Da’hrisjah was burning. The air was thick with acrid smoke. The populace was fleeing in droves. Maejo and I took to the streets. There was a frightening rumor that R’Nonay was invading. I stood on the boulevard and looked west. Holy Hill was engulfed in flames and smoke.
Maejo took my hand and pulled me from the avenue to an alley.
“It’s started!” he said. “The Resistance never came back. Why?”
A soldier ran past, his curved sword gory.
“People are dying,” he said. “A lot more will die in this chaos. Perhaps we can go to my aunt’s villa?”
I pulled my hand free. “I am not leaving!”
“Think, Yhera! If R’Nonay is here, there would surely be rapine and looting and the rape of women.”
I tamped down the fear that had gripped me since we had smelled smoke.
“We have to find members of the Resistance!” I told him.
I coughed. The smoke was getting thicker.
“Where do you usually meet up with them?” he asked.
“In my room or the university.”
“Then let’s go to the university.”
We headed opposite the fleeing crowds. The screaming, panicking crowd was headed to the eastern gate. The university was located halfway between the eastern gate and the western gate. We walked along the edges of the boulevard while most of the denizens of the city were running along middle of the road. People abandoned their wagons and carriages on the road and continued on foot towards the gates. The closer we came to the university, the thinner the crowds got.
Finally, the university came into view. Its grounds looked deserted. I led Maejo down the paved path leading from the boulevard to the main building. We hurried to the main entrance. I tried the doors and found them locked.
I let out a frustrated huff and turned to Maejo.
He was looking over his shoulder at a troop of mounted R’Nonayan soldiers cantering past. They paid us no mind
Maejo looked back at me. “We should leave, too, Yhera.”
“You can leave if you want to.”
“What in hells do you think you can accomplish in this mess?”
I straightened my back. “I can help save people.”
“Not without the Resistance, and we can’t determine where they are!”
I pushed past him and strode down the paved walkway. I heard him hurrying to catch up with me.
He tried to take my hand and I pulled it free, turning to him. “You can leave; I already told you that.”
“We’re a team,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry. But I want to make sure we survive.”
I allowed my shoulders to droop. “You don’t need to apologize. Everyone is afraid, including me.”
He took my hand, and we began to walk back to the avenue. The smoke was thick over the city. Distances grew hazy. The air was acrid and hard to breathe. We stopped at the avenue, gazing at stragglers.
He turned to me. “What now?”
I shook my head. “I don’t known.”
His lips quirked. “I thought you were going to say we should head to Holy Hill.”
I looked towards the west, but the haze obscured the hill.
“We should go to your aunt’s orchards,” I told him. “Help defend it, if it comes to that.”
He nodded and we headed east. I could hear screaming in the distance. I went hot and cold. The first abandoned wagon we came to, we hopped onto the wagon seat and Maejo picked up the reins and snapped. The animals lurched forward. Maejo turned the wagon around.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
` “We’ll go via the southern gate. It’s closer.”
We passed the university again and I looked longingly at the buildings. We came to an adjacent street and Maejo turned the wagon south along it. We began to pass people walking in pairs or in groups, carrying their belongings. My heart gave a sickening thump. We had to stop when we came within half a sepek of the gate. A throng of people stood in the middle of the road. I stood up and gazed towards the gate.
“It will do you no good,” a woman told us. “The gate is locked. And the guards are gone.”
“How are the other gates?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “Locked, too, I’ll bet. The R’Nonayans came through the western gate. I’d avoid that gate if I were you.”
She turned away and went back to her group.
I sat down abruptly. “The only thing we can do is head back to my apartment,” I told Maejo.
He gnawed his lower lip. “I suppose. I’m worried about my family.”
“And well you should be,” I told him. “We can try tomorrow again.”
He nodded and turned the wagon around. By the time we reached the area where I lived, the air was soupy with ash. We were coughing almost constantly, and our eyes wept. Abandoning the wagon on the boulevard, we headed down an alley to the house where I lived. The front door was locked. I pounded on the door.
“Enah!” I yelled.
I pounded again.
“Enah! It’s Yhera!”
I heard the bolt releasing. Enah poked her head out.
“Yhera-girl! Why did you leave your rooms?”
“Don’t know,” I murmured and entered, making sure she allowed Maejo to enter after me.
“What is the news?” she asked. “Is it true about R’Nonay?”
I sighed. “We saw a troop of R’Nonayan soldiers ride past the university. It might be true, Enah.”
She gasped and made a sign against evil. “Goddess protect us!”
“Holy Hill is on fire,” Maejo put in.
Enah wrapped her arms around her torso. “Oh, these are dark days.”
I turned to Maejo. “Come, let us head up.”
We made it to my rooms without anyone asking for news. Inside my rooms, the windows were open and letting in the acrid air. I hurried to close the shutters. Maejo helped me.
We pulled the couch over to the window and gazed out through the glass, but it was hard to see. More and more soldiers hurried by, most on foot. The R’Nonayans seemed to be the only soldiers mounted.
“We’ll starve here,” I said in a small voice.
Maejo sighed. “Things will normalize in time. But the question is, how long before they do?”
“I won’t live under a patriarchal dictatorship, Maejo. Women are seen as playthings and belongings in R’Nonay. Our rights will be stripped away.”
“We’ll leave. My aunt will insist. We can go to Torahn.”
I shuddered and he slipped his arm around my shoulders.
“Don’t worry, Yhera. Worrying helps nothing.”
I felt my throat constrict with the need to weep. He hugged me and I laid my cheek on his shoulder.
“Have faith,” he murmured.
I nodded mutely.
That night we lay on my bed and held each other. We could hear screams in the distance and the sound of skirmishes. At one point, we heard glass shatter and I sat up with a gasp, hurrying to the window. The streets outside were black. No one had lit the street lamps. I saw people carrying torches aloft. I could not tell what they were doing.
“Can you see?” Maejo asked from the bed.
“No. Some people carrying torches, but I can’t tell what they’re doing.”
A woman screamed in the distance.
I stiffened. “Goddess! Why are people still in the streets?”
“Shut the drapes, Yhera,” he said. “Don’t give them a reason to come up here.”
I did as he asked and then returned to the bed.
“In the morning, we’ll try leaving the city once more,” Maejo murmured. “Perhaps things will normalize by then.”
I slept in fits and starts. Eventually, near sun up, the city grew eerily quiet. I did not know which was worse, the frenetic moving about of people or this tomblike silence.
We rose and dressed for the day. I really needed a bath, but I did not want to be away from Maejo for any period. I did not know what I would do if he disappeared.
“Let’s try to head to the southern gate once more,” he told me.
I held my hand out and he took it. Together we headed into the hallway and made out way to the main floor of the house. It was there that we found Enah and most of her tenants breaking their fast.
She came to me wordlessly and hugged me. I stiffened, shoving down the overwhelming hysteria that wanted to take over. I hugged her back.
“I’ve made breakfast. Eat, both of you, please.”
Breakfast turned out to be boiled grains with tah’lir’s milk, tza nuts and bala berries. I scooped the cereal into a bowl and handed it to Maejo before I served myself.
He murmured a quiet thank you.
We sat on two straight backed wooden chairs and the congregation continued its conversation.
“I went out there last night after midnight,” one gangly tenant said. “The soldiers were raping women and killing anything they could find. I also saw looting. They were feral, with torchers, like out of some nightmare. The R’Nonayans seemed to be in control, but it was hard to tell. I got out of there and made it back here before I got noticed.”
Enah shivered. “There hasn’t been the rape of a woman on Tjish.unen soil in over 2,000 years.”
I shuddered and lowered my bowl to my lap.
“You should eat,” Maejo whispered to me. “We must keep our energy up.”
An old man who lived on the second floor looked towards us.
“Do as the lad says, lass,” he said. “He’s right. There will be a shortage of food now. This is just the beginning.”
I began to eat without tasting. I felt numb.
Enah walked to where I sat and knelt. “What are your plans, Yhera?”
I looked to Maejo.
“My aunt lives in an orchard in the south,” he answered for me. “We were going to try to head there.”
After a moment, Enah nodded. “I’m leaving. Heading south, too, away from here.”
“But the gates were locked!” I told her.
She shook her head. “They opened the gates not more than two hours ago. Lec’lo there saw it.”
The gangly tenant nodded. “I saw it, lass. People were leaving in droves. No one is manning the walls. It is complete chaos. It will be a gauntlet for you, from here to the southern gate. If you survive, you might just make it.”
“We’ll survive,” Maejo stated firmly.
Enah stood up. “If it doesn’t work for you here, Yhera, come find me in Rah’slah. I own a house there. Lec’lo here will take over running this house. He wants to stay.”
I looked at Lec’lo. He inclined his head.
The old man shifted. “We’re all staying, lass. I’m too old to travel. I’ll see normalcy return.”
I reached out and took Enah’s hand. “Thank you, Enah.”
I released her hand and rose. “We should go and pack, Maejo. Then we should head south.”
He rose and we handed Enah our empty bowls.
“Thank you for everything,” Maejo told her.
I packed five outfits and two boots, and Maejo took up his bag. We headed downstairs once more.
The tenants had dispersed. The air outside was still sour from yesterday’s fires. We tied bandanas around our mouths and noses before heading southeast. The streets remained quiet. We hurried, hugging close to the edge of the street in case we needed to duck into an alley. We passed several corpses – soldiers with gaping wounds and young women with bloodied skirts. I paused at the piping cry of a child. I headed to the alley, towards the cry.
“Where are you going?” Maejo hissed.
I did not look at him. “I need to know if I can help.”
He cursed under his breath but followed me.
I entered the alley. Dasja scurried before me, chittering as they ran.
I heard the thin cry again and followed it to the side of tall boxes filled with garbage.
I handed Maejo my bag and squatted over the filthy alley floor. The babe was a newborn, wrapped in a filthy blanket. I parted the blanket and saw he was a male babe. He had dasja bites all over his thin arms.
“A male,” I told Maejo.
I wrapped the child once more and rose. “I won’t leave him here.”
“No, I guessed already,” he told me, his lips quirking. “Besides the dasja would probably eat him.”
The babe settled down, cheek against my chest.
We continued our journey southeast.
We came to the southern gate. R’Nonayan soldiers guarded the gates.
“Where are you going to?” one of them demanded.
“My aunt’s villa,” Maejo replied.
I kept my eyes on the ground.
“You, girl! What’s your name?” another guard demanded.
I started and gazed up at him. “Yhera.”
He nodded. “One of our generals is looking for a red-headed girl. Seems he knows her. Come, you must come with me.”
I looked at Maejo.
Maejo stiffened. “I will go with her. I won’t part with her.”
The guard showed his teeth. “No, she’s quite comely. I don’t fault you. Well, this way then.”
We followed him back towards the boulevard, two other guards at our back.