It certainly was early when Raelia’s cry woke the two men from their slumber. They rose and sleepily donned their armors, stowing the last of their belongings as they readied themselves. Arrovel deactivated and retrieved the Watcher’s Sigil. Daven checked to make certain the fire pit was cold and together they set off in search of a settlement. Along the way they snacked on biscuits of grain and dried fruits. Raelia circled above dancing on the breeze.
The morning passed quickly as did the ground beneath their boots. It was mid day before they caught sight of any man made structures. Something stirred the hairs on the back of Daven’s neck. He slowed his pace almost to a stop and unclipped the hilt of his sword from its scabbard. Arrovel turned back to look at him, "What seems to be bothering you? You look as though you’ve just been bucked from the horse we have yet to acquire."
Daven stepped up next to Arrovel and gestured toward the town ahead. "It is midday and yet there is not a single body about that I can see from here. No farmers in their fields, no smoke rising from the forge, not even the stir of songbirds in the air. I fear something is gravely amiss." Arrovel realized it was as his friend had said, still as the darkest night but with the sun still high in the sky. He reached back to the sides of his pack and unhooked his weapons. His right hand grasped a small curved hand axe with a red leather wrapped grip. In his left he held a sickle fashioned to compliment the axe. Both were crafted of a warm sandy colored steel and inlaid with the patterns of his tribe.
Blades readied they continued on their way to the town. As they neared the village edge they spied a host of newly filled graves overflowing what was the town’s graveyard. Each marked by a single branch bearing what looked to be items of personal significance. A piece of jewelry, a wide brimmed hat, a piece of clothing knotted about the branch but not one of the new graves bore a name. Along the opposite side of the road in stood a gnarled oak tree under which was a small empty grave. At its crest was a branch from which a wooden carved toy hung. Nearby a shovel stood at the ready, lodged in a pile of loose dirt.
The cobble of the road before them was unearthed and the glass windows shattered. A quiet shuffling and murmurs of whispered voices echoed through the empty buildings. Grayish haze seemed to settle on every surface in sight like a blanket of ash. In the town’s center stood a small dried out fountain. The two men exchanged glances. The graves they had passed were so fresh yet the decay of the town seemed almost ancient.
Daven drew his sword slowly, his eyes scanning for any hint of movement. He approached a nearby cottage and gently pushed upon the front door with the tip of his sword. The door creaked open part way then the hinges crumbled and it fell the short distance to the ground and splintered into pieces. Something rustled behind them across the plaza. Their attention snapped to the direction of the sound. Daven stepped toward it and called out, "Hello? Who goes there?" Silence. The moments dragged by.
Arrovel silently slipped toward the smithy, examining every corner and crevasse. He shook his head, "... must have been a scavenger. There is no one here." He stepped back a few feet and crouched down, examining the ground before him. "Look here," he indicated a pattern in the dirt and cobble rubble. "It looks as if whatever caused this destruction came from the forge." They walked under the overhang of the open air blacksmith’s shop. Strewn all about were collections of belongings, jewelry, tools, pot and pans; sorted it seemed by the materials from which they were made. And amidst all of it on the blacksmith’s anvil sat a most unusual object. Around a seamless ring shaped stone were the remains a filigreed coppery cage. The ring showed the scarring of a chisel upon its otherwise flawless surface.
"What do you suppose this was?" He reached for the alien object. As the fingers of his gloved hand met it the stone shattered like glass and cascaded over the surrounding floor, leaving only the ornate metal cage that tarnished before their eyes. "Servants of Light!" He cursed, "Magic! … should have known."
"Magic may have well killed this town but it did not bury its people." Arrovel recalled the cemetery.
"No, I did." A soft voice from behind them chimed up. The startled men turned sharply to see a young girl standing against the corner of the smithy wall, her eyes downcast. "I am sorry, My Lord, I did not intend to startle. I feared you were something more sinister when I heard your approach, so I hid."
Daven lowered the point of his sword and looked the peasant child over. Her muddy brown hair fell in two untidy braid wrapped with twine. Over her meager form fell a tattered woolen dress and patchwork linen apron thick with dirt. The palms of her hands nervously fell to her sides, red and bloodied from the blisters that had formed upon them. Blood, sweat and soil marred her face and legs. “Do you know what happened here?” his eyes remained fixed upon her.
Slowly she approached the anvil. With her thin fingers she caressed the metal casing, “A long time ago one of the old farmers told me a story about the fountain stone that protected our village, but everyone else forgot. They were scared. Rumors that the Sentinels were razing towns had reached the elders. So they asked everyone to bring their special things together. We would make a gift for the Queen and maybe she would send soldiers to protect us.” She paused, her voice even and sorrowful, “But there is no one left to protect now.”
Arrovel furrowed his brow, “Do you know why you, alone, remain?”
She turned her chestnut colored eyes up toward him, “When I saw the stone had been pulled from the fountain I tried to put it back. I told my little bother to watch it so that no one would take it again, and I went out to help in the fields.” Her eyes became distant and cold. “There was a quake and I ran back as fast as I could. But I was too late …”
She wandered out past the two men toward the desolate fountain square. They followed in silence. She sat down on the edge of the dried stones and brushed the side of her hand across the fountain bench. Faded mosaic patterns peeked through. “My brother was among the first. They fell asleep screaming. And could not be woken.” She sighed, “Then everyone began dieing or going mad.”
Daven glanced to Arrovel. His mind harkened back to sight of the fresh graves at the edge of town. He shook his head, “And the empty grave with the toy hanging from it, that is for your brother? Where is he?”
The girl stood again and began walking. With out a word she led them to a small hovel on the outskirts of the town proper. She stopped in front of the door. For the first time they sensed trepidation from her as she reached for the door. “If you get close she’ll attack,” the flicker in her voice betrayed her fear. She gave it a push and the door swung inward. The daylight cast through the frame upon a woman in disarray. The stench of death billowed out of the room. She rocked back and forth clutching the remains of a small boy perhaps six winters old.
The girl shuffled backward, keeping her teary eyes on the pair. Daven looked back to her questioningly, “Who is she?”
Fighting the torrent of emotion that churned below her calm exterior the girl spoke up, “My mother.” She choked back the tide and looked up to Daven, “I know I have no right to ask this of you, My Lord, but please help me!” A flood of tears broke through. “I just want to see him put to a proper rest. It’s my fault he was on guard, that he was there when the stone was broken.” She cast her eyes back upon her mother, “But I can’t get close. She doesn’t know me anymore.”
Arrovel shifted his gazed to Daven and nodded. Daven stood tall and surveyed the room for a moment. “Go to the oak tree. We will be along shortly. Everything will be alright,” the girl nodded at his instructions.
With a whistle Raelia descended from the sky, landing upon Arrovel’s pack. “Follow her, guard her,” he followed the command with a series of clicks as he pointed to the girl. Her eyes widened as the hawk cried in response. “Now go.” The girl turned and ran for the old oak tree, Raelia swooping along side her to keep watch. Arrovel returned his weapons to the sides of his pack and slipped it from his shoulders. His shoulder pressed against the outer wall as he leaned in to peer around the corner of the opening. Rolling back against the wall he stretched his neck and hands with a subtle crackle.
“How are we going to approach this?” Daven shifted to the other side of the frame and spoke in a hushed tone.
“I don’t believe we have much choice. I will go in first and draw her attention. When she turns her back you strike.” Arrovel played the scenario through in his head. The woman continued to coddle her dead son with no heed to the outsiders plotting just beyond her door.
“You are talking about killing that child’s mother. Are we sure there are no other options?” Daven expression grew anxious at the thought of causing more harm.
Arrovel’s gaze was stern and solemn, “If what the girl said is true then her mother is lost already.” Daven shook his head in frustration. Arrovel conceded, “If she will talk, fine. If not, we must not hesitate or underestimate her. I have seen a mother move boulders that would give any man pause in order to rescue a child in peril. Should she perceives us as a threat … we cannot allow her to do more harm. You wanted to help this girl, I fear our best and only move maybe to lay her family to rest in peace. Make it swift and painless.”
Daven nodded. With closed eyes he inhaled deeply, steeling himself for the moments to follow. His eyes opened with renewed will and he tilted his head toward Arrovel, go.
Arrovel swept into the house and along side the woman. She turned on him with a rabid ferocity. He caught her hand and collarbone as she lunged at him attempting to rake and bite. Her other arm clutched the boy securely. Her reddened eyes, overflowing with madness, fixated on Arrovel as she thrashed violently against his grip.
A few swift steps and the tip of Daven’s sword slid smoothly between her ribs. She stopped. Clarity flashed in her eyes for but a moment, “Save Shoni, Forgive …” Blood filled her mouth and poured over her lips. Her body went limp in Arrovel’s hands. As her arm uncurled from the corpse, Daven swept in and caught him. Gently Arrovel lowered her on to the packed dirt floor of the hovel. Placing the boy beside his mother the two friends looked to each other.
“Look for some blankets. She shouldn’t have to see them like this.” Kneeling beside her Daven gently closed the woman’s eyes. He bowed his head, “Servants of Light, carry this mother and son into the after, that they might find peace.”