Eldnium, p.2
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       Eldnium, p.2

           Enoch Pyle, Jr
 
Her cries echoed through the valley, from a tiny cottage positioned near a brook rippling beneath a light rain, and stretching to the mosque at the village edge. The neighbors at the farm on the cottage’s eastern border called her Li’an, but that was not her real name, and her husband, To’an, was just as secretive of his own true identity.

  They were refugees, come to this valley seeking solitude and asylum…a place where their child could be born and raised in peace and love and life.

  But they didn’t see the star explode over their cottage. And they didn’t know that the Dragons were coming to kill their child.

  “Li’an,” the midwife whispered, “one more push. One more push, and we’ll have it.”

  Li’an’s eyes lit with a fire of determination, and she took took two quick breaths before holding and pushing with all of her remaining strength. Another scream escaped from her mouth before it was joined with the cries of an infant, fragile and new. The midwife rested the child in the mother’s arms and all screaming and crying melted into a peaceful serenity. To’an ignored a tear welling in his right eye and allowed it to run down his cheek. He had never seen a sight as beautiful as a mother and child, united for the first time.

  “Have you chosen a name?” the midwife asked of To’an.

  “Yes.” To’an had answered.

  “I’ll fetch a fresh bucket of water. You two take a few minutes together…in privacy.” She left the cottage, letting the door close quietly behind her.

  To’an knelt beside his wife, placing one hand gently on her shoulder and another nervously grazing the cheek of his child. “Your eyes,” he whispered.

  “Your chin,” Li’an said through a smile dripping with sweat and tears. “What will the villagers call her?”

  To’an opened his mouth to speak, but it was driven closed by a scream from outside.

  The midwife.

  He jumped to his feet, grabbing a knife from a tray on the floor and kicking open the cottage door in a single, fluid motion, only to see the midwife lying dead on the ground before him, with an arrow through her back. Down the dirt road leading out of town, a band of riders approached, and To’an could see, though his eyes were aging, one of the riders preparing another arrow.

  Dragons, he thought.

  He stepped back into the cottage and pulled the door closed, just as an arrow twanged into the other side of it, splintering the door, its tip exposed to the cabin’s interior.

  “What?” Li’an asked, her voice scared and broken.

  “Dragons,” To’an answered, afraid to turn and see the fear in his wife’s face.

  “Dragons? How could they know? I thought we were safe here!”

  “So did I. But the forces work against us. We must find a place to hide her.”

  The sound of pounding hooves grew louder outside. The Dragons were closing in, and time was slipping through To’an’s fingers.

  “Can you walk?” he asked her.

  “I don’t think so,” tears began streaming down her face. “I’m sorry, my love. I’m so, so sorry…”

  To’an used the knife he was still clutching to cut the baby’s cord, and he tied the end still attached into the best knot he could manage with the sounds of huffing horses now slipping through the cottage walls. He took the child into his arms with a gentle urgency and wrapped her tightly in old rags. In the corner, a wood stove sat cold and lifeless, and he placed the child inside, under the bottom stones, in the ash collector. He replaced the stones on top, and begged to whatever gods would listen that the child would stay quiet until the Dragons had been handled.

  As he closed the iron stove, the door to the cottage was kicked inward by an armored metal boot, casting shards of wood into the room, glimmering in the moonlight.

  Two men entered the cottage, dressed in full armor. They stopped at either side of the door. The sound of Li'an's panicked breathing filled the room.

  A large shadow filled the doorway between the guards, followed by the King.

  "I think you can drop the knife," the King said. To’an set the knife gently on the floor at his feet. Durian looked toward Li'an and then scanned the room. "Where is the child?"

  "Stillborn," To’an lied. "We cast it into the lake, according to the law."

  Durian watched Li'an give To’an a hesitant look. "You're a liar," the King said. "Tell me where the thing is hidden, and I'll spare your wife."

  One of the guards drew an arrow and aimed it at Li'an. She squeaked and squinted. Tears began to form at the corners of her eyes, trickling down her cheeks.

  To’an hesitated a moment too long. The guard released his arrow, and it swept through the air, hitting Li'an in the chest. She let out a wheeze, looked at To’an, and said, "Our hope…" before exhaling her final breath.

  "No!" To’an screamed.

  He rushed the King, but Durian was prepared. The King lifted his fist, clenching a dagger, and ran it into To’an’s side.

  To’an collapsed, still breathing.

  The King knelt beside him and used To’an’s shirt to wipe the blood from his blade. "I will let you bleed, peasant. So that you may hear the shrill echo of your child's cries and be unable to save it from a tortuous fate. You and yours will be hailed as a lesson to never defy the gods."

  Durian stood, gave the cottage a final glance, and said, "Burn it to the ground."

  He spun, his riding robes twirling through the air, and the guards at either side of the door fetched a torch from their belts, igniting them with a small, flint and steel clicker. The torches flared to life, glowing white hot, and the guards began by igniting the bed sheets still wrapped around Li’an.

  “You bastards,” To’an whispered. “You will die for this.”

  The guards ignored him. One smashed open a barrel of moonshine, and the staunch, acrid liquid spilled across the floor, a river of death. The guard dropped his torch onto it, and it lit with a flourish, setting the floor and walls ablaze.

  The guard still holding his torch tossed it into the corner near the wood stove. It rolled against a small stack of firewood and began to burn at the dried and fraying bark. “No, you stupid, filthy dog,” the guard promised, “you will die for this.” And the pair of guards left the cottage, closing the door behind them.

  Smoke began to fill the room, and To’an began to pull himself across the floor and toward the wood stove. The pain from his stab wound was excruciating, biting with every movement, but he was desperate to fetch his child and get her out from within the cabin, which was already beginning to crumble.

  With a few more steady pulls toward the stove, he reached it at last, black smoke burning at his eyes, choking at his lungs. He opened the door, shifted the bricks, and pulled his child from within. He looked back at the door…the only exit. It was so far away. He felt couldn’t make it, not while carrying his child.

  He rolled to his back, with his head pointing toward the cottage door, and laid the baby across his stomach. The blood from his wound began to seep into the child’s wrappings. He pushed with his feet, inching his way toward the door, and bit-by-bit, he made it.

  He propped himself back to his knees, reached for the door latch, and pulled it open, only to see on the other side the King and his men waiting.

  “No,” To’an whispered to himself.

  “In all your time in my kingdom,” Durian began, “have you ever known me to be a king who fails to get what he wants?”

  The King raised his right arm to the side of his head, bent at the elbow, palm out, fingers stretched toward the sky. The ten guards drew arrows.

  “The gods demand this, peasant.” The King commanded, “This child must die.”

  As the King’s fingers began to clench, a flash of light blasted overhead, and a blur fell from the sky, crashing into the ground with a hammering thud. The soil cracked with the impact, a small crater being blasted open, and in its center crouched a man wearing leather armor and lighted bracers on both arms. A belt around his waist was fitted with a single holster
holding what appeared to be some strange, angular piece of metal.

  He stood slowly, standing in a strong and powerful pose, his right leg back, and his left leg toward the guards.

  The King’s face turned from shock to fear and then to anger, and he closed his fist with a strong and quick motion, commanding his men to fire.

  They did, and as their arrows left their bows, the man in the crater braced himself for impact, raising his left arm as if holding a shield and crouching behind it. A beam of light flashed from the bracer, and a shield actually formed, green and translucent. The arrows struck it and fizzled into sand, falling harmlessly to the ground around the man’s feet.

  The man then quickly drew the strange item from its holster and pointed it at the King. A red beam of light set itself on the King’s forehead. The man said nothing, but pulled a trigger on the strange metal item and released a loud crack from its end, and everyone there watched the King’s head explode, as if by magic.

  The guards turned to run, but the man in the crater was quick with his weapon, setting the red light on each of them and blowing them to bits. It all happened in what seemed to be a matter of seconds, leaving the man in the crater, To’an and his child, and a burning, crumbling cottage.

  To’an collapsed to the ground, the child falling harmlessly from his arms but still resting gently against his body. He choked out a single question, “What are you?”

  The man in the crater took the child into his arms and answered, “My name is Isaac, and I’m here to save your child.”

  To’an’s eyes relaxed, his breathing slowed, a smile forming gently on his lips. And then, he died.

  Isaac stood, tipped an invisible hat in respect to To’an, and looked back to the sky, ready to return take the child away from this dangerous planet, when a voice behind him called out.

  “You fight for the wrong side, Isaac.”

  Isaac turned. Behind him sat the cloaked rider…the mysterious figure that had warned the King of the hero’s birth. Isaac responded, “These harvests must end.”

  The rider swept the hood from its head, revealing not a human face, but a shadow. There was no head beneath it, just a dark shape, fluttering and shifting in the wind, like a body made of smoke. “Is what you do not a harvest? Tell me, how do you find them so quickly?” the creature asked.

  “Hope is always found quickly by those who seek it,” Isaac answered. “Now run away. Tell your friends that I have another, and their days are numbered.”

  “You may have another,” the creature warned, “but do you have The One?” If smoke could smile, Isaac saw it doing so now.

  “Run quickly,” Isaac said, “and I won’t rip you into the shadows from whence you’re born.”

  The creature squealed, spun its horse, and disappeared into the shadows of the night.

  Isaac looked again to the sky and disappeared in a flash of light, leaving To’an and Li’an to their fate within a cottage now turning to ash.

  15 Years Later

 
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