Arianna woke to the soothing sounds of flowing water. She blinked several times. “Arianna? My love?” A cool wet cloth gently wiped her brow and dabbed at her throat. She looked around, dazed and confused by the thick fog surrounding her. It only took seconds for her head to clear and the memories of what she had seen assaulted her.
“Was the woman? Is she…” She sat up and threw her arms around Clad’s neck, holding him tight as she sobbed.
“She lives, but my parents, my brother and sist…” He could not continue and Arianna knew they were all lost to him. Clad gathered her close, holding her fiercely for a long time, both closing their eyes on the pain, but unable to close their hearts to it. When Arianna opened hers sometime later, the air seemed to burn them. Smoke swirled around her. She looked at Clad with understanding. They were burning the bodies.
“Who could have done such a thing?” Arianna asked. Clad could only shake his head. He had a sneaking suspicion, but would that man really go so far?
The next morning Clad and his men loaded Marcel and Arianna into the back of a makeshift wagon and left Clad’s childhood in a pile of ash behind them. Traveling slowly due to Marcel’s frail condition, they headed back to Arianna’s home village; this time taking the main road instead of the scenic route.
Shortly after leaving they noticed movement on the trail before them. As they neared the wanderers cautiously, the two ducked into the shadows of the grass to hide.
“Casia!” Clad called to them. The woman swung around and with a cry of relief picked up her small son. She quickly rushed back to the trail and threw herself into Clad’s arms and cried. He held the woman and child close, giving what comfort he could. When the woman’s tears finally dried she told Clad the words he’d suspected.
“Clad, I was picking berries with George when I heard the screaming. I rushed back to the village wondering what was happening. It was awful,” She shuddered and the boy whimpered. “It was Leishmann. I saw him on his horse and when he…he raised his sword and. Clad your father didn’t even have a weapon. Leishmann sliced him through and did for your mother the same when she rushed to catch your father before he fell. I didn’t see what happened to your brother or sisters, but, Oh Clad, they were killing everyone. Burning people alive. The screams of women and children–it was horrible.”
“It’s ok Casia, you’re safe now.” Clad held her closer as she dug her head into his chest and wept. Clad looked into Arianna’s eyes and flinched at the sorrow he saw in them. He knew she was hurting for Casia and her child- for what they had seen- but he also knew her pain was for him as well.
“We hid in the bushes and I kept George quiet until Leishmann’s men left. It didn’t take long. After he killed everyone and beat Marcel to death he just swung up on his horse and ordered his men out of the village. I shouldn’t have been such a coward. I should have done something to stop them!” Clad recognized the guilt in her voice for he felt it running through his own blood.
“Casia, you could have done nothing but die. You did the right thing by keeping yourself and your son safe. I do not judge nor blame you. Sometimes all we can do is survive and that’s what you needed to do. Look at me. It is not a sin to live when others die and to live when you could easily choose death is the greatest courage you can have. I’m proud of you.” Casia cried harder, but Clad hoped this time it would be a healing cry. After several long moments she quieted and Cal nodded for Arianna to join them.
“Casia, my name is Arianna.” Casia looked up and nodded her greeting. “I just thought you would like to know that Marcel is alive!” Casia’s eyes widened and she looked to Clad for confirmation.
“We thought she was the only survivor, but know we have been blessed to learn you and George have fought for your survival and won. Would you like to see Marcel?” She nodded and Clad assisted her to her feet. Mitch stepped forward and took George into his arms and held him close while his mother approached the cart.
Casia’s breath caught when she looked into Marcel’s swollen face, but appeared to relax when the gentle rise and fall of her chest spoke the truth of Clad and Arianna’s words.
“What will we do now?” She asked without taking her eyes off Marcel.
“We will return to Arianna’s village and ask her parents if we can live there while we try to heal our broken hearts.” Casia took a deep breath and turned to Arianna.
“Nice to meet you Arianna,” She offered a hand which Arianna readily accepted with a small smile.
“Arianna is my wife,” Clad introduced and a large grin spread across Casia’s face.
“Congratulations. She’s beautiful.” Arianna blushed, but a genuine smile lifted the corners of Clad’s lips and for the first time since they had breached the hill of the village the day before his lips curled up. After getting Casia and George settled in the cart with Marcel and Arianna they continued on their track.
“So Leishmann did this?” Mitch asked when he joined Clad at the front of the small group of travelers.
“Are you surprised?” Clad countered.
“Not in the least,” Mitch responded. Both grew silent to ponder their own thoughts about the lengths Leishmann would take to rule Danyon.
Leishmann was Lord over Meridan, the Southern region of their world, Danyon. His region was dry, a wasteland, but it was rich in precious stones and golds. His land could not grow vegetation and the wildlife was limited. It cost him a great fortune to purchase the juicy meats from the woodlands, the scrumptious fishes from the wetlands, and the delicate plants and berries from the grasslands.
It did not take him long to decide that if he overtook the other regions, and gained control over all the lands and their resources he would have the best meats and vegetation in all the lands without losing his wealth. He had then decided to make all the inhabitants of Danyon his slaves. From Winsland, the wetlands, Nymac, the grasslands, and all the way to the Woodlands of Cardison; a great many people had declared they would not fall under the rule of a madman.
The madness that tainted Leishmann’s mind filled him with a greed for power. He soon forced his own people into the mines, working night and day, to build his wealth and sustain his growing army.
Lately rumors had reached those in Nymac that should they not enter into Leishmann’s rule, they would be destroyed. When word of what he did to his wife surfaced many began to believe he would do as he threatened.
It was alleged Leishmann had killed his wife when she attempted to not only shield her son from his father’s insanity , but also prevent her husband from moving forward with his malicious plans. With his wife gone Leishmann demanded his young witch, Teisha, and son, Cal, to train unyieldingly-day and night- to become warriors fit to command his armies. It was said both would become more malicious and merciless than Leishmann and together they would attack and kill those that apposed their rule.
Clad believed the rumors to be over exaggerated especially after hearing of Teisha’s immense powers and Cals fighting abilities, after all, both Cal and Teisha were only children; only eight and nine years old. He also knew the elders would never allow Leishmann to take command over Danyon.
The elders were a group of men and woman appointed by all the regions of Danyon to keep order. They had met several times to discuss how best to deal with Leishmanns threats. All believed the threats would never amount to anything. Now, it appeared, Leishmann had grown tired of sitting idly by as the world rejected his rule.
Clad sighed. How could he shield his wife and followers from this man?
Clad silently committed to offer his protection–what little he could provide–and vowed to defend all the innocents who survived Leishmann’s tyranny. In his mind, he plotted how he would guard his family, avenge the dead, and somehow obtain revenge against Lord Leishmann’s cruelty.
For several days the small group of weary nomads traveled, moving slowly to allow Marcel the best chance of survival. She remained unconscious, her body precariously sustained on the small amount of honeyed milk and broth they could trickle down her throat. Clad feared death lurked nearby, awaiting the moment to swoop in and whisk the old woman away. Even with Arianna’s careful ministrations, Clad knew if Marcel did not wake soon her slumber would consume her. He looked at Marcel’s ashen face and feared she would soon leave them to meet Sorchanna, The Great Goddess.
Every evening Clad forced himself to say goodbye to the old woman. Every morning he woke relieved she had eluded Death’s embrace.
Though the last morning of their journey brought relief that they would dine with Arianna’s family by nightfall, it was interrupted by the bitter fear that plagued him every dawn. Was Marcel with them, or did Melek, Lord of Purgatory, master of death, sweep in during the night and steal her last breath?
He lifted the wool blanket and sucked in sharply. Dark eyes peered up at him. Marcel had finally awakened. Relief rushed through him and he gently bent over the wagon to touch his forehead to hers; a sign of love and respect given to the elderly. She blinked. “Bout time you showed up, I think I will try a cup of that ‘energy in a bottle’ if you please!” Clad chuckled, she often referred to the bitter hot drink he sometimes brewed as energy in a bottle.
“Normally I would oblige you, but I seem to have lost the bag of crushed roots.” He replied; glad to see she still had her spunk. She nodded.
“Just the same, I never liked the stuff anyway!” She flinched at the sudden sharp pain zipping through her when she attempted to move. Clad placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, silently encouraging her to lie still.
“Marcel, what do we do? How do we help you?” He felt so helpless. Marcel nodded and with a hoarse, weak, voice managed to describe the plant she would need to ensure her recovery.
“You will find it in the marshes. It’s a small…” A heavy cough escaped her and Clad cringed at the site of Marcel’s face contorted in pain.
“Easy. Are you okay?” Marcel brushed Clads hand away when he reached to assist her.
“The flower will grow in bunches, but it is difficult to find ones that are ready this time of year,” Marcel winced when she attempted to shift once again.
“It will look like flames dancing in the air. At the base of each flower it is yellow with petals that wave towards the sky turning red at the top. They are ready for harvest when the petals dance in the breeze and let off a low whistle. When it whistles you dig the flower up, but careful you get all the roots. When you return I will tell you how to brew it. I must rest now. Go!” Clad nodded, but Marcel’s eyes had already closed against the morning rays. Clad smiled and tucked the blanket around Marcel’s shoulders before turning to wake his wife.
“Arianna, Sweetie, it’s time to get up,” Clad lightly brushed his lips over hers and she stirred.
“Um-Um.” She shook her head even as her arms circled his neck and brought him closer. He chuckled.
“I’d love you play this out and see what your intentions are, but Marcel has awaken and we need to go find a flower to make the Meekoberry juice.”
“Meekoberry Juice? Shouldn’t it come from a berry?” Clad shrugged and watched as Arianna stretched the kinks from her body and pushed her blanket aside. “Where do we find it and what does it look like?” She pulled her skirt over her bloomers and fastened her blouse. When Clad didn’t respond she looked at him with expectation.
“Sorry what?” She smiled at his response.
“Why Clad, what might you be thinking about? She sauntered up to him and ran a finger lightly over his jaw. In one fluid movement he pulled her against him.
“I’m thinking I am one lucky man,” He claimed her mouth with an urgency that left them both breathless.
“Well, I guess we best go find a flower before we become distracted.” She trailed her finger down his chest and traced circles around his stomach.
“Right, best get started.” He took her hand and brought her knuckles to his lips. Then without warning he whisked her away to search for the delicate flower.
“Are you positive the flower grows in the marsh?” Arianna complained several hours later as she attempted to jerk the mud loose from her boots. She made a sight with her skirt pulled between her legs and tucked into the waist to form a short pant suit. Clad enjoyed watching her shapely ankles glide through the tall grass.
Around them several small flowers danced in the breeze, but none whistled the sweet melody they had been straining to hear.
“I’ll try over there, why don’t you rest for a bit. I’ll rejoin you shortly.” Clad turned to make his way to the northeast side of the marsh. He had only taken a few steps when a light whistle touched his ears. He turned and watched Arianna as she held a handful of tall grass away from the small petals that reached to the sky and danced in the breeze; mimicking the flames that danced in the fire pits back at camp.
“Clad, I think I found one,” She said reverently as the sweet music filled the air between them. He responded by taking several ginger steps towards the plant. They both silently stared at the singing petals dancing in the breeze before finally looking at each other.
“We found it. Marcel will be okay,” Clad sighed in relief.
“And tonight we will join my family and together build a new home in their village.” A joy spread over him and he desperately felt the need to have Arianna in his arms. He reached for her and swung her around causing a light giggle to escaper her sweet mouth.
“Finally I feel like everything will be alright.” He placed Arianna on her feet, but held her close. “I love you.” He raised his hand to brush her hair away from her face. “So much.”
“I love you back.” She rose onto her toes and brushed a light kiss on his lips. He smiled down at her. Though the pain of the last couple weeks still wreaked havoc on his emotions he couldn’t help but feel happy in that moment. His wife was wrapped safely in his embrace, they stood beside the plant they would need to bring Marcel back to health and tonight they would join Arianna’s family. For the first time since leaving his home he felt they had the promise of a happy future together.
Clad pulled Arianna’s head and nestled it into his chest and took a few moments to just hold her and feel the comfort her arms provided. He held her close until the stress lifted from his shoulders and brought with it a hint that healing would come with time. Together they stood in the marsh, water leaking into their shoes, and just enjoyed their small reprieve from the world outside the swamp.
“We should get back.” With a heavy sigh Arianna pushed back and the joy in her eyes was quickly replaced with a deep sadness and Clad regretted breaking the spell that had surrounded them in the last several moments. He kissed her forehead and turned to retrieve his shovel.
Carefully Clad dug around the plant, ensuring the roots were unharmed. Arianna wrapped a small cloth over the earth surrounding the roots to protect them while they returned to the camp. They traveled back in silence, both lost in their own thoughts and both feeling the heaviness return to their shoulders.
“Marcel, we found the flower.” Clad gently shook her shoulder to wake her.
“Who is that, My Child?” Clad almost laughed. Leave it to Marcel to demand introductions to the beauty standing behind him before she got down to business.
“Marcel, this is my wife Arianna.” Gentleness played in her eyes as she looked at the young woman cradling the small plant in her arms.
“Arianna, come closer.” Her voice was soft and welcoming. Clad watched with admiration as Arianna moved closer and Marcel raised a hand to gently touch the long blond tresses that hung over Arianna’s shoulder. “Absolutely beautiful.” Arianna turned a bashful shade of pink and Clad knew the gentle smile she shared with Marcel had won her a permanent place in the older woman’s heart.
“Thank you.” Marcel pulled her hand back with a wince and locked eyes with the younger woman.
“You must first rinse the dirt from the roots then place the whole plant into a pot of boiling water. Stir just enough to keep the plant from sticking to the bottom of the kettle. The roots will break apart on their own and form small balls. The petals of the flower will stain them orange. They should look like small berries when they are ready. Drain the water but save it.
“Next you will need to crush the roots until it forms a thick paste. Return the paste to the strained water and cook it until it becomes a sticky goop. At this stage spoon it onto a slab of cloth and press the juice into a bowl. When it cools bring me a small cup.” Marcel closed her eyes after she finished talking and Clad and Arianna went to work carefully following each instruction until the juice cooled enough to bring it to Marcel.
When Arianna lifted the earthy liquid to Marcel’s lips the old woman drank deeply, cringing at the bitter taste. Within moments her eyes drooped and she fell into a deep, healing sleep. Clad smiled, knowing the old witch would live and gave thanks to The Goddess for their good fortune. He watched Marcel and prayed his pains and that of his followers would heal as surely as Marcel’s body was healing now.
Clad’s hopes soon shattered the moment they rounded the bend in the river later that evening. Arianna’s entire village was burnt to the ground. Though they searched for hours, no survivors could be found. Clad became angry with himself. He could have saved them if only he had not insisted on taking the scenic route between the two villages after he and Arianna had married. Had they traveled the main roads he could have discovered Leishmann’s army well before they had reached the village. Guilt filled him as he held his wife close. Each tear she wept carved a deep gash in his soul. Would she forgive him? Could he forgive himself? He remembered her parents’ smiles weeks before when they had celebrated his marriage to their lovely daughter. Clad kissed a tear from Arianna’s cheek and knew her pains would never heal.
They stayed long enough to burn the dead before moving on. Marcel woke after two days of the healing sleep. Her strength slowly returned and she soon became the source of support and wisdom his traveling people needed to thrive.
For the next several months Clad led his people across the grassy plains, always searching for a new home and always hoping the next village could give them refuge. Hope vanished; however, when they repeatedly witnessed the horrors and destruction left behind by Leishmann’s army.
The small townships they passed were left in rubble, burnt to the ground, and the death toll rose at an alarming rate. The stench of rotting corpse haunted Clads dreams and plagued his senses. Rarely would they find survivors, but when they did they were badly beaten and left for dead. They found very few wondering alone and afraid after escaping an attack on their homes. Leishmann seemed to be descending on the country like a ferocious tornado, leaving a path of death and obliteration in his wake.
With so much loss, Clad soon found himself the head of his own clan of emotionally and physically scarred nomads.
After months of traveling, and hiding from Leishmann’s army, Clad looked out over a familiar terrain bordered by a massive forest. His excitement grew. They had passed several small townships in the previous weeks, all untouched by Leishmann’s villainous attacks, but none able to offer more refuge than a short stay and a few crates of supplies to see them on their way. Clad felt relief at the prospect that his Uncle’s people, deep in the woodlands of Cardison, had not felt the pain and suffering his own had endured. He hoped this could be the place to settle. He planned to leave his people tucked in the safety of a nearby glen while he sought permission to build and settle on his Uncle’s land.
Clad, Arianna, and Marcel rose early to seek out his Uncle’s settlement, their hearts full of optimism. Clad scoped out several options within the safety of the forest that would suit his plans as they went. When they stepped through the trees into his uncle’s meadow two days later, his breath caught. They knew instantly their dreams of settling were crushed. Leishmann’s trademark of death welcomed them.
Many cabins stood half burnt; bodies cluttered the ground. The smell of rotting flesh clung to the air. Clad moved through the destruction, sickened by the death surrounding him. Dried blood stained the ground. Tears filled his eyes and once again he looked into the pasty faces of his kinfolk. “They were tortured!” Clad stated, attempting to control his rage and the bile rising within him. Men, women, and children lay tied to stakes their bodies displaying the suffering they endured before merciful death relieved their pain.
Clad cringed. “They used rat torture.” He looked away unable to stomach the site of the rats eating their way free from the glass box lying across the corpse of an elderly man.
“The breaking wheel!” Marcel added. Clad felt sick the moment he turned. A woman’s back was torn to shreds and she remained tied to the wagon wheel that had ripped her apart. He lost his lunch.
“Clad!” Arianna’s weak voice had him pushing his queasiness aside and rushing to her side. He cradled her head against his chest attempting to shelter her from the gory sight before them. He closed his own eyes and tried to shake the image from his mind. How he wished he could have saved his wife from the remains of the poor soul forced to endure the brutality of ‘Hanged, Drawn, and quartered.’
Clad opened his eyes and made himself look at the repulsive remains surrounding him. Leishmann had used many different forms of cruelty here. The remains of those exposed to various types of ‘Rope torture’ caught his eye. He winced. ‘The Rack’ and ‘The Tongue Tearer’ had been used as well.
The bodies seemed to be in different stages of decay. Clad wondered how many days the villagers had been forced to watch their loved ones anguish before Leishmann grew tired of his game and left them all to rot in the forest. “Stay here, I’ll look around,” Clad ordered. He kissed Arianna’s cheek softly before taking a deep breath and moving closer to the victims.
He walked slowly towards a young woman stretched against two long poles, her head bent towards the small body at her feet. Clad lifted her head and peered into the unresponsive eyes of his Aunt. Her face was stained with long-dried tears mixed with soot. Arianna followed. She took the infant into her arms and wrapped the babe in her shawl. “They bashed his head in and made her watch,” She whispered, unable to fathom such evil. Clad angrily pulled his knife and with one emotional jerk cut the ropes to break their hold on the woman. He caught the lifeless body and gently lowered her to the ground.
Clad looked at his wife’s sorrowful eyes and took the babe. He tucked the child gently into the mother’s arms and turned to his wife, unable to tell her the woman’s identity.
“Why would they do this?” Arianna asked. Clad pulled her to him, shaking his head. Over her shoulder he watched Marcel limp through the bodies searching, he knew, for her daughter. Her shoulders slumped when she spotted a familiar face stretched out between stakes. She turned toward Clad and shook her head. Clad felt a bitter pain stab deep within him. If Marcel’s son in law lay staked to the ground he feared they would find her daughter among the dead as well.
“You best be checking the rest of the village,” Marcel stated numbly as she stepped forward and took Arianna’s hand. The two women exchanged a pained look before turning to prepare the dead for the too familiar funeral. Clad watched them move to cut ropes and loosen the holds binding the dead. He took a deep breath before turning his back on them.
“I’ll find her.” He stated. He did not turn to see the tears that filled Marcel’s eyes nor the hopeless look on her face, though he knew both would be present in her expression. Clad rubbed the back of his neck, wiping away beads of sweat and walked into the first wood cabin.
These homes differed from what he was used to. Raised in Nymac, his home had been made of tall grass, mud, and thin timber. Eating utensils were made of fire roasted clay and tightly woven baskets. Furniture was rare. This small cabin, with its wood-carved bowls and furniture, would have impressed him under different circumstances.
He inspected the red splatters on the walls and dead bodies lying in dried puddles of blood until the smell of their rot made him sick. He was forced to flee the home and seek the fresh air–if you could call the scent of burnt wood and death fresh. He took a breath and turned to the next home.
After exiting the seventh hut Clad despaired of finding anyone alive. He sighed, rubbing his hand across his brow. “Are you okay?” Arianna called, concerned by the paleness in his cheeks. She took a few steps towards him, but he waved her off.
“I’m doing fine, Love,” He responded, attempting to look convincing. She nodded, but the uncertainty in her eyes said she did not believe him. He sent her a weak smile before turning to enter another cabin. He felt pride in his young wife. She was strong. After the initial shock of the village, she had raised herself up and assisted Marcel in preparing the dead in the short funeral they would provide before burning the bodies and leaving to rejoin their small group of travelers.
It was with that thought in his mind as he entered the next hut and paused, shocked. An abundance of ancient objects used for holy rituals and potions lay on tables and cupboards. Nothing looked disturbed.
“Marcel, please come,” He called out as he looked around the cottage, examining individual items closely. Both Marcel and Arianna entered the hut within moments of his call. Marcel paused, then slowly began picking up the items and turning each one gently in her hands.
“Was there a witch in the village?” Arianna asked curiously, lifting a small bundle of roots from a small table to examine them.
“One,” Clad replied, watching Marcel closely. She lifted a small necklace with a wooden pendant and examined it closely. A slight, sad smile played at her lips as she recognized the symbols etched into the locket.
“We must take whatever we can carry with us,” She said gesturing to the articles. “Arianna, wear this, love.” She walked to the younger woman and slipped the necklace over Arianna’s head. Letting it settle around her neck. “It will keep you alive, so long as you wear it.” Arianna looked at the beautifully carved wood. Delicate swirls and miniature syllables danced before her. She studied each delicate flower and twist, awed by its elegance. Her finger slowly smoothed over the wood. She breathed with pleasure at the magnificence of having such fine jewelry hanging about her neck.
“Thank you,” She breathed. Marcel nodded and turned to Clad. “Go, keep looking. There must be something here. Leishmann tortured these people for a reason. We need to find out why.” Without another word Marcel began collecting articles, placing them in piles while Arianna looked for a sack to carry them in.
Clad watched them work for a moment, regretting the choice to leave the others behind. Many hands would have been useful in gathering belongings and preparing the people for the Fire Burial. He left the women to continue his search, this time with renewed purpose kindled by the odd treatment of the Witch’s dwelling.
The house was untouched. Everything sat undisturbed. Even the full bed was perfectly made as well as the half carved cradle sitting in the corner. Why would Leishmann leave that one hut intact when every other had been torn apart? And where was Marcel’s daughter? Her body had yet to be found, but the husband’s body lay tied to the stakes outside. Clad had expected to find the woman dead in their cabin, but it was their home he had just left. A new fear had him pausing in his footsteps. Did the unfinished cradle mean Marcel’s daughter was with child? He was more determined now to find Marcel’s family and discover the purpose of Leishmann’s bizarre behavior in this village.
In the following huts more bodies lay on stained wooden floors. Many were beaten, others sliced through, and several had arrows protruding from their bodies. Clad hardened himself, anger boiling inside him. He had witnessed Leishmann’s handiwork before, but nothing to this degree. In the past most bodies were burnt within their homes leaving only the bodies left outside to care for, but here…Why had Leishmann not set all the buildings ablaze as he had in every other village he’d destroyed?
When he entered the last hut he was emotionally exhausted and all hope of finding Marcel’s family or anything of great importance no longer existed.
He stepped onto the threshold and stopped to digest what he was looking at. Contents from cupboards and drawers were thrown around the room. Anything large enough to hold anything of value was smashed and discarded. Cushions were ripped open and their stuffing scattered around the room. Every item of furniture was turned over, cut apart, or crushed to pieces. It was evident Leishmann had left no corner unsearched.
Leishmann’s army never took the time to comb through the villager’s belongings this thoroughly. “What were they looking for?” Clad asked to himself.
“He wanted the book!” A weakened voice responded. Alerted by hope, Clad looked around, trying to locate the man who spoke. In front of him lay at least half a dozen motionless bodies. He entered the hut and began examining them. “Over here,” The coarse voice called. Clad followed it to an old man lying under an upturned table. He lifted the table with little effort and in his haste sent it clattering across the room. He bent to examine the man’s many injuries, but his attentions were brushed away.
With a weakened, harsh voice he explained, “I gave them the sleeping potion and hid them.” Clad stared at the old man, confused.
The man was already half-dragging himself towards a blood stained rug and attempted to push it aside. Clad immediately knelt and flipped the edge aside to see what the man searched for; though there was nothing but floorboards beneath. Before he had a chance to wonder, Clad saw the man’s strength give out and threw out a hand to catch the elderly gentleman before his head made contact with the unforgiving floor.
The man’s eyes rotated for a few seconds before he blinked and refocused on Clad. Again he pushed Clad away and reached out to pull at a loose board on the floor. Clad watched the man’s struggle for only a moment before he hurried to take over. He removed four of the large floorboards before enough light filtered into the darkness to reveal its contents. His eyes widened. His head snapped up to lock eyes with the panting man who was smiling weakly at the sleeping babes.
A feminine gasp pulled Clad’s attention to the doorway. Arianna’s eyes were locked on the small bundles and brimming with tears. The old man looked at her, his eyes pleading, “Take them, Miss. Care for them. One day they’ll be the protectors of the chosen one.” He coughed from the effort of speaking. “Do not allow anybody to know who they are!” The last of his words came in a pained, desperate whisper. Arianna stepped forward and peered down at the two identical faces.
Both toddlers—about two years with heads full of fiery red curls—slept peacefully. In an instant she loved them. She bent to lift a small boy into her arms and looked into her husband’s eyes, tears filling her own. He gently ran a finger over the child’s soft cheek. She smiled. He had not seen her gentle smile in so long it pulled at the constant ache in his chest. He looked at the babe in her arms and then the one still slumbering in the hole. Here was life, here was hope. Husband and wife silently committed themselves to the two small children. Clad lifted the other boy and returned his wife’s gentle smile. In that moment of distraction, neither husband nor wife noticed the old man slip away into an eternal slumber.
Clad burned the old man with the rest of the villagers and took the children back to his camp. Among some of the belongings taken from the village was an old book of spells and prophesies found hidden in the compartment with the boys.
The book warned of the destruction that would come upon their villages, of an evil overtaking the world, but it also allowed reason to hope—’a child with hair of pure white who is raised in a land outside of time will save the world from whence she came’.
Clad shook his head, clearing his mind of the painful memories. He needed to concentrate on Arianna, not the past. Although, the past was very much a part of the future.