* * *

Ten Years Ago…

LITTLE JYLL WHIMPERED as her mother’s strong arms pushed her into the cupboard, pushed her back as far as she could go into the tiny wooden space. The screams outside grew closer. She dropped Dana, her favorite doll, and clutched her mother’s sleeves.

“Jyll, please!” Yara, her mother, knelt before the cupboard in a brown flour-stained dress. “It’s only for a moment.”

“No!” Jyll pushed at the back of the cupboard with both feet. “Let’s run! We can still run!”

Yara flinched as a deafening crack sounded from outside, and another shrill scream echoed down the street. Light from distant fires flickered through their home, falling on tall wooden posts supporting cedar panels sealed with clay. Jyll had seen fire through her windows before, but never this much and never this close.

Her mother stopped pushing and dragged her into a hug. Jyll clutched her mother as Yara stroked her red curls. Her mother wouldn’t let go. She wouldn’t.

“I love you,” Yara said. “I’ll always love you.” Then Yara let her go, pushing her back toward the cupboard. “I need you to be strong for me. It’s like our game, remember? Your favorite hiding spot.”

“It’s dark!” Jyll clutched her mother’s sleeve. “There’s roaches.”

Someone rattled the lock on their front door. Yara ripped free of Jyll and hopped up, grabbing a knife off their nocked wooden table. Then the front door burst open, and Marel stumbled inside.

“We lost the gate.” Jyll’s oldest sister wore a boiled leather breastplate with the crest of Talos, their small village. Her cloth pants were torn, and her muddy boots had splotches of red splatter all over them, but she still clutched her axe. Gunk matted her tangled red hair.

Marel shut the door, lugged the heavy wooden bar off the wall, and dropped it into place. “Lehma and Nat are dead.” She stumbled to the table and tossed down the house key. “I couldn’t save them.”

Jyll gasped. Marel was lying, playing some cruel game. Jyll might only be eight years old — she might still be little — but she knew a cruel game when she heard it. Lehma and Nat weren’t dead. Sisters did not die.

Yara’s knife clattered to the wooden floor. Her mother stood, silent, and stared at the door. Another scream sounded down the street, several screams, over and over and over.

Marel propped herself against the table, breathing hard. Then she looked up. “Mother?”

Jyll only then noticed how pale Marel looked. She only then noticed the red all over her sister, oozing and dripping. Why was there blood on her?

“I understand.” Yara straightened and clenched her hands. “Is there any way out?”

“They’ve got both gates. We fight or we die.” Marel pushed off the table and readied her axe. “Get Jyll hidden. Do it now.”

Yara worked her fingers open. She wound her shoulder-length red hair into a ponytail, cinched it with a cloth wrap, and knelt once more. “Yes, all right.” She turned to Jyll, mouth a flat line.

Glass shattered outside and horses thundered past their house. Then Yara grabbed Jyll and pushed her into the cupboard, pushed her so hard she could barely breathe. Her mother’s wet eyes were wide, her chest heaving, and Jyll gasped and squirmed as her mother pushed.

“Don’t,” Yara pleaded. “Don’t fight me.”

Another crash, another scream. Someone pounding on their door and yelling for help.

“We need you safe,” Yara said. “We love you and we need you so please, stay in this cupboard and don’t make a sound. It’s only for a moment.”

Jyll couldn’t breathe. Her mother was crushing her.

“Everything will be all right.” Her mother took a deep breath and stopped pushing. “We’ll just wait for them to go.” Yara’s voice grew even and calm, a pleasant tone, the way she sounded when she read bedtime stories. “Just be quiet until they leave.”

Jyll’s lip quivered, but she refused to cry. Marel made fun when she cried. “Okay.” She could do this for her mother. She could do this one thing.

Her mother smiled. She let Jyll go, and all at once Yara’s trembling eased. She picked up her knife, her smile spreading across her face. She rose and looked to the door.

“I’ll see you soon. Not one sound. You promised.” She closed the cupboard and dropped Jyll into darkness.

Cold and the cupboard pressed in around her. There were bugs coming. Jyll fumbled until she found Dana, swept her dolly up, and stroked its thin straw hair. Dana was afraid too.

A man screamed outside the door, and heavy boots thudded on their porch. The barred door rattled. Then a great crack made Jyllith jump, and she smashed her head on the top of the cupboard. That stung, but she dared not cry out. She had promised she wouldn’t.

“They’re coming!” Marel yelled.

The crack came again, dozens of them. Then heavy metal boots stomped across their hard wooden floor. Jyll heard the ring of steel meeting steel. She hugged Dana and dared not breathe.

She heard boots scuffing, blades ringing, Marel grunting the way she did when she trained with Lehma. All pretend. She heard a curse, a thump, and then her mother, screaming the way she had when the Mynt dragged Jyll’s father away.

Jyll’s heart pounded in her ears as tears stung her eyes, but she kept quiet, kept her promise to her mother. She had to keep her promise even though she couldn’t breathe.

Armored boots clanked closer. Her mother’s screaming stopped and someone gurgled then, like when Jyll gargled water. When her throat hurt. Then the armored boots stomped away. Then screaming started down the street.

Jyll’s breath burst from her lungs. Her eyes watered, and her nose ran no matter how often she wiped it. She waited as long as she dared and then pushed against the cupboard door. It rattled against its thin lock.

She and her mother and all her sisters would run away now. It was time. Once they ran away they would be safe.

She pushed again, pushed harder, pushed her feet against the wooden back, and then the door burst open and she tumbled out. That was when little Jyll saw her mother on the floor with her arms and legs splayed out, eyes closed and mouth wide.

There was no blood. There was no blood on her mother and that meant she was resting, not dead. Just asleep.

“Wake up.” Jyll scrambled over to her mother and tugged her arm. “Let’s go. You promised.”

That was when Jyll noticed Marel in the corner. There was blood on Marel, and dirt and gunk and bone, and one eye, Marel’s left eye, had burst open like a grape. Jyll’s own eyes flooded. Once her mother woke up, maybe they could help Marel.

“Please!” Jyll tugged on Yara’s sleeves, tugged hard. “Wake up!”

Slats creaked on her front porch. Jyll snatched her mother’s knife. She would protect her mother until she woke up, and then they would run, together, with Marel and Lehma and Nat.

A man stood in her doorway, a big man in thick red robes. He had a bald head, dark eyes, and spiky tattoos that ran from mouth to ears. He was alone.

“Stay back!” Jyll’s knife shook.

The man’s dark eyes narrowed as he frowned. He knelt and extended a calloused hand, palm first. The tip of one finger slid across her vision as he drew on the air in his own blood.

“It’s all right, child.” He smiled. “Everything will be all right.”

“Who are you?” Jyll’s eyes grew heavy, and her knife clattered to the floor.

“My name is Cantrall.”

“Will you help my mother?”

“Of course I will.”

Cool oozed through Jyll’s bones, through all her insides, and it felt very good. It made her feel safe again. Happy.

“I’m going to take care of you now,” the big man told her as she settled to the floor. “I always will.”

Jyll smiled.

Then she went to sleep.

Read Chapter 2

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