Master Paul had been called away on urgent business that evening and the servants had been in something of a frenzy preparing for two departures. Thankfully, he hadn’t needed much in the way of luggage but from the looks on his and Lady Lavinia’s faces, it hadn’t been good news.
Phillip had left a little after he had. The trouble at his farm must have been great because Zahra could still see the look of unease on his face as he bade her goodbye. He had pulled her very suddenly into a hidden nook near the door and she had almost lost all sanity along with her breath when he’d stolen one last hard kiss. This was becoming something of a habit, she thought even as she melted against him. The promise he had given her before, and that he had repeated shortly before leaving, echoed in her heart and she felt it flutter a little.
“I will return for you.”
There had been so much sincerity in his eyes as he spoke the words – words she was still not sure she could fully trust. What foolish girl would believe that someone like him would truly want her? Her smile fell by a degree. Only time would tell. She couldn’t sit there and be sorry for herself. He hadn’t been part of her plan in the beginning and if he didn’t return, her initial plans wouldn’t change.
But oh, it would be so wonderful to be with someone who loved her and would protect her, for she had no doubt that he would do everything within his power to keep her safe. Barring that, she would have to be the daughter her father could be proud of. Was he in the Eternal Paradise now, watching over her with that warm fatherly smile that spoke volumes of his pride in her?
She shook herself and looked down at the bottle in her hands. A surprise had been waiting for her when she went back to their room that evening.
April had helped to restock her pain tonic meaning she didn’t have to get it from the apothecary after all – and who knew if they would have deigned to help her at all anyway. It saved her an uncomfortable trip. And much as she would have loved to find out what had been wrong with her the other night, she was not particularly inclined to being harassed for seeking help.
April had also been under Tess care, although for longer than Zahra had been. She knew almost all of Tess tonics by heart, she has said by way of explanation, even as she muttered something about stubborn old hags. Zahra had hugged her and April had gone to bed. She cradled the little vial in her hand and held it up to the candlelight.
The blue liquid inside shone. It was nice to think that such a small thing could cause so much good. Like her great, great grandmother before her, she was fascinated with healing and restoring health to others. Her mother had told her the stories passed down through the generations further back than anyone could remember. Zahra herself had been planning to join the healers in their tent after her wedding…
She sighed deeply, feeling the familiar pang that came with thoughts of Hadi. It was even sadder to think that her memory of him was fading. She remembered his smiling eyes and the sound of his laugh but slowly, as the days turned to weeks and the weeks to whole months, she found she could no longer remember all of him. She had no likeness to remind her. All she had was the faded memories and they too would disappear.
She put the vial away in her chest and proceeded to prepare for bed. It would be a long day without Phillip but she would definitely not be allowed to skip her duties on account of a bout of melancholy. With that last thought, and the calming memory of smiling blue eyes, she drifted off into the land of dreams.
The forest near Zahra’s village was a favourite haunt of hers. She leapt over a tree root and wandered in looking for fruit to share with her family and maybe some new flowers. She definitely knew better than to go alone but it was so peaceful and she’d done it a hundred times. It wasn’t so strange that she knew the path like the back of her hand. She could walk it with her eyes closed.
She turned left at the large rock and then scrambled down the short valley to the final path that led to the stream. As she approached it though, she found that someone was already there. He was a handsome and fair skinned man she had never seen before. He noticed her and a smile touched his lips as if he was pleased she had come. Two of his upper teeth were sharp and pointed almost like the fangs of a snake – something that jolted Zahra’s memory.
He took her hand in his and spoke to her but the words were smothered as if there was something covering her ears. Then he smiled again, a meaningful look in his eyes that sent her heart into a quick step; Phillip looked at her like that too. Then he let go of her and stepped back. When next she blinked, he was gone. Gone too was the forest around her, fading into blackness, to be replaced by desperate screams and horrible sounds of a battle.
The world was still veiled in the deep darkness of night. Zahra heard the commotion as if it were far away. Distant echoes came into focus all at once, as well as the fact that someone was shouting her name and shaking her awake. Groggy and disoriented, she sat bolt upright in her pallet as April shoved a heavy piece of cloth and a satchel into her arms.
“Zahra, get up! We have to leave now!”
“What… what’s going on?” Zahra watched her flitting about the room, wearing her shift, a cloak and another satchel.
“Intruders. We need to leave immediately. Get up and put that on.”
Zahra looked down at the cloth in her arms. It was a heavy dark cloak similar to April’s. The satchel seemed to already contain several items. The urgency in April’s voice suddenly seemed to settle in Zahra’s sleep-addled brain. She immediately got up, tying the cloak around her shoulders. She picked up the satchel almost at the same time that April got to the door. When they stepped out into the main hall, it was to chaos.
Furniture was overturned and clothing was scattered everywhere. The servants who slept in that part of the house were in various states of dress, rushing about at Ms. Delaney’s orders. She was guiding them to the nearest exit, through the library. The tension and anxiety were palpable.
Zahra could only watch as if she was caught in a bad dream. The pair made their way down the stairs to the front door only to find the attackers already there demanding entry. Windows were shattered and the crowd strained against the door. It was large and solid, made of the finest oak – enough to hold off a horde. She had to admit, it was doing a fine job of holding but who knew how long that would last?
A group of servants fled in the opposite direction and somewhere in the melee, Zahra got separated from April. She shouted over the din to try and get to her but she couldn’t see her over the heads of rushing servants. Then there was a crash and one of the torches was tossed into the house. The carpet in the main receiving room caught fire and in a few short moments, the entire room was ablaze. A sensible butler and two other men shut and barred the doors to the room to stop the fire from spreading and began directing people out through the back exit.
Her first thought was to escape the fire but then another thought stopped her. She grabbed one of the servants as they passed and asked about the Masters.
“Who cares about ’em?” she asked in annoyance, shrugging Zahra’s hand off, “I’m getting my hide out of here and if you know what’s good for you, you will too!”
She rushed off with the others to the rear exit in the kitchens. Her pulse slowed as mounting dread filled her. The butler, the one who had walked April and Zahra to the drawing room the other night, met her gaze and then looked up the stairs. He’d heard her question. She could see it in his face; shame, guilt, a hint of fear. Before he could shout for her to stop, she was mounting the stairs, two at a time, her skirts clutched tightly in her hand.
The first floor was still intact but it wouldn’t take long for the flames to reach it. All of the doors on this floor were open to mean that the Masters had all been woken by the commotion. For all anyone knew, they were already long gone, saving their own skin before anyone else. She had to be sure. She could find her way out of the house somehow but she couldn’t rest easy knowing that she could have done something and hadn’t. So she abandoned that floor and made her way up to the nursery.
A candle still burned up here and when she reached the door, it was to find Lavinia struggling to get a wailing Terrance into a coat. She glanced up and then, at first afraid and then surprised. With a small pleading smile, she motioned for help directing Zahra to help Marie into her clothes. The girl was sniffling and fumbling with her buttons. She was scared no doubt. Tear streaks running down her pale cheeks confirmed this. So Zahra fell to her knees beside the little girl and smiled to reassure her.
She helped her into a frock and tied a cloak around her then helped her into her boots. She worked in silence, the screams and sounds of fighting echoing from below. Zahra tried not to think about it. It wouldn’t do anyone any good. Master Lucas appeared in the doorway a few moments later, a panicked look on his face.
“They’ve set fire to the ground floor. If we don’t get out of here right now, Vinnie, we’ll all go down too.”
Lavinia, who had finished dressing Terrance and wrapping a cloak around him too, carried her son and reached out to pat Zahra’s hand in thanks. As she did so, she looked down where their hands touched and then at Zahra’s face, her eyes growing wide with surprise. The emotion was gone so fast from her expression that Zahra thought she might have imagined it. With further urging from Lucas, Lavinia reached for her daughter’s hand and the little girl took hold as they left the room.
Lucas glanced at Zahra as she passed, curiosity in his eyes, but said nothing, the urgency to escape taking over. The party made their way down the stairs to the second floor and headed towards the library.
Zahra watched astounded as Master Lucas pulled out a book and a hidden door opened in the wall; she had never known such things were possible! He ushered them through quickly, handing Lavinia a candle, just as another crash sounded in the hall below. The rioters were probably throwing stones through the glass. What more could they do if they had already begun setting the house on fire?
The passage in the wall diverted to the right and then stopped at a set of steps. Lavinia took the steps first then Marie followed with Zahra not far behind her. Lucas pushed a stone in the wall and the passage shut locking them in the darkness. When they got to the bottom of the steps, Lavinia pushed against a small door and peered outside setting Terrance on the ground. Marie went to hold her little brother’s hand and he sniffed again swiping at his face.
The noise was louder here and Zahra’s heart beat an unsteady rhythm. Those were the sounds of bloodshed and gore, of fear and tremendous anguish. They were about to step into an all-out war.
The closest Zahra had ever been to battle was when her brothers and cousins told stories around the fire at night. They would tell her of times when they went out to hunt animals or when they raided enemy clans and tribes. There weren’t many of those occasions, thankfully, but she had wondered what it must have been like in the heat of the moment with a life in your hands – the life of an enemy who would just as soon end your own. Lavinia placed Marie in Zahra’s arms and swept Terrance up in hers. Zahra pulled Marie’s hood over her head and the little girl tucked her face into her neck. She patted the little girl’s back gently.
“Just like that,” she whispered, patting the said soothingly, and after a moment of thought added, “close your eyes and don’t open them until I say, okay?”
The little girl nodded and Zahra took a deep breath. If she could protect her charge from whatever horrors they were about to witness, she would gladly take up the burden. War was no place for a child. She would preserve the girl’s innocence as far as possible tonight, no matter what. Then, with one final glance at them as Lucas motioned for them to exit, the small party stepped out into the noise and carnage.
The chaos that met them beyond the door was like a scene from a nightmare. Zahra didn’t know where to look. Bloody bodies with the most grotesque wounds in all sorts of places littered the usually immaculate lawn like macabre figurines. She barely held herself together as she stepped past a dismembered corpse and a severed head, unseeing eyes open to the night sky. She hadn’t meant to look too closely.
It was one of the maids she’d known. Only yesterday, they had laughed about something inane she couldn’t recall in that moment. Tears sprung to her eyes and the fear and anguish crowded in. It looked like she had been ripped apart by something… a monster? Her stomach heaved and her arms threatened to drop the girl, weakening from the sight. She forced herself to look away and move on, her arms tightening slightly around Marie. She hoped the girl continued to close her eyes. Zahra wasn’t sure she had the strength to do it for her.
Glancing back, she realised that retreat was not an option either. The house would not be a safe haven – not any more. The fire that had been contained in the drawing room had grown into an inferno, the flames licking at the roof right near the room they had been in. Hot embers rose into the sky as angry flames rose to catch them. At any moment, the entire structure would collapse. They had better not be nearby when it happened.
Other people, the servants, she guessed, were fighting with sharp implements and torches and were still scattered about. A few shadows leapt at them – some of them falling and some of them taking over. It was all happening too fast and it was too dark to tell who was who. But she managed to make out one shape – and it made her blood run cold. April, holding up a dagger, sliced into a man bounding towards her with a wicked looking blade, the twin of the one in her other hand.
She didn’t know what shocked her more; the fact that her friend was actually quite adept at wielding a blade or the fact that the man that had attacked her was not really a man. His features had contorted into those of a monster. His razor sharp teeth had very nearly sunk into April’s arm but at the last minute, she had moved aside and sunk her blade into the back of his neck using his momentum against him.
As he fell, three more creatures surrounded her. As the first one lurched forward, Lavinia tugged on her hand and Zahra, hefting Marie in her arms, ran on heading for the woods. She needed to escape this. She needed to help her friend. She was torn between the girl in her arms and the girl in her heart. When they got to the edge of the forest line, she had half a mind to turn back and help April. The building was now completely engulfed.
It had been fairly easy to slip away unnoticed in the fray which she only momentarily thought as odd. How had they managed it? Many more still stood fighting off the creatures and Zahra couldn’t see April anywhere and that worried her more than she could say. Marie’s hold tightened around the back of Zahra’s neck drawing her back to their circumstances. For now, she had a responsibility that included keeping the children safe. With one last glance at the scene that would haunt her for the rest of her days, she stepped over a fallen tree and into the forest disappearing into the darkness.
On and on they went, through the trees and underbrush. It was difficult but they somehow managed. Zahra was sure her nightgown was a tattered mess at this point. The flimsy material wasn’t very good protection against nature. She kept up with the gruelling pace her masters had set as best as she could. When a low branch hit her legs however, she hissed slightly and her legs wobbled.
“Mama,” Marie called out and the party paused.
“Are you alright, girl?” asked Lucas stopping to look back at Zahra. She was about to respond in the positive when Lavinia spoke up for her.
“Of course she’s not. We’ve been walking half the night and you know she’s not nearly as strong as the rest of us,” replied Lavinia. Lucas sighed and looked at the path ahead. They’d had to avoid the direct path in case any of the attackers had thought to follow them that way. There was not a sign of humanity for miles. Zahra was half afraid they would leave her there and carry on without her.
Much to her surprise, it was Lavinia who sat on the large trunk of a fallen tree and looked resolutely at Lucas. He scrubbed at his face and sat next to her.
“Fine, we can rest but not for long.”
Zahra gently set Marie to the ground then, discreetly excusing herself, went to retch in the bushes. She hadn’t been able to get the bloody images out of her mind. The thought made her heave harder and when there was nothing left, she wiped her mouth and leaned forward, catching her breath. When she returned, Lavinia looked concerned but only for a moment. Lucas distracted her with a question. Zahra was too numb to listen in anyway. She had no interest in prying.
She sat gingerly on the ground wrapping her cloak around her after seeing to both Marie and Terrance who were sitting quietly huddled together. The masters continued discussing things among themselves in voices too low for Zahra to hear. Her muscles ached and her throat was dry. Her heart pounded a steady rhythm inside her chest as she caught her breath. She had nothing but the clothes on her back and the contents of the pouch hidden under her cloak. She wasn’t so sure she should open it up now since the masters were near.
What had April put in there and why did it feel slightly heavy? She would find out when they got to their destination. Her weary body grew heavy and her eyelids began to shut. She was not sure how long she was out but after what felt like a few minutes, Lavinia shook her awake.
Lucas indicated that they should leave. Lavinia helped Zahra up and she looked at their connected hands again. She blinked at Zahra once or twice, then she let go rather abruptly. She glanced back at Zahra once more and then resolutely faced forward and, with Terrance in her arms, they continued on their journey. Zahra paused. She had not been imagining the look Lavinia had given her earlier – as if she had discovered a secret Zahra hid. What that could be was beyond her.
A bird flew off a branch overhead and in a moment, the only sound would be of the small party moving through the trees. Zahra had many more questions on her mind but knew she wouldn’t get any of them answered that night.
As they went deeper and further into the woods, she clutched Marie in her arms. Her mind was swirling with all the things she had seen and heard. April in danger. Their home – and she had begun to think of it as such – was gone. Phillip was gone too. How would she reach him? She didn’t know where he lived. Did she dare ask the Masters? She wasn’t that bold. Bold enough to run into danger to rescue a child, but not enough for this. She had no right. He had been a beautiful moment – and now he would be a memory. A happy memory, she decided, like Hadi was now.
Once again, her life stretched before her, uncertain and dangerous. And all she knew was that she must face forward and, no matter how weary or weak she felt, keep moving forward.