The meadow was peaceful, perhaps the most peaceful place in all of Whittam. It was one of the few places where flowers grew undisturbed. Cradled by woods on two sides and the town of Onitach to the East, Blaze considered it the ideal place to go to be alone. The summer breeze would catch his hair and toss it into the wind along with the fragrance of the blossoms around. It was beautiful. It was silent.
Well, almost silent.
“Blaze! You can’t hide forever!” The high-pitched squeal filled the quiet meadow.
A flock of birds retreated to the nearby trees and a thousand butterflies took to the air as a pair of small feet belonging to a young girl ran through the tall grass. Had she been paying attention, she may have stopped to gaze in wonder as the colorful wings filled the sky. But she was not paying attention to the sky; she was looking for him, and it didn’t appear she planned to give up anytime soon.
She stopped for a moment and planted her chubby fingers, all balled up in fists, on her small hips.
“Blaze, come on. Let me win this time at least.” Her lower lip stuck out in a pout and her hands went up from her sides to her chest where she crossed them defiantly.
She gazed across the wide expanse of the meadow, looking for some sign that Blaze had heard her. A small mop of black hair peaked above the grass a small distance away. Her face lit up in excitement as she pointed to the messy hair.
“I found you!” she squealed in absolute delight. Blaze stood up out of the grass and stuck his tongue out at her.
“Only because it’s your birthday. If it was any other day, I wouldn’t be so nice.” He shook his head at her. She started running toward him, her little feet taking small, quick steps in his direction. A mischievous grin appeared on his face as she grew closer.
“You may have found me, but you still have to catch me!” he said before taking off deeper into the meadow. The little girl slowed for a moment, shocked that her friend would leave her like that.
“Not fair!” she yelled after him as she started running again. She balled up her hands and pumped her legs as fast as she could.
Blaze, growing tired of the chase, slowed down to a stop.
“I got you!” The girl latched onto his sleeve, her face breaking out into a smile again.
Blaze blew the unruly hair out of his eyes.
“Only because I let you. You’re too little, Catrice. You’ll never catch me by yourself.”
“Nuh uh! You’re only seven, Blaze, so you’re still little too.” Her bottom limp fell back out into the familiar pout.
“But not as little as you. Four-year-old girls are really little.” He tapped her on the head to emphasize his point. She smacked his hand away as if it were a bothersome fly.
“Five. I’m five now, Blaze.” She nodded her head and glared at him, holding up five stubby fingers in his face to emphasize her own point.
“Whatever. You’re still a girl and you’re still little…” The same mischievous grin appeared on his face. “And you still can’t catch me!”
He took off again, avoiding Catrice’s grasp and laughing over his shoulder.
“Blaze!” Come back!” Catrice ran after him once more.
Their chase wound through the tall grass of the meadow. Two best friends caught in the innocence of childhood.
Loud bells broke through the silence in the valley and Blaze skidded to a dead halt. Catrice promptly ran into him and fell back into the grass. Blaze’s gaze shifted toward the village where he saw the large bell in the town hall’s steeple fly back and forth, sending a deep clang throughout the meadow with every swing. He looked down at Catrice and helped her stand up.
“It’s time to go, Catrice.” He grabbed her hand and took off toward the village.
Catrice struggled to keep up; he could hear her quick, labored breaths behind him. He slowed to a jog, but kept a hard gaze on the village ahead. The bell could mean many different things, not all of them good. His father had taught him that at a young age, and his words were ones that Blaze would never forget.
“Take care of your brother, Blaze, especially when the bell rings. I’ll be back soon.”
Those were the last words his father had said to him. His father had left two years ago. He had never come back, and no one would tell Blaze why.
As they approached the village, Blaze slowed to give Catrice a moment to breathe. The gate-keeper beckoned them inside from atop his watch tower. His urgent gestures confirmed Blaze’s fear that this was one of the times his father had warned about. He had to find his brother.
Blaze ushered Catrice through the large wooden doors that stood out along the tall, stone walls surrounding the village. Her mother, Lady Vivian, waited on the other side and rushed toward her, taking Catrice up in her arms and hugging her tightly. Her elegant blue robes flowed around the child as she planted a relieved kiss into the mess of curly brown hair. Blaze looked away from the loving scene and back to the meadow.
The gates slowly began to close and Blaze could see the sun begin to set over the horizon. His gaze stayed on that horizon as the doors came closer together. He caught the last glimpse of the meadow through the opening; a horse stepped up onto the hill at the edge of the valley. The rider on its back was covered in dark armor and held a sword in the air. The evening light reflected off the weapon as its long shadow fell over the tall grass. Blaze was so caught up in how beautiful the picture was that he didn’t hear the bells resume their warning. They began to ring as the horizon filled with soldiers drawing their swords and advancing upon his village.
“Blaze, get back now!” Vivian screamed before grabbing Blaze’s shirt and pulling him away from the gate.
It closed with an echoing thud, momentarily drowning out the thundering footsteps of the approaching horde. The village fell into organized chaos. Men prepared to protect their families, running to the wall while carrying swords and bows to defend their home. Women ran from house to house, packing their few belongings and accounting for their children. Vivian grabbed Blaze’s arm with her free hand as Catrice buried her head into her other shoulder. She started down the main cobblestone road toward her house. She had to make sure Catrice was safe before taking care of Blaze.
Vivian’s ears ached as the unsetting clang of the village bell grew louder in the center of town. The tall, sturdy stone walls of her house matched that of the townhall beside it and stood out from the surrounding wooden buildings as they approached, but the comfort her home normally provided was gone as Vivian wrapped her arm a little tighter around her daughter.
She opened the front door quickly and pushed Blaze inside before stepping in herself. She glanced outside, watching the hurried and scared people - her people - run through town. She shut the door soundly and choked back tears. For once, she could do nothing to help them.
Lord Marcus entered the room and wrapped his arms around his wife. His presence brought a measure of calm to her anxious heart. For a moment, she allowed herself to rest against his side, letting his warm embrace and familiar scent of worn leather and charred pinewood wash over her. His heartbeat sounded in her ears and drowned out the chaos outside.
“It’s happening?” he asked her worriedly.
The moment shattered as she was jerked back into reality. She took a deep breath in and looked down.
“Yes. They’re coming and we don’t have much time. We have to leave.”
Marcus shook his head. “I have to stay here with the village, but you and Catrice must go.”
Vivian closed her eyes and blinked back more tears. A shaky breath escaped her mouth. “No. I can’t leave you.”
Marcus leaned back and smiled down at his wife. He brushed a stray lock of her brown hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. Catrice whimpered into her mother’s shoulder and Marcus patted his young daughter’s head. He was trying to be strong, but Vivian could see the pain behind his eyes.
“You have to. It’s me he’s after, not you or our daughter. We’ll fend them off and I’ll send for you when it’s safe.”
Vivian swallowed her husband’s words. “Do you promise?”
Marcus chuckled and leaned in close to his wife, kissing her forehead softly. “I promise.”
Vivian closed her eyes and nodded, not wanting to leave her husband, but knowing that it was the best thing for both her and Catrice. She placed Catrice on the ground and started packing a small bag. The sound of her husband’s sword sliding into his sheath sent chills down her spine. He opened the door and paused, as if he was second-guessing his decision to stay and Vivian’s heart leapt in her chest. A shout sounded from the front gate and Vivian watched as the steel gaze of determination settled into her husband’s eyes. Without another word, he walked out the door. The tears flowed freely now, and she tried to push away the voices that told her that would be her last memory of him.
Catrice’s quiet whimpers reached Vivian’s ears again and she turned to see Blaze hugging her daughter. This could be the last day they would see each other. Wiping away her tears, she swung the bag over her shoulder, lifted Catrice into her arms, and rushed out into the bustling street.
Vivian crossed the dusty street quickly. She had to reach Blaze’s house and leave before the soldiers breached the gate. Blaze’s small, wooden home soon came into view and she quickened her pace. The familiar face of Blaze’s aunt, Diana, appeared in the window and she opened the door for them. Diana ushered Blaze inside and Vivian saw little Izzak hiding behind his aunt. Blaze ran toward his brother and hugged him as if he hadn’t seen him in years. Vivian forced a tight smile to Diana and she stepped out of the way so the mother and daughter could step inside. Diana shut the door behind them and locked it before facing Vivian.
“He’s here?” she asked in a hushed voice. Vivian nodded.
“We thought we would have more time. We didn’t think he would win over the support of the council this quickly, but it seems he’s always one step ahead of us.” She sighed and wrung her hands together.
“Where’s Marcus?” Diana peaked out the window worriedly.
Vivian shook her head. “He went to the front. I had hoped he would leave with us but…” her words were cut short as a sob threatened to break through.
Diana rested her hand on Vivian’s arm. “I’m so sorry…”
Vivian’s gaze shifted over to where Catrice was playing with Blaze and Izzak in front of the fireplace, completely oblivious to how much her little world was about to be torn apart. She was too young. Too innocent.
“You have to go. He’ll be looking for your family. Marcus won’t be enough for him.” Diana’s voice pulled Vivian out of her thoughts and she nodded again.
“I know. That’s why I’ve come to you. Do you still have that brown mare in the back?” Vivian asked. Diana’s brow furrowed together as she thought.
“Mabel? Yes, but she’s an old thing, M’lady. She won’t do you any good against trained war horses.”
“I know, but we just need to put enough time between his soldiers and us. Your horse has grown up walking these woods and knows the paths better than any of us do, and all of ours will be needed for the fight. Please, may we take her?” Vivian looked into Diana’s blue eyes and pleaded.
Diana looked away from her friend and nodded. “Of course you can. I’m just worried she won’t be fast enough to save you.”
“She’ll have to be.” Vivian took Diana into her arms and hugged her tightly. “Thank you, old friend,” she whispered into her ear.
Diana’s arms wrapped around Vivian’s back as her eyes filled with tears. “Be safe, Vivian. May the Creator protect you.”
Vivian stepped back and blinked away her own tears. She turned to Catrice and adjusted the pack on her shoulder. “Come, Catrice. It’s time to go.”
Catrice looked up from her games with Blaze and shook her head. “I don’t want to go. I want to stay here with Blaze and daddy.”
Vivian closed her eyes and swallowed back a sob. “We’ll see them again soon. Now we must go.”
She hurried over and grabbed Catrice’s hand. A loud crash sounded from the direction of the front gate. Screams could now be heard in that direction and she knew they had little time. They ran out the back door toward a small, fenced in barn. She turned behind her to see Blaze and Izzak watching them through the back window. Diana was no doubt inside preparing for them to leave.
Vivian located the saddle quickly after she entered the barn and untied the old mare from her post. She threw the saddle over the mare’s back and could hear the crackling of fire somewhere near the front gate. Hasty movements grew clumsy as she tried to saddle the horse. After what felt like forever, she tightened the last strap and placed Catrice on Mabel’s back.
A loud crash from behind them caused her to whip around. Flames roared nearby. The thatch roof of Diana’s house was ablaze and produced thick black smoke from the burning tar. Broken baskets and a fallen tree blocked the door. Vivian’s heart caught in her throat as she saw Blaze through the window: they hadn’t made it out. She started toward the house, but Diana’s face appeared in the window, stopping her. She was shouting at her and pointing to the woods. She wanted Vivian to go.
A tear slid down Vivian’s cheek and she nodded. She placed her foot in the stirrup and swung her other leg over Mabel’s back. Catrice sat in front of her, paralyzed by fear and holding on the saddle with a death grip. Vivian pulled the reins up and kicked the horse’s flank.
“Come on, girl. Get us out of here,” she whispered to the horse before tightening her grip on the reins. She kicked its flank again and it took off through the barn door and over the small fence.
She didn’t look back. She knew if she did, she wouldn’t be able to continue forward. Mabel leapt into the street and galloped toward the back gate. Vivian could hear steel clash against steel as the fighting behind her intensified, but she kept her eyes set straight ahead. The back gate was propped open slightly and she hoped they could make it through without hitting anything. People ran in every direction and Vivian tried desperately to avoid all of them. The gate approached and she heard a scream behind her.
She shouldn’t have looked back, but she did.
There he was, on top of the watchtower, standing up straight and holding his sword in the air. He was clad all in black and a mask covered his face, but she knew who he was, and what he was capable of doing. He looked over the burning village before turning in their direction and locking eyes on her. Slowly, he lowered his sword toward her, as if making a silent promise that he would find them.
Vivian tore her gaze away and ducked as they ran through the back gate. The doors flew wide open and she urged Mabel to run into the woods. The darkness of the forest enveloped them and Vivian breathed a sigh of relief. They were safe… for now.
She only wondered how long that would last.