Monday, November 16, 2015
Yalera the Brave - Prologue and Chapter 1
“I'm always afraid that that cat will eat my poor babies!” Yalena exclaimed, a hand over her heart.
Ronin chuckled heartily, shaking his head. “Shala is harmless!”
“I'm sure you believe that, but she is a mother now, and protecting her babies might make her harm mine,” Yalena insisted anxiously.
Ronin pulled his wife into his arms and held her tight – her back to his chest – as they watched the large cat bathe her cubs. She occasionally gave an affectionate lick to the twin toddlers who were fascinated by the feline mother and babies. The twins – a boy and a girl – were fearless when it came to how dangerous these cats could be.
Yalena shuddered slightly. “My father was almost killed by a smilodon when I was just a little girl. I sincerely wish that you would force that beast back into the forest where it belongs!”
“Yalena...” Ronin murmured, trying to reason with her. “Shala has been my companion since she was mostly a cub herself. I've told you how I rescued her from death by starvation and raised her as a part of my family.”
Yalena sighed in defeat. “Yes, which is why I have tolerated her presence in our home, but still... I cannot help but be afraid of her. … I thought she was the last of her kind...”
“She is, as far as I can determine. We've roamed far and wide trying to find another smilodon as a companion for her, but to no avail. The species had been considered extinct long before I found her; purposely hunted and killed by humans too afraid to know better,” Ronin explained sadly.
“For good reason! Smilodons are extremely dangerous!” Yalena cried out with unshakable belief, then shook her head and sighed. “But obviously, we are both wrong. How else did she manage to have babies?”
Ronin frowned at his wife, concerned that she still held such fears about Shala, despite having lived in peace with the big cat for many years. He kissed her on the cheek. “Actually, I have a theory about that. I think that she mated with the King's lion when we went on that hunting retreat a while back.”
Yalena stroked her chin in thought. “That would certainly explain why the cubs look... muted somehow. Like their coloring has been partially washed away.” She nearly bit her nails as her three year old daughter pulled on Shala's ear hard enough to prompt the cat to growl at her. She held her breath anxiously as Ronin literally held her body. He wanted to prove to her that Shala wouldn't hurt their children. A moment later, Shala stopped growling and gave their daughter a small lick on her cheek.
The little girl responded by grabbing the cat's tongue. Shala flexed her tongue several times and finally nipped the girl gently before she let go, but didn't actually hurt her. The girl screeched in outrage anyway and stomped towards her mother, pointing at the cat as if demanding it be punished for denying her.
Yalena sighed in relief and then chuckled as she scooped her daughter up and bounced her consolingly.
“See?” Ronin stated with a smile. “Harmless.” He laughed softly as he pointed out their son. The small boy was now curled up between the two nursing cubs, Shala absently licking him as he slept.
Yalena abruptly giggled. “I wonder what she will do if he tries to suckle her teats!”
Husband and wife had a good laugh over this as their daughter yawned and drifted off to sleep in her mother's arms. It was their usual nap time and with their tummies full, it was hard to resist the urge to fall asleep.
Yalena set the toddler on their bed, arranging pillows to prevent her from rolling off the edge if she rolled around. The mood grew somber as Yalena picked at her well manicured nails. Finally, she sighed and looked at her husband.
Ronin had been patiently waiting for her to speak her mind, knowing that she was against his plan. He smiled at her now to encourage her to voice her opinions once more. Even so, it took her a moment to organize her thoughts.
“Ronin... you know that I do love you, but... likely not as a wife should love her husband. What I feel for you is a different sort of love. More like I would cherish a dear friend...”
Ronin nodded, neither upset nor pleased by this news. It was no secret; their marriage had been arranged and they had never truly moved beyond the bond of best friends they had shared growing up. He loved and respected her, and had no problems conceiving children with her, but their marriage had never felt like the true love matches that the poets all wrote about.
“I know; I feel the same,” he admitted out loud.
Yalena nodded in satisfaction. “In our marriage, we have been happy because we've never denied each other anything nor had any reason to fight, and so... Though it pains me to do so... I... I'll follow your plan.”
“Yalena...” Ronin put his arms around her again in an attempt to comfort her. “I know you've never been fully happy here on my family lands. You were meant to live at court; honored as the only close cousin of the King.”
“Meanwhile, you were never truly happy at court,” Yalena admitted with a small sigh.
“It only makes sense to separate for now,” Ronin concluded.
“I agree,” Yalena murmured, afraid that he might guess how truly happy she was to have the opportunity to return to the palace at long last. “But my babies...” she voiced her only hesitation to his plan. “They're still so young!”
“You'll have Yemry and Rolanna, it's only fair that I keep the twins,” Ronin pointed out.
“Yemry is 10 and needs to enter the King's service, it's not like I'll truly have him,” Yalena argued. “But it is true that I will have Rolanna.” She sighed as deeply as possible. “And it is also true that I will not truly have time to spend with the twins even if I took them with me. They would simply be left in the care of the Royal nursery. That is the only reason I have agreed to this plan of yours! If I will be too busy teaching Rolanna to be the future bride of the Crown Prince and attending to the Queen as a Lady in Waiting to spend time with my babies, then it makes sense that they stay here with you.”
“Then what's the problem?” Ronin asked, sensing that she wasn't saying something.
“I'm just so afraid that they'll grow up thinking that I don't love them!” Yalena wailed, almost waking the sleeping twins. Shala meowed softly in concern, looking at the couple as if she understood what was going on.
Ronin smiled reassuringly. “Don't worry about that. I'll make sure to tell them everyday how much you love them.”
Yalena was only a tiny bit reassured, but forced herself to smile anyway. “Just as I will make sure that Yemry and Rolanna know how much you love them.”
“And we'll visit each other on alternating holidays,” Ronin suggested as the idea occurred to him.
“Of course!” Yalena agreed, giving him a genuine smile. This suggestion helped put her mind at ease more than the first one. Previously, she felt like she would never see her twins again, but now she knew that she would. As busy as she was going to be, it'd probably feel like no time at all before it was time for a visit. “And Rolanna's birthday. It's only three months away, but there's nothing like a father's embrace to make a girl feel special on her birthday.”
“How time flies,” Ronin murmured, looking to the ceiling as he remembered Rolanna's first six years. “I can't believe that she will be seven already!”
Yalena laughed. “I understand! It's not even 10 whole years now before she's supposed to get married and become the Crown Princess Consort. When I think about it, I feel so proud of her that my heart nearly bursts from happiness!”
Ronin shrugged and changed the subject. “I'm sure Yemry will be happier knowing that you are close by if he needs anything. He's currently excited to be entering the King's service, but very soon, he'll realize that he misses us.”
Yalena giggled softly. “I'm sure he will!” She kissed her husband lightly and rested her head on his shoulder as they hugged. “Just as I am sure I will miss you more than I can possibly suspect.”
“I'm going to miss you like crazy!” Ronin assured her. “Just make sure you come home for a visit on our 11th anniversary in six months. I'll have something special planned...”
“It's a date!” Yalena promised with a joyous smile.
Ronin laughed at his daughter. “Yalera, you can wear pants during practice! I certainly won't tell your mother if you won't!”
Yalera laughed and shook her head at her father's silliness. “Oh daddy! I am wearing pants!”
“You are?!” Both her father and twin brother asked in confusion. She looked like she was wearing a skirt.
Yalera giggled and tugged on her clothing to demonstrate. “I am; see? It's a pair of pants designed to look like a skirt. Mama suggested it the last time we saw her and I mentioned how much I loved to wear skirts but how pants were sometimes more practical.”
“Oh, I see...” Ronin murmured, impressed. The way the garment was designed, Yalera would have plenty of maneuverability if she needed it, and could still pass as a proper lady if she wanted. “You look very pretty, as always.”
Yalera rolled her eyes and smiled at the praise. It was unnecessary in her opinion because she didn't really care about her looks – which was strange because she did have a penchant for fashion. She loved to design and make her own clothes, and often made elaborately frilly clothes for no other reason than she loved to spin around in them and watch them twirl.
Ronin ruffled her hair as he handed her a staff. When he was a child, it had been drilled into him that every man in the country had a responsibility to learn to defend himself and his country. The Kingdom occasionally got into skirmishes with its neighbors, but mostly enjoyed peace. Even so, it was a man's duty to be prepared to go to war if necessary. Especially the nobility.
Each Lord was required to send his oldest son – along with his younger ones if they wanted – to the King at the age of 10 to enter his service. In his service, boys learned advanced weapons techniques and tactics along with leadership. If war ever did break out, they would be expected to be officers in charge of the army.
Commoners – much like the nobility – also sent their sons to specialized training when they weren't busy working. As for the girls, it was understood that they were too important to the future of the Kingdom to risk losing in battle. Any girl that wished to help defend the country was sent to schools of medicine to learn how to treat and heal the wounded.
This had simply been the way things were done ever since the last war ended over a hundred years ago. The Kingdom's unofficial motto was to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. It had served the Kingdom well in keeping the peace for the most part, but the occasional raid from their northern neighbors served to remind them that war was always just around the corner.
When the twins were old enough to hold a staff, Ronin had debated with himself the merits of sending Rohan off to the King's service one day – as it created a relatively close bond with the King that could lead to many opportunities in the future – but ultimately decided that he didn't have the heart to ever separate the twins. So, instead, he chose to personally train his son in the fighting arts, concentrating on the staff and sword. It was especially important since their family's land was situated along the northern border and was at a higher risk of being raided by brutes from the neighboring Kingdom of Nandia.
As usually happened, whatever one twin did, the other insisted on doing too. So, in order to train his son, Ronin found he had no real and productive choice but to train his daughter too. She had surprised him, learning things quickly and well, but thankfully, she didn't seem to want to be one of the rare and highly taboo – but not forbidden – female soldiers.
Yalera was unaware of her father's thoughts as she worked her staff through the basic blocking maneuvers. Even so, hers mirrored his. She wondered what she would ever do if war was declared and her twin brother was sent off to fight. She had no interest in fighting too, but she also couldn't bear to be parted from him. They were halfway between 15 and 16, so she knew they were likely to be separated at some point in the near future – especially if she was expected to marry within the next year or so! – but the possibility was easy to push to the back of her head to avoid thinking about.
Rohan was also quiet as he worked through his sword skills. His troubles had to do with sparring. Out here in the country – almost as far away from the Palace as one could get in the Kingdom – there was no one he could spar with, other than his father. As a result, he felt his skills were stagnating. Even though he had been teased mercilessly when he'd accidentally mentioned it during a visit to court, he sincerely wished that his sister was good with a sword too. She could handle a staff well, and he would trust her to have his back in a fight, but she was hopeless with a sword.
Well, not entirely hopeless. She could disarm him and defend herself with a sword if she absolutely had to, but only if she didn't have a staff around. Better yet, her bow!
As much as he hated to admit it, there was no one better with a bow than his twin. When their father took them hunting, she could single-handedly fill their entire larder! If it was anywhere within range of her bow, she could shoot it. No matter if it ran or if she was on a galloping horse; it was like she was made to be an archer.
“But not me,” Rohan muttered to himself with a sigh.
“Not you what?” Yalera asked curiously.
“Nothing,” Rohan grunted, then amended. “Just wishing I was a better shot.”
Yalera laughed merrily. “Well you can't be great at everything! Otherwise, people would hate you!”
Rohan rolled his eyes but still puffed up in pride that his sister thought he was great at a lot of other things. The two of them were very close, still to this day refusing to do anything without the other. He was lucky in that he would be expected to grow up and grow into a man who could take care of a family before he would be expected to get married, but her...
He bit his lip as he worried about their future. In just a few months, she would officially be old enough to get married, and it was near unheard of for girls to wait until they were older. Not only was it expected that they would do their best to ensure the future of the Kingdom, but – from what he had heard whenever they went to court to visit their mother – most girls were excited to get married and couldn't wait until they turned 16.
How will I ever take care of everything without her? He wondered morosely.
Ever since their father had been accidentally shot while out hunting with the King a couple of years back, he had relied on them to handle most of the things he used to do around their estate. The arrow had pierced his side in a way that should have killed him, but sheer luck had kept him alive. Even so, the way it had healed made it hard for him to walk or ride a horse like he used to. He needed a cane to walk and often had to rest.
This meant that he also couldn't spar much. Even short sessions tugged on his scars and caused him pain. It was frustrating for everybody, especially for a man who had been physically active his whole life. He tried to put on a cheerful face, but his children could see through it. They knew that he wished he could go back in time and decline to join the hunt that day.
Loud yowling interrupted everyone's thoughts. It sounded almost angry and restless, and was echoed a moment later. Yalera laughed as she pointed at the two enormous cats with her staff.
“It sounds like Rune and Yuna are bored and would like to go for a hunt!”
“Even they must love that it's finally spring,” Rohan added with a wry smile.
Their father twisted his lips and gave them a deeply suspicious look. “You both just want to run off and play in the forest, don't you?”
The twins laughed happily at him, Yalera hugging him tight. “You always seem to know what we're thinking!”
Ronin sighed as if disappointed, but it was an act. “Well, I suppose if you must run off and leave me all alone, you might as well inspect the entire estate and see how things are. It's almost time for planting, and I imagine that some of our people will want to report that the animals are almost ready to give birth – if they haven't started already.”
They grinned at him, knowing full well from many years of practice at his side just exactly what needed to be done at this time of year. Once they left, they'd be gone for nearly two weeks as they literally inspected every square foot of their land and talked to the people that lived there and worked for them. While they worked, he would be here in their manor taking inventory of what was left over from last fall and what needed to be done, replaced, or repaired.
Ronin rolled his eyes and tilted his head toward the stables. “Go on now! Before I change my mind!” He joked, knowing that they had to do this no matter how much he made it sound like their idea of fun rather than their duty.
The twins each hugged him for a moment before running off to pack their saddlebags. As much as they really did have to work, this was also more or less a camping trip, and both of them loved to camp. Sleeping under the stars – even in the still frigid night air – was close to their idea of heaven.
In their room, they hastily packed everything they'd need, nearly giggling in their excitement. Just a few short minutes later, they were racing each other to the stables, their gigantic smilodons following them with joyous yowls.
The two cats had been the twins' constant companions ever since the cats were born. Both were female and noticeably larger than their mother had been before she died. Each large cat was approximately 10 feet long with another two feet of tail. They stood four feet from their broad shoulders to ground, which made their heads nearly eye level with the twins. At more than 800 pounds, these cats were massive! Thankfully, they got along just fine with their horses and livestock. It'd be a nightmare if the animals were constantly afraid of them!
“I think Rune smells prey,” Rohan informed his sister not quite 10 minutes into their journey. His cat licked her lips as if she was confirming his statement. Two long fangs protruded from her mouth, resembling a snake getting ready to bite.
Yalera nodded in agreement. “Yes, Yuna seems interested in something too. Go on girl! Go catch some prey!” Rohan also gave a short command to encourage the cats to run off and do their own thing for a while.
With a pleased meow, the cats stalked away. It was obvious that they were working together to sneak up on whatever had caught their interest. As big as they were, they needed to eat a lot of meat, which meant that they went hunting frequently. It was very good for them that there were elk and buffalo roaming the area in large herds with very little else preying on them.
The twins rode on, certain that their pets would find them no matter where they went.
A week later, Yalera groaned as she realized that she was too awake to go back to sleep. She was not truly a morning person and resisted getting up as long as she possibly could. The morning air was cold because the fire had died down, and the cocoon of blankets surrounding her and her brother was so warm in comparison. She snuggled closer to her twin and vowed to go back to sleep.
Until her body reminded her that if she didn't get up, she'd make a mess in their bedding. With another reluctant groan, she tried to wiggle out of the blankets without letting in too much cold air or waking up her brother. He startled her by laughing.
“I am a morning person, remember? I've been patiently waiting for you to wake up so that I didn't wake you!” He informed her with another laugh.
“It's barely light out!” She said with a grimace, pointing towards the beautifully painted sky where a sliver of the sun could be seen glowing vibrantly in the distance.
“That may be true, but the birds have been crooning a love song to the sun for at least an hour!” Rohan said with a grin. He loved to lay in bed listening to the birds sing before everyone got up in the mornings and drowned out their song.
Yalera rolled her eyes, still too tired to care. She crawled out of their cocoon and wobbled slightly as she got to her feet. A moment later, she located a bush to provide a modicum of privacy as she took care of an urgent bodily need.
“I'm surprised Rune and Yuna didn't come back last night,” Rohan murmured conversationally as he watered a nearby tree.
“I'm not,” Yalera responded with a chuckle. “They've been mostly cooped up for months, only going outside to hunt when they had to. I'm sure they're having fun running around, and... well, maybe they're searching for mates. It is spring after all.”
Rohan sighed just a bit sadly. “Too bad there aren't any mates for them. I'd love to have some cubs around here to play with.”
“Me too!” Yalera fervently agreed, feeling more awake now. She stepped out from behind the bush to smile at her brother. “I'll make breakfast if you reawaken the fire.”
“Deal!” He agreed before rushing off to find some firewood.
An hour later, they were full. Their breakfast had been simple; eggs given to them by a farmer they'd talked to the day before. Yalera sighed in contentment.
“Goose eggs are my favorite! They're so creamy and delicious!”
“I know!” Rohan agreed with a laugh. He carefully put out the fire and covered it with dirt until he was certain that it could not accidentally start the forest on fire. Meanwhile, Yalera busied herself putting everything back in their saddlebags.
Suddenly, a piercing scream rang through the air, which made the twins realize that it had gotten eerily quiet. They hurriedly grabbed their weapons and mounted their horses – mentally vowing to come back for their belongings later. They didn't even bother to saddle the horses, and soon raced towards the sound of the echoing screams.
Just outside the forest was a clearing containing two farm houses. Both houses belonged to one family that had lived in this area for nearly as long as their family had owned the land. Normally, the houses were bustling with activity from the 20 or so children, but currently, both were on fire. The many children were screaming and running around frantically.
A woman was screaming loudly as she was being dragged to a barn, and from the sound of it, there was another woman or two screaming from inside the barn. The cause of all this terror and frenzy was a band of at least 15 men – that they could see – who were grabbing livestock and killing anything that resisted.
Fear made the blood run cold in the twins' veins, but they knew they had to do something. Fast! Without a second thought, Yalera grabbed an arrow from her quiver, aimed, and shot the nearest raider. By his apparel, he was from the neighboring Kingdom. He looked at the arrow in his chest in surprise for a moment before falling to the ground.
Yalera couldn't let herself think about what had just happened. She needed to concentrate on defending her brother, who was busy using his horse and sword like a brave knight to encourage the raiders to flee. He swung his sword at the back of a man's neck, and then kept on riding before he could see the head fall to the ground.
Yalera shuddered even as she aimed an arrow at a raider who was rushing to attack her twin. Between the two of them, they were doing a fairly decent job – for the moment – but they both knew that if the raiders grouped together... Well, two half trained noble children were no match for a group of hardened raiders. It was a miracle they had survived this long!
Their worst fears were realized a minute later when the leader of the raiders called out a command for them to rally around him. The odds were soon definite; a baker's dozen to two. The situation seemed hopeless. Yalera quickly shot another man, signaling her horse with her knees to keep moving so that she was a harder target to hit.
Loud roaring nearly made the twins cry in relief. Yuna raced out of the forest and placed herself between Yalera and the raiders while Rune did the same thing to protect Rohan. The two cats continued to roar threateningly.
The raiders visibly whitened, all looking at each other as if asking what to do. No one had ever seen cats this big before! The leader had experience hunting mountain lions, so he signaled to his men to stand their ground.
As if they understood this signal, the smilodons leapt high into the air and knocked a couple of the men to the ground. They sunk their long fangs into the necks and shoulders of their victims, shaking their heads powerfully once each before moving on to the next man.
Yalera and Rohan took courage from the fact that the raiders were now the ones screaming in terror. The twins continued to fight, only now they were as confident as if they had an entire army under their command. Some of the older farm children gathered their courage up as well and threw rocks at the raiders, roaring as powerfully as they could.
Enough time had passed since the very first scream rang out that some of the younger children had managed to summon help from their closest neighbors. Men and women ran flat out, some holding pitch forks or scythes. They arrived just in time to see the last raider fall to the ground. The wisest of them ordered everyone to check the fallen raiders to be certain they were dead.
Meanwhile, Yalera wanted to see for herself why the women who had been dragged into the barn hadn't come back out. She was more than a little afraid that there were a few more raiders in there keeping the women captive. With extreme caution, she urged her horse into the barn as she held her bow at the ready. There were no raiders, but what she saw made her sick!
Rohan gasped in horror just as Yalera jumped down from her horse and vomited into a pile of straw. Two women were dead, naked and bloody between their legs. A third woman – girl really as she looked barely older than Yalera – held her knees to her naked chest and rocked as she stared at nothing. A puddle of blood under her testified that she had also been sorely abused. Just beyond her vacant gaze lay two dead little girls in the same condition as the others.
“By the Gods!” Yalera cried out emotionally. “Who could do such a terrible thing?!”
No one had an answer for her question, but a strong willed matron stepped into the barn to give them a report. “Young Master, my Lady, the raiders are all dead and we are working quickly to put out the fires and save the houses. Allow me to take charge of poor Vella here; she knows me and I can help her. Why don't the two of you go help round up the children and see if you can calm them down?”
Yalera nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks as she stared at the battered bodies of the little girls. Rohan put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her back a step. He rested his head on her back.
“Don't look at them,” he ordered her. “Looking at them makes knowing what happened all that much harder to cope with. Don't look...”
“Why Rohan?!” Yalera wailed, turning to bury her face in his shoulder. “Why did they have to do this? If all they were really after was livestock and anything of value, why did they have to do this???”
“I don't know,” Rohan murmured helplessly.
“Because they are godless and soulless demons who don't care about innocent human lives!” The old woman hissed, spitting over her shoulder to ward off evil. She was now holding Vella and stroking her hair as she tried to take off her warm coat and put it on Vella.
“But why...?” Yalera asked softly, unable to understand this concept.
Rohan shook his head and pulled her out of the barn. “Come on. We have to make sure the children are all accounted for.”
They were silent as they gathered up the younger children – the surviving older children were helping to put out the fires. A girl of about ten told them that five children were missing. She described them all in detail. Yalera almost started crying again when two of the described children were the girls who were dead in the barn.
Two more were babies who were very likely still inside the houses. Rohan closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as he ran to inform the leader of the fire brigade of this. But that still left one missing child; a boy of around three years old.
Yalera steeled herself to not think of all the things that could have happened to him and ordered the children between the ages of 8 and 10 to search the surrounding forest for him. Then she made the ones between the ages of 4 and 7 promise to stay right where they were. They all meekly agreed because they were emotionally numb as they stared at their burning homes.
“Rohan, I'm going to take Yuna and Rune and help search for the missing boy,” she stated, determined to find him.
“I'll search too,” Rohan replied, glad to have something useful to do.
Hours passed as they searched. Enough that the fires were put out completely. Thankfully, despite being hard to put out, the fires were not able to destroy everything. A good half of each house survived, and though what was left smelled sickeningly of smoke, at least the survivors had some clothing to wear and beds to sleep in.
The day slowly turned to dusk, and still the boy was missing. During one trip to ask if he had turned up, Yalera learned that both babies had died in the fire. The two middle aged brothers who worked this particular farm had both been killed in their sleep – likely the first casualties of the attack. The dead women were their wives. The eldest two boys had died trying to defend their homes. Another girl around Yalera's age had died fighting before the raiders could drag her out of her bedroom. Finally, the two dead girls in the barn brought the total of victims to 11 – not counting the missing boy.
Yalera vowed to find him no matter what it took!
Just as her stomach growled ferociously to remind that she hadn't eaten since breakfast, a 12 year old neighbor girl came running through the forest. She shouted: “I found him!” repeatedly. Everyone gathered around and literally cried in relief that he was alive and unharmed.
“He was hiding in a log and fell asleep,” the girl explained, laughing and crying at the same time.
“What do we do now?” Yalera wondered tiredly.
“Sleep,” the wise old neighbor commanded knowingly. He pointed in the general direction of their manor. “I've already sent one of my sons to tell your father what happened here today, so there's no use in thinking that you have to ride home this very moment. You two just need to eat, rest, and things will seem better in the morning.”
Rohan nodded in agreement, murmuring his thanks. Another man – this one in his 30s – put a hand on Rohan's shoulder. “We're grateful to you for stopping the raiders. Only the Gods know how much worse things could have been. Don't worry about your belongings, we've gathered them up and brought them to our farm while everyone was out searching for the missing boy. All you two need to do now is come to our place. My wife has made a nourishing stew, and we have a place for you both to sleep.”
“Thanks,” Rohan responded sincerely.
He looked to his sister, unconsciously leaving the decision up to her. She nodded in agreement, then squeezed his hand. The two of them had been holding hands ever since the boy was found as the small gestured seemed to bring comfort to both of them. It was a long habit of theirs that whenever they felt scared or upset, they'd simply hold hands and the world would suddenly seem better.
In the morning, after a somber but hearty breakfast, the twins resumed their journey, half afraid that they would come across another raid. It took them a bit longer than normal to finish their yearly inspection because they were both preoccupied with what had happened, but eventually, they returned home.
Their father rushed to hug them both, nearly squeezing them to death in the process. “I am so proud of you two! When I heard what happened... Don't worry about that family any more. I sent two older couples to that farm to take care of the children and several men to help rebuild what was lost. It'll never be the same, of course, but hopefully things will be back to almost normal as soon as possible.”
“That farm is right on the border of our Kingdom and the Kingdom to our north; Nandia,” Rohan reminded his father. “It's the first one available to be raided... what if others come looking for the ones we killed?”
Ronin sighed, troubled. “Well, if the past is any indication, the raiders don't like to invade the same place twice. They rely on the fact that their victims won't be prepared for an attack, and so wait at least five years before visiting the same place again. Even then, they like to focus on places where they obtained a lot of loot. I'm almost certain that the fact they lost an entire band here means that they'll consider this a place to avoid.”
“What if they don't?” Yalera asked. She felt tears sing her eyes. “You didn't see what they did! What if others decide to come to avenge the ones we killed? They could hurt so many others!” She burst into sobs, unable to banish the vision of dead little girls from her mind.
Rohan grabbed hold of her hand and squeezed it tight as their father held Yalera in his strong arms. Yalera gripped her father's shirt with her free hand as she sobbed into his chest. He stroked her hair and made soothing noises.
Rohan did a better job of holding back the tears, but a couple of them still fell silently from his eyes. His father noticed this and felt the blood drain from his face. If his son was this close to crying, then the situation must have been worse than he'd thought!
“Hey...” Ronin murmured softly, putting a hand on his son's shoulder. “What's wrong?”
“We killed them!” Rohan cried out in anguish. “They may be soulless demons, but they look like regular men and we killed them!”
“Son... you were defending our people,” Ronin assured him. “You did the right thing.”
“I know, but still...” Rohan murmured, looking down so that his father wouldn't see his tears.
“We've never taken a human life before,” Yalera added, crying. “And yet we just did it. Like it was no big deal.” She sniffed a couple of times to clear up her breathing, and then pulled out of her father's arms. “I saw what they did... I saw how they... hurt... those poor little girls. I know that they deserved to die, but still...”
“The raiders have never come here before,” Rohan finished explaining, trying hard to calm down. “We weren't prepared for that.”
Ronin hugged both of his children once again but said nothing. There was nothing he could say that would make them feel better, so he simply held them tight.