They finished digging the hole a ways out from the yard, at the edge of a field, by the time the sun was getting ready to set. Gareth and Manuel put the halfling in it and shoveled the dirt back over him with no words, and no remorse. They had seen far more than one dead body in their lifetime. Zaria was tending to Aria’s wound, and trying to calm her down. They didn’t want everyone knowing what had happened quite yet, since trust wasn’t so easily given. The men finished the grimy work and headed back to the house. Gareth laid a brief hand on Manuel’s shoulder in solidarity. Manuel gave a slight nod of his head that he understood that Gareth was offering support.
“I’m sorry you were put in this position. I can barely imagine having to make that choice,” Gareth said gravely.
“It wasn’t that difficult, I suppose. I mean, you choose the princess Zaria every time, so it was just a matter of following through with my decision to stay with Aria. I would never hurt her, that much was clear to my heart.”
Gareth nodded, as he had known this. It was shown now to Zaria that Aria was trustworthy, and for that small thing, he was grateful. The air around the two men were tense with unspoken worries about what would happen now. The queen was for sure gathering an army to come here. They probably didn’t have much time, and his head swam with lists of things that needed to be done. They approached the house and Gareth clapped Manuel on the back once more before they entered.
The light was fading quickly from the sky. The sunlight barely touched the sky, sending the hot pink clouds into a vibrant pink glow. The cicadas were chirping, glowing bugs were zipping around, and the leaves were dancing in the light breeze. Everything was very soothing, but Zaria thought it was false. It was almost the calm before the storm, but she was tense. Apprehensive, with what could possibly be coming. The queen knew, and knew where they were. She had tried to calm her sister, but ended up having to knock her out with magic because of how hysterical she had been.
She hated doing it, and wasn’t feeling so great herself, but she had to maintain the appearance of having it all together. She was the future queen, after all. People would look to her to have all the answers. But her mind was actually racing. Terrified, of all the possibilities. Her mind felt like the racing of a scared rabbit’s heart, ready to give out. Awen had to be on her way here. But what would she bring? They had to tell Rishtah as soon as possible, but she had to wait until the men got back. She tried to keep from pacing, but was finding it difficult. She wound her hair up into a bun, but had nothing to secure it with so it kept falling, and she would just wind it back up again. The council members had to help. She nearly growled with impatience and frustration. She wanted to scream, because she didn’t think they were ready.
The men finally came back, smelling of earth and dirty with it. Gareth embraced her as soon as he walked in, his eyes full of emotion as he crossed the room to her. So many things he said with his eyes; worry, concern, anger, and love, among others.
“Aria is sleeping,” Zaria said to Manuel after a moment. He nodded grimly and left the room so they could have a little privacy before they had to leave. Just their touch spoke volumes, and she amazed at how they had gotten here. The night he had taken her and she hadn’t trusted him seemed like a lifetime ago. They kissed deeply, inhaling each other’s scents before regretfully pulling away. She knew Aria was in a deep sleep, and they called to Manuel to come to Rishtah’s house. They made a short walk of it, hurrying as fast as their legs could carry them without running. The door opened when they approached her porch, so she must have been looking outside.
They rushed into the house and filled her in as quickly as possible. Her face went gray and her eyes widened in fear. The house was full of anxiety and fear, because Rishtah wasn’t the only one. The waves of energy from emotion nearly choked Zaria. She tried releasing it in tiny waves elsewhere, but she didn’t want to disrupt nature too much. From there, they roused the rest of the council members and rushed to town hall for an emergency meeting to figure out the next steps. Everyone in the village would be evacuated to the city hall building in the basement. There wasn’t time to evacuate the village, and nowhere to go for that matter, said one of the council members. Zaria recognized him but couldn’t recall his name.
“Some people will have to fight,” Zaria argued, backed by Gareth. A couple of the members looked excited for the impending battle, and more of them were frightened. A few of them were stoic. The reactions interested her. She wondered if the ones who were excited were the ones she couldn’t trust. She took note of who reacted in what way. “We can’t do it alone, even with the roomful of people we have here. We need more to enforce the protection we have.” There were murmurs in the room, and Zaria wondered why anyone would protest. If they fail, they were all dead.
“Yes, but I don’t think anyone in this village is strong enough. The men, maybe, but the women and children cannot participate,” one of the men said, which made Zaria seethe. She was a woman, and magically stronger than any man in the room.
She raised an eyebrow, and said, “The strongest people will help, no matter if they are men or women. Children, no. They don’t have the control or experience yet to fight this fight.” The man set his mouth in an angry line but didn’t comment further. No one fights with the queen, she thought. Or, queen to be. She wanted to turn from this responsibility, but people needed her, and innocent children needed protecting. They hadn’t done anything to deserve this.
“There should also be a smaller circle of protection around the building, to protect those inside. We will have to have to divide the powerful protectors because we will want strong protection should the others fail.” As she said this, she felt sick in her stomach. It was like handing a pig his meal in the trough. Everyone would just be in one place to be slaughtered. She didn’t think there was a better plan given the short notice. She didn’t think there was time to run. They had until sundown tomorrow night, she thought. The queen’s army or whoever she was sending would get close tonight, then they would be in attacking range tomorrow night. She was thankful they could only travel by night, or they would have even less time.
“So we need to be as calm, organized, and as efficient as possible. I know it’s going to be difficult. But we need to keep track of people so no one gets left behind and not safe. At the end of the day tomorrow, we need to go door to door and make sure we didn’t miss anyone. We need to gather supplies, and set up in the basement of this building to handle everyone.” She didn’t know if she was missing anything or not. It seemed to be happening in a blur. Before she knew it, the basement was all set up, and frightened people were filing into the huge room carrying few of their possessions. Some were old enough to remember the panic of years part and their eyes were haunted. Zaria wondered if her eyes looked like that. Haunted, yet hardened. It was only a brief, fleeting thought and then it passed as she busied herself with calming people and reassuring. She couldn’t help wondering if there was a different way. She decided to approach Gareth and Rishtah about it.
She gathered them and led the way to Rishtah’s office. Once inside, they created an energy field of protection from prying ears.
“Are we sure we can’t evacuate them somewhere? I feel like there has to be something we can do, somewhere for them to go.” Zaria looked pleadingly to Gareth.
He glanced at Rishtah and drew in a deep breath. Rishtah gave a slight nod and Gareth replied to Zaria’s query. “There are a few smaller encampments to the west. They aren’t friendly to our cause, and keep to themselves. There’s no telling if they would take us in or not. They like to stay isolated, they don’t communicate much, and they refuse to communicate about the Resistance at all.”
Hope swelled within her chest. She didn’t want to get too hopeful, but at least it was something. Before he could caution her, she burst out with, “I know, it isn’t much, but at least it’s something. At least it’s a chance. I mean, it wouldn’t be like just putting them all in a room for an almost sure death. I know we aren’t ready,” she said softly.
“So what do we do? We can’t trust anyone,” Gareth huffed in frustration.
Zaria narrowed her eyes in concentration. “I think we wait until the outer protection spell is broken. Then I hide their passage as they sneak out the back of the building. It’s risky, but I think it’s the only way. We have the element of surprise on everyone. Who knows where these other establishments are? Who will lead the people?”
“Manuel will. He will lead them. Someone needs to help him, though. Your sister, I think. We know we can trust her, trust both of them. I will tell her not long before we have to leave, and I know she will be very helpful. She will know the sense of urgency, after she gets over this shock. She will be fine,” Rishtah reassured Zaria. “Also, there’s a secret exit that I enchanted a very long time ago. Almost no one knows about it. It leads underground for a time, through the forest, and then out the side of a mountain.”
“Is there one location that’s friendlier than the rest? There is the chance that we could be turned away,” Zaria feared.
Gareth nodded thoughtfully. “There is one place that is friendlier, yes. They still keep to themselves, but they are still a little more receptive to our messages than the other groups. One of the leaders was a good friend of your father’s,” he said, squeezing her hand a bit. “They have been on the verge of joining us a few times, but the idea has always been voted down.”
“Do you think we would be safe there until we regroup?” She asked.
“I think so, yes.”
“Since Manuel is leading, he will talk to them. Hopefully they will see our struggle and welcome us into their group. We are a large group, so some adjustments will probably have to be made. We have a lot of work to do to create a new place for ourselves.”
“I should think that sooner rather than later we will have the castle back, and regrow what was lost so many years ago.”
“We have lost much,” Rishtah sadly acknowledged. “So many lives lost, so many more corrupted by power.”
“But we’ve also gained people from the other side,” Gareth pointed out, thinking of Manuel.
“We have,” she nodded. “Well, not to dwell on the past any longer!” She said briskly. “I will help you cloak their escape after the initial wall of protection is broken. Aria will make sure everyone gets through. We will drop the cloak after they are safely out. You lot will follow us as soon as we you can, do you understand? No being a hero! We aren’t strong enough yet, and we can’t afford to lose either one of you.”
They both understood the gravity of those words. Zaria tried not to think of all the ways this could go wrong. She had to focus on success. It was the only way to stay sane sometimes. With a heaviness about her, they finished planning the escape. The betrayers and Awen wouldn’t know what had happened. Zaria focused heavily on keeping the plan far away from her facial expressions as she encountered people, thinking about how her face and behavior had let Awen know what they knew in the first place, setting this disastrous set of events into motion. She felt guilt, but was trying to not let it sit heavily on her shoulders. If she let it in, it would destroy her. She hardly felt worthy to lead people at this point, but she had to carry on. There was no other choice. Failure was not an option. Not when innocent lives were on the line.