to its ability to seemlessly endure regardless of time and weather. Regardless of its incredible delicacy.
Wolfe sighed. He started going all around the tree, looking for a memory that not even the pendant itself could provide.
Far from there, a young girl was sitting at her old desk, contemplating her own image in a dusty mirror consumed by time. Long, sinuous and brown hair fell on her shoulder and at the sides of her face, shaping the upper part of her body like a silky bedsheet. Her eyes, brown-coloured as well, made up a piercing and decise look that couldn’t be mirrored in any other place but in her own mind. Nonetheless, her eyes were slightly veiled by some constant melancholy, one that reflected her daily battles with herself. Many thought that the war made her withdraw in a shell, that it was the war’s fault; but nobody could know the truth better than herself.
A soft beam of light pierced through the window and reflected on the mirror, hitting the small sapphire pendant hanging around her neck. But Penelope Redwood didn’t want to look at the sapphire; she had stopped doing that too many years earlier.
At the feet of the beech tree, Wolfe saw a little flower blooming through a group of rocks, at the shade of the gigantic bark. Its colours were vivid, strong, as if they were complete strangers to that place and time. The young man studied the flower for a few seconds with nostalgic look, then he picked it up, tearing it away from its mother Earth.
When Wolfe went back to the other side of the tree, the whole place had already transformed. The small yellow flower was still into his kid’s hands, and his body was several centimeters smaller. Not far, like ten years earlier, young Penelope was playing in the huge garden of the Redwood mansion, with nothing else around but the gorgeous architecture of the scottish family and the vivid green of their garden.
Wolfe stared at the small flower in his hands, then looked at the young girl playing in the garden; she was completely unaware of the boy’s presence on the hill. That day, like a thousand times before and a thousand times later, Wolfe made the only choice that he would always make, without regrets: with a firm step, he started walking towards the little girl, careful to avoid her gaze.
When young Wolfe drew near to the round fountain, Redwood’s daughter was jumping on the tiles around the embellished rock sculpture. All around there was a deep silence, so deep that Wolfe was afraid she could hear his heartbeat, if only he moved close enough. Only the ducklings were breaking that merciless quiet, by playing with each other and splashing around the transparent water in the fountain. Despite Winter’s cold bite, that day of January was surprisingly warm and fresh: Wolfe almost felt inspired to make what would become his most ventured choice, and definitely the most important one in his whole life.
With outstanding care and utterly silent step, young Wolfe managed to place the flower on a mid-wall encircling the round basin, precisely behind the small girl’s back. Then, paying attention to where she was facing, he started going back to one of the hedges nearby.
It didn’t take long for little Penelope to notice the yellow flower behind her back, so bright and shiny to stand out against the whole fountain of roman marble. The child moved close, picked it up and started examining it with care, although she had absolutely no doubt: there was only a flower like that, only one in the whole garden.
The first born of the Doireann’s family watched the little girl searching all around, curious and distressed at the same time. She looked troubled by that surprise, but she wasn’t scared: she just looked eager to find the mysterious author of that gift.
Then, young Penelope finally spotted him, while he was peeking from one of the hedges around the fountain.
«Come out», the little child said, shaking her head. Wolfe obeyed and approached carefully, keeping his head down in shyness. The little girl recognised him almost immediately.
«You’re the son of Lord Doireann. Wolfe, isn’t it?»
Wolfe lifted his head and nodded, a big smile on his young face. He was happy that the little child could recognize him, let alone remember his name. Little Redwood was spinning the flower between her fingers. All of a sudden, she lifted her hand and showed him the blossom.
«Did you do that?», she asked, slightly severe in attitude. An embarassed expression showed up on Wolfe’s face, and he nodded again. Suddenly, the little girl hit him so hard in the head, young Wolfe could do nothing but shake from his feet up.
«You stupid!», shouted the little child, with an adorable but still barely perceptible scottish accent. «Do you realise what you just did?!»
«But… I…», stuttered the boy.
«My mother picked this flower up in southern England! He made a long trip to come here, and now you ripped him off! You did it on purpose!»
«No! I swear, I didn’t know that!», young Wolfe tried to argue. He totally ignored how that little flower could survive to a journey until the Cheviot Hills, but he decided it wasn’t the right time to wonder.
«We must save him!», the little girl shouted. «And you’re going to help me!»
All of a sudden, little Penelope started running up the hill, towards the gigantic beech tree where Wolfe had found the small flower. The first born of the Doireann family chased her without saying a word, willing to make up for that horrible cruelty towards the little flower.
Once at the beech tree’s shade, young Penelope started digging with her bare hands to plant the flower in a new patch of dirt. Young Doireann saw a small group of rocks right below the tree, and thought there couldn’t be a better place to protect the flower from Winter’s threats.
«Give me the flower!», he said to the little girl, still focused on digging. Penelope refused, mistrusting the newcomer that had ripped off her mother’s gift.
«No!», the child answered. «I’d rather dig through the whole hill by myself!»
«Trust me!», he replied. «I know how to save it. I promise!»
The little girl, down on her knees with dirt on her dress, looked at the young Wolfe, then at the little yellow flower on the ground next to her. After a few seconds, she picked it up and went back on her feet.
«I want to trust you», she grumbled. «But I’ll hold him.»
Wolfe smiled and nodded, pleased. Then, he pointed out the little group of rocks nearby and asked her to follow him.
Young Doireann started moving the rocks away with determination.
«How do you know this is going to work?», asked the little girl.
«My father taught me», he answered. Although still tense, Penelope finally started relaxing, and waited for instructions.
Shortly after, Wolfe moved away from the rock pile, now organised to host a small space at its centre. He then looked for any small pile of dirt on the ground, and he found it close to Penelope’s feet.
«Put it right there», he said, pointing at the pile. The little child obeyed, and Wolfe started gathering some dirt around the flower, until he completely submerged its stem. Then, after creating a small, circular track on the ground with his index, he lifted the whole pile with both hands, and moved everything in the middle of the rocks. The small flower, still unharmed and now with a new home all around it, looked healthier than ever.
Wolfe stood up and wiped cold sweat from his forehead, getting dirty with soil.
«He’ll make it», he said. «But you need to take care of “him”, every day.»
The little girl was thrilled to hear the good news, and threw herself at young Wolfe’s neck to hug him, completely careless of their dirty clothes.
«Thank you! Thank you!», she said, tranquil at last. «We’ll take a good care of him, together! He will become a wonderful flower!»
Surprised, Wolfe hesitated, but then hugged her in return after a few seconds. Shortly after, young Penelope moved away to introduce herself.
«Penelope», she said, with a small bow.
«Wolfe», young Doireann answered, making a reverence in return. The two of them were smiling, happy to have found a new friend in each other.
The small flower dissolved in his hands, leaving nothing else than ashes and memories behind. The rock circle was still there, but the small flower had wilted a very long time ago, destroyed by carelessness and by the neverending change of seasons. Young Wolfe glanced at the sky, grey and cloudy, almost a mirror to his own soul. Ten years of fights had notched him, making him as hard and impenetrable as the armor he wore during the war; but he would have given anything to just have Penelope by his side. He would’ve given anything to let her soften that thick coat of quills he was forced to build, and that had already been pierced by the eyes of a young and determined child, ten years earlier.
All of a sudden, heavy drops of rain started falling on his face, forcing him to find a shelter far away from that old tree. Wolfe glanced at the decrepit Redwood mansion, now in ruin and devoured by plants and vines; then, firmly, he started moving towards the palace, while the ruby in his pocket shone of new, nostalgic brightness.
«Penelope!», he shouted. «Where are you?!»
Young Doireann was well familiar with the woods between the Redwood’s estate and the Doireann Palace. It had been about two months since he and Penelope first met, but there was no single day that the two of them weren’t meeting in those woods to explore, especially when their parents used to meet and discuss some commercial matters between the two families. That day, though, Penelope had ventured too far into the woods, and even Doireann had no idea where she might be gone to, despite all the hunting trips he went to with his father.
«Penelope!», he kept shouting. «Answer me, please!»
The wind, howling between the oak trees’ fronds, was almost willing to suppress the boy’s cry, loaded with fear and concern for his friend’s disappearance. Penelope had vanished into the wilderness for several minutes, and, even though that woods had nothing else than hares and some tiny, wild animal, there still was the risk she could trip on some root or get scratched on a pointy branch.
«I don’t like this game, Penelope!», young Wolfe shouted, more worried than ever for his friend’s safety. «Just come out!»
All of a sudden, a scream behind his back pierced through the silence of the woods. Wolfe turned around at once and started running in that direction, holding his breath with his heart gripped by great fear. Penelope was just sitting there, on the ground, pulling back in a hurry towards a tree and pushing herself away with her hands. Her eyes were staring at a small shape, crawling in her direction and moving among the shadows of the woods.
«Penelope!», Wolfe shouted, still unable to distinguish the small shape that moved at uncertain pace.
Ironically, it was almost like that creature was more afraid of Penelope than the other way around. Nevertheless, the little child was petrified, as if trying to escape from a real-life monster. Keeping her back against a tree, it looked like young Penelope couldn’t help but staring at that mysterious silhouette, coming closer and closer at each step.
Wolfe rushed to Penelope, kneeled down and embraced her shoulders to make her feel safe. Then, a soft beam of sunlight between the fronds allowed him to finally see it: a small hedgehog was crawling towards a group of berries, placed at the little girl’s feet. It looked afraid, but also definitely hungry.
Young Doireann, who had already seen entire families of those creatures walking through the woods, smiled genuinely. He learned not to fear hedgehogs at its own expense, when he tried to tease one of them with a twig and, in response, the small animal had stiffed and strengthened its quills to protect itself. Soon enough, the sense of fear had given way to admiration: how could a creature so small be so powerful, or at least powerful enough to protect itself from the outer world, with such determination?
Looking at the hedgehog, young Doireann felt a little safer, immersed in a world that tends to tease everyone’s quills just to steal the whole shell. Lord Doireann never took seriously his son’s thoughts on the matter, but, deep down, young Wolfe had already learned to love those creatures. They were so much alike, after all – and, when he glanced at his small friend between his arms, so scared in front of an animal so harmless, Wolfe realised he would have done anything to just be someone else’s shell.
«It’s just a hedgehog, Penelope!», he said, trying to put her mind at rest. Young Penelope gave him the stink eye, as if he said something obvious.
«I know what that is!», she answered, freeing herself from Wolfe’s hug. «You too were scared a few moments ago!»
Wolfe turned his eyes down in guilt, and smiled awkwardly. When he lifted them up again, the hedgehog was already going back, towards a tall oak tree nearby. Young Doireann looked at the small pile of dry leaves the hedgehog was headed to, and an idea crossed his mind. It was just a feeling, nothing more; but, after a few seconds, he stood up and lent young Penelope his hand.
«Come», he said. «There’s something I want to show you.»
Young Penelope looked immediately surprised, still trying to recover from what happened. However, after a few seconds, she just nodded and let him guide her to an oak tree nearby.
At the base of the tree, Penelope spotted a small family of hedgehogs made up of a father, a mother and some cubs, moving around to get ready for their afternoon nap. Their way of moving, clumsy and blissfully harmless, made her smile genuinely. The little girl embraced young Wolfe like she never did before.
«You see the spines on their back?», Wolfe said, pointing at the quills of the grown-up hedgehogs. «They use them to protect themselves when in danger. My father told me that, when they sleep, they intertwine their quills, to protect themselves even while taking a rest.»
Penelope looked with interest and surprise at the small hedgehogs getting ready for rest. They were totally unaware of being watched. Young Redwood instinctively glanced at Wolfe, who was hugging her close to keep her safe.
«I like hedgehogs», she said, moving her eyes back on the creatures.
Then, the grown-up hedgehogs did something no one had ever seen before: while lying on their sides, the two bodies started curling up, withdrawing in a single shape as if leaving the whole world outside.
«What are they doing?», Penelope asked, curious. Wolfe had to think for a few seconds about that; then, he came up with a very convincing answer for that unusual behavior. At least, convincing to a young child’s innocent mind.
«They protect each other», he said.
Penelope Redwood, now an adult, smiled at that pleasant memory, trying not to be invaded by nostalgia. That was the day she understood: one way or another, young Wolfe would never have left her alone, if it was in his power to do so.
The sapphire pendant she wore around her neck stopped shining of its fable light, bringing Penelope back to the present. The young woman stood up from her old, dusty desk and headed towards one of the former windows, now reduced to glass fragments struggling to stay up. The rain was falling down to the ground, fast and heavy like a storm of needles, forcing anyone to find a better shelter than any open space. Penelope stared at the estate’s garden, silent and desolate as the rest of the mansion, and went back wandering through the rooms of her old house, weakened by the burden of its past years of carelessness.
It was at the same moment, that young Wolfe rushed inside the Redwood’s mansion, trying to escape the rain that violently hit his face. As he catched breath, keeping his hand on the wall, he felt like he could see the old glory of that ruined palace again, by simply looking at the wide rooms or the mould-covered furniture. As old and ruined as they were, they seemed to have featured an old form of elegancy in their past days; elegancy that, unfortunately, was long gone.
He saw heaps of jewelry spread across the floor in one of the lower rooms, maybe because of former looting by English soldiers in march towards the Scottish border. The Redwoods were one of the most renowned Scottish families in English territories, but not even their good name was able to survive after the declaration of war.
On the ground, Wolfe saw a great number of anonymous and insignificant objects, with no other value than the ability to make agreeable anyone who could wear them. Then, his eyes moved on a small pearl bracelet; and, in his pocket, the ruby started shining again, bringing him back to his past.
«My father gave it to me», young Penelope said, catching the eye of his young friend in a room of the Redwood’s mansion. Wolfe immediately looked fascinated by that object, as simple as it was elegant and delicate.
«Lord Henry sure knows how to choose the right gifts for you», Wolfe answered. Young Penelope smiled, embarassed by that veiled and softly whispered compliment, as if the young man before her were afraid of the lady he was speaking to.
«Your father is a good man too», Penelope answered. «He’s always been kind to me.»
Wolfe smiled back. He was about to answer, but the doors of the room were suddenly thrust open by a man, a messenger in appearance and looks; in a short instant, the man violently stepped inside the room, panting and breathing heavily. Penelope instantly stood up, ready to send that stranger away; but the man was faster, and managed to speak first.
«Miss Redwood, sorry for the intrusion», he said, apologizing. «But this matter cannot wait any longer. Could you please guide me to your father’s rooms?»
Young Penelope got scared by the pale face of the messenger, which wasn’t so apparent a moment before.
«What happened?», she asked, with shaky voice. The man shook his head vigorously and glanced at the young Wolfe, who was as scared as the little lady.
«I would rather speak with your father, my lady», the messenger answered. Uncertain, Penelope saw herself forced to obey.
«He’s upstairs», she said. «He is holding a meeting with Lord Doireann.»
«Thank you, m’lady», the man answered. Then, he bowed respectfully and, with fast pace, turned around to go upstairs. The children rapidly glanced at each other, then, going as fast as they could, they rushed upstairs with the messenger.
Once on the upper floor, the two children started listening in silence. Penelope, an ear placed directly on the studio’s door, was carefully listening to each and every word.
«Are you sure?», Lord Redwood asked. His voice was calm, but couldn’t conceal a more worried tone. «Are you absolutely sure of what you say?»
The messenger nodded, catching breath between a rushed group of words and another.
«It’s true, my lord. More than two hundred lieutenants of King Edward I have been gathered in Newcastle, but some voices already speak of a huge fleet approaching from South.»
«If that is true, and King Balliol’s troops are marching to Caddonlee…»
«Staying here is not safe, my lord», the messenger interrupted. «England is on the warpath, and it’s just a matter of time before they know of your presence here. You should come back to Scotland as soon as you can.»
Outside the studio, young Wolf remained silent, waiting for Penelope’s report.
«What are they saying?», he whispered, anxious. Penelope instantly turned pale, looking at her young friend.
«No…», she mumbled.
Inside the mansion in ruins, Wolfe Doireann kept exploring the empty rooms of Redwood palace. The ruby in his pocket had stopped shining, invaded by too many confused memories to reconstruct a steady and firm image inside his head. Wolfe wandered through the rooms, kicking jewelry and dust in equal measure and looking for some item that could remind him of the woman in his mind; the only woman that could never be fading or waving, during each battle of the First War of Scottish Independence. In the meantime, the rain, now as violent as ever, was pounding on the walls without ease, as if willing to keep him in that palace forever.
Penelope heard a sound coming from downstairs, shortly after going out of her old and dusty room. At first, she thought it could be a man running inside, maybe looking for shelter from the rain. However, nothing ruled out the possibility that it could be just a wild animal, going there from the woods and looking for food. Cautious, the young woman placed an ear on the door of her father’s old studio, that used to link her room to the corridor, and remained silent. She couldn’t hear anything else coming from downstairs, and there was certainly no sound that could make her believe the intruder’s proximity. Maybe, the mysterious guest was gone already; But… what if he isn’t?, she thought. She decided to take the risk.
The young woman stepped inside her father’s old studio and started looking around, in silence. In a corner, she recognised a small terracotta vase, surprisingly intact for a ten-year old container. The flowers, however, once taken care of by her mother, were now gone, part of the sterile and arid dirt inside the vase itself. As she gazed at that consistent part of her past memory, a deafening lightning violently tore the silence apart, forcing her to jump and move her eyes on the window.
At that moment, both the sapphire and the ruby started shining together, leading their owners to a day that their aching heart would never forget.
A lightning tore the sky into two, lighting up the dark heavens above and the grey garden below.
«Remember me, do you understand?!», little Penelope Redwood shouted, while her mother tried to pull her away from young Doireann’s embrace. The tears on their faces were confused by rain, batting tirelessly on their heads.
«Penelope! We must go!», her mother said, pulling her daughter with greater strength at each pull.
«Remember me!», the little girl said, shortly before their hands parted from their timeless embrace. The Redwood’s horses were waiting for their owners, ready to travel through the Cheviot Hills to go back to Scotland.
As he watched her leaving, with the heavy amulet around her neck, young Wolfe felt something cold and metallic in his palm. He opened his hand, and saw his own eyes reflected into the vivid red ruby gifted to him by Penelope herself; inside, as if fluctuating in a vaporous fluid, a fugitive cloud of confused memories that would never abandon him, until the end of his days.
Once he lifted his eyes from the ruby, the Redwoods were already riding north, towards that border that would separate two young hearts for almost ten years.
«Wolfe!», little Doireann heard. When he turned around, he saw his father running to him, followed by a great number of soldiers. «I knew I would find you here!», he said. «Are you okay? Did they hurt you?»
«No, father», Wolfe rapidly answered, firmly shaking his head. Then, the young Lord looked at the ruby once again, losing himself in the cloud of memories it contained. «The Redwoods would never do that.»
Penelope Redwood saw herself riding with her mother on the back of a horse, far away from a house she had always lived in up until that moment. Crushed by the weight of memories for a life now gone, Lady Redwood let her legs give up on the floor of the studio, and bent down to finally give her tears a voice. The sapphire pendant, hanging around her neck, was now shining brighter than ever, flooding her mind with those shared memories she had always chosen to keep away from herself. In the silence of the rainstorm, batting on the palace’s walls, Penelope’s delicate lament spread through the rooms of the old mansion, echoing through the corridors like the day that her family dragged her away.
All of a sudden, young Wolfe Doireann was shaken by a wail that seemed to have its roots directly into the past. The long and deep corridors of the mansion were carrying a familiar and painful cry, distorted by memories and by the grip of nostalgia. For a brief instant, Wolfe Doireann could swear to be back in that day of March, 1296, when young Penelope was crying, alone, in her room above the stairs.
«Is anyone there?», Wolfe dared, throwing his voice up to the big stairway of the palace. Full of renewed hope, the ruby in his pocket was shining of a new kind of vigor and strength, a kind that Wolfe himself had never seen in the amulet before.
Penelope, upstairs, slowly stopped her cry. Could it be a memory’s bad joke? And, if it wasn’t, what dreadful fate was plotting against her mind?
In that voice from downstairs, the young girl remembered the same tone, uncertainty and shyness of ten years before. And the sapphire around her neck was still shining, powerful, stable, bringing up both painful and blissful memories of her past.
«Penelope?», said the boy, speaking to the entrance of the woods. «Is that you?»
Timidly peeking through the fronds in the wood, Penelope’s face slowly appeared, as red as her own, watery eyes.
«Listen… I’m sorry for what I said», young Wolfe said, his eyes down on the ground. «You’re the best person I’ve ever met. I don’t want you to be mad at me.»
Penelope was still hiding behind the branches, not sure if she should believe her young friend’s words. It wasn’t the first time the two of them fought, but each time was more and more difficult to forgive. Even though they were nothing but two adults trapped in children bodies.
«Do you really think I want to go away?», sobbed the girl, in anger. «It’s not up to me. You know that!»
Wolfe made a step forward, but the little girl turned the other side to not let him see her face, and tried to wipe her eyes as fast as she could.
«I know… And I’m sorry…», Wolfe mumbled, without lifting his eyes. «Will you ever forgive me?»
Penelope, silent, was still sobbing with her back to the young boy. Deep inside, she knew she could forgive him that time too; but she wanted to be sure not to make a mistake.
Wolfe took the initiative. Slowly, he walked towards his little friend and strongly hugged her, with such vigor and affection his arms had never shown and that words could never describe. And Penelope, calmed down by that hug, bowed her head back to let herself go to that embrace.
After a few seconds, however, young Redwood turned around and slapped him in the face. Wolfe’s eyes turned on immediately, but young Doireann couldn’t help but remembering that, after all, she was Penelope, and he could never get angry at her for real.
«You deserved that!», little Penelope shouted. Then, with the typical purity of a child, she dropped her cry, leaving room to a deep smile, and took the dangling hand of the young Wolfe shortly after.
«Come», she said. «I want to show you something.»
House Redwood’s steps were actually much lower than he remembered. Nevertheless, Wolfe Doireann could never forget that long stairway, which he climbed with slow and uncertain pace as if his feet were weighted down by two pairs of lead-loaded bags.
«Penelope?», he stuttered, at the end of the staircase. His heart, hopeful, was kicking inside his chest as if it wanted to come out; for a few moments, he felt like the rain’s noise could be erased by his arteries and by the deafening rumble of his cardiac muscle. «Is it you?», he asked, speaking towards the entrance of Lord Redwood’s studio.
Timidly peeking from the jamb, Penelope’s face slowly appeared, beautiful, as red as her own watery eyes. Even ten years later, there was no face that could beat Lady Redwood’s look and visage, shining with beauty as pure and innocent as dew. Around her neck, Wolfe recognised his ruby’s twin, a sapphire shining of vivid light loaded with light-blue nostalgia.
Penelope moved in the middle of the door’s opening, letting the fable outdoor light brighten up her moisted face.
«You are late», she said, with a ruptured and delicate voice. «I guess it wasn’t your fault.»
Wolfe did not make a single step. His legs were barely holding him up, his eyes barely resisting to tears.
«I know… And I’m sorry…», the young Lord answered, without shifting his eyes away from his beloved’s face. «Will you ever forgive me?»
Penelope smiled: that man was nothing but a shell to conceal the small and harmless child of ten years before. That personality, that care, that innocent and pure love for her was still there, never waving even after all those years. With her eyes flooded by tears, young Penelope threw herself in Wolfe Doireann’s arms, which hugged her with such strength and love they never had before. For the first time in many years, the two of them felt complete; for the first time in many years, their memories weren’t causing as much pain anymore; and, for the first time in many years, their eyes met after a thousand battles and with a single certainty: that they would always be there for each other, as long as fate would have granted as much.
«I promised», Wolfe said, with his voice ruptured by tears. «I could not break my vow.»
By exchanging a simple glance, another memory made his way through the two young lovers, who hugged each other with even greater strength. Their twin pendants shone of a light that covered them and was able to dominate their figures, encircling them with a bubble of light that nobody could ever break.
«Promise me!», ordered the little child, sitting next to the young Wolfe at the beech tree’s shade.
«Promise me you will come back when the war is over», the little girl continued. «Promise me that you’ll come here, in this place, and that you’ll look everywhere until you find me.»
Young Wolfe stared at his friend with a sad look on his face. He knew it was just a matter of time before Lord Redwood decided to go back to Scotland, leaving the first trails of war behind.
«Penelope, I don’t want you to…»
«Promise me!», she shouted. Wolfe stared right in her red-veiled eyes.
«I promise», he eventually said. Little Penelope breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. Then, she took a little bag from the ground and started unbinding the knot on the opening. Under Wolfe’s curious look, the child pulled out two twin pendants, respectively characterised by the presence of a huge sapphire and a huge ruby on their front face.
«Wow!», he exclamed. «They are gorgeous!»
Penelope looked at him and smiled again. «My father gave them to me», she said. «He told me that, if I ever met someone worthy of sharing something with me, I should have given him one of these two pendants. That bond would have kept us close forever, until the end of our lives.»
Wolfe became a little embarassed. He didn’t think he was worthy of such gift.
«Penelope, I don’t…»
«Shut up!», she interrupted. «Don’t make me regret it.»
Penelope took the big ruby pendant and gave it to Wolfe. Young Doireann strongly refused.
«No! I can’t. Red is your favourite colour, I can’t…»
«I know that, silly», Penelope said. «That’s why it’s yours. And I want it to be yours forever.»
Wolfe was forced to give up to his little friend’s decision, and accepted her gift. Then, Penelope put the sapphire pendant around her neck, and both of them laid down at the tree’s shade, in silence.
Slowly, the memory faded into a cloud that retreated inside the two pendants. The two lovers were lying down on Penelope’s room’s floor, looking at each other’s eyes as if the world didn’t exist outside of that room. The rain, outside, was starting to loosen its grip on the moist ground of the Redwood estate, surrounded by hectares of wild soil going kilometers away. Hugging each other and with their hands held tight, Wolfe and Penelope knew that nothing could ever force them to forget each other, from that moment on.
«Whatever happens», Wolfe said, gently caressing his beloved’s face, «from now on, my battles are yours too. And so are my victories, my defeats, my joys and my pains; from now on, every memory and instant I own is yours to take. And I’ll do anything to just prevent you from going away again.»
Penelope’s eyes started to tear up once again, but the young lady closed her eyelids and bowed her head, abandoning herself to Wolfe’s embrace. Gathered together like two hedgehogs, hugging to protect each other while sleeping, the two lovers moved closer than ever, as if willing to become a sole and impenetrable entity.
And, while a lieutenant of Wolfe’s was rapidly riding towards the Redwood mansion, to inform him of John Comyn’s assassination, the two pendants in their hands, together at last, projected a last, powerful memory into the minds of the two lovers.
After a few minutes at the tree’s shade, little Penelope broke the silence by taking the word.
«Whatever happens», she started, «don’t ever forget me. Got it?»
Wolfe, with the ruby held tight in his right hand, looked at her and nodded, silent.
«You’ll be the other half of my hedgehog», she said. «Forever.»
At that point, with a painful form of sadness flooding his heart, young Wolfe turned on one side towards his little friend and hugged her close, protecting her from the outside world. Curled and gathered in a single body, the two hedgehogs lifted their spines against every threat, building a shell that would always protect them from the world, but that would never force them to exclude one another.
Copyright © 2018, Anthony Wolf – All Rights Reserved