Hannah dragged the last of her washing from the strong currents of the river, then wrung it all out giving the clothing an occasional slap against the smooth rocks scattered along the river bank. She gathered it all up and placed it in her basket which she tucked under her arm as she turned to head back home. She paused and looked out across the river, beyond its banks, beyond the fields and pastures, beyond the very land itself as her eyes became fixed on the sky and the darkening horizon. She pulled her woollen wrap tighter around her neck as an involuntary shiver ran through her body when her eyes met with the tiny plumes of smoke that could barely be discerned several miles away in the distance – they were getting closer as each day passed – she turned her back on this ominous sight and hurried back through a small forest until she reached the glade where her home was.
Her two children were busy playing just outside the family’s log built house, both being watched over by their grandmother, Editha. When she saw Hannah approach with her laundry basket she stopped the gentle swaying of her rocking chair and stood up. They both looked nervously at each other when Editha joined Hannah at the washing line. Hannah breathed a sigh of relief as she placed the heavy washing basket on the ground, then she, with the help of Editha, began hanging up the wet clothes. Editha gave Hannah a questioning look as she pinned some washing up, Hannah caught her look from the corner of her eye and turned to face her.
“Yes Mama, the smoke is getting closer,” said Hannah in answer. “We should not remain here much longer, certainly no more than another day.”
“Hannah!?” Editha said, with caution in her voice. She placed her hand on her daughter’s arm.
Hannah checked herself from yet another emotional breakdown, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply as she pointed her head skyward, giving herself a moment to think.
“No Mama! We cannot stay here,” said Hannah, finally opening her eyes and regarding her mother. “It isn’t easy for me to place all my faith in a forgotten legend as readily and as easily as you can.”
Editha looked sympathetically at Hannah and gave a weak smile as she rubbed her daughter’s arm affectionately.
“My child. Just because something is unseen or unknown doesn’t make it any less real.”
“Mother!” Exclaimed Hannah in a voice pitched higher than expected making her sound frantic and out of control. She quickly adjusted herself then gave a quick glance at the children who had stopped playing to stare at her when they heard their mother’s rather too loud voice.
“It’s fine children, I’m just talking with your grandmother.” Hannah’s voice was back to normal and sounded like their mother once again. “Carry on playing nicely, I’ll make supper soon.”
The children held her gaze for a moment then continued their playing, but occasionally looked round to their mother to see what she was doing.
Hannah reached down to the wash basket and pulled another item of clothing out and began hanging it up. When she had it in place she used it to cover her face from the children as she looked at Editha.
“Mama. We are not remaining here in the hope that a fantasy figure will return to be our salvation,” said Hannah in a lowered voice. “Where was he when Fendrel was killed and left me husbandless and the children fatherless? Where was he Mama? Is it not enough that one of our family has died, and yet your belief would have me place myself, my children in harms way?! No Mama, we will stay another day at the most but then we must all flee, flee in the opposite direction of the approaching smoke.”
Hannah clutched at the washing covering her face with trembling hands as tears began streaming down her cheeks.
“I can’t do it Mama! I just can’t.”
Editha looked round the hanging washing at the children, they were busy in their own world of play.
“Hannah,” she said, whispering. “Don’t fret child. We will all do what you want, if you think it best that we all flee, then flee we will. But don’t scold an old lady because of her knowledge or beliefs. . .I have only our best interests at heart, as do you.”
Hannah wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and smiled apologetically at Editha.
“I know Mama, I know. I don’t mean to doubt you – really I don’t – or your long held beliefs. But I don’t have your faith I’m afraid. I can’t just stay here and wait, wait in the hope of the fabled return of a long forgotten hero. I believe that if we remain here, then we will all perish. My instincts alone are screaming at me to flee. I must obey my heart – it tells me to go.”
They hugged each other supportively and washed away any conflict building up between them.
“I know you think I’m a crazy old woman, an old woman who places far too much stock in old wives tales and folklore,” said Editha as they pulled apart. “But I have seen too much in my life, seen things that perhaps I shouldn’t have, seen things I am at a loss to explain – let alone understand! And each and every one of them has done nothing but reinforce my faith, my belief, that there is another power acting upon this world, a power we can neither see nor touch, but a power that is real nonetheless. No doubt have I in my mind that he will come in the hour of our utmost need, when there is nothing left but darkness and despair and drive it all away. This isn’t about the salvation of one, Hannah, but a nation, a country, a people! Fendrel died doing what he believed to be the right thing, to fight defending his family, his people, his country. I know it isn’t fair that he was taken from us, I miss him too – he was a good man – a good husband and father. And let us not forget that there is no proof that he is in fact dead! But the bigger picture is sometimes hidden from us as to why certain things must happen, but light will always follow darkness – it is the way of things. He will come Hannah. I believe it in my heart. . .Stormhelm will come.”
Hannah stifled a hysterical laugh.
“Well he better come sooner rather than later Mama, otherwise there will be no one left to see your light after the darkness!”
“Hannah! Do not make fun of me like that, I don’t deserve it.” Editha kept her voice low but losing none of its parental authority.
Hannah reached out and touched her mother’s face with the palm of her hand.
“Mama, I am not making fun of you, nor do I think you to be a crazy old woman,” said Hannah, tenderly, as more tears began to flow down her face. “I am doing my best to hold on to my own belief that all of us will be kept safe from harm and survive. Do you know how terrified I feel inside? My nerves are on a knife edge, I am barely able to hold myself together with all that’s happening. I know we must all flee, but after that I have no idea what to do, where will we go? Where we will sleep? What do we eat once our supplies run out? I need real guidance Mama, not some ancient prophecy that speaks of a long dead hero and his timely return. Right here and now that is not going to help us. Is it, Mama?”
Editha could sense her daughter was on the verge of breaking down again, she quickly reached up to her face and removed Hannah’s hand, taking holding of it with both of hers.
“Hannah! Listen to me very carefully. We are all going to survive this war, all of us!” Editha’s eyes peered penetratively into Hannah’s and held them steady.
“We take one day at a time and adapt to whatever circumstances befall us. We will head for the capital but we dare not tarry there for too long – that is where the enemy is ultimately heading to and the fighting there will be the fiercest. The children can sleep in the horse cart, we will sleep where we may and when we can. We will take all of our food reserves with us, we are not going to leave anything that might aid the enemy. We will spend tomorrow getting ready and packing our things, we leave on the next morning after and we don’t look back. . .that is what we do Hannah, do you hear me?”
Hannah slowly nodded as she took in her mother’s words.
“Yes Mama. That is what we will do. I’m just glad you’re here, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
They both embraced again each gaining some comfort from the physical contact.
“Come Hannah. The day is getting old, we should get this washing hung up then prepare supper for the children. We can discuss this in more detail later if need be.”
The two women having concluded their conversation, silently and efficiently hung up the remainder of the wet clothes. Both of them lost in their own private thoughts – Hannah thinking about nothing else but how to keep her children and mother safe – and Editha quietly confident in herself that a long held belief would soon manifest itself, it just came down to the simple question of when. Having hung up all the washing, Hannah then went indoors to prepare everyone’s supper while Editha stayed with the children, Abatha and Denholm. An hour later the children had both been bathed by their grandmother and were ready for their supper.
The meal itself was ate in relative silence, the children asked their mother the odd question here and there about the journey they both knew the whole family would begin in a day or two, and more importantly why? Hannah relied more on Editha than herself to explain the reasons why. Editha told them they had to make the journey to the capital because food supplies were needed and the only place they could get them from was the capital itself – and it was to be an adventure, a holiday.
The children seemed happy and excited about Editha’s explanation and were looking forward to it, but both Hannah and her mother knew that the children suspected that it was because of the war sweeping through the land which was now encroaching upon their very doorstep. And they also knew that the reasons why their father never came home was because of the war. With this rather uncomfortable knowledge, Hannah and Editha would do the best they could to mask the bitter truth from them but both knew it was becoming harder and harder to do as each day passed.
The children’s bedtime came and they both called for their grandmother to tell them another story. Hannah was busy tiding up after supper when they both came to kiss their mother goodnight.
“Mumma,” said Denholm excitedly, running in to the scullery area. “Nanna’s going to tell us a story. Good night Mumma!”
“Night night darling,” said Hannah as she gave Denholm a big kiss and hug. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Denholm then shot off, eager to hear his bedtime story. Abatha then slowly walked up to her mother and stared up at her in the most serious face she could muster.
“Mumma, will Stormhelm bring Dadda back?”
Hannah froze where she stood trying to stem the tide of emotion that began to well up inside her after her daughter’s innocent, but provocative question. She knelt down to Abatha’s eye level and held her by the shoulders.
“Abby, what has nanna been telling you?”
Abatha looked round at Editha who stood with folded arms at the scullery doorway. She then turned round to face her mother, looking rather sheepish.
It’s all right Abby, I’m not angry with you, I just want to know what nanna has said to you.”
“Tell her Abby. Tell her the truth,” said Editha, encouragingly.
“Nanna said that Stormhelm is coming back to save us all. So I was thinking, if he’s coming back why can’t he bring dadda back with him?”
“Oh Abby!” Said Hannah, tears now openly streaming down her face as she looked up pleadingly to Editha. She hugged her daughter tightly. “If only that were possible then I would welcome it with all my heart.”
Editha came and knelt down next to Hannah, she took hold of Hannah’s hand, then with her other one brushed her grand daughter’s long blond hair back behind her ears.
“Now listen to me, both of you,” Editha said, softly. “Hope is powerful thing we should all learn to embrace and hold on to. We have only been told of Fendrel’s demise, but have not seen any evidence of it. Hannah! Hold to that thought and never let it go. Abby! Your father may not need any help coming back, if life remains in him we may all yet see him again one day. And Abby, that is a thought that you should hold on to in the days to come. And I say this to the both of you for something to remember. . .things are always darkest before the dawn.”
“What do you mean Nanna?” Asked Abatha, frowning.
“I simply mean that with each new day the sun will rise and push away the darkness. And all the bad dreams and nightmares of the night are driven out. Do you understand Abby?”
“I think so, Nanna.”
Editha kissed her forehead then stood up.
“Now go to your bed and tell your brother I’ll be there shortly to tell you both a story.”
Abatha gave her mother another kiss and a hug then ran off to the bedroom.
When Abatha had disappeared through the doorway, Hannah, who was still slightly weepy, slowly stood up and looked at Editha.
“Mama,” said Hannah, quietly. “goodness knows I don’t want to get into another argument with you, but what have you been filling their heads with? Legends – myths – fantasy stories? They consider anything you say to them to be absolutely true and real, without question! Mama, they are only four and five years old for goodness sake. Why do yo. . .?”
Hannah cut off as a new wave of emotion swept through her threatening to destroy her already shaky resolve. She buried her head in her hands as all self control was suddenly lost and started to sob uncontrollably.
“Oh. . .what does it matter,” she wailed. “We’re all going to die anyway!”
Editha reacted like lightning and pulled Hannah’s hands from her face and held her daughter tightly. The children had now emerged from their bedroom after hearing their mother’s wailing voice and had come to see what was happening. Editha shot a glance at the children when out of the corner of her eye she had spotted them.
“It’s all right children,” Said Editha, looking at them. “Mama’s just a little tired and upset. Go back to the bedroom, I’ll be there soon.”
The children remained where they were.
“Do as I told you. . .GO BACK TO THE BEDROOM. NOW!”
Editha’s voice had suddenly become sharp and acidic, and not like their nanna at all. The children then obeyed and retreated back to the bedroom. With the children gone, Editha then focussed her attention back on Hannah who was still sobbing in her arms, her head resting on her chest.
“Hannah! Hannah my child, shush now. . .we are not going to die.”
“I’m sorry,” came Hannah’s sobbing muffled voice. She then looked up to Editha and met with her eyes.
“I wish I had your strength Mama, but I just haven’t.”
“Of course you have Hannah. Each of us gains strength from each other, that’s why it’s important to stay together come what may.”
Editha’s words came out sounding wise and unwavering as they always did, but deep down inside she felt just as terrified as Hannah was. But it wasn’t her place or her duty to ever let it show. She was the one the whole family looked to for guidance, and she wasn’t about to let them down. They needed her now more than ever.
Hannah’s teary episode had by now started to subside, her self control was returning mainly due to her mother’s powerful and reassuring presence. Editha grabbed a cloth and dipped it in a pail of water, she wrung it out then used it to wipe Hannah’s tear stained face.
“Do you remember the stories I told you when you was a little girl, Hannah?” Asked Editha as she dabbed Hannah’s face.
“Yes Mama. . .I remember them all.”
“And do you also remember that always did you ask me to tell you more and more. Each and every night when your bedtime came you couldn’t wait to be told another story. . .do you remember, Hannah?”
“Yes Mama, I remember,” replied Hannah as the memory washed through her mind. “They always made me feel wonderful inside and fired my imagination. I loved to listen to you tell them.”
Editha smiled knowingly at Hannah, she was well aware of how much her daughter enjoyed listening to her stories.
“So would you have me deprive Abby and Denholm of hearing such tales before their bedtime? Would you not wish their imaginations to be fired up also?”
Hannah slowly shook her head apologetically as Editha’s words gradually sank in and revealed their truth to her.
“Oh Mama. . .I am so sorry, I didn’t me. . .?”
“I know you didn’t Hannah,” cut in Editha. “And there is nothing to apologise about either.”
She gave Hannah’s face a final dab then inspected her efforts before plonking the cloth back in the water pail.
“Right! The children are waiting, it wouldn’t be fair to keep them waiting any longer. . .coming Hannah?”
Hannah smiled lovingly at her mother and gave her a quick hug.
“Yes Mama, I’m coming too.”
They both entered the children’s bedroom smiling, and having visually inspected their mother, the children were quickly reassured that all was well with her then settled down for their bedtime story.
“Nanna, tell us more about the legend of Stormhelm. . .please Nanna,” Said Abatha, then casting a nervous glance at Hannah.
Editha raised an eyebrow in her amusement then looked questioningly at her daughter. Hannah shrugged her shoulders submissively then rolled her eyes, yielding to the inevitable.
The two children looked expectantly at Editha, who, after clearing her throat, gathered her thoughts together to begin her tale.
“it was in a time of great strife and conflict, many centuries ago,” Editha began. “A terrible war swept across the lands leaving nothing but desolation in its wake. The invading army set a fire in each and every town they passed through until nothing remained which was recognisable other than ash. On they marched, and it seemed that nothing could stem the tide of their deadly onslaught toward the capital. The defending army, our army, was greatly outnumbered by the aggressors, and one by one our troops fell to their superior might. The King ordered a final stand on the hill overlooking the capital city, where, each and everyone of our remaining troops were mustered to offer the last defence. Two thousand soldiers waited in the deathly silence for the ever approaching enemy. As evening fell, a huge thunder storm raged and heralded the arrival of ten thousand enemy troops. Then the last terrible battle began!”
Editha paused to gauge the reaction of the children who were both staring wided eyed at her.
“What happened then Nanna?” The children said in unison.
Editha gathered her thoughts again then continued…
“The King and his household cavalry led the charge into the enemy hoards. The first wave was driven back but many of the King’s men fell. Then the enemy pressed forward with all their might and counter attacked, the King rallied his cavalry together but were crushed before they could offer any more resistance. All seemed lost and hopeless, but our army continued to defend the city regardless of how futile it looked. The storm raged on above the capital bringing with it more rain, thunder, and lightning, and the end seemed nigh, unavoidable, inescapable. It was then that a brave, young soldier of the King’s guard came through the ranks. His silver armour shone under the lightning coming from above, and his silver winged helm glittered radiantly in the darkness like a guiding beacon of light. He wielded a sword so heavy that it would take the count of three other men to bear its weight. He shouted his rallying cries to all the remaining soldiers and started his counter attack. All the soldiers behind him then yelled out, follow the Stormhelm! Follow the Stormhelm! He surged forward leading the way, with the last of our soldiers bringing up the rear, and in his wrath he cut a swath through the enemy like an irresistible force. They say he drove the enemy back single-handedly and countless ranks fell at his feet as he cut them down, and all our soldiers became inspired by him and pushed the enemy further back with each new surge. The battle raged on throughout the night, and by the breaking of dawn the next morning the enemy had been defeated and were vanquished.”
Editha took a moment to let her story so far sink in for the children’s sake, she looked at Hannah who seemed as keen as the children were for her to complete the tale.
“Well, Mama. . .what happened to Stormhelm?” Enquired Hannah, although she already knew the ending, she still liked to listen to Editha tell it.
“Yes Nanna. . .what happened to Stormhelm?” The children cried out.
“Well. . .once the battle was over and finally won, the survivors took stock of the wounded and the dead. The enemy were all dead and our army suffered many casualties with more than half of them dead or still dying – it was an awful sight, a vision of total carnage spread across the hill above the capital. The King was still alive but had bad battle wounds which kept him out of the latter part of the battle. Then the shouts went out as to where the hero of the day was, where was the Stormhelm? Where was the man that had tipped the balance of the battle in our favour? They found him mortally wounded on the crest of the hill with piles of dead enemy soldiers around him forming a circle of corpses. He was carried from the battle field in high honour, but sadly died later the same day from his wounds. The King ordained that he should be remembered for what he was, a hero of the Kingdom and was buried with all the honours belonging to such a title. Although Stormhelm wasn’t his proper name, they carved it on his epitaph as a tribute to his heroic actions. His real name was Aldric Carragan, a soldier of the King’s guard. It was two days after his funeral, one sunny afternoon, that a man appeared on the hill overlooking the city, on the very spot where Stormhelm fell in battle. His armour and helm were golden and sent sparks of light streaming in every direction as the sunlight was reflected from it. The man didn’t move, but remained there as still as a statue throughout the day. The King himself, with a few household guards, rode out to meet with the mysterious stranger. When they were near enough they all saw that the man was Aldric Carragan: The Stormhelm. No word did he utter to them, he bowed to the King and offered his sword in gesture then, before their very eyes, he disappeared and was never seen again. A parchment scroll lay on the ground where moments before Stormhelm had stood, the King picked up the scroll and read it. The scroll prophesied that when the Kingdom was once again under threat from enemy forces, Stormhelm would return to save the day. And since that day the kingdom has never been under the threat of war, and he has not been seen again. That children, is the legend of The Stormhelm.”
The children stared at Editha open mouthed, and before they could fire any questions at her, Hannah suddenly stood up from the bed.
“Right, come on now you two, time for sleep.”
“Aww, but Mamma. . .?”
“Yes,” cut in Editha. “Your mother is right, time for you two to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, you can ask me all you need to then.”
The children sensed that any more protest on their part was useless, so settled down to sleep. Hannah and Editha gave them both another kiss and hug then left their bedroom – leaving the door slightly ajar.
Hannah quickly finished up her cleaning duties then went outside to catch the evening air. There was a chill developing and darkening clouds were gathering above. She folded her arms to keepself warm as she vacantly stared out at the night. Editha came out to check on her daughter and came up alongside her.
“There’s a storm brewing, Mama, by the look of it,” Said Hannah, absentmindedly. She shuddered and turned around to go back indoors, she gave Editha’s shoulder a squeeze as she passed.
Editha looked up to the sky, and the beginning of a subtle smile appeared on her face.
“Yes, Hannah,” she said, under her breath. “A storm is coming. . .in more ways than one.”
Disclaimer: any similarity in names to persons living or dead is purely coincidental and are fictitious characters invented by the author.