Friday, September 22, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 6 (TVB Universe)



For three long, filthy, terrifying days they had crawled through thorn and thistle and clawing limbs. They'd waded through ash and leaf and loam and mopped away sweat and tears.

Today was another day of scuttling through shrubbery, concealed under tree limbs and the dim light of early morning. But today, at least, there were green leaves on the trees. A good sign; no Vaerin had rampaged through this part of the forest yet.

Trying to sneak a group of fifteen through a forest, however, had been even harder than it had sounded. The Caders trailed in a long line, and while some of them had light footfalls… others didn’t. The poorest attempts at stealth only made the group argue more each day, and marching by night didn’t help matters, either. Every stubbed toe or stumble into tree branches elicited someone cursing and someone else shushing and still a third hissing for everyone to be quiet.

Each instance made Mara freeze with terror. They’ll find us. They’ll find us for sure.

But they never did. The Caders must have finally made their way far enough from the Vaerin frontlines.

Despite the arguments and lack of sneaking skills, the group had overall been helpful. Two of the men, Erik and Alan, had actually helped her make a sling out of an old outer tunic so she could carry Ian on her back without using her arms.

And Monroe in particular was a gift from Adonai himself. He led the group with more patience than Mara had in one finger. She couldn’t imagine trying to corral this bunch of misfits.

Monroe pushed a tree branch out of his eyes with his bandaged hand. He glanced over his shoulder, nodding ahead to Mara. “We’re here.”

Mara crawled up to his side in a half-crouch.

Behind her, sitting happily in the sling, Ian gasped. “They’re so tall!” he pointed through a gap in the tree branches to the sight ahead.

Beyond the edge of the forest was a wide expanse of cleared-away grass that led to towering stone walls covered in parapets and fluttering banners. A flock of birds sailed overhead before disappearing beyond the wall.

The Torien border. Mara allowed herself a moment of relief. We made it.

Still, as she stared ahead at the grassy plain between them and the walls, her anxiety returned with a vengeance. No cover. Nowhere to hide. She may not have seen any fire or smoke for three whole days, but Vaerin flames tended to flare up when least expected.

She'd had plenty of experience.

Glancing to Mara, Monroe twirled his hand in a circle overhead and then pointed forward. Then he crawled ahead, creeping out from under the cover of the forest.

Mara turned, but—“I wanna do it!” Ian hissed.

Her nerves felt strung to the breaking point, but Ian’s small request made her chuckle. “All right, Ian. Relay the signal down the line.”

Ian eagerly mimicked Monroe’s gesture.

Someone shifted, revealing their hiding place behind a tree trunk a few paces back. It was the young girl, whose name Mara had learned was Kitti.

Kitti nodded and turned, passing the signal to the person behind her.

They’d all picked up the signals rather quickly; another show of competency that had impressed Mara. As Mara followed Monroe into the empty plain, she wondered whether Monroe had learned those hand signals from his life before the Vaerin attack or if he’d made them up out of necessity.

One by one, the line of Caders snaked down the valley toward the base of the wall. The ominous wall frowned at the group, casting a deep shadow across them as they slinked along its length. It seemed to stretch in either direction as far as Mara could see. How long would it take to walk its length? Weeks? Months?

Fortunately, there’d be no walking its entire length today; Mara could see a great stone gate about a mile down the wall. And what was another mile of walking after two weeks of living nightmares?

Still… they were exposed, strung out in a line in this wide-open area. Each step raised her worry. And worry soon became dread as they trudged past brick by brick, stone by stone. On and on and on they walked, yet their destination never seemed to get any closer.

Mara glanced up at the parapets high atop the walls. She couldn’t see anyone there, but she knew that any ranged soldiers stationed here could see them perfectly. As could anyone from the forest they’d left behind. Mara shuddered.

She felt a small hand patting her shoulder. “We’re almost there, Mara!” Ian whispered.

Mara forced herself to smile.

After an agonizing half-hour of trudging past stone, they finally reached the gate. The drawbridge was drawn over a portcullis that was four times higher than Mara’s head.

“Who goes there?” came a nasally tone from the gatehouse directly overhead. Again, a glance upward revealed nothing; no faces, no people. There was just the gatehouse, a lifeless box of stone and lacquered wood that sat above the drawbridge.

Monroe immediately stepped forward. “My name is Monroe of Curtabelle,” he shouted up to the gatehouse with as much volume as he dared.

I wonder if he feels it, too, Mara wondered. The sensation she felt wasn’t only the dread of standing out in the open. It wasn’t just the fear the Vaerin had cultivated. It was more than that: an uncanny sense they were being watched… and that no one cared.

Monroe cleared his throat. “We’ve traveled across Cadrea, hunted like animals. And if you don’t open this gate, we will die like the rest of our people.”

No reply from the wall.

Mara stepped forward to stand at Monroe’s side. “We have women and children. We’ve been hunted by our shared enemy, the Vaerin—”

“Torien’s borders are closed,” came the nasally, disembodied voice from the gatehouse. “We are not receiving any refugees.”

Monroe frowned. “And we’re not waiting around to die down here!” His normal composure crumbled; he trembled from head to toe. In anger? In fear? With the dark shadow that crossed his face, Mara thought it might be a mix of both.

“Didn’t you hear the girl?” Monroe shouted. “We have women and children down here, all of us innocents. We are no soldiers looking to stir conflict. We're survivors who have braved flame and fear of execution to reach your border. You are our only hope! Turn us away and the Vaerin will have fun killing us in the street for sport.” Monroe thrust a threatening finger up at the gatehouse. Mara couldn’t see anyone in that gate, but she was sure they could see the fire in Monroe’s eyes. “Speak with your Captain,” he growled in a tone that was equal parts threat and order.

“We’re completely exposed here at your gates,” Mara urged. She resisted a glance behind her. She felt her throat constricting with each second they wasted here. This was their only chance. If Torien really wouldn’t let them in… there was nowhere left to go. Where could they hide that the Vaerin wouldn’t eventually find? Even that seemingly-peaceful forest behind them could be swarming with Vaerin right now. It was too peaceful. Too quiet. “The Vaerin are on our tails. We have no idea how soon they’ll show up. Please, you have to make an exception—”

“I have no power to make any exceptions. If you wish to plead your case against a royal Torien decree, I can have the Captain notified. But you’ll have to wait outside the walls.”

“And how long will that take?” Monroe asked, every shred of even his godly patience threadbare.

“Better part of a day just to notify the Captain’s outpost. And that’s not including the deliberations your request will necessitate.”

“Better part of—” Monroe sputtered. He hammered his fist against the wood. “You cold-blooded murderer!” he barked. “If it were your people on the other side of this overgrown fence, you’d tell them the same thing?”

Mara shoved Monroe aside as she urged, “There’s no enemies in sight yet; if you open the gates now, you can have them shut before they even get here!” she gestured backward to the empty field.

“That is not our concern. We do not allow anyone across the borders. Those are my orders.”

Monroe’s face was glowing with rage. “And would you keep to your orders if this—” he pointed to Ian’s fear-pale face, “were your son? If she—” This time, to Mara, “were your wife? If crazed men were hounding them, men who drooled at the thought of stringing them up in the streets—”

“I understand your duress, sir, but I can only follow proper international protocol. It’s out of my—”

A concussive thoom rumbled in the distance, followed by a telltale hiss from the forest behind.

Mara’s heart stopped.

“Vaeriiiiiiiiiin!” a dozen Cader voices shrieked in agony.

She didn’t need to hear their cry. She didn’t need to see the burning ball of fire arcing from the forest over the plain and toward the wall.

She didn’t need to because she’d known they would come all along. She’d known how this story would end the moment The Magus had told her to run.

---
Previous (Part 5) ----- Next (Coming Soon!)

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Photo by Ales Krivec; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him

Friday, September 15, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 5 (TVB Universe)

“You’re daydreaming again.”

It’s a man’s voice. Familiar. Warm and playful. Fun and teasing.

Mara lifts her head, shielding her eyes from the rays of sunshine that stream in through the tower window. She turns to see her visitor.

It’s him!

Her heart skips, but she tries not to show it. She coolly smooths over the mess of papers scattered across her desk and pretends not to notice he’s arrived.

The man pauses behind her chair, grinning under his neatly-trimmed beard. He takes a thoughtful bite out of the yellow apple in his hand. “Studying hard, I see.”

Mara laughs. It’s a tinkling sound like the wind-catcher hung in her tower window, the one she uses to gauge the position of the stars and measure aether levels. “More than The Magus, at any rate,” she teases.

“I’ll have you know,” he replies without missing a beat, “that I am hard at work ensuring the Cader Royal Mage Academy’s most promising student—” he leans over her chair, poking her nose with his fingertip, “—lives up to her full potential as a future licensed mage.”

Mara flicks the man’s dark brown ponytail out of her face. Smiling demurely, she arcs a brow. “Oh? And who might this promising pupil be, O Magus?”

The Magus smiles back. “Oh, no one in particular. Just the prettiest mage in Cadrea.”

“Only in Cadrea?” Mara scoffs. She turns away in mock displeasure.

“Well, I haven’t traveled outside the country.” He shrugs. “There’s something here that I just can’t leave, you know.” He rests his forehead against hers, staring deeply into her eyes.

“Holds you down like a ball and chain,” Mara smirks.

“The worst sort of prison. You couldn’t even imagine,” he manages to say with a straight face.

Mara giggles. She closes her eyes, tilts her head to one side, and kisses him.

When she pulls away, his eyes are still closed as he savors her kiss. She loves that look on his face: stunned and delighted, as if her kiss were a sweet, hot drink that warmed him down to his toes.

It takes a moment for The Magus to recover. But he manages. “So!” he pipes up as his eyes snap open. “What are you working on, Love?” He rests his chin on her shoulder while gazing at the flood of papers and books on her desk.

Mara twirls her index finger in his ponytail. “Mmm.” She frowns. “Still working on my thesis.”

“You mean the paper about portals?” The Magus pulls away to plop himself on the least-messy corner of her desk. First he tosses his mostly-eaten apple over his shoulder and out the tower window. Then his attention turns to her notes. Plucking a stack off the desk, he begins to peruse. It isn’t long before his eyebrows rise. “You’ve certainly been doing your homework.” He glances up from the sheets. “And all this on hypotheticals.”

“It’s not as hypothetical as you’d think!” Mara grins, picking up one of her main sources, a book so heavy she could hardly hold it in one hand. “Concurrent universes—that is, other worlds—were all but proven by Magus Devaro and Magus Philial’s works in astronomy and quantum mechanics.” She sets the book down and reaches for another. “And when you factor in Oboros’s mathematical calculations—”

Tossing the stack of notes back onto the desk, The Magus raises his hands in surrender. “You’ve convinced me. You really do believe there's other worlds out there.” He winks.

But she hardly notices his playful banter; she’s already getting lost in her research. “And not just different versions of our world like many have suggested,” Mara murmurs as she picks up the stack of notes so she can review them for the three hundredth time. Contemplating, she taps her lips. “But other unique worlds, just as real as our own. New peoples, new histories, all separated by the thinnest of veils—”

“—The aether,” they finish in unison.

Glancing out the window, The Magus crosses his arms and sighs wistfully. “Doesn’t sound so bad, leaving this world and finding yourself in a brand-new one.” He scratches the back of his neck. “No more Academy restrictions tying your hands. No more Vaerin or Cader nonsense.”

Mara’s grin fades. Her gaze follows his out the window, to the blue sky and sunlight outside.

Another world, just out of reach.

“I heard the rumors...” Mara murmurs, resting her hand on his. “That some of your fellows in the Inner Circle are stirring up trouble for you again. That they want to unseat you.

The Magus shrugs. “Can’t please everyone.”

“Can't please everyone?” she repeats, incredulous. “More like can't please those blind-sighted idiots!” Mara slams her fist on the desk.

It must have startled The Magus. He stares at her, surprised. Alarmed.

But she ignores his concerned look. “What’s wrong with a Vaerin being the current Magus?” She demands of no one in particular. “It’s only taken this long because magic isn’t part of the Vaerin culture. That’s no fault of yours, and they know it.” She claps her palm to her chest. “Would they really say I'm so different from you, just because I was born to Cader parents? What does it matter what part of the country we came from?”

The Magus’s smile comes forced this time. He takes her hand and gives it a gentle squeeze. It looks like he appreciates the thought, but… “If only everyone felt that way.”

They both fall silent.

“But back to important matters,” The Magus shifts the subject as easily as he’d slid onto her desk. “Suppose your new worlds are real. Suppose the variations in aether levels really are due to aether overflow from one world into our own—”

Grinning, Mara prods The Magus’s knee. “Now who’s been doing their homework?”

He pouts and rubs his kneecap. “You’re not the only studious one,” he sniffs before continuing, “Now, say all that’s true. Then what you’re really researching is…”

“How to get to those other worlds.” She nods.

But here The Magus shakes his head. “Can’t be done.”

“Of course it can!” Mara leaps from her chair, pointing to a third open book, running her finger along a paragraph she’d underlined. “It would take a tremendous amount of energy and an extremely skilled mage, but in the end, it’s quite simple. First, identify the area of highest aether concentration, and next—”

“It can be done in theory,” The Magus interrupts, also pointing to her underlined passage, “but it’s impractical.” He frowns, like a father scolding his precious child. “And toying with that kind of energy is far too dangerous.”

“More dangerous than using that same energy to shoot fire or manipulate water—like we do every day?” Mara teases.

The Magus rolls his eyes. “Well, now that you mention it, you’re absolutely right: energy levels so high that they’d tear you limb from limb are tame compared to tossing a magic water ball.”

He’s being sarcastic, but he’s no longer joking. He isn’t laughing any more.

Why aren’t you laughing with me?

The world distorts, tinting a shade of blue.

But it is possible. We can go to other worlds. We can get away from here. We can make it to a world where there are no Vaerin or Caders.

We can find a world where no one will ever give you or Ian those looks ever again, my Magus.

Why won’t you go with me?

You just have to make it to Torien,” whispers her Magus, though this time from a different memory. Now he’s not warm and playful; he’s desperate. He’s terrified and barely keeping his fear reined in. He’s whispering breathlessly: “The border’s two weeks from here if you take it slow.”

He’s shoving a map in her shaking hands. “I learned there's a series of safehouses some Caders have set up leading to the border. These are their locations. You’ll be fine as long as you're careful.

I swear, don’t make me plan a trip to the underworld to find you, Mara.”

She knew what came next: his tender lips, pressing into hers.

No. Don’t tell me goodbye. Don’t stay here. Don’t send me away!

She wanted to reach out, grab onto him, pull herself into that kiss until it became a part of her. Maybe then… maybe then he’d never let her go.

Maybe this time he wouldn’t stay behind.

But then she was tasting the salt of his tears, which streamed down his cheeks.

Now run.”


Mara woke herself with a ragged gasp. “Magus, no!”

Her sticking sweat plastered her clothes to her body. Her shirt clung almost as close as the hot, humid air that hung in the dark shack. The suffocating breath of fifteen Caders.

So it’d been the dreams again. The memories. And as always, they’d disappeared like morning mist.

Tears bubbled up, and Mara closed her eyes to hold them at bay. She clapped her hand to her mouth. Stifled a sob.

No one was allowed to see her cry. Not even in the darkness.

---
Previous (Part 4) ----- Next (Coming Soon!)

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Photo by Jez Timms; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him

Friday, September 8, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 4 (TVB Universe)



“What do you mean, Torien closed its borders?” barked one woman as she jumped to her feet. Her blonde hair whipped around her chin; her spittle flecked Mara’s face.

Stoically, Mara flicked spit off her cheek. She’d been expecting such a reaction; she’d responded the same way.

A dozen voices joined the blonde woman’s cry of dismay.

“They can’t do that!”

“Surely that can’t be right.”

“We have to get to the border right away, explain our situation!”

“We’re on the brink of extinction!” the blonde woman shrieked, flinging her arms wide.

“Calm down, Saundra!” Monroe lay a hand on the blonde woman’s shoulder.

The blonde, Saundra, swatted his arm away. “We have small children!” Here she pointed to Ian, who thankfully was too terrified by the raised voices to be paying attention. His face was permanently buried in Mara’s shirt, wrinkling the fabric as he clenched it with sweating fists.

“They couldn’t possibly turn away a half-orphaned boy!” Saundra insisted.

Mara felt her blood boil immediately. Leaping up, she stood toe-to-toe with the other woman. “Don’t call him an orphan!” Mara snapped, pinning Saundra down with a glare.

“Oh, now you care about stragglers?!” shouted a man across the table from Saundra: a lanky man with tangled red hair and auburn stubble. He leaned forward, his chest only a few centimeters above the burning candle on the table, to shout in Saundra’s face, “If you’d had your way, we would have left hours ago. You wouldn’t have any ‘children’ to hide behind at all!”

I care about our survival, Alan!” Saundra clapped her hand to her chest.

“My family could still be out there!” The man protested. “How would you feel if—”

“And my family was executed! Because in case you’ve forgotten, I’m not a Vaerin murderer!” Saundra slammed her palms on the table. The candle trembled. Hot wax splashed down the candlestick and its brass holder.

Monroe set his arms between the two of them. “Both of you—”

Tears glistened in Saundra’s eyes; her gaze bored into Alan. “Their sacrifices mean nothing if we all get killed waiting. We had no way of knowing more Caders would show up while we were talking, so don’t pretend like you’re some all-seeing prophet or that your loved ones matter more than anyone else’s!” She reached out, grabbing a fistful of Alan’s dirt-smeared tunic—and knocking over the candle in the process. The flame began to lick the wooden table.

Shouts, scrambling, panicked cries of “The fire!” “Snuff it out!”

Monroe juggled the candle upright, hissing at the hot wax.

“Monroe!” Alan cried. “Are you all right?” Several others echoed the question. Saundra stared at Monroe’s singed fingers in horror.

Monroe clenched his hand before giving both Saundra and Alan a gentle shove. “Sit. Down.”

As Alan and Saundra stumbled backward into the Caders behind them, the room went silent. Every eye locked onto Monroe.

Massaging his forehead with his good hand, Monroe sighed. “Mara, where did you hear about Torien closing its borders? Many of us have been hiding here for the past few days.”

Mara glanced around the room. Monroe’s jaw squared with tension. Alan’s blue eyes cut into Saundra like a knife. The blonde didn’t notice; Saundra refused to meet Alan’s gaze, instead glancing from Ian to Mara and back.

Mara caught Saundra’s stare for a second. Then the blonde diverted her eyes… back to Ian.

I pity you, Mara thought, but I don’t trust you.

Deliberately, Mara bent down and picked the boy up, pretending she couldn’t feel Saundra’s stare burning into her skin. As Mara cradled Ian against her shoulder, she shot a wordless glare at Saundra. But there were others around the room who were eying Ian with the same starved look. Under the weight of Mara’s stare, each one of them glanced away.

So you’ll use a boy, but you can’t stand a woman’s gaze. Mara felt her stomach wrench. My brave countrymen.

“I read the statement on a public notice,” Mara finally answered Monroe’s question. “Nailed to the wall of a guardhouse, on the way to the second safehouse.”

“And that was three days ago?”

“Yes.”

A few sharp intakes of breath.

Mara hesitated to say more. Should I? Despite the wolves’ looks, they didn’t deserve an additional blow any more than she had. But the notice had seared into her mind; its words almost came of their own volition: “‘The country of Torien does not condone the acts of violence committed against the Cader people,’” Mara recited, “‘but neither will it interfere in matters of Cadrean politics.’”

Insanity. It made her feel sick all over again.

The shack stood utterly silent. Mara watched her fellow Caders: brows wrinkling in anguish or in dark, quiet rage. No secrets here; they were all thinking the same thing she had been three days ago: Torien’s washing their hands of the matter.


That, and—They’re just as guilty as the executioners.

Sobs began to echo around the room.

Mara could handle seeing their anger, their hatred, the disgust and rage. But to hear the others sob over the news… Mara had to turn away; her heart throbbed with fresh fear. Suddenly it was real all over again. This whole farce.

Mara crumpled to the floor. And when Ian crawled into her lap, whispering if she was all right, she just blindly clutched him to her shoulder.

“So what do we do now?” asked one feeble voice across the room.

What, indeed?

“But… you’re from Rhodan,” piped in the adolescent girl who had spoken earlier. “Aren’t you… a mage?”

Apparently Monroe wasn’t the only one who could turn heads. All eyes locked onto Mara.

Why are you looking at me like that? She nearly demanded. You really think one single mage would make a difference?

“No,” Mara replied flatly. “I’m not.”

Several shoulders drooped, the Caders deflating as they released pent-up breath.

The girl protested. “But Rhodan has—”

“—One of the highest rates of licensed mages per capita, yes,” Mara snipped off the end of the girl’s hopeful statement. “But I’m not a licensed mage.” And anyone un-licensed, who doesn’t have the appropriate schooling, would never be skilled enough in magic to be any help here. But she didn’t bother adding that; everyone here already knew.

Still, Mara could feel gazes burning her skull. Judging from some looks… they didn’t all believe her.

I guess I can’t blame them. Have to hold onto some hope. Or strangle some scapegoat. She sighed. “I was enrolled at the Cader Royal Mage Academy,” she confessed. “But before I could graduate, I was… forced to leave.” Mara shifted Ian in her arms, glancing at him self-consciously.

Everyone’s gazes rolled from her to the boy. There were a few understanding nods in the crowd. But everyone looked crestfallen.

“Adonai help us,” someone whispered.

“Adonai?” the man with sad eyes muttered. He was still sitting against the far wall, and now he offered a half-hearted, half-sane laugh. “You mean the one who’s letting Vaerin slaughter people in the name of their god? Who’s content to watch children be burned to death just because they were born Caders?” His cold eyes stared ahead, lifeless even if they weren’t actually blind. “If that’s Adonai, he can die too, for all I care.”

Mara’s jaw dropped. Pain squeezed her throat shut.

“As if he were ever ‘alive’ to begin with,” grumbled a pale young man. “This god nonsense is what caused the war in the first place.”

Others started babbling, arguing immediately. Monroe had to step in again, separating Caders before they turned on each other.

“We’re all tired,” Monroe murmured, barely keeping his voice low and even. “Let’s all find a spot to rest. Alan and I can take first watch.”

The direction was easy for Ian; he was already dozing from sheer exhaustion in her lap. For Mara, however, it was a tall order. She set her head against the wall in the corner of the shack, sitting upright because there wasn’t nearly enough room for everyone to lay down.

Even without the uncomfortable position, the little sounds of a dozen strangers, and the terror of death, her heart hurt far too much for sleep.

But what hurts worse? The thought whirled as she heard someone snuff out the candle.

What hurts worse, Mara—the fact that someone would say all that about Adonai…

…or that you’re thinking the same thing?

Mara reached out in the darkness, wrapping her arms around Ian and cuddling him to her chest.

She needed something, anything, to cover up the hole in her heart. I’m hemorrhaging.

Where are you? she wondered while the thick air slowly suffocated her.

Are you even there?

The long hours ticked away. But her ache remained, because of course there was no answer. No audible voice whispered to her in the darkness; no hand of God arrived to etch his presence on the shack wall.

Mara felt tears well against her shut eyelids, and she was too tired to fight them off any longer. Where are you? Her emotions rolled back and forth; her mind tipped. Her world was capsizing in the middle of the storm. Where are you? Where are you?

They were the last words Mara remembered before she mercifully fell asleep.

---

Want more? For a different take on this story, check out the microfiction from Ian's perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre

Photo by David Monje; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Update: Broken Photo Links - and Incoming Fixes!

Breakups are hard. Especially when you're breaking up with a lousy photo uploading service.

Unfortunately, the old photo uploading site I began using at the start of this blog has apparently undergone some less-than-desirable questions, resulting in lots of broken links. Many apologies to anyone trying to read some of the old posts only to see some big old ugly "PHOTO UNAVAILABLE" messages.

I've been able to reupload most of the photos (only had to replace one so far), but many of the 2016 posts from March onward seem to have broken images.

I'll be doing my best to fix these throughout the week.

If you happen to see any broken image links, please let me know in a comment and I'll get right on it!

In other news, look forward to the next installment of Mara's story this Friday!

From Him, To Him

Friday, September 1, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 3 (TVB Universe)

We made it. Mara felt warm tears of relief trickle down her cheeks. There sat the safehouse, barely more than a wood shack under the crown of an enormous oak.

But fear scorched away Mara’s tears of relief. Voices were coming from the dimly-lit shack.

The past two safehouses had been completely empty. She’d assumed she and Ian were some of the last Caders left; that only they’d learned about both the houses and the oncoming Vaerin massacres in time.

Had she been wrong? Were these other survivors… or were they Vaerin, waiting in an abandoned house to spring their trap?

As her whole body ached and her throat burned, Mara wasn’t sure which she dared hope.

She set Ian down in a bush—one of the few green ones left. The forest fires hadn’t touched this area yet. No need to hush the boy; he knew what to do. He settled under the bush’s thin branches and remained still.

Then Mara crept toward the safehouse.

It had one single window on the side, which she avoided at all costs; no need for Vaerin to get a quick peek at a helpless Cader crouched just outside their house. Instead, she skirted the shack and made her way to the back wall, where she knelt and pressed her ear against the wood siding.

The voices inside were soft and they were many, but she could make out every few words.

“—all agreed… dangerous to stay here.”

“No, we’re most certainly… could be mor—”

“—can’t stay for the sake of a few…”

A man’s baritone voice interrupted them all: “Enough.”

That one word extinguished all the other voices.

A sigh. Then the baritone continued, “We could spend all night arguing around this. We already know from Erik’s report that the fires are spreading. Saundra’s right; we can’t risk everyone here for the sake of a few more who may or may not be out there.”

Someone started to protest, but the baritone voice cut them off, “Believe me, Alan, no one wants to stay more than me.” He paused. “You’re not the only one who’s hoping their family escaped the executions.”

Caders. Relief flooded Mara’s chest. She relished the emotion as if it were a cool drink. Survivors.

She raced back to the bush, rummaging around to fish out Ian. Her hands were shaking as she grabbed the boy. And, hopefully, friends.

Behind her, she heard the shack door swing open; it slammed against the wooden wall. “Don’t move!” shouted the baritone voice.

Mara whirled, Ian already in her arms.

“I said don’t move!” the baritone voice repeated from the doorway of the shack. The voice still had no face; all she could see was his silhouette blocking the doorway, his body backlit by wan candlelight from the shack.

This time, Mara obeyed.

Four long-legged strides took the man to the bushes, where Mara stood frozen. The mysterious man was tall and slender, but any further details were impossible to make out in the night.

The man paused before stretching an unthreatening palm toward her. His voice became far more soft, understanding. Perhaps even a little embarrassed and relieved. “Forgive us; we thought you were Vaerin.” Then he gestured to the shack. “There’s not much room left, but please, join us. You must be exhausted.”

“I’ve been running for twelve days,” she croaked wryly. She hardly recognized her hoarse, scratchy voice. “I guess ‘exhausted’ is one way to put it.”

She thought she could see the man smile. He held out his hand again. “My name is Monroe.”

Mara clasped his wrist, and he took hers; the customary greeting for Caders, but she wasn’t about to put Ian down to do it. Not on her life. Although holding a five-year-old in one arm and clutching someone’s wrist with the other was no easy task.

“Mara,” she finally bit off.

“Welcome aboard, Mara,” Monroe said gently.

She’d been wrong to be so curt with him. I have no idea what he’s lost to get to this place.

But it was too late to apologize now. Monroe was already leading her into the shack; he ducked inside ahead of her. The whole place was only lit by a single pale candle, but it still took Mara’s eyes a few seconds to adjust to the new light.

“She’s one of us,” Monroe reassured the shack’s inhabitants as her eyes finally took in the scene.

Twelve sets of hollow eyes—thirteen counting Monroe—stared back at her from faces across the spectrum of skin tones and facial features that the Caders were so well-known for: lily whites and olive golds and sunkissed tans and deep browns; broad or thin noses, wide eyes or almond-shaped, thin lips or luscious ones. Monroe himself had creamy light-brown skin, a shock of ebony curls, and a trimmed beard that framed his high cheekbones and tall, noble face.

“Looks like Alan was right to vote we wait,” muttered a woman with brown tresses who was sitting near the back of the room.

No one disputed it, but tension hung thick as wet leather. Some of those eyes felt like they were singeing Mara worse than the flames.

Mara felt her way along a wall until she collapsed in a heap, Ian in her lap. Shifting uncomfortably, she let the boy free; but Ian only cuddled closer and looped his arms around her neck.

She’d come to expect a similar scalding look from the few Vaerin travelers she’d encountered. She’d even become used to those stares from her fellow Caders once they’d seen her “child” or The Magus.

But to get those looks now, in the middle of a war? Yes, they were two more burdens, two more mouths to feed. But they were also two more survivors. Didn’t that mean something when their people were being exterminated?

Not friends after all. Mara hugged Ian to her chest.

“Everyone,” Monroe began in a soft voice, “this is Mara and…”

If he’d been waiting to see if the boy wanted to introduce himself, he was disappointed. The little one miserably buried his face in Mara’s shoulder.

“And Ian,” Mara finished briskly. “We came from Rhodan Village.”

“Rhodan? They have a lot of powerful mages there, don’t they?” an adolescent girl whispered, incredulous. “Especially for a little town.”

“I heard that was one of the worst,” murmured a short man with sad, dark eyes.

Ian whimpered, and Mara clutched him tighter. “Please,” she said quietly, but it may as well have been an order.

A warning.

And they all seemed to notice. Mara could almost feel the other Caders take a sharp breath at the tone of her voice, at the threatening knife’s edge just barely hidden under her word.

“We still have more to discuss,” Monroe cut in. The tension slackened at the sound of his voice, but not by much. Monroe glanced to Mara, gesturing around the room. “We were just working out our plans for moving forward.”

He paused uncomfortably. Someone coughed near the back of the shack. Nobody deigned explanation.

So. It was up to her to take the bait. Mara cleared her sore throat. “…Which is?” she asked, staring blankly at Monroe.

Monroe continued, but he hardly answered her question. “The safehouses were set up in a southerly direction,” he began.

Mara struggled to withhold her irritation. That was useless information; The Magus had explained as much when he’d snatched her and Ian out of bed, whispering that they needed to run. Now. That the Vaerin invaders weren’t showing mercy to the towns that surrendered to them. That they were gathering up any magic-users, licensed mages and untrained amateurs alike.

Tears crept into Mara’s eyes. She pretended they weren’t there.

“They were designed as a pathway of sorts,” Monroe continued, “a path to the border.” He rapped his knuckles on the shack’s only furniture, a small round table that held the lonely candle. “The goal was to guide any survivors into the neighboring country of Torien.

“Once we cross the border, we’ll be refugees. The Torien government should provide us safety from the Vaerin.”

Safety. The Magus’s words rang like iron in her ears: “You just have to make it to Torien. The border’s two weeks from here if you take it slow,” he’d said as he’d pressed a kiss to her forehead.

It’d all sounded so hopeful. So tempting. Up until this very point, she’d thought that if they could just make it to the last few safehouses, if she could just get Ian away from the frontlines, they’d be all right. They’d hunker down; they’d hide; they’d be safe.

But now that she was here, looking around the shack full of faces… Mara’s heart sank. So he sent us to our deaths, after all.

But The Magus hadn’t known. How could he have known things would turn out like this?

“Your plan has one fatal flaw,” Mara murmured, nervously running her fingers through Ian’s downy hair.

Silence. No one disputed her. Maybe some of them already knew. Maybe they’d already heard while on the run, like she had.

Either way, it had to be said.

With a sharp breath, Mara blurted out, “Torien issued a statement three days ago. They’ve closed their borders. They’re not letting anyone in or out.

“They’ve abandoned us.”

---

Want more? Check out the microfiction based on Ian's perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre

Photo: Twisted Words by Jack Cain; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him