Wordless, Silmaria burst into motion, springing forward to dash down to her burning home.
Or tried to, at least. Before she’d gone two strides, Lord Rael’s hand shot out and grabbed her by the wrist in a grip like steel. He yanked her back toward him and growled softly into her ear, “Don’t be a fool. We don’t know what’s down there. Follow me and stay quiet! Keep low.”
Though it galled her to be slow at all right then, Silmaria gave a reluctant nod and followed her Lord’s lead.
Rael took them around the Manor, making his way out to the tree line as they circled toward the front of House IronWing. They stayed in the shadows, mindful of the flickering light cast by the flames. It was easy enough for Silmaria to mimic his cautious, stealthy approach, light footed and fleet as she was, but impatience tugged at her every moment. She wanted to run to the house, to be sure everyone was okay, to do whatever she had to do to get the fire under control.
She refused to look at the flames rising higher and higher, or contemplate that her home may already be lost.
They skulked through the trees, snow crunching quietly underfoot, the sound drowned out by the crackle of flames. One section of the roof creaked ominously, then gave way in a noise some crash, splintering and smashing down into the rooms below as sparks and tongues of fire reached high into the night sky. The blaze was intense and ravenous, consuming all in its path with the indiscriminate voracity that only a fire possessed.
By the time they reached the edge of the trees that bordered the front of the Manor, it was obvious House IronWing was lost. The blaze was too complete, too consuming. The stone walls would stand, sure, but it would be a ruin, everything but the bones of the structure burned away to ash and cinder.
“Gods, the Manor... what do we do? What do we…” Silmaria gasped.
“Shh,” Rael silenced her roughly, then nodded to the stable yard where the fire set in the stables and stalls was illuminating a group of people. Silmaria felt a blossoming of hope, grateful at least that some of her friends and fellow servants had made it out alive.
Then she looked closer, and her heart sank. There were several cloaked and hooded men, the same that attacked the manor before standing with their weapons naked, gleaming and deadly. They stood in a ring around the huddle of servants who were forced down onto their knees with their hands bound behind their backs. More servants were being dragged to the stable yard by the assassins, intercepted and caught as they came panicked and coughing from the burning Manor. Silmaria saw Cook in the group, and Selm, and so many others, their faces covered in soot and their eyes filled with terror.
“Look,” Rael murmured into her ear from where he crouched behind her.
Silmaria followed his hand to a spot further down the tree line. At first, she saw nothing. Then the shadows moved, and she discerned the shape of one of the assassins leaning against a tree, watching closely in the direction of the Manor with a heavy black crossbow resting in his pale hands. Rael pointed out another, and another, all of them ringing the front of the Manor. Their posture was relaxed but alert, their focus poised and ready.
“What are they waiting for?” Silmaria whispered.
“Someone to slip past. They set the fire to flush everyone out of the Manor so they can catch them on the way out. The men on the edge of the clearing, at the treeline, are there to catch anyone who make it around the first group. They’re herding us.”
“Why? Why are they doing this?” Silmaria said as she began to tremble.
“Stay here. Do not move,” Rael instructed her firmly.
He drew a small but deadly looking dagger from his belt and moved between the trees, crouched low and sticking to the shadows, moving quick and silent. He was surprisingly quiet when he chose to be, and good at keeping his large size to the shadows. Soon she lost sight of him as he disappeared into the woodlands completely.
The Gnari girl huddled low in the shadow of the thick spruce tree she was hiding behind, and gazed down at the stable yard again. Someone down in the cluster of bound servants was sobbing and wailing loud enough to reach her ears over the din of the fire. If their captors cared, they showed no sign of being bothered.
A moment of irrational panic overtook her; was Lord Rael even coming back? She didn’t know where he’d gone off to, but it definitely wasn’t in the direction of the captives in the stable yard. Stricken and distressed as she was, her heart beating erratically in her chest, Silmaria couldn’t help but wonder if the Noble had decided to slip away while the shadowy men were distracted by the serving folk they’d gathered.
She looked back up to where the nearest cloaked figure stood at the treeline just in time to catch sight of Lord Rael creeping silently up behind him. The man stiffened, sensing something wrong, but it was too late. Rael’s hand circled around the man’s head, covering his mouth and yanking his head back to bare the white column of his throat, then the Knight dragged his blade cleanly across the assassin’s neck. Blood spilled from the man’s slit throat in a violent gush to blend with the shadows of his black clothes.
Rael lowered the body to the ground, quickly hiding it behind a tree. He rifled around the body for a moment, and when he straightened Silmaria glimpsed the man’s crossbow slung across Rael’s back. Then he was gone into the night once again.
She looked over into the clearing, expecting that at any moment one of the killers surrounding her friends would spot Rael out in the trees and raise the alarm, but no one seemed to notice the Nobleman’s actions. Their attention was fully turned toward the Manor and anyone emerging from the blazing structure. Even if they had turned their gaze toward the trees, Silmaria realized, the men there were set far back enough in the shadows that no one without her heightened night eyes would be able to see Rael’s work anyway.
Twice more Rael struck silently at the assassins in the trees, cutting them down quietly and taking their crossbows, as well as one of their wickedly curved short swords. Silmaria watched him, her heart pounding wildly in her breast as she said silent prayers to ever god old and new she could think of, willing Lord Rael to fix this, somehow, some way.
Silmaria glanced again into the stable yard as she wiped the sweat from her nervous, clammy hands. The assassins were mulling around the servants more closely now, circling the group slowly. They paid no mind to the Manor anymore, as no more of the simple folk seemed to be emerging. There were so few of her friends and housemates in that little group of frightened people. Where were all the others?
Hurry, Hurry, Silmaria thought, sending a silent plea to Rael to move quickly while cursing her own helplessness.
It happened all at once. Silmaria saw no signal, no nod, no sign of agreement or decision to act. One moment the men were circling their captives, and in the next they stepped in and began to quickly, efficiently slit their throats one by one.
The good, simple, hard-working IronWing folk were helpless, defenseless, and they died in terror and pain on those blades. Silmaria watched them bare Cook’s throat. The path of the blade. Her friend’s blood staining the trampled snow vivid red.
“No! No, no, no!” Her anguish and heartbreak ripped from her throat in a ragged scream.
The assassins looked up as one at her position. One of the men motioned, and a cluster of them seven or eight deep broke off from the group, dashing across the stable yard and the clearing around the Manor toward where she huddled. The rest of them remained, and continued their gruesome, evil work.
Even as the killers raced toward her, Silmaria was frozen, the horror of seeing her friends and loved ones butchered as her home burned to ruin utterly overwhelming her. She remained rooted to the spot until at last the men drew near. They moved more slowly now that they’d reached the trees, and it quickly became evident by their careful searching that though she’d given away her general location, she’d remained hidden in the shadows and trees well enough that they didn’t know exactly where she was.
The drive to live, to survive finally won out over her shock and paralyzing fear. Silmaria scrambled nimbly up into the tree, struggling with her dress but moving as quick and quiet as she was able, swinging up to the branches and high out of reach.
The murderers searched about in the underbrush for a time, moving in an organized fashion. Every moment stretched out endlessly, while Silmaria huddled up in the branches above, watching them, waiting. Finally, and much too soon, one of the men had the notion to look up in the trees. After a few moments of searching he spotted her. He pointed and the other men gazed up as well. The assassins circled around her tree, patient now knowing she was cornered and had nowhere else to go.
One of them leapt up onto the tree and began to climb, scaling the branches at a careful pace. Silmaria shifted, climbing higher, but soon she could go no further, already up in the highest branches that would support her weight. Silmaria knew what would come next; there was no escaping them now. She braced herself and pressed her face to the rough bark of the tree.
The man was only a yard or so below her when a sharp whistle cut through the air followed by a meaty thunk. The assassin gave a strangled cry, then a gurgle, and fell out of the tree, snapping branches along the way.
The men below scrambled out of the path of the body and it smashed into the snow below. She heard them cursing in their gravelly, rasping voices. A moment later a throwing dagger whipped into the trunk just inches from her face. Silmaria gasped and looked down at the cruel men below. She realized they thought somehow she’d killed the man, and if they’d been ready to kill her before, now they were eager for her death.
Another man shot up into the tree, this one climbing frantically and quickly, a surge of shadows moving nimbly toward her. Silmaria held tight to her tree and wrenched the thrown dagger free.
Again the whistle, the thunk of something fast and heavy pounding into the body, and the killer dropped as heavy and lifeless as the first. Fearing more daggers thrown her way, Silmaria moved in the tree, twisting and swinging through the branches to make it difficult to track her.
Before they had a chance to send another man up the tree, a third assassin went down, this time from the ground. Silmaria looked down, her eyes straining, and she saw it, the thick crossbow bolt sticking out from the cloaked figure’s chest. Blood welled and spilled into the snow beneath the body in a spread of crimson.
A moment later he was upon them. Rael leapt from the shadows. She glimpsed his face, a mask of fearsome rage, his jaw clenched and teeth bared like a wild thing, his handsome face screwed up in a snarl. His eyes promised death uncompromising. Yet he made no sound, no battle cry or roar of retribution. His rage was quiet and sure, and all the more terrifying for it.
Rael caught the nearest man unawares, swinging the fired crossbow and catching the hooded assassin across the face before bringing the curved short sword he’d stolen down in a chopping arc across the man’s exposed neck. The assassin managed to bring his blade up to parry, but in his stunned state it was slow, and Rael easily whipped his sword back up under the man’s guard to flay open his belly.
As the assassin fell dead, Rael shifted past the body, moving immediately to the next two men. More ready than their dead brother, the Knight Captain was nonetheless on them before they could fully recover from their surprise. He lashed out in a brutal attack, slashing at one man, then the other, pressing them back as they struggled to hold off his savage onslaught of quick, deadly blows. He made space from one assassin before closing with the other, forcing the killer’s sword back with pressure from his own and pressing in enough to viciously headbutt him in the face. The man nearly crumpled, stumbling back in a stunned daze, letting Rael meet the other assassin unencumbered.
From her vantage point above, Silmaria saw the third man circling to flank the wild Nobleman. Without thinking of the risks, the Gnari slipped down into the lower branches and then launched herself from her tree.
She slammed into the butcher’s back, and even as small and light as she was the impact bore the man down to the ground. He thrashed about under her as she struck at him and recovered quickly, spinning to face her.
Silmaria kept her position, straddling the man with all her weight, but he was too strong and he bucked her off. She struggled and kicked, raking him with her claws, but the man simply grunted and pressed in on top of her, pinning her with his weight and strength. His hands were as strong as iron and as cold, the feel of his fingers like the touch of the grave. He reached for her throat and she knew the moment his grip was secure around her neck, he’d never let go and she’d never draw breath again.
Silmaria finally remembered the dagger she’d snatched, tucked in the folds of her cloak. She gripped it tightly and plunged it into the man’s chest. She could feel the tissue and flesh resisting against the dagger’s blade, then yielding, opening. She yanked the dagger out, then stabbed it home again. Then again.
Her attacker fell back, sputtering and gurgling as his hands fumbled ineffectively for his sword. Silmaria surged up to follow him, driving him down to the ground, landing atop him once more. Her blade rose and fell, rose and fell.
Rael finished dispatching his men, the struggle taking only moments. When he turned to find the third assassin, he saw Silmaria over him, stabbing her dagger down into the quite dead man repeatedly. She was shaking violently, sobbing, her face a mask of desperate, horrible anger and grief. Tears ran down her cheeks to mingle with the spatter of sprayed blood already there.
“Silmaria,” Rael said firmly, as loudly as he dared.
Midstroke, her blade raised overhead to plunge into the man once more, Silmaria froze at the sound of her name. She looked at Rael, her green eyes dark and full of pain and loss and unguarded fury.
“Enough. It’s done.”
Something in his words, or his tone, reached her. She looked down at the body beneath her as if seeing it for the first time, then to the bloodied blade clutched in her crimson stained hands. The man’s blood was hot on her fingers and where it had stained her dress.
Silmaria began to shake. She threw the blade to the ground in revulsion as she fully comprehended what she just did. Rael saw panic and a sort of madness flash across her face. She had the look of a woman pushed too far, too quickly. All the violence and wrong, the trauma packed into so little time. She was on the verge of breaking.
Rael stepped quickly up to her, grabbed her upper arm in an unforgiving grip, and shook her, hard. Silmaria gasped, looking up at him as the lost, crumbling look retreated, replaced by surprise edged in pain.
“Stop that,” Rael commanded brusquely. “We don’t have time for you to fall apart, do you hear me? We don’t know how many of these killers there are. There could be dozens down there, watching the Manor, waiting for any sign of us. We’re lucky this group came far enough out that the rest didn’t see or hear what just happened. They won’t wait long before they come to investigate. We have to be away from here, now.”
“But… but IronWing Manor…” Silmaria whispered, still clinging to the last vestige of a stable, sane life, anything that made sense anymore.
“Is lost,” Rael finished in a tone of finality. “And we will be, too, if we don’t move. Here. Take this.”
Silmaria flinched as Rael thrust the remaining crossbow he’d slung over his shoulder into her hands. She took it in trembling fingers. She watched, half numb with shock and grief as Rael quickly pilfered through the bodies, gathering some supplies as he went and stripping the cloaks off of two of them. He bundled his stolen supplies into one of the cloaks, rolled it into a tight little wad, and then using the other cloak, tied the ball of supplies onto his back.
“Let’s go,” he said urgently. He tucked his stolen sword into his belt, took the crossbow from her, and grabbed Silmaria’s wrist. He yanked her toward him and led her into the woods.
Silmaria struggled to keep up as Lord Rael set a demanding pace, his long strides eating ground as he led them quickly away from IronWing lands. She was lucky she was quickfooted, as he was relentless, practically dragging her along as he took them deeper into the woods.
Silmaria had never been this deep into the forest before. The further they went away from settled land, the more densely clustered the trees became, crowding in a massive huddle with their boughs interlinking overhead, shutting out much of the moon’s silvery light. The underbrush grew thicker and their clothes were snagged on low hanging branches and various plants reaching at their legs from the ground. Silmaria was sure they were being followed by small, wild eyes.
“Where are we going?” she panted at last, her heart racing as they sped through the woods.
“Away from here,” was all Lord Rael would reply. He looked back frequently, the crossbow gripped and ready in his hands.
“There’s no one there,” she told him at last after he nearly stumbled into a tree trying to look for signs of pursuit.
He looked down at her with a frown. “How can you be sure?”
She leaned against a thick trunk, trying to catch her breath. It seemed like they’d been running for hours. She had always been a physically fit, capable girl, but she had nowhere near the conditioning Lord Rael possessed, and he’d set a high pace even for himself.
“My eyes work a lot better than a Human’s in the dark,” said Silmaria when she could finally breath again. “I can see clear enough to tell no one is following us.”
Rael looked at her closely in the near darkness for a moment, then nodded curtly. “Keep watching, then. You’ll see them before I do. Let’s go. We can slow to a walk for a bit, but we can’t stop yet.”
Silmaria took a deep breath and willed her body to move. It wasn’t easy; her whole body ached from the night’s activity, and she was feeling the physical effect of too many shocks coming all at once. Her mind was numb right now; the thoughts were there, somewhere, but she’d been driven past the point of even contemplating them. For the time being, she thought of little more than putting one foot in front of the other, and surviving.
Lord Rael took them further into the forest at a reasonable pace for a time. Silmaria followed in his wake, huddled in her cloak, chilled to the bone and miserable. She looked around, studying their surroundings to try to distract herself. The woods were a blend of green and barren, evergreen and sleeping deciduous trees intermingled, with spruces and their green needled branches being most common. The winter night was filled with the sounds of stirring trees, the wind shifting through leaves and needles and branch. The towering giants around them creaking as their old wooden bones shifted. The occasional owl hooted a lonesome call. The smell of pine and dead leaves and live things, green and furred both, intermingled in a rush of scents that was not unpleasant. To her sensitive senses, inexperienced to such things, there was enough new smells and sounds and sights for Silmaria to gratefully lose herself in for a time.
Rael called them to a stop to allow her to rest. Silmaria sat gratefully on a smooth stone covered in a soft carpet of moss. She took her thin slippers off and rubbed at her sore, frozen feet, trying to coax some warmth into her almost numb toes. The little slippers, not made for such heavy use, were already wearing away and wouldn’t last much more than a day or two of forced march.
While she rested, Lord Rael undid his makeshift pack and clambered up into a nearby tree, climbing high up into the branches. She looked up at him, curious, and after watching him for a time guessed that he must be staring up at the sky to read the stars.
Sure enough, when they resumed their march at a brisker pace this time, their direction changed. Rael led them at a hurried jog through the woods.
“Where are we going?” she asked at last, and half expected Rael to avoid answering yet again.
The Nobleman was silent for a time before finally saying, “Trelling’s Landing. We’ve set out to the east into the Turan Wood. We’re a few miles in by now. Now we’re heading southward. We’ll continue this way for a few miles and then cut southwest. We’ll come out in about a dozen miles into the Greensward, and circle west and back north until we reach the city. This route is the least direct, and we’ll spend the least amount of time in exposed ground this way.”
“Are we going to the Guard?”
“No,” said Rael as they trudged up a steep hill. “They’ll be expecting that. They’ll be watching for us to contact the Guard. Even if they aren’t, it won’t matter. The Guard can’t help us against these men.”
“Then who can?” Silmaria asked, panting again as she struggled to keep up.
“I don’t know. Yet. I will by the time we get there,” he replied, and that was that.
They continued to the south for what must have been close to an hour, and seemed even longer. Silmaria kept lookout behind them. Every hundred yards or so she stopped and looked carefully, scanning the wooded area all around them for any sign of pursuit. Mercifully there was no sign of anyone else in the wood, the only tracks in the snow their own, and those quickly fading under a sudden, steady snowfall that started in the middle of their march. They took a brief break, and Lord Rael scaled a tree once more to check the stars. It took him longer this time, trying to glean a decent look through the overcast of clouds and snow. Finally he descended, and they changed direction once again, moving southwest toward the open grasslands of the Greensward.
It was the early hours of the morning by the time they came upon a large, icy stream that was just large enough and fast moving enough not to freeze over completely. Silmaria eyed it dubiously; she was loath to even attempt to cross the water. It didn’t look deep, and would probably only come up to her knees or lower thigh, but she was already near frozen to the bone as it was and she felt sure if she stepped foot into the freezing water she was going to end up losing a foot.
Lord Rael crouched down at the edge of the stream and stared at it for a few moments, then gave a small nod. “This is good. We’ve probably come far enough south for now. We can follow this to the west. It may be a tributary that feeds into White Rock River. That feeds into Lake Glasswater. If that’s the case, we can follow the river all the way to Trelling’s Rest.”
He stood and led her west down the bank of the stream for a time, until they reached a small alcove worn into the side of the stream where the bank hung over a depression worn away by the streams moving waters long ago. Now, dry and removed from the waters, it would offer some respite from the wind and snow, and would provide some cover to hide them from searching eyes.
“This is as good a place as any to stop for some rest,” said Rael.
Silmaria needed no further prompting. Exhausted, she sagged to the ground. She was shaking with exhaustion, weary beyond knowing. Every part of her ached, not the least of which was her heart.
Rael busied himself by undoing his makeshift pack and sorting through the items he’d pilfered. He’d kept the short sword he’d bloodied on their enemies, and taken a second still in its scabbard. He had two stolen daggers, plus his own, and the single remaining crossbow he’d taken. The two thick, black cloaks were heavy and warm and lined inside with the black dyed fur of some large animal of prey she only half recognized. There was a quiver of crossbow bolts, a flint-and-tinder kit, a small pouch holding a few coins, and, most important as far as she was concerned, a small pouch that Rael opened to reveal a portion of traveling rations in the form of salted and cured meat, probably venison.
When Rael pulled a strip of the meat from the rations and handed it to her, Silmaria took it gratefully. Only in that very moment did she fully realize just how hungry she was, her stomach turning over in angry knots at the very notion of food. She attacked her food, then slowed as she noticed how slowly Rael ate his own portion, chewing carefully in slow, small bites. The rations remaining were pitifully small when Rael pocketed it.
Rael put the rest of their things to the side, then grabbed up the cloaks. He pulled one on over the cloak he already wore, then handed the remaining one to Silmaria. She pulled the cloak on over her own sad, small cloak, and almost moaned aloud at the warmth of it. She was numb from the tips of her feline ears to her toes, and even the extra warmth of her pelt wasn’t enough to keep her from violently shaking from the cold now. The temperature had begun to drop with the snowfall, and hadn’t stopped dropping since.
“C-can we have a f-fire?” Silmaria asked through chattering teeth.
Rael shook his head, his jaw setting in a grim line. “It’s too dangerous. Even in this little alcove, someone could see the light. It would give our position away for sure. No. We can survive without it, if we press in close for warmth.”
His words didn’t even fully register past her disappointment at not having a fire. She didn’t realize what he meant until he scooted in closer, and reached out for her to take her into his arms.
Silmaria’s reaction was immediate. Despite being utterly exhausted, she somehow found the strength to slap his hands away, recoiling and squirming away from him.
“Don’t touch me!” She snarled, baring her teeth as her ears pressed flat to her head. One moment she was utterly drained and the next, all the stress, the shock, the heartache and anger and helpless rage of that horrible night came rushing to the surface, potent and overwhelming and unreasonable.
Rael stared at her in surprise for a moment, then shook his head, moving in close again. “I’m not going to hurt you, Silmaria, and I’m not going to do anything improper. We have to do this. We have to stay warm, or we’ll freeze before the dawn thaws us out.”
“I don’t care! Don’t you fucking touch me!” She shrieked. Her voice was hysterical, the screeching of some pathetic, broken thing she didn’t recognize.
“You bastard, you useless bastard! You should have protected them! You should have saved them! Saved all of us! It’s your fault!”
Rael’s face flickered, emotion playing through it before he pushed it down and a look of grim determination took its place. Silmaria was too far gone to notice or care any injury she did him. It had taken all her will and control to make it this far, to push all her feelings and grief aside to survive through the night. Now that their forced march was over and everything had slowed, she was overwrought with the rawness of pain and grief.
But he ignored her raving and screamed accusations. He grabbed her, his hold implacable. She struggled and flailed, pushed and shoved and heaped every foul curse upon him she could think of. She pounded on his chest and struck at him, but he wouldn’t let her go. He pulled her into his arms, enfolding her into his embrace, and held her body tight to his. He said nothing, made no reply to the blame she laid at his feet. He simply held her and refused to release her.
She didn’t want this. She didn’t want his warmth, his closeness, the strength of him surrounding her. She didn’t want the security of that embrace, the way it sheltered her from the cold and the horrible place the world had become. She wanted to hate him. She wanted it to be his fault, because her world was crumbling and someone had to be responsible for it.
“It’s your fault. They were there for you! They were there for you, and you didn’t protect us. It’s your fault,” she screamed until her voice was hoarse, until she was hiccupping, and then sobbing, sobbing and shaking and crying into his chest, her tears soaking into his shirt as he held her there, huddled in the warmth of his arms.
Silmaria thought she had cried enough to last a lifetime. She thought she’d felt enough loss and grief and pain to wring all the tears she could ever make from her. She had told herself, after those long nights reading Master Edwin’s letters, and then letting him go that she was finally done with tears and heartache and grief, forever.
How very wrong she’d been.
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<a href="https://www.lushstories.com/stories/novels/darkfyre-chapter-ten.aspx">DarkFyre Chapter Ten</a>