Hand-in-hand, they bowed their heads to pray.
“Dear Lord, thank You for this day. Thank You for this food and for the chance to share it together. May Your blessing rain down on us during these trying times. Watch over us, guide us and protect us as Your will be done. Amen.”
A cricket chirped outside. The large oak in the front lawn swayed in the soft breeze. The pair ate in near silence.
Ann quickly finished her meal. The rabbit was tender and cooked perfectly, paired nicely with some rice and dried fruit and washed down with rain water that they had collected during a passing shower that afternoon. Henry picked at his meal, but he wasn’t hungry.
The flame from the tallow candle centered between them flickered, casting an eerie shadow on the walls. The soft glow provided just enough illumination to see the sadness in Henry’s eyes as he stared at – something. Something far beyond the walls of the cabin. Far beyond the grass and the trees and the darkness outside.
Ann stood up and walked to his side. She put her arms around him and sat in his lap. A tear slipped down Henry’s cheek as Ann put her head on his shoulder.
“Let’s go to bed my love” she whispered.
Crack! Chirping. Crack! Buzzing. Crack!
The sounds of the morning brought a swift end to the first truly wonderful dream Ann had had in months. She was so close to the end of the aisle cut perfectly through the center of the meadow nestled right next to her childhood home. Her parents sat to her left. Henry stood just ahead, dressed in his Sunday best and glowing with happiness. She could still feel the daisy tiara atop her head and smell the bouquet of fresh wildflowers in her hands.
That would never happen now.
Ann slipped Henry’s jacket on over her tattered dress and stepped out onto the porch. A damp chill cooled her face. Henry was already hard at work. A pile of freshly chopped wood sat waist high beside the log frame of their temporary home. Henry, sitting on one of the larger, more difficult cuts of wood, caught a glimpse of Ann out of the corner of his eye.
“Good morning my darling. How did you sleep?”
“Exquisitely. How was your night?”
“It could not have been better. Thank you, Ann. Truly. Without you, I don’t know what I would do.”
Henry swept up Ann in a monstrous hug and passionately kissed her. They were warmed by a ray of sunlight peeking through the treetops.
“So what now?” she asked, returning to the porch and resting on a rickety old chair that no longer rocked.
“Well, I’m not sure to be honest. We have to have several miles on them at least. We’ve got enough wood and wildlife around us to make it at least a month here. Maybe more.”
Ann ran her fingers through her curly blonde hair, struggling to make it through a sea of knots and tangles. She picked at a clump of dried mud – or perhaps it was blood – at the top of her scalp.
She sighed. “I’m just so dang tired of running all the time, Henry.”
“I am too. But what else can we do? We got no weapons. We got no shelter, not really. We don’t got many options at all. I don’t know what you want me to do.”
Henry wiped the sweat from his brow and placed his hat back on his head and spit. He didn’t typically raise his voice to Ann. She crossed her arms and turned away.
“Now, Ann, look. I’m sorry. I’m just as concerned as you are. This here is a mighty difficult situation we are in and I’m just being forthright with ya. Them things are nothing to fool around with.”
Ann shook her head, but remained with her back to the man in the gray hat and powder blue shirt.
“Can’t we just give them the bag?” she said softly and defeated.
“I don’t think that is a very good idea. The very thing that your parents died to protect? How can we just give that away and let them win. No ma’am. I would rather die than to let those bastards have it. Or you. God as my witness, ain’t nothing going to lay a finger on you or that bag.”
Henry stood up and returned to chopping wood. His swings were much more powerful and angrier than before. Ann watched out of the corner of her eye and bit on her bottom lip. No matter the circumstance, she could never stay mad at him.
As the brisk morning transformed into a warm, sun-soaked day, Henry once again set out into the forest to take watch and look for food. In less than a week, he had managed to provide them a couple of rabbits, a squirrel, some wild mushrooms, a pouch full of apples and some other treats provided by nature. The cabin that they found provided the rest – a few sacks of rice, some canned goods, and the axe. By their best guest, the cabin had been empty a few months now, maybe more.
It wasn’t the best home. The roof had a leak in one corner, it was dreadfully drafty, and it was at least a mile from the nearest road. Whoever lived here certainly did not want to be found. But found it was, and without their mare Cleopatra, any shelter was better than nothing. Oh that poor creature, Ann thought. The dirt was still loose about 50 paces from the house where they buried the beautiful animal.
Ann passed the afternoon with chores. She patched a tear in Henry’s jacket and prepped the table for the evening meal. Menial work, but enough to keep her busy. She tried her best to keep her mind off of her parents and young sisters. She could still hear the screams. Often, Ann would reach for her face to wipe away the blood that no longer remained. She needed to keep her mind and her body occupied.
About an hour before sunset Henry returned, this time empty handed. Ann prepared some of the remaining mushrooms into a stew paired with some herbs she had picked nearby. As the sun set, the pair sat down to eat. Once again, their meal was without much conversation.
After dinner, Henry took Ann into his arms and they made love in the glow of the candlelight. Their bodies intertwined into all sorts of magnificent shapes dancing on the walls of their hidden retreat.
If only my parents could see us right now, Ann thought. How they would HATE us.
Ann’s mind began to race with visions of the past 15 months. Meeting Henry at the market. Their forbidden romance. The lost baby. The invasion. Henry’s return. The blood. The murder. The escape.
“Oh, my! Henry!” The relief.
As their bodies returned to rest on the straw bed beside the iron stove – sweat still glistening on their exposed skin – Ann began to cry. Henry knew not to say anything. He just held her until they both fell asleep.
Henry was the first to hear it.
It was an unmistakable sound. The popping and cracking and hissing. The corner of the cabin was on fire.
“Ann, get up! Now!”
Henry took Ann into his arms as they backed into the corner opposite the raging inferno. As he analyzed the room, he heard another unmistakable sound. The sound of laughter. And then another pop as a container hit the front porch, igniting a second fire just outside the front door. The door and only window were now consumed by flames.
A booming voice could be heard coming from what sounded like multiple directions outside. It hissed and clicked and laughed hysterically.
“What are we going to do?” Ann cried out, choking as smoke consumed the tiny room.
A third canister hit the side of the house, further feeding the flames.
“I’ve got an idea, keep low.”
Henry reached into the red glowing smoke and grabbed the axe sitting beside the door and crawled back to Ann. He felt around on the wall until his hand brushed a cool, damp spot. He wound up and landed three solid blows to the wall softened by months of rain water trickling down through a tiny hole in the ceiling. On the third hit, the wall burst open.
He took Ann by the hand and helped her through the opening out into the night. Once she was free, he turned and felt around beside the bed where moments before they were enveloped in passion and grabbed the satchel. He threw it through the opening and joined Ann outside.
He again took his beloved by the hand and they disappeared into the darkness. The coolness of the night stung against their mostly naked bodies – Henry in only his trousers and Ann in a nightdress.
Into the night they ran until the sound of popping and laughter dissipated and all that remained was the sound of the forest. Henry pulled Ann behind a large tree out of place in a patch of saplings and listened.
As Henry stared into the night, Ann could see he was shaking and then saw the burns on his arm. His skin was blistered and red.
“I want you to stay here. Go over to that brush and stay low.”
“Where are you going!?” she cried.
“Please, Ann, keep your voice down. I am going to see if I can get a better vantage point. I need to see how many there are. I will be back. I love you.”
Before her words of protest could reach his ears, Henry kissed Ann and placed the satchel beside of her, disappearing into the night.
Seconds passed, and then minutes. Perhaps an hour. Ann lost all track of time. As the adrenaline began to wear, her body began to shake violently from the cold as she knelt behind a briar patch thick with thorns and ivy. She looked out into the black, trying to force her vision to improve in the night.
Ann’s eyelids began to grow heavy as the quiet and sheer darkness surrounding her replaced the rush of fire and panic. Small stars began to fill her vision. The scenes of the evening began to replay over and over in her mind. Dinner. Love making. Them.
“Ann, where are you?” a soft whisper called out from the abyss.
Ann snapped back to the moment, unaware of how much time had passed. “Henry, my love. I’m over here.”
Henry emerged from the shadows, covered in blood and carrying a gray and black long rifle with a glowing blue center and what looked like tiny bolts of lighting running through its core.
“Oh, my Lord! Henry, what happened!? What is that?"
“I found an overlook, there are at least a dozen of them waiting outside for the cabin to finish burning. I tried to make my way back to you and found one of them in the woods away from the others. I rushed it and took its weapon. Ann, when they find out we are not in there…” his voice trailed off as he heard yelling in the distance. “Quickly, this way!”
Henry and Ann ran.
Up steep trails and across babbling creek beds. Through forest and fields, they alternated a swift pace with a methodical march. Henry carried Ann at times as her legs failed her. They stopped only long enough to drink from a water source and then continued on. Through the night they treaded until the sun edged over a hilltop in the distance, replacing the purple and blue hues with a soft orange glow.
As the sun fully emerged, Henry and Ann saw a large homestead off in the distance and a barn just beyond it. That barn provided an enviable resting place.
As they carefully made their way inside, Ann collapsed on a bed of hay. Her body began to shut down in exhaustion, but her mind was as sharp as ever.
This was not supposed to be this way. she thought. We were supposed to get married. Have children. Grow old together. And then they came.
Months earlier, out of the sky. Great ships filled with armored soldiers with bulbous heads and gnashing teeth. They carried all sorts of strange weaponry. They didn’t ride on horses, but on giant carriages that never touched the ground. What were they? Ann did not know. But all of the cannons and muskets in the world could not slow them.
One day, Ann’s father came across a dead one in the woods outside of their home. Beside it lay a satchel with seven small crystals casting a soft magenta glow.
That summer, Ann’s mother had become extremely sick with tuberculosis. Most of the family had already said their goodbyes. Then, one day, she simply sat up and got out of bed. The family was amazed as she returned to full health. It was a miracle. Days later, Ann’s father reached for the bag of crystals which he had stashed under the mattress of their bed. One of them had lost its glow.
Of course, it wasn’t long after that they returned for their treasure. Dozens of them.
It’s worth a try, she thought.
Ann removed the satchel from her shoulder and pulled out a crystal roughly the size of a potato. The glow lit up the room with a purple and pink hue. It was beautiful and terrifying all at the same time. Without saying a word, she placed it on Henry’s arm. Within moments, the blisters subsided. The red and black began to fade and the skin on Henry’s arm began to tighten, pulling loose pieces of burnt flesh back onto the bone. With each stitch of skin pulled back into place, the crystal faded. It faded until there was nothing but black. It faded until Henry’s arm was fully healed.
They said nothing.
Henry tried to calm his nerves and allow his vision to sync with the tiny scope sitting atop the glowing rifle. He had never seen anything quite like it. As he looked through the long glass tube, he could see all sorts of markings and numbers on the ground outside. He could also see clearly for miles.
And he could see them.
Five of the barbarians, standing nearly twice the height of Ann with metal armor adorned with all sorts of strange symbols and colors were thrashing the home next to the barn. The screams of a woman alerted him to the danger. And then a loud boom, and silence.
Henry crawled to the second floor of the barn and found a crack in the slats which he could watch the events unfolding next door. He heard more screams, this time a child. His stomach began to turn.
Farther off in the distance opposite the house, he could hear the grinding of heavy war machines. He could hear the snapping of trees and a thunderous march. Getting closer or going away, he could not tell.
There was only one way this was going to end.
He climbed down from his perch and took Ann into his arms. He kissed her cheek and then found his way to her lips. They were dry and cracked, but they tasted sweet – just like the first time.
“Ann, keep the satchel with you and hide. Don’t come out for nothing, do you hear me?” he said frantically. “Wait until they move on, then make a run for it. I love you so much.”
Henry held Ann tightly against him. He could feel her panicked heartbeat against his chest. Their heightened breathing matched for a few beautiful moments. He wanted the moment to last a lifetime.
“I know, my love. Goodbye.”
He kissed her one last time and was gone. Ann made her way to one of the vacant horse stalls and cleared a spot in the corner. She gathered as much hay as possible and covered herself. She tried to calm her breathing, but the tears would not stop.
Crack! Pow, pow pow! Crack!
Each blast sounded like it was right next to her ear. Then she heard a yell. A man’s yell. She tried to ignore it. Stay where you are, she thought. But her heart got the better of her.
Ann burst from the stall and climbed to the second floor of the barn. She looked out into the darkness. There, behind a stone fence, she saw Henry. He was holding his shoulder but he was moving. She saw blasts of light – almost like shooting stars, she thought – coming from the porch. Henry returned the volley of light, blasting large fiery holes in the house. One of the stars hit the stones protecting Henry, knocking him through the air.
She slid down the stairs and ran out into the night. The ground shook all around her as she sprinted toward him. With every step the ground was ripped apart as large blasts of light tore open the earth. She was showered with dirt and debris falling from the darkness above as she dove into Henry’s arms.
Henry was alive, but he was badly wounded. She reached for a crystal, but realized they were still in the barn.
As the deafening sounds and dirt rain subsided, Ann could see the large hulking figures in the doorway of the house begin toward them. She turned to Henry and brought his head up to hers. She kissed his forehead and closed her eyes.
She could still feel the daisy tiara on her head. She could still smell the bouquet of fresh wildflowers in her hands.