The Chronicles of Estiah

Chapter 20: Nightmare

It was a heavy winter night, in a small village concealed away by the woods and enveloped in a dead silence. Even the harsh wind showed little mercy to this dry land by adding more scars after each of its passages. It was an ordinary village where ordinary people lived, an uninteresting place where they repeated their daily life. Remaining much the same, the village noticed the changing of season only through the drop of temperature in the air. It had watched over its inhabitants for so many generations that it felt numb about their activity and their mind. That was why, as usual, it turned deaf to the brief appearance of the sun during the daytime, forgetting the pulse of the living that it once took pleasure in listening to.

Had some snow graced this breathless place, the village would have enjoyed a mattress of pure white to prevent its darkness from intimidating travelers. Holding back its usual generosity, Nature did not bless it with the precious gift. Perhaps it feared the perfect whiteness would have made today's unexpected visitors turn back.

Under the worn-down roof of a rudimentary house in this uncaring village, two small lives were cuddled up to feel the little residual warmth of each other.

"Alicia is cold." The ten-year-old was an honest girl, and she was still not used to the roughness of the world since she parted with the warmth of the womb of whoever had bore her.

"Come closer to me, I'll warm you up." Despite being only a few years ahead, the brother kept warmth in his fallible body through willpower alone so he could offer it to the only one that mattered to him in this harshness.

"But brother is freezing too." The little kid's words were nothing but truth.

"Try to sleep; there'll be a big sun when you wake up." The older one believed in the lies of tomorrow.

"But Alicia can't sleep. It is noisy out there. It's scary." The girl put her pink hands around her ears.

"It's only the wind. It will stop soon because brother gave it a good scolding." The boy took his sister's hands off and held them close to his heart.

"Did mom and dad give it a scolding too?" The younger one tried to bury her head in her brother's chest.

"They can't do that anymore. They're sleeping quietly in the ground now." A few things in this world are better off left unexplained and learned by one’s self. Death is one of them.

"They won't wake up again?" The question was another display of naivety.

"They will if you can be a good girl."

"Alicia's trying to be good girl. But Alicia doesn't like winter." The small head nuzzled.

"You're a nice girl now. Don't you like snow?" The winter night would be much easier if they had more happy memories.

"But it hasn't snowed yet. Snow is nice because it looks so delicious. Less hungry if Alicia eats many snowballs." The little girl's pressed stomach groaned.

"Are you hungry?" The familiar sound didn't go unnoticed.

"Yes." Alicia asked for nothing.

The brother held the small kitten even tighter, he knew his body warmth was the only thing he could give, even if he had little left.

"Alicia wishes Grandpa will visit us tomorrow." The girl's voice waned.

"He will. And he'll bring us food." The brother had to keep up the comforting promises.

"Alicia really hopes so..." Sleeping would be the most enjoyable thing if there were no dreams. When one lives in a despicable reality, he prays to at least stay away from nightmares when he is not awake.

"Worry not. When spring comes, we'll be able to feed ourselves better thanks to the woods. Remember how we went to pick up those Liferoots? They looked so ugly just like Grandpa's wrinkles. But when you put them in your mouth, they taste so sweet, like candies." The boy believed spring would be delayed one day for every tear shed. That is why he never cried.

"When spring comes..." Alicia finally started to doze off.

The brother kept talking about the season whose arrival was inevitable, about its flowers, about its animals, and about its hope. Like seasons turned by the wheel of time, the life of a butterfly cycled from unsightly larvae to magnificent wings without fail. Humans were much the same, be it a time of fortune or hardship, be it a place of cold or heat, they struggle to survive everything as long as they hold hope dear in their hearts. The decay of the body means nothing when their will lives on, the rule of death was merely a vain attempt by nature to imprison humans in their role given by the Old Gods.

The metamorphosis unseen by eyes is the truest evolution of all.

A few gusts of wind passed through the cracks in the wall and set the orphans’ bodies to shivering. The dropping temperature made the little house as uncomfortable as the reality outside. If a frozen mind could still think about tomorrow, this must be what the young boy was doing now. It was no easy task to keep both of them alive, and yet it was even harder to die alone. The still beating heart in his arms was the very reason that the boy refused to succumb to despair, as no man was better off alone.

Winter nights had always been long, but they became even longer when the boy had to pray for the sun. The unbearable searing of a stomach craving for food, the intolerable burn of the skin fending off the cold, the deplorable thoughts of a mind fearing to lose its precious one... the boy accepted them all like a grown man without tears. Tortures have the unmatched cruelty of not ending until one concedes, and in this pair's case conceding simply meant giving in to death.

Snow is often said to eat up the sound of the living so they can feel the calmness of the world. In this dead village, the snow made a perfect silence once the north winds went away. No sound of cracking ice could be heard, no breath of breaking wood stems could be perceived, and no pulse from slumbering houses could be felt. The absolute quietness was accompanied by a never-dawning darkness, even as the hour of the day was definitely approaching.

Watching his sister's sleeping face was usually one of the most satisfying things to the boy since so much innocence and purity could be seen, but this night he was worried, he couldn't shake off the idea that his beloved would never wake up again. Despite his tiredness, his mind stayed alert and waited for the dawn. And it was then that he felt the ground becoming increasingly nervous and agitated. The approaching steed steps indicated that, instead of common travelers, they were more likely to be war-bringers. After tasting Nature's roughness, it was time for the boy to experience real terror before becoming a man. Aside from the young listener of the night, the rest of the village seemed to be still in a deep sleep. No one could have guessed what business those strangers had with them and what horrible fate was massing around them. After all, it was an ordinary village with average people.

The neigh of the first steed tore apart the momentary peace that the small village had, and the uninvited guests made their appearance at the entrance. Surprised at this early hour, a few house lights lit up through their windows, and murmurs of questions and discontent followed. Instead of answering his curiosity, the boy strained his arms around his sister, as if she was to be taken away by a group of evil monsters like many old fairy tales told. The steeds quickly circled around the village, waking up more villagers. Trapped in a dark closet of the little run-down house and unable to tell what was going on outside, the boy's only reaction was tightening his protection over his cherished one.

"Alicia can't breathe." The little girl was woken up by the need for more air.

"Oh sorry." Despite his apology, the boy wouldn't let go of his sister.

"It's painful." The kitten was twisting her body to free herself.

"Make no sound. Some strangers are in our village." It was no surprise he felt so alert.

"Are they bad people?" Children's questions always went straight to the point.

"Don't worry, brother is here." The shivering reply was not very assuring.

"Are they bad people?" The girl repeated.

"I don't know. Villagers will handle them." The reply was still not very convincing, especially coming from an orphan's mouth.

"Alicia is afraid." The girl nestled closer.

"It'll be over soon. Go back to sleep." The boy said that almost to himself.

"But Alicia can't sleep. Alicia hates strangers." The girl had learned to trust no one beside her brother.

"Shhhh."

The dawn came but the sky did not shine. The pair of hopeless children were left in ignorance and fear, trying to cope with reality as much as they always did. According to the yells of village people and the barking of the neighbor's dogs, the world outside must have been in agitation. Suddenly, the worn-down house became a valuable haven which not only kept the coldness of nature at bay, but also warded off the aggression of the unknown. Like a tired traveler happy to find shelter from the heavy snow, the orphans were content with their hideout. This was a castle without fortification, a stockade without reinforcement, a defense without supplies. When enemies were neither after treasures nor fame, they were after lives. In the children's eyes, killings made no difference: one man's hate was let out, the other man's life was ended; one murder had no more excuses than another. Under this punctured roof through which dim stars could still be counted, the brother was the last stronghold that Alicia believed in. Whatever dread would happen in the next day mattered little, whoever was dear that stayed close to her was her only sun. She hardly imagined how important she was to the only one sharing the same blood with her, her young age hadn't put that much burden on her yet. However, she knew that if her feeble hands were gripping on her brother's arms this firmly, that could only mean he would protect her with all his might and his blood. It was indeed a blessing to be young, as she had only learned how to receive, not how to give. But it was also a curse, when innocence could end in the blink of an eye, and gratefulness could never be returned.

All of a sudden, the defense of the little fortification was breached as the frail door was kicked open by a guard sharply dressed in his righteous uniform. The orphans saw neither law nor justice in the divine tabard of Lumina, their frightened eyes were fixed on an invader who represented chaos and disaster. They had no parents to rely on, they had no gods to pray to, and in front of them stood an overpowering monster beneath a human skin, a fatality they could not fight off.

"Only two kids here!" The guard turned his head, and raised his voice.

"Bring them out. Make them gather with the rest of the villagers." Another loud voice replied.

The trained soldier effortlessly grabbed the pair, one under each of his husky arms, and walked out of the house. Despite the boy's futile struggle, they were held fast by bars of steel. The brother was only able to stare at the young girl, with determination in his eyes telling her he would never let her go. The sister was only able to look firmly back, her endeavor to hold back her tears showing him she would trust him forever. No words were needed when minds were as one, no comforts were sought when hearts were together. By the time they took notice of their surroundings, they saw only confusion, worry, and grief, illuminated by the torches of strangers. The fire brought them no warmth, it only reminded them more of the cold they were living in.

The guard dropped the children next to the adults who were in no position to offer any help themselves, as most of them were on their knees begging for mercy. But the immature minds were unable to comprehend how mercy could possibly be granted for a crime that they did not commit, or even worse, that they did not know of. Once freed of her cage, the little bird precipitated herself in her brother's embrace again. Even being next to the villagers, they hardly felt united with the people they knew. Unable to let their fear subside, the two poor souls could at least hold their hands together and tell themselves tomorrow would inevitably come.

The boy was puzzled at the unexpected visitors' true intentions, but he was more confused about their anxiety.

"Search again!" He heard an irritated order.

"Are you sure there's no mistake?" He perceived an impatient question.

"This can't be!" He perceived rising anger.

The boy's attention was all on his sister, but every now and then, his eyes were drawn to a prominent knight on an outstanding steed. Even without moonlight, the horse's coat was shimmering silver, illuminating its master who was on a higher ground of nobleness. Had it been another circumstance, the boy would have idolized the surprisingly young commander whom every guard was reporting to. For a rural boy whose daily life consisted of finding food and gathering lumber, any noble ideal and honorable belief were certainly out of his reach. Still, when he looked at the man who shined in white light under the dark sky, he could not help but feel so touched that he would weep. He thought the stranger close, he wanted to talk to him but his voice did not speak up. The stupor of admiration was beyond his control, even though the shivering of the little girl in his arms reminded him of the direness of the situation.

He saw guards gathered around discussing something, and then a few of them were dispatched to the village's exits. He could hear no more of the nearby commoners' words; his full focus was on the man shining in divinity and holiness. He still had to guess the intention of the pure soul and the decision of this god-sent, but like thunder striking across the gentle grassland, he heard the impossible.

"Slaughter them all." The man's words were darker than the night, colder than winter.

Chaos emerged. Between the lights of murdering Charms, blood, mutilation and death surfaced.

Then hell descended. Amidst the shadows of the oppressing colossus, sanity, reason and law sunk.

The whole world around the orphans was drowned in pitch blackness. They heard no help, they saw no hope, they felt no life. No man could control his birth, but these children were unable to choose how to die either. A scene of slaughter was certainly the last place anyone wished to be in, as the killing and the killed definitely shared the same agony. The two little souls were praying, not for a miraculous rescue but for a quick death. Living as orphans was undoubtedly more painful than dying in hell. There was no need to beg as no one was spared, no use to scream because no pain would be eased. There was only desperation.

Eventually, the angel of death arrived. A guard stood before the ones too old for the womb but yet too young to die. The brother tried to cover the little one with his skinny body, and the sister closed her eyes to not witness the older one's sacrifice. Their last acts had not affected the outcome of the ugly truth, and as a yellow flash filled with sorrow pierced through both bodies they were left to draw their parting groans.

"It hurts! It hurts!" The girl had to face reality.

"Cry louder! Don't think about the pain!" The brother screamed to mask his own pain.

"It hurts!" The girl had never cried this much since she drew her first breath in this world.

"It's okay to cry! It'll be over soon!" The boy's distorted voice was hardly comforting.

"Ahhh!" Hysteria took over the fragile mind.

"Help her! Help her!" The boy did not know whom to beg.

"Hurt!" The shriek did not ease the pain.

"It'll be over... This nightmare will be over soon..." The brother squeezed his hands around the thin neck, full of blood.

The girl's screams lowered.

"Shhh..." How sad it was to strangle the one he loved the most, even if only to only speed up her death.

The girl's eyes were losing their light.

"Shhh..." The boy's tears were pouring out like a brook overflowing with spring water from melting snow, but the spring was no longer needed. Despite having lost much blood himself, his hands only smothered more tightly. His sole will was keeping him from passing out in order to accomplish this audacious act that defied the Curse. Saving or killing, it mattered no more, as long as there would be less suffering.

"Brother..." That was the girl's last word.

"Worry not... I'll be with you soon..." The boy was relieved to feel his strength waning, his time drew near.

As his whole world turned black, he had to see no more and worry no longer. He didn't know what came after death, be it eternal slumber or a new start, but he believed he would be able to cope with anything. His life was short and not without sadness, but he found no reason to blame anyone or anything. One man can hardly live his life to its utmost, but at the moment of death if he is at peace with himself, then he has lived a life of satisfaction. In one's life there are so many things to regret and feel ashamed of in the end. Death is a blessing in its own way, as life is the truly hard part. The boy did not cling on to his drab life. He would not have ended it with his own hands if given a chance, but he did not curse his fate that night or bear hatred against the one who said those inhuman words. His blood kept dyeing the one beneath, the little warmth of his crimson liquid was the last thing he could offer to his dear one. While his eyelids felt so heavy, he did not find it necessary to witness the cruelty of the world anymore. If he had to pray for one last wish, he wanted to be woken from this nightmare without remembering it and to be at the side of the one he unconditionally loved, because fate would be truly merciless if it had to toy with his death too. His drowsy mind made time stretch longer, and the boy was unable to tell how long he still had to wait.

"Is this the numbness that one feels while dying?" He asked himself.

Then a female voice filled with sadness sighed.

"Why does fate hate me so much, making me save a brat on the very day that I lost my daughter?"