Chapter One

“I will not die in the street like a dog.”

And so it is…

Soft light. A sliver. A breath. Ah… to breathe. My chest fills; empties. Muscles… move. Somewhere in side. It works. It works. The soft light grows brighter; a red, ruddy haze. My body is warm. My lips are dry. I start to move, but know better. Something… odd. Wrong. Don’t move.

I open my eyes and look at the searing ball of light. It hangs over me… in the sky. It touches me and smarts my skin. Its warmth seeps deep into me. Too deep. It stings. My bones ache. It burns. My throat. My chest. My belly. My groin. It burns me. Searing. Breathing is hurting now. My head pounds. I start to move. But I don’t.

The pain!

All over me, the wounds scream where the sun is burning me. I look down at the smoking pyre… but there’s nothing. No smoke. Only blood. I am naked. Covered in blood. My wounds are not burns. They are cuts. And slashes. And… stabs. Oh. No, God. Help me. Please aid me.

I try to call out. Someone! Please! I make only a sick, gurgling cough. A searing pain in my throat silences me. What shall I do? I carefully roll my head to the side. I lay upon cobblestones. Across from me is a curb. And a walkway. And a wall. A business. Finian’s Wares. His windows are broken. The stone bench he keeps by his door is overturned and broken. The walls are cracked. Finian is dead. I know it.

I am in the street. How am I in the street? God! Eudgwar aid me! I have to go home. No one will help me! No one can! I must go. Mother will worry. Mother will help me.

But… the pain. I move an arm and my entire body screams! Oh, God! I reel! The pain! No! No! Can’t quit! I have to go! I have to!

I roll over and onto my hands and knees. My arms shudder violently. My stomach lurches. My sight blurs, but I focus on one tiny pebble. And I force myself into my feet! Oh, no! I sway like a reed in the wind. Not one part of me doesn’t scream in agony! But I stand!

I look before me down the street. Shattered glass is everywhere. Some buildings burn. Red water runs along the gutters and into the sewer. Blood. There is a haze over everything. The sky is covered with clouds. God will not look upon this place. I stumble only a few yards when I crash to my knees. God! Can I walk? No. I tripped. Something. Someone…

Ms. Thomas’ cold, blank eyes stare at me. Her head lays at an odd angle in the gutter. The blood runs through her golden hair. She is dead. She is naked. Her hand is reached out, as if for help. Several of her fingers are missing. They took them… for her rings.

I look at my hand… my ring. The ring is there. But bone shines through the meat where they tried to cut off my finger!

I reel and throw up into the gutter. Oh, no. Please, God. Let me wake. I’ve had enough! No more of this nightmare! No more dreams! My vomit mixes with the streaming blood, travels down and through Ms. Thomas’ hair and down the street. Forgive me. Forgive me! I will mourn you!

But I can’t. Now. Poor Ms. Thomas. She was so nice. But there is no time. I am dying. How could I have lived this long? Ms. Thomas hasn’t nearly as many wounds. I’m going to die.

Oh, no. No! Get up, girl! On your feet! Go! now!

I lurch up and stumble headlong down the street, dodging the bodies as best as I can. I stumble again. Twice. But I roar to my feet and careen on, heedless of the numbing pain which each step brings. This if for life! And mother! What would mother do without me? How could she go on?

The minutes blur together. The steps… one after another… are forgotten. I well make it to that pole. There. I will go to that curb! I will make it! And I do. Moment by moment. Step by step. Breath by breath. I’ve come so far. So very far. Sure a mile. Surely more!

I glance back over my shoulder. My heart sinks. I can still see Ms. Thomas’ body. I have passed dozens. Men. Women. Children. But I could toss a rock at Ms. Thomas. If I could throw it. If I could pick it up. But I stumble around the curb. The pain … is intense. The cobblestones blur. The blackness crowds in. No! No, please! Not here! I only want to go home! Don’t let me die here! Like the others!

I stumble once… and sink to one knee. I listen for a moment to the sickening, wet rattle of my breathing. I spit blood upon the pavement. My mouth is full of it. My jaw is covered with it. I spit again. I try to rise, but only manage a few inches. The knee sinks back to the ground. Oh, my. I just don’t have it in me. Mother, dear. I love you so. I pray, dear God…Eudgwar hear me! Let her find my body! Let her bury me in the glade just outside of town! I so love that place. The soft, green grasses. The tall, mighty oaks. The heroes buried there. I so loved to spend time there, alone among the dead. My old legends. But now… I come to join you. Oh. Will you welcome me?

No! I must try! I can’t lay down and die like a dog! I am a Caldwell! I grit my teach and lurch once more to my feet. My eyes tear in triumph! But I am off balance. I am stumbling. I am falling. The ground teeters maddeningly…

And I fall…

Without a whimper…

In the inky void.

*           *           *

My eyes open slowly. I protest. I lay in the street again. On my belly. My arm, laying beside my face, is caked with filth. Dust and dirt cling to the blood. Why don’t I die? Why can’t I die in peace? Eudgwar… why must you torment me so?

There is something… familiar about this place. The broken curb. The broken iron chair which sits next to the door. The oak door which yawns wide in the building across the street. Oh, Mother. I’ve made it. How did I ever make it? I’m home. I’m close. Oh, so close!

It is so quiet. The birds do not sing. They have always sang here.

My body protests, but I pull myself to my feet. I will not die in the street like a dog. I plod upon shuddering legs towards home. The door. The wide, welcoming portal. Oh, dear. I just might make it! I stumble upon the curb and crash through the doorway into the apartment. I reel in pain! Oh, the pain! and lie there gasping. I try to call Mother, but spit blood instead. I only manage a sickening wheeze. But I am home. She will find me. She will help. I can sleep now. I can die. I’ve come home.

I lie quietly, watching the chair leg in front of me. The wall clock ticks away the moments. Long moments. Near the chair is a shoe. A muddy shoe. A big shoe. Whose? Mother had company. One of her patrons. He left his shoes. It lays at an odd angle. A lump of cloth is stuck in it. Full and round. Almost… oh. No. Please, no. Attached to the boot is a leg, and to it a man, sprawled in wild angles across the floor. Further on lies another.

No.

I try to stand… but I cannnot. There is no life. There is no energy or strength. I pull myself onto my hands and knees and crawl. Only seven… eight feet. The stairwell. I drag myself to the stairwell and pull my aching body onto a step. I roll over and half sit, half lay there. I stare blankly at the carnage. Oh, Mother. Dear Mother. Upon the far walls, blood is splattered in abstract patterns. Two men lay dead on the floor. Their backs are in tatters, as if they had exploded. The cloth is rent and torn. They are warriors. Invaders. A sword lies nearby. And… and near the sword… in pool of her own blood… lies Mother.

Oh, Mother. Dear woman. What did they to you? What horrors… No. She is clothed. She is… smiling. She died fighting. Oh, my. Indeed. She died fighting and she took them all with her. My Mother. Dear Mother. I am so proud of you. Had I only been so strong. Had I only known your sorceries. Forgive me. For what they did to me. For being beaten.

I am so tired. I hurt… so much. Forgive me for not mourning. There is no time. I am pleased with you. I am proud. I will mourn later. I will mourn as I die. We will be together in Eudgwar’s arms this evening. And we will know the nectars of heaven.

And I turn… once again… upon my hands and knees. I craw slowly up the steps. Step by step. Inch by agonizing inch. If I am to die, I will die in my own bed. You will not defeat me. We cannot be defeated. Do your best. Bastards. I am dizzy in my efforts. The hallways blurs before me, but I crawl. My bedroom… I enter, crawl, crying, to the foot of my post bed. I am alive. I am undefeated. They could not kill me. Here I am. Here I choose. To die of my own desire. And to sleep of my own making. I will choose my fate. Here. In my own bed. In my own home.

I grasp a post and pull myself to my feet. I look down upon the bed. The silk covering which I saved so long for. I hate to see it marred. With my blood. With filth. But I can’t remove it. I would faint. I would die. I pull myself upon the bed and roll over onto my back. The pain is a throbbing now. Or I… am used to it. My stomach pitches and my head pounds, but I have made it. I am home. Sweet, Mother. How I love you so. Forgive me for dying. I am… tired. I don’t know who to fight.

So I close my eyes. They burn as I shut my eyelids. They tear. I feel the coolness of the silk beneath me. I clasp it in my hands. So soft. I will die knowing this. Thank you, Eudgwar, for bringing me here. Thank you for allowing me to die. Thank you. Oh, thank you. The pain is receeding. I smile. There will be no pain in heaven. There will be peace. And joy. I will sit with Mother and my heroes from the grove upon the hill, and we will laugh at all this pain. It will be a memory. We will know peace. Blessed peace.

Farewell, Mother. I come to find you in heaven.

My hands slip from the silk. I breathe calmly… slowly. The pain recedes. The loud silence quietens. The void rushes up to meet me. Farewell, sweet life. You were loved. Ah, how I will embrace the peace. I slip away. I smile.

But there… is…

There is something. A noise. A grunt. Footsteps.

Please, Eudgwar. Take me now. Please! My heart leaps alive! I lie in silence, and do not die…

I listen… in horror! Please, Eudgwar! No more! Save me!

But I am alone. I am alive.

Hard footsteps climb the stairwell.

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