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Chapter 12

“C..c...Colonel?” a tiny voice stuttered from behind Wes. The man turned around, and there stood Sam, a messy heap with a suit jacket and tie on over striped, flannel pajamas. He extended a piece of paper slightly to the left of Wes. Wes reached out and grabbed it from the boy.

“Who sent this?” Wes asked, unfolding the sheet, giving it a cursory scan.

“Um, one of your soldiers, he saw me, I was walking by, wandering really. I didn’t know where to go, I kept close to our men, but...”

“Don’t worry about it, Sam, just being lazy, it’s from Davey. Glad to see he still signs his notes with such penmanship even in times of crisis.”

“What? You don’t, sir?” Sam gasped, a hint of shock in his voice; though he always maintained enough decorum to sound neutral on any situation.

“Eh, it’s chicken scratch in the best of times.” Wes turned to the smaller man in front of him once more, surprised that he was holding up so well. Wes assumed Sam would turn into a puddle of nerves at the first sign of danger, but barely a whisper of fear was emanating from him. There before Wes stood reliable, bumbling Sam, ready to be of service. Wes now understood why the king valued Sam as such an able aide. He was dedicated to his position, rain, shine or war. Nothing could stop him from doing his job, except for his own innate neuroses.

“Where are your glasses, Sam?” Wes queried, noticing they were absent from his face.

“Oh those, as you say, sir, no time. Well, there was time, but in the ruckus they fell from my face and someone stepped on them. I didn’t have time to get one of my spare pairs. They were...the fire and all, sir. I imagine they won’t survive, sir. But, of course, not of concern when one considers the great losses.”

Wes nodded, wasn’t sure if Sam could even see that. “Then you stay close to me. Don’t want you wandering off again.”

“If it’s no bother, sir, I mean, that is, I don’t need a nanny or...”

“Do I look like a nanny?” Wes demanded charitably. Sam’s eyes dropped.

“No, of course not, sir, you look, well, just like a colonel, sir. Well, if I could see, I mean, you always look and I was just saying, that, I, uh, well...”

“It’s fine Sam, I was joking. We’ll see if in the time you spend with me, we can’t teach you a little sense of humor.”

Sam nodded anxiously. “Oh, I would very much like that, sir.”

Wes clapped him on the back and reread David’s note. Time was coming for action, real action. Wes had never felt readier. He watched his men busy themselves, eager to perform their duty. He swelled with pride at his boys.

“Don’t happen to have a pen on you? About time to alert Davey that it’s a go.”

Sam nodded vigorously, “Of course, sir. Never step a foot out my room without an arsenal.” He opened a lapel of his suit jacket to reveal seven, gleaming silver pens lined up in a row in his inside pocket.

“Can always rely on you,” Wes noted. He grabbed one and started to write a note back to David, missing the beaming smile that had crossed Sam’s lips. You could always rely on him.

*

Noirah slipped and dropped the flashlight. It went out. She cursed and blindly groped about for it in the wetness beneath her feet. She found it and flicked the switch. Nothing. She hit it against her palm a couple times. It flickered, but the flashlight had given up hope on their hopeless circumstances.

“Wonderful. This is so wonderful,” Noirah grumbled. She sank down to a squat, covering the back of her head with her hands.

Felicity dug out the candle from her pocket with the matches. The match flashed alive, illuminating her face. She lit the candle, shook out the match and looked down at the huddled ball of Noirah on the ground. Felicity sat down against the wall near to her.

“We’re going to die,” Noirah moaned. The sentiment which had been there from the beginning of that night finally came to fruition.

“No, we won’t,” Felicity disputed in a mute tone. Both her voice and her stance, with her knees hugged closely to her chest, expressed otherwise. The situation was growing steadily direr. Noirah watched as her half empty glass slowly drained away to nothing. Her pessimism relished in its rightness: life was but a struggle towards nothing, just gloom to nothingness. The idea had always made her sad, but the fact that she was right counterbalanced it in a magnificent manner.

“How do you do that? How do you stay so blissfully ignorant when everything in life is telling you that you’re wrong?”

“I’m not ignorant, Noirah,” Felicity answered softly, sadly. The flame danced as another light draft passed by them. Felicity watched mesmerized. “I just can’t give up. If I let all this darkness consume me, if I realize that I’m sitting in the halls of my home as it burns, that my family and friends might be dead, that some maniacs outside of these walls are hunting for me, I’m not going to be able to keep going. When things are this bad, I have to keep positive.”

“Really?” Noirah turned her head and glared at Felicity incredulously. “Do you always have to win?” she begged pitifully, “If things are bad for me, they’re worse for you. I was tossed out of my life, but your house catches fire. Can’t you just let me have this? Let me have a worse life? Isn’t it enough that you have the perfect family, thousands of adoring fans, the perfect little face, Kyle? Can’t you leave me anything?” she choked out. Her tired, stressed psyche removed the veil of her usual sarcasm to show the thoughts that Noirah was ashamed to have.

“Is that what this is? You’re jealous?” Felicity answered shocked.

“Of course I am!” Noirah cried out. “Do you know what it was like being your friend? Hearing people ask why you chose me out of all the better options? To hear my mother ask why I couldn’t be more like you? Hear her bemoan that she got me and not you. Watch everyone flock around you.” Noirah stood up and faced the wall. She couldn’t look at the princess, “And then I brought Kyle and he was mine. He was my friend and he meets you and it’s love at first sight and suddenly I don’t matter anymore, just like always. Because you get everything.” She dug her palms into her eyes. “It’d be nice to have one person who liked me best.” She felt the night choking her. “If we both die tonight, the world will mourn you. You’ll get a monument, a holiday. And me? I’ll garner a snicker, a ‘thank god, she’s gone’, ‘she had it coming.’ Until that stops and I drift away and become nothing at all.”

Felicity remained silent. She watched Noirah’s shoulders rise and fall with every breath in the glow of the candle. She thought she could see Noirah’s face in the shadow on the wall.

“I liked you best,” Felicity said after some time. Her hand flinched as some wax dripped on her skin.

“Then why weren’t you there?” Noirah turned. Her eyes glowed in the mask of her shadowed face. “Why didn’t you come?”

“Because I was sixteen,” Felicity answered, “I was sixteen and I was angry. I wanted to hurt you. Because I was mad at you and myself and my father and everyone and I thought that I’d have tomorrow and what was I going to say to you?”

“That you were sorry!” Noirah cried desperately. She caught herself from sinking further. “You were my best friend, Lissy. I always thought that one day you and I would be running this place. And then I wake up one morning and I don’t have anything and I don’t have you and you were the one thing that I always thought that I’d have. I kept looking around for you and you weren’t there. You weren’t there and I was alone.”

“I was watching from my window.”

“How noble of you.” Noirah kicked at the ground and watched a pebble fly up and nearly hit Felicity in the head. That was enough to spark Felicity to life.

“You weren’t perfect either,” she snapped.

“I didn’t think I had to be.”

“I didn’t mean it like that, Noirah.” Felicity also rose to her feet and leaned into Noirah. The flame held equidistant between the two, flickering dangerously close to their faces. “It wasn’t easy being friends with you either. Always excusing your behavior when you said something offensive or rude, things which you don’t feel the need to apologize for because you’re a Tillard. The fits you’d get into. Trying to navigate my way between being your friend and friends with everyone else whom you hated. You never tried, so I had to work twice as hard!”

“I’m so sorry, princess. I’m sorry rainbows don’t burst from my mouth when I open it. I’m sorry that I don’t wake up in the morning and feel a song in my heart. I’m sorry that I’m me and not you. You and your stupid, perfect family and house, hell, palace and everything, everything you have! Your life was a storybook. If I could have touched all of that just once and left all my problems – ”

“You’re not the only one with problems! But mine never mattered because they were never as terrible as your parents or whatever else it was that plagued you. I have problems, too. I’m sorry if that intruded on your need for self-pity.” She paused. If tonight they were going to be honest, if that’s what Noirah wanted, then Felicity could be. She might never get the chance to get this secret outside of herself, to stop its infection of her body. Maybe it was the last time she’d get to talk to her friend like a friend, even if it was only pretend. A one night performance.

“They took my mom. Those people out there, I think. They took her and destroyed her body and her spirit.” Felicity began bluntly. Noirah’s face froze and Felicity continued, “They took her and I listened to it in the woods for hours. I listened to her cry and yell and then they took her for over a week and were monsters to her. They tortured her; they…did things. She’s missing a finger now. We never found it. But they took more and we never found that when we found her. Well, Peter did. Peter was out in the forest with Mac, they were climbing trees and she was wandering around with nothing on, bleeding and mumbling. Peter ran up to her and she shoved him aside. He was with me when she left too. He doesn’t talk much anymore. I can’t imagine what’s in his head.” Felicity’s hands shook; the flame jumped. She stared at it because she couldn’t look at Noirah. “When it happened, the first thing I did was rush into your room. I knew that you weren’t there, but I felt safe in your bed.” She wiped her eyes with her free hand, “All I wanted to do was share this with you because you always made reality more bearable. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep lying and pretending that everything’s okay. I’m cracking because I’m eighteen, and I have to be perfect for everyone and I always have to smile and be happy and cheerful and Felicity and sometimes I want to tear my flesh off and walk around as a skeleton. I want to walk into the lake and live underwater.” She took a breath and held Noirah’s eyes. A small smile crept onto her face, “It’s been nice having you here, even if we aren’t friends. I’ve gotten to be ugly in front of you and people don’t judge me for it.”

“You were always ugly to me,” Noirah teased. They both stood unsure of where their friendship stood. Noirah had been friends, best friends, with this girl from before she could remember. Who would have thought one little fight could have ruined it? No, not one little fight. Oh, maybe that was right. More like one little fight which sparked a whole chain of events that led to the present state of affairs or vice versa. Isn’t that always the way: the inconsequential wreaks havoc on the larger picture in ways which no one could predict? They let it happen, Noirah thought. All it would have taken was one ‘I’m sorry’ early on but they both opted not. As Noirah looked at Felicity, she realized that she ached for her. She was still angry and she wasn’t sorry, but she wanted her back. She didn’t want her anger to cause what others’ anger brought tonight.

“I guess you best me again, then,” Noirah commented.

“I don’t know. At least I had my mom for most my life; regardless of what happens, I had that. You had your mom. It’s a wonder you turned out as well as you did,” Felicity offered.

Noirah snorted. “Yeah, I came out pretty flawlessly.” She hesitated and then finally said, “I’m sorry about your mom. I always liked her, despite the fact that she could never quite get my name right. Noo-rah? Noy-rah?”

“I think that’s how the Rah nickname got started,” Felicity answered.

“And I like her a little less.”

Felicity was surprised to hear herself laugh. Who would have thought that tonight of all nights she’d be laughing with Noirah Tillard? It was strange, awkward and unsure, but natural, too long held inside. It infected Noirah, who also gave into the untimely laughter.

But it stopped. They heard banging on the other side of the wall.

“I think it may be hollow!” they heard a voice yell from the other side. “I heard something. I heard people on the other side.”

“Come on. We have to get out of here,” Noirah ordered calmly, squeezing past Felicity to take the lead.

“But, they can’t find us in here. It’s a secret passage.”

“Lis, remember when the palace shook and we heard loud bangs: those were explosives. They have explosives. We have to run, now.” Noirah took the princess’ hand and began to drag her onward.

Felicity dropped the candle and the hallway became pitch black. Noirah panicked. There was a latch and door somewhere around the corner at the end. It lead into Felicity’s room, but how was she going to find it in the dark. She slowed down their pace and extended a hand out to try and feel out the end of the corridor before she ran headlong into it. Then the hall shook as an explosion rocked the ground. She was able to catch herself, but she lost Felicity’s hand.

“Felicity!” she whispered harshly. In the light seeping in from the now open wall far from them, she saw her friend lying on the ground. “Come on, Lis. Get up. We have to move.”

Felicity looked up bleary-eyed. She pushed herself up with some effort, letting Noirah do the heavy lifting. Noirah urgently yanked her, as she saw someone step over the rubble into their secret passage. He turned one way, and then he saw them at the end of the hall.

“Come on!” Noirah insisted with an anxious whimper. Her knees bounced with adrenaline and nerves.

Felicity looked over her shoulder and realized their situation. She ignored the buzzing in her head, the pain in her leg and stood up, stumbling as she let Noirah pull her.

“They’re over there!” the man shouted to his friends, “I think it’s the king’s daughter and some other girl.”

Noirah couldn’t help but shout back, “The other girl’s name is Noirah! Noirah Tillard.”

They rounded the corner and everything grew black once more. Urgency made Noirah’s limbs shake, made the blood rush to her head, thunder in her ears. Calm down, she could find the way out. She spent more time in these halls than the ones outside. She could find this latch with her eyes closed as a kid, so she better be able to do it now.

Feet echoed from the hallway they had just been in.

Come on, Noirah. You can do this. She knew that she could. She had that animalistic desire to live. She dropped to her knees, but kept a firm grasp on Felicity. It had to be here. This was the spot, she knew it in her gut. Her hand flayed around until, there! There it was. She could feel the metal in her hand. She yanked it open. The room below was just as dark and had been filled with smoke that now filtered up into the passage.

“You first, princess.”

Felicity groaned out a protest.

“No, no time for argument. Let me help you down.”

Felicity was pliable. She began to lower herself. Noirah held onto her arms as long as possible and then let her drop to the ground. Felicity crumbled to floor. Noirah was quick to follow, as she could hear the men nearing her. She sat at the edge, took hold of the edge of the door and pulled it down as she leapt to the ground below.

*

Kyle’s feet began to throb. His face began to throb. His hand began to throb. But those were nothing: Felicity was going to kill him when she found out he lost her little brother. He slammed his fist on a tree trunk. That wasn’t a smart idea. It was the same hand which he had used to punch that man, no Gregory. Some amount of time would have to pass before he ever decided to punch something again. Kyle nearly began to cry when he heard two voices. Those voices could be his salvation or else they might not. Considering how the night had been progressing, Kyle wasn’t going to take any chances. He quickly crouched down behind a tree.

“You never told me about all of this! This isn’t what I wanted,” a man exclaimed.

“Don’t you dare. This is not on me. Do you think I knew the scope? Sometimes one loses control of the fire they start. They’re fighting for you, Christopher. We, both of us, encouraged this. They chose the means of the fight that we asked for,” a smaller woman retorted.

The woman Kyle could identify straight away: Clarissa, Edward’s wife, but the man was not Edward. In the dark Kyle had trouble making out the man’s face, but something of the nose seemed familiar. Something of the face, but older than before, a young man who aged decades in a week. He blinked back in time and saw that young man falling in love. Christopher. His father. But no, of course not. He was seeing things obviously. His father would have never done something like this. Right? He wouldn’t have allowed his son nearly to get killed. His father would never condone killing people and destroying a building full of people. His mother would never have married someone like that. Kyle against all better sense lurched up slightly and looked out from behind the safety of his tree.

Clarissa’s hand was pressed on Christopher’s bicep. She looked at him the way his mother had once. No, that was only true if that was his father and that wasn’t. Loads of people had Kyle’s nose and were named Christopher. Tons of people look the same.

“They don’t do it for me. People who perform such destruction do it for themselves. I did not ask for this.” He placed his own hand on her arm. “Clarissa, I can’t believe that it ends like this. I didn’t ask for this from them.”

“Of course you didn’t. That’s because you are adorably naive and idealistic and never want to do what has to be done.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “That’s why you’ve always befriended people like me, who can hold the gun that you can’t shoot. It’s why you’re the idol and not the worshipper.”

“That’s not true,” Christopher denied. “You can’t believe that I would have allowed this to happen. My son is in there,” he charged in anger, pointing to the inflamed palace.

“And the men have their orders not to harm a hair on Kyle’s head,” Clarissa replied.

Kyle ducked back down and found himself having trouble breathing. His dad was part of this. His cause was their cause. Didn’t Kyle have some time before he discovered his dad was Darth Vader? God, he wished that he had never heard of the man, that people never told him what a great guy he was, that he didn’t create this image of him. His father had fooled everyone, and most of all Kyle. Silver was right: you can’t know a man until you meet him. And Kyle met him and all he wanted to do was jump from his hiding spot and punch him. It might hurt, but it would be satisfying. He wanted to meet him face to face and tell him how he had disappointed Kyle. And to think that Kyle was worried that he might disappoint his father! He’d tell him how his mother was too good for him. His mother! What would she think if she found out? No, he’d never tell. It’d kill her. He’d keep this secret for her. She would know nothing of this night.

“Chris, you can brood all you like once we get you out of here. The army returned, so you’re not safe. If you’re caught, then everything that we’ve done will come to naught. Remember that there are bigger things at risk here: the cause requires you,” Clarissa lectured. Christopher grunted his concession.

Kyle lifted his head once more. Christopher glanced around. For one terror-filled moment, Kyle thought his father saw him. The man’s eyes lingered on his hiding spot a little too long. But nothing happened.

“There are bigger things. It would have been nice to have met my son. I heard good things. I hope that he will too,” he muttered. The man rubbed his cheek, dropped his eyes to the ground and followed Clarissa who didn’t have time for late-born sentimentality.

Kyle rose when they left. At least he’d happily unite one son with one father. All he had to do was find Peter.

*

“Sir, Colonel Foster has sent you a response.”

A boy nearly David’s height handed him the same paper which he had sent but minutes before, but with a post script from his friend scribbled on the bottom. He had to admit, his men were efficient. David shook his head at the barely legible writing before him. At first glance, it had something to do either with a donkey and bananas or his troops.

“Thank you, Matthew.” David told the boy, “You’re dismissed.” The boy saluted, David reciprocated. Then the boy departed. David was impressed by his own ability to intimidate people for no other reason than his rank. Taken out of uniform, he thought, no one would give him a second thought. At least not when he was standing next to Wes. Even as prince, he was usually passed over by many a girl, when walking with his friend. Most eyes gazed upon the blaze of his friend and wondered who that sullen fellow was who trudged beside him. Those were the moments he felt most like himself, not a prince, nothing but David. He wished Wes was here now. Tonight he’d lead his men into an actual hostile environment subordinate to no one and David’s heart was pounding. ‘Buck up, Davey Boy, this is what we’ve been training for all these years: let’s go perform some dashing heroics,’ David imagined Wes saying. He stared at his burning home. Tonight David would do his best to do just that.

*

“Peter? It’s Kyle, Pete. If you’re here, please come out,” Kyle called out in a raspy whisper. He stopped walking and looked all around him. How was he going to find a small child in here? What was he thinking? There might have been countless creeps lurking in the forest, and Kyle sent the boy right into their arms. Or maybe Peter was able to find his dad. That was a happy thought. There weren’t too many of those lingering with Kyle as he wandered through the forest looking for the little boy. “Peter!” Kyle yelled out in desperation.

Then he saw it. A little head of golden hair peeking around a tree. He looked like a woodland creature, a little Pan roused from a nap.

“Pete?” Kyle called out. Peter stepped out from behind his hiding spot.

“Kyle?” Peter aped Kyle’s tone.

“Oh thank God!” Kyle rushed over and knelt before Peter sweeping him up into a hug. “You’re okay!”

When Kyle let go, he saw Peter beaming at him. He wasn’t sure if he had ever seen the boy smile. It was a strange time to pick up the habit, but a good habit to have. Peter reached over and plopped his pudgy, dirty, wet hand onto Kyle’s face. “You’re okay too,” the boy stated in a matter-of-fact manner. But then he smiled again. “We’re okay,” he cheered.

“Okay,” Kyle echoed, beginning to feel a sensation of relief. He ruffled the boy’s hair and then stood up. It was time to leave. Peter’s eyes remained glued to Kyle who never knew that a kid could make him feel so self-conscious. Kyle was his hero. He didn’t think that anyone would ever look at him like that. It was frightening but nice.

“Alright. Think it’s about time to find your family?” Peter nodded. Kyle leaned down to pick him up. “Alley-oop.”

Peter shook his head, and reached up his hand. “I’m gonna walk. Me and my Kyle are gonna walk and we gonna find our Lissy,” the boy declared.

Kyle stood up straight, rather happy about the change in the boy. “I think that it sounds like a great plan, if you’re sure that you want to.” Peter pursed his lips up close, and scrunched his forehead real tight, all the telltale signs of one in deep thought. After a second or two of careful concentration he nodded, grabbed Kyle’s hand and began to take the lead. After all, he really did know the forest much better than Kyle. It was about time that he showed him the way.

*

David blinked his watery eyes. The smoke burnt. He realized how useless all his books were when faced with the reality of a fight. Adrenaline and fear fueled his body, kept pushing him forward when his brain was shouting for him to stop and get out. His instincts were at war with one another: he needed to survive and he needed to fight for the survival of others. Chaos swallowed him. This was his home; a few days ago he walked through these halls as he had his whole life, without fear for his safety. A few days ago no one had shot a gun at him. He had never watched one of his friends get shot. He felt that the bullet tore through him as well. But it hadn’t and that’s why he was still moving. But the wounded Harrison might never again.

He wasn’t ready for this, to shoulder this kind of responsibility. Events required that he perform the duty of a man and he wasn’t sure that he was one yet. Yes, he might be old enough to be Peter’s father, but he still needed his own. Nobody asked him if he could do this; everyone just expected it. His thoughts drifted to Harrison, to the blood and the smell. And that boy was expected to give up his life and he did. They all just kept pushing forward, because that’s what they expected of themselves. He would keep moving forward.

*

“DADDY!” Peter rushed up to his father with a boundless energy and lightness of foot that only a four-year-old boy could possess after such a night. Kyle came more slowly, dragging himself through the crowd, barely able to move his two legs forward. He may have been tired, but he had never been so happy in his life. He could have been happier, if he had an answer to the question that kept bubbling up: were they okay?

“Oh thank God!” Jacob exclaimed, tossing Peter up in the air, much to the boy’s screams and giggles of protest.

“It’s great to see you walking and breathing.” Mac walked over and clapped Kyle on the back. “Nice face.”

Kyle had forgotten about the punch. He lifted his fingers and probed the swollen area around his eye. It hurt so he brought his hand back down. No need to touch that again. “I got punched. In the face,” Kyle stated.

“Wow, what happened?” Mac asked amazed.

“There was this guy with a gun and he tried to take Peter and I fought him. I punched him too. I don’t quite remember.” Kyle didn’t want to talk about that anymore. Too much happened out in that forest that he didn’t want to think about. “Felicity and Noirah?”

Mac shook his head. There was nothing to say, not even about Noirah. Tonight he hoped that she was okay. He hoped tomorrow they could continue to needle each other, for things to go back to normal. The two boys gazed at the burning palace and imagined what might be happening within its walls.

*

Noirah regained her senses quickly. She remained low to the ground, crouching near Felicity who remained sprawled, catching her breath.

“That was easier when we were kids,” Felicity groaned, sitting up.

“A lot of things were,” Noirah replied grimly. She stood up. There wasn’t time for talking: now they had to move. Above them the loud echoing of boots could be heard, muffled voices calling out. Soon they would also find that door and be jumping down to join them.

“Enough time reminiscing? Shall we move along?” Noirah said, pushing herself to her feet with eyes on full alert scanning for any threat, a task complicated by the ever increasing fog of smoke. Without thinking, she extended her hand out to Felicity. When she felt the weight of the other girl on her arm, she gave a tug and lifted her up.

“Let’s get out of here.”

The two bolted down the hall. Noirah could hear someone land with a thud in the room they had just left. Considering that the men chasing them would be leaving that room quickly, Noirah came up with a plan on the spot.

“Come on, Felicity,” she yelled at the top of her lungs. “This way to the stairs. We’ll go out through the West Wing.”

Felicity’s face fell at her friend’s full disclosure of their location. “Noirah,” she gasped.

Noirah ignored her and spied an open door.

“Quick.” Noirah flung herself and Felicity into the room, careful not to shut the door. Beside her, Felicity caught on to what she was doing and remained quiet, allowing Noirah to guide the two of them between a dresser and a wall, hidden from view. Pending their pursuer’s decision not to enter, they would be safe; then ideally they could run the other way, get down the stairs and out of there without meeting anyone else. Noirah had never been so eager to escape the palace since the day she left two years ago. And wasn’t there fire involved that time too? Something to do with torches and angry village people condemning a beast? Or perhaps she just worked her imagination too intensely.

She looked over to Felicity, “We might just do this.”

“Thanks to you.”

Noirah grinned, “I’m rather well-suited for escapades and feats of daring.”

“Are we going to be okay?” Felicity asked.

Noirah patted Felicity’s knee, “If no one kills us tonight, I’d say that we’ve taken a step in the right direction. Now, shut up or else they might hear us.”

*

“You haven’t found them,” David said, as his team approached Wes at their appointed meeting spot. Wes shook his head, watching his men deploy themselves throughout the floor and secure their perimeter. The amount of invaders that they had found significantly dropped once word of the army’s presence spread. Many of the men, no not men, boys they had run into clutched their weapons close to their chest in terror, unsure what to do when the army, who was supposed to be miles away, stood before them. Others found their heart and showed a gallant defiance, which made Wes’ hair stand up. They were unpracticed, wild, unpredictable: Wes’ men were no more prepared for a fight with such an enemy, than the enemy was prepared to fight an armed opponent, an opponent who could fight back.

He ran his hand through his hair, surprised by the amount of soot and debris that had managed to lodge itself in there. A shower would never clean it out of him. Some of his men had been injured, but he hadn’t lost a single one. Thankfully these boys, no men, men who had set the palace on fire, eventually surrendered. In some of their faces Wes espied a hardened edge, a certain hatred, but in others he found nothing, nothing but wild, empty eyes and a dawning realization of what they were capable of. A melee of children and men created this chaos, this destruction, a battlefield in what he had always thought of as his second home. He had tripped over the body of a resident, who had gone to bed feeling safe and then had that illusion violently pulled away. For a moment when he saw the black hair, his heart stopped. But it wasn’t Noirah; he didn’t know who it was. But he had still found it hard to move on. Someone’s heart would break for her, something else broke in him. He didn’t like how personal everything felt. How desperate it made everything. He wished he had fought harder against his orders to move. If they hadn’t left, this might never had happened. That young woman might still be sleeping safely in her bed.

Tomorrow people they might have all just kept sleeping in a feeling of safety.

“What should we do? I don’t know if there are any more skirmishes to be had. The place seems to be clearing out,” David asked, gazing around, hoping for the slightest sign of his sister, or his mother.

“I want to keep men in the western and northern wings of the palace. I’ll send Noah over to reinforce what we have there now,” Wes stated, dropping down the ground as the smoke began to attack his lungs, David followed him. “I’d like to contain the damage to this section of the palace as much as possible. If any of their people or our people move along that way, I want them intercepted. We can use the banquet room as a holding cell for now and have our people escorted out to the city. I’ll lead some of my guys back down and canvass these halls once more, pick up stragglers, keep an eye out for any residents who haven’t been able to get out,” they both heard the unspoken names of Felicity and Noirah, “and start the removal of bodies. I don’t want anyone to lose a loved one if any portion of the palace crumbles: the fire has caused some structural damage.”

“Sir!” one of Wes’ men came running over. He skidded to a halt and dropped down. “Sir, Richard saw a group of ten men making their way up the eastern stairwell, armed, sir. Orders?”

Wes nodded his head. “Alright, Bryce, get together five of our men and I’ll meet you over there. Don’t do anything until I get there.”

Bryce saluted and ran off to carry out Wes’ orders.

“Oh?” David asked, piqued. “You’ll go?”

“David, I need you to get the rest out of here.”

“You’re only taking six men against ten? And why not me? It is my sister!” David protested, his dark eyes gathering the clouds of an impending storm.

“Stealth is important when following. Six men don’t make much noise. Six of our men can easily take out ten of theirs, from what I’ve seen,” Wes placed a hand on the arm of the man who he considered another brother, a man that he had known for as long as his own brother and whom he trusted just as much. “You are my second-in-command, David, and I know that you can get everyone out of here safely. And I know that if anything were to happen to me that you would fill my role honorably. You would surely fall short of my greatness and panache, but I’ve set a very high bar; although I’m certain General Su might prefer your morose, sullen manner to my own style of captainship. In the end, dear sir, I am expendable, whereas you are not.” Flashing a smile, Wes got up and gave a flourishing bow. “Gotta go. My boys are waiting. You have your orders.”

“You’re not expendable.” David said, a heavy note of sincerity lay on the words.

“It’s my job. You may not be a prince, officially, but, let’s just say, I’ve got to keep an eye on you. Keep you alive. Now go, you need to get these guys out of here before they lose a lung or burn to death. When you’re out, try to send word to Tom, see what his boys have found in the forest, then deploy however many you can to the city. We need to prevent any looting or riots that might arise.” The two shook hands. “See you on the other side.”

“Don’t be too reckless.” Before Wes could get away, David increased the strength of their clasped hands, “I mean that, Wes, don’t get yourself killed.” They gave each other one more nod of well-wishing, of security, of encouragement, a nod of supreme confidence that it wouldn’t be the last nod the other would get and then turned to perform their duties.

*

Noirah and Felicity ran down the hall, Noirah in the lead with a firm grip on Felicity’s hand. Maybe, she thought, maybe they would make it out of this okay. The two of them might be able to go on with their young lives and someday be able to get into another huge fight and go back to hating each other and then forgive each other without the need for a near death experience. She turned a corner and her face fell as she saw a young man with gun in hand standing before the entrance to the stairwell.

“You must be kidding me!” She dropped Felicity’s hand and threw her own up in the air, exasperated with the whole situation. Was this really necessary? More peril? Couldn’t they just escape this awful night?

“Looks like this is the end of the line, kiddies.” The man sneered leveling his gun at them.

“By the devil, really? You say that?” Noirah shouted, her temper beginning to boil. “Isn’t this moment cliché enough without you uttering completely inane, trite nuggets like that. I mean, if you’re going to be unimaginative, could you at least be blunt about it? Why not say, hey you black-haired girl whose name I don’t know, I’m going to shoot you because you’re useless to the plot so far as I can tell. And you, princess, you’re coming with me. There, how about that?”

The man grinned, “Hey you...”

“Shut up and don’t steal my lines!” Noirah shouted back. The man cocked his head, looking bewildered. Felicity, on the other hand, took Noirah by the shoulders.

“Noirah, please don’t...”

She couldn’t get another word in as a very steamed Noirah continued, beginning to pace. “No, don’t tell me to be quiet because I could die soon and I am going to get in as much talking as I can before I go. Fill my last minutes with my own voice, which I’ve always loved so much. And insults. I am going to tell this watery waste of mindless flesh what a nauseous, nothing vapor he is. I will tell him how much more I respect the dirt that I trod on than him. How he might as well burn tonight because his ashes will have more consequence than his actual existence ever will --”

A gunshot rang out. Noirah stopped talking and looked at the man, but she hardly seemed afraid. “Glad to see you know how to shut up.”

“I hope you weren’t aiming at me because you missed,” Noirah bit back turning to face him head on, her body placed directly in front of Felicity.

“I wasn’t,” the man drawled back, drawn into an adolescent tone. He aimed his gun once more with his finger loosely on the trigger.

“I’m not going to shoot you, Noirah. I came her for the princess and that’s it,” the man stated. “I’d rather not kill anyone tonight.”

“Was that your plan? Not to kill anyone? Great job, kiddo.” Then it struck her, “You know my name.”

The man smiled, “You don’t remember me? I’m good friends with Sal. Can’t say you’ve changed much since I last saw you. Still rather opinionated and shrill, rude. But please, just let me have the princess, if I was Sal, you’d hand her over, right? Well, I would be Sal if he wasn’t laid up at the moment.”

Noirah stared and shook her head, but not for the reason he thought. She wasn’t stupid. As though she couldn’t see through this ploy. The idea that Sal would ever hurt anyone was laughable. She would never doubt her uncle’s kindness. But this man didn’t know how much faith she had in her uncle and, for now, it could serve to her advantage. That and the fact that she assumed he though teenage girls cried at the least (and this wasn’t the least) provocation. She took a break and let the crocodile tears flood.

“Sal?” she cried out. “No, not Sal. He would...no...” she put her head in her hands, thinking how in the world she might be able to get them out of this. She leaned into Felicity as the other girl put her arm around her shoulder. “Oh, oh Sal.”

“I don’t know what to do, Noirah. I just...I’m not ready to give up,” Felicity whispered into her ear.

“Can we move the show along, girls? If you keep with the histrionics, we’ll all die in the flames,” the man finally said, beginning to approach. Felicity began to step backwards, Noirah still in her arms, the girl’s head near Felicity’s shoulder.

“I’ll take him. You run,” Noirah instructed quietly.

“No, are you crazy?” Felicity protested, strengthening her hold on Noirah, guiding them back one step for each one the man took.

“I’ll shoot you.” the man shouted, stopping with his gun trained on Noirah’s back.

“No!” Felicity yelled. “I’ll go, just don’t hurt her. Can I at least say goodbye?”

“I’m not a moron, princess. You two have had enough time to plot something but there’s nothing to plot is there, I’ve got the power,” He indicated his gun with a slight twist of his wrist, “Over here, or I shoot.”

Felicity glared, but released Noirah with the intention of departing, but Noirah grabbed hold of her arm drawing her back.

“Are you a moron? He’ll shoot me regardless, let’s put up a little bit of a fight at least!” Noirah snipped.

“I wouldn’t do that to Sal, he’s got enough trouble,” the man growled, growing frustrated. What seemed like fortune dropping a prize in his lap was growing into an unnecessary annoyance. He once more headed over to the girls, who stood bravely against him.

“Noirah? Felicity?”

“Wes!” Noirah cheered. She turned to the man holding the gun, making sure to keep her and Felicity out of hostage grabbing range as Wes ran over.

“Here are my damsels.” Wes strode in with wide purposeful steps, his own pistol drawn aimed directly at the man whose gun was aimed at Noirah.

“Not damsels,” Noirah shouted.

Wes grinned at her, “Quite right. My pardons.” He bowed his head at her. He stopped in front of the two girls, and addressed the man, “Let’s put that away. I was trained in gentlemanly war craft.” He lifted the hilt of his sword with his free hand and then motioned with a nod to the man’s hip. “Seems as though you have been too. I so rarely get to sword fight, and it’s always been a dream of mine; mind joining me in a little duel?”

“Listen to our white knight,” Noirah uttered with appreciation and a bit of annoyance. She would have preferred saving herself without the aid of another, but damn if he didn’t look good doing it. Who would ever have thought that she could be attracted to a man so covered with filth and so obnoxiously self-assured? Noirah rolled her eyes at herself and her own silliness, but then she looked at Wes again and internally giggled. Sometimes clichés were attractive. Who was she to judge herself? She was always better at judging other people.

In return, Wes beamed a smile which shone through all the soot that covered his face.

“I do what I can, milady.” Wes’ flippant attitude turned cold when he once again focused his attention to the man, “Well?”

“To duel with Captain Wesley Foster himself? A pleasure,” the other replied as the two cautiously put away their guns and simultaneously drew their swords.

“It’s actually Colonel. Youngest to reach the rank,” Wesley corrected with wink at Noirah and Felicity.

Noirah drew Felicity aside, confident that they were saved. Wes was a hero. This was a story that she’d be able to tell people, except she might place herself in Wes’ shoes. She would have been the hero with a weapon more substantial than her rapier wit. But if wit could kill…

“Should we bow?” the man asked.

“Why not?”

The two bowed towards each other and then entered into battle.

Noirah didn’t know enough about sword fights to tell who was doing better than the other. Several times she found herself and Felicity edging away, as the men danced ever closer with the clanging of metal against metal. Wes quickly jumped to the side, bringing his sword down, just barely getting in the way of the other’s. They were evenly matched, much more so than Noirah imagined that they would be. Even Wes looked surprised.

“What should we do?” Felicity asked.

“Wes’ll win, don’t worry and then we’re out of here,” Noirah assured her, jumping back as the two men came a little too close for comfort. She could feel the movement of the air as the sword slashed the empty space

“And if there’s more, if he doesn’t?” Felicity insisted, looking around terrified. They could make a dash to the stairwell. No one stood in their way, but then she looked at Wes. She wouldn’t leave without him. Whether he won or lost, she would stay. She just wished that she could do something besides stand there, do something besides being the useless princess that everyone imagined her to be.

“Let me be the cynic, Lis, I look the part. You just keep on believing in dreams and nourishing hopes. I need that,” Noirah tried to tease, but found that her joke fell flat as Felicity’s face was whiter than normal. She took her friend by the arms, staring straight into the blue eyes. “We haven’t really been friends again for that long, and I feel like you’re making me do a lot of work here and I’m not good at being supportive and optimistic in the best of times, so get it together. We’ll be fine.”

Finally Felicity’s eyes connected with Noirah’s, “I don’t want them to take me, Noirah. I don’t want to end up like my mom.”

Noirah rubbed the girl’s arms in comfort, it was the only thing she could think of. “I won’t let that happen.”

The swords sang out. Both men were panting and sweating. There was a punch or two landed. Neither seemed to have the upper hand. Noirah felt anxious. She wanted to run in and help Wes, but she remained unarmed and there would be no good had if she got herself stabbed. But to stand there like some helpless girl, this wasn’t her. Neither was the gasp that escaped her lips when she saw the other man sinking his sword into Wes’ side. It happened so quickly, that she wondered if she was wrong. But Felicity grabbed her hand. And Wes, Wes made it real when she heard him cry out.

“The gods,” Wes grunted. He leaned over clutching his side with his left hand, while his right, by reflex alone, raised to parry a blow. The impact was enough to send him down to his knees, his sword dropping down to the floor. His hand was already covered in his own blood. His breath was staggered. He looked over at the girls, as though to apologize. His former swagger lost in the confused, pained, sorrowful look.

That was it. Noirah would not watch Wes die. As the other man raised his arm, prepared to thrust down his sword, Noirah acted as an impulsive heroic youth does, her courage fueling her resolve. She rushed forward and tackled her enemy. The two fell to the ground, Felicity screamed and ran over to Wes. While Noirah tried to regain her composure to do something. She couldn’t think of what to do. Stupid plan, stupid plan. The man took hold of both her arms and threw her off him and into the nearby wall with a thump. But as he started to stand, he grew stunned as a sword was plunged into his chest. Felicity pushed it further. Her eyes were crazed and wet with tears. She gave a shout as she lifted the hilt of the sword without drawing out the blade. The man looked down at her as the life drained out of him. His hands reached out to take hold of hers, but she quickly let go of the sword and stepped away until she bumped into Wes. She knelt down next to him, as he groped for her hand. She took it automatically, unsure whether she was meant to comfort Wes or he her. Her eyes could not look away from the life draining from the man who stood lost in the thousand moments of his life.

The man took a labored, wet breath; his eyes rolled unseeing as his hands blindly grasped the hilt of the sword still lodged in his ribs. He slowly attempted to draw it out, wavering on his feet. He stumbled towards Felicity who protectively hovered over Wes, a man now only aware of the sound of his own breath. She tensed, but then the man fell to his knees, coughing up a bit of blood. His gumby arms fell unused beside him. His lungs reached out for breath, but the effort was too much. He fell like a tree onto his side, blank, vacant eyes staring out at the infinite nothingness that faced him.

“What the...” Noirah trailed off, rubbing her head. She took in the scene before her and understood instantly what had happened. She crawled away to the other two. They were silent, listening to the gurgled last breath of their nameless, potential killer.

Noirah turned to Wes and Felicity. “We have to get out of here now.”

“I killed him,” Felicity squeaked, her body beginning to shake.

Noirah gripped her shoulders, “You saved our lives and now let’s try to make them last a little bit longer.” She touched Wes’ face. His eyes were unfocused. “You think you can walk? I could try to carry you but I would drop you. I’m not very strong.”

“Too strong...you both,” Wes closed his eyes and trying to muster whatever strength he had remaining in himself. Wes nodded, “I can walk. Can’t leave…carried by girls…my men laugh.”

“Felicity, I need you to help me get him up.”

Felicity nodded dumbly, her eyes transfixed on the dead man’s body. They had barely gotten Wes into a seated position, when Noirah heard footsteps. She thought that she was going to cry. This could not be happening. One look at Wes and she knew that it wasn’t good.

“You guys...have to go. Get out.” he panted. “Maybe, my men?” He doubted it. He had sent them off to remove that final group they had caught. Then he had gone off to get himself killed, so it seemed. He always imagined himself going like this in the heat of battle. Except not so soon. But not too much later, when he was old and less attractive. Poetry, they’d write poetry about him.

“You risked your life for us, I’m risking mine for you.” Noirah stated firmly.

“It was...my job. Dulce et decorum...est pro patria...mori,” he was starting to have trouble speaking. Noirah’s insides tightened. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. They had been saved. Why couldn’t they just be saved? She let out a strangled cry. He wasn’t going to die. He was Wes! He was constant and beautiful and Wes. He was always her hero.

“No, you’re wrong. Dulce et decorum est pro amicis mori. It’s sweet and noble to die for friends,” Noirah insisted. She paused and looked at him. “Did you learn that bit of Latin just for a moment like this?”

“Maybe.”

She shook her head, brushing his back his sooty hair. “We’re staying with you and you’ll learn some Propertius for Kara.”

“Rah,” Wes tried to protest, finding himself losing this final battle with his own body. When did it become so hard to breathe? “Go.”

Noirah shook her head and took hold of his hand, “Wes, I’m not good for much, but I can do this. I can be brave.”

“Me too.” Felicity agreed. “I can be brave. I won’t run away from friends.”

“Davey will kill me...if you guys...hurt.” He attempted a chuckle as he lingered upon his own bloody side, struggling to get air into his lungs.

She watched him close his eyes. Her breath hitched. She reached out a hand to his chest. His heart was still beating.

“Noirah?” Felicity called out frightened.

“He’ll be okay. We’re all going to be okay,” she assured Felicity and herself. Noirah drew out Wes’ pistol and handed it to Felicity, then ran over to get the other man’s discarded sword. It was heavy in her hand, but she stood ready to face whatever came her way. She could do this. She stood up and held the sword in front of her. Now she was ready.

“Let’s do this.”

There were three men. They stopped when they saw the two girls. All three of them were armed. Noirah was glad to see that Felicity was holding the gun with a steady hand: she was less glad to hear that wheezing sound coming from Wes.

“Okay girls, just drop your weapons, this doesn’t have to be hard – ”

“Oh, doesn’t it? Honestly, this dialogue insults me! Just once I’d like to run into a clever villain!” Noirah exclaimed with genuine annoyance. She pointed her sword toward the one in the middle. She was prepared to say more when a large mass flew over her head. She involuntarily ducked and watched mesmerized as the mass bounded toward the men. In their shock, they couldn’t get out an accurate shot. Bullets rang. Noirah pulled Felicity down to the ground next to her. In front of the girls, Mogren attacked their assailants with pure rage. She tore the men apart, howling. Despite the pleasure that Mogren had saved them, Noirah still couldn’t watch. She tried to block out the cries and snapping of bones, but it thundered in her ears. Finally, it was all over. Mogren turned her head seeking Noirah, her teeth bared in a snarl. From Noirah’s perspective, it was the most comforting sight that she had ever seen.

“Mogren!” she shouted with glee. She dropped her sword and ran over to embrace her. Mogren relaxed a moment and accepted the girl in her large arms.

“Noirah safe now,” she declared, nuzzling her muzzle affectionately on the top of the girl’s head.

“Yes I’m safe now, thanks to you, you big hairy beast.” Noirah renewed the vigor of her hug, “You awful smelling, gem of a beast!” She released Mogren, then scratched her behind her ear to which the beast gave a low grumbling noise of content. Both, however, knew that their circumstances could change in a moment. Mogren’s ears were already twitching, her nose constantly sniffing at the air.

“Go now. We go outside. Go to Kyle.” Mogren insisted.

Noirah grinned, “He’s okay. Kyle’s okay.”

“And Peter?” Felicity asked nervously. “Did you see him? A little boy with Kyle?”

Mogren nodded, “Pete boy okay. Go. Come,” she said again, her fur prickling up as she caught a scent that she did not like. Felicity went to drop the gun, looking vaguely frightened by the instrument. But Noirah stepped in to stop her.

“You might need it, Lis,” Noirah advised, picking up the sword that she had discarded earlier.

Felicity frowned at it, but kept it in her hand, pointed at the ground.

Noirah went to Wes’ side. “Hey you, we’re getting out of here.” Wes blinked in a fugue state. He looked up at the face who spoke words and smiled dreamily, his eyes glazed.

“That’s good.” he sighed. “Tell my boys...did good. And Kara...She’s nice...I love her.”

Mogren stepped beside Noirah and without a word the two of them hoisted Wes to his feet with his arms around their shoulders. He grimaced at the first step. His world went in and out of focus. The group proceeded as quickly as possible to the stairs, Noirah with a sword in her free hand, Felicity with her weapon and Mogren ever vigilant.

*

The king sat. Men were talking to him. The last survivors were being shepherded to safety by his troops. There was crying in the background and talking, shouts. It was all washing over him. The whole East Wing of the castle had been destroyed, the southern had significant damage. They had bombed it. Where had they gotten bombs? They shouldn’t have had them. He should have known that they did. They had proven that they had them before. But that felt so long ago. He so wanted to believe that they had been on the road to repair. Yet someone within the palace’s circle, within that group designate to protect the people, had betrayed those very people and betrayed him. And he might have been the worst betrayer of all because he was confident. He didn’t want to believe anything like this might happen. He heard Wes’ pleas, and he brushed aside the young man’s misgivings. He should have listened. He trusted the wrong people because they were the people who said what he wanted to hear. They told him the world was becoming safer and he believed that he had something to do with it.

The fire was nearly extinguished. The townspeople had come together to aid in fighting it. All those people in their night clothes with buckets of water or aiding in hefting the hoses. Their faces filled with awe, despair and resolve. Each singular effort adding so much to the communal. But the bodies. They continued to find them. And he felt all the worse because, as he caught sight of each lifeless corpse, he was gladdened to see none of them were Felicity or his wife. He was happy to see David walk out; happy to see him as the man he had become, when sometimes he still saw him as his child, the boy who refused to sleep without his teddy bear. But that anxiety for the others hung over everything.

He nodded at something one man said, feeling that it was appropriate. He saw the man pause and then leave. Jacob had no idea what had been said. There was too much. It came in too short a time. Too many words, too much paperwork. There were always people talking and wanting and arguing. It never ended. He thought that affairs were getting better. He thought that all his work had made a difference. How could he have been so ignorant, so naive? He had the blood of so many on his hands because of his idealism. Where was his foresight? He shook his head, he was hardly a king, he was merely a man. They were all merely men and slowly they were dying.

“Um, hello, your highness.”

Jacob looked up and smiled wearily at Kyle who stood before him looking rather unsure of himself. Could he have been so young once? The stiffness in his bones made him doubt it.

“Kyle.”

Kyle looked at his feet. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...I shouldn’t have....”

“No, no. I could use some company. Please sit.” The king wondered at the boy’s tentativeness. Perhaps too many years with Felicity’s and David’s friends had made him immune to the idea that a child would be nervous approaching him. Certainly MacCartney felt no anxiety, nor Noirah. God, Noirah. They hadn’t found her either. Her poor parents. So many parents, too many parents who would never see their children again, and the children whose lives would never be the same.

“I don’t know what to do,” Kyle finally said, taking a seat next to the king. “Everyone’s doing something and I don’t know what I should do to help.”

“You’ve done enough, I think,” the king answered, gazing at the boy’s black, swollen eye. “I don’t believe that I’ve thanked you for saving my son’s life.”

“Oh, no. I didn’t do anything. I just...”

Jacob held up his hand and Kyle instantly stopped talking. “My son has told me quite a story about a bad man and Kyle running ‘real fast’ at him and telling Petey to run and hide. You risked your life for my child and I can never repay you for that.” Jacob’s voice broke. He looked at the young man seated next to him. What he wouldn’t give that boy for what he had done. To believe that such selflessness could come from one so young and to think that he couldn’t see his own courage. In the face of such destruction, it was nice to be reminded of the beauty of people. He saw it all around him, as people came together to help. How could things go so wrong when he saw such evidence of men’s devotion to their fellow man’s well-being? Such selflessness. Why did the best always have to come from the worst?

“It’s okay. I’d do it again, not that I’d hope to be put in that situation again. It was the right thing to do and anyone would – ”

“No, Kyle, it takes a brave man to offer his life for another,” he stated sadly. “The world collapses under the potential of good.” The king shook his head feeling a heavy weight press on his shoulders. He took a breath. This wasn’t the time to wallow, not in front of the child, not in front of all these people who had suffered so much. He was their leader. It was his job to be strong, even now. Within the walls his title might fall, but here he needed to give them strength. “He’s taken quite a liking to you, Peter that is. I believe that he might talk poor David’s ear off about your heroics. I haven’t heard him talk so much since...” the king trailed off. Another terrible night. Another time when he didn’t protect his family.

“Felicity told me. I’m glad that I could help, if only a little.”

The king put his arm around Kyle in a paternal fashion. “You’ve helped a great deal.” His face warmed. “Yes, it seems like you’ve made a good impression on my daughter as well.”

“Really? You think?” Kyle asked, but then dropped his gaze, “Oh, well, we’re friends. She’s really smart and I really like her personality, in a platonic way. I respect her as a person.”

“Don’t let the wrinkles and grey hair fool you, I was once afflicted by adolescent affections as well. You’re a good man, Kyle Walters.”

“Kyle!” Peter came running over and jumped onto Kyle’s lap, nearly sending the boy backwards. “Daddy, did Kyle tell you about the baddie?” Peter exclaimed, crawling over Kyle to get his father’s attention. “Oh that baddie and then I showed him out of the forest. Me and my Kyle!” The little one’s eyes searched the grounds. Kyle barely caught him as he nearly toppled off his lap. “Where’s Lissy? Lissy’s gotta hear the story. Davey won’t tell me where she is. I hope that she doesn’t get too scaredy ’bout the baddie. Oh good!” Then the boy smiled and leapt off Kyle’s lap. The king reached out to grab his son, calling his name, but stopped once he saw what his son saw.

“Felicity.”

“Noirah!” Kyle cried out. He rushed over to his friends. They were alive. And Mogren. Of course Mogren. But Wes. He seemed to be suspended between the other two, his feet dragging on the ground. Medics ran over, Kyle was being pushed. He watched with dropped jaw as they loaded the motionless man onto a gurney. Kyle’s stomach squirmed. That man was so alive just a few days ago and now…and now. Kyle looked up at the palace. A week ago all he wanted was for Allison Vickary to look at him, and now he wanted a friend to live; he wanted a day to start anew so he could stop it; he wanted to feel safe, for everyone to be safe. How greatly the world could change in so short a time.

“Wes!” David ran past Kyle, his hand gripping a medic’s shoulder.

“Is he going to be okay?” David demanded taking a spot next to the gurney in order to help carry it. Nobody answered him. David stood still, his eyes frantically searching the faces of the men around. He turned to Felicity. His feet stuck to the ground.

“I’m okay, go and tell us when you have news,” Felicity answered his unspoken question.

“Mother?” he asked. Felicity shook her head. His gaze held hers for a moment more and then he proceeded with the medical parade.

Kyle looked over to the two girls, both looked a little worse for wear. Felicity was lifting Peter in her arms. He whispered something in his sister’s ears and Kyle caught her reply: Wes was going to be fine. The boy beamed at her in his innocent trust and began to clamor about Kyle’s brave deeds. She looked over her brother’s head and smiled at Kyle, mouthing the words, ‘thank you.’

“I’m actually happy to see you!” Noirah flung an arm around Kyle’s neck. Kyle glanced down at her other hand and quirked an eyebrow. She raised her sword, “Nice, right?”

“Real nice,” Kyle replied. He stared at her. It was a great comfort to see her and feel her in his arms. It was the same pale face, though marked by dark sooty smudges, same black hair, same gleaming green eyes, but they all looked so different. He cared about her more deeply than he ever imagined he would. She was his best friend and he couldn’t have fathomed his life without her. And all it took was a week.

“I’m glad you’re safe, Noirah.” he stated with bare-boned sincerity.

She smiled like she hadn’t in years, “I’m glad you’re safe too.” She began to lift her hand to his bruised face with a question in her eyes, but was interrupted by Peter.

“Kyle! Kyle! Tell Lissy ’bout how you hit that baddie!” Peter squealed in his sister’s arms.

“We’ll have plenty of time for stories, Pete.” Felicity stroked the boy’s hair. “But how about we go see daddy?”

Kyle looked back and there the man stood still with his eyes glued to his child. Kyle thought that the king needed his daughter more than anything else. She put Peter on the ground and walked to Kyle and gave him a hug.

“You’re my hero, you know that?” she whispered in his ear. Kyle’s face grew hot. She pulled away, and brushed her thumb on his cheek. “Thank you.” Her lips touched the spot where her finger had just made contact. Kyle thought that his cheek was going to melt.

“I...” What did he want to say? Nothing came to mind. His brain was completely blank.

“I always told you this is what happens when you date a pretty face with no substance. I think he means to say ‘me like you.’ Now go hug your dad, he needs it. Articulate without speaking a word, unlike this Wunderkind,” Noirah snipped.

Kyle was readying himself for another fight between the two girls, but then something happened. Felicity hugged Noirah and Noirah reluctantly reciprocated, patting Felicity on the back.

“I think the smoke got to you because I am not your father,” Noirah grumbled.

“I know. I just, we got out. We’re alive. And I’m glad you’re back,” Felicity answered. Kyle’s jaw dropped further. “I don’t think that I’ve had the chance to tell you that yet.”

“I had a feeling.”

“I missed you,” Felicity spoke softly. Kyle couldn’t speak words if he wanted. In the face of everything he was happy: they seemed happy. One little war may have found an end in peace. Tonight that felt like something good and tonight, for Kyle, that could be enough.

Felicity grinned at the face Kyle made. She then turned and went to her father with Peter at her heels. The man swooped her up in his arms. Kyle would be surprised if he ever let her go.

“I go,” a deep voice rumbled. Both Noirah and Kyle turned and looked at Mogren. She stood tall, broad-chest but with some of the kindest eyes that could be found.

“You don’t have to. You can stay,” Noirah offered. Mogren shook her head.

“Watch now, keep safe.” Mogren’s nose was alive in its exploration.

“You don’t have to keep saving us,” Noirah insisted quietly.

“Yes, Mogren beast. Beast hero.”

“The best hero.” Noirah buried herself in the beast and hugged her as someone who longed to hug her whole life. Her fists clung into the beast’s fur and her lungs filled and emptied of air. “Although you really could do with a bath once and a while.”

Noirah drew away and hid her face from Kyle who had reached out to pet Mogren’s shoulder affectionately.

“Mogren, thanks. Again. Always. Thank you. You’re a great friend.”

Mogren’s giant paw rested on Kyles and he thought that she smiled. “Yes, you friend too. Now Mogren go. Be safe, friends,” she said.

“You be safe as well, our friend,” Noirah reciprocated, “Thank you again.”

The beast bowed her head and rushed off into the forest catching the attention of quite a few people. The other two stood while the world rushed past them. Kyle sighed in relief: they had all made it through. They were all alive. Or so he hoped. He thought on Wes. The man should have been invincible.

“He’ll be fine. I mean, he’s Wes,” Noirah said aloud, somehow reading Kyle’s thoughts. He supposed it wasn’t too uncanny that both their thoughts had fallen to the same man.

“Yeah. He didn’t look that bad,” Kyle agreed, but he did look that bad. The two accepted the lie. Tonight that lie would help them fall asleep, if any could close their eyes again.

She looked up at him as the two began to walk. “You got a nice shiner. Run into a tree?”

Kyle shoved her away playfully. “No, I got in a fight and was punched right in the face. Should have seen me, Noirah. I rushed right at the guy,” Kyle said.

Noirah jumped up and pointed at herself emphatically. “Me too! I ran at someone too! He threw me against a wall. I was knocked out but recovered quickly. And,” she held up the sword that she still gripped tightly in her little hand, “I got a sword.”

Kyle caught her free hand in his and looked at the blood questioningly. She winced and looked at the ground, “It’s not mine. I’m fine. It’s just not mine. At least most of it.”

He let the hand go, when she snatched it away. He tried to lighten the mood, pointing at the sword.

“You know, you don’t need that anymore.”

Noirah shrugged, dragging it behind her. “Never know. Might run through the halls and frighten some people with it.” She stopped and looked back at the palace. Her joke didn’t seem so funny anymore. She turned and contemplated the sword. “Anyways, nice to know I have it, just in case. A memento.” She stopped. Kyle stopped with her and was startled to find that tears were falling down her cheeks. She looked about ready to collapse on herself. He put his arm around her waist and took her empty left hand in his and led her to a secluded nook. He sat her down on the ground and knelt across from her so that he might look straight into her eyes.

“You okay?”

Noirah looked up at him annoyed. “Do I look okay?” The visage melted and her shoulders shook. “I’m never going to forget what happened.” She shook her head, which was cupped in her hands. She dropped them once she saw the blood again. “I will remember every sound and smell; I will remember everything I saw. It will always be inside me. This will be forever inside of us.” Kyle went next to her and placed his arm around her shoulder. She rested her head on his shoulder. “I lost things that I didn’t even know I had or didn’t know I needed or wanted. I thought that I lost you.”

“I thought that I lost you too,” he said. “I was just waiting and praying that you were all okay but I couldn’t help you. But I knew that if anyone would survive that it’d be you.”

“You know, I couldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for you. I had this image of you in my head and I just kept thinking, ‘stay alive for Kyle’.”

“Really?” Kyle asked surprised but touched.

“No,” she groaned, “Not in the slightest. But I’m glad to see that you’ve maintained your daftness through this whole ordeal. Idiot.”

Kyle smiled and rested his cheek against the top of her head. Noirah nestled closer and Kyle let her. He reached over and with his free hand he took hers in his. They were all okay, he thought. Whatever else happened tonight didn’t matter. Right then, they were okay. He gazed out at the lawn and the trees to the unforeseeable future while behind him the last embers of the fire died away.

Her breath still hitched now and then; he could feel it against his chest. He kissed the top of her head and she shook in the effort to hold back tears.

“Tell me a story. Tell me about some wild adventure,” she whispered with strained voice.

He smiled and nodded, “Once upon a time a girl named Noirah Tillard met a boy named Kyle Wal --”

“No, she interrupted, “she met Kyle, Kyle Walters.”

“She met Kyle, Kyle Walters and she might not have believed it at first, and he might not have either, but the two were going to become the best of friend and that was a wild adventure.”

EPILOGUE

Kyle relaxed on the couch, Noirah and Felicity on either side of him. He could hear Anna’s mother instructing the king about the finer points of stirring the stew that she was making for the lot of them. Although space was tight, she had graciously invited them into her house when she had heard what had happened. Who hadn’t heard or seen or smelled? He, the girls and Mac all stayed downstairs; Leslie and Peter slept with Anna’s parents in their room, while everyone had insisted the king take Anna’s bed upstairs. Not that he had really slept in there. Not that anyone had really slept. How could they? They hardly felt safe when the sun came up, even with soldiers stationed throughout the city streets. Sometimes that scared them more, the visual evidence of the new world. Anna’s mother would only let them out of the house for a walk that afternoon, if she accompanied them. Two soldiers had shadowed them as well. They felt terribly unsafe all the same.

In the darkness, the terror grew. Kyle had spent the night staring at the ceiling with Felicity’s hand held in his and Noirah curled up in a ball next to him. He thought they must look like a litter of puppies. They were all awake when the king had left for the palace before the sunrise. They were all awake with haggard faces when returned later that evening looking worse than they. Felicity’s face had fallen when he said he had to return to the palace once the meal was over: the times made demands on him. Anna’s mother had quickly ushered him into the kitchen upon his arrival. Occasionally there would be near silence, that’s when they tried to eavesdrop. That’s when they knew important things were being said. After several failed attempts at catching a word, they decided to give up their foray into espionage and chill out on the couch.

“I don’t think that Mr. Foster would be involved with this at all,” Anna stated warily, after Kyle had informed them about the blonde woman, allegedly Clarissa (Anna had insisted they say allegedly). Anna was glad to be talking politics since, until things settled in the palace, all interns and unnecessary personal were excused. Ironically, speaking about palace politics helped keep Anna’s mind off what had happened there a day before. Somehow her mind could separate the effect from the cause, or at least hide the effect. “You’re sure the woman there was Clarissa and the man wasn’t Mr. Foster?”

“Completely,” Kyle replied. In fact, he was completely sure who the other man was; he just wasn’t ready to divulge those details yet. He needed to process that alone. What would they think? ‘Yeah, my dad’s alive and he probably helped with that thing that happened back at the palace, so…’ That was his father. All this time he had created a thousand different versions of that man and never the way reality had it. In some world far away, he still had his mother at least. That’s who he was. He was her child.

“Honestly, I could see Clarissa setting the palace on fire. Always scared me,” Mac confessed, bouncing baby Leslie on his lap to the little one’s delight.

“That’s because you’re sexist,” Anna retorted.

Mac smiled back at her, “How can I be sexist and still think that you should rule the world?”

“Because sometimes you’re smarter than you look,” Noirah replied. Mac looked over at her and the two just stared with something akin to acceptance or appreciation. Since that night it felt unsatisfying to keep up the fight. Maybe they didn’t like each other, but they could be civil. They were in the same room, on the same side, maybe one day they could be friends. Not just yet. Now they behaved under a temporary treaty. They had both kept up their ends of the bargain. It brought peace to the house, much needed peace.

“I just can’t believe we’ve come to this place. That people here have come to such an abysmal point.”

Noirah choked on a laugh. “Anna, you know better. We didn’t come to a point, we’ve always been at the nadir. Men have always been awful. It’s only now that we here have gotten our hands on bombs and guns. They make it much easier for humans to show how much they hate each other. Much more efficient than sticks or stones, more efficient than the words that started it.”

They all remained quiet as they thought about the events of that night, of the violence or the weapons, of the men who wielded them.

The vigil was broken when there was a knock at the door. Anna got up to answer it.

“Please don’t let it be official,” Felicity groaned.

“David!” Anna cheered, opening the door wide for all to see. He looked tired. There were dark circles under his eyes and his face was pale. Mac got up and offered him his seat. After a look of surprise by Mac’s unusual show of charity, David sat down gratefully. Anna took a place by his feet, resting a hand on his knee.

“How is he?” Felicity asked.

David ran his hand through his hair. “They think that he’s going to be around for a while.” He nodded to himself, the relief still barely registering. “He woke up but he didn’t really know where he was. But he woke up and the doctor said it was good. Kara was there when I left. No one has been able to find Edward yet.”

All the children looked at each other. Then the two adults entered the room.

“I thought that I heard you,” the king said. “He’s fine?”

David stood up. “Yes, he should be. I was just telling them.” He paused. The room grew heavy. There was something that David wasn’t saying.

“Go on,” the king encouraged with his brows creased.

David lowered his eyes, “Sir, we just received news that General Su is dead, sir, and,” he hesitated once more. He wished he had other things to tell them. “Sir, the Northern Kingdom has declared war.” David held his father’s gaze. “Father, Pancheae is at war.”

Noster annus

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