He closed his eyes, attempting to focus on anything other than the thunderous pounding. With each thump, his mind raged with unquenchable fear. Panic boiled inside him, building and overwhelming his senses. How he wished he could escape it. How he begged his eardrums to explode so he would not hear the deafening, rhythmic beating that clouded his mind. Tension built. Never before had he experienced the torturous sound of dread. He shook his head violently. Nothing could be louder than the sound of his own heartbeat drumming in his chest as anxiety swelled inside him.
A piercing scream cut through the air and forced him to cover his ears. He stood corrected.
“I can’t stand here and listen anymore. There has to be something we can do.” Another agonized shriek ripped through the village, vibrating off the trees and echoing down the valley. Animals hiding in the shadows, fearing the tormented cries, scattered to find refuge deeper in the forest. Birds perched high in their nests exploded from the treetops in fright, flapping wildly in the sky until settling on the branches once more. “She’s dying,” he whispered- hanging his head in defeat.
“Be patient child.” Clad looked down at the small thin cloth the old woman offered as though it had fangs. She waved the rag before him and after a pause he accepted it and wiped the sweat from his brow. “People have been having youngins for thousands of years. The babe will come in time and your wife will be just fine,” Marcel attempted to convince him, even as she tried to assure herself. She felt just as uneasy as the man pacing before her.
Clad’s wife had been birthing for almost twenty four hours and the labor was not progressing. Something felt terribly wrong and the chances of survival grew slim with every passing hour. Marcel studied the thick black paste in her bowl and stirred it with renewed vigor.
“What’ll you call the babe?” She attempted to coax idle conversation–for her sake as much as his– while she mixed her thick healing potions. It may have worked, but another scream pulled him deeper into his distress. She raised dark eyes to meet his suffering hazels. “Clad? The name?” She encouraged, gently.
“We haven’t decided.” He sighed, letting thick shoulders slump in despair. He turned from her penetrating, knowing, gaze and looked up at his settlement. The sun was beginning to rise, casting slight shadows. His eyes closed as he searched his mind for a distraction.
He could picture the view of the valley from his hut on the other side of the village. The dew resting on the grass blades would catch the rays of the morning sun giving the illusion of diamonds sparkling over the basin. The sun would kiss the tips of the newly budding flowers. A light breeze- softly caressing the earth- will carry its fresh sent to the villagers above. Today would be a beautiful day, if not for—he shook his head, attempting to block the rest of that thought.
Clad’s village sat on top of a secluded collection of cliffs, high above the valley floor. The small wooden huts embraced the protection of the forest behind them, even as they hid from the dangers below. Clad’s shack sat at the farthest edge of the village, resting at the cliff’s rim. He briefly wondered, as he had many times, if the village was safe enough. He sighed and opened his eye to the scene before him.
Several women sat in small circles, their backs straight as they kneaded thick dough. Several mounds sat beside them, rising in the morning air. His mouth should water in anticipation of the fresh rolls, but he lacked the appetite needed to appreciate their worth.
Men worked tirelessly, mending small shacks, chopping wood, or carrying large buckets of water for the women to use. Their clothes, worn and patched, hung from their bodies. Years of emotional and physical strain radiated off their tense, shoulders.
A young child emerged from the dark forest with a basket of berries. Her dress, mended together with several scraps of material, clung to her. It was too small, but clean. He watched her walk, her eyes alert and reflecting the hardships she had faced in her short life. She carried her berries to her mother, picked up a ratted sock doll and disappeared around the corner to play silently. Everyone was silent.
The village lacked childish laughter and gaiety. He hung his head in regret for the childhood each of the children had been denied.
The village itself was small. Four larger shacks held groups of widows and their children. Six slightly smaller huts housed his soldiers; men who were forced into the title. His hut was one of the few that housed a single family and the only one standing by the cliff’s edge. With luck he could use the position of his home to save what remained of his people.
There were not many left now, many had been murdered, others had fled to another part of the country. He thought, with sorrow, about the eighteen women and twelve children in his protection. He should have sent them someplace safer, but where could they find safety in times like these? Another scream sent chills down his spine and brought him back to the present.
His fists flew to his temples, pressing against his head. It did no good; the feelings of helplessness would not be subdued. He refocused on his men, hoping to distract himself from his turmoil.
He trained forty warriors daily for a battle they knew would find them here. They were the few left to stand against the power of a most treacherous villain. The others had already fled, unable to continue fighting the seemingly fruitless war that had cost him one family, but gained him another. His gaze again swept over the camp.
Clad looked at the tattered clothing draping the tense shoulders of the women and children. How he longed to rewind time; to go back to his youth and relish the joys and happiness of his people. Those were joyous times when his greatest worry had been finding the perfect bride. His eyes clouded as memories played the never ending scenes of his past.
Clad smiled as he watched her. Arianna. Her name tickled the tip of his tongue, begging to be released so the sound could caress his ears. She was everything he had ever dreamed of small, feminine, and beautiful. Her long blonde hair streamed down her back in soft curls. She wore a plain green dress that danced across the powdered earth as she moved. The color brought out the remarkable shade in her gentle green eyes. Her pink lips curved to reveal beautiful teeth, slightly crooked. She hung on her father’s arms as he led her forward.
Clad’s spirit soared when they paused before him and Arianna’s father placed her delicate hand in Clads large callused ones. Love shone in her eyes and his reflected the same look of adoration.
Clad reluctantly turned from her glowing radiance to present the stunning young woman to the village monarch. The old woman smiled kindly and began her practiced speech. Words surrounded him with the gift of pride and anticipation. Arianna would be his to protect for all time. He looked down at her and his world became perfect the moment he accepted this divine creature as his wife.
The celebration following the simple wedding lasted late into the night. They laughed and danced as flutes sang a salute to their love. The next morning when he woke with his bride resting peacefully on his shoulder he smiled, thinking life would never again be so perfect. He pulled her closer, knowing she was the reason for his very existence.
It was with great pride that Clad led Arianna north to present her to his family. He laughed as she questioned him.
“Will they like me?” He gently kissed her and reassured her of the love and devotion his parents would shower her with. He looked back to the small group of men who completed their caravan and encouraged them with his eyes to confirm his words. They did not hesitate. Arianna delighted him with her purest smile and thanked him with a light kiss.
It took a week to reach the small hill bordering Clads home. Excitement coursed through him when he saw the smoke floating to the sky and licked his lips in anticipation of the feast that would welcome him and his new wife. As they climbed the slight incline he chuckled when a childhood memory filled his mind.
“What’s so funny?” Arianna asked. Clad looked at her quizzical anticipation and momentarily debated if he should share with her the secrets of his past.
“If I tell you I am afraid you will never look at me the same again.” She raised a brow and her eyes widened. Clad couldn’t help but wrap his arm around her, pull her near, and kiss away the sudden worry reflecting from her innocent emerald eyes.
“I was a different lad in my youth; quite mischievous in fact. I fear I felt the sting of a switch one too many times as well as gained incredible amounts of experience in numerous chores around our village.” Arianna smiled at the teasing in his voice.
“And this is why you chuckle?” He grinned and nodded his response. “You have intrigued me. It may be best if you tell me what I can expect if we are to have sons of our own someday.” She gazed up at him shyly and it took all his willpower to continue climbing the hill and not whisk her away to work on the suggested task. He cleared his throat and looked at her soberly.
“When I was a much, much younger man my best friend, Mac, and I stole one of Marcel’s potions!” Clad maintained a serious expression though he knew by Arianna’s sputtered gasp and the sudden light in her eyes she was imagining two youngsters sneaking into the witch’s hut to take a vial of liquid for some naughty intention.
“What did you do with it?” She attempted to compose a stern look, but failed miserably.
“Do you remember the old man I told you about the other day that was grumpy as a badger?” She nodded. “Well, Old Man Shace used to get these bad aches in his back and feet. Marcel had made him a cream that he would rub on the sore spots a few times a day.
“Mac and I had no idea what the cream we stole would do so we decided to trade out Shace’s cream with the one we took.”
“You didn’t?” Arianna had to cover her mouth to hide her grin. Clad gently pulled her hand away and lightly ran a finger over the side of her mouth and watched her breath catch.
“We did!” He pulled her to a rock and sat her down so he could tell her the rest of the story. They were only a short way from the top of the hill and if they continued, he would be unable to finish the tale. His family could wait a few more minutes before meeting his new bride. He signaled for the men to take a break and sat beside Arianna.
“Mac and I waited until the next morning for Old Man Shace to go work in the gardens. When we were sure we would not be caught we snuck into his shack and found the cream Marcel had made for him. We scraped the goo into a bowl we found in his cooking chest and replaced it with the cream we had taken from Marcel’s hut.
“We ran from the tent like Sorchanna herself was chasing after us with the switch to beat us with.” Clad shook his head at the thought of the Great Goddess coming down to punish him with a whipping stick.
“It would be Melek, God of the underworld, who would be chasing you, not to spank you, but to pull you into Purgatory for your sinful deeds,” Arianna corrected with a gleam in her eyes.
“Indeed, I believe you may be right, Love.” He tweaked her nose and continued his tale. “We watched from behind a nearby shack until Old Man Shace returned from the fields to take his afternoon break. When he disappeared inside we ran across the path to the side of his home to watch from the window.
“Shace was just pulling the cream from the shelf when we poked our heads over the windowsill.” Clad chuckled again and his voice almost squeaked with mirth when he continued. “He rubbed that cream all over his back, groaning the whole time. When he pulled up a chair to sit on, Mac and I were struggling to keep our laughter at bay.
“Shace pulled his foot over his opposite leg and began kneading the cream into the arches of his foot. At that point, I’ll admit I was the first to make a sound. Both Mac and I ducked our heads just as the old man’s keen eyes darted to the window. We heard the chair scrape and knew he was coming for us. That’s when the fun began.” Clad pumped his eyebrows.
“Did he catch you then?” Arianna asked when Clad did not continue right away. She watched with impatience as he broke off a piece of wheat grass and stuck it in his mouth. He chewed on it for a few moments without saying a word. When he was sure his wife would explode with curiosity he finally spoke again.
“He began to swear. That’s what made Mac and I peek through the window again. He was studying the cream suspiciously and at the same time reached for a towel. Mac and I about burst when he lifted the bowl of cream to his nose then flinched at the sweet scent.
“Shace whipped the towel from the shelf and began rubbing it against his back furiously while advancing on the two pesky faces laughing at him from the window. ‘What did you do?’ he yelled then froze.
“Oh Arianna, I can’t tell you how amazing it was to watch his expression transform from the look of death to cold fear. His face turned white, his eyes widened, and you could visibly see the sweat begin pouring over his brow. He looked at the cream, looked at us then dropped the canister on the ground. I am positive he had no idea what he was doing for several moments, because he reached up and wiped his hand over his forehead like he was attempting to force himself to think of a solution.
“When he realized what he was doing he yelped and sprang into action. He darted from the shack and ran to the stream. I bet that was the best bath he’d had in months. Mac and I were laughing so hard it attracted several of the villagers, including Marcel and my father. I tell you one thing’s for sure; one look from my old man sobered us two boys faster than anything I could ever imagine.
“After Shace finally finished scrubbing the lotion from his skin he stormed out of the water, took Mac and I by the ears and led us back to his shack. Everyone in attendance followed close by so Shace had no qualms about leaving us outside while he went in to retrieve the bowl of cream. He stepped out of his home and towered over Mac and me. I swear I have never seen a person look so tall and forbidding.”
“He handed Marcel the bowl and asked her what it was. You know what she said? ‘So this is what happened to the hair growing tonic I made for Grism.” Clad’s laughter echoed off the rocks and over the grass. Arianna’s eyes watered in response to her own intense merriment.
“Mac and I had to do extra chores for over a month, but it was worth the sore muscles every time we walked past Old Man Shace’s hut and there he was standing outside scowling at his wife as she shaved his back, forehead, and foot.”
“Oh Clad, will I ever be able to handle raising sons?” Arianna laughed.
“Well, My Sweet, you are quite lucky to have me for their father. I know all the tricks and played all the pranks possible. I will be able to stop their mischief before it starts.”
“That or you’ll teach them all the tricks you know and watch as they show you how to do them better!” Clad looked up as Mitch approached them.
“I hope not”, Arianna responded to the intruder with a smile of welcome as he squatted before her and Clad.
“I remember that day as being one of the best days of my life. I was a few years younger than Mac and Clad, but I watched every prank they played over the years. They were heroes for every boy in the village. None of us had the courage to do what they did. After I got older they let me start participating…”
“By participating he means we sent him around doing our dirty work,” Clad offered, Mitch chuckled.
“Yeah, but I didn’t catch on to that until we were much older and I realized I was getting into trouble more than you were, but man it was worth it. We started traveling shortly after we turned twenty summers and became traders. Mac met Sarah on one of our excursions and that was the end of his youthful blunders. I guess now that Clad’s found you he’s going to become a dreadful bore.” Clad kicked Mitch’s legs out from under him causing the younger man to topple over.
“Overly touchy. Must be the truth of it then,” Mitch chuckled as he stood and offered his hand to Clad. “If story time is over, I’m a bit anxious to see if a certain lady friend of mine is still single and awaiting my return. We’ll have plenty of time to reminisce of the old days over a fire tonight.” He winked at Arianna and helped Clad to his feet.
“ Come, My Love, I am sure Mac would want to tell you all the lies he can tonight.” Clad offered both hands to assist his wife to her feet. She smiled into his eyes and rose onto her toes to kiss his cheek.
“I look forward to hearing more about your childhood.”
“Here, let me tell you some other things I believe you should know about this love struck block head,” Mitch offered his arm, which Arianna readily accepted. “Did Clad tell you how he caught two cats by the tail, strung them together and threw them over Lady Saundra’s clothes line? They fought against each other for a good fifteen minutes before the old lady found and rescued them. What was your penance for that one?” Mitch asked over his shoulder. Clad shook his head and winked at his wife.
“I plead not guilty,” Clad stated as he passed his wife and friend to breach the hill.
“Bogus! You thought it was the best trick in the…” Mitch’s words caught in his throat and he all but choked on the horror in front of them. Clad heard the sharp intake of breath to his side. It was his concern for his gentle wife that forced him to tear his eyes from the scene before him and look into her panicked face.
Her green eyes instantly filled with tears and her hand flew to cover the scream that escaped her. When she stumbled, Clad caught her against him, turning her head into his shoulder to shield her from the sight that greeted them.
Clad looked down on his father’s village and for the first time in his life felt the freezing hand of bitter loss.
The smoke they had seen rising above the hills were not the friendly cooking fires he’d expected, but the remains of a massive fire. Smoldering piles of ash was all that remained of the grass homes. Bodies of family and friends lay scattered motionless across the blackened earth. After several moments of staring blindly at the remains, Clad needed answers to the questions racing through his mind.
“Take her!” He commanded and encouraged Arianna into Mitch’s waiting arms. “Please?” Mitch nodded and Clad knew his friend would care for Arianna while he searched the village.
Clad rushed down the hill and into the burnt remains, leaving Arianna and his men staring after him. Frantically he searched for survivors, but he soon realized he sought in vain. With despair waging a war with his emotions he forced himself to begin searching the dead for those he loved the most.
He neared a pile of ash and his chest began to burn with a pain so intense he gasped for air. He couldn’t bear to look, yet couldn’t force his eyes away from the familiar figure lying in front of a burnt hut. The man lay lifeless, his arm stretched out to the burnt shack before him. Clad fought against the tears, but they still sprung. He could well imagine the scene in front of him. Images played in his mind as though he had been here to witness it.
He pictured the man running across the village, attempting to reach the woman and infant inside. Their tortured screams echoed in the silence as Clad imagined the man’s desperation to remove the inhabitants from the burning walls. Several arrows to the back put an end to the man’s act of heroism. He had fallen only inches from his home. Clad looked at the blackened hand that lay in the burnt cinders.
“He’d almost made it,” He stated to himself and shifted his gaze to the two lumps hidden within the ashes. Mac and his family were a loss Clad would feel until his dying day. Unable to look at the bodies any longer he turned his attention to the center of the village.
Clad moved slowly through the charcoal feeling lost and alone. A strange numbness began to fill him, but a gripping dread stopped him from racing forward. He knew he needed to see with his own eyes, but could not bear the thought of looking into the lifeless faces of his own family.
He walked, one pained step at a time, towards his father’s home. He moved around a lifeless youth, focusing on one dreadful task at a time, until a familiar colored cloth caught his attention. It beckoned him forward until he stood over a small, still body. Choking on a sob, he sank to his knees.
Arianna found Clad after the others saw her safely down the hillside. His back faced her as he rocked back and forth, folded in on himself. She slowly approached him. “Clad?” She asked softly and placed a tender hand on his shoulder. He shifted and she gasped. Cradled on his shoulder, lay the small grey face of a child.
“She was only six years old,” his voice cracked. Arianna’s hands flew to her mouth to smother her cry of horror. She sank beside him. Her eyes never left the small face, smudged with soot and dried blood. Clad began rocking the little girl again. Minutes passed in silence. Finally, Arianna reached out and touched the child’s sandy hair with trembling fingers.
“I brought this material back from my last excursion.” His fingers rubbed the sage material, fingering the fine purple flowers embroidered into the hem. “She had begged me to take her with me on this trip. She was such an adventurous little sprout.” Clad looked into the petite face and shuddered. “This is my fault. I should have been here!” Tears fell from his eyes, washing spots of ash from the child’s innocent flesh. He fought with his raging emotions.
He remembered the day he had left. She had wept before him after he refused her request to take her on his new adventure. Wiping her tears, he’d promised to bring her back a fine gift. He thought of the wooden doll with the painted face and pale pink dress tucked safely in the hand cart. She would never get to play with it.
“You could not have stopped this. NO one could,” Arianna soothed, “You only would have joined them in death.” Her hand moved to his cheek. “Clad, this is not your fault.” He looked at her then, the sorrow in his eyes tearing her up inside.
“CLAD!” Mitch cried out urgently, breaking through the cloud of grief surrounding the young couple. “Come quickly, Tony found Marcel.” Clad took a deep breath and smoothed the girls hair off her forehead. He brushed his lips over her soft, cold cheek and laid her tenderly on the ground, away from the bloody deathbed he’d found her in. He stood and removed his jacket. Gently he covered the small body and drew in a deep breath.
He was unaware of how long he watched the small body, praying she would suddenly suck life back into her lungs. More than anything he wished she would stand, call his name out, run into his arms, and hold his neck as she had done since the day she was able to take her first steps.
Clad closed his eyes and fought against the image now sketched into his mind and attempted to picture the vibrant child as she had been. Her larger than life smile brightened the day and her eyes had danced with merriment and mischief. That was how he wanted to remember this child that he loved more than life. With a heavy sigh he stood and silently offered his wife a hand. Then, reluctantly, he turned his back on his baby sister.
Together they walked past the bloody bodies littering the ground. Arianna tried desperately not to look at their stone cold faces as they passed, but it was no use. The dead refused to be ignored and beckoned her to look into their hollow eyes. Clad’s hand tightened on hers, offering comfort and providing strength.
Across the village Clad saw Tony carrying a limp body in his arms. The woman’s embroidered under gown told the story of wisdom. The rough spun over dress, which loosely draped her like a large tent, clearly stated she was elderly. The green stained sash she wore made Arianna gasp. It was the sash of honor. Arianna knew in that moment the identity of the old woman.
Marcel. She was known to all in the land as the Great Witch of Danyon. She was highly respected and dearly cherished. Though Clad had told Arianna many things about the old witch he had failed to mention her by the honor she had been given. Many monarchs had changed their name to Marcel, but only one-this one- wore the sash of Sorchanna.
Her white hair was painted with dried blood and her arm hung limp, flapping in harmony with every step Tony made. Clad dropped Arianna’s hand and ran to assist the smaller chap in lowering the woman to the ground. “Arianna, stay back!” Clad ordered, but she could not force her feet to remain still. She closed the space between her and the trio in just a few steps.
Clad placed his head against the old woman’s chest, relieved to hear the faint heart beats and shallow breathing. The old witch barely lived.
Arianna looked at the swollen, shredded face and sucked in a quick breath. The old woman was unrecognizable as a human being. Clad heard his wife retch and turned in time to see her double over. He was on his feet in a flash. “Marcel Lives, although barely, bandage her and for the love of all things, clean her up,” He commanded his men as he caught his wife up in his arms. She slumped against him. “See if any of her potions remain. Especially look for her healing sauce. She will need its power.” Clad knew he was asking the impossible of his men- there was nothing left to find- but he could not bear the thought of allowing the witch to die.
Clad carried Arianna’s unconscious body to the safety of the nearby stream. “Sorchanna, mother of life, Goddess of Danyon, I beg you. Please let the old woman live,” he laid his wife on the soft grass, “and provide my wife with the strength to deal with all she has witnessed this day.” Clad appointed a man to guard Arianna and squared his shoulders. He looked upon his wife’s resting body before turning to reenter the ashes of his village.