Chapter 9

The Seamstress and the Wardrobe


The square fell deathly silent. A moment ago, the town’s commercial hub had been as lively and raucous as any diurnal iteration of the laissez-faire exchange. Beggars, hagglers, and traders all clamored over each other, sublimating ancient practices of hunting and gathering with the modern conveniences of consumerism. They bartered a mile a minute to a discordant rhythm, the tempo of man and crowd amalgamized and interpolating amongst the overall dins. The effect rendered was an iconic milieu of controlled chaos, which all came to a grinding halt at the inexplicable appearance of a foreign naval force.

Vendors, patrons, and passersby alike stood transfixed, immobile to the confounding events transpiring in the harbor. The tension was salient; the silence increasing the suspense. Crescendoing, brimming like the lensed surface of an overfilled water barrel, each second passed with mounting anticipation, like water dripping down atop the fragile body, waiting to break the surface. And sensing something, perhaps undefinable, the inhabitants of the square uniformly awaited with bated breath for a change to their environment—for the water to spill over.

The fleet in the offing had appeared so suddenly. Those who had been watching the horizon had seen them appear, seemingly from out of thin air. More worryingly, these were not domestic sailers; slightly exotic in design, they flew a foreign flag. After entering the harbor, they sailed curiously close to the shoreline… domestic ships didn’t usually do that.

The appearance of a military vessel on the waters—the Devanagari, the island’s signature guardian—seemed to act as a balm of sorts, the presence of the familiar in the face of the unfamiliar soothing addled nerves. It lessened the tension to a degree without disrupting the fragile tensile balance by which the townsfolk had found themselves entrapped. Sporadic conversations began cropping up; exchanged at a whisper, low susurrations just shy of outright murmurs. While eased, collectively, nerves remained taut, as if sensing an unquantifiable tensity clinging to the ether that couldn’t be ignored.

Treena clasped onto her daughters’ hands tightly. Gripped with fear, they squeezed back just as forcefully.

Though Dahlia’s hand hurt, she dared not tell her mother. She heard Minnie whimpering, and wondered how much worse her smaller limbs fared. Like small animals sensing they were in the presence of something greater than themselves, as if greater a predator had entered their environment, they astutely intuited that now was not the time for words. Silence was the tongue of the land, and so they remained quiet and observant.

They waited, listening, catching snippets of conversations interspersed from all around the square.

“… that looks like Isolde’s flag…”

“… what is the navy doing…”

“… Gardenians…”

“… don’t worry…”

“… I’m sure it’s nothing…”

“… who said anything about war…”

“… on good terms with Bartholomew…”

“… absurd, nobody’s that foolhardy…”

“… trust the king to…”

“… everything is…”

“… going to be…”

“… alright…”

One of ships opened fire on the Gardenian envoy, cutting the conversations short and ending further discussion. For a long, drawn-out moment, nobody moved nor spoke a word; they dared not even breath.

Seconds later, the percussive blasts of the cannons resounded in the square. Muted caricatures of the powerful ordnance that devastated the unassuming ship. But it seemed the sound of cannons was the final drop in the barrel, breaking the proverbial levee. The tension shattered, and the floodwaters spilled forth, somehow making the situation more real, more tangible, and galvanizing people into action. Someone gasped, someone cursed, then conversations spurred anew, rekindled with a surging vigor matching the heightened apprehension.

“… oh gods…”

“… this can’t be happening…”

“… they just declared war…”

“… are we being invaded…”

“… must be crazy…”

“… oh gods…”

A child began crying, wailing for her mother, perhaps overwhelmed by the adults’ collective and spontaneous sobriety, undoubtedly unused to the levels of frenetic energy radiating forth from their parents, along with every other adult.

Treena herself was shaking, bodily, while squeezing her daughter’s hands so hard that all three of them shared the discomfort. It served as much an anchor for her as it did them.

Minnie began sobbing hysterically. She was old enough to understand what had transpired, but too young to know much else. She, like the other children who were sharing the unfortunate experience, was woefully overwhelmed.

Dalia was merely whelmed. Lost, she stood adrift as if immersed in the tide, her cherubic face betraying her confusion, yet remaining neutral to the essence of her distress. Dalia didn’t know how to process the events. Neither did she understand the whole of the situation. Least of all, she lacked clear instruction or a frame of reference for what to do next. She wanted to comfort her sister, but recognized that something serious was ongoing that even the adults seemed incapable of addressing. As a result, she was too afraid to even breath without being granted permission, defaulting to a time in her life when she would seek her mother’s permittance for all and sundry. So, in true fashion, she looked to her mother for guidance. Surely, Treena would know what to do; the woman always knew what to do, because somehow, adults just always knew what to do. She would tell Dalia, and then she would know too.

Dalia looked up at Treena. What was she supposed to do?

No answers were forthcoming.

Treena had gone rigid, skin pallid, breathing short and ragged. By all appearances, she appeared as flummoxed as everyone else. This was the first time Dalia had ever witnessed her mother suffer openly from a bout of unguarded distress, well used to the woman’s natural aplomb.

Externally, she stood transfixed, unmoving; statuesque.

Internally, Treena’s mind raced, working at lightning speed to examine and cross-examine the situation, exploring tangential avenues for every assessment she made and resultant decision she could make. In the end, the results left her frozen in indecision more than if she had remained blissfully ignorant. The facts remained that they were in danger, possibly facing invasion, and they needed to leave in order find shelter. Her daughters’ safety was her only concern; nothing else mattered. But it wasn’t so much that she was drawing a blank that kept her treed, but rather, every alternative she explored seemed to wind down to the same inevitable conclusion. There was simply no place to go… they were on an island.

Madam Soya’s Atelier had been, roughly, the halfway point, topologically speaking. Moving to their home, and closer to her husband, would only bring them closer to the ships. She worried about him, and if she hadn’t been holding onto the girls, she knew she would have already run off in search of her husband. But she was a mother and had lost the luxury of being selfish. Her heart ached, but he would have to fend for himself and find his way to them. She prayed he would.

In the interim, they had to turn back; though there was no telling if that route were any safer. All things considered, she couldn’t discern much choice in the matter. Their safety wasn’t guaranteed in any direction, but forward presented them with the most cogent risks. It was decided then.

Besides, this was clearly a matter for the navy, who by the looks of it, were already aware of the situation. But this island was no longer a safe place for her children. She vowed to move to the mainland in the future, even if she had to strongarm her husband into selling the shop.

“Listen to me.” Treena said, addressing her girls. Her voice came out hoarse, sounding weak and staggered. “We’re going to go back to Soya’s. Do not let go of my hand. No matter what happens. Do you girls understand?”

Dalia nodded, but Minnie was too engrossed in her fit, crying much animatedly, to reply.

Treena shook her youngest by the hand, gaining the girl’s attention.

“Minnie, did you hear what I said?”

She hadn’t. Minnie shook her head. “N-no. W-what momma?” she asked through tears.

Treena’s expression turned conflicted, austerity warring with consolation. But the gravitas of the situation won out, demanding no less than strict obedience. She squatted down in front of her daughter, and leaned in to be heard while keeping her voice low.

“You need to listen to me.” she said, sternly. “Both of you.” she added, remembering to include her eldest. “We’re going back to Soya’s.”

“Soy-un?”

“Yes, baby. Soy-un.”

“You didn’t blush that time.”

“No. I suppose I didn’t.”

“Momma. Those people, are they…?” Dalia asked, trailing off upon realizing that she hadn’t fully considered the question. Or the answer.

“Don’t worry about them right now. Just do as I say. Hold my hand tight, and don’t let go. No matter what. Understand?”

Minnie finally nodded, with Dalia following suit.

“Good girl.” Treena kissed each of her daughters on the head, then stood. “Let’s go.”

They began moving through the square determinedly. Slowly at first, extricating themselves from the throng of bystanders while ensuring they stayed together. They weren’t the only ones in the process of leaving, their procession merely the cusp of a greater mass exodus, but most people, against their better judgement, stayed to watch. The bystanders, in no hurry to flee, helped reduce foot traffic considerably, and the trio managed to exit the square; herded, but unimpeded. Once on the cobblestones leading uphill, they started on the road which would lead them to Soya’s.

Along the way, they passed families they knew. Some faces they recognized and others they didn’t. Owen, the tanner’s son, was out with his mother Molly. She held him to her bosom, and he sobbed while she spectated from outside of a haberdashery. The Elsing family, Ingrid, Barney, and their two sons, Orion and Wim, stood huddled together in the street, obstructing a large berth while hugging familially. Their groceries lay forlornly at their feet, spilled out and forgotten. Little Becca Teed was crying on the side of the street, alone after having lost one or both of her parents, likely her mother, since her father often worked odd hours at the port. Dalia turned to alert her own mother to the young girl’s plight, but a woman passing by approached the girl first and began speaking soothingly to her, presumably trying to coax the whereabouts of her parents from the child.

A woman screamed behind them, prompting Dalia and her family to turn around towards the source of the commotion. The ships were firing again—at the island!

The buildings ashore were fatally struck, shorn into crumbling heaps of derelict masonry. Some caught flame, breathing new life to burgeoning conflagrations as smoke spewed forth from their foundations, threatening to consume them entirely. Others exploded outward, razing everything in their path. A few crumbled in on themselves. The sound of their ruin, the fiendish rapport of the ships’ cannons in stereo, reached their ears only as an afternote.

“Dear gods…” Treena said huskily.

As one, everyone panicked. Women screamed, men cursed, and suddenly everyone was running in every direction at once. Nobody stayed to gawk anymore. It was bedlam.

Though seemingly no one place was targeted, neither was any place made safe by such adoption of reckless abandon. Cannon fire struck the port near the fishing wharf, demolishing a cannery. The Temple of Apeiron, where practitioners went to worship the Supreme God of Life and Death, suffered a blow to its domed ceiling, which collapsed in on itself. The symbol of the temple’s deity, an ankh staff entwined with snakes—representing life and rebirth, or infinity—halved, then toppled. The town center they had just fled suffered greatly. Flame, ash, and blood now added to the decorations festooned around the square. Through it all, the interminable screaming painted a bloody picture.

Minnie shrieked, collapsing into sobs again, embracing hysteria.

Struck mute, Dalia couldn’t fathom a cognitive response to what she was witnessing. It seemed impossible. Frozen in place and unable to interpret the events taking shape before her, she found her perspective of the world transforming—shifting, twisting, warping—in a new and frightening way. What was once previously unfathomable, was now actually transpiring. She felt lost, trapped; the mute observer at bay in her own body.

She assayed the rubble littering the square. The upturned stones. The black char. The red stains. Were Owen and his mother hidden somewhere beneath all that devastation? She felt sick, disgusted, choosing to look at her own family instead.

Minnie was wantonly weeping, but Dalia was deaf to her sister’s cries, hearing only her own roaring blood coursing through her veins, the thunderous beat of her heart as it hammered away in her chest, and the ringing of the temple bells. She didn’t dwell on the knowledge that the bells were no longer hanging in the belfry, instead laid to rest, buried underneath the remains of the former house of worship.

Everything was too loud. Minnie wouldn’t stop crying. The bells kept ringing in her ears. Her chest hurt with how loud her heart was beating. Why wouldn’t the noise stop?

The world began to blur, swiftly losing focus. The light around the fringes of her vision dimmed. Her heartbeat slowed…

Dalia gasped, remembering to breath and drawing a deep breath. A cry escaped her lips.

The world slammed back into focus. Spinning, blurring, before refocusing. The next thing Dalia knew, she was the road, staring as cobblestones swam past her vision. She reached out to touch one. Perhaps she could get them to stop.

“Run!” Treena screamed desperately.

Jarred out of her stupor by her mother’s panicked tone, Dalia quickly reclaimed her wits.

The woman had been bodily hauling her daughters by the arm, manhandling them into motion while dragging them down the street at a brisk gait. “Run!” she shouted again. “Girls, I need you to run!”

Instinctively, Dalia ran as fast as her underdeveloped legs could carry her, which still wasn’t as fast as her mother’s legs wanted her to move. Minnie was fairing even worse; still caught in a fit of tears, her feet hardly touched the ground by how much Treena was propelling the girl forward.

“Don’t look back! Just run!” Treena told her daughters.

Dalia didn’t need to look back. The sounds she heard told the whole grisly story, a macabre portmanteau of desolation, syncopated by interpolated rapports, thunderous booms heralding death and devastation. Grinding rubble, crackling flames, and the screams…

They were soon upon the bend in the road which would lead them directly to Soya’s. Treena’s thinking had been that as a blessed woman, and the king’s former retainer, they might be safest in her shop, finding refuge, if only until they could plot a safer course of action. Now, she wasn’t so sure that any place on the island was safe, but clung to the gambit out of desperation.

“I see it!”

Dalia was already panting, feeling more breathless than she had been while holding her breath. Her legs quivered, strength wavering, and while the pain in her chest had subsided, she still felt weak, nearly depleted of all her energy. She looked up to see the atelier. The red thatched roof tiles cinched to a conical point, blending well into the mass of masonic buildings surrounding it which mirrored the islands distinctive architecture, a mimicry of Aeria’s grandeur. The sight of Soya’s reinvigorated the girl, and she muscled through her flagging reserves. Wheezing, her throat had dried to adopt the consistency of rough parchment.

A building exploded to their left, and the familial trio shrieked in unison. They were showered with finely splintered shards of glass before tumbling to the ground. Minnie was closest, having been affixed to her mother’s left side, and unwittingly took the brunt of the volley.

Treena rose unsteadily, gathered her children and dragged them over to a nearby alley; one side of the canyon-esque divide abutted a boutique with a second-story loft, and the other, a multistory residence. Once safely ensconced in the alleyway, she examined her daughters for injury, beginning with the youngest.

“Are you girls okay? Minnie, look at me.” Treena held Minnie’s face and turned it in all directions. She pored over every limb, even going so far as to lift the girl’s dress to check for hidden injuries to her body. “Look at me. Are you okay?”

Minnie hadn’t stopped crying since they fled the square. As a result, her downturned head had likely shielded her from suffering more than superficial injuries. They had each acquired several scratches from their tumble, either as a result the explosion or their impromptu landing.

Dalia wanted to cry too, but knew that now wasn’t the time for self-indulgence. She had to be strong. She couldn’t be a burden to her mother. She would cry later.

“Yah-huh.” Minnie said, sobbing through tears. It was as close to an affirmation as the girl could summon under the circumstances.

“Dalia, are you—”

“I’m okay, momma.”

“Are you sure? Let me see.” She checked Dalia over quickly, giving the girl a cursory appraisal. Satisfied she finally looked down at herself. Treena had instinctively shielded her daughters landing, and her forearms had suffered, but it was superficial; otherwise, she concluded that she was fine as well.

Treena took her daughters by their hands, guiding them close to her sides, and peered out onto the street. The cannons sounded distant now, but every so often a loud explosion would sound out from somewhere nearby, signaling that nowhere was safe. But from the looks of it, the more densely populated areas of the town were taking the brunt of the onslaught. If they hadn’t left the square when they did… they likely would’ve never made it out alive. Not that their prospects were looking any better.

Treena hesitated at the threshold. Indecision warred in her eyes, fear ceding to doubt, causing her to second-guess herself. The alleyway crafted the illusion of safety, mesmerizing its timorous occupants with large highwalls on each side, and two avenues of escape should they be required. Outside was chaotic, a curtain of shrapnel and ballistic munitions waiting to fall. She shuddered, swallowing. The trio’s ragged breathing filled the alleyway.

The seconds ticked by, and soon a minute passed. Treena made no sign to leave.

They were on the cusp of a residential district now; and across the way, lay a stone house resembling a modest version of Soya’s Atelier. They listened attentively, hearing the footsteps approaching before a face appeared. A woman ran past carrying a child, mounting the steps to a house on the opposite side of the street. She turned briefly to look over her shoulder and locked eyes with Treena. There was a moment when one or both might speak, then the woman entered the home and shut the door. Treena didn’t need to hear the sounds of the locks engaging to know they were being secured.

A part of her cursed the woman. The other part, the part of her that wondered if she would behave any differently were their roles reversed, she quelled fiercely, with a mother’s fortitude.

“It’s okay.” Treena said. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll just stay here, until—”

The house across the street was struck and the home collapsed. The trio ducked low, holding onto one another, and remained that way after the dust settled, crouched in each other’s arms.

Treena could only imagine the horror that awaited inside, the picture of a mother clutching her child protectively flashed in her mind’s eye, both buried under the rubble of their lifelong home, entombed beneath the very stones which contained the memories they’d spent a lifetime cultivating together. In their stead, she saw herself, holding onto her daughters, and promptly retched onto the alley floor.

Minnie, prompted by the smell of bile, did as well. Dalia, who had the misfortune of experiencing the sick inducing smell before, to the same effect, wisely turned her nose up in disgust while making a concerted effort to breathe through her mouth. The thick scent of char hung in the air from all the surrounding fires, helping more than some.

“Okay. We’re leaving.” Treena said.

“No-o-oh…” Minnie cried, whining piteously. “No, no, no! I don’t wanna die-e-e…”

Dalia agreed with her sister. Death awaited them out there. Hadn’t they just borne witness to it’s effects?

“We’re not safe here. That,” she gestured to the remains of the home across the road. “could just as easily happen to us here. We need to get to Soya’s.”

“B-but I’m s-sc-scared.”

“I know baby, but we’ll be safe at Soya’s. I need you to be brave, okay?” she held Minnie’s face in her hands. “Soya is blessed. We’ll be safe with her.”

“B-being blessed is g-good?” Minnie asked, coherent for the first time since their ordeal began.

“Yes, baby. Being blessed is the best thing that could happen to a person. It means they’re a god’s favorite child. Rhiannon will protect Soya, and if we’re with her, she’ll protect us too.”

Minnie unexpectedly stopped crying. An expression of dawning comprehension swept over her features.

Dalia’s heart skipped a beat when her sister briefly met her eyes, but it was fleeting, and they were soon filled with fear again when another projectile struck nearby. Did the gods really protect those they blessed? Would Hessian protect her and her family now, after all the years she’d spent cursing his name and rebuking his so-called gift?

“Hold my hand.” Treena instructed. “Don’t let go.”

Both girls nodded.

Treena stuck her head out of the alleyway. She hesitated, taking three deep breaths, then exited and ran nearly full tilt in the direction of the atelier. Only seconds after they left the confines of the alley, the shop side of the divide was strafed by cannon fire and a large portion of the loft collapsed into the alley, crushing the garbage bins still inside. The girls shrieked while Treena stumbled over herself, nearly pulling the girls down in another tumble. She silently thanked the gods while regaining her balance. She prayed that Apeiron wouldn’t take them all just yet, not for a long time yet to come.

Dalia had turned around mid-stride, compelled, staring back down at the town beyond. Large swaths of her home had been largely reduced to fire and smolder, billowing plumes of black smoke. A firm yank from Treena had her turning back around, and they were off, running again. Soya’s sat poised on the hilltop, waiting their arrival.

The hill boasted the highest elevation on the island. Though the surrounding destruction was becoming less evident the further up they traveled, the evidence of the town’s razing had found its way up there as well.

As they neared, Dalia felt magic building. Unfathomable amounts of it; dense and ubiquitous, like a second ocean had suddenly engulfed the world. It resonated with her own, bringing the suppressed manna she tried to hide to the forefront. For the first time in years, she heard the flames speaking again. They came alive once more, dictating directly to her as she passed the burning wreckage littering the road.

Dalia…

… Dalia…

… don’t go…

Then the magic vanished, and the voices stopped. In her distracted state, she missed that they had arrived within a few houses of the atelier. Soya stood at the threshold of the door, wearing a crimson cloak of the finest quality, a worried look gnawing at her brow.

Dalia wasn’t imagining that Soya was looking directly at her, gaze calculating. Somehow, Soya always knew where Dalia was, when she was coming and going. In that moment, Dalia’s suspicions of the matron were all but confirmed.

A second buildup of magic, more intense than the first, was taking place behind them, and Dalia couldn’t help but turn around, noticing in her periphery that Soya’s lip quirked in a rueful facsimile of a smile. She supposed that Soya’s suspicions, had the woman held any, had also been confirmed. Like before, Dalia’s magic roared to be heard.

Fire—it came alive. Suddenly, the entire town was breathing—a living entity of flames. Dalia could see it now. Hear it. Feel it. It called to her. And on the horizon, a dull glowing point of interest—the potential for flame. It arced toward her, and though incongruous to her vision, she had no trouble keeping track of it as it neared. Too late, she noted the trajectory. Turning her head, she locked eyes with Soya. The sad smile on the woman’s face told her that she had noticed it as well. Her end was coming.

Soya disrobed, unclasping the cloak she wore and threw the fabric in their direction. It flew, almost as if acting independently of her will, and spread wide to obscure their vision. A moment later, it enshrouded the trio, ensconcing them in its folds. The velvety material turned translucent then, allowing them time to see Soya smiling back at them sadly, hands clasped to her bosom, before her house was struck and exploded behind her in a conflagration of flame and debris, engulfing her beckoning form.

“No!” Treena screamed. “Soy-un!”

Debris rained down on top of them, showering them with smoldering stones of masonry and needles of glass. They flinched reflexively, crouching low, only to soon realized that the impacts could hardly be felt. It was as if all the concussive force behind their momentum had been removed or dispersed immediately before or upon impact. The strikes sounded muted and muffled to their ears. The lucent fabric lit up resplendently when struck, colors bursting to life as concentric circles rippled in the wake of the projectiles’ barrage, outlining their impact points.

Treena somehow knew that they were under Soya’s protection, the same protection the woman had forsaken in order to save them, which could’ve been used to save herself. Hot tears flowed from her eyes while she fisted the enchanted fabric, overwhelmed in the face of the final act from the woman whom she had come to know as a surrogate mother.

“S-soy-un…” Treena whimpered.

Soya was dead.

Dalia felt the matron’s absence as keenly as she had always felt the woman’s presence. One moment she had been there, smiling at them with the grimness that came from the knowledge that your own death is impending, and the next she was simply gone.

Though Dalia’s attention had drifted away from the earlier resurgence of magic she had felt, it had persisted. Then it swiftly cut out, dying down to a low level, background noise to her subconscious. Like Soya’s passing, its absence was as marked. Unnerved, she dared to look back.

Dalia gasped, skeptical to what she was witnessing. “Momma…” she said, awed. “Look!”

Treena turned, puzzled by her daughter’s sudden exuberance. She gasped.

The ocean seemed to fold in on itself, welling to a mound in front of each ship, as if they had dared to sail the deserts and the dunes pooled beneath their keels. Each ship was stalled, off-kilter, and seemingly ensnared. All except for the Devanagari, which seemed to be orchestrating the blockade.

Impossible… Treena thought. Like the others, she had heard the rumors. And like the others, she hadn’t believed them, despite spreading a few along the gossip mill herself. But it appeared that there was more to the island’s staple battleship than met the eye. Perhaps the rumors had more truth to them than she knew.  Perhaps…

She shook her head to clear it. Now wasn’t the time for misplaced optimism. This lull might not last. Likely, it wouldn’t.

B-b-boom!

The Devanagari opened fire, unleashing a torrent of its own brand of devastation, biting back with a vengeance, and it stirred within her a perverse pleasure to see one of the enemy ships destroyed, and with it, a number of Soya’s killers brought to justice.

The rapport of cannon fire, where it had once been terror inducing, was a serenade to behold.

Soya… she thought… only a few seconds earlier, and Soya would still be…

But she couldn’t finish that train of thought, wouldn’t allow herself to. Treena knew that she had to act if she wanted to avoid sharing Soya’s fate. She looked down at her daughters, then up at the translucent fabric, taking in the intricate patterns which bloomed into existence kaleidoscopically, only to burst before fading back into the nothingness from which they came. She knew the cloak was invaluable. It was the salvation she had entrusted her daughter’s lives in finding at Soya’s. The woman had come through marvelously, and she would never be able to repay her. This cloak, she knew, was the key to their survival. But where would they go?

She looked back down the hill, towards the harbor. As far away as possible, she decided. Taking each girl by the hand, she pulled them up onto their feet.

“Girls, let’s go.” she said. “We’re leaving. It’s not safe here.”

Neither girl dithered nor argued, fully aware that it wasn’t the time to be disobedient or inquisitive.

Treena knew that the far side of the island would be their best bet. Unfortunately, their most expedient route was obstructed by the remains of Soya’s shop. She dared not risk injury by climbing over the debris, especially since parts of it were still smoldering. Not inconsequentially, she dared not find Soya herself, buried beneath the ruins of her own establishment.

They traveled under the cover of cloak, keeping their paces measured. It slowed them considerably, but they weren’t prepared to forego the safety of the enchanted garment.

The roads in Istan weren’t named, not like those in Aeria, which named after politicians and former members of the royal family. Ergo, the road to Soya’s was aptly referred to as such.

They backtracked a few paces, turning onto the road to Hammer’s, the blacksmith’s residence who’s father had been a blacksmith before him and had encouraged his son to the craft. Fortunately for Hammer, the profession suited him just fine. Beyond Hammer’s, they would be able to turn onto another road, this one leading to the farmer’s groves, where all manner of agriculture was cultivated, but not least of all, the citrus fruits for which Istan was locally famed. The many acres of fields and crops were layered over a large percentage of the island’s overall topography. Treena hoped to hide themselves within the folds of the island’s benign landscape, hoping the region was remote enough to avoid a secondary assault, should one be forthcoming, while praying it wouldn’t.

The road to Hammer’s was nearly pristine compared to the winding cobblestone streets leading up to and intersecting it. The street was empty and the only sign of something untoward occurring recently were the abandoned messes left behind by the few townspeople present at the time, which they had made in their haste to expedite a hastened departure.

They could still hear the distant popping rapports of cannon fire, but the harbor was firmly out of their line of sight now.

“Hurry girls.” Treena cautioned.

They passed by Hammer’s. It was rumored that the man was dedicated to the craft, so much so that he had a forge built into his home. The acrid smell lingering in the air had her believing that there might be a nugget of truth to the tale. The modest single-story home passed them by in a blur. Handicapped as they were by the cloak, their single-minded focus to reach the safety of the fields left them with little attention to spare for their surroundings. At least, until the agricultural road neared.

Poyo’s was the first farm along the road, and those without greater dealings with the rest of the rural families and businesses often referred to it exclusively in regard to the comely woman. The cobblestones yielded to free ground, heavily traveled dirt, trampled and compacted into a surface just as hard. High grass abutted the road, adorning it with long chutes that lent it a sense of enclosure. A sharp hill crested just ahead, where the road doglegged and the hill peaked. After they crossed that threshold, the rest of the island lay downhill.

“We’re almost there, girls. Keep going.” Treena said, panting from their combined efforts. “You’ve both been so brave today. I’m so very proud of you.”

They reached the top of the road. At the curve in the bend, where the grass obscured the slope, Treena pulled aside the tall grass to peer down to the hillside below.

The fields were burning.

Minnie crumped to her knees, wailing. Dalia rushed to her side, determined to hold her own tears at bay.

“Momma?” she asked, looking up at her mother. “What do we do now?”

But Treena was frozen—in shock, indecision, disbelief… fatigue and incredulity.

“Momma?” Dalia repeated.

Treena blinked, coming to herself. “I…” she said hoarsely. But what could they do?

The town and surrounding fields were burning. The enemy was at their doorstep, and their only champion might soon be defeated. The cloak might protect them to an extent, but she was fairly sure there were limits to its protection. A collapsing building might still crush them, or a fire might still burn them. She was fairly confident it wouldn’t hold up against a lobbed cannonball if put to the test. There were just too many variables to consider, too many unknowns. But what she did know was that if they stayed, eventually the fire would reach them, and if they waited too long to act, they would be trapped by the spreading flames, waiting to be consumed.

Treena swallowed. “I…” … don’t know.

Their only avenue of escape seemed to be toward the water, but the only ships within reach were currently stationed at the docks—the same docks in the harbor where the enemy ships were striking out from.

But that was suicide, wasn’t it?

“What do we do?”

Treena turned back to look down at the razed town. Most of it still lay intact. The fires, while slowly spreading, were contained to some areas more than others. The enemy had stopped firing… for the moment. The plan forming in her head was feasible, if foolhardy. But mostly, it was crazy.

She looked down at her daughters, curled in on each other. The sight of them broke her heart. She was at the precipice of strength, looking down on ruin, wanting nothing more than to lose herself to her warring emotions. But while her wounded heart bled for her daughters, and it would keep beating for them too.

“I don’t know…” Treena said finally, indecision bleeding into her tone.

She looked out towards the town, the battlefield, and west towards Aeria. It was perhaps too much to hope to see a fleet of reinforcements on the horizon. They were on their own for the time being. The tower of the palace gleamed beatifically; mockingly, both a symbol of power and yet powerless when its strength was needed most.

The wind whipped at her hair. A stray flake of ash landed on her nose; more soon followed.