Hallowed

II. Ashes to Ashes

Edith Hewe had left the shutters of her cottage open. It was starting to grow chilly outside, but she wanted to be able to hear when Deena returned. Hobbling on her one good foot, she limped over to the hearth to stoke the fire.

She hoped Deena was having fun. The girl may not be of her loins, but she was of her heart; after all, it would take someone truly heartless to raise a child from infancy and feel nothing. One day, perhaps sooner than Edith would like, the girl would have to leave. Until then, it would be good for Deena to spend an evening with her friends, to make one more precious memory while she still could.

Edith sat back down in her chair and picked up her work. The wedding veil was coming along beautifully: a pair of birds in flight, their long tail feathers intertwined. When Deena got married – if Deena got married – Edith hoped that she would still be around to see it.

The sound of footsteps and voices caused Edith’s needle to pause. It was rare for anyone to pass by her cottage, least of all this time of night. The voices were strange, not ones she recognized.

“…some sort of celebration?” asked a man.

“Yeah,” replied another. “In a building by the square. Town hall, I reckon.”

“And they’ll all be there?”

A scoff, made by yet another man. “Town this size? Of course they’ll all be there.”

“You sure? Loorne’s man will have questions if–”

“Hey. There’s a light on in that house.”

Edith froze. Where had she heard the name Loorne before? It was too late now to put out the fireplace, not with the flames burning so merrily in the grate. Running wouldn’t do her any good, not with her foot. Perhaps if she handed over her valuables they would just go away, but–

The twenty-year-old memory came back to her in a flash. Loorne. She was bringing drinks to Lord Raniith’s solar. “Ah, here is the wine now,” said Raniith. “You must try some, Lord Loorne; it is a most delightful vintage.”

Loorne is Ajjraean, realized Edith. She reached for the ring she wore on a chain around her neck and yanked, tugging it free, and flung it chain and all into the flames.

Just in time, too. A moment later her front door burst open.

The men on the other side looked more like brigands than soldiers, but sometimes it was hard to tell the two apart. “On your feet!” one of them shouted, and Edith complied, but evidently not quick enough, as he stepped forward to grab her by the arm and pull her roughly towards him.

“Is it her?” asked one of the others.

The man who had grabbed Edith pulled her to the window, tilting her head to better see her face in the moonlight. “Too old,” he said, shaking his head. “Loorne’s man said she’d be young.”

“Then what do we do with her?”

The man pulled a dagger from his hip and put it to her throat. “You heard the orders. No survivors.”

“Please,” began Edith, but whatever else she could have said was drowned in blood.

For a moment, Deena forgot how to breathe. The world disappeared around her; there was only the rough bark of the tree beneath her fingers and the fire in the distance, the hideous orange glow and the roiling plumes of smoke. Time was frozen, or maybe it was only her, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, could only stare transfixed at the flames.

An eternity later, it was the stranger’s voice that returned her to the world of motion. “Joel,” she said, for the third time that evening. “Let’s go.”

The stranger leapt down from her tree and landed with a quiet thud. Mr Allard did the same.

“W-wait,” said Deena, clambering down as quickly as she could.

“No,” said Allard sharply. “Stay here.”

“But–”

Stay.

“Let her come if she wants,” said the stranger.

“She’s a child!” protested Allard.

“They might come this way,” replied the stranger.

Deena didn’t know what was meant by “they”, but Allard seemed to understand. “Stay close,” he said to Deena.

They headed in the direction of town, not running, but walking at as brisk a pace as they could in the dark.

The fire was more smoke than flame by now; it filled the woods, stinging their eyes and nostrils long before they could see the town. There was something else, too, a strange tangy scent that Deena couldn’t place and wasn’t sure she wanted to.

They heard Allard’s mule before they could see her through the smoke. Someone had ransacked the wagon but left the animal alone; the beast was braying, terrified, stamping at a few cinders that had floated her way. Allard ran over to calm her, whispering, until she quieted enough to no longer be tugging at her leash.

“Aren’t you going to check your wagon?” asked Deena.

“That can wait,” said Allard.

They passed collapsed roofs and walls scorched black with soot. Fires still burned, here and there, loose planks that had fallen from who-knows-where. There was a smoldering pile of wood that Deena was sure had once been the greengrocer’s cart, and at the center of the square–

Allard clamped his hand quickly over Deena’s eyes, but it was too late. She had already seen it, barely visible through the smoke, silhouetted by flames. Bodies, dangling from the branches of the great oak tree.

Deena pushed the hand away. “Who–” she began, then wished she hadn’t, because there was a pile next to the tree, with limbs sticking out at all angles, and as a gust of wind blew the smoke her way–

Deena bent over and retched. She emptied her stomach of what felt like everything she had ever eaten, but it was no good. The smell still lingered, permeating her nose, permeating everything. She would never be rid of that smell.

“Deena,” said Allard urgently. “Was your mother here?”

Deena shook her head. No, her mother never goes to the dance. Her mother was still at–

Home.

Deena ran. Allard called after her, and maybe the stranger too, but Deena could only think of her mother. She ran down the familiar streets, past the familiar houses, until the familiar sight of her cottage emerged through the smoke.

It hadn’t been burnt, but the garden had been trampled, and the door was hanging from its hinges.

Allard grabbed her by the arm and clamped his hand over her mouth. “They could still be here,” he hissed.

Who? Deena wanted to ask, but Allard’s hand was clamped down tight.

“Stay here with the girl,” said the stranger. “Stay in the shadows.”

The stranger disappeared into Deena’s home while Allard pulled Deena away. In the stillness, Deena listened to the crackle of the flames in the distance, the pounding of blood in her ears.

It was a long while before the stranger emerged, carrying a figure in a bloodstained sheet.

Allard’s grip on Deena’s arm slackened. “Oh gods,” he said. “Oh gods, Deena, I’m so sorry.”

The stranger set the bloodied figure on the ground, and Deena ran to it, falling to her knees. Her hand hovered over the figure, but she could not bring herself to touch he sheet.

“Do you want to see her?” asked the stranger.

Deena nodded.

The stranger peeled back the sheet, just enough to reveal the face, folding the fabric neatly below the chin. Edith Hewe was paler than usual, or perhaps that was the moonlight. Her hair was tousled, the usual pins pulled free from her greying hair, but other than that she could for all the world have been asleep.

“Mama?” said Deena.

Mrs Hewe didn’t respond.

The stranger put a hand on Deena’s shoulder. “Where do you want to bury her?”

“Bury her?” asked Allard. “We don’t have time to bury her.”

“We do,” said the stranger.

“The Ajjraeans could come back, if it is the Ajjraeans, and–”

“We’re burying her,” said the stranger, and Mr Allard fell silent.

Deena didn’t want to bury her either. Her mother wasn’t dead, couldn’t be. Yet she found herself raising a hand to point to the patch of flowers by the side of the house. “She liked the flowers,” she said. “The big ones that look like daisies.” They weren’t in bloom yet, but they would be soon, and her mother would want to see them.

The stranger picked up the shovel and tossed it to Allard. “Start digging,” she said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Where are you going?” asked Allard.

“To get my belongings.”

Deena sat beside her mother while Mr Allard dug the hole. She supposed that she should help, but she couldn’t bear to leave. She had to stay, to keep her mother company.

The stranger had returned by the time Allard was done, and it was she who carried Mrs Hewe to her final resting place. “Would you like to say a few words?” she asked.

Deena stared down into the makeshift grave. It was just a hole in the dirt, barely three feet deep, with a bloodstained sheet for a funeral shroud. Her mother deserved better. “I’ll come back,” said Deena. “I’ll come back, I promise, and do this properly.”

They waited for her to say more, but Deena had nothing more to say. She took the shovel from Mr Allard’s hands and began to fill in the hole.

“Let me,” said the stranger, and Deena obliged. She watched the dirt rain down on her mother until she was covered, sheet and all.

Deena went inside. Her house and belongings hadn’t been touched, and somehow this made Deena angry, that the aggressors would go after her mother’s life but not her possessions. That there was nothing worth taking–that the killers knew there was nothing worth taking–but they took her mother’s life anyway.

Mr Allard joined her, after a moment. “Are you alright?” he asked.

Alright? Of course she was alright. It was the world that was wrong. What kind of world would take away her everything in a single night? Her mother, her friends, her town? There was no question of if anyone survived; they hadn’t seen a single soul on the entire trek through town. Mrs Sandler, Mr Richardson, and even mean old Mrs Mason: they were all gone. Killed or burned or–Deena didn’t want to know. They were all gone now, all gone up in flames, and Deena was the only one who was still alive, but why? Only her and Allard and the stranger in the woods.

Her mother’s embroidery lay discarded on the floor. Instinctively, Deena picked it up. It was the last thing her mother worked on. She remembered how pretty it was as she watched her mother draw up the pattern in chalk, and it was still pretty, even half finished, even with the birds’ tails not yet filled in with colorful thread.

She went outside. There was nothing to use for a grave marker, so she placed the embroidery on the fresh dirt, hoop and all.

“The wind’ll carry that away,” said Mr Allard, but Deena didn’t respond. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

“Come,” said the stranger. “It’s time to go.”

Deena didn’t remember gathering her belongings into a knapsack, but she must have, because a little while later she found herself sitting in the back of Allard’s wagon, clutching her knapsack to her chest. The stranger was sitting beside her, sorting through what little of Allard’s goods that hadn’t been broken or tossed aside.

“You have a book about me, Joel?”

“Of course I have a book about you,” said Mr Allard. “They were selling like hotcakes in Rook’s Town, and Emdenshire, too.”

“What book?” Deena found herself asking.

Allard looked up from where he was hitching his mule to the wagon. “I didn’t get a chance to introduce you two, did I? My lord, this is Deena. Deena, meet Lord Avenel, the fabled Blade of Elyria.”

The name was supposed to mean something, but Deena couldn’t remember what. “Hello,” she said simply.

Allard hoisted himself onto the driver’s seat and gave the reins a flick. Obediently, the mule began to trot, pulling the wagon behind her. Deena watched as what was left of Taunsgrove receded into the distance. She watched until they turned at a bend in the road, and the town was swallowed by the trees.

Far, far above, the stars blinked on through the smoke.