When Oscar was twelve, they locked him in a tower because he was mad.
"It's the Raimn blood," the physician had told Oscar's aunt and uncle, who were his caretakers, on their very first visit to him. "Mad as hatters, the whole lot of them. Mark it; by the time he's fifteen he'll be gibbering in the dark and cutting invisible bugs out of his skin."
His aunt and uncle were shocked. They were both Eoforhild from a long line of respectable Eoforhilds. Lord Eoforhild's brother had married into the Raimns, and neither of them had known about the family history before adopting the boy. Was there anything they could do? They asked.
"Fraid not. It's the way all the Raimns go. Granted, some hide it better than others, but in the end they always lose it. Bad blood in the family somewhere. There's no curing it."
And his aunt and uncle shook their heads sadly and consoled themselves with the piles and piles of Raimn money they had gotten when they'd taken the boy in.
* * * * *
The Eoforhilds adopted Oscar when he was eleven years old, soon after the death of his parents.
Oscar didn't know he was supposed to be insane. All he knew was that, ever since he was too little to remember properly, he could talk to the wind. He'd catch snatches of conversation from people down the street. He'd hear bits of gossip from ladies in town, or jokes from the men in the fields. And, sometimes, if he was quiet, he could hear people talking about things that hadn't happened yet. Things that didn't make sense at the time, but would find meaning over the next few days.
Those bits were usually interesting, but his favorite were the little spirits. They looked like warped glass when it was underwater, only they were made of air and had no real body to them, save for a wispy almost-tail that vanished after they passed. They didn't shape-shift, exactly, because that would imply they had some shape to begin with. They flitted and flew around, looking like watery glass clouds, and they brought him all the most interesting pieces of wind-speak they could find. They couldn't talk themselves, but they used the stray words they found to communicate.
He never thought much of this, and when he was young and had told his parents, they didn't think anything of it either.
"It's just a quirk," his father had said. "He'll grow out of it."
"It's just a peculiarity," his mother had said. "Everyone in the family has one." Though she'd never told his father, she had admitted to Oscar that she could sometimes hear the stars at night. According to her, the noise they made was like metal scraping against metal, and that was why she slept with a pillow on top of her head.
But that was a very long time ago, back when they were both still alive.
When he'd told his aunt and uncle, they'd given him a smack and told him to quit telling stories. When he'd kept on telling them, they'd gone to the physician for the first time. After that, he'd stopped bringing it up, hoping they would forget.
It didn't help: every time they caught him whispering to the wind under his breath, every time they saw him tilting his head to better hear the snatches of a conversation being held miles away, every time he casually mentioned something that hadn't happened yet but invariably did, they remembered the physician's words about the Raimn's mad blood, and they worried.
* * * * *
Three months after adopting Oscar, his aunt and uncle decided that they should move into the Raimn estate.
"Don't you think it's too soon?" Cousin Dana said when they made the announcement.
"Nonsense," said his uncle. "There's no sense letting the place go to rot anymore than it already has. Oscar doesn't mind, do you"
Oscar shook his head. He and his parents had lived in a cottage in the countryside. He'd never seen the Raimn estate before; it was just one more strange place he'd never gone.
"Well there you go. The place has been damn near abandoned for-- what, ten years? Eleven? It's about time it got lived in."
And with that, the decision was made. His aunt, his uncle, all seven cousins, the maids, the cook, the butler, the gardener, and everyone else in the Eoforhild household staff spent the next day packing and the next day riding.
* * * * *
There were seven Eoforhild children in all, ranging from ages two to seventeen: two boys, five girls. The twins Maeve and Milta were the oldest. Dana, Tansy, and Loesia were younger at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen respectively, but they were still older than Oscar enough for age to matter. Remy was eight and Roald was two.
And none of them got along particularly well with Oscar.
This wasn't because they disliked him, or because he disliked them; if anyone had asked he would have said that they were all probably very nice people who'd never done anything wrong to him in his life. But they were not his friends, and they didn't try to be. Partly it was because the ones old enough to be interesting were girls, and they were too preoccupied with girl things to care much about him. Add in the matter of age, and Oscar was out of luck when it came to any chance of common ground.
But if that weren't enough, there was also the fact that his cousins-- and the entire Eoforehild household-- thought him odd. Even before they went to the physician, they'd thought him odd. Cold, they sometimes called him. Or standoffish. If the combined forces of gender and age didn't keep his cousins away, then what they perceived to be his aloof demeanor did.
The only exceptions to this rule were Roald-- because he was two and didn't care if Oscar was odd-- and Remy who, for some reason miles beyond Oscar, would not stop following him around the grounds.
"Look!" Remy would say. "Look what I can do!"
And then Oscar would watch patiently while the boy tried (and usually botched) a hand stand, or jumped off something tall, or shoved his fist into his mouth, or licked his elbow, and any number of other things that Oscar gathered he was supposed to be impressed with.
"That's nice," he would usually say before turning to go. Or, "that's dangerous. Don't do it again," or "that's unsanitary. Go wash your hands."
He had no idea why Remy kept bothering him with those displays, and when he asked the air spirits, they had no idea either. Humans, he decided, were weird and complicated and entirely too silly. He much preferred the company of spirits. At least they usually made sense.
* * * * *
"It's gorgeous," said Dana when their carriage came up to the Raimn estate. "It looks like a fairytale castle! Look, it's got a tower and everything!"
"Look at the flowers," said Milta, pointing to the gardens along the side of the main house. "They're still alive. They're blooming! Is there a gardener still here, then?"
Mrs. Eoforhild frowned. "There shouldn't be. Nobody mentioned any caretaker when we got the deed--"
"A moat!" squealed Remy. "Why is there a moat? Are there alligators in there?"
Oscar sat back in his seat and stared silently out the window while the others all discussed their new home. He knew he ought to be feeling something-- anything. Impressed by what was now his estate, happy to be there, curious about his family. But all he felt was a little cold, and slightly empty. His cousins piled towards the windows, shaking the carriage and filling the air with noise, and Oscar couldn't shake the heavy, gaping thought that he was visiting the estate with the wrong family.
Outside his window, a few spirits were rolling along, swimming through the air to keep up with the carriage the same way dolphins swam around boats. Nobody aside from Oscar saw them. He smiled a little-- the only kind of smile he could manage these days. The estate was by the sea, and these spirits were used to the valley. They'd never had salty air like this before, and were enjoying the experience immensely.
Despite having a moat, there was no drawbridge, just a regular cobblestone bridge. They clattered over it and stopped in front of the castle. Everyone clambered out and began stretching their legs while stable hands emerged from the side of the house and tended the horses. The carriages with the last of the staff were already there, unloading the carts of Eoforhild family possessions that couldn't be parted with.
"What's that smell?" Malta said.
"That's the ocean," Mr. Eoforehild said. "Nothing like some fresh, salty sea air."
"I don't like it," Loey said, touching her head. "It makes my hair feel funny."
"You'll adapt," said Mrs. Eoforhild. The place is furnished, isn't it?" she asked her husband.
"Should be," said Mr. Eoforhild. "But it's been so long since anyone lived here, it's all probably eaten through by mice or moths. Alright, everyone!" he said a little more loudly. "Run in and pick your rooms. No fighting!"
The girls bolted, and were gone in a frenzy of skirt tails and sunhats left falling to the ground. Roald stayed with his mother and was too small to particularly mind what room he got, provided that it could still fit all his toys. Oscar stuck his hands in his pockets and walked slowly after the flock of cousins. Remy trotted to his side.
"Come on," Remy said, tugging at Oscar's arm. "Don't you want to get a good room?"
Oscar shrugged him off. "Not really."
"Oh." Remy's face fell. Oscar had no idea why.
"Go on ahead," he said, trying to sound cheerful. "Go pick a room."
Remy gave him a disappointed look and ran off. Oscar slowly went after, but stopped at the bridge. He peered over the side of the bridge at his darkened reflection in the water and thought,
Why do we have a moat? Was anyone likely to attack them? They had to have built the moat for a reason. Had people attacked them before?
He took a quick look around. His aunt was busy, holding a wriggling Roald and speaking to a cluster of maids. His uncle was helping some of the men unload the furniture. Nobody was paying him any attention.
Instead of going to the house, Oscar left the bridge and went around the moat, hurrying as casually as he could along the perimeter until he was out of sight of everyone in the front. The spirits, as ever, followed him. They wanted to get a look around this new place, too. The moat, he learned, was fed by a small stream. He went to the place where the stream waters fell into the moat and idly tossed a rock into the water.
Watch out! the air spirits cried.
They swarmed around him, causing a wind that almost knocked Oscar off his feet. Below, the water stirred. A hulking figure shaped roughly like a man covered in endless amounts of mud, water weeds, and muck rose up slowly and made its way to the moat's edge. The watery mud dribbled down from the top of its head in continuous rivulets like a fountain, and while it never became any cleaner, the water carved recognizable facial features into the creature's head.
"What are you?" he said. Around him, the air spirits gathered defensively, ready to blow the creature back into the moat if it came too close.
I am the spirit of the moat. The voice poured itself directly into Oscar's mind and reminded him of things gurgling in mud. I protect the family Raimn.
"I'm a Raimn," Oscar said. "What do I need protecting from?"
Those who would harm you.
I protect the family Raimn.
I protect the family Raimn.
It occurred to Oscar that the old spirit might be stupid. "Well you're doing a bang up job. Both my parents are dead."
They were not in the castle. They were not within the boundary of the moat. I protect the family Raimn.
"Thanks," Oscar said, not feeling thankful in the slightest. "You keep up with that."
The creature bowed and bubbled and sank back into the moat. When Oscar peered over to see where it had gone, there was no sign it had ever been there.
The house was bustling when he returned. His cousins were running room to room, claiming them as their own, only to change their minds after coming across a better room. And there were many, many rooms in the Raimn manor.
"Why is it so big?" Oscar asked his uncle, who was directing some movers.
"No, to the left," his uncle said, pointing where a sofa ought to go. "Keep going. Until you hit the wall. What was that, Oscar?"
"Why is the house so big?"
"That's you Raimns," he said with a shrug. "Used to breed like rats. Biggest family this side of the country, once upon a time."
He hadn't known that. His mother and father had never spoken of her side of the family. "Do I have other family?"
"Aside from us? Not anymore. Last plague wiped them out and the war after finished the job. Now it's just you. Wait! You with the end table! Put it over there-- no, behind you."
And with that, his uncle strode off across the hall, leaving him to his own devices.
His own devices, as it turned out, meant wandering around the house, looking at things. There were parlors with embroidered cushions everywhere and polished cherry furniture, there was a small library that hadn't been cleaned yet by the servants and was thick with dust and the smell of mouse, with large books written in languages he didn't recognize and script he couldn't read. There was a kitchen, which was twice the size of his parent's cottage and already full of people bringing in cookware and food for the pantry. His aunt was there, talking to the head chef about what should be for dinner that night. Oscar quietly backed away before anyone took notice of him. It was easy; people rarely took notice of him.
For a while, he walked absently down the halls, peering into rooms and trying to memorize the layout of the building. Some rooms had chimneys, others did not. Some rooms were entirely furnished and clean, others were bare save for the paintings on the walls and coated in dust.
There were a lot of paintings on the walls. Often, they were landscapes with similar style, which made him think they must've all been by the same person, but sometimes they were portraits of stern looking people in starched velvet suits, or wild eyed people with unsettling smiles.
He made a full circuit of the downstairs and was considering whether or not to go back outside and try talking to the moat spirit again when he heard Remy shout.
"Oscar!" Remy ran down the stairs towards him. "Oscar, come look at what I found!"
Oscar patiently let Remy take his hand and lead him up the stairs and down the far hall, past the Eoforhild girls who were still running back and forth.
"Trade with me! I want the one with the big windows--"
"Mine has big windows too!"
"But yours isn't blue!"
"I want the one with the glass lamp--"
"I'll give you the lamp if you give me the quilt set."
Oscar immediately tuned them out. He'd gotten good at that. Remy led him down another hall, then another. "They haven't got this far back," he said. "They started arguing for the first ones first and didn't come this way."
"Where are we going?"
"I found a room! Look!"
Remy pulled him into a room that might've been luxurious, once. The carpets were coated in dust-- as was everything else in the room, really-- but he could tell they were thick, high quality carpets beneath it all, and through the gray dust he thought he saw a tinge of red. The walls had the same half-paneling as the rest of the house, but here the top part was velvet instead of paint. The room was furnished with a bed bigger than Oscar's parents' old one, a wardrobe painted with a scene of knights fighting a dragon, a small writing desk and chair, and a toy chest made to look like a pirate's chest.
"Look, look," Remy said. He ran across the room and untied the long curtains hanging there, revealing a window nook and seat."I can see the ocean from here!"
"It's very nice," Oscar said with a smile. He'd been practicing his smiling since the Eoforhild's seemed put off by his usual blank expression, but he was always worried he wasn't doing it right.
Remy didn't notice. "I love it!" he said. "It's got bathroom right here and everything!" he opened the door to the left and revealed a bathroom that, while coated in a layer of dirt and dust, didn't look or smell moldy.
"I wonder who lived in here before," Oscar said, shooing a spider off the toy chest. Inside the chest were wooden toys-- boats, painted soldiers and horses, carriages with wheels that rolled. He searched the toys for any sign of their owner: a name carved or written on them, a set of initials on the chest-- anything at all, but came up with nothing.
"You don't know?" Remy said. "I thought they were your family." he took a running leap onto the bed and a cloud of dust erupted around him, filling the room. Remy giggled and coughed and giggled some more.
Oscar put the toys away. "I should go look for my own room," he said.
"Oh! I know one! I found one for you, too!"
Remy emerged from the cloud and went running into the hall. "Keep up with me!" he shrieked from several doors down.
Instead, Oscar went to the big window and, after a brief struggle with the old latch, opened it. Several air spirits flitted in, chattering happily at him. They whirled around him, pulling playfully at his hair and making the dust in the room even worse.
"Hey," he said, trying not to laugh. "Hey! Stop!"
They did so, still chattering wordlessly.
"Could you all do me a favor and air out this room?" he said. "It's really dusty."
They breezed past him, twining and tangling their spectral tails in the process, and went around the room like tiny tornadoes. Oscar took that to mean yes and said, "Thank you," before running after Remy.
"This way!" Remy said. His small voice echoed in the halls. They were well into the old side of the manor, where the walls were no longer paneled wood and painted, but stone, and the carpets were coarser and patterned beneath the dust.
The paintings here were all of the wild eyed people-- mothers grinning too-wide while holding children with straw tangled in their hair. Men who smiled in a way that made Oscar think that they were not practiced in smiling, either. One of the women in the paintings looked almost like his mother. He wanted to stop and look at it, but Remy was insistent.
"What?" Oscar said when he finally caught up. "What is it?"
"Up here," Remy said, pulling open a door to the side. It led to a round room with a spiral staircase.
"Look!" Remy said. He giggled and ran ahead, up the steps. Oscar wondered how someone so small could stand to run so much. Wouldn't smaller ones run out of energy sooner? He followed Remy upstairs.
The room was round and full of warm colors, even under the dust. It was scarcely furnished: just a plain bed that needed turning out and a writing desk, but Oscar paid them no attention. All he saw were the windows. There were four of them, from floor to ceiling, on each of the cardinal sides, and from them Oscar could see the ocean, the gardens, the courtyard, and the road leading from the front bridge, as well as a ways beyond all that.
"Do you like it?" Remy said. "I know you like fresh air."
"I love it," Oscar said. He opened the window facing the sea and was instantly bombarded by a strong gust of wind brought in by the spirits. He didn't react to them because he knew Remy was watching and-- good intentions or not-- the boy would tell his parents, so instead Oscar said, "Thank you, Remy. I like it a lot."
Remy beamed, his brown eyes sparkling in the light.
"Why don't you go and tell your parents where my room is?" Oscar said, politely trying to get the boy to leave now. There was a spirit pulling his hair quite hard, and he didn't want to risk telling it to stop while Remy was around. "It's so far out of the way, they probably don't know."
"Okay!" Remy said. "Later we can play."
"Yes, right. Bye."
He closed the door after Remy and shook his head free of the spirit.
"Hello to you too," he said. "Please don't do that when there are people are around. It upsets them. Not everyone is unobservant like Remy."
The spirit informed him that they'd cleaned Remy's room.
"Thank you. Did you like the dust?"
It was delicious! It tasted like the sea and like the magic that was steeped into the house.
"There's magic in the house?"
Lots of it, they assured him. It was in the walls and in the floors like lifeblood.
"Oh." He had no idea what to do with this information. "Would you like some more dust to eat?" he said.
"Then feel free to take the stuff in here, too--"
The words had barely left his mouth when the spirits flew around his room, sweeping beneath the bed and desk, tossing up the bed covers and flitting around every nook and cranny, taking all the dust they could find.
"That good stuff?" Oscar said, opening the remaining three windows as wide as they would go. The evening air was crisp and cool.
"Good to hear it." He crawled onto the bed and sat. "I think I just want some quiet time, now."
The spirits understood. They silenced themselves and floated idly around the room, too full to make much noise, anyway. Oscar sat, cross-legged, eyes closed, and breathed. At first, all he heard was the wind quietly coursing through his room. Then he heard the sound of the ocean hitting the beach. Then the sounds of the house: of the old wood creaking, of spiders crawling in the corners, of his cousins all making noise down stairs. Beyond them, he heard his aunt and uncle talking to separate people in separate rooms. He heard servants hoisting the remaining furniture and then setting off for the night.
While he sat, new spirits entered the room, drawn by his presence. They were a different texture than the spirits he knew; their misty selves swirled and shifted differently than his own did. They crowded around the bed, curious.
He introduced himself to the new spirits politely. The spirits that had come with him from the valley mingled with the newcomers, sharing the different scents and sounds they carried with them. More and more new spirits came through the window, and every time Oscar had finished introducing himself to one, another would come to meet him. By the time he had finished greeting all the new spirits, Mrs. Eoforhild had sent a maid up to bring him down for dinner.
* * * * *
The next day in the house was madness. The girl cousins, having finally decided on rooms, were suddenly finding that they didn't like their rooms and were trying to trade back. The ones who were happy with their rooms were busy trying to place or replace furniture, having the old Raimn stuff dragged out and their own things put in, only to find that the Raimn stuff looked better.
Oscar would've been happy enough to stay in his tower room all day and avoid the mess, but Mrs. Eoforhild sent a servant up to make sure he got dressed and came down to breakfast.
Breakfast was noisy and jumbled and there were too many people. His cousins bickered about nothing and his aunt and uncle were in deep conversation about hosting a dinner party, saying that it would be the first time in a decade that outsiders had been let into the Raimn estate. Oscar didn't know why that should bother him so much, but it did. The more they talked about it--
"We'll have to tear out the carpeting in the south hall."
"Nonsense! Nothing a good cleaning wouldn't fix. Some of those paintings will have to go, though-"
-- the more flustered he became. Even the largeness of the dining hall couldn't take away the hot, crowded way he was feeling, and the second he was able to, Oscar excused himself.
"Where are you going?" his aunt said.
"Outside," he said without thought. He immediately regretted it, because after a moment's reflection he found that he'd rather return to his room. But he had said it, and now he had to stick too it.
"Don't get your clothes dirty," his aunt said. Then she went back to discussing party and renovations with her husband.
Outside, the air spirits, both the ones from home and the new ones he'd met the night before, whirled around him in greeting, kicking up dirt and leaves as they did.
"Where's a good place to go?" he asked them. A few local spirits chattered and flew off towards the back if the manor, where the gardens were.
The gardens were still in disarray. There was, Oscar noted, nothing dead. In fact the garden had gone the opposite direction in the face of neglect; everything was thriving and wild. Things once confined to boxes or pots had cracked their containers open and had rooted on the dirt, in some cases cracking through the cobbled path and patio in order to do it. Fruit trees that had once been in orderly rows were now surrounded by smaller trees that had grown haphazardly from fallen fruit. Viney roses covered the wall, and ivy covered everything else.
"Hey," someone shouted. Oscar turned and saw a gardener coming towards him. "You have to stay out of here. We've got orders to clear this place out today."
"Sorry," Oscar said. He quickly walked away without another word.
"Now what?" he said to the spirits once they were well away from the garden.
They were at a loss. They liked the garden, they told him, because it smelled like magic.
"That's why the flowers aren't dead, then," he said, remembering what Milta had said when they'd first arrived. "Someone's spelled them to stay alive."
Had a lot of people in his family had magic? He wished there was someone he could ask. With the garden off limits, the only thing Oscar could think to do was wander around the outside of the moat and hope for something interesting.
He could go north and follow the stream through the back of the house, he could go back inside and try to sneak into his room without his relatives noticing him, or he could follow the little path to his left and go east and visit the ocean.
He chose the ocean.
The path was narrow, unpaved, and wound through the thicket until reaching a steep cliff. There, Oscar found rocks that were cut almost like steps, but too haphazard for anyone to have put real effort into making them; more than likely, they were the result of years and years of people walking down the cliff, all agreeing on the same route down, all moving troublesome rocks out of the way until there was nothing but the somewhat reliable path. He made his way down slowly and jumped the last few feet to the sand. The air spirits flitted around him, creating small gusts of winds that carried him gently down to the bottom.
Oscar had never seen the ocean up close before. He stared, entranced by the absolute vastness. He looked straight ahead from his place on the sand and saw nothing but the flat expanse of gray-blue water that stretched out into the horizon, where the gray-blue of the water met evenly with the blue-gray of the sky.
Oscar looked around and saw nothing.
"Hello?" he said.
"Yes?" he said to the open air. "Who's there?"
You can hear me?
"Yes," Oscar said. "Are you a spirit?"
You really can hear me? One of you can finally hear me?
"Yes! Show yourself!"
As you wish.
The water in front of Oscar bubbled and boiled and steamed. It rose up and took on a vague, shifting shape that wasn't human in the least, but also wasn't like any animal he'd encountered. It was tall and lithe and clear. Oscar had never seen spirit like this. It was watery and liquid, but in a distinctly solid way. It smelled like brine, and everything about it screamed water.
"Who are you?" he said. The air spirits crowded behind him, away from the watery one.
Don't, it said. Images of small waves toppling over themselves before reaching shore flashed through his mind when he heard its voice. Don't be afraid of me, cousins.
"Who are you?" he said again.
What do you think I am, little man?
"You're-- you're like them." He faltered. "Only not. You're a water spirit."
An ocean spirit. You're smarter than you look. I was hoping you were. The spirit stretched, adding water to itself until it was long enough to hover over the dry ground and twist itself around Oscar. Oscar turned with it, never letting its face out of his sight. The air spirits fluttered around him, keeping it from getting too close.
You look like your mother, it said eventually. But you look even more like your grandfather.
"You knew my mother?"
I know all your family. I remember your grandfather and your great grandfather sailing their boats. I remember your mother running along the beach. She was, I recall, afraid of the water. Here, the spirit sounded a little bitter. None of them could see me. None of them could hear me. Even your great, great, great grandmother, who could speak to fire and rock could not speak to me.
"I'm sorry," Oscar said. Not because he was, but because he felt he should. "I'm sure they would've talked to you if they could've seen you."
Where is your mother now? The spirit looked around, moving itself like a snake. I don't feel her nearby. She always felt like bottled lightning.
"She's dead," Oscar said flatly. "They both are."
The spirit paused. Oh, it said. It peered at Oscar. She was the last.
Of the Raimns. Of the old family. It pulled what passed for its head very close to Oscar's face. You are alone.
Oscar backed away. "No. I'm staying with relatives."
They are not Raimns. They don't count. They aren't like you. They can't see or hear like you can. They do not understand you.
The small, cold weight that had been resting in Oscar's belly grew a little heavier. "That's not..."
It is. You are alone.
There was a sudden gust of wind and the water spirit was blown back several feet. The air spirits surrounded Oscar, chattering angrily.
"I have them," he said, feeling relived. So not totally alone, then.
They are dogs, the spirit said. They are young and well-meaning and stupid. Someday they will be great, but for now they are as small and as far from home as you are. It drew itself up again, hovering over the sand and getting closer to Oscar than ever-- nearly nose to nose. I am not. I'm old-- far older than them or you. I could help you. I would like to help you. Do you want to know about your family?
"Yes!" The word sprang from his mouth by its own accord.
I could tell you about them, if you stayed with me.
"Stay? What do you mean stay? Here at the beach?"
On the beach, in a boat, or under the waves. The spirit spun around him idly, and Oscar kept turning to keep eye contact.
"You want to drown me."
You wouldn't drown. I wouldn't let you. Take some of them. It indicates the air spirits who watched warily. They would let you breathe.
"Why?" Oscar said. "Why do you want to help me?"
I have been alone for a very long time. Once, sorcerers used to come from all over to speak with me and my siblings. Now sorcerers are a rare find, and those who find them deem them mad and lock them away. I want company.
"I'm sorry," Oscar said, this time actually feeling sorry for the creature. "I can't leave my relatives, though. I can't live in the ocean."
Would you play with me?
"I can do that, I think. Just so long as were back in time for lunch."
The water spirit gurgled happily. We'll get along so well, oozed the voice. Water and wind. Do you know what happens when water and wind play together?
Images of capsized boats and sea storms flooded Oscar's mind. Port towns lost under giant waves. Heavy rains that swept away houses and carts and people into the ocean. Bloated corpses floating on the water's surface--
What's wrong? The voice in his head sounded genuinely confused.
"You! You're what's wrong." He backed up, and the air spirits surrounded him defensively. "What made you think I'd ever want to play like that?"
I don't understand. Wait-- where are you going?
Oscar started climbing back up the rocky path. "Back to the house."
Come back! Don't leave me!
"I have to go."
No! I said come back! The spirit drew back and a huge wave passed over the beach, knocking Oscar into the rocky side of the cliff. When it receded back into the sea, it nearly pulled him off the now-slippery steps. The air spirits pressed him back, keeping the water from taking him.
"Leave me alone!" he shouted. He scrambled up the rocks.
Come back, the spirit said again. Oscar saw another wave building up --this one bigger than before-- and, with a helpful shove from the air spirits, he made it over the edge just in time before being sucked into the sea. He ran, the wind at his back, all the way back to the house, and he didn't stop running until he'd gotten inside. He shoved the doors shut with a helpful blast of air from the spirits, and locked the bolt. Then he stood, palms on the door, bracing against it and breathing heavily.
He turned. His aunt and a few maids came out from the dining room.
"Oscar," said his aunt. "Your clothes are soaked!"
"I was at the beach," he said stiffly. His hands were shaking almost as badly as his voice, and for the first time he felt how cold and wet he was. "A big wave hit me."
"I asked you not to get your clothes dirty."
He said nothing.
She put her hands on her hips. "Don't give me that sullen look. Go change. You can't eat dinner like that."
He nodded and hurried up the stairs, barely keeping himself from running. He sped past his cousins in the hall and past Remy, ignoring their calls to him, and didn't stop until he'd reached the safety of his tower room. There, he opened all the windows, save for the one pointing towards the ocean. He changed his clothes in the bathroom, then crawled into bed and hid under the covers. The air spirits cooed at him and hovered over the bed, but for a long while all Oscar could hear was the rapid beating of his heart and the blood pounding in his ears. Slowly, he calmed down, and he stayed beneath the blankets until a maid sent by his aunt came in to take him to dinner.
* * * * *
The next morning, instead of a maid, it was Dana who went into his room and dragged off his covers. Since he'd become tangled in them during the night, this meant that when she tugged them, he went spinning onto the floor.
"Wake up," she said cheerfully. "My mom says you get to help me and Tansy clean the upstairs. Maeve and Milta and Loey have downstairs."
Oscar didn't argue, to Dana's obvious surprise, and got up without complaint. She waited for him to get dressed, and then the two went to help Tansy clean.
There wasn’t, in all honesty, much to do. The servants who’d arrived before the family had taken care of almost everything, but Mrs. Eoforhild believed in the virtues of hard work and wanted her children to, as she lovingly referred to it as, pull their weight. This meant that There was a lot of dusting and folding and rearranging furniture that had already been unpacked while Mr. and Mrs. Eoforhild went around, trying to decide between keeping house furniture or keeping their own.
"We want everything clean for the party," she said.
"But nobody's going to be up here!" Tansy said.
"Of course they will," said Mr. Eoforhild. "We'll give them a tour of the old side of the manor. Historical value and whatnot. People eat that stuff up." He examined a painting of a dead-eyed man holding a cat with too-wide eyes, and frowned. "Should we keep these paintings?"
"Just until the dinner," said his wife. "We'll show them off. Then we can sell them."
"Who are you inviting?" Oscar asked.
"Everyone who's anyone," said Mrs. Eoforhild primly. "We're being very exclusive."
"Do that many people really want to see the house? Why?"
"Because of the mystery!" Mrs. Eoforhild said. "Rich old family all but killed off, all of them crazy to boot-- everyone likes a little haunting. Now stop asking silly questions and go help air out those covers."
He did. His aunt and uncle left to supervise the girls downstairs, and the upstairs crew went slowly through the halls, dusting the tops of the picture frames, cleaning the windows, and airing out the cushions of the hall furniture. As they went down the hall, they went into the rooms and dusted and aired those out as well. They passed by the bedrooms, but there were a few upstairs studies and sitting rooms. They spent the whole morning cleaning, were called down for a quick lunch, then sent back up to clean some more.
"There's nothing left!" Dana said. "Like anyone's really going to inspect every room!"
"Where's the maid?" said Loey. "Mary should be helping us with this."
"I think your father sent her to watch Roald," said Oscar. They ignored him.
He was wiping the dust off the windows when he saw the air spirits outside waving frantically. Oscar waved back.
A great gust of wind tore against the house, forcing open the unlocked windows and rattling the locked ones. Air spirits poured into the room and swarmed around Oscar, creating a miniature tornado. Dana and Loey screamed and ran out of the room.
"Why did you do that?" Oscar shouted. The spirits didn't answer and pulled him towards the window. He didn't resist.
"What's wrong?" he said. The spirits led him along, snagging his clothes and pulling from the front while simultaneously causing gusts of wind to push him from behind. "What?" he said. "What is it?"
They were too upset; they could form no words of their own, so they pulled words from yesterday out of the air. Come with me. We get along so well. You'll see. You'll change your mind. Oscar, look what I can do!
"Remy?" He stopped moving, and the spirits gave him a great shove. "Remy!"
He leapt out the window. The wind carried him down and he hit the grass running. With the winds at his back he almost flew across the courtyard and across the bridge. Instead of taking the long trail down the cliff side to the beach, Oscar simply leapt off the ledge and the winds carried him gently, but swiftly, down to the sand.
He ran along the shore, aided by the wind, and was just in time to see Remy, standing up to his knees in the salty water, get swept under a great wave. Oscar screamed. He screamed as the wave receded, leaving no trace of his cousin, and he kept on screaming until he reached the spot where Remy had been.
"Give him back!" he yelled, his voice hoarse. "Give him back!"
The ocean didn't answer. He couldn't yell anymore, his voice had gone and his throat hurt. Instead, desperately, uselessly, he grabbed a rock and threw it into the ocean. Then another, and another. The air spirits could do nothing to help. They couldn't really go under water- it wasn't their element. They couldn't bring Remy back, and they dared not stop Oscar. All they could do was watch as he threw rocks.
When he ran out of rocks (and he eventually did, as most of the rocks there had fallen from the cliff, and were either too small to be any good, or too heavy to throw), he went into the water and kicked.
"I know you're out here!" he rasped.
The water, instead of acting like proper water, began creeping up his legs. He yelped and fell over and scrambled backwards until he was on dry sand, out of the water's reach. For a second, he thought he heard the sound of laughing, but it might've just been his imagination.
The family, he thought suddenly. What am I going to tell them?
He didn't know how long he stared out at the open water. All he knew was that when his spirits had finally gotten his attention, telling him that it was time to go back, the sun was in the middle of setting and it was already cold out. He trudged back to the manor.
* * * * *
The rest of the family was in the dining hall when he got back. He could hear them talking and the sound of dishes being passed around. It was, he realized bleakly, about dinner time. They'd all be together, and they all would have noticed he and Remy were missing by now. He took a deep, shuddering breath, and went in. The air spirits hovered anxiously around him, ready to help in any way they could. It was some small comfort, knowing they were there.
"Everyone," he said, stepping into the hall. "I've got something to tell you--"
They didn't hear him; they never did, on the first try. But that didn't matter because the words died in his throat. Sitting between Mrs. Eoforhild and Tansy was Remy. Remy, who was happy and healthy and smiling and laughing about something and playing with his cutlery. Oscar's jaw dropped.
His aunt noticed him. "Oscar! What happened to you? You're filthy!"
"I-" He suddenly realized how sandy and wet his clothes were. "I-"
"Never mind. Go change, then come back down. You can't eat like that."
"Nonsense," said his uncle. "Can't fault the boy for enjoying some fresh air. Get over here, Oscar." He gestured to the open seat next to him. "Come on, sit down."
He did so, feeling numb. He wanted to ask Remy what happened, but his aunt was in the way. Everyone around him, Remy included, talked about the estate, either praising it or complaining about the state it was in. Oscar just sat, playing with his food and watching them. Around him, the air spirits sensed his agitation and flitted uncomfortably.
Dinner passed by agonizingly slow, and by the end of it, Oscar hadn't eaten a single thing off his plate, though he'd played with it some. Nobody noticed though; his aunt and uncle were too busy talking about the party. They'd sent off the invitations and were expecting the RSVPs within the next few days. They kept saying names of people Oscar didn't know who lived in places he hadn't heard of. He tuned them out and kept his eyes on Remy, who occasionally looked back at him and smiled.
When everyone else had half-way finished, Oscar asked to be excused.
"I want to go too," said Remy.
"No, Remy," said Mrs. Eoforhild. "Stay and clean your plate."
"But he didn't finish his-"
"Oscar is a big boy and can eat what he likes," Mrs. Eoforhild said. Oscar left as quickly as he could before they noticed that he hadn't eaten anything off the plate. He went upstairs and instead of going to his room, he waited outside of Remy's.
Remy grinned when he saw him and went into the room without saying anything. Oscar followed him.
"Remy? Are you okay?"
His cousin crossed the room and stood before the window. "I like this view," he said. "It looks so from different up here."
"Remy," Oscar said, touching Remy's shoulder. "What happened today? I saw you get taken under by the wave--"
Remy grabbed his hand. He tilted his head and smiled. "I spat him out down the shore a little after."
Oscar's stomach dropped.
"Your eyes," he said.
"Yes?" said Remy.
Oscar tried to pull his hand away, but the other boy wouldn't let go. "They're blue. They're supposed to be brown."
"Really? I didn't notice." Remy let go of Oscar and went to the mirror. "Huh," he said, pulling his lids wider in order to see his irises better. "So they are."
"It's you," Oscar said. "How did you-- Why--"
"If you won't come into the ocean, I figured I would come onto the land. It was easier than I'd expected." Remy dragged a fingernail across his arm hard enough to draw a thin line of blood. "Turns out humans are mostly water. I never knew!"
"Get out of him!"
"Is that any way to treat your little cousin?" Remy pouted. "Why won't you go swimming wiff me, Oscar? Don't you like me?"
White hot rage cut through his chest like a knife, and before Oscar knew what he was doing, he had slammed Remy into the wall and was pinning him in place by the shoulders. "Get out of him!"
"Careful," said the spirit in Remy's voice. "You break this body and your cousin won't have a place to return to." He touched the back of his borrowed head and smiled at the retrieved bit of blood on his fingertips. "I wonder what your aunty and uncle will think when I tell them how crazy Oscar beat poor wittle Remy up, unprovoked. 'He just came at me, momma! He went crazy!'"
"'I twied to stop him, but he's bigger than me.'"
"Oscar?" Mrs. Eoforhild peered in from the hallway. "Boys, what's going on?"
"Nothing, Aunty," Oscar said, quickly releasing the spirit.
The spirit smiled beatifically. "Nothing, momma," he said in Remy's best well-behaved voice. "Just playing with my favorite cousin!" He went beside Oscar and wrapped his arm around him in an open hug. It took everything Oscar had not to shove him away.
"I thought I heard yelling-"
"That was us," the spirit said. "We were playing."
She looked unsure, but did not press the matter. Who was she to stop her children from getting along? "Alright. Try to play a bit more quietly, then. Dinner's in an hour."
"Thanks, momma," Remy chirped.
Oscar felt a pinch in his side. "Uh. Yeah. Thank you, aunty." She left, looking mildly confused, but pleased nevertheless.
The second she was gone, Oscar shoved the spirit aside. "Get out of my cousin."
"Nnno, I don't think I will." It jumped on Remy's bed. "I think I like this place. The body is a little wimpy, to be sure, but It'll grow."
"I'll make you leave."
"You don't know how, little Raimn. Anyone who could teach you is dead." The spirit jumped high and spun in the air before landing back on the mattress.
"Don't jump like that," Oscar said automatically. "You'll break the boards holding the mattress up."
The spirit continued to jump, but it did so less enthusiastically. "My offer still stands, by the way," it said. "I would be happy to help you, if you'd let me."
"Would you leave Remy's body?"
"Well don't get greedy now."
"So that's a no."
"That's an 'I don't trust you to actually keep your end of the bargain.'" It jumped one last time and instead of landing on its feet, it flopped backwards onto the bed. "If I leave this body now, you'll just go back to avoiding me. You'd figure some way to keep everyone from the ocean, and I'd be alone again."
Oscar's jaw hurt. It took him a second to realize it was because he was biting down so hard. "What do you want?" he said through gritted teeth.
The spirit looked at him, half-smiling. Its eyes were cold and deep. "I don't want to be alone any more. You ought to understand that. I'm tired of being ignored. I want followers again. I want my cult back. And you," he prodded Oscar in the chest, "are going to help me. You'll be my first. My acolyte, my high priest. You don't look like much now, but you've got potential. I can see it blazing in you."
The spirit idly paced the room, and Oscar got the impression it was only half talking to him. "You won't like it, at first. We've gotten off on the wrong foot. But you'll warm up to the idea, I'm sure. When you start doing magic-- I mean real magic-- you'll forget any doubts you had. What do you say?"
It stopped pacing and held Remy's hand out to him. Oscar smacked the hand away.
"Go to blazes," he said.
Remy's face hardened. "Fine," the spirit said. "Be that way. You'll change your mind. You'll have to. I'll keep your cousin until you do. Until I'm sure you see things my way. Now," the spirit drew itself up to Remy's full height-- which was still much shorter than Oscar. "I ask you to leave my room."
Oscar had never wanted to hit anyone so much. His fists clenched and he could imagine punching the spirit right in the nose. But he couldn't; that would hurt Remy. So instead he turned on his heel and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
He didn't waste any time. He ran down the hall, down the stairs, past the numerous sitting rooms and dens and libraries until he found his aunt and uncle sitting together in their room.
"Remy's been possessed," he said.
"What?" they said.
"He's been possessed. An ocean spirit wants me to be its worshiper and it's taken over Remy's body and it's not going to give him back unless I do everything it says."
They stared at him.
"Oh Oscar!" his aunt eventually wailed. "I thought we were over this!"
"Don't make us get the physician in here again," his uncle said.
"I don't need the physician! I'm not crazy!"
"We didn't say you were-" started his aunt.
"I'm not lying, either!"
"Oscar!" his uncle boomed, his voice like thunder. "That's quite enough! I won't hear anymore of this nonsense. Go to your room, it's past your bedtime as it is."
He wanted to argue. He wanted to drag Remy in and show them-- to shake them until they understood. But it was clear from their tones and looks that he would get nowhere. He turned to go, and stopped at the doorway.
"What color are Remy's eyes?" he asked.
"What? Green, aren't they?" said his uncle.
"No, dear, Milta has green. I think they're gray-"
"No, that's Dana. I remember because she looked like my grandmother."
"Were they blue, then?"
"Who had brown? I know a few of them had brown..."
Oscar left them talking.
* * * * *
The huge double doors in the front of the manor castle were locked and heavy, and when Oscar tried to move the beam holding them closed, it made so much noise that he had to stop for fear of attracting attention. The servant's exits were out of the question; when he went by, he heard them still awake and talking. They would ask him why he wanted out, and then they'd tell his aunt and uncle. In the end, he returned to his tower room, opened the windows, and had the air spirits gather around him and help him leap down, hopping roof to roof until he was on the grass.
The night was cool-- but not unpleasantly so-- and oppressively dark, despite the stars, and wished he'd brought a light. The spirits, unhindered by the dark, guided him to the bridge. By the time they'd reached it, his eyes had adjusted some.
"Hey!" he hissed. "Hey!" he bent down, felt around, and picked up a rock, then tossed it into the water. "Hey, Moat! Get up here and help me!"
He threw more rocks into the water to get the moat spirit's attention. Reluctantly, the spirit rose. Its eyes burned with a green light, making the mud on it look almost shiny, and shadows of writing roods stretched behind it.
"My cousin's been possessed," Oscar said. "The ocean spirit did it. You know it?"
I know of it.
"I need to get it out of him. Please, help me."
I protect the family Raimn.
"He's my cousin! That means he's my family! I'm a Raimn, right? So that makes him count, too. Please, help me!"
There was a long silence. Oscar was afraid the spirit would sink back into the mud.
"Please," he said. "He's just a little kid."
What would you have me do?
"Help me get the spirit out of him."
I cannot. I am bound by the moat.
"How do I get the spirit out of him, then?"
Another long period of silence. To save the boy, the spirit finally said, You must force the possessor back into its element.
"What does that mean?"
Exactly what I said. You must send the spirit back to the sea.
"How? Do I just push it into the water?"
The moat spirit slowly, with what looked like great effort, shook its head. It is not that simple. The spirit must be in contact with its element, and its host body must be rendered uninhabitable."
It took Oscar a moment to realize what that meant.
"There has to be another way."
I am sorry, said the moat spirit. Slowly, it began sinking down into the water.
"Wait, come back! I need help!"
I protect the family Raimn, it gurgled. I protect the family Raimn.
And then it was gone.