I returned home as the orange sun started to touch the tops of the trees and the smallest stones and blades of grass cast long shadows.
“Where have you been?” exclaimed my mother. She looked at me. My tunic and trousers were stained with dirt and rust. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said not to go clambering about in the ruins. I’ve told you about my friend haven’t I? Who got a tiny cut on a bit of metal and died a week later? She was your age and she died twitching and…”
She was still talking, but I stopped paying attention. I was hungry and tired from the day’s exploring. I only tuned back in when she lowered her voice again.
“…why I bother sometimes. Now, get undressed. You’ve got to have a bath before we eat. You’ll be the one washing those clothes tomorrow.”
But before I could even begin, the sound of a long, high horn sounded, muffled by the walls of the house. Then again and again. It was the watch Darro had set only a few days earlier. My mother stopped still, her eyes wide. The horn blasts were more and more frantic.
My mother made a panicked sort of squeak. She grabbed a knife from the table and took me by the scruff of the neck, dragging me outside. The sky was a dark blue now; the sun had just set. Against the dark purple, buildings in the village centre across the field were ablaze. Yellow flames and black smoke was starting to climb its way to the sky.
But that wasn’t all. I followed the smoke higher and higher. The sky was alive. There were more moving stars than stationary. Hundreds, maybe more. Some bright, some barely visible. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve and she looked up.
“Oh Refugees, preserve us,” she whispered. She barely even seemed to notice Darro, Selli and three servants from the manor come rushing down the road towards us.
“Go!” cried Darro. “Run! To the forest!”
The horn had fallen silent. My mother seemed to shake herself back to reality. She took my arm and sprinted with me. My legs were too short and I was stumbling as we ran. My feet barely touched the ground as she half-carried me one-handed by my forearm.
The forest loomed ahead of us, silhouetted against the deep, dark sky behind it. Blacker than black yawned the parting between the trees where the road lead, our safety. But then from deep within, specks of yellow light. Torches. Back towards the village, men on horseback were charging along the road, setting fire to every house.
“We’re trapped,” said Darro. He looked left and right amongst the ruins on either side of the road, looking for somewhere to hide us, but this close to the road the structures were all too low.
I raised my voice. “I found a hole underground earlier,” I said. “I was going to show Selli.” Darro’s head snapped around to stare at me. His eyes were wide.
“Where?” His voice was quivering and hoarse.
“Over there.” I pointed to where I had been such a short time beforehand.
“Show us!” he exclaimed. “Quickly!”
Lit only by the light of the thin moons and the abundance of the bright moving stars I led the way, scrambling over the familiar rubble in the gloom. The adults behind me were struggling. My mother’s dress and Darro’s robe snagged on jutting metal rods.
I hopped lightly onto a low wall, then tripped and went sprawling. I put my hands out beneath me to catch myself and felt a sharp stab of pain. There was a shard of glass on the floor. I cried out, then realised what I’d done and shut my mouth, forcing myself to be as silent as I could, breathing heavily through my nose and fighting back tears. But the damage was done. In seconds, men on horses and carrying torches galloped up the road to about the point where we left it. Their voices were harsh and they were gesturing in roughly our direction.
“Jorj!” hissed my mother. She picked me up with her strong arms and pulled me to where the others were crouched. Selli had her hand over her own mouth as though scared she would scream. One of the servants was gently trying to reassure her.
“The tube!” I whispered. There it was, right next to us.
“What?” asked Darro, his voice so hushed I could barely hear him.
“The tube, it leads to the hole,” I replied.
Over by the road, the raiders were holding their torches aloft, peering our way. One of them dismounted, then started to clamber towards us. The flickering light cast by his torch got nearer and nearer, threatening to expose us behind our poor cover.
I could hear the approaching man’s footsteps now. Darro drew a dagger from a sheath on his belt and took a deep breath.
“When I tell you to, I want you all to follow that to Jorj’s hole,” he whispered. “I’ll hold this one off, but you have to go. Nia,” he said, speaking to my mother, “if your husband or Dyamma are alive, find them and keep Selli and Jorj safe. Get ready.”
My heart pounded in my chest and I tensed, prepared to leap up and run on Darro’s word. The pain in my hand already seemed barely noticeable.
But before he could say another word, there was a brilliant flash like lightning. It was as though the night was banished, but the light did not fade. From the West, a white fireball streaked slowly across the night sky. Everyone gasped and the man pursuing us whipped around in confusion to see the sudden new spectacle.
Darro saw his chance and took it. “Go!” he shouted at us, and charged the man. We leapt up and ran. I looked back over my shoulder as we fled.
Darro was too slow. The raider turned in time and dropped his torch. He grabbed Darro’s hand that held the knife, and in the new light I saw him clearly for the first time. He was wearing Berrumin style clothing, but there was no mistaking him. It was Dyamma, my father’s fellow Triarch of the village.
Dyamma twisted Darro’s arm to the side and then around. He put his free hand around the back of Darro’s neck and drove him onto his own blade. Darro collapsed to the floor, spluttering and gasping as the bolt from the sky finally faded like a cooling ember as it rushed silently away to the East and the night returned. Dyamma turned back to look at it fade, then retrieved his torch on the ground and stepped primly over Darro’s body.
“Wait!” he said. “Selli! Come here! I won’t hurt you! I need to speak to you!” He drew his sword and he marched briskly towards us, stepping over the wall we had used as cover. There was nowhere to hide, no way to lose him now he had seen us. Selli was being carried by one of the servants up at the front. My mother pushed me on ahead of her as we followed the tube in the suddenly returned darkness. I could hardly see; my eyes were still unadjusted back to the gloom. Dyamma was gaining on us, and more of the men from the road were now amongst the ruins, gingerly picking their way through.
A second flash lit up the sky and another fireball descended, this time directly overhead, accompanied by a deep, booming roar. Selli screamed. Dyamma halted and cowered, dropping his sword to the ground and throwing a hand over his face as though to defend himself.
The hole was just up ahead, but it was no use: Dyamma could see us. There was nowhere to run where he couldn’t follow.
The fireball faded as the last one had, and the roaring sound faded with it. But there in the sky, slowing to a gradual halt directly above the burning village was a steady light, not fiery, but focussed. Though the roaring was gone, it was replaced by a hum like a swarm of bees, but higher pitched. It hung in the air almost motionless but shining a cone of light down to the ground, searching.
The light turned towards us. Dyamma stood with his back to us, silhouetted. Then he seemed to jerk and clutched his leg before falling to the ground.
My mother was whimpering with fright. It was contagious, and the sight of her fear seemed to bring up my own. Landisilo, Berruma… none of it mattered. The moving stars were falling.
A third flash lit up the whole sky once again, this time behind where we stood. But as I turned to face it, I felt a sharp sting in my thigh. The pain faded almost instantly and I felt uncontrollably tired. I fell to the ground, suddenly weak-legged. My thoughts flew away and everything faded to black.