The snorting of a horse carried on a midwinter breeze renewed the fear ingrained deep within me.
We had been found.
Surrendering to the sudden terror was a deadly mistake. I called upon my training to force fear to the back of my mind and gathered the facts. The snow was crunching beneath eight cloven feet. Two horses approached, each bearing a single rider. There was no clatter of armor or weapons, just the gentle swish of silk and furs.
The unwanted guests would be upon the shack within moments. The window of escape had come and gone between one heartbeat and the next. Now our only hope was to hide somewhere within the confines of our derelict shelter and pray. Pray that our guests did not delve too deeply into the dark crevasses in search of us.
Mama was suddenly beside me, scooping me into her arms and rushing into the main room in one fluid motion. She moved swiftly, without so much as a whisper. Her hurried pace brought us to the ruined hearth, where a section of floorboards had been worn loose. She hissed a curse when the wood screeched in protest as she peeled the section up.
In the inky blackness of the hole, I could see refuse and mounds of snow swept in from the many years the shack had been abandoned. There was barely enough room to fit my eight-year-old frame. I didn’t want to go in there alone.
I knew there was no time to hesitate, yet I faced Mama with a silent and uncertain look.
She flashed a glowing smile, softly assured me everything would be okay.
I slipped inside with the hope that she’d find another hiding spot for herself once I was safe.
Mama let the floorboards settle back into place.
I glanced around the murky cavity with disdain. The stagnant air was rank with rodent filth and rot. Ice and frozen earth surrounded me on all sides except for a miniscule crack to my left. The flickering orange of firelight seeped through like sunbeams through storm clouds. With the light came the sound of hoofbeats and the acrid stink of freshly-tanned leather.
Snow crunched under heavy boots as the unwanted guests dismounted. I sensed a surge of energy reach out, groping like fingers in the dark. Suddenly, the icy claws of dread raced up my spine. I shivered, cold for the first time.
The cautious efforts of the last eight years had been for naught.
We had been found.
I wasn’t prepared for what came next.
The shack’s door was kicked off its hinges. It clamored across the floor, coming to a stop just inches above my head. Dust and rot rained down upon me, and the first of the pair entered. Seraphim aura blazing like the sun, Mama charged. I heard a hard smack, and she and the intruder tumbled outside. I clamped a hand over my mouth when the sounds of a struggle erupted.
A handful of seconds ticked by like days. The battle raged on, elevating my fear. No one had ever survived this long against Mama. Not since…
My heart stopped with Mama’s scream. Gut-wrenching silence descended and I waited, daring to hope. Then I felt her golden power begin to wane. Within a handful of heartbeats, her remaining essence melted away. She was gone. Anguish bit at my eyes and tore a lament from my lips.
My mother was dead.
Something clattered against the floor above me and I became aware of light conversation outside. I closed my eyes and focused on their voices. A baritone spoke of a job well done and the valiant fight of angels. He mentioned something about a bounty.
I muffled a cough and continued eavesdropping.
The other, a woman, spoke of a shady haven and a quick return. The horses shifted when the duo mounted. They rode off in the direction from which they had come.
I listened until their hoofbeats faded into silence. I was going to find this shady haven of theirs. When I did, they were going to pay. Even if it took me a thousand years, I’d make them pay.
I coughed again, opened my eyes. I suddenly realized the clattering had been a torch. Great waves of rolling smoke and heat now choked the air. Tongues of orange flame erupted between the gaps in the floorboards. I had to get out of here now, before the fire consumed the shack and me along with it.
I tried to stand, but couldn’t. The demolished door kept the loosened section of floorboards pinned down. In this crevice, there wasn’t space to move. Without leverage to lift the boards, my only hope of escape was the tiny crack in the ice and earth around me. I punched the wall as hard as I could and a shot of pain screamed up my arm. I ignored it, punched again. And again. The skin on my knuckles broke open, leaving growing splatters of blood with every strike.
On the seventh punch, a web of cracks burst across the earthy barricade. I tore the loose pieces away to claw at the frozen soil. The heat of the growing inferno softened the wall, aiding my frantic escape. Slowly, agonizingly, the hole widened. At first only large enough for my fist. Then my head. My nails were chewed to shreds and still I kept digging. It felt like an eternity before the gap was wide enough for me to slip through. I made it outside just as the blaze flared and the roof came crashing down
A dizzying wave of exhaustion shuddered through me as I lay in the slush. The dark cold seeped into my core, caressing the pain and washing it away. I allowed myself a moment or two more of the comfort, then rose. Shaking off the head rush, I darted for the relative safety of the surrounding forest.
I froze at the sight of familiar, pearlescent feathers. Renewed misery burned my eyes, and I followed their trail with my gaze. They wove a path between two oak trees, and then I found her. She lay atop a mound of snow, her golden sword buried deep in her breastplate. Even bloodstained and battered, her sterling armor glistened like starlight. The ivory splendor that had been her wings now lay mangled and smeared with scarlet. Even if she had survived, I doubt she’d fly again.
She drew a sudden, ragged breath.
I rushed forward, crying, “Mama!”
“Luke?” she weakly whimpered.
“I’m here, Mama.” I choked on a sob, crashed to my knees beside her. “I’m here.”
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