In this installment, another character appears. This one never gives his name. For those of you who are Wren Romany fans, can you can you name the dark stranger?
by Rachel Rossano
Rain pelted my head, ran in rivulets down my face, and plastered my wool cloak to my back. Frigid moisture seeped through to my bones. They absorbed the cold like reluctant rags unable to repel the deluge. My heart declared it would never warm again.
“Lenora, I can’t feel my toes.” My brother, Ander, clung to my hand with all of his seven-year-old strength.
I hadn’t the heart to peal my hand free despite the pain. Mother was gone. In many ways, I was the last anchor he had.
Behind us, our home gave in to the fire with a groan and crash. The sound tore through my chest, leaving my heart raw and oozing pain like an open sore. I refused to glance back.
Why hadn’t father listened?
I had passed on the warnings. The enforcer’s men grew bolder with each passing day. Tales of destruction, ravaging, and pillaging passed from villager to farmer and back, taking precedent over the cost of feed and the lack of harvest. Additional news of Lord Mynth’s movements and rumors of strangers appearing in the woods added an undercurrent of tension to every conversation. Life grew dangerous, yet father ignored the outside.
“Focus on the harvest. Focus on clearing the fields,” he ordered. “Then we can take time to rest and gossip.”
A sob punched my gut, but I choked it back.
The grain rotted. The barn flamed. The house burned with mother’s broken body inside as father marched off at sword point to serve the Enforcer.
Ander stumbled, pulling me down on my knees. Mud soaked my skirt. It sucked at my legs as I struggled to my feet. Ander rose crying, whimpering sobs that shook his thin shoulders. I tugged him close until his sharp edges pressed into my stomach. So young, yet so tall, he resembled father more each season, except for his hair. He had mother’s hair, straight and thick. I ran my numb fingers across the slick strands.
“Preserve us! A pair of ragamuffins.” The booming voice jolted through me.
Indignation rose to the offense. I turned to face the man, shoving Ander behind me.
He was tall and broad in the shoulders, but not as towering and solid as Svhen. Rain fell on his bare head, forcing the hair to conform to his skull.
“Leave us be.”
“Why should I? You are trespassing on private land.”
“Whose?” I didn’t like the way his dark eyes studied me, almost as though measuring my worth.
“Lord Mynth. These woods aren’t safe at night.”
“The valley isn’t safe, we know well enough. I have lived here my whole life. Do you come from the ruins?”
He frowned thoughtfully. “Aye.”
“I...” Ander pressed against my back. “We need to speak with Svhen Bejork.”
His thick eyebrows rose and his eyes widened as a grin pulled at one side of his mouth. “Is that so?” Then he laughed. “That explains a lot.”
Now it was my turn to frown.
“Come. Bring the shy one too. What is your name?” He motioned for us to follow and then set off perpendicular to our previous direction.
I followed him, pulling Ander, but only to demand more information.
“You will take us to Svhen?”
“Of course. Svhen never looked twice at a girl. Now one shows up with a kid in tow asking for him by name. Wait until I tell Arthus. He is going to be sorry he missed this.”
Pressing through the brush, he broke through into a small clearing. Water fell in heavy streams from the sky. Its path unbroken by the leaves, water pounded his head and shoulders. Ignoring the deluge, he strode straight through the tightly woven branches of two bushes on the other side.
“Yes?” The reply came behind.
I turned and came face to face with a looming shadow. He was taller than I remembered and more tangible. My chin lifted a few inches before I meet his hidden eyes below the hood. I opened my mouth, but no words came. My chin quivered. I clamped my jaw shut to still it and studied the mud.
“What is wrong?” A large hand, rough with an oilskin mit, forced my face up. “Lenora, what happened?”
The gentle sound of my name broke through my defenses and tore them away. A sob convulsed my chest. I couldn’t breathe as emotion welled up. “Mother...dead.” I gasped.
Our guide swore.
“They take your father?”
Ander’s thin arms cinched my waist seeking or offering comfort. Pulling him close, I pressed his head to my middle and let the tears fall. The swells of ache overwhelmed my walls.
Svhen’s hand caught my head and gently guided it to his chest beneath the folds of his cloak. I breathed warmth and the musk of horse. The steady thud of his heart beneath layers of cloth was strangely reassuring. I let my tears fall, soaking his tunic. Ander’s hair tangled in my painful fingers, his skull firm and whole beneath their span. Visions of my mother’s body pressed behind my eyes.
“Does that mean we have gained two new recruits? They don't look like much.” Our guide's voice was no longer laced with laughter.
“Tourth won’t mind. They are his people.”
“True enough. At this rate they are going to be your people too.”
“Let Tourth know we are coming.”
The dark man left. One moment he was there, then the rain pelted only the three of us. I drank in Svhen’s stillness, hungering for peace in the storm.
Who is the dark stranger?
What is your favorite line?