Dragons to Loose

By Katherine A Smith

“It’s Morrigan,” Morrin corrected under her breath, but dashed nonetheless with all her speed to her little brother’s side, knocking over his assailant by the simple expedient of running into him full force with her body. The man went down hard into the paving stones and Morrin’s momentum carried her over him. She ducked her shoulder to roll, struggled back to her feet—bruised, but whole—and then grabbed her brother’s arm and yanked him away from the rout.
“We have to fight!” he exclaimed.
“No, we don’t,” Morrin replied implacably, panting a little and now dragging her brother forcibly away from the crumbling walls of her home village, “running is a perfectly viable response to the threat of imminent death.”
“You’re a coward, Morrin,” Owen protested again.
“No, I’m not, I just don’t make a habit of believing mindlessly in every ballad I hear,” she argued back between breaths. “And neither of us have enough training to keep ourselves alive out here much longer.”
“Where are Ma and Dad?” her brother asked next, but she had neither the breath nor knowledge to answer him with.
Morrin pulled Owen along, avoiding the skirmishes all around them and trying to stay unnoticed. The smoke thickened with every passing moment, helping to hide the brother and sister, but the fi res rose higher also, turning the night into day with their light. The buildings were engulfed; the town was going to burn to the ground.
“I knew it, I knew it, I knew it,” Morrin whined to herself.
As soon as the fight had begun, as soon as the cry of “attack!” had gone up from the sentries, Morrin had wanted to find every member of the town council, slap them with the flat of a blade, and then shove the blade into their hands and demand they go fight for the holding they hadn’t taken measures to fortify. They hadn’t listened to her. She’d told them she didn’t think the war was over. She’d told them she thought their holding would be attacked, and they’d patted the young lady on the head and said: “we appreciate you’re concerns. What makes you so certain?”
Well, she couldn’t exactly say: “I just have a bad feeling about it,” or they would have given her that patronizing, humoring smile and told her to get back to helping her mother with dinner—since she didn’t yet have her own family to care for. Unspoken but implied would have been the addition of: “because you’ve failed to attract any marriage offers,” which, Morrin had to admit, was perfectly true—but it still grated on her every time it was said.
“The side gate,” Morrin objected automatically when Owen tried to pull away from her to run in a different direction.
“Dad!” he cried out by way of explanation.
Morrin paused, keeping her hold on her brother, and looked. Their mother was running towards them: alone. Behind her, on the ground, was their father, and he wasn’t moving. The battles seemed to vanish. Morrin couldn’t feel her hand holding onto Owen’s arm or his struggles to free himself, or hear his cries. All she saw was that prone figure on the ground, and the blood shining prettily in the light from the fires: the two arrows buried to their fletchings.
“Da,” she felt herself say, quietly, softly.
She couldn’t move, or remember if she was breathing, or utter more than that one single word: what she’d called him when she was a small child. Owen was screaming, but his cries were just one among the many that filled the holding now, and Morrin couldn’t join him; she couldn’t even take a breath or wonder why she suddenly couldn’t think.
“Go!” Bridget, their mother, commanded as she ran towards them.
Hearing returned, and peripheral vision, and scent and taste, but Morrin’s body felt light and empty: so numb it seemed absent. Her eyes fixed onto her mother’s though, and the word of command finally penetrated. Mother said to run: Mother. Morrin’s mother caught up to her and Owen, but Morrin still couldn’t move; Owen was dangling from where she was holding his arm, his legs having given out.
Morrin met her mother’s gaze, but against the black void inside Morrin the echoing agony in Bridget’s eyes could elicit no greater reaction at seeing it. Morrin couldn’t have found an emotion if she’d been handed one; there was only absence and shock, for she’d never before in life had reason to feel such grief, and her body couldn’t seem to figure it out for her.
“Come on, Morrin,” her mother murmured, sounding far too calm for the situation, “we need to run now.”
Mother gave an order: Morrin ran. Owen stumbled on, too, supported by both Morrin and Bridget. The movement seemed to help, even though at first her legs felt like they’d been left behind. She breathed again, choking on the smoke, and finally her mind was able to think the thought: Father is dead. But still she was unable to get any farther than that. Why couldn’t she cry out like Owen was doing, and how was her mother keeping herself together?
“You told us,” Bridget whispered hoarsely. “You warned us, Morrin.”
Morrin didn’t need to reply. Replying wouldn’t have done any good. It wouldn’t have brought back her father. Only Morrin’s mother had ever taken her ability to feel aspects of the future seriously. In Sparrownere, the holding they lived in, a young woman who could not gain attention by being a good cook, gardener, crafter, or seamstress, or by being attractive if the former options failed, would be thought to be trying to gain attention instead by pretending to talents she did not have if she started making prophecies, particularly when all Morrin got were strong feelings, and could not predict details, or predict on a reliable basis.
Her mother had told her that was what made it more likely she actually had a talent, not less, and the priest of Ravenbeck had agreed with her two years ago when Morrin had traveled to the larger holding for the Midsummer Festival, but that couldn’t convince Sparrownere’s council, and now the holding was overrun, and burning to the ground, because they hadn’t listened to her. Morrin’s talent, her ability to sense imminent occurrences, hadn’t helped at all. Her father was dead; it didn’t even enable her to save her own family. Again, she was useless.
Morrin felt her throat starting to choke up, but when she was running so hard anything that stopped her breath could mean physical collapse, so she fought the lump down and focused on escaping. Owen was already hindering them. If Morrin fell apart, too, they would never get out. Was that knowledge the same that was keeping her mother running, keeping her from falling apart, too? Morrin glanced over at her mother, and Bridget looked back. Yes, that was the reason: Bridget wanted to fall apart, but she couldn’t, not and still get her children to safety; Morrin could see it in her eyes. The girl felt her body start to tremble, the muscles of her face start to tighten, but then her mother shook her head, just slightly, just enough, and Morrin clamped down on it, on the void that was rapidly transmuting into grief that would incapacitate her. Her body was finally figuring it out, finding the never before used but inborn pathways that gave a person access to heart-consuming pain.
Morrin looked back to the path ahead and kept running. She suspected she would pay for it later, but right now she did not have the luxury of breaking down. Sweat streamed down her body, and not just from the heat of the blazing fires or the exertion of running. The fear of approaching doom had not relented with the cries to arms. That could only mean that something worse was coming, but this time Morrin felt it only for herself, not for the whole holding. She, particularly, was in danger.
Morrin shook her head, flicking sweaty hair out of her eyes, and ran with her mother and brother down a side path between two rows of semi-engulfed houses towards the western section of the holding. Now, what action does one take to avoid the threat in the future? What action will lead away from the threat, and not towards it? And how in the name of all the deities could one possibly know the answer to that? Useless: useless again. What was the point of knowing something was coming if she didn’t have the knowledge of how to stop it from coming?
“The side gate,” Bridget panted, sounding pained, and Morrin spared a moment from her mounting panic for her own safety to look her mother over.
The side of her festival skirt was stained with a wide track of black that glimmered scarlet in the firelight.
“Where are you hurt?” Morrin demanded.
“I’ll be fine if we get away,” she gasped out.
Morrin’s heart was pounding from more than just the run and the battle-fever. She felt she was about to plunge down into a chasm she couldn’t see coming. Was running out the side gate the right choice? Should they try the tiny back gate instead? How far around the holding had the invaders flanked?
“Cadi and Rika,” Bridget rasped, referring to the two youngest Aislyn children, Morrin and Owen’s little sisters.
“With Grammie,” Morrin replied with half her mind. “They went down the bolt hole. We’ll circle through the forest and pick them up.”
Not everyone could go down the bolt hole. There wasn’t enough room or time for the whole holding to get out that way, so only the old, infirm, and very young got that respite. The rest of the population had to fight and run in plain view. If Morrin had been allowed to run out the bolt hole, could she have escaped whatever danger was coming her way? Her skin was prickling as if with cold, but the town was becoming an inferno, hotter than hearthside at the blacksmith’s forge in midsummer. She could feel the hair on her neck standing up and caught herself scanning frantically all around, looking for the threat coming her way, but all she saw were the flames gutting the houses and shops.
“Morrin, what’s wrong?” Bridget asked as they came within sight of the side gate.
“What isn’t wrong?” Morrin countered distractedly.
“You’re shaking. What is it?”
From out of the flames, looking like some kind of devil-horse, leapt a chestnut stallion with a rider aboard, who was dressed all in dark red-dyed leather
from boots to the helm that hid most of his face. The horse’s mane and tail were smoking, his eyes rolling with stress and fear, as his rider pulled him to a sharp halt between the three Aislyns and the side gate, hooves kicking up cinders and soot on the cracked paving stones.
The three Aislyns dodged at once, Morrin and Owen to one side and Bridget to the other. Morrin didn’t have to see his face to know that this man was not of Sparrownere, but one of the invaders; no one from Sparrownere dressed like that, especially not for the Harvest Festival, and the Sparrownere herd had no chestnut stallions among it. What she did know was that this was the threat she’d sensed. He was the one after her. That inner screaming pressure in her head and chest proclaimed it.
Owen tripped and Morrin nearly wrenched his arm from his shoulder pulling him back to his feet. Opposite her, Bridget recoiled from the hungry flames gouging the nearest building and tried to sneak around the horse and rider, but the man reared his stallion so it flailed at her with its hooves, and she dropped back, trying to guard her head.
“Ma!” Owen called.
The rider wheeled his horse, drawing out his sword, and moved a bit closer to the gate, as if barring their way out. Bridget was back on her feet and Morrin caught her eye, still holding tight to Owen. None of them had a sword with them, though Morrin did have her long hunting knife that she’d strapped on earlier that day, before the festival. She drew it out and clenched it in her hand, using the best grip for forehand slashing and backhand stabbing, while pushing Owen behind her and bracing to rush the man in red, but then he pointed his sword directly at her.
“Morrigan,” he said.
Amid the roaring of the flames and cries from the fighting, Morrin could not make out the timbre of his voice, but all that mattered was that he knew her name.
Somehow, he knew her name.