She wouldn’t budge, not even an inch.
“But I want my momma!” cried the young child, easily loud enough to be heard by local raiders that were willing to eat her, despite her not understanding the concept. Even sleeping raiders might wake for this one.
“Then let’s go meet with them,” they said quietly, trying to calm the child, “they should be waiting for you with everyone else.”
It was a small lie, but one they felt justified in telling. Riley Trent was cautiously optimistic that such a lie might both quiet the child and get them to safety. The truth, which they had already seen firsthand, was that the child’s parents had been smart enough to hide their young daughter while the raiders swept through the small farming village. How she hadn’t woken up at the stir, or been taken already, was a small miracle.
Riley had heard of the raider threat, and had fully intended to make their way out of Steel Horse quickly. It was the families she heard of that were either trapped or likely to be overrun that they felt a need to check on. These families, recipients of the post and generally a likeable lot, had grown on Riley over their time in town. They had been one of very few post runners to reside in town and, by virtue of that, they had also gotten to know many of the town’s outlying families at least at face value. Their own faith drove them to make sure that either the outliers had been overrun or could be, at least in part, saved.
“Are you sure?” the small child asked in a much smaller voice. She hadn’t been entirely reassured, but the words were at least correct enough to staunch the flow of tears in order to speak instead of scream.
The pang of guilt grazed their conscience as they almost frowned, but quickly held their face in check. “Of course, that’s where everyone is going. Everything is very messy right now, and people are missing others they love, but we’re all going to meet up just over there.”
They hadn’t remembered the small child specifically, but could pin the likeness on her parents easily enough. Riley would have put a wager on this particular child being Philip and Erina’s girl, who they had mentioned in passing but hadn’t shown her off to date. They were kind people, willing to help their neighbors and the town alike. They were Sainthood as well, which didn’t hurt knowing that Riley would be helping their own.
The girl snuffled into the long sleeve of the dressing gown, clearly handed down to her and a bit larger than a proper fit. Riley took a quick assessment, and reached their hand out offering it to her. The child took the offer, and without too much urging, the pair was on the way to meet others heading out of town.
“I’m Riley,” they said cautiously, barely loud enough to be heard, “and I deliver the post to your mom and dad. We have to be very quiet while we run, okay?”
The mention of the post, and both her parents, seemed to take the child’s mind off the jaunt through the darkness. Riley’s light made a small dent in the blackness of the path, while the moon was clear overhead and gave a bit more help where it could.
The young girl, now keeping up with some effort, breathed out, “Hi Riley, I’m Annabelle. Momma calls me Belle.”
For some reason, the notion of this explanation made Riley crack a wry smile. In the middle of the woods, avoiding certain death, a small child found it important to reveal not only her name, but seemingly her favored moniker. Only children could have this innocence, and the sudden realization that coming back for her was both fortuitous and almost fateful. A flash of a younger girl streaked across their mind, someone important. Someone from their past, long ago, that they couldn’t quite reach. They were almost at the edge of the light where one of the caravans was held up waiting for the last few survivors to catch up.
“Sister?” they found themselves whispering, as their mind raced to find purchase on the face or the thought itself. The fleeting moment seemed to be sprinting away when Riley’s foot gave out from under them.
“Go Belle! That way,” Riley pointed toward the light as they tried to pull themselves upright.
The small girl looked back, her eyes growing to what seemed to be twice their size, as she let out a shriek only a child could make. She turned and ran as quick as her legs could carry her, as her guide thus far had almost made it to her feet. Riley turned their head over their shoulder, not expecting to stop given Belle’s reaction, but was hit in the throat and felt their windpipe collapse. Their feet, ready to move forward, seemed not to react. Something was wrong.
Taking another moment, a required moment, to check their right leg, it was clear someone had cut straight through the heel. While Riley hadn’t felt it at the time – I swear, that face – it hurt like hell now. The scream, trapped in their throat when the small band of raiders emerged from the trees, felt like it had claws, ripping away at where the air should have been escaping at that moment. The last thing they remembered was a pair of shields emerging at the edge of the light, a pair of bodies. Bartok was there, and Belle would be safe. Everything went a painful black soon afterward.