It was as if the night had swathed blackness over the stars. The cottages flanked each other, soft candle light staining the ragged curtains, probing hesitating fingers into the darkness outside. The streets were barren. Desolate. The roads. once crowded over and swollen with the village’s residents, now stretched out like a monster’s tongue.
A quivering hand lifted the edge of the drape, reluctance like poison in his veins. His eyes flickered around the vacant street in front of them as they swallowed dryly. His hands clutched at the window’s edge, breath stirring the curtains as it trickled out between his lips. Anxiety gnawed at his mind. They should’ve been here already.
He held up the candle closer to the window, attempting to steady his grip as his eyes followed the shuddering wick pool out into the road. He bit his lip, eyes narrowed. A bead of sweat dribbled down his cheek.
Pain exploded his senses. He hissed as the candle clattered to the floor, sucking up the light with it. His fingers stretched out as his jaw set, eyes watering as the wick tattooed burns into his flesh. He cursed, scrambling for the object, before swearing once more and warily rising to his feet.
George flinched, turning toward the threshold, eyes scanning over his wife who stood, flanked by the shadows of the house. She watched him timidly, carefully, as if afraid of startling him.
“Are...are they here yet?” Her voice seemed too loud for the hushed household. She hurriedly scampered over to her husband, clasping his hands between her own.
“Helena.” George squeezed her hands, attempting to ward off the bubbling pain branded into his palms. “I don’t think so...But soon.”
Two blue sets of eyes peered around the edge of the doorway, inquisitive and slightly confused. The two girls stepped forward warily, one sleepily and begrudgingly rubbing at her eyes. “Papa?”
George tore himself away from his wife and anxiously glanced toward his two daughters, already fighting the anxiety tunneling into his heart. We’re wasting time. Just sitting here...We’re exposed. We’re already dead. He fought to place a smile on his lips, shuffling forward, resting a hand on both of their small, delicate shoulders. “We’ll be just fine. Don’t worry.”
The girls didn’t seem as convinced.
An explosive bang interrupted the shriveling silence.
His pulse spiked; Helena frantically scrambled for the children. They folded themselves into their mother, small hands tugging and clamping onto the grooves of her dress.
“Helena, take the girls to the attic,” George whispered, drawing the curtains closed, brawling with his emotions to keep his hands steady.
Helena swayed slightly, indecisive. “I can’t leave you, you’ll need help barricading the doors-”
“Now.” He snapped, his tone full more of fear than anger. He turned to the children, enveloping them each in a hug, attempting to ignore their trembling.
Helena took them by the hand, nearly tugging them out of the room, before George flipped her around, placing his lips on hers.
Rapid clanging busted the seam of silence, ripping the two apart. He frenetically fumbled for the dagger burrowed in his boot, before pressing it into her hand. “I’ll be right there.”
Helena gave a nod, before she steadied herself and gripped the children's hands, sprinting from the room.
George turned toward the door, teeth grating as he noted the sudden silence. He edged toward the door, shoes shuffling up the dirt floor in plumes of powder. He held his breath, shoulders tensing, before the sound of splintering wood was brought to his ears. He narrowed his eyes toward the glinting, silver blade lodged into the door, before realizing what it was.
His breath hitched.. He stumbled away from the door. The sounds of jovial shouts and high-tuned whistles wormed into his ears. He swallowed down the lump of fear in his throat and hectically turned himself around, eyes scraping the room for somewhere to take shelter.
The chimney was dingy. His hands chafed against the grimy walls, coating his hands in soot and ashes. George held his breath, closing his eyes tightly, though the re was no light to penetrate his eyelids.
The sounds of clamoring and whooping didn’t cease. The fracturing of the door grew louder, until a moaning, creaking sound engulfed the household. It slammed onto the ground, sending shock waves of dirt flying to all corners of the room, slithering up the chimney and making him gag.
The sounds of swords being drawn sliced the air. His heart constricted. Hushed voices overtook the room. He waited. A bead of sweat crawled down his neck. He glanced down, blinking rapidly in the darkness as the dust started to dissipate from his eyes. He heard footsteps. He strained his eyes to see. A glow of a torch, like gnarled fingers groping toward him.
“I swear,” a low, coarse voice cut through the silence, “I saw him. Through the window.” The hushed voices grew louder, indicating that more than one intruder was present. “He’s in here. He has family. Buffoons like that always stay behind.”
There was a sound of chuckling, a sinister vibration that made the blood in George’s veins start to ice over. He breathed in quietly.
“We’ll start in the next room over.” George could almost feel the slick smile on the stranger’s face. “There aren’t many places to hide. After all, this is a peasant’s abode, eh?” A chorus of laughs and snorts clouded the atmosphere.
The laughter halted.
The air around George felt heavy, as if someone had dropped a thick quilt around his shoulders. All hope he had possessed was quickly eroded away.
“...Looks like they’re making it even more easier for us tonight,” the voice continued, dripping with satisfaction.
The noise of boots shuffling hurriedly away drifted to his ears. George felt his arms trembling, the muscles shuddering. He crashed to the bottom of the chimney, sides blossoming with new found pain. He held back the groan in his throat, tightly clamping his lips together.
Empty. The room had been vacated.
He rose unsteadily to his feet, hands trembling at his sides. His eyes caught the last vision of flame from one of the torches before it whisked away. He bent over, catching his breath, panting hard, before a sudden realization cleaved into his mind.
They were heading to the attic.
Muffled, feminine screams punctured his ears, joined quickly by a yelp of a man. George scrambled forward, mouth hanging agape. He knew what was happening.
But he couldn’t stop it.
His neck snapped up, eyes straining toward the floor of the attic. His pulse pounded in his ears. He couldn’t hear. He felt numb. A strangled cry wriggled a path out of his throat. His knees buckled, pushing into the dirt floor. He couldn’t stay there forever. They would come back. They would see him. Weeping. Wailing. Blubbering.
He wrenched himself upwards, stumbling back as the sounds of grumbling and laughter pierced his sniveling. He quickly retreated into a corner, holding his breath as the shadows dangled over him like a veil.
“Damn wench stabbed me.”
“Stop the complaining, Henry. Don’t want to murder our good mood.”
A few grunts of approval threaded the silence.
“Did you see how I gutted them?” The smile on the stranger’s face was disconcerting.
“Of course, you were gloating about it throughout the whole process.”
George turned his head slowly as the intruders filed out throughout the doorway, trampling over the door while giving each other affectionate pats and cheers.
“This night will be lit up. From the inside out.”
George quickly pried himself away from his tiny corner of seclusion and pounded toward the attic. He wrenched open the door, already feeling anxious tears pricking at his eyes, fogging his vision. He scrambled in, attention drawn to a burning torch in the corner. He picked it up. Every nerve in his body commanded him to not look, to not witness the scene that had already unfolded around him. But he had to.
He rose the torch.
Blood pooled on the floor, seeping into the mud, swirling into a scarlet concoction of grime and liquid. Three bodies were piled on the ground, skin stained like feathers of a cardinal. Two children’s hands intertwined, still tight in their desperate grasp to stay together.
George felt himself crumble to the ground. This isn’t real. They’re alive. They’re alive. He crawled forward, sobs rocking his body . He reached forward, hovering the torch over the vacant, unmoving bodies. His hand slipped over their hands. He gave a squeeze. And drew away blood.
A low moan escaped his throat.
“Maudie..” His fingers brushed against a strand of stark blond hair, untouched by the blood leeching into the floor. He glanced over to Joanna, the dark-haired, blue eyed twin. A jagged cut sliced through her stomach, organs soaked with blood that was beginning to dry.
His eyes reluctantly trailed over to the body of his wife. Her eyes were open, and he thought he caught a glimmer of what was thought to be anger. The last emotion she felt. Not pain. Not panic.
Her body lay almost perfectly, as if she had merely laid down to sleep. Her hair looked like it had been untouched; her mouth was a straight line. Her hands were folded on her stomach, clutching at an object stained with blood at the tip.
With a trembling grasp he leaned himself forward to inspect, upon realizing: it was the dagger. She had put up an altercation, at least.
She had tried to defend their children.
No words came from his mouth.
No matter how hard he tried, no tears would leak forth.
It was if a candle had been blown out. His limbs were stiff, his tongue sat like a frozen icicle in his mouth. With slow movements, George reached forward to his wife. He gingerly pried her fingers away from the blade, before lifting her hands to his lips, brushing against them. He reluctantly placed her hands back to her lap, before struggling to his feet.
The torchlight flickered softly in his grasp. Whatever possible heat it could’ve offered held no warmth in his bones. He felt like a hollow shell.
I..I can’t stay. Helena would’ve wanted me to live, certainly? He swallowed dryly, tightening his grip on the torch, before he stumbled his way down the stairs, as if floating like a distant, disoriented ghost.
His shoes crunched against the dirt as he fled from the house, breath snaking out of him and being locked away into the atmosphere. The dark, onyx night earlier was now dappled by clusters of red. Smoke wound its self around the houses in seemingly all directions.
It was a fire.
The raging monster had already submerged the row of houses down the street in tongues of flame. A few villagers staggered around the street, appearing as panicked and confused as George was.
The smoke was intruding his lungs. Making it harder to breathe. The stragglers that were once in the distance were swarming towards him, shouting incoherent expressions of panic. He was swept away by them, running at full speed to keep up with the frenzied stampede of strangers and fellow neighbors.
His heart felt heavy. His lungs were burning－not only with the smoke－but with pangs of regret. His eyes were glazing with tears. I’m sorry, Maudie. I’m sorry, Joanna. I’m sorry, Helena. The words were repeated like a mantra in his head, consuming his entire mind, before he realized he was chanting it out loud. The emotion in those words would’ve been enough to split the heart of the devil. But no one could hear it. His words were swallowed up by the panic.
He was alone in this world now.
It was impossible to tell how long they ran. He never once stopped. The dark, silent forest seemed a more welcoming home than the one he was leaving behind. He turned toward the village, not feeling the shoves and pushes from the frantic townspeople as they piled past him. He stood there for several minutes, watching his beloved home crumble and shake with the groans of destruction, the wails of the dead, before he turned back to the group, eyes misting.
Behind him, the fire blazed on into the night.
It had been two weeks. Two weeks of apprehension. Two weeks of waiting. The letter I had long been anticipating hadn’t arrived.
I had hurriedly completed my chores, dashed through the chicken coop, scattered a week’s worth of eggs, terrorized the chickens and skidded around one too many lethargic goats, to reach my father at the main entrance. Only to stumble in front of him, beaming and breathless, and empty-handed.
That was two weeks ago. And still no word from Alistair.
The cluster of leaves overhead were speared with light, dappling the sodden ground below my feet as I shuffled around the enclosed coop. Clusters of feathers swirled around me in the air, as bundles of chickens scraped their way past my legs, talons grazing the dirt as their choir of clucking grew in abundance.
Sweat collected at my temple, weaving a thread of moisture down my face as I bent over, fighting through the turmoil of alabaster feathers to scrabble for the last remaining egg. I puffed out a breath of air, slinging the wicker basket around my wrist, before glancing toward the cluster of cottages a few paces away.
My mother sat on one of the porches, hands flying at the basket nestled in her lap, tender face locked in a slight frown as she wrestled with the object. It always seemed like she was absorbed with some sort of task, whether it be tending to a sick child, injured stock, or pitching in with the abandoned chores. Always forgetting her daughter.
It wasn’t as if I minded.
A soft breeze stirred the slick hair plastered to my neck away from my body, eliciting a small smile on my lips. I rose among the ocean of clucking beasts and waded to the gate.
The sodden wood groaned underneath me as I took a seat next to my mother, eyes drawn to the porch steps rather than my mother's preoccupied hands, a blur of branches and flesh. A few uncomfortable beats of silence passed, before my mother's weathered face titled toward me, a soft smile planted on her lips.
"Have you received that letter from Adam, yet?"
"It's Alistair, Mother..and no, I have not heard back from him.." I trailed off softly, eyebrow raised at the tangled mess of brambles and sticks perched in my mother's lap.
"Ah..yes, that's..that's him.." Her voice seemed distant, as if placed on an alien coast I couldn't quite reach.
I felt my grip slightly tighten around the rests of the rocking chair, nails biting into the wood, before a cough from inside the house swayed my attention.
The maid of my family, Mara, stood silhouetted in shadow, just inside the entrance of the house. I could almost feel the glare gnawing at my insides; I shifted my gaze toward my mother.
"Miss," Mara cocked her gaze toward the elder woman, "dinner is nearly ready." She didn't seem at all perturbed by the lack of attention from her employer, whose eyes were still locked upon the woven bundle in her lap, or the lack of response.
I took the opportunity of their servant's distraction to glance her over with apprehension. How was it this woman gripped my heart with fear, while she treated the other members of my family with such favor and respect?
I expelled a breath as Mara dissolved into the shadows of the house, grip lessening on the arms of the chair as I sat myself up.
Minutes passed. The murmurs of the village snaked around my ears, snippets of children’s laughter, scolding mothers and bleats of sheep clouding up my thoughts. I creaked forward in my chair, mouth attempting to form a word to my mother, before a horn sliced through my mind.
Baskets dropped. Dogs yipped, before muffled by their owners. Children’s squeals of ripe laughter quickly halted.
I felt my breath pause.
In an eruption of shuffled feet and panicked shrieks, the center of the once bustling town was desolate.
Without prior warning, I felt a vice around my arm, sunlight quickly being blotched out by the darkness of the house as I was hurriedly pulled inside.
The front door slammed shut.
“Close the curtains, Mara,” I heard my mother whisper, her voice faint and trembling a high octave.
A candle was lit to my right, illuminating only a tiny proportion of the dirt floor the three of us now huddled upon.
The room felt hot and sticky with the breath of others.
The minuscule flicker of the flame thrust our shadows upon the walls, bent like a trio of tensed, spooked sheep.
The thrumming in my ears would not seem to cease. It tolled on, like a constant throb in my mind, echoing one thought: They’re here. They’re here. They’re here.
The sound of a horse whinnying in the square erupted the silence, making my heart quake; it was as if it plummeted down a chasm. My felt my mother reach for my hand.
I carefully prodded the wall to their right, fingertips brushing against the wood as I felt for the tiny hole; the candlelight seemed to dim by the second.
Shakily, my fingers plied the slab of wood away from the wall, quietly sliding it away from the hole before I lowered herself in front of it, peering out past the flora clambering up the side of the house.
Outside, the square was barren. Tracks of hunter’s boots and merchant’s sandals wove scattered and frantic trails onto the sodden soil. Fractured egg shells littered the ground.
I sensed my mother’s small hand trembling at my shoulder, tightening as I squinted into the village, past the abandoned coops and worktables, toward the entrance. I felt my heart constrict.
Three men stood, perched on their steeds, faced away from the square, heads bent in hushed discussion. They bore beige colored capes, sluggishly flapping in the wind. Their horses snorted out soft gusts of air, occasionally dipping their heads to nip at the scraggly grass that protruded from the soil.
The blood seemed to be slowly draining away from my veins. All of the tales had been true. The stories of mysterious groups of men arriving at the gates of town with canny grins. The men that crippled villages, incinerated their homes. Beat the villagers until their eyes clouded over. All in just seconds.
And now they were here.
“What...what do you see, Caster?” My mother’s voice trembled softly behind me, though it sounded like a gunshot in my ear.
“A few men...on horses...they’re talking,” I cast a look back to my mother, whose face paled even in the growing dimness of the amber candlelight. My eyes flicked over to Mara, crouched next to us, whose stoic expression did not shock me.
My eyes widened as I pressed myself back up against the wooden flap. Behind me, I heard the sound of my mother breathing hurriedly, over that- the sound of brass pots clattering to the floor. Mara’s clipped voice flooded the piercing silence afterward, a nonchalant apology slipping past her lips.
I turned my shaky gaze back to the cluster of men in the square, who had pivoted their steeds toward my house. It took me a moment to realize, at first with quavering uncertainty, that a familiar face graced one of the men astride the horses.
But if I put my head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal to fire or to the Maker of fire, and I have only myself to blame.
—Henry David Thoreau