This is the twenty-eighth tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. This story is part of the build-up to the release of the first Split Worlds novel "Between Two Thorns" in March 2013. Every week a new story is released. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here, where you can also sign up to receive each story free in your inbox every week (starting at the very first one).
A Worrisome Return
by Emma Newman
by Emma Newman
Aquae Sulis, 2002
Will was eight when Nathaniel had left for his great adventure and all he could remember about him was his superior strength. There were countless examples in his memory; being pinned down on top of wooden building bricks that left perfect rectangular bruises on his back and being crushed in a bear hug until he'd passed out.
He looked to his sister for solidarity but Imogen was beaming, no doubt hoping for a spectacular gift from their elder brother. Will was the only person in the household who seemed unhappy about his brother's return.
"Hullo," Nathaniel looked down at him as he crushed Will's knuckles against each other. "Still short I see."
"Hello Nathaniel," Will did all he could to hide the pain as they shook hands. "Still ugly I see."
Nathaniel laughed and released Will to clap him on the back. Will squeezed all the pleasure he could from staying on his feet despite his brother's efforts and followed the rest of the family into the drawing room.
"So," Father said as he poured sherry. "How was the trip?"
"Most enlightening," Nathaniel said.
"What was Paris like?" Imogen asked. "What's the latest fashion?"
"The only fashion worth noting in Paris," Nathaniel replied, "is that one should never appear to be concerned about fashion."
"He was probably too busy trying to get the dresses off them to notice anything useful," Imogen whispered in Will's ear.
Will tried to imagine a Paris ballroom full of beautiful women desperate to have their fashionable gowns removed but the fantasy collapsed when he thought of his brother being there.
The gifts for his parents were horribly boring; some kind of drink Will had never heard of for Father and Venetian glass for Mother. Imogen was given a necklace that glittered enough to make her happy and then Nathaniel fished out a small package from his travelling bag.
"And this is for my baby brother."
"You'll always be the baby of the family though," Imogen said.
Will took the package and unwrapped the top layer to reveal tissue paper beneath. A row of tiny colourful dolls, wrapped in bright threads instead of clothes, lay within. "You got me dolls? I'm not a girl!"
Nathaniel laughed. "They're Guatemalan Worry Dolls. It's a custom I thought you'd appreciate."
"I've heard of these," Mother said, taking them from his hands to inspect them. "Oh they're adorable. Will, you whisper your worries to them and then tuck them under your pillow before you go to sleep."
He peered at them. Surely it was a trick. "Really? Why?"
"The natives believe the dolls worry for you so you don't have to," Nathaniel said. "And when you wake up in the morning the worries are gone."
"It's such a thoughtful gift," Mother said, handing them back to Will. "I think you should use them tonight. Now thank your brother."
Will woke in the night, alert and tense. There was a sound from the side of his bed so he peered over the edge. One of the worry dolls was lying on the floor, bathed in the light stretching under the door from the hallway. Thinking it had been pushed to the edge by his night time fidgeting he reached down, but the doll stood up and quivered before he reached it. Will snatched his hand back under the duvet as the miniature figure wobbled its way towards the door.
It was followed by another and then another. They were so small Will didn't feel them worming their way out from under his pillow. Casting long shadows, all six made their way to the door and wriggled under the crack beneath it.
Shaking, Will got out of bed and went out into the hallway. The dolls were heading for the door out of the nursery wing and into the main part of the house. He wasn't old enough to live there yet. But Nathaniel was. Just as he was about to curse his brother, the dolls lurched to the left and headed for Imogen's room instead.
Will followed them on tip-toe and pressed his ear against her bedroom door as the dolls wriggled beneath it.
He could hear her giggling and then the sound he hadn't missed at all; Nathaniel's low chuckle. His tormentors were reunited.
"Here comes the first one," Nathaniel said and sweat burst across Will's forehead at the thought of what he'd whispered to it. "What burdens are you carrying little fellow?"
Will heard his own worried whisper, the one he'd uttered to the doll earlier that evening. "What if I don't get any taller?"
"Oh, poor little William." The mockery in Imogen's voice made Will's stomach cramp.
"Ah, here's the next one," Nathaniel said. Will pressed himself tighter to the door as his breath seized in his chest.
"I'm worried I'll grow up to be just as stupid as my elder brother," the doll reported.
Will covered his mouth with both hands to stifle his laughter.
"What if I have a nose like Nathaniel's?" Reported another doll. "What if I come back from my Grand Tour with as big a-" A thud cut off that one and no other dolls were invited to report in.
Will dashed back to his room, satisfied that he'd emerged from the prank as the victor. He knew Nathaniel hadn't changed and that there was no love behind the gift. His only regret was realising it after he'd whispered to the first doll.