Buried alive beneath a heap of a coat and filthy scarf, a small girl stared out at a cold world. Her eyes were freshly polished; that is to say, that she had very recently been crying, and the fading light made them shine. She was a little smear of a girl, hardly noticeable at all. Amidst the shadows and the soot-stains and the bodies, she was just another blot.
In the last few hours, she and the bricks at her back had become one entity; she had not strayed from their cover, or attempted to move from the alcove, which just managed to hide her. People had trotted past all day, through the mud and sludge, and she noticed that there were two kinds. There were those who ran for cover, clutching at hats and coats and wives and children. And then there were the other kind; the kind with stones in their pockets and clubs in their hands. She had seen some with bows, and others with swords. All wore scowls.
The tears hadn’t come then. They’d come later, when the sound of the fighting grew more severe, and something whistled over the building above her. An explosion jarred her very being and left her head pounding, her tongue bleeding from tooth-shaped holes. Her ears, beneath her small, cold hands, were ringing, and for a while that was the only sound there was. Then came the tears. She hadn’t been able to help them. Of course, no one could blame her. Not that anyone would have noticed. She was a piece of the scenery, now as always, and she was far from the only one in the city with tears on their cheeks.
Even the dogs, typically so savage as they hunted through the streets, had scurried past and left her be. Perhaps there was simply other prey to fight over.
How many days the battle had been going on, she couldn’t tell. She only knew that eventually the traded words had swelled into traded stones. She didn’t know who was throwing them, or at whom they were being thrown, but she could feel the fear. It was in the air, like the smoke. Like the cold. Like the hunger. How long had it been since she had eaten? She couldn’t remember her last meal. Even the dogs were better fed than she. Perhaps that was because the dogs had no natural aversion to human bodies.
A scuffle of feet made her bury her face deeper into her scarf and draw her legs closer to her chest. Two men scampered into her alley, their faces encrusted with grime, their clothes dripping wet with mud. One was holding a bare-bladed sword in his hand. The other held a stone, and by the looks of the scrapes on his face, had been on the receiving end of one fairly recently.
They neared her hiding spot and she held her breath, wanting to close her eyes but not daring. She tried to make herself invisible, tried to will the light to bend around her and ignore her completely. One of the men—the man with the sword—turned, shouting over his shoulder: “You’ll never take us alive, bloody tyrants!”
His companion did likewise, cupping both hands to his mouth. “Go back to Arlan! Leave us be!”
The man with the sword would have shouted again, had not another figure arrived at the end of the alley. He was taller than the other two, and broader in the shoulders. A black cloak hung all the way to his ankles, and a shining, silver helmet gleamed on his brow. The two men looked ready to fight, until they saw the broad edge of the long axe appear beneath the cloak.
Without a word, they turned and took off, slipping through the slush, tripping over the bodies that blocked the far entrance, in an attempt to escape a pursuer who did not pursue.
With a sense of growing terror in her stomach, the newcomer’s eyes settled upon the girl in the corner. She hid her face beneath the scarf now, not daring to look up as her heart pounded faster, each drumbeat echoing in her ears and her tongue. Footsteps were coming closer. Why? What did he want with her? He was right above her. She could feel his shadow. Hear the sound of metal.
“Are you hurt?”
The question hung. She moved her fingers from her face, and found a man kneeling before her, helmet beside him on the ground. He seemed young; his heavy eyes accentuated by substantial side-burns. Slowly, the girl shook her head in response.
He would move on. He would forget her, and she would be safe again. But he didn’t. After a few moments she swallowed, managing the words: “Aren’t you going after them?”
“No,” he looked off at the street. “They’ll be hiding in some hole by now. No use in it. Where’s your family?” She blinked, but he understood the meaning. A look of profound pity entered his eyes, and his heavy brows creased. “Up with you, lass,” he said softly, and she did not attempt to struggle when he reached out both hands and gathered her up, forgetting his helmet, forgetting his axe, and cradled her in his powerful arms.
“This is no place for a wee thing like you,” he said as he trudged along. “No. You stick with me. You stick with old Kilfreg. My lady’ll see you righter’n the summer rains in no time.”
“Where are you taking me?” She dared.
His reply was searing. “I’m taking you home.”
Home. What a strange word it seemed. What a heavy word; so pregnant with meaning, so full of life and color and emotion, so foreign. Speaking it was painful. But it was a good pain. A glorious pain. It was a pain in her soul, in that terrified, aching soul, so long alone. Elika was going home.
Her eyes, once more, began to shine.