by JR Bancroft
Within the vortex of smoke, she saw the dark silhouette standing in the threshold.
Graceful, haunting clouds, danced into her room. The gray clouds slithered in deviously through the space below the door. Kari finished eating lunch and, suddenly, the scent of burning wood caused her to turn from the bright open window to the door. She stood for a moment, completely unmoved.
Her observational state was interrupted by the motion of someone swiftly opening the door. The movement allowed the build-up of smoke in the hallway to violently flood the room, like water being released from a dam.
Within the vortex of smoke, there were brief moments of clarity, and that’s when she saw the dark silhouette standing in the threshold.
She tried to make out his identity but her sight was obstructed. “Follow me!” The voice yelled. She immediately recognized it as her brother Robert. She began to run to him, but the smoke got to her before she could reach the door and she collapsed.
Robert leaped through the clouds and caught her in his arms. He took her to the window and placed her on the balcony floor. She began to breathe normally again while Robert tore apart her room for things to pack. When he returned to her he gave her quick instructions. “Our estate is being attacked from the front, they are most likely going to make it back here soon, I need you to come with me to the first maids quarters.” He handed Kari her sword and they ran into the hallway.
It was clear to her that the smoke wasn’t from some ill-timed fire, but something more sinister. She held her sword in the attack position as they ran to the main hallway. Robert grabbed her wrist and pulled her down to the floor. They cowered against a wall as he looked around the corner making sure it was clear. “Get ready.” He said. He pulled her with him across the hall and into the first maids quarters. She had hoped to see what was going on but the flames were too obstructive. Though she could clearly hear people yelling and the sound of swords clanging against each other.
He closed the door behind them. The room they entered was less smoke-filled. He put down the two bags he was holding below the only window and placed his hands strategically on the bottom of the frame. He braced himself for a struggle but the window was not difficult, like most of its kind in their home. It effortlessly flung up and hit the top of the frame, which caused it to shatter violently.
The tiny particles of glass rained down, showering him in an oddly beautiful vision of light refraction. He bent down to allow the glass to fall out of his hair, and as he did someone burst through the fire. Kari jumped back as the man in all black looked at them then barricaded the door temporarily with a chest. Robert looked relieved. “Good you made it.” The man seemed flustered from being chased, but had a look of amusement on his face. “Kari this is Jeplin. No matter what happens always trust him.” She looked at him. “What’s going on?” “I don’t have a lot of time to explain, Jeplin is a close advisor of our father and one of my closest friends, he is in charge of protecting you, I packed you two bags, one is food and the other clothes and other stuff you will need. Now go.” He gestured to the window.
Jeplin was a strong but slender looking man. He was only a bit taller than Kari and had extremely pale skin. His eyes sparkled with excitement as he looked at the door which someone was trying to force open.
Jeplin walked to the window looked down to see what was below. “Follow me.” He said. Kari looked at Robert. He knew she was concerned “Go.” He urged. “I’ll meet up with you later.” Easing her mind, she said goodbye to him and turned to Jeplin. "Follow me." He said, pulling her arm to lift her up. He leaped onto the window ledge and effortlessly jumped out of it like a nimble cat. She carefully grabbed the ledge and pulled herself into the frame, looking down she saw bushes and rocks. She was careful along the sill placing her bare feet avoiding the glass. Following his instruction, she jumped. She was not as skilled as he was and her light dress caught on a bristly bush. She tried to untangle it but her attention was drawn by a loud whistle.
The man was standing in the open and a horse appeared almost magically out from the forest. She pulled herself out of the bush and walked towards him. She could hear the soft noise of each hoof stomping onto the tired grass. The man turned and was looking at the window again. She looked in the same direction.
There was a strange glow. His face typically remained unmoving but at that moment he showed an expression of panic. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her aggressively to the ground and covered her body with his. There was a large explosion and Kari could feel the hot breath of the fire being released from its stone-like prison. She screamed. The man looked back and saw that his prediction was right, the section of the wall they were by had been completely obliterated. He carefully picked her up and ran to the horse.
The horse was fast, faster than any she had been on. They tore through the countryside. She held on to its neck and crouched down to avoid the harsh wind. The stallions skin was a beautiful shade of black and its mane was very silky, which did not match its rough beaten hide.
The hum of the wind passing her ears silenced all other noises and any attempt at communication. She could feel the very tops of her ears becoming completely numb, she was alerted to them when she felt a pang of pain contouring their edges. She was grateful that the cold chill was only on her ears but still felt uncomfortable.
She suffered until she could no longer handle it. She pulled a bit of her cloak that was awkwardly draped around her torso up to cover more of her body and lifted the hood onto her head. The hood was a welcome shelter for her wind ravaged face. She could feel her ears and cheeks softening with the coddling from the thick fur.
The man spurred his horse, not slowing or wavering. Kari wasn't sure whether she was safe with the man, but remembering her brother's approval quelled her. She was too caught up in the excitement to think much more about it negatively. She had always dreamed of going on an adventure.
Time seemed to pass as quickly as they rode. It was almost as though the faster they rode the faster time passed. As the sun began to set, the mix of glistening light and calming tones of grays and blues canopied the sky. The grandeur was overwhelming as they reached gaping sky freeing fields. A large sea of unhindered sights. Wave after wave of long dry grass rippled methodically.
After eating on the run she drifted off to the images of beautiful amber seas of wheat and grass peaking from the newly melted snow, mimicking the soft mane of the horse that was dancing gently on her cheeks in the same manner.
The warm orange glow of several flames huddled in a haphazardly constructed fire pit illuminated her eyes as she awoke. She immediately noticed that she was no longer on the horse. She was lying on the ground close to the flames, wrapped in her cloak and a thick blanket.
There was a package of food lying next to her head, she indulged. When she finished all that she could, she slowly sat up. She noticed the outline of the man looking over a map. The flicker of the firelight cascaded across his face. His skin, which was sickly pale, seemed daunting under the dark, soulless sky. He looked at her as if he could sense her observing him. "What are you planning for me? She asked, "Who are we running from?" He sat silently for a moment. “You deserve to know something." He said. He paused again. She looked at him and waited intently. “There is a faction that has been making its way into the south. They have been pillaging and setting fire to every town they came across.”
“That's a little more optimistic than what I had imagined.” “What?” Well, I thought our home was targeted specifically but they were just attacking everyone…”No, your first assumption was correct.” He said. “They were destroying everything in their way, but their goal wasn't destruction alone. It was to find your family.” “What?” She said shocked. “Why would they want my family?” “It's a bit too complicated to explain at the moment. War is never easy.” “War?” She asked. Is there a war going on?” The man looked visibly shocked. “I'm sorry, yes. I never expected to meet someone who wasn't aware of the war.” “It's not the first time someone has been surprised by my lack of knowledge. My father doesn't like me leaving the estate.” “Yes, I am aware of your father's tendencies."“Your father was expecting this day that is why he created a plan to protect you and various others." "Plan?" She asked while lowering her voice and leaning forward. The grass caressed her arms with their fickle bodies. “For years he knew that your home would eventually be discovered. We tried all that we could to protect you and Robert.” “Robert hardly needs to be protected.” “He was lucky enough to get a fighting tutor once a week.” “How often do you train?” “Well, I don't know anything fancy, I've been learning sword combat for almost a year now.” “Oh good, if something happens you will be able to hold your own.” “What was the plan?” “The intention was to put you through fighting lessons, then, and as soon as he had heard the word of an invasion he was to send for me. I was then supposed to take you with me into hiding.” “Well, it sounds like everything worked out then.” “Not exactly.” He said, “there were other forms of fighting you were supposed to learn.”
She started thinking about the day before. Spring was approaching and her estate was celebrating the end of winter. It was the first hint of a warm day and the pond behind her house had melted. She ran through the field, letting the air engulf her, a freeing feeling compared to the dreary halls of her home. Whenever she was wandering out near her home, those freeing natural moments always led her to the same place, a small river that pooled at the edge of the forest. The river was decently shallow and it weaved in and out of the bottoms of trees, leaving the roots to create unique grasping hand-like sculptures. She loved the way the roots arched over the river like they intentionally moved out of its way.
The water had a silvery sheen that glistened and flickered around under the sun. Like its own breed of fish, the movements were fluid and constant. She lifted up her dress. Like most of the clothes that she wore at the end of winter, it was a pale color. Tan, to be exact, it was reminiscent of some form of arid sand.
She had not donned her stockings that morning or shoes, so she would not be hindered. She held her dress up in her hands and lowered her leg slowly until her toes dipped into the water.
Testing the cool relaxing pool, she pulled her foot up again then re-inserted it even deeper than before. The icy water was refreshing, and it was easy to tell that winter was still clinging on to any physical form it could. She placed both feet into a shallow section. Standing, the water only up to her calves. She smiled.
Though her home was well-equipped with luxurious amenities,
nothing was more pleasurable to her than the simplicity of pure nature. That day, the air was clean. There were only a few hints of snow dusting the shadowy parts of the grass and the sun beat down warming everything else.
"We better keep going." Jeplin's voice jolted her back to reality, and she sat up again. He handed her some food and clothes, "Now, in the middle of the night?" She protested. "It's the safest time, especially if we are being trailed." She sadly agreed, not wanting to deal with any confrontation. They mounted the horse in the same fashion as before and continued on their way.
She continued to eat as she slipped into a hazy tired fog. She lied her head on the horse's mane. She could feel the heaving of its breath beneath her. An oddly soothing rhythm that let her drift off again.
Another day passed and she began to conjure more questions in her mind. "Are we running in general or is there an end goal?" She said after finishing her breakfast, hoping this would not be a new constant. The wind almost completely muffled her question but Jeplin still heard it. "Do not worry, we are not going to be riding for eternity, we will be arriving somewhere soon." Silent smugness was her response.
She felt very far away from home. The feeling of loneliness was spurred by the miles and miles of simple grass leaving the sky open to the eyes. Tears ran down her face but were swiftly removed by the wind. She was grateful, she did not want Jeplin to see her weakness. She did not like anyone to see her cry. In her daze, she watched as the began to pass a forest. Each tree was thin tall and dark and ominous. They all towered above them, bare leafless monsters. Her body slipped off the horse a bit but she was immediately held in place by Jeplin's forearms. He never really seemed to be caught off guard by anything but he was most definitely not accustomed to traveling with anyone.
As they ate again and the sun set on another day, Kari could see the signs of a village in the distance, the small dots of light danced on the horizon like fireflies. She excitedly hoped that they would be stopping there.
As they got closer to the city they began to pass a collection of houses. The houses became more prevalent as they got closer to the city walls. The houses were not very notable. The walls were made of mostly dirt and clay, and the entrance to the city matched the dreariness via a decrepit stone pathway.
There were not many streets that she could see from the main road, and what she could see looked as though it had been ravaged by a fire or a very rough winter. Jeplin gestured for her to get off the horse with him and he started walking off the pathway. They sneaked through the gate and immediately turned to an ally. They hid in the shadows until they reached a stable by some more old decrepit buildings. He looked at her and before she could ask any questions, he answered them. "We are trying to lie low... you need a disguise.” “Why?” She asked. “I doubt anyone here knows who I am.” “This is a place where you don't want to be noticed. You will understand once we start walking around.” She shrugged and decided to trust him. “OK, what should I do?” He pulled a leather strap off of his wrist. “Pull up your hair.”
She was old enough to look a bit like a woman but it was easily remedied. Her frame was thin so anything overly bulky made her look like a young boy. He placed the hood from her cloak onto her head. He then knelt down in front of her and wiped his hands in the mud. He stood only inches from her. She knew that he was going to cover her face in the mud, but her attention was drawn from his hands to his eyes. She looked directly at them. His eyes were a dazzling brown. She continued staring almost to challenge him but he remained focused. His hands slowly caressed her face, coating it with dirt. She had not expected the mask to be as cold as ice. She shivered. He finished. He wiped the excess across his own clothes. "No matter what happens, do not speak." She opened her mouth to say something, but he stopped her by pushing her pack of items into her arms. "Keep a hand on your belongings at all times." They walked back to the main road.
The streets were grimy and narrow leaving little room for anything. Each building was seemingly more disgusting than the one before. Her eyes darted back and forth trying to blend in and remain alert. They reached the more inhabited section of town and she realized why Jeplin took all of the precautions. The streets were covered in large obnoxious men, mostly drunk and covered in dirt. She stayed at Jeplin's side. The slop that was supposed to be road clung to their boots and splattered with any movement. Everything was a disgusting brown and gray mess. Jeplin grabbed her hand as they approached what looked like an abandoned tavern. Kari carefully followed almost slipping on the crooked steps leading into the building.
The inside was darker than the night sky, save for a few candles that hauntingly glowed in the corners. She jumped when she saw two large men attacking each other only a few tables away. Like wild animals, they clawed at each other to survive. Jeplin looked at her. It was his way of silently telling her to stay.
He crossed to the bar and began mumbling to a bartender. As the men got louder, she shrunk into the shadows. Her eyes remained on Jeplin. After a few minutes, he gestured for her to join them behind the counter. She slowly and carefully walked to him. She felt as though each person could hear her every move, the floorboards creaked with each assumption.
The barkeeper led them up an almost completely blacked out set of stairs. Kari relieved, placed her hand on the railing searching for stability. In return, her hand was covered with soot. Wanting any release from the stairs the ash clung to her clothes and skin.
A bedroom was their destination. It was small, only holding one tiny bed and a fireplace. Not unlike the stairs, everything was black and dingy. Jeplin gestured for her to take the bed. "I have business to attend to. He handed her food. "Do not open the door for anyone and do not leave this room." She had no intention of leaving. She was exhausted. He lit the fire for her then left. She locked the door after him and climbed into the bed.