"Vala, if you don't hurry up we're going to be late," Giselle called from downstairs.
"It's a picnic," I called back, knowing my sister was just teasing me because somehow I'd managed to misplace the festival presents for my family in an attempt to keep Jonas and Derrik from finding them early.
Even though those two aren't quite three years old yet, they were already developing a knack for getting into places they weren't supposed to. I was just glad Edward didn't have the coordination to keep up with the twins yet or I'm pretty sure he'd have been climbing the shelves in my room right along with them in an attempt to figure out what I'd gotten them for Spring Festival this year. As often as the twins seemed to escape from my parent's care and end up in Giselle's house in the last two weeks, I'd ended up moving their gifts just about every day since I'd finished them. And while that may explain why I couldn't seem to remember where I'd put them this time, it didn't make it any less embarrassing that I'd misplaced the presents.
"You're still late," Giselle called with suppressed mirth as I heard her footsteps on the stairs.
"A family picnic can't start without the whole family," I declared, dumping the last of the clothes from my dresser onto the bed so I could pull out the drawers and make sure the presents hadn't fallen down the back during one of my brothers' raids. "So I can't possibly be late to something that can't start without me."
"By that logic the picnic will never start since Ilyse couldn't travel so soon after the birth of her children and Alphonse wasn't about to leave his Chosen to deal with newborn twins alone," Giselle returned as she reached the door to my room and cautiously peered in.
"Alphonse doesn't count," I huffed, pushing the drawers back into place and surveying the damage I'd done to my room in the search for the festival presents.
Actually looking at the room, I realized I'd made far more of a mess than I'd meant to. I'd had to pull almost everything I owned off the shelves to do a thorough search, leaving it all pilled on my bed or the floor in the process. That wouldn't have been so bad by itself if I hadn't pulled every bit of clothes I owned out of my dresser and the closet and piled them on top of everything else. I found myself rubbing the back of my head and giving Giselle a rather sheepish grin over the mess. Before my sister could scold me for the mess, Alrich opened the door across the hall, still pulling his tunic over his head and rather effectively distracting Giselle.
I was half tempted to tease my sister for her rather obvious ogling of her Chosen, but that would just end badly since Alrich would wade in on her side and I still hadn't found the festival presents I'd hidden from myself. Instead, I turned away to allow them a moment of privacy while I went over all the places I'd already looked, trying to come up with some place I hadn't searched yet. I'd already checked under the bed, behind the dresser, the hollow where my top shelves didn't quite meet the wall properly, and the loose floorboard in the back corner of my closet. I picked up my rarely used needlework basket and rummaged through that again, despite the fact that I hadn't used that as a hiding place for festival presents since Jonas and Derrik got into it last winter.
When the missing festival presents didn't magically turn up, I tossed the basket onto the pile of clothes on my bed, not caring when a couple skeins of thread bounced out of the basket from the rough handling. Wherever this new hiding place of mine was, I was definitely not going to use it again. Grumbling to myself, I kicked a few things out of my way and went to check the closet again. The boys had gotten close to finding the loose floorboard a couple of days ago, but since they hadn't actually found it, I might have put the presents back there and they had just fallen where I couldn't easily reach them.
"Vala," Alrich called as I stepped into the closet. "Didn't I hear you climbing around on the roof yesterday?"
At Alrich's words, I realized it would be a bit difficult to find presents that weren't actually hidden in my room. I couldn't believe I'd forgotten that with the nice weather, I'd put the presents in the tree beside the house. The tree wasn't actually climbable from the ground and since I could barely manage it starting from the roof of the house, my little brothers with their much shorter arms and legs wouldn't have been able to climb the tree at all, at least not without a couple days of planning to figure out how to balance on each other's shoulders or something.
"Thanks, Alrich," I called, flashing him a grin as I dashed out of the closet and threw open my window. "I'll meet you guys downstairs in a minute."
Before my sister could protest about the dangers of climbing around on the roof, I scrambled onto the window sill and stood up, reaching for the eves above my window. I don't usually climb on the roof since I know my sister worries about me falling off, but I'd done it just often enough that I was able to find handholds to pull myself up fairly quickly. As I scrambled across the roof tiles to the tree by the kitchen, I could hear my parents laughing as they came up the walk, presumably with my younger brothers in tow.
It didn't take long for me to climb up the tree to the old woodpecker burrow where I'd wedged the box with the festival present and I was back on the roof before Giselle and Alrich had made it downstairs to join the rest of the family. As I made my way across the roof, I spotted the pile of straw next to the house that Giselle had been using to insulate the early seedlings in her garden from the still chilly evenings. With a grin, I leaned over the edge of the roof and dropped into the pile of straw before dashing around the side of the house to join my parents. I barely made it around to the front before Giselle opened the door, still scowling over her shoulder in the direction of the stairs. Alrich, of course, spotted me almost immediately and gave me a wink.
"You're late," I called to Giselle with a grin, before my parents could say anything to give away my presence.
My sister spun around, spluttering in surprise when she spotted me. After a moment, Giselle planted her hands on her hips and gave me one of her sterner glares as she said, "Vala, what in Theus's name do you think you were doing climbing around like that?"
"Getting the festival presents down," I said innocently, giving my sister an unrepentant smile as I held up the box with the presents I'd spent the last few months working on.
"And what's going to happen when our brothers take it into their heads to start imitating you?" Giselle demanded.
I glanced down at where Jonas and Derrik stood on either side of my father holding onto his hands, their blue eyes sparkling with delight as they watched the exchange. I could practically see the wheels turning in their heads as the considered how they could possibly get into mischief over this. Edward seemed just as interested from his perch in my mother's arms though he was doing a worse job of holding back his giggles.
"At lest they'll know how to climb a tree properly when they start," I replied, turning back to my sister.
My father laughed at that and let go of the twins' hands long enough to ruffle my hair, displacing bits of straw I had unintentionally collected as he said, "That would certainly be nice considering all the trouble you gave us when you started climbing trees. It was what, a broken arm on two separate occasions and a dislocated shoulder before you figured out how to stay in the tree?"
"Papa, you're not helping," Giselle protested, before I could do more than pout at my father for bring up those particular incidents again.
Most of that hadn't even been my fault. The first time I'd fallen out of a tree I'd be seven and Cale had stolen the stuffed bear Deirdre was working on for her newest baby sister. Since Deirdre's my best friend and didn't stand a chance at climbing the tree, I'd felt obligated to go after Cale in her place to get it back. The only problem was I'd never climbed a tree before so when I finally did get a hold of the bear, I'd over balanced tugging the toy out of Cale's hands and ended up falling out of the tree. I broke my arm again a year later when Cale stole the Avalonian translation I was working on and hid it in the highest branches of the village oak. The ribbon I'd been using to keep my papers together had been more worn than I thought and broke when I tugged on it to get my translation down. I'd fallen snatching at the last sheet of paper before it blew away. And the last time shouldn't even count since it had been last fall and technically I hadn't fallen out of the tree. I'd been out picking wild apples for Giselle to make pie with and Archer had startled me badly enough to make me loose my balance. I did manage to catch another branch before I fell very far, but I'd ended up with my arm in a sling for Fall Festival which was apparently enough of an injury that dad was counting it against me.
"Of course not, daughter-mine," Dad replied with a grin as he pinched Giselle's cheek. "But it is a festival and you know as well as I that keeping Vala out of the trees is one of those impossible tasks. Perhaps we should just let her enjoy herself?"
"I'm standing right here," I protested, making my father and Giselle laugh.
"Alright," Mother interrupted, "Enough talk of climbing trees. I thought we had a picnic planned."
"Well kids, you heard the lady," Dad said with a grin as he picked up the basket Mom had set on the porch. "We're off to have a picnic."
I couldn't help snickering as Dad started an exaggerated march back down the walk swinging his arms and the picnic basket in wide arcs as he went. Jonas and Derrik raced after him, chanting a marching song as they tried to match steps with him and giggling every time dad seemed to stumble and loose the beat. Giselle handed me my boots and another picnic basket to carry before following Dad and the twins at a bit more sedate pace, her arm linked through Alrich's. Mom gave me a smile and a kiss on the forehead as I tugged on my boots before she followed my sister with Edward in tow. I stuck my box of presents into the basket and hurried after the rest of my family.
With the twin's running ahead, dragging Dad and Alrich along with them, it didn't take long to reach the meadow. The boys paused for a moment at the edge of the meadow, surveying the sun warmed grass and wildflowers with interest. Their eyes lit up with glee as they heard the distinctive chirp of grasshoppers hidden among the grass. Edward, sensing something was up with his brothers, squirmed in Mom's arms until she put him down.
"Bet me and Dad can catch more 'hoppers than you and Uncle Alrich," Jonas crowed with glee as he snagged Dad's hand and bounded off into the long grass causing a swarm of grasshoppers to take to the air in front of him.
"Cannot!" Derrik shouted, tugging on Alrich's hand as he tried to follow his twin into the meadow. "Me 'n Uncle'll catch twice the 'hoppers."
Jonas released Dad's hand and leaped forward, disappearing into the tall grass. He popped back up a moment later, waving his clenched fist in the air with a triumphant look on his face.
"Got one already," Jonas crowed as he scrambled over to hand the grasshopper to Dad for safe keeping.
"Doesn't count," Derrik declared as he waded into the grass, eyes already searching for a grasshopper of his own. "Mom didn't say go yet."
"No fair," Jonas wailed, popping back up from the grass with another grasshopper clutched in both hands. "I got two already."
"Nuh-uh," Derrik said crouching down in the grass, eyes glued to a fat grasshopper as he waited for Mom's signal to start the competition.
Jonas scowled for a moment before releasing his grasshopper and watching as Dad let the other one go. Before the twins, Dad, and Alrich could start the competition Edward grabbed my hand and started tugging me toward the meadow.
"Vala and me catch the mostest," Edward declared.
Dad grinned at me and winked as I passed off my picnic basket to Mom before following Edward into the meadow. Mom waited for Edward and I to find a couple of likely looking grasshoppers before she called go. The meadow turned into chaos in the blink of an eye as all six of us pounced on the grasshoppers, sending a cloud of insects into the air while we were at it. Jonas and Derrik crowed in triumph as they bounded over to their partners to pass off their first catches. Edward, on the other hand, ended up nose first in the dirt as he missed his grasshopper.
Undaunted by his failure, Edward pushed himself back to his feet and looked around for another target. It took him four tries before he managed to get a hold of a grasshopper, which he stuck in my hands with a proud grin that showed off the dirt he'd gotten between his teeth from all his nose-dives earlier. By then, Jonas and Derrik had discovered that after the fourth grasshopper, Dad and Alrich didn't seem to be able to hold onto the insects they already had while the newly captured ones were added. I found out exactly why a few minutes later when Edward gleefully tried to stick his fourth grasshopper in with the ones I was already holding for him. The bugs were quick enough that with three of them already in my hands I couldn't keep one from hopping out while Edward tried to add another. Edward frowned at me as the escaped grasshopper fled back into the momentary safety of the grass.
"You're 'post to hold onto the hopper, sissy," Edward pointed out.
"Sorry Eddie," I said, giving him a sheepish smile. "Catch another, we'll try again."
Edward nodded quickly, his disappointment over loosing one of the grasshoppers vanishing as he turned to search for more. As he hunted, I glanced over at the others to see how they were faring. Jonas seemed to have decided to just shove grasshoppers into Dad's hands as quickly as possible, hoping that the number of grasshoppers getting in would be higher than the number of escapees. Derrik seemed to be up to something as he and Alrich were crouched in the grass together, tossing the occasional glance at Jonas and Dad as they whispered to each other. I didn't have a chance to figure out exactly what they were up to before Edward returned with another grasshopper.
I held out my hands carefully opening the smallest space possible between my thumbs for the new bug, but one of the grasshoppers in my hands wriggled loose. It sat for a moment on the back of my hand before hopping to the ground. Figuring I could catch that one again, I managed to trap the rest of the insects against my stomach with one hand and dropped to my knees, placing a cupped hand over the escapee. Before I could stand up again, Edward got a fist on my collar and dropped the grasshopper he was holding down the back of my tunic.
"There," he declared proudly. "You hold more 'n Daddy and Uncle now."
I froze at the prickly feel of the grasshopper's legs against my skin. I crouched frozen in place as I struggled to process the fact that yes, my adorable baby brother really had just stuck a creepy-crawly down my shirt and he'd been clever enough about how he managed it that I couldn't seem to come up with suitable retribution. Before I could recover from the shock, Edward managed to catch another grasshopper and drop it down my tunic as well. Scrambling to my feet, I managed to avoid having a third dropped down my shirt with a well placed scowl at Edward. Edward's eyes widened and his lower lip quivered as he held out his latest catch toward me. I really, really hate it when he gives me that wide eyed puppy-dog stare because it's so hard to resist giving him whatever he wants when he does it. Before I could decide whether or not to let Edward use my tunic to store his extra grasshoppers, there was a shout of ambush from Derrik and Alrich.
Edward and I turned just in time to see Derrik lunge out of the grass, bowling over Jonas just as he tried to shove another grasshopper into Dad's hands. Alrich caught Dad around the knees at the same time and all four of them tumbled into the grass, sending more grasshoppers into the air. Edward crept closer to the brawl trying to catch some of the grasshoppers as Derrik planted himself on Dad's chest while Alrich kept Dad's arms pinned.
Derrik had only a moment to try and pry Dad's hands apart and free the grasshoppers before Jonas launched himself at his twin. Alrich intercepted Jonas in mid-leap, but that let Dad get loose and Dad wasted no time in flipping Derrik onto his back and yanking up his shirt to expose his tummy. Derrik shrieked with laughter and tried to squirm out of Dad's grasp as he blew a huge raspberry on Derrick's stomach. Sensing his partner's plight, Alrich let go of Jonas and managed to hold Dad back long enough for Derrik to wiggle loose.
Dad spent a moment tugging at Alrich's grip before grinning and throwing himself in the direction Alrich had been pulling. Alrich wasn't expecting the sudden 'help' from Dad and went down with a laugh, landing on his back with Dad sprawled across him. Jonas and Derrick shrieked with glee and promptly flopped on top of the pile, followed quickly by Edward who had never been able to resist a good dog pile. I took a couple of steps toward the pile of bodies, wondering if I should fish Edward out before he got squashed in there. Before I could figure out how, Dad's hand snaked out of the pile and hooked my ankle. I went down hard, barely managing to avoid landing on any of my brothers and loosing my grip on the grasshoppers I'd been holding. Before I had even registered that I was lying on my back in the grass, all three of my brothers dog piled onto my stomach with gleeful shouts as they pinned me down and started tickling me.
"Lunch!" Mom called, interrupting the wrestling match before I could figure out which brother to torture first.
At her call, Jonas and Derrik stuck their bony little elbows into my stomach practically in unison as they scrambled to their feet. Edward wobbled to his feet a moment later, followed by Alrich and Dad, who offered me a hand up. The boys were almost to the blanket Mom and Giselle had spread out in the shade at the edge of the meadow when they remembered the competition. Almost in unison the twins asked, "So who has the most grasshoppers?"
Alrich gave Derrik a rather sheepish look as he said, "I'm sorry Derrik, but all of ours seem to have escaped. Perhaps your dad couldn't hold onto any of Jonas's either?" Alrich paused for a moment to glance over at dad before continuing. "Well, Gareth, what's your team's grasshopper count?"
Dad made a show of checking his hands and behind Jonas's ears before admitting with a resigned sigh that he'd lost their grasshoppers too. The twins turned to look at me as Edward tugged my hands down to where he could inspect them.
"No hoppers," Edward said sadly as he peered at my empty hands.
Before the twins could say anything, I felt a tickle against my side. It took me a moment to remember the grasshoppers Edward had stuck down my tunic right before the Derrik and Alrich had started their ambush. Apparently I hadn't managed to squish all of them in the tussling that followed.
"I think we've still got one, Edward," I said as I carefully rolled up the bottom of my tunic to reveal a single, slightly mauled, but still living grasshopper clinging to the inside of the fabric.
Edward gave a squeal of glee and snatched the insect off my shirt and held it up for the twins to see as he loudly proclaimed. "Vala an' me catched the mostest."
"You sure did, Eddie," Dad announced, smiling proudly at Edward while inspecting the grasshopper.
"What'd I win?" Edward asked curiously.
Jonas and Derrik glanced at each other for a moment before breaking out in identical evil grins as they announced, "Tickle Torture!"
Edward let out a squeal of surprise and tried to back away from the twins' grabbing hands. His coordination wasn't quite up to doing what he wanted though and he tripped, landing hard on his back at my feet. Feeling the need to rescue my youngest brother before another wrestling match ensued, I snatched him up before the twins could pounce on him. Jonas and Derrik promptly tried to climb my legs as I set Edward on my shoulders. Edward grabbed a fist full of my hair to keep himself steady as I staggered a bit under the twins' assault.
"Hopper's gone," Edward announced, sounding a little forlorn at the prospect.
"But Mom's got lunch and festival presents," I pointed out as I took a staggering step toward the picnic blanket. I didn't get very far with a twin latched onto each leg.
"Presents!" All three boys shouted in unison.
The twins left off climbing my legs and raced off to get seats on the blanket. Clearly feeling I wasn't moving fast enough toward the goodies, Edward gave my hair a good yank to point me in the right direction and drummed his heels into my shoulders.
"Faster Vala-horsie!" he insisted gleefully.
Deciding that since Edward seemed to have his heart set on making me into his 'horsie', it would certainly be fitting for this 'horse' to throw him off. I shifted my grip on Edward's ankles. Once that was secure, I stopped as suddenly as I could manage, leaning forward at the same time. Edward couldn't keep his grip and tumbled over my shoulders, leaving him dangling upside down from his ankles, laughing the whole way. He was red in the face, but still giggling by the time I deposited him on the blanket beside the twins and sat down next to him. Edward and I were the last to make it to the blanket since Alrich had settled down behind Giselle and wrapped his arms loosely around her, while Dad had lain down next to Mom with his head in her lap.
Once everybody was settled, my brothers turned eager eyes and sunny smiles on the picnic baskets, waiting for the festival presents to put in an appearance. As cherubic as the three of them looked with their wild blond curls glowing gold in the sunlight and huge grins lighting up their nearly identical blue eyes, it was a little hard to believe just how much trouble the three of them could get into. Edward especially could pull off the appearance of being a perfect little angel when he wanted to. And if the rumors I'd heard about the twins were true, they were already teaching their brother how to put that innocent act to use with devastating effectiveness.
For one brief moment, seeing them sitting like that and knowing the trouble the three of them could cause, it made me wonder if perhaps I should have chosen a different Festival Gift for them. I'd started learning the Vesten runes last fall and the history and beliefs in the nature of the runes had been fascinating to me to the point where I'd decided to make one to give to each of my family members. Since my brothers were too young to make a paper and ink drawing feasible, I'd hunted down a bunch of smooth river stones a little smaller than my palm and flat on two sides to carve the runes into. My attempts at it were a bit clumsy since I'd never done any stone carving before and I don't really have the patience for it, but in the end I managed to place their names on one side and the rune I'd chosen for them on the other.
Hopefully none of the Vesten people would ever see my clumsy attempts, since they would likely tell me I'd chosen all wrong for my family, but it made sense to me. The ones for my brothers had actually been the easiest to choose. I'd picked Kyndighet, the rune of skill, for Derrik with his clever mind, Kreig for Jonas the little warrior who carried out his brother's plans, and Villskap for Edward with his passionate fury and stubborn will. The ones for my sister, Alrich and our parents had been harder to figure out. Eventually I'd chosen Stans for Alrich with his calm understanding and unwavering loyalty. The rune of omens, Varsel, was for Giselle with her uncanny ability to know exactly when and where she would be needed. For Mom I'd picked Bevelgese which was supposed to represent empathy and comfort and for Dad's passion I'd given him Lindenskap.
I was distracted from my musings as Edward wiggled into my lap while Alrich pulled a picnic basket a bit closer to him. The boys' attention was completely riveted to Alrich as he fished around in the basket for a moment before pulling out a small carved box. Alrich glanced at the boys for a moment, before holding out the box toward Jonas. When Jonas reached for the box, Alrich pulled it back out of reach with a grin and a wink.
"My mistake," Alrich teased. "This one is for Elfrida."
The twins groaned at that and sagged in disappointment for a moment before sitting up again and eagerly watching as Mom accepted the gift. As Mom held up the box, I could see the design of climbing vines across the top of the small box. I'd known Alrich was an excellent woodworker, but the skill in the design and the way it completely masked the hinges and the line of the lid was exquisite. After examining the lid for a moment, Mom finally opened the box to reveal that the inside was lined with a soft dark blue cloth. I could see Giselle's handiwork on the inside of the box as the lining on the top of the box was embroidered with the same design as the lid. Giselle and Alrich had clearly put a lot of effort and love into the gifts they had made for the family and I couldn't wait to see the one they had made for me.
"It's lovely," Mom said, passing the box to Dad so he could see better, as she leaned over to kiss Alrich and Giselle on the cheeks.
"Our turn," Jonas and Derrik said eagerly before Mom had pulled away again.
"I don't know if I have anything in here for such greedy little boys," Alrich teased as he looked back in the basket.
After a moment he pulled out another box, this one a little larger than the previous one. Jonas and Derrik leaned forward eagerly, but after a couple of teasing motions, Alrich passed the box to Dad, earning groans of mock disappointment from the twins. The lid of Dad's box had a lovely mountain scene carved into it and looked to be about the right size to hold his tools for working clay. I even caught a glimpse of loops on the inside to keep everything secured when dad opened the box. My brothers barely allowed Dad time to thank Alrich and Giselle for the gift, before they were practically vibrating in eager anticipation of the next gift.
Considering the way Alrich was teasing the boys for being a bit too eager, I wasn't terribly surprised when the next box was passed to me. Mine was about the same size as Dad's, small enough to travel easily but large enough to hold a number of small keepsakes. The slightly slick feeling of the wood in my hands suggested that Alrich had sealed the box with some kind of resin so it wouldn't leak if it accidentally got wet. Even the lid seemed to be designed to keep whatever I put in the box dry no matter what happened.
Edward was clearly impatient to see the design on the lid of my box as he pushed my hands out of the way and tilted the top down so he could see. I had to resist the urge to stick my hands in the way so he couldn't see the design anyway.
"Neat," Edward said as he looked at the sleeping drachen on the top of the box.
Without waiting for permission, Edward fiddled with the latch on the front and flipped open the lid to reveal a set of carved dividers inside that could be lifted out and adjusted a bit. I barely managed to see that Giselle had sewn some kind of pocket into the lining of the lid that looked like it would hold some parchment, before Edward flipped the lid closed, satisfied that the gift had been properly inspected.
"Next," Edward said with a grin, looking expectantly at Alrich as he set my gift in front of me.
"Edward," Mother scolded lightly. "Let your sister say thank you first."
"Sorry, Mamma," Edward said, not even bothering to sound contrite as he turned to look up at me and demanded, "Say thank you, sissy."
I couldn't help laughing at the scolding from my brother, but did thank Alrich and Giselle for the gift. It would make a perfect keepsake box, which was likely what they had intended anyway, and I knew just what to put in it. Archer had started writing poetry recently and he'd given me a couple that I didn't trust my destructive little brothers not to ruin if I didn't find a better place to keep them than on my shelf. The silver bracelet Giselle had given me for my birthday that matched hers was less likely to be damaged than the scraps of paper Archer had written on, but I should probably put that in the box when I got home too so it wouldn't get lost. And maybe the locks of hair that Hannah, Deirdre and I had exchanged when we promised to be best friends forever.
Edward's sudden shifting in my lap distracted me and I realized that Alrich had pulled out three boxes, all the same size and shape as mine. I figured the boxes for my brothers would have the same waterproofing as mine, and maybe some reinforcing to the wood since the boys would likely be harder on their gifts than I would be on mine. Alrich was practical like that, making things that looked really nice, but could still be used normally. All three boys eagerly reached for their gifts as Alrich held them out with a smile. I managed to get a hold of Edward's box before he could grab it.
"Sissy," Edward protested trying to grab the box back from me as I held it over his head.
"You opened my present," I said holding onto him with one hand so he wouldn't hurt himself if he toppled over trying to grab the box from me. "Don't you think it's fair that I get to open yours now?"
Edward looked at me in shock for a moment before shaking his head vehemently and saying, "Mine."
"I'm not going to keep it," I said, pouting at him. "I just get to open it."
"Its mine you big bully," Edward insisted, snatching the box out of my hands and clutching it possessively to his chest.
"Well then maybe you should say thank you," I said, tweaking his nose as he scowled at me.
"Hmph," Edward said as he turned around and plopped himself back in my lap while keeping a wary eye on my hands. When he was satisfied I wasn't going to make another grab for his present, he turned to Giselle and Alrich, giving them his biggest grin. "Thank you for the pres... prese… box."
The new summer tunics Mom and Dad passed out, were received with somewhat less chaos from the boys than Alrich and Giselle's gifts had been. Of course that could have been because the boys were clearly starting to run out of energy too, which was probably a good thing since it meant Derrik and Jonas only shoved each other a couple of times when they couldn't decide which of my carved river stones was better. Edward took his and solemnly put it in his new box, refusing to show it to anybody else as he did. Jonas and Derrik eventually tucked their stones safely away as well before all three boys decided they didn't want to wait any longer and passed out their presents all at once.
In less than a minute, I had a small sachet of potpourri from Edward, that Mom had clearly helped him make. From Jonas, I got an owl feather with a bit of ribbon tied around it that I was fairly certain had come from a raid on my room. And from Derrik, I got a bunch of slightly wilted daisies held together by the other half of my stolen ribbon. I managed to thank my brothers for their gifts without giving them a hard time about returning things they had stolen from me in the first place before placing their gifts in the box from Alrich for safe keeping. Before I could see what my brothers had given the rest of the family, all three boys were clamoring at Mom and Giselle for lunch now that the presents had been exchanged. I heard Alrich mutter something about the attention span of a gnat to my father as Mom and Giselle started passing out sandwiches to the hungry boys.
Not surprisingly, the boys got about halfway through their lunch before their eyelids started drooping. I couldn't help smiling fondly as Edward handed me the chewed on crust of his sandwich, gave a jaw cracking yawn and curled up in my lap like a cat, asleep before his head even hit my thigh. Jonas and Derrik weren't too far behind, falling asleep with their heads pillowed on each other's shoulders. Looking at my brothers, I realized how much I'd missed this little family tradition over the last couple of years. I think the last time we'd made it out here as a family, Alphonse had still been living in the enclave and Mom hadn't gotten pregnant with Derrik and Jonas yet. It was a little strange realizing just how much had changed in those four short years.
Giselle must have been thinking the same thing since she smiled at me when I glanced in her directions and said, "It's nice to have this back, isn't it?"
I grinned at her and nodded as I polished off the rest of my sandwich and Edward's leftovers. With the three boys already napping, the rest of us didn't linger as long as I would have liked after the last of the food was eaten. All too soon Dad was helping me shift the drowsy Edward around so he could ride back to the enclave on my back. Jonas and Derrik woke up long enough to climb onto Dad and Alrich's backs under their own power before dozing off again as Mom and Giselle collected the blankets and picnic baskets.
Before I could follow after Dad and Alrich, Mom called out to me, "Vala, walk with me a moment please."
Giselle moved past me with a smile as I stopped to wait for Mom to come up beside me. Instead of walking along next to me like I had expected, she stopped completely. Alrich and Dad didn't seem to notice that Mom and I had stopped as they kept walking even after Giselle caught up with them. When they were out of easy hearing distance, Mom held out a hand to me, clearly wanting me to take it. It took a bit of wiggling, but I managed to free a hand from under Edward's legs long enough to hold out my own hand for her to take without dropping him.
"I have one more gift for you today," Mom said as she took my hand.
Instead of clasping my hand as I was expecting, she took my hand in both of hers and turned it palm upward. With one hand still holding mine, Mom held up her other hand so I could see the ring she was holding. I didn't have a chance to see the ring in detail aside from the fact that it looked like it would be a bit too big for me to wear now, before it fell apart in Mom's hand leaving seven interlocking bands chiming gently against each other.
"Your father gave this into my care when you were born," Mom said as she placed the ring into my hand and closed my fingers around it. "I give it to you now, as he intended."
"Why didn't Dad give it to me himself?" I asked curiously.
Mom just shook her head in response to my question. "There is a story around that ring that even I do not know, but one day you might. If you can put it back together, wear it and perhaps when your father is ready, he will share that story with you, my daughter."
I looked at my mother curiously since she hadn't really answered my question. Before I could ask again, though, Edward shifted on my back, making me grab for his knees again to keep him steady. By the time I got him secured again and the ring tucked into my belt pouch, Mom had caught up to the others and was talking to Giselle about fabric patterns for a new blouse. I glanced between my parents, still curious as to why my mother would have given me something that my father had intended for me. By the time I caught up to the rest of my family, I could tell by the set of Mom's shoulders that she wouldn't tell me anything more about the mysterious ring and would likely deny all knowledge of having given it to me in the first place if I asked her about it. I thought briefly about asking my father about the ring since it was supposed to be from him, but Mom had implied that the story was a painful one that my father probably wouldn't want to be reminded of just now.
I spent the rest of the walk back to the enclave wondering about the significance of the ring and only half listening to the conversation among the rest of my family. Before I knew it, we were back at my parent's home, settling the three boys into their beds to finish their naps. With the boys sleeping soundly, Mom decided a nap didn't sound like a bad idea and Dad of course stayed with her, leaving Giselle, Alrich and I to find something else to do with the rest of the afternoon before the dancing and music started in the early evening.
"Why don't you go spend the afternoon with Deirdre and Hannah," Giselle suggested to me once the three of us were outside again.
"And here I thought you loved me," I teased, knowing full well that Giselle was trying to be subtle about wanting a little time to spend alone with Alrich, "but you're so eager to get rid of me, I might have to change my mind about that."
My sister lunged after me as I hastily tried to get out of her reach. She might have caught me too if Alrich hadn't caught her first. I caught the barest hint of what he whispered into her ear that made her blush so badly and decided I really didn't want to hear the rest of it.
"Just you wait until I catch you, Vala," Giselle threatened, trying not to laugh as she did so. "I'll tickle you senseless for saying such things."
"Gotta catch me first and I think Alrich has other plans for you," I called with a grin and a wave as I took off in earnest to go find my friends.
"Imp," Giselle called after me. I didn't stick around to hear what else she might have said.
I stopped off at Giselle's long enough to drop off the picnic basket and my festival presents so I wouldn't have to carry them around all day before trying to figure out where Deirdre and Hannah might be since I hadn't planned to meet up with them until right before the dancing. I ended up having to search most of the enclave before I found them out by the lake. The two girls weren't the only ones I found out by the lake. Hannah's brother Harper was with them, along with Archer, Cale, Varrick, Seifer and a girl maybe a year younger than me that I hadn't met before. The girl looked an awful lot like Seifer though, so I figured she had to be his little sister Anne. Archer was the first to spot me, but the entire group waved and smiled as I joined them.
"Vala, perfect timing, as usual," Deirdre said, grabbing my hand and dragging me over to the other girls. "We were just discussing what to do first since this is Anne's first visit to our enclave." Deirdre paused for a beat as she realized I hadn't actually met Anne before and turned on Seifer. "Seifer what are you doing? You're supposed to introduce your sister."
Seifer rolled his eyes and held out a hand to his sister. She took it and allowed her brother to guide her to stand right in front of me. It took me a moment to realize that despite the fact that she was wearing a knee length tunic and trousers, she was moving exactly like she would if she was wearing a high court gown. A quick glance at Seifer showed that he'd turned his nose up a bit in a pompous mockery of high court manners.
"Lady Vala," Seifer drawled, switching to the most formal High Eisen he could manage as he spoke. "May I present to thee my sister the Lady Anne?"
"It is a pleasure to meet thee, Lady Vala," Anne murmured, making what would have been a perfect curtsey if she'd had proper skirts to hold out.
"Lady Anne, may I present to thee, my friend the Lady Vala," Seifer continued, giving me a rather disdainful glance as I struggled to keep from laughing.
"The pleasure is all mine," I managed to get out without laughing, though I had to resort to a bow rather than a curtsey.
The last words of the formal introductions were barely out of my mouth before Anne had snatched her hand out of her brother's, smacked him across the back of the head and demanded, "Now that you're done making me play the formal lady can we go swimming? You have such a lovely lake here."
I blinked in surprise at the sudden switch in mood. Anne had such perfect manners that I'd though Seifer had done the formal introductions because it was something she insisted on, but apparently that wasn't the case.
"As far as we've been able to tell, Anne somehow insulted one of their enclave's elders," Archer explained to me while Seifer tried to garner sympathy from Hannah for the abuse from his sister. "Having to use formal etiquette during introductions seems to be part of her punishment."
"She seems to be quite good at it, even with Seifer's making a mockery of it," I replied, watching in surprise as Seifer succeeded in making Hannah's cheeks turn pink.
"Vala, what do you think?" Deirdre asked, slipping between Archer and me before he could say anything else.
"About what?" I asked, since I had been watching the by play between Hannah and Seifer instead of listening to whatever she had been trying to get my opinion on.
"Going swimming, of course," Deirdre replied. "Anne says they have natural hot springs near their enclave so they can go swimming all the time, and with the weather as nice as it is today a swim in the lake would be almost as good."
I hesitated for a moment before answering, glancing out at the calm waters of the lake. Deirdre was right, the weather was warm for early spring and while the lake would still be a little chilly, it wouldn't be cold enough to make swimming uncomfortable. There would be more than enough time to dry out again afterwards without risk of being chilled and Giselle or Varrik's mother, Kara, would make sure the lot of us had hot tea and soup once word got out that we'd been in the lake.
It really didn't sound like a bad idea, but I just couldn't bring myself to feel enthusiastic about stepping into the water. I knew the moment I did, I'd be drawn deeper into the water splashing and trying to dunk the others, which would be great fun right up until the moment I ended up with my head underwater unexpectedly. The thought of the water closing over my head, even if I was still close to shore, bothered me. If I knew the dunking was coming, I could usually brace myself for the onslaught of memories enough to manage, but I'd been in the water enough to know that if I went under unexpectedly, it was much harder to push away the troublesome memories.
I knew this fear was completely irrational, considering I hadn't even come that close to drowning when Archer pulled me in the lake by my hair two years ago, but the feeling of helplessness as I choked on the water, unable to get my feet under me, kept coming back to haunt me whenever I went under unexpectedly. After a moment, I decided I didn't really want to spend the afternoon fighting back memories I knew I shouldn't be bothered by in the first place. Besides, I could always run back for that ring Mom had given me and work on solving that while the others went swimming.
"It's a bit cold for me yet," I said, not wanting to admit the real reason I didn't want to go swimming with my friends. "Why don't the rest of you go ahead? I'll watch from here."
I think Hannah knew I was lying, since she gave me a hard look, but said nothing when I smiled at her.
"Are you sure, Vala?" Deirdre asked. "You haven't had much time to spend with us lately. I'd hate to abandon you on your one free afternoon."
"We don't have to go swimming," Anne pointed out, interrupting before I could try to reassure Deirdre. "Really, I'm sure there are other things to do around here that we could all be involved in right?"
We all looked at each other for a moment, trying to decide what to suggest. After a moment Seifer grinned and smacked his sister across the back of the head.
"Tag, you're it," he crowed and took off running before she could retaliate.
Seifer and Anne must have played that particular game quite a bit because she reacted almost reflexively by slapping Varrick's chest and taking off after her brother. Varrick wasn't quite as lucky, since the rest of us managed to scatter before he could think to pass it on, but Deirdre was laughing too hard to run well in her skirts and he caught her pretty quickly. After a couple minutes of Deirdre chasing whoever was closest, it became clear that she was being hampered a bit by her skirts and wasn't going to be able to catch anybody except possibly Hannah, who was also wearing skirts, but had sensibly tucked the hem up to keep it from interfering.
Since it looked like none of the boys were going to let Deirdre catch them, I let her catch me the next time she came after me. Once she tagged me, Deirdre promptly fled to Hannah's side and the pair of them made a point of staying at the edges of the game cheering the rest of us on more than actually playing themselves. It was always a little disappointing to see them gravitating to the edges of games like this since I really enjoyed playing and it makes me feel bad to play without my best friends.
Pushing aside my musings, I focused on trying to corner one of the boys, or Anne since she seemed just as willing to play as I was. For a moment, Cale was the closest target so I turned toward him, but he's so much taller than me that I didn't bother taking more than a couple of steps in his direction before searching for a new target. I was about to go after Anne, who was at least shorter than me even if she'd already proven herself to be very quick on her feet, when Archer ran past, giving me a wink and a grin that seemed to say I couldn't possibly catch him.
I set my jaw at that. There was just no way I was going to let him get away with thinking that. Just because he's thirteen years old to my eleven and has longer legs than me as a result, doesn't mean I can't catch him. Archer put on a burst of speed when he glanced over his shoulder and saw that I hadn't given up on chasing him like I had Cale earlier. He really should have been paying more attention to where he was running though. If he'd been paying attention, he would have realized the rise he had run up near the edge of the lake was surrounded by water on three sides and made a nearly twenty foot drop into one of the deeper part of the lake. It was great for jumping off of in the summer, but it made a lousy place to run while playing tag.
I couldn't help my smug look as Archer slowed when he reached the tip of the peninsula and realized he was trapped. There was no place for him to run except back past me and I would definitely catch him then. My smug look lasted right up until my foot slipped in the wet grass. I was running far to fast to have any chance of stopping once my feet went out from under me. Archer didn't even have time to get out of the way before I skidded into him and knocked us both off the edge of the cliff. For one brief moment, I hung in the air realizing hitting the water from this height was going to sting rather badly. Then I felt Archer's arms around my waist as he pulled me into his chest, twisting so that he would hit the water first.
"Hold your breath," Archer said into my ear just before we hit the water.
I managed to take a breath before we went under the water. Archer's arms tightened briefly around me before he gave a firm kick that sent us back toward the surface. When we surfaced, I clung to Archer's tunic for a moment, waiting for the surge of fear over being so deep in the water, so I could force it back where it belonged in the recesses of my mind, but it never came. For the first time in two years, I was in water that I knew was over my head and the memories weren't haunting me. Granted, Archer was doing most of the work keeping us afloat at the moment, but I knew I couldn't touch the bottom of the lake, I'd been under the water and the first thing on my mind wasn't the memory of being unable to help myself. All I felt was a strange sense of peace, like I was where I belonged, which was really weird since I know I don't belong in the lake. I'm not a fish after all. It was probably just a side effect of the euphoria of finally being free of my fear.
"Vala," Archer said softly, interrupting my thoughts as he unwound one of his hands from my waist and tilted my chin up, forcing me to looking up into his concerned green eyes. "You okay?"
"I'm okay," I said smiling at him. "What about you? You hit the water pretty hard."
"It's nothing," Archer said dismissively as he stared into my face for a moment.
I could see a trace of worry in his eyes as he looked at me. As I watched the concern fade from his face, I realized I must not have been hiding my issues with the water as well as I thought if Archer had known about it. Before I could reassure him that I really was okay with being in the water for a change, there was a skidding sound from above us, accompanied by a shower of gravel and dirt. Archer pulled me against his chest again and took the brunt of the debris that rained into the water around us, before letting me go as we both looked up to see what was going on.
Cale stood at the top of the cliff looking down at us with Deirdre leaning against his outstretched arm looking nearly ready to tumble into the lake herself. Deirdre's face remained concerned even when she spotted us bobbing in the water.
"You guys okay?" Deirdre called, worry lacing her voice.
Archer smiled and waved up at her, "We're good."
"Vala," Deirdre called, her worry unabated by Archer's reassurances.
As I realized that Deirdre, and likely Hannah as well, had known I disliked deep water, I had a brief moment to wonder if I'd managed to hide that from anybody at all. Really, it was such a stupid thing to have problems with since I hadn't even come that close to drowning at the time. I just didn't like the feeling of helplessness that the memories evoked.
"I seem to have changed my mind about that swim," I called, waving at her as I pushed aside my dark thoughts.
"You're such a dork, Vala," Deirdre said in relief as she allowed Cale to pull her back from the edge before she fell in too.
"But you love me anyway," I called back, making her laugh. "So are you guys coming in or not?"
"Vala," Deirdre said in indignation that was only half feigned. "The point of intentionally going swimming is to not do it in your festival clothes."
I glanced over at Archer for a moment and grinned at him as I borrowed something he'd said to me last time he'd ended up in the lake at Spring Festival, "But water weeds make the perfect accessory for Spring Festival."
Deirdre snorted and shook her head at me before pointing toward part of the shore where we would be able to get out again, "We'll meet you guys over when you're done decorating your festival clothes."
"Okay," I called with a laugh as Deirdre stepped back from the edge and said something to Hannah and the rest of the gang that I couldn't quite hear.
Cale stood for a moment at the top of the cliff with a dark look on his face before he called to Archer, "Don't try and drown her this time."
Archer's face darkened at Cale's words to the point where I could almost feel the anger radiating off of him. Before Archer could say anything, I put a hand on his arm.
"Please don't," I said quietly enough that I knew Cale wouldn't be able to hear. "I'd rather not watch you two arguing all Festival long again."
It took a moment before the muscles in Archer's arm relaxed under my touch and a bit longer before he nodded to me. I smiled at Archer in thanks before turning back to Cale.
"Well go on," I said. "Unless you're planning to come swimming with us."
Cale stood at the top of the cliff for a moment, clearly less than pleased with the turn of events, but he eventually turned away and followed Deirdre as I'd known he would. Deirdre may be fussy about ruining her festival clothes, but Cale's grandmother was far worse and I knew the tunic he was wearing today was something she had made for him. Honestly, it wouldn't surprise me if that formidable old lady skinned him alive and then strung him up by his toes for the kobolds to eat if he got that tunic dirty by jumping in the lake. And that's if she was feeling nice.
Once Cale was out of sight, I turned back to Archer, who gave me a wink and said teasingly, "I still think a rope swing's a better way to end up in the lake."
"You and your stupid rope swing," I muttered, sending a wave of water in his direction.
Archer laughed and ducked under the worst of the wave, surfacing again a moment later as he said, "Come on. We'd better head for shore before the lake monster eats you."
"Surely you would defend me from such a fate," I said, paddling doggedly after Archer, reminding myself that one of these days I was going to have to get him to teach me to swim properly.
"Depends," Archer replied with a smile. "What are you offering me to come to your rescue?"
"You're such a mercenary," I groused, knowing that if there had been a lake monster to contend with, Archer would never actually ask for payment for helping me get away from it. "Whatever happened to being heroic and saving the girl from the monster without the thought of a reward?"
"I learned just how much trouble saving the girl is," Archer offered, gliding through the water around me before coming up on the other side. "She's such trouble that there must be a reward of some kind to make it worth the effort."
"And what could possibly make it worth the effort?" I asked curiously.
"Hmm," Archer said, pretending to consider my question even though I was pretty sure he was going to say a dance. And if that wasn't enough, he'd probably find a way to turn the whole hypothetical rescue into a reason to con me into dancing with him. "Rescuing a girl from a monster has to be worth three dances at least."
Okay so I'd been wrong on the number of dances, but at least I'd been right on the currency.
"Three whole dances?" I repeated, glancing over at the smug expression on his face.
"To low you think?" he asked with a grin. "Perhaps I should ask for four dances for an actual rescue, but surely that would make being here to guard you incase of lake monsters worth at least one dance."
"I didn't ask you to come in the lake with me," I said loftily. "Why should I have to 'pay' for unwanted services?"
"Well you didn't give me much choice about going in the lake with you, now did you?" Archer returned, treading water in front of me for a moment. "Surely you would give me some consolation for my suffering."
I snorted at that and almost got a nose full of lake water for my trouble, before I replied, "You don't look much like you're suffering to me."
"It runs deep beneath the surface," Archer assured me, casting a concerned glance my way as I started paddling again once I was sure I wasn't going to accidentally choke myself on the lake water. "Besides, it would only be proper since nobody else will understand the importance of wearing lake weeds at Spring Festival."
"Oh, fine," I agreed. "But only because you're my friend and nobody else will want to be near you when you're covered in lake muck."
"My lady is too kind," Archer said with a grin as he stood up, finally having reached a part of the lake where he could touch the bottom.
"I could still take back the dance you know," I pointed out as I stood up beside him.
"But you won't," Archer replied confidently as he held out a hand to me.
After that comment, I really should've taken back the dance, except that I did feel a little guilty for knocking him into the lake with me in the first place and I knew the dance would make him happy. I still haven't figured out why he keeps asking me to dance when I can barely keep from stepping on his feet though.
"Took you guys long enough," Deidre interrupted, distracting me from the banter with Archer.
"You know me," I called, accepting Archer's hand and letting him help me out of the lake before I slipped on the rocks. "I couldn't find the right lake weed to go with my tunic."
Deirdre looked me over for a moment before shaking her head as Archer and I squelched out of the lake. Once we were on dry land again, she said, "If you two are done with this lake weed obsession, I think they're putting food out in the commons if you're hungry."
Archer grinned at me and tucked my hand in the crook of his elbow as he said, "Allow me to escort you to supper then, my lady."
"You know you're supposed to give me a choice about going with you or not," I said with a laugh as I followed Archer toward the food.
"Would you have said no?" He asked as Seifer offered his elbow to Hannah and Anne latched onto Harper.
"You'll never know," I replied, reaching up to pull a bit of pond weed out of Archer's hair before it fell into his eyes.
I thought I saw a sour look on Cale's face as Archer chuckled at my response before we all headed for the enclave commons, but I must have been mistaken since he was smiling at Deirdre when I glanced at him again. Granted it was a little difficult to tell since the others were giving Archer and me a bit more space than usual to avoid having muddy water dripped on them.