The Sea Tower | Chapter 19

The Road Less Travelled

Treena clutched her daughter’s hands tightly to her side as they ran through the deserted streets. The battle lulled sometime after the Devanagari managed to turn the tide of the engagement, thoroughly devolving the battle into a slow-paced, one-sided shooting gallery. The sight gave birth to hope, only for that hope to be swiftly and mercilessly snatched as the tides of war seemingly shifted once more. However, for the moment, the cannons had settled, but there was no telling how long that would last either.

While fleeing amid unblemished edifices and branching side roads, it was easy to forget that the island was being besieged. Yet, at any moment, should she wish it, Treena could choose to cast her vision beyond the periphery of the immediate scenery, past the tunnel vision blocking out the true grimness of the world—itself, an atavistic dissonance borne out of desperation, perhaps naively—only then would her gaze land upon the blight which plagued her home. The landscape spoke of new wounds, promising everlasting scars that would never heal and, in the distance, their aggressors’ ships laid moored, bound by powerful magic. The reminder was always there and, because of it, it was she who felt trapped on the island—caged like a beast within a veritable prison. So, she dared not look, lest her courage depart with the last vestiges of her optimism and, with it, her hope.

Instead, she pulled the girls along harshly, unrepentant of forcing them to keep a jogging pace. The children were past their limits, she knew. Because she was too. However, they couldn’t stop running, not now—it was unfathomable. No, she wouldn’t let them. It was the only thing keeping them alive, after all. That, and Soya’s protection. She had seen what happened to those who stopped, what had almost happened to them when they chose to dawdle for too long, and refused to allow the same fate to befall her own family as well.

The girls ran obediently behind their determined mother, kicking up dirt and loosing gravel in their wake. Their young hearts hammered to the staccato-like rhythm created by three pairs of footfalls pounding feverishly at the trampled ground, a gait pronounced at a clip. Sounds of heavy breathing filled their ears and, even then, were nearly drowned out by the sonorous drumming of their overtaxed heartbeats. The whooshing warble of their blood rushing through their bodies added to the cottoned din that managed to pervade. It was the sound of a prey animal on its last legs; the sound of desperation before predation.

Outside of the temerity driven fugue fueling their flight, the sounds of screaming had since become a thing of the past, having no place of relevance in the present. Yet the ephemeral echoes of lamentation remained rooted in the very brickwork they passed by, lodged within lumber and hidden behind nooks, still clinging to the last vestiges—the dregs of chaos—that remained. Around every corner, the expectation loomed. A crack of timber, or an odd rumbling in the distance, signified a resurgence; death knells of dying edifices, unable to stave off the inevitable any longer, reinforced these specters, bringing with them clarity and new life.

Minnie whimpered lowly, then immediately clamped her mouth shut, staidly refraining from divulging any more of her discomfort than she already—inadvertently—had. Haggard, harried, and overwhelmed, the girl threw herself into matching her mother’s punishing pace. Her tiny, undeveloped legs burned from overuse. Hot, as she was under the weight of Soya’s cloak, her fiery red hair—which her mother had always prized and primmed with care—matted wetly against her crown, turned unkempt and dirty by the ongoing ordeal. But vanity was least on her mind, no matter how sweaty or filthy or pungent she became. True, Minnie had wailed, and she likely would again. But not now, not until after they were safe and it was prudent to do so and, even then, possibly not at all. The rivulet-like tracks running down her cheeks were the only concession she could afford, largely because the tears came unbidden and seemed impossible to stop.

Dalia was of the same mind. Except, she would do her crying later. At the moment, there was too much on her mind. Namely, why had the flames forsaken her passage through the fields?

Upon reaching the crest of the hill, finally staring down the Road to Poyo’s, Dalia had been surprised to see the great swathes of farmland, which typically made up the southeastern plane, being razed in a grand conflagration. She’d been moments away from revealing her divine patronage to her family, thinking herself capable of commanding the flames to part for their passage, when she’d been beset by them instead. The voices resounded clearly in her mind. Turning hadn’t revealed the speakers, nor had there been a blaze kindling nearby, but she recognized the ethereal timbre of the fire’s calling as surely as if she were still ensconced within her father’s furnace. They spoke to her again, like they had then.

… avoid the fields…

The advice seemed counterintuitive, but there was no one nearby who could elaborate.

… turn away from this place, young spark…

Dalia struggled to remember if she’d ever been addressed by that moniker. To the best of her recollection, she hadn’t.

… before you are extinguished…

Then the voices abruptly stopped, leaving her with only the sound of Minnie’s diminishing sobs to fill her ears as her sister struggled to collect herself. However, the warning inherent to that final statement was enough to sway her decision, and she had begrudgingly remained silent.

Though, as she ran, the questions continued to mount, assailing her addled mind with a blissful distraction. Away from the horrors of war, she could concentrate on a riddle.

How had the flames contacted her? And why had they staved her off? Despite the inherent self-loathing she felt about her blessing, Dalia admitted to herself that she fully believed the flames. Despite silently acknowledging that they might very well be capable of deceit, every time that they’d spoken, and it begrudged her to admit this, she’d believed in their veracity—even when she desperately hadn’t wanted to admit the truth of it to herself. However, whether they spoke the truth or not was irrelevant, as their warning had been enough to drive her away. Dalia had bitten her tongue in the end, and fled, feeling more confused and unsure of herself than ever, which was considerable, considering the straits she had been in to begin with.

Treena marshaled forward while hauling her daughters along. A firm yank tore Dalia from her reverie, clearing the blurred edges around her narrowed vision as she, again, refocused on her surroundings.

They were running through a residential district where many homes lined both sides of the road, each grander than her own home—the flat above the bakery—had been. Hammer’s home was fixed further east, big enough to house a furnace, but these buildings boasted a close mimicry of the blacksmith’s dwelling. In the past, Dalia might’ve been forced to suppress a tinge of envy at the imposing stature of splendor inherent in these buildings, but not today. Instead, she found herself pitying these homeowners because, surely, they had more to lose. Whatever might develop at losing the only home she’d ever known—once she was allowed the luxury of mourning, that is—theirs might be a little more potent, because of all they stood to lose. And no doubt in her mind remained, that by the day’s end, all would certainly be lost.

In the distance, the bejeweled sea glinted brightly and beatifically, sending glints of the sun to the wandering eye as if sharing a secret with passersby. They told of a trailing star, now firmly lodged in the west, where earlier it had been set in the east, and which also shadowed the far side of the harbor by dint of its absence. Midday had passed and, while there were still many hours left in the day, dusk encroached as invariably as the enemy.

A part of her felt betrayed, the part she had always buried beneath the veneer of normalcy and a thick stratum of loathing and self-disgust. Was too much to hope for the heavens to notice their plight? What use were the gods if they were useless they were needed? Surely, the world wouldn’t stop spinning just because her own seemed to be ending, but even Hessian seemed to be abandoning them—abandoning her, his charge—in their hour of need, and after making her life miserable, robbing her of a carefree adolescence. Dalia felt her chest swell, where rage borne from perfidy gave rise to searing indignation. She gripped it tightly, using it to propel her feet further, faster, and longer than she believed herself capable.

White flashed on the horizon, and it took it her moment to realize that it wasn’t another glimmering trick of the light. A building close to the port exploded and, a second later, the rapport of a cannon’s muzzle reached their ears. Minnie shrieked at the resurgence of warfare. The entire episode caused Dalia to stumble in her gait, and she nearly face planted.

“Get down!” Treena shouted, bringing them to a stop in the middle of the road, where they huddled beneath the safety of Soya’s cloak. “Cover yourselves! Hurry!” She ordered, despite adjusting the enchanted fabric herself.

Dalia felt her mother’s hand grab a fistful of her hair, pushing her down to a further crouch until, finally, she came to a rest on her knees. The position was uncomfortable; the girl bent forward at the abdomen while gravel dug into the meat of her shins. But she was terribly afraid, too much to protest. And knowing her mother knew best, helped assuage any qualms she held about barring the road.

After witnessing a stampede occurring firsthand, she was reticent to repeat the experience. In the back of her mind, she wondered why Treena braved the open space at all, where they were most visible to potential aggressors. Was it because the woman wished to avoid becoming entombed in one of these buildings, like had been the fate of that poor family they’d witnessed being crushed? Silently, she agreed with the reasoning, even if it left her feeling exposed. Though, she wouldn’t go so far as to say that it made her feel any less vulnerable.

Catching a glimpse of Minnie’s face, twisted and upturned with barely repressed emotion, left Dalia feeling weightless. That her sister was suffering was clear. She’d known the girl was—had to have been—but seeing to what extent took her breath away. For a moment, she wondered if there were more to her sibling’s contorted countenance than she had, at first, guessed. Minnie’s usually cherubic face, whose angelic features were the envy of most mothers, was screwed up and warped past the point where the beautiful girl had become an ugly sight. The emotions etched into her sister’s mien spoke volumes. They told of a bitter, rancorous sadness; a fierce indignation borne of frustration; and of a bone deep and unparalleled weariness. The latter of which seemed to be—somehow—impossibly expressed on her mother’s face as well. And if Dalia possessed a means by which to view her reflection, she expected to find that her own visage might bear a striking resemblance.

However, it was the tears that were freely leaking from Minnie’s eyes that revealed the depths to her sister’s angst. It was heart wrenching. Dalia looked away, unable to keep gazing at her sister’s despair, but settled for placing her own palm atop her sister’s crown. Gentler, more timidly, than their mother had done.

Minnie froze at the soft, unspoken gesture.

Screaming, she had been screaming. Tucked between her mother and sister, she had been perched upon the precipice of desolation. Aarghhh! The howls in her mind were as plentiful and easy coming and going as the breeze, and she had been moments away from vocalizing her lament. Her body wracked with the overwhelming everything that she’d been subject to so far, and there seemed to be so much more in store, an ocean’s worth—it just wouldn’t stop! Then she felt it, the warmth of her sister’s hand, a saving grace in a devilish land. The heartfelt gesture lent clarity to her addled mind, helping to ground her in the moment.

As Minnie slipped further and further away from becoming unhinged, her return to normalcy was pocked by the sharpened lines of surrealism. In the next moment, she was assailed by the scent of her mother’s bosom, lavender and jasmine and the tang of perspiration. She continued to notice the things that had so far gone unnoticed in her dissonate state, until the only thread that threated to fray her frazzled nerves anymore was a deep well of guilt that seemed as bottomless as her shame. She dared not look at her sister, afraid of what she might find swimming in Dalia’s eyes.

“It was just the one…” Treena said, “but there may be more. Keep low, and cover yourselves.” The words had become a mantra to tell her daughters. It was one she repeated for herself.

Dalia wanted to grip her sister’s hand when the three began moving again but knew that their position, one on each side of their mother, was paramount to their continued wellbeing. Despite how much she wanted to prevent her sister from ever making a face like the girl had worn again, Dalia knew that this formation would best keep them protected. For the moment, her hands were tied, and Treena’s hand, gripping her own, suddenly felt constricting.

They traveled to the end of the current row of houses before another explosion resounded. Like before, they crouched low while waiting out the danger. When the coast was clear, they continued on their wayward trek.

“Come on, girls. Faster.” Treena’s voice was low, on the verge of a whisper, despite the unnerving stillness suffusing the air. No one knew when the next shot would be fired, or who would become the next casualty. The charged atmosphere, devoid of a catalyst, cast an eerie pall.

Their game of cat and mouse continued in the same vein, quickly developing a rhythm that obviated the need for words. Stop, listen, wait, then move again, in a practiced ease, broken only by the odd and intermittent sounds of resurging battle.

The road dwindled and, with it, the houses diminished in grandeur until the last of the homes disappeared altogether. The banks of grassy knolls lining their path gradually gave way to open land once more. Houses on the hill were valued for their scenery, but the scenic panoramas they coveted consisted largely of rolling, untamed grasslands. Unlike the far side of the island, where farms outnumbered residences, the fields on the northeastern plane were better suited for grazing.

Despite that there were no signs of the fire that was overtaking the razed farmlands, from which they were fleeing, it didn’t take long for them to come across the next burning field. The long grass here was reedy, and dew soaked. It wouldn’t burn as well as seasoned crops, but enough of it had caught flame to engulf a narrow swathe abutting multiple buildings, which included a stable house, grain mill, and even a lone farmhouse. The buildings were prominently interspersed in the center of the field, presenting the trio with an unobstructed view of their demise.

Even from the distance they kept, far enough away to block out the miniaturized buildings with a raised thumb, they could hear the mangled sounds of shrieking beasts emanating from the ruddy buildings. At first, the garbled yowls were indecipherable from the wind’s howls. Then, as the breeze settled, they became impossible to ignore.

“Dear Gods…” Treena muttered, “… those poor animals…” Her expression froze, dumbstruck, as if robbed of the ability to interpret that which she was witnessing. But there was no denying what was occurring. The animals were burning to death.

Pale faced and ashen, Treena’s countenance quickly tinged green in a struggle to keep from retching the empty contents of her gullet. If she hadn’t already voided her stomach earlier, she would’ve done so anew.

Dalia reacted markedly differently. Since the invasion began, she’d struggled to coalesce the norm, her comfortable reality, with this new, harsher replacement. Finally, it clicked. This is Hell, Dalia realized, somewhat dispassionately. The knowledge threatened to abscond away with her sanity.

Minnie’s broken sobs helped drown out the ghoulish sounds the animals were making, and so she cried louder to obscure them completely. Neither mother nor sibling begrudged her for it and, instead, drank guiltily from the girl’s vocal despair in order to cloud their ears from the horrors occurring afar.

Treena set a blistering pace to get away from the farmhouse, and it was soon behind them. Though, echoes of what they’d heard lingered in their minds, uninvited and unwelcome, even after they’d left the field well behind. The grasslands passed by in a blur afterward, with no one bothering to look too closely for signs of habitation. The small family lost itself to introspection in the sullen silence that followed, which cropped up shortly after Minnie’s crying fit subsided, the passing of which was marked by mixed emotions in each of their hearts.

They were on the road to school. One of the schoolhouses, at least. Treena had realized it sometime ago, and worried her lip ever since. She kept looking off to the side, not really expecting to see anything or anyone, per say, but, rather, it was a phantom idiosyncrasy built over a lifetime of habit. The lingering expectation of seeing her husband, consulting with him and, while she was never a passive woman, even deferring to the man—which she would’ve eagerly done by now, even if it were selfish, given the circumstances—persisted.

Treena sighed. She didn’t rightly know what to do, nor could she. How could anybody? But still, something told her that perhaps her husband might hold answers. He was always so decisive, while she was, more often than not, prone to worry.

She feared what they might come across at the schoolhouse. The bodies of broken children came to mind, but her options were limited and dwindling. The fields—she shuddered, remembering those poor animals—were not an option. The township was being exclusively targeted by the Isoldeans, for obvious reasons, which bade well for open areas but, soon, they would be forced to flee the outskirts, and funneled into the town proper. Wait—is that why the fields were burning? Were they merely rats caught in a trap? The answering silence was damning.

The fields were burning, the town was under siege and, by day’s end, both would certainly fall. After that, well… it was best not to stick around to find out.

The idea had been to get to the docks. The military docks had been well and truly razed, not that there were many ships present in the harbor at the time. The only large vessels at port, the warship Devanagari and a foreign merchant galleon, had since departed from the moors, leaving only a token number of sail and rowboats to occupy space, none of which served any military application. Even a civilian could tell as much.

However, the civilian docks stood apart. Physically, they were located further away than their military counterpart. As such, they remained firmly out of target range from all but the closest foes. The docks boasted a slew of ships of all sizes, namely fishing vessels. None of them were armored nor possessed armaments to call their own, but they were sail worthy, which is what mattered. By comparison, the civilian docks had escaped mostly unscathed, despite suffering its own share of damages.

It was a gamble. One that carried with it many risks, none of which many were keen on making after witnessing the destruction of the merchant galleon that occurred before the eyes of the entire township. The current stalemate in the harbor could be broken before they reached port, leaving them in an even more precarious situation; the docks themselves could be razed before or during their arrival; they could be scuttled at sea by the enemy; or worse, they could die in the endeavor.

Treena wanted to scream her frustration out to the world. But she had the sinking feeling that the world and, by extension, the deities tasked with its protection weren’t listening. No, they were well and truly on their own. By the time she cemented this revelation in her mind, thus steeling her resolve, the decision regarding the schoolhouse had been wrenched from her hands. In her bout of indecision, they’d reached the red, brick building sooner than anticipated. At the sight of the school’s belfry peeking over the next bend, she gasped. The bell was tolling.

“Oh…” Treena said dumbly. It’s loud. We should’ve heard it long ago, but… I guess I wasn’t paying attention. Then it hit her, and she recoiled as if struck. She wasn’t paying attention—in the middle of a war… The sinking feeling that she was going to get her daughters killed overwhelmed her with nausea. Treena swallowed back the bile building up, which clogged her throat, threatening to escape.

Dalia and Minnie looked up too, roused by their mother’s voice, whom they’ve taken to heeding with a militaristic obedience. Though, they were too distracted the object of their attention to notice their mother’s rising panic. Along the way, it had been all too easy to forget themselves, to ignore their surroundings when they so desperately wanted to push everything away. A sense of recrimination, of I shouldn’t have done that, surfaced, reminding the girls that such a lapse in judgement just wasn’t prudent. As one, they looked at their mother, to see if she had noticed. The way her stony face, pallid and grimacing, was fixed onto the building ahead suggested a singular focus. Likely, she hadn’t.

Ding! Dong! The bell chimed sonorously, strange and out of place in this perilous new world.

Dalia realized that she knew where she was, recalling the sound that this particular school bell made. Each bell was crafted by hand, and sounded unique as a result. The grounded feeling of being reoriented washed over the young girl, surprising her in its stability. Dalia hadn’t not known beforehand that she’d been lacking something so vital this whole time until that moment.

The school wasn’t her own schoolhouse, but there weren’t many on the island. This one, which focused mainly on religious studies, was staffed by nuns of a secular order. She remembered visiting this place with her friend, Millifarad, when the girl’s family later relocated to the rural part of the island and she was forced to attend this particular schoolhouse, which was closer to the farms. Ultimately, Millie’s family had emigrated to the main isle, and they had lost touch after that.

Despite knowing that Millie was somewhere safe, Dalia was suddenly struck with a dawning realizing. She wondered how many of the children she’d been raised alongside, a few which she’d come to know as friends, were even still alive. Had any of them perished in the razing? Had they screamed, trapped within their own homes while clutching onto their families, as the building crashed or burned down around them—like those animals they had passed?

Ding! Dong!

Dalia was torn away from the thought of her friends dying like animals. Thankfully, because she hadn’t realized how close she was to breaking down completely until she almost had. The levy she built around her emotions threatened to burst, and it took all of her control, honed from years of practicing being normal, to right.

As the building came into view, it became obvious that the belfry served a different purpose on this day. Before, when it served as a means of announcement by signaling a special time of day, the bell rang for a predetermined number of chimes. The shortest she’d ever heard the bell ring marked the beginning and end of class, when the bell rang for three chimes. On holy days, like Beltane, the bell rang up to twelve iterations. Thirteen was considered to be an unlucky number and, so, it never rang as many times. Therefore, it was a surprise when the belfry continued sounding past the twelfth toll. Today, it seemed that the bell tolled for grimmer reasons.

Eventually, Minnie gasped. “Mama, look!” She said, voice hoarse with thirst and, no doubt, irritated by the acrid tendrils of smoke tainting the air.

Dalia’s eyes widened at the sight of school in session. In contrast to the day’s events, the picturesque scene seemed absurdly out of place with students milling around in front of the schoolgrounds while waiting for classes to begin. She was forced to blink the image out of her eyes.

All too quickly, the mirage abated, weighing her heart with longing for its loss. Those aren’t students, she realized. Indeed, it appeared that dozens of townsfolk had gathered before the grounds. As the bell continued tolling sonorously in the background, she drew a new conclusion regarding its purpose.

The two girls eagerly picked up the pace, forgetting their previous fatigue in the face of this exciting new turnabout. However, they quickly found themselves struggling against their mother’s hold, who had done the opposite, and slowed. Treena’s speed trickled to a crawl until she stopped, and their procession came to a standstill in the middle of the road. From their distance, the school seemed close, yet the people appeared ants in perspective.

“Mama?” Dalia questioned. Her mother’s inaction was perplexing, considering the bastion they found amidst such overwhelming turmoil. And when Minnie began whining, Dalia found herself unable to fault her sister’s bout of petulance. In no small part, she was gratified to see the girl finally acting her age, which is to say, like a child, even if one deprived of a favored toy.

But Treena’s mind was elsewhere altogether. She was certain that from their distance, the appearance of an amorphous, red figure would be lost in the backdrop of flames and ruin; so, she didn’t put too much stock into their presence being revealed just yet. However, she wondered if it should be revealed at all, or if the action was too premature. Soya’s protection had saved their lives more than once already today, and she resolutely refused to part with it, not only because it was the last remembrance she possessed of the woman who she’d come to know as a second mother, but because she’d already determined that it would be key to ensuring her children’s safety in the future. Therefore, the thought of waltzing into a congregation of frightened, panicked, and desperate men and women, parents like herself with their own charges and interests, while lauding a singular means of salvation in her hands, and expecting to waltz back out unfazed, was laughable.

If they entered, would she be forced to make concessions? Would they be searched? What if the cloak were taken from them? Treena wasn’t delusional regarding her limitations. She was a housewife, not a marine. And if she were contested, the cloak would likely be lost, no matter how desperately she clung to it in the end. But she so desperately wanted to lean on another human being…

Minnie wasn’t the only one begging to proceed, just the most vocal. To her own chagrin, the girl always had been the most candid of her children, but Treena could also see it in the set of Dalia’s eyes, and feel it weighing down on her own weary bones. They needed a reprieve. And for once, the gods had delivered.

Still, she faltered, ruing her damnable indecisiveness once again and, for the umpteenth time, wondered what course of action her husband might take, were he the one in charge. The fact that the man was a baker, and never a veteran, didn’t even register. Treena was certain that the man she married would know what to do in this situation.

Unexpectedly, a buried memory resurfaced, and she could hear her husband’s words filling her ear. The dulcet tones were like honey, a balm for her frayed emotions. A pâtissier must be well fed, nourished, and rested, because without adequate amounts of either one of these things, mistakes are more likely to occur in the kitchen. Treena blinked, and the spell broke. Suddenly, she really wanted to slap her husband. That useless—useless—man! She should’ve known better…

However, that train of thought was quickly derailed. She blinked again, wondering if she were actually going crazy this time, because she was troubling to denounce the inanity that her husband had once spewed. Yet, thinking back on their journey up to this point, Treena realized that there was more to the advice than she’d, at first, realized. Whether because of shock, fright, or nerves, there had been moments where she really could’ve gotten her family killed. Moments of near miss and lucky saves. Hadn’t she been worrying about just that thing occurring? No, in retrospect, this couldn’t continue. Maybe her useless oaf of a husband had the right of it all along. Her lips quirked in a ghost of a smile, thinking that even a baker had sound advice to offer under the most trying circumstances. The fragile thing quickly shattered, however, with the reminder of their predicament, and the remnants were swiftly whisked away on the wind.

Mind set, Treena cemented her decision. “Quiet.” she barked the order. When her youngest failed to heed the command, she tried again, more forcefully. “Minnie, stop it!” Her brusque tone succeeded in gaining the whining girl’s attention.

“Listen up, girls. This is important.” She eyed them each, trying to convey the severity of the situation to them both. Silently, she was gratified by their answering quietude and rapt, doe eyed attention. “We’re going to the school. But we won’t be staying.”

The relief that washed over the girls at that statement was palpable. The two nearly collapsed, though Minnie looked like she might start crying again. Treena knew that she would have a battle on her hands in getting them moving again, but she’d cross that bridge later.

“However, it’s very important that we keep Soya’s cloak a secret—between us. If people knew that it could keep them safe, they would try to take it from us for themselves. Do you understand?” It warmed Treena’s heart with pride to see Dalia’s eyes widen in understanding, but her youngest daughter’s perplexed expression hardened it. “I’m serious. This is important. Without this cloak, we could die. So, you must keep it a secret. Do you understand? Can you do that for me?” Receiving two severe nods, the woman hoped that she was making the right decision.

“Mama,” Dalia said, “um… isn’t it going to be a little weird? I mean, for us to…” The girl looked around. Huddled within the cloak’s confine’s, the world shimmered like a projection. Before, the ethereal sheen of the translucent veil had been muted by a war-ravaged backdrop, but now, when pointed out, the strangeness couldn’t be any more alien. Dalia was worried about appearing out of place in the crowd, which she knew to be the easiest route to invoking suspicion.

Treena smiled, pleased with her daughter’s mindfulness, looked around, then gradually frowned. “I know what you mean, dear.”

Minnie looked like she didn’t know what they meant, but refrained from asking, eager for them to start making their way to the school, and knowing that questions would only lengthen that process.

“I’m going to be taking off the cloak.” Treena said severely.

The girls gasped. Being trapped beneath the cloak, under the warmth of a mid-summer’s day, wasn’t a pleasant experience by any stretch of the imagination. It was hot, humid, and rank, but it was also safe. The cloak remained the only safe place they knew of anymore. It was odd, how quickly they had grown to view the cloak as a need

“And you’re going to take it off too, but only from your heads. You will cover your bodies, the both of you. Do you understand me?” Treena narrowed her eyes in warning, brooking no room for argument. Her thinking was that two girls huddled under a cloak or blanket wouldn’t be seen as out of place, nor likely to arouse much suspicion, given the circumstances.

Minnie reluctantly nodded, but Dalia looked ready to protest. Clearly, the girl understood the full ramifications of her mother’s words. Treena focused her gaze onto her eldest while repressing a smile, feeling inordinately proud in that moment. Her eyes softened though, and she reached out to stroke her daughter’s cheek. “Dalia, sweetheart, you know it must be this way. I’m going to be perfectly fine. I promise.”

You can’t promise that, Dalia defiantly thought, but nodded anyway.

There was something else Treena needed to say, which was going to be more difficult. Even so, it needed to be said.

“If…” Treena’s voice broke before she even began speaking, and she worked to clear her throat while regaining her composure. “If something—anything—happens to me, no matter what it is—not that anything will—but if something does—”

“It won’t!” Dalia shouted.

Minnie looked scared, but Treena ignored the girl’s gaze, knowing that these words were for Dalia alone.

“But if something does, Dalia, I want you to take your sister and…” … what? Do the impossible? Somehow succeed at what her mother before her failed to accomplish? That was an unfair burden to place on the a child’s shoulders. Even on her own, the weight of it felt cruel. But what choice did any of them have, but to bear it? “Hide. I want you to find somewhere safe, and hide. I need you to promise me.” She was a horrible mother—a failure, a bitch.

Dalia flinched as if struck. The sight of her daughter visibly recoiling threatened to break Treena’s resolve but, knowing that the girl understood the magnitude of her request, solidified her decision. She refused to back down.

“Promise me.” Treena demanded angrily—angry at herself.

“Ah… I, uh…” A war was fought in Dalia’s eyes before finally relenting. “I promise, mama.” she whispered hoarsely.

“That’s my girl.” No, I don’t deserve to be her mother—anyone’s mother. But she was being selfish, unrepentantly so, because, for those stolen moments, she allowed herself to be a proud mother. “My brave girls.” She stared down at them adoringly for a moment, memorizing their faces, which she would cherish to the grave, however long or short a time. Haunted though their countenances appeared, her girls were still beautiful, too pretty for this ugly world.

Without sparing another word, Treena trepidatiously withdrew from beneath the cloak, relinquishing its protection, thus exposing herself to the unknown.

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