Treena wordlessly followed after the nun, past huddling families of all sizes and crying children of all ages. She forced herself not to look too intently at those despondent faces, not to notice the discrepancy—the disproportionate amount of children to adults—by telling herself that many of their parents must still be loitering about outside. She lied to herself, because she still needed to flee this place with her daughters in tow, and a conscious would only get in the way of their continued survival. Treena placated herself with the knowledge that it was her daughter’s lives she was intent on saving, not her own hide. But her heart felt heavier for the deception, and the fallacy she ended up selling herself stung. The sting persisted well until they entered into the kitchens.
A galley befitting a ship, the kitchens were large enough to feed an entire schoolhouse, but modest enough that only a half dozen women manned the available counterspace, each clad in a variation of the sisterhood’s secular attire. Already, the room felt crowded by the addition of two new presences.
“I require aliments for eight children.” Sister broad-shoulders said.
Treena was fairly certain that there had been more than eight people in the room she’d left, but likely not more than eight children, her own included. Realizing that the nun likely only meant to feed the children, she bit her tongue. While she hungered as well, it was her children that were her main concern.
She, however, was a baker’s wife. Hunger wasn’t something she knew, but figured that neither would it be something she would have to acquaint herself with for long.
“So does everyone else.” Wheezed out a wizened woman nearby who was elbows deep into kneading a mound of dough. Treena knew from experience that it would make several loafs of bread.
“This batch of rolls is spoken for,” said the young woman manning the oven, “but you can have the next.”
“Aye. Thank you, Sister.” Sister broad-shoulders said.
“Yes, thank you.” Treena chipped in.
“And you as well,” was parroted back. The cordial language of the nuns, well known to the parents of the island.
“You’ll wait here.” Sister broad-shoulders told Treena. “I have other duties I must attend.”
“Oh. Ah, yes. Of course. Thank you, sister.” Treena clasped her hands in the traditional manner of the nuns, which earned her a look that faintly resembled derision. Possibly, she butchered the gesture, but sister broad-shoulders said nothing of the sort.
“You as well.” The woman turned to leave.
“Ah—but if you’re not back before the aliments are prepared, should I just…” Treena gestured to the door.
“Oh.” She hadn’t expected that answer. Perhaps, she shouldn’t have asked. “Then, will you be long?”
“As long as I must.”
Treena thought that was entirely too long. In fact, this entire detour was taking up precious time which she they could ill-afford to spare. A shot fired in the distance rekindled the waiting crowd’s vigor, reminding her that they were still embroiled in an ongoing war.
“Actually, I remember the way,” she said nervously. “So, it won’t be a bother. I’ll just—”
“You’ll wait, just the same.”
“Ah, I see.” Treena wilted beneath the nun’s no-nonsense gaze. “Very well then…”
Sister broad-shoulders remained behind only long enough to spare an affronted look for having her time wasted. No-nonsense indeed… Treena mulled over. With forced nonchalance, she surreptitiously peered back across the room to gauge the reactions of the other occupants. Had anyone else been privy to their conversation? If not…
The nuns were busy at work to her eyes, having either ignored or discounted the not-so-private moment. All save for the wizened dough-wielding nun who stared directly back accusingly; almost as if the woman read her mind. Treena tried smiling back, hoping the expression didn’t come out as nervously as she felt. The nun didn’t take the bait, narrowing her eyes in suspicion instead. Afterwards, Treena flinched every time the woman struck the dough, which seemed excessively forceful to the baker’s wife. She had never been intimidated by a woman of the cloth before, but these secular women were made from a different cut, it would appear.
I wouldn’t want to run into any of them in a darkened alley, that’s for sure, she thought.
“Rolls are done!” The woman at the oven brightly yelled out. The call incited a flurry of activity. Bread changed hands and pans were filled and swapped with loafs and dough faster than she could make out. It was a surprisingly efficient regime. And had sister broad-shoulders reentered the kitchens and left with a fresh tray of still-steaming rolls? No, surely not…
Treena shook the dizzying furor out of her head. The bustle in the kitchen settled, the mood shifting, resetting to its previously enervated state, making her wonder if she hadn’t just imagined the entire thing altogether.
“Your next, hon.” The baker said sweetly, casting a winning smile across the room.
Well, that answers that. She certainly had not imagined the whole thing. Treena could only smile in response. She wondered if it were she or these women who were losing their sanity, or if she were just witnessing something commonplace amongst the sisterhood. How much did she know about their sect, exactly, anyway? For that matter, who did? Not much nor many, she admitted.
Treena pulled out a stool for herself to sit on, much to the wizened-nun’s displeasure. Though, she fastidiously ignored the old fogy. Mostly, it was because she was gaining confidence; she was confident that the old crone would be just as displeased no matter what Treena ended up doing. So, it was best she sat while bearing the woman’s contempt. No need to be put out, after all.
With a sigh, Treena turned her attention away from the kitchen. Finally, she allowed herself to truly contemplate the goings-on outside. I’m not brooding, she told herself. I’m strategizing.
Treena hadn’t been avoiding the heart of the matter—that, that was impossible—but neither did she invite into herself errant and panicked thoughts. To do so would be foolish, and meaningful of nothing. Her nerves had been too frazzled to addle her brains with the needless, unwanted inanity, so she hadn’t. However, that too was only a partial excuse, because the war loomed just beyond these walls. Whether she wanted to or not, to not think on it would be folly.
As the kitchen hummed, her mind did as well. All the while, her eyes traveled around the room, across brick walls washed in cream paint and over wooden grain exposed on beams of lumber which steepled overhead. Treena had seen first-hand just how flimsy the protection of stone and timber really was. Its fortitude was illusory. Realizing this, she took no comfort from their presence, save for their ability to block out the rest of the world. For that, she was grateful.
I’m grateful for so little now, she mused.
The war. It changed everything.
Like a wisp, thoughts came and went, both unbidden and unwanted; yet, necessary, she felt. She needed to contemplate this now, while she could spare a moment’s respite, because once they began moving again, who knew when another opportunity might arise. Their fates now hung precariously in the balance, and nothing was guaranteed.
Soon, the town might be destroyed. Likely, it would be. Would they be among the casualties? She hoped not, but needed to concede to the possibility that aid might not arrive in a timely fashion. If that were the case, would they simply perish, done away whilst waiting for a brave and handsome knight to come save the day? Guiltily, she admitted to herself that she desperately wanted to be rescued, no matter how childish it sounded.
Often, history offered more wisdom than fables, no matter what the moral of the story was meant to impart. Because truthfully, history was rife with dead princesses who were never saved. But no one wants to read about that; it’s depressing.
Treena wondered if those princesses waited to be rescued. Had they met avoidable ends, or had they rebelled against their fates? This was the crux of her own dilemma, after all. Should she flee, or should she hide? Her mind was set on the former, but what did history have to say about such outcomes? Were they avoidable? Did those princesses who chose to flee survive, or did they simply end up meeting their ends that much quicker? What was inevitable, and what wasn’t? These were the wayward thoughts she had tried to avoid. Like a plague, they festered.
Treena shook them from her head. In the end, nothing had changed.
No one was coming to save the day. Her husband was not coming. The king was not coming. The navy was not coming. And here she was, wasting precious time waiting for bread, of all things, to finish baking. Treena shook her head again. What am I doing?
She stood quickly, patted down her skirts, and inadvertently met the gaze of the old nun once again. For once, she met the woman’s stare levelly without flinching. For once, the old woman didn’t glare. After this break in their routine, and a moment of internal deliberation for them both, the nun’s head dipped in a nod before returning her attention back to the task of flattening out a length of dough with a weathered old rolling pin that had likely seen as many seasons as its owner. Treena blinked, unsure of what to make of the exchange.
“Rolls are done!” shouted the spry young woman overseeing the ovens. As before, the call incited a flurry of activity. Treena had a first-hand view of the nuns’ surprising efficiency. Pans were emptied and trays filled as dough once more aspired to become baked bread in a continuing cycle. If her husband could see the fervor with which these women helmed a kitchen, he might be tempted to sway them away from their current occupations; that, certainly would cause a stink in the community.
“There you go, hun.” The baker sweetly called over.
“Huh?” Treena looked down, and spied a tray filled with freshly baked rolls. Where had those come from? She could tell from the smell that they were stuffed with meat and vegetables. She spied the room for a hint of their contents.
In the corner of the kitchen, a nun stood atop a stepping stool by the stoves, stirring a giant pot with a wooden ladle the size of a small broom. Judging by the castings adorning the adjacent tables, and from the smell filling the room, she guessed that potatoes and carrots constituted the bulk of the stew, with some beef thrown in for sustenance.
Treena’s stomach growled, choosing that moment to remind her of her own growing hunger. Her face flushed, reddeningly brightly. The baker’s amused chuckles added to her embarrassment.
“Ah, thank you.” Treena said with a strained voice. She tried to smile, but it fell flat. The realization that she had to wait for the broad-shouldered nun to return and that, then, only the children would be fed found her clutching her stomach to keep it from announcing itself any further. As a baker’s wife, she didn’t often know hunger, but after all she’d suffered so far, she found herself ravenous. The rolls in front of her were torturous. They’re for the children, she reminded herself.
That’s right. They’re for Minnie and Dalia, my sweet children.
Although Treena’s hunger didn’t disappear, her desire waned. After a moment, she was able to hold her head high again, because there was no shame in feeling hunger for the sake her children. She carried the burden proudly.
“Here ya go, hun.” The baker said, offering Treena an extra roll.
For her part, Treena quickly deflated. “Huh?” She asked eloquently.
The baker giggled, and stuck the roll out right under Treena’s nose. The tantalizing scent was mesmerizing, and Treena had trouble comprehending the situation. Her stomach growled again, but instead of pride, she felt robbed of her chivalry.
“Uh…” Treena smiled, embarrassed. “Thank you.” She said.
The baker laughed softly at her expense one last time before returning to the ovens.
These damn nun’s don’t play fair. Treena thought acidly while tucking into her roll, a breadbasket filled with a stew so thick that one could even call it a gravy. Treena ducked her head while rapidly devouring the aliment. She was sure that the women in the room were watching her every move, but she couldn’t stop eating. It was delicious. Damn them, she internalized.
Treena did her utter best to eat quietly in statuesque stillness, but feared her appetite rubbered her of the demure refinement she often sought to exude. On the contrary, she felt like Minnie, whom she often scolded for eating faster than the neighborhood dogs.
Too fast, she had whittled her meal down to the last morsel. She looked at it longingly, believing it to be the last sustenance she would attain for a while, and popped the biteful into her mouth. Then the door opened, and a familiar nun’s strong voice rang out.
“You!” Sister broad-shoulder’s called out.
Treena’s eyes flew open wide as she finally obtained the statuesque demeanor that had eluded her thus far.
The nun stalked into the room and right up to the tray of rolls. She regarded Treena with distaste for a moment before leaning past her to count the rolls on the tray.
“One, two, three…” she said under her breath, “eight, nine. S’all there.”
Subtly, Treena cast her gaze around the room, and wondered if she wasn’t supposed to eat. But then, why was she fed? Would the other women speak of it? Treena’s eyes first locked onto the wizened nun working the dough. The cynical smile the woman wore made Treena’s stomach churn. Ah, shit.
The baker waved and caught her attention. The woman pointed to her mouth, mimed chewing and swallowing. Only then did Treena realize that she still had food in her mouth, the last morsel.
“Here. Take this, and don’t eat anything.” Treena’s least favorite nun all but shoved the tray into her hands. “We wouldn’t want the children to go wantin’, now, would we?”
Treena shook her head.
The lack of a vocal response must’ve irritated the nun, because her eyes narrowed, but she said nothing. As soon as the woman turned around to lead the way back into the hallway, Treena took the opportunity to swallow the last bite, which had since lost its savor.
Sister broad-shoulder’s hearing must’ve been keen, because the woman instantly whipped around at the diminutive sound. She stared at Treena, then down at the tray. Treena could see the woman counting again. Seemingly satisfied with the number, the nun raised her gaze to appraise Treena again. The suspicion was clear in her eyes.
Treena smiled nervously and shrugged. After a moment, the woman huffed.
“Keep up. Don’t dally.” She scolded.
A relieved sigh escaped Treena’s mouth when the nun turned back around, which she, fortunately, had the wherewithal to smother.
The two women strode into the hall at a quick gait, passing rooms which seemed more crowded by the second. At the rate the school was filling up, she feared that nine rolls wouldn’t be enough to feed all the children upon their return. The bun she’d eaten settled guiltily in her gut. Treena determinedly did not look around anymore.
After a few turns, Treena was struck by the realization that she truly had no idea where they were headed. If sister broad-shoulders had taken her up on her previous offer of returning alone, she’d have not been able to return unguided. The building wasn’t overly large, but it was still a schoolhouse; there were many chambers lining its halls, which seemed deceitfully numerous for its size. Treena was both upset and relieved at the realization: upset with herself at her inattention, and relieved at having been inadvertently bailed out of a possible blunder.
They returned to the same room they’d left. A blue door with white trim greeted them, lain flush against red schoolhouse brick. Some doors were green, some yellow, but she expertly remembered that their own had been blue. It had prompted her earlier ill-conceived bout of confidence in navigating the school’s corridors. Clearly, she hadn’t been paying enough attention at the time to all of the other blue doors littered throughout the halls. But this had definitely been their door, and not just because the woman she’d been following stopped in front of it, but because Dalia’s soliloquized humming resounded softly beyond the threshold.
Treena knew the tune well as one she’d often uttered herself. It was the Song of Aeria, a hymn taken from the book of Goseia, where it had later been adopted by the capital as an anthem of sorts. It was originally meant to be a song of healing and salvation. Treena only sang it for her daughters when they were ill or injured. Hearing Dalia’s humming coming from the other side of the blue door was nearly her undoing. This time, when she swallowed, it had nothing to do with food.
A corpulent hand found itself on her forearm, and Treena bore witness to sister broad-shoulder’s compassion. This time, the woman feigned hearing anything at all.
The nun knocked on the door needlessly. Treena appreciated the gesture. It was meant to give her time to collect herself, she was sure, because so far she hadn’t seen evidence that the stalwart nun knew how to knock or possessed the decorum necessitated to act upon the nicety. The nun entered first, without further preamble.
Treena cleared her throat and steadied her hands, mindful of the tray she held. She could hear the nun collecting the dishes from before and talking lowly. After hearing Dalia’s inquiring voice pipe up, Treena brought up the rear, carrying in the tray of aliments for the children.
“Put the tray on the table.” The nun ordered distractedly. “Don’t touch that!” She barked out at teenage boy who had been about to help himself. The nun moved with purpose to the front of the room. “Now, listen up! I’ve brought aliments for the children. I will be clear: they are for the children, and the children only. Currently, food is being rationed, and while we have plenty to go around, the children will eat first.” She stared down the room’s occupants, challenging anyone to say otherwise.
A woman with two older boys sat off to the corner. Her mouth seemed to waver between contesting and obligingly shutting. It promptly closed after the nun’s gaze fell on her. Humbled, she prodded her boys and told them to go fetch their aliments.
Treena picked up the largest two rolls on the tray for her own daughters before any of the other children had a chance to reach the platter. The nun said nothing, likely divining her intentions. Treena offered them to her daughters. Minnie took one enthusiastically, but her eldest seemed hesitant.
“But mama, what about you?” Dalia asked concerned.
Treena leaned in closely and winked. “I snuck one in the kitchen.” She whispered conspiratorially. It worked. Dalia beamed and took the proffered roll.
Once in her hands, Dalia began devouring the roll with almost as much zeal as her younger sister. This time, Treena couldn’t find it in herself to reproach her youngest for eating like a dog. However, she was chagrined to think that her own behavior in the kitchen might’ve mirrored what she was currently witnessing.
Despite herself, she grinned. It felt good to see her daughters nourished.
“Ahh!” Minnie sighed contentedly. “That was good!” She nodded to herself as if to affirm her point.
“Mhmm.” Dalia added between mouthfuls.
As soon, or sooner, as they’d been presented, the rolls disappeared, devoured eagerly by young, hungry mouths. Too fast for comfort, surely, because Treena found herself staring back into her daughters’ inquiring eyes with no pearls of wisdom or words of comfort on her tongue. The girls were looking at her for guidance; meanwhile, she had none.
Hadn’t she sought a reprieve for this reason? She needed time—to think, to strategize, a reprieve.
Time, which kept flowing further away.
Time, which they lacked.
They were running out of time.
The school bells rang loudly within the building, muffled only slightly by the stone halls and wooden beams, serving laconically to underscore the mounting dread she harbored. Suspense, like she’d only ever experienced on a vicarious level, rose up viscerally threatening to overwhelm her wits; fragile and frayed though they were.
Treena was momentarily distracted at the thought that she may have yet had any wits left about her at all, and was surprised.
The bells stopped ringing, yet the mounting disquiet only heightened her unease. It seemed as if the whole room was suddenly staring back at her expectantly. Though, when she looked, she failed to notice any clumsily caught onlookers.
Those bells… she thought awash with morbidity, they could’ve been shells…
We could’ve all perished. She pictured a grizzly death, and wondered if it would come to bear.
Like that woman and her children… Once again, she reminisced on the family she saw crushed earlier in the day.
“Mama?” Dalia asked more fervently. Minnie had her head cocked, but said nothing, choosing to let the moment play out instead.
Treena shook her head, willing the macabre thoughts away. No, that wouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t come to that. She wouldn’t let it. Absolutely not!
She smiled down at her eldest, feigning all the positive emotions she could muster—yet did not feel. “Yes, dear?”
“Are you okay?” Dalia asked slowly.
“Of course, I am, My Love.” Her eyes softened. She had such wonderful daughters, didn’t she? “And how have the two of you been holding up?”
Dalia nodded. “I’m doing well. Minnie—”
“I was hungry,” Minnie cut off her sister, “but I’m full now. Thanks, Mommy.” She beamed up happily at Treena, and if Dalia hadn’t been looking for deceit, she would’ve missed it.
“Well, that’s good to hear.” Treena speared her youngest a toothy grin.
Minnie gave no overt tells, but Dalia somehow understood her sister’s desire for omission. So reluctantly, she kept her silence, unsure of whether she was honoring her sister’s sacrifice or shielding her mother from truths best left undiscovered for the moment. Sooner or later, a more opportune moment would present itself, she told herself, and then, she would pityingly foist the added burden onto her mother’s already straining shoulders. By then, hopefully their father would have made his way towards them and they’d reunite.
“Listen, girls.” Treena said, lowly, almost conspiratorially. It worked to buy their attention. “I know it seems safe here, but it’s not.” She saw Minnie’s mouth already in motion, and preempted the girl’s naive objections. “I’m sorry,” she interjected, “but it’s not. It’s just not.” It wasn’t the greatest argument, but it was the truth as she knew it. Furthermore, her family was not a democracy; she only needed to convince herself.
Seeing her words fall flat, Treena changed tactics. She would hate herself later for saying this, but… “Do you remember the house that fell down? On that family?”
Minnie and Dalia both looked affronted by the questioning, but eventually—hesitantly, almost mechanically—nodded while masked in identical expressions of revulsion.
Treena winced. I’m a horrible mother…
“That…” she said slowly, “could happen here.” Her gaze bore deeply into each of her daughters’ eyes, impressing the severity of her statement into their adolescent minds. “Do you understand?”
Dalia swallowed, but nodded just as rigidly as before. The message had been delivered, loud and clear. Minnie, meanwhile, had gone wide-eyed and almost immediately began scrutinizing the schoolhouse anew, as if it would collapse at any moment.
Good, it looks like they understand. Treena sighed, reminding herself that it had to be done.
“Does that mean…” Dalia looked around the room, almost longingly, before continuing. “Are we leaving?”
This caught Minnie’s attention, her expression sporting a surprising keenness to the idea.
Treena nodded. “We are.” She gathered Soya’s cloak about her girls, wrapping and tucking them within its folds. Unsatisfied, she repeated her effort with even more emphasis.
After making sure the room’s occupants were indeed occupied, she risked a glance at the cloak’s inner lining. It swirled in fantastic geometrical shapes as before. Satisfied, she redid her work a third time, to Minnie’s consternation and Dalia’s humoring patience. I’m stalling, she realized.
“Right.” She said, straightening the clasp a final time.
Minnie sighed, thankful for the reprieve from her mother’s doting. Dalia almost joined her before hearing her name called.
“Dalia.” Treena was staring directly at her daughter. “Do you remember what we talked about before?”
Treena’s tone brooked no room for equivocation, and Dalia immediately understood, recalling her earlier instructions. “Yes, Mama.”
Treena nodded. “Good.” She smiled.
A distant shudder that could only be the collapse of heavy stone helped steel her resolve, and Treena stood, hefting her daughters along by the hand. “Come, girls. It’s time.” She strode purposefully to the front of the room, children in tow, and hesitated at the sight of the stalwart nun for whom she’d come to harbor mixed feelings.
Sister broad-shoulders crossed her arms; a quirked brow, the only outward sign of her intrigue.
“Ah—um.” Oh, boy, she thought. In that moment, she realized that she hadn’t thought this through at all. “We’re… um, leaving?”
“Are you asking for permission?” The nun asked slowly. Oh, gods. Why did that sound dangerous? Had this woman once been a pirate or Valkyrie?
“Oh…” Treena deflated. Did I—we, need permission? No, she hadn’t thought this through at all.
“Um,” Dalia asked, “did we need permission?”
Sister broad-shoulders lips twitched in amusement. “Not at all.”
Treena’s brow responded in kind, twitching in irritation. Then why the hell…
“Are you?” The nun challenged.
“Uh, yes?” Minnie supplied helpfully.
“Huh,” the nun worked her jaw, as if tasting the word for the first time on the tip of her tongue, “I suppose you are.”
Treena’s brow spasmed violently. “You’re damn right we are!” She bellowed balefully, swiftly garnering the room’s attention. A moment later, red-faced, she hid behind her hands. “I’m so sorry.” She whispered.
A low, course chuckle rumbled out from the nun’s chest.
Treena stared incredulously. Minnie, having overcome her initial shock, began chortling at her mother’s outburst as well. Dalia, it seemed, was still processing the unspoken implications she’d perceived, but remained to naïve to yet decipher.
“I guess you are.” The nun smiled, if only a slight upturn of a hirsute lower lip.
Treena hightailed it out of the room, too humiliated to spare a glance anywhere outside her peripheral. So, naturally, she almost fell over when a large hand reached out to grasp her bicep.
“Oi, and watch your language.” The nun hollered after her retreating figure. The rest of what the woman was saying was lost to her burning ears; the staccato of her heartbeat filled them until the sound was deafening. However, Treena was convinced that the words weren’t meant for her anyway, because they sounded too much like mind your own business.
It was with this same singlemindedness that Treena intercepted another nun in transit, nearly bowling her over. This one, she recognized as the matron from outside, who must’ve only just come inside.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Sister. Please, forgive me.” Treena said in apology.
“Think nothing of it,” the woman said. “but please, do show more caution in the future. The last thing we need is an avoidable accident to befall someone when so many unavoidable alternatives loom over us all at present.”
“Uh, yes. Absolutely.” Treena agreed, having been quickly lectured into submission. She bowed, and made to leave, only to be stopped again.
“Where are you going?” The matron asked firmly. To Treena’s ears, it sounded like a demand.
“Uh…” Treena said sheepishly. “We’re leaving?”
The nun narrowed her eyes. “Are you asking me, or telling me?” She asked slowly.
When Treena failed to respond with intelligible words in a timely manner, the girls sighed, knowing their mother had always shared an odd relationship with the schoolhouse nuns.
“We’re leaving.” Minnie proclaimed boldly.
“And we don’t need permission.” Dalia added more sedately.
“Then you’re a fool.” The nun spat.
Treena recoiled as if slapped. “W-what?”
“Heed my words: you’d be a fool to leave the safety of these walls.” The nun said confidently, as if quoting the same gospel that she preached.
“I… don’t think these walls are very safe.” She said, venturing cautiously. “Not while that racket is going on outside.” She gestured outwards, where weak rapports of cannon fire could still be heard within these same halls the matron deemed were safe.
The nun scoffed. “And do you think you’d be any safer out there?”
Treena knew they wouldn’t. However, the matron didn’t know they possessed Soya’s cloak.
“No. I don’t think anywhere on this island is safe at the moment. That’s why—”
“Then see reason, fool. Think of those children.”
“I am!” Treena defended hotly. “I am always thinking of my children. And I would never put them in harm’s way; not if there were any other—”
“But you would blindly walk them out into slaughter, like lambs—”
“Stop it.” Treena growled. Her aversion for going against these women of the cloth long gone. “I am their mother, and I will decide what is best for—”
“Then you’re a fool, and I pity your daughters.”
Treena glared, not trusting herself to speak in the presence of this newest instigator.
Dalia had to bite her lip from protesting the harsh grip her mother still held on her hand.
The nun, seeing she held Treena’s attention, along with her ire, continued unperturbed. “Even if you could escape the island, where would you go? Aeria? Silly girl, where do you think those ships in our harbor are likely to head off to next?”
A silent tear streamed down Treena’s cheek, because that had indeed been her plan. And it had just been proven folly.
The nun approached the withering woman, and cupped her cheek with a gentleness she hadn’t yet shown, but which fit her grandmotherly features beatifically. “Stop this nonsense, and see reason.” She said in a softer tone. “Allow your daughters to eat and rest. Gather your strength and warm up. The battle will soon be over.”
That’s what I’m afraid of… Treena realized.
Indeed, their navy’s loss guaranteed. What would become of their homeland after the invaders deemed their defeated isle a carcass ripe for the pickings.
No, we can’t stay.
Treena smiled, a bittersweet and fragile thing. “Thank you, Sister, but I’m afraid that you’ll have to continue to pity my daughters for being cursed with a fool like me for a mother.” She said shakily. I already do…
The matron was openly shocked by the candid admission, and failed to respond in time before Treena gathered her girls by the hand to lead them out of the building. A red cloak billowed languidly in their wake as they traversed the vestibule.
An omen? The matron couldn’t help but think as she watched them cross the threshold. The overly large, wooden doors shut after them, blocking her sight of the girls. Indeed, it was a pity, and she would have to pray for them.
Please, pray for us, Sister, Treena thought upon exiting.
The school was besieged as much by chaos as the island. Shambling queues, though waning in numbers, had become all the more rowdier and harder to control than ever. Men roared while women wailed; the children, those remaining, stood solitary, stone-faced and frozen in shock from the day’s events. It was bedlam wrapped in turmoil.
Treena looked away. Marching forward, she set a blistering pace out of the schoolyard. A firm yank of the hand ensured the girls at her heels followed suit.
Still, despite her vehemence to escape the cacophony beset by the crowd, the noise of their mounting discontent continued to persist even when beyond the perimeter of the fence line. What had been screamed, soon became only echoes.
“… let us in already, dammit! We’ve been waiting—”
“Please! Think of the children…”
The children will have said nothing, Treena knows.
Her own children said nothing.
They walked in the growing disquiet, and were grateful for it. Gladder still, when it once again became pocked by the interlude of many cannons.
Treena smiled. Is this what losing one’s sanity felt like? She was beginning to wonder if she had.
Looking to the east for answers proved fruitless. Had Aeria yet fallen? Would they send reinforcements if they hand’t? Were they currently under siege as well?
Would they come to their aid?
… in time? She amended.
The black hills, where the mineshafts hulled great furrows into the earth, were ablaze. The fire from the fields had spread. Taking refuge in the earth was out of the question. Suffocation would quickly befall them, and be the least of their worries. Treena tore her eyes away, focusing instead on the distant shore.
A ship gleamed unblemished, a gem moored to another. In another memory—another lifetime—the island had been as innocent, as chaste. Her eyes glistened with promise of returning to equanimity.
They travelled a ways; said nothing.
Eventually, the tunnel of blurring senses in front of Treena widened, allowing her to grasp a wider picture of her destination. Abruptly and fitfully, she jerked, aware of having been consumed by unawareness.
The girls are fine, she immediately confirmed. We’re fine.
Yet, they weren’t.
Treena watched, taking in their new environment. Up ahead, to the left and right, and behind. The sights she saw stilled her dogged feet, stonily rooting her in place.
Fires blazed, and threatened to obstruct their path. The road ahead lay in shambles, rent asunder by impacts and strafing debris. A lone building collapsed, routing their only means of continuing on ahead unimpeded.
Treena finally gasped. No…
A tear worked itself free as looked back upon their salvation, sitting idly in the harbor. The road ahead lay gnarled and obstructed. Every now and then, a reminder of their dire straits would reinsert itself upon its winding length.
Treena, once again, faltered.
The road ahead is too dangerous, she realizes. Her conversation with the governess replays itself, wrenching doubt from resolve, where before, there had been none. Dear Gods, what had she been thinking?
Looking back where she knows the school to be, her vision is blocked by homes, trees, and debris, one inseparable from the other.
But the school grounds seemed unblemished…
Treena takes a deep wavering breath. Maybe the governess was right?
Her husband would know what to do…
But what if he’s dead too…
Her feet are moving before she realizes she’d made a conscious decision to act. Her girls, quiet-mouthed and stalwart, remain silent.
Hurriedly, their feet patter across the cobblestones, over dirt, around downed tree limbs, and masonic detritus. A sense of urgency propelling them onward and faster.
Faster than they’d departed, they reach the schoolhouse gates. They’re open when they arrive.
The school bell toll, now a distant memory, lives on as one; its sonorous ringing is absent upon their return. In fact, the riotous clamor of the encroaching populous is missing as well. The only sound is that of their heavy breathing, coming even faster in increasingly distressed pants.
The only sight is that of an abandoned courtyard. Windows and doors stand empty. The flue lays dormant. They needn’t look to know that everyone has gone from within. The building itself has emptied—now vacant.
A raven caws overhead, flits its wings, and circles. Three girls fall to their knees; and sob.