“Why do you not dance with us? Who are you to live?”
He peers carefully around the doorframe. I watch his eyes. Cold. Blue. Unfeeling! My heart is pounding! I try to call out, but only cough blood. He says nothing, wanders quietly on down the hallway, checking the other rooms. I try to rise, but cannot. So sore. So weak. The pain is so intense now. Tears fill my eyes. Even death is denied me. Oh, God. What will he do? Cornered!
The footsteps return down the hallway. I listen in horror. Helpless! Eudgwar save me! He steps into the room. He says something which I can’t understand. He smiles! Then he lunges for me! I raise my arm to strike him! I roll towards him! I will fight! Damn you! Kill me! But I will fight! But I teeter off the bed. The floor crashes into my face! A thousand knives pierce me! I howl in gurlging silence! Oh, the pain! And he is upon me! His hands are upon my shoulders! I cry out! The acrid blood in my nostrils! He has me! Oh, God! Eudgwar! Let me die!
And I am falling.
Farther. Deeper! The abyss! Oh! I am rolled over onto my back! He is yelling! Raises a hand to my lips! I raise an arm to fend off the blow… and… he fades. His voice sounds far away. I look into his eyes. Anger… and fear. His face seems far away.
At last. Oh, sweet god… at last I can die.
* * *
I am startled awake. No long swimming to consciousness. I am awake. I ache. I hurt. Every move sends shards of glass into my flesh. Even breathing… hurts. I am… in bed. I look at my arm. Blessed! I am clean. The blood. The… filth… is gone. It is horribly bruised, from wrist to elbow. Deep cuts and scratches. Oh! What has happened? Oh, Mother. What have I done? I push back the covers. My… my wounds are bandaged. I… remember. Hurting. The cuts and slashes. I am naked. I am clean. Mother… my. I must be a sight. I…
No. Mother is dead. They’re all dead. I… remember a face. A man.
Oh, Mother. Forgive me. I cannot mourn you. Why do I not cry? Oh, dear Mother. I miss you so.
A chair creaks. My heart leaps into my throat! The face! He smiles and moves towards me! Please! No more!
“You are safe,” he says.
I hold my hands before me. Please! No more!
“You are safe!” he says. “Hear me!” he roars.
I… stop. What more can they do to me? What… has happened?
“It’s alright,” he says softly. “I will help you. I mean you no harm, child. Please. Be quiet.” He is tall. His face is hard and stony. Deep, weathered lines trace his features. His cold, blue eyes seem to glow within that tanned face. His hair is blond and unkempt. Dirty. “I am Jacqua,” he says. His voice resonates in the room. Deep. Sure. “I have come to help you. Have no fear of me.”
I start to speak. Who are you? Why are you here? But I only choke. On gravel! Oh, the pain!
“You mustn’t try to talk,” he says warmly. “You’re injured.” He points at my neck. “You’re throat. Mustn’t talk.”
I nod. I watch his as he pulls the chair close to the bed.
“Rest,” he says.
He takes a rag from my nightstand, dabs it in a bowl of water, and moistens my forehead.
“You are alive,” he whispers. “By what god’s will I will never know, but you are alive. Let that be enough for now.” The cloth feels wonderful. Its coolness seeps into my forehead. Into my brain. I close my eyes. “You’re safe now. Be at ease. I will protect you. I will heal you.”
He enchants me. Surely. I am calm. Detached, even. Mother’s body lies downstairs. And I… am calm. I see the blood splattered on the walls. I see the carcasses. The dead in the street. The naked, battered bodies. The smashed heads of children. Glass. Shattered glass. Everywhere. Why am I calm?
“Sleep,” he says. “Rest for now. I will protect you.”
He moistens the rag again. Touches my lips. The sweet moisture seeps into my mouth. My tongue… is unglued from my teeth. I swallow. As best as I can. It hurts. But the water cools the pain. The sweet water.
“Bless you, child,” he says. “The gods are with you. You are alive. Rest now, in the arms of peace. There is time for knowledge later.”
He says something else…
But I do not… understand. He talks… from afar. I smile as he touches my forehead. So cool. Oh, god. Help me to die. Peace. Soft, cool peace.
* * *
I drift. Dreaming. I open my eyes. He sits quietly at the window, staring in the distance. I smile. And close my eyes. Peace. I float. There is no pain. A distant throbbing. Life. I am alive. I… dream.
Ms. Thomas smiles as she hands me the cake. She is so nice to me. Mr. Thomas nods approvingly as I take it and makes a joke. I don’t understand, but Ms. Thomas laughs. I laugh, too.
The streets are aglow. Festival. Marissa runs to me from across the street. She takes my hand and pulls me behind. I follow, eating my cake. We go to the cider booth. Oh, it is so sweet, this year! I can hardly get my fill. The merchant hands us two cups and grins. We have been here many times.
A band is playing in the square. Marissa motions and I follow. We round the corner and join the crowd. Such sweet music. So many people! Where have they all come from? Surely all of them don’t live in Median! Where have they hidden?
A soft rain begins to fall. But I don’t mind. No one seems to mind. The band plays a slow love song. No one dances. No one moves. They listen. It is beautiful. I look at Marissa. She doesn’t smile now. She listens. Her face is white. Ashen. There are dark circles under her eyes. She should rest more. I poke her with a finger. She looks at me with blank eyes, and turns back to the band.
The bandleader looks at me and motions. “Come here, child.”
I glance at Marissa, but she says nothing, so I begin to work through the crowd. I look at their faces. All these strangers. But Ms. Thomas is there. Bill the tax man is there. They all look so strange. There faces are almost white. They all have the same dark circles under their eyes. I stumble out of the crowd.
The bandleader’s hand suddenly closes about my wrist. I look up at him. His cheekbones nearly stick through his cheeks. He grins. His teeth are green. His eyes seem ready to fall from the sockets. “Why do you not dance with us?” he asks me. His breath is rank, like rotten vegetables. Or worms dug from the ground. I try to pull away, but he will not let go. He hurts my wrist!
I look back at Marissa. She is gone. The crowd is gone. What am I thinking? I am alone. No one else is here. They’re dead. They’re all dead. What am I thinking? I turn to the bandleader. Clinched tight about my wrist is the hand of a skeleton! His eyes fall from the bare skull! I snatch my arm away! I run! Oh, God! Eudgwar! I run!
“Who do you not dance with us?” he cries after me. “Who are you to live?”
I cry out! Stop it! It isn’t my fault! I…
I am sitting upright! In the bed! My mouth is open! Taught! I spew out the horror! I scream! But cannot! I scream! But there is no sound! But he is there. The stranger. He rushes to me. He holds me! I cling tightly to his shirt! Make it stop! I don’t want to live! I can’t live! He holds me tight and hushes me. Why? Why? He touches my forehead with the cloth again. Why am I alive?
The coolness seeps into me. I shiver. No! I try to push him away, but he holds me fast. I flail at him with useless hands. I can’t make a fist! He brushes my cheeks. I am choking. God! He holds the cloth to my lips. I cough up blood. God! So much blood!
“Please! Listen to me!” he bellows.
I shiver. He’s been talking to me. I…
I… he… has been talking to me.
“It was only a dream!” A dream. “It was a dream.”
He touches a clean corner of the rag to my mouth. I pinch it with my lips. So sweet.
“Be calm. You are safe.” I am alive. “Be at peace.” I am alive. “Shhhh. Easy.” I should not be alive. “Easy now.”
They are all dead. They’re all dead! I cling tightly to his shirt and he holds me. I am safe. So many people. Why must I live? Why?
It’s all so unfair. Tears well up in my eyes. I feel the rage. The pain! My heart… hurts so! Nothing else can compare! I am so hollow! Cold and hollow! How it hurts! My body convulses. Oh, no! I am crying! Can’t cry! Be strong! But I am not strong. I am not strong. I am not strong…
He holds me tight and I… I let go. He holds me as I shudder with my sobs. Forgive me, Mother. Forgive me for my life!
* * *
I… awake. I’ve slept again. How long have I slept?
I look over for him. The chair is empty. It sits next to the window. I glance around the room. He is gone. He has abandoned me. The bowl sits upon the nightstand. Beside is the rag. Beside the rag is a dagger. He has left me here.
I am so weak. I pull myself up, drop my legs off the side of the bed. I hold the bed post and heave my body up upon my feet. My legs quiver. But they hold. I step unsteadily away from the bed. A few feet. The window is only a few steps away. I slowly… carefully… come to it and sit down. The cushion is cold beneath my buttocks. I am naked. I had forgotten. I look around the room for a robe or for clothes, but there is nothing. The closet is so far away. I am not cold. He has seen me. He cleaned me. He knows my body. I am fine. Not cold. Doesn’t matter.
My eyes fall upon a figure. I jump, but realize…
She sits in a chair before a window. Her eyes are so sad. Her lips are swollen. Her eyes are ringed with dark circles. She is bandaged. So many wounds. She looks inhuman. She watches me with pity and… remorse. Does your soul hurt, too? Do you feel? I smile at myself in the mirror. It looks ghastly. I look… like a monster. No wonder he left me. How long could he bear to look at me?
Her eyes have begun to bore into me.
I turn and look out the window. Dark pillars of smoke rise into sky. The city… the buildings are burning. I lean forward and sigh. So this is my fate? To die in the flames! I am… calm. Better to die. To sleep. There is a flurry of movement, and I peer down the street. It is him. He dashes across the street and clings to a wall, slowly makes his way to the corner building. He peeks around the corner, then darts back several feet. He is carrying a bundle of cloth and nearly trips on it as he drops it upon his feet. He walks swiftly, quietly towards me. Towards the house. He glances up and see me watching him, violently motions me back from the window. I lean back in the chair as he disappears into the shadows below.
There are voices. Other voices. Three men walk around the corner where he was. Warriors. I remember… the uniforms. Is he a warrior? Are they his comrades? They carry torches. They set everything which will burn aflame as they walk casually down the street. The overhangs. The wooden beams. One steps inside a shattered window and sets fire to the room within. He rejoins them and they continue their… search.
There are footsteps in the house. Soft, quick footsteps. He rushes into the room, tosses his bundle on the bed.
“Get away from the window,” he hisses.
I struggle to my feet. He rushes to my side and helps me to the bed. I look up at him and smile. He came back. Thank you so much. Thank you.
“Be very quiet,” he says in a whisper. “There are warriors here. They are burning the city.”
And us? They will burn us. Or kill us. Or…worse.
“We will leave when they pass. You seem stronger. God knows how, but you seem stronger. Can you walk?”
I shrug. Barely.
“I will take you away. We have to leave.”
He looks down at my body. I… cover myself with my arms.
“I’ve brought clothes.”
He helps me to my feet and dresses me. He hurts me. Is rough. But he is in haste. We are… in danger. Why am I not afraid?
“Quickly. Here. You calf is cut, but your feet are fine. Hold up your leg. Here. In the boot. Push!”
I am… dressed. The clothes brush angrily against my bandaged wounds. I grimace with every move, but he helps me to the door.
“Be ready,” he whispers. “They will burn this place. But I’ve watched them. They will not come upstairs. Be quiet. We will wait.”
We stand in silence. I teeter wrecklessly on trembling legs, but he supports me. We wait. Silently. They soon enter the apartment. Oh, Mother. Mother is downstairs. They will burn her. Oh, Mother. I am so sorry.
Why am I not afraid? Why don’t I cry? My dear Mother. I love you so. I love you.
There is crashing downstairs. Loud voices. Laughter. There is a whoosh as something catches fire. There is more crashing. He starts to help me towards the door. We near it and hug the wall beside it. I tremble. My legs are so weak. I feel ill. Dizzy. I teeter, the edges of my sight going gray, but he holds me. Then he tenses. He closes his eyes and mouths silent words. He looks helplessly at me. His eyes are sad. Helpless.
A warrior climbs the stairs. Light dances wildly in the hallway as the torch and its bearer near the upper flight.