THE IRON GATE

Sixteen Years Later - Part Two: Astabelle


The crunch of dried leaves and twigs beneath the thuds of many running feet drowned the otherwise silent forest, accompanied only by the sounds of panting as Astabelle raced through the trees, the others in hot pursuit behind her. She bounded over a fallen log with ease, her agile figure hitting the ground running. The others made the jump several seconds behind her with the same ease, tearing after her. They called out to her again, but she didn't respond.

She could hear someone gaining on her, their footsteps muddled with the sound of her own, and she pushed her legs harder, flying through the trees and bush as if there were no such obstacles in her path. She had always prided herself on being the fastest and most agile, but the footsteps gaining on her told her that she wasn't quite at the top. Still, she told herself, they did have the head-start.

She ran on for a few more moments before she jumped behind a thick-trunked tree and flattened her back against it, listening closely. She could hear a light rustle of leaves behind her and to the side, but nothing else. Her eyes narrowed as she slowly scanned the scenery, delving into the shadows and every nook and cranny. She was determined to win this time; she could get them before they got her.

Astabelle listened and watched closely, hearing the distant sounds of someone moving through the trees, but they weren't within close proximity of her. She looked across at a tree-stump a few yards away from her. Nothing there. She was about to look away when her vision clouded, and a pair of feet slowly crept around a tree to her right.

She blinked, and the image disappeared.

Confusion flitted through her. There was no one in front of her. She looked to her right in bewilderment, and saw the silhouette of someone sneaking past a tree. She blinked again in bemusement, then shrugged and dropped to a crouch, creeping forward.

The boy had his back to her, and she moved slowly as she neared him, stepping carefully around sticks and leaves. Then she paused, waiting for the right time to pounce, and leapt forward, catching his shoulders. He twisted and tried to jump out of her grip, but it was too late, and they both tumbled to the ground.

"Oof."

Samsynn's sun-browned face looked up at her, and then he sighed dramatically. "Okay, okay, you got me." He struggled, attempting to wriggle out from beneath her, though to no avail. She pinned him on the ground triumphantly. He stopped struggling and looked up at her. "Can I get up now?"

Astabelle grinned. "Let the others know you're out. Then you can."

Samsynn sighed again, then shook his head. "Fine, but only because it's your birthday. I'm just letting you win!"

Astabelle snorted. "Sure."

"Phillippa," Samsynn called out, his voice ringing through the trees. "Juvanne. I'm out. I'm caught." He looked back up at Astabelle. "Happy?"

She clambered off him and let him get to his feet. "That'll do," she said with a laugh as he stood and began wiping off the leaves and dirt from his clothing. She brushed off her own pants, then straightened and began walking up the hill. Samsynn followed, flicking black hair out of dark eyes.

Astabelle moved quickly as the incline of the hill began to increase, darting in and out of trees as she neared the top. She heard Samsynn trudging along a couple of yards behind her, then paused by an oak tree as she heard a different set of footsteps crunching faintly over leaves. She gestured to Samsynn for silence, and he obliged, eyes scanning their surroundings. Astabelle looked in the direction of the sound, narrowed eyes searching, waiting for another movement that gave away—

There was a sudden spurt of running feet as the other person took off from their cover and began sprinting up the hill. A laugh slipped through Astabelle's lips as she raced after them, scrambling up the slope. When she reached the top of the hill, she dashed along the straight land, seeing another tall, dark haired figure running in front of her. She slowly pulled closer to her opponent, who glanced over their shoulder and laughed.

"Caught Samsynn already, huh? Still gotta beat me and Juvanne to the creek," Phillippa shouted over the wind whipping past their ears. A smile spread over Astabelle's face, and a group of horses quickly grew closer as the two girls sprinted towards them. The animals seemed only slightly unnerved by the two girls, though without breaking stride each girl leapt onto a horse's back and began racing down the other side of the hill. A creek shimmered in the sunlight over the top of the trees.

The wind whipped Astabelle's hair back off her shoulders, blonde hair glinting golden in the sunlight. Her steed was side by side with Phillippa's, each of the girls urging their horse on faster without managing to break away from the other. They were both bent forward against the wind, heads down, eyes trained ahead, yet laughing as the world raced past them.

Astabelle glanced over her shoulder and saw, in the distance, Samsynn and Juvanne riding down towards the creek as well, perhaps not as fast as herself and Phillippa—though it was hard to tell.

As the trees and shrubs whipped past them, the bottom of the slope flying up to meet them, the horses charged across the distance, and soon the creek that could be seen overhead began to loom, drawing closer as the two girls raced forward. To her side, Astabelle heard Phillippa let out a laugh before slowing her horse down to a walk. It had barely stopped before she swung off it and took off towards the creek. Astabelle stopped her own horse and leapt off, hurrying after her.

Phillippa's hair flew behind her as she ran in front of Astabelle, the distance between them neither growing nor closing. Astabelle urged her legs on faster, just a few more yards—

"Aha!" Phillippa cheered, skidding to a halt as she reached the edge of the creek. Astabelle slowed, coming to a stop by the other girl's side and putting her hands on her hips, letting out a long, low breath. She looked across at her sister, who looked back at her. Then a grin broke out on her face.

"In you go, then," she said, jerking her head down at the body of water, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. "First here, first in. That's the rule." Both girls looked down at the still water, barely disturbed by ripples from the wind. They heard the sounds of Samsynn and Juvanne approaching, and looked back at each other.

"Looks freezing." Phillippa shot Astabelle a sly smile.

"It does," Astabelle agreed. Then her eyes lit up devilishly. "Why don't you check that out?"

Before Phillippa could open her mouth, Astabelle darted around her, took a firm hold of both her shoulders, then propelled her forward with a push, sending her crashing into the water. Phillippa let out a shriek of surprise—whether at the sudden push, or the temperature of the water, Astabelle wasn't sure. But as soon as Phillippa emerged, spitting out a mouthful of water, she bent over double, laughing.

Their brother's laugh floated over to her, quickly followed by Juvanne's. Astabelle glanced over her shoulder to see them walking towards her, hair windswept like hers undoubtedly was. Upon sighting their oldest sister, Juvanne sputtered a laugh, which was quickly followed by a splash. All three jumped back quickly.

"Oh, stop," Phillippa said, floating on her back, drifting slowly across the top of the water. "It's just water."

"I heard that shriek, Phill. Sounded like you were absolutely terrified," Samsynn replied, wandering forward again. His gaze shot up to one of the many branches overhead, one of which bore a thick rope tied around it, falling loosely into lower branches of the tree, hidden from the view of anyone who was not looking for it.

He reached up and, with a deft tug, the rope fell free of its bindings, the knotted end falling into his hands. Then he turned back to Astabelle and Juvanne, lifting it, gaze tripping back and forth between them. Astabelle looked at Juvanne, then shrugged.

"You go first, Sam," Juvanne said. Then her eyes dropped to Phillippa, now wading through the water, and she grinned. "Or maybe Phillippa should have a go?"

Samsynn laughed, turning around. "Yeah— Hey!" His protest was quickly proceeded by a sloppy thud, and then a large splash, water droplets hitting Astabelle's front. She broke into another fit of laughter as Samsynn emerged from beneath the surface, glare pointed at Phillippa as he stood, his clothing dripping wet and clinging to his body. A streak of mud across his cheek resembled a slash of war paint.

"Serves you right," Phillippa said with a nod, quickly swimming away as Samsynn lunged toward her. Astabelle glanced at Juvanne before backing up a few feet. Then she darted forward, grabbed a hold of the dangling rope, and swung out over the water. She let out a cry from the momentary thrill, then let go at the peak of the arc and dived into the water.

The world plunged into a dull, warped hum as she submerged beneath the water's surface. White bubbles scurried up past her face, eyes open as she took in the underwater world. The sounds of Phillippa, Samsynn and Juvanne seemed like muffled, unintelligible words. There was another splash, the water rocking her to and fro, and when her feet found the ground she pushed herself back up, head breaking the surface.

Blinking the water out of her eyes, she grinned, beginning to move towards Phillippa, when she noticed that something was...different. It took her a moment, and in that brief split second of time, her heart began to flutter in her chest. There was Phillippa, one arm up, arcing backward, the other beneath the water, legs kicking, water flying. Only she wasn't moving. And neither was the water.

Heart leaping to her throat, Astabelle looked at Samsynn and Juvanne. His hair was whipping about his head, droplets of water spraying, body in the act of rising out of the water. Juvanne was beneath the surface, a shower of water floating in the air, white bubbles raging above her head.

Astabelle's eyes widened as she gasped. The silence around her was deafening, sending a chill down her spine. Then she blinked, and the world began to move again, as if it had never stopped. The splashing of water, Phillippa's voice as she chattered away, Samsynn's laughter, Juvanne leaping up from the ground at the bottom of the creek. All of it resumed, and nothing was amiss.

Her brow furrowed in confusion, the water around her beginning to grow still, disturbed only by the ripples sent out by her sisters and brother. The initial shock of the moment was beginning to fade, the tightness of her chest beginning to relax as the others moved about, the noises and motions normal. The body of water swayed around her, and she could feel the grains of the ground beneath her feet shifting. Still, she waited, though for what, she wasn't sure.

"Star?"

She blinked and looked over at Phillippa, who was looking at her closely, an eyebrow partly raised, brown eyes narrowed in concern.

"Are you okay?"

Astabelle nodded before the words had even finished leaving her mouth. "Yes," she said. Then she paused and glanced at the other two, who had gone still and were now looking at her. "What? I'm quiet for two seconds and it's the end of the world? Please." She saw relief spark behind Phillippa's eyes before a grin broke out on her sun-browned face.

"Good," she said, wading over to her. "Because we can't have the birthday girl glum on her birthday." Her eyes twinkled as she smiled, looping an arm around Astabelle's shoulders as she turned to Samsynn and Juvanne. "I think it's time we sang to her, don't you? Don't roll your eyes at me, Astabelle. We're going to sing; you're going to be our appreciative audience."

"Listening to the co-ordinated harmonies of our melodious voices," Juvanne joked.

Samsynn laughed. "Be grateful for our talents. This is a rare opportunity."

Astabelle ducked out of Phillippa's grip and began to back away towards the bank. "Putting the harm in harmony," she snickered, launching a wave of water into them before diving beneath the surface and swimming away. She could hear the splashes as they raced after her, managing to sing out random lines from every variation of "happy birthday" they knew.

The four returned to the house a few hours later, the day well underway. It wasn't a large home by any means—a simple stone cottage, complete with a fireplace and a backyard of trees and wilderness large enough for anyone to get lost in. From the kitchen door, a worn gravel path wound out to the centre of the yard, then forked into a path leading through the trees to a small clearing used for work, and another path leading down to the village road.

Astabelle and Juvanne had raced back to the house, both giggling as they ducked and weaved through trees and leapt over fallen branches, leaving Samsynn and Phillippa to catch up. They dashed across the clearing, tore across the yard, and burst through the kitchen door at the same time. The woman hovering over a chopping board on the bench looked over her shoulder at them.

"Girls," she said, setting down what was in her hands and turning to face them, a slight frown on her face as she took in their damp and dirty clothing and faces. However, even as she shook her head, her kind eyes twinkled, a soft smile replacing the frown. She made her way over to them and touched a hand to Juvanne's wet hair, then Astabelle's dirt-streaked face. "How did you get so filthy?" she chided, though there was no anger in her tone.

Footsteps outside the door announced Phillippa and Samsynn's arrival as they swung around the doorway. Their mother's eyes flicked over to them and she sighed, dropping her hand and stepping up to them. Both were at least a few inches taller than their mother, and when standing so close to one another, the resemblance was unmistakeable. While Juvanne was several years younger than them, she also bore the same colouring and height. Astabelle, on the other hand, was slightly shorter than her tall siblings; her dark blonde hair stood out from their black heads; and her blue eyes vastly differed from their brown ones; but her skin was just as sun-browned as theirs.

"You two can go out and take down that brick wall around the side," their mother said, putting a hand on Samsynn and Phillippa's shoulders and turning them back around. "It's crumbling too much to be fixed, and your father could use the pieces to build another one. And it's a dirty job, so no better candidates than you!"

"But it's an antique—" Samsynn started to say with a quick grin, but their mother pushed them out the door.

"No excuses. And be quick about it." Phillippa muttered something to Samsynn, then laughed and dashed around the side of the building. He followed. Vabienne turned back to Astabelle and Juvanne, shaking her head. "Vanne, dear, come upstairs with me. I need to show you something. Star," she said, then paused, reaching out and patting Astabelle's cheek. "You can do what you want." Making a face, she wiped her hand on her blouse. "Preferably getting yourself clean is on the agenda."

She ushered Juvanne out of the kitchen, leaving Astabelle alone. Not that she minded. She scooped up an apple from the bowl on the counter, then made her way back out the kitchen door.

While the youngest of four, she was rarely disregarded when it came to chores around the house, pitching in even with the hardier jobs. Today, though, was the exception, one of the few days she would be let off the hook each year. Her birthday. Of course, when the others' birthdays rolled around, they were treated the same way she was—no one asked them to do any jobs, no one scolded them for anything. They could run amuck the whole day without their parents reacting with more than a raised eyebrow and an, "Are you having fun?"

She, however, knew better than to simply do whatever she wished on the day, as did Phillippa, Samsynn and Juvanne. Helping their mother and father out was not a chore—it was their helping hand.

The Mör Lehr family wasn't poor, nor were they rich. Slightly south of comfortable, Astabelle had always thought. They worked to keep their house, to eat, to wear clothes and keep their land, but there was sometimes enough to buy something extra on the side. They owned enough acres of land to raise herds of cattle and horses, and when money was too tight, there was always an animal or two that could be sold off to get them back on track.

Astabelle rounded the corner of the house and made her way across the dirt driveway, dust floating into the air with each footstep and settled onto her already dirtied boots. Ahead, just before a borderline of trees, were her older brother and sister, carefully taking down the old, crumbling brick wall brick by brick. Phillippa looked over her shoulder as she approached.

"Either this wall is stubborn in dying, or we're just too weak to destroy it," she said, turning back to the wall and knocking off a broken piece of brick. Samsynn hefted off a full one, then drew back his arm and lobbed it into the trees. There was a crash of twigs and leaves as it landed with a dull thud.

Astabelle lowered herself down into a sitting position on the grass, sitting cross-legged as she bit into her apple.

"I don't think the matter is with the wall," she said. "I think it's you guys. I think you both need to man up and muscle up." She giggled as they both turned and tossed smaller chunks of clay at her. "Just saying."

She hoisted herself up onto her elbows and watched them for a few moments, then shook her head. She wished that the wall would just crumble away, so they could be done with it and retire inside, rather than spending several hours bringing it down. It was her birthday, after all.

The thought had barely left her mind when Samsynn jumped back and Phillippa darted out of close proximity to the wall. As she watched, Astabelle saw the mortar crumble, the bricks wobbling unsteadily and then, one by one, dropping onto the grass, sharp grinding noises filling the air as they landed on one another. Within moments, the six-foot wall was a pile of rubble on the lawn.

"Huh." Samsynn looked across at Phillippa, then swiped his sleeve over his brow and exhaled. Phillippa frowned.

"What happened?" she said.

"It just collapsed," Astabelle answered, eyebrows raised in disbelief.

"Huh."

Samsynn shrugged. "At least it's down," he said, beginning to make his way back across the driveway. "I call first shower," he said over his shoulder. Phillippa darted after him, and the two raced back into the house, leaving their youngest sister alone.

Astabelle watched them go, then turned and sat staring at the pile of broken bricks and clay, now in a formless heap. She watched it, then shook her head, clambered to her feet, and went back inside.


A/N: I had written this chapter a long time ago, so I just went over it and rewrote little parts of it. If there are any mistakes, feel free to tell me! :)

- She Doesn't Row