The morning arrived bringing with it small sporadic rain showers, and an easterly breeze continued to sweep across the lands. Hannah was first up, she had woke early feeling more than apprehensive about the day ahead, she was restless, fidgety, and couldn’t relax or keep still. She prepared all the food which had been kept aside for their last homely breakfast, setting it all out on the table. She then headed outside trying to subdue the strange sense of claustrophobia that for some unfathomable reason had suddenly enveloped her. Hannah stood on the porch way pointing her head up allowing the gentle rainfall to sprinkle over her face – as if by so doing would help refresh her and wash away the fermenting panic. After taking several deep calming breaths of the damp morning air to gather her thoughts, Hannah’s soul searching was interrupted when her attention was pulled westward in the direction of the river. The smell of damp, burnt wood hit her nostrils, carried by the prevailing easterly winds despite the cleansing rain. Her face became contorted with a look of both fear and disgust at the bitterly sharp odour, and she felt pity for all the unfortunate souls who had been made either homeless, or worse still, murdered for the sake of a needless war caused by men, men with nothing more than an insatiable lust for dominance and power in their empty, cold hearts.
Today of all days, she missed Fendrel more than ever. She missed his caring smile, his deep gentle voice, and his arms around her when she needed a hug. She missed the love shown in his eyes when he looked upon her, the touch and feel of his body against hers, and his way of making everything all right – even when times were hard. Right now, she would give anything of herself to have him back within the family’s bosom. She then thought back to what Editha had said two nights ago. . .‘and let us not forget that there is no proof that he is in fact dead.’ This much at least, was true. There had only been rumour of his demise with no body to provide the needed proof for official closure. Hannah had heeded her mother’s words, and now clung to the tenuous thread of hope that one day he may well return to her and the children.
She gazed up to the sky at the strange cloud; it had now moved directly overhead and appeared huge, making her feel puny and insignificant. Apart from wishing that her husband would return, she wished she had the strength and conviction of her mother’s beliefs, but her inner self was still struggling to accept them as real. She closed her eyes as if in prayer for some much needed guidance, for someone to come and remove all her doubts and show her they were groundless.
A hand resting on her shoulder made Hannah start slightly, she looked round to find Editha standing behind her, a look of motherly understanding shown on her face.
“Come, daughter, we must get ready. The children will be awake soon.”
Hannah gave her a weak smile, remaining silent; she followed Editha back into the house, for perhaps the very last time.
Breakfast was a subdued affair, the children were full of the vigours of life as usual, but the same could not be said for their mother. Hannah ate very little, and forced herself to smile pretending to be her normal happy self towards the children, but they could sense that not all was well with her. Even Editha with all her discipline and self control was having a time coming to terms with the raw brutality of their situation now that the moment for actually leaving was imminent, but due to her age and experience, she was having a better time of concealing it than Hannah was.
Once breakfast was done, Hannah quickly got dressed. She went round to the back of the house to hook up their ageing shire horse to the cart, checking that enough hay food had been bagged and stowed. She found the pot of animal grease for lubricating the axle and wheels of the cart and did so using a stick – just like she had seen Fendrel do on countless occasions in the past. She checked through all the things which had been placed in the cart the day before, making some room at the front for the children to sit. She then looked around the yard and received a shock when her eyes fell upon the children’s two pet rabbits that were happily nibbling away at some greenery in their hutch – she hadn’t even considered them, let alone the chickens in the pen. Hannah decided that she would seek advice from her mother as to what fate should befall them, but right now Hannah hadn’t the strength or resolve to make any other decision than the one to leave.
Meanwhile, Editha was busy getting the children and herself ready for the journey ahead. She had them wear their warmest clothes to offer some protection from the wind and rain, and for herself, she sorted out her heaviest, full length, black travelling dress to wear. With the help of the children, Editha then began to carry the remainder of their belongings to the cart. A short while later, everything they had chosen to take with them was loaded. All was now ready for their departure.
Hannah went back inside the house for one final look round; more for nostalgic reasons than anything else – she might never see it again. The home was humble and small, with all rooms connecting from the biggest room – the scullery. It had been her and Fendrel’s home since before the children were born, and within its cosy wooden walls, a life of love and happiness had been lived which had built indelible memories, that to Hannah, were nothing less than precious. With every last ounce of her crumbling will, Hannah forced herself to turn around and walk out the door, closing it gently behind her. She stood on the porch way, a trembling running through her body; her legs felt heavy and seemed reluctant to move her any farther away from the house. Editha then appeared from around a corner, she instinctively knew that the painful moment had come when Hannah would need her help and encouragement.
“Come, Hannah. We dare not tarry any longer.” Editha put her arm around Hannah’s shoulder supportively and gently moved her off the porch.
Hannah allowed herself to be led off the porch, casting another look back at the house. They made their way round the back of the house to the waiting horse cart. Hannah suddenly stopped as she remembered something that had been overshadowed by her own anguish.
“Mama. The children’s rabbits. What are we to do with them?” She asked, looking searchingly into her mother’s eyes.
Editha looked over to the children who were both staring back, but thankfully out of earshot.
“Hannah. It is simple, we leave them behind,” she said, turning to face her. “We will have enough on our hands trying to watch out for ourselves, let alone animals. If the worse comes to the worse, then their own instincts will tell them to flee, just as we are. I have opened the hutch without the children seeing me, at least that will offer them to chance of escape if a fire is set on the house and spreads.”
Hannah stared back at her mother as if she hadn’t heard a word she said. Editha held her arm and gently guided her toward the cart. Hannah took her place at the front giving the children the best smile she could muster, Editha sat beside her and grabbed hold of the reins then spurred the horse forward. They made their way slowly but steadily over the rough terrain of the countryside, heading all the time for the much trodden, main-dirt-roadway which would take them ultimately to the city.
* * *
Once they had reached the clearing that led directly to the roadway, their eyes met with a sight that served as a stark reminder that their country was suffering at the hands of a war. They were not alone. Many other people from all walks of life were treading the pathway toward the city. There were whole families, some on foot, some being carried on horse carts like Hannah’s was. There were lone refugees too, all stumbling along with a look of utter bewilderment on their dirty faces. Amongst the silent, sombre procession of people, soldiers could be seen who had probably suffered defeat, or had been separated from their units and were reporting back to the city for further orders. There were several wounded soldiers being helped along by their stronger, non wounded comrades, and others with more severe wounds lay sprawled out on flat carts of all shapes and sizes, some being pulled by horses, and some by the soldiers themselves.
It was a grim sight to behold, both Hannah and Editha looked on with expressions of pity and understanding on their faces, while the two children just stared open mouthed not really knowing what to think, or how to react to what they were seeing. Editha waited for a big enough gap to appear in the long line of people, then drove the cart forward and filed in to become part of the silent procession.
Hannah turned round to check on the children, she was well aware that by now, they must be confused and frightened by the unsettling sights all around them, and would need some sort of explanation as to what was happening in order to allay any fears that they might have. She studied their faces as if trying to read their thoughts. Abatha had her head down, she was fussing with the belt tie on her dress, and it seemed to Hannah that she was in considerable distress. Denholm looked away when her saw his mother turn round; he looked down the line of people walking behind the cart, so Hannah couldn’t see his face properly.
“Abby, Denholm, darlings. Come and sit with mumma.” Hannah reached out with her arms as Abatha climbed over to the front of the cart to join her, almost stumbling in her haste. She fell into her mother’s arms quietly sobbing, her tiny body convulsing. Denholm stayed as he was for a few moments, his eyes still locked on the sights behind him. He then turned his head to face Hannah, his bloodshot eyes stared emptily back at her, the sadness of knowing the truth written on his little face.
“It’s the war, isn’t it Mumma,” he finally managed to say.
Hannah slowly nodded her head in honesty, choking back her tears.
“That’s why dadda never came home, isn’t it Mumma,” Denholm said, staring down vacantly at his feet.
Hannah beckoned to him to join her at the front of the cart when he looked back up, she moved over to her right to make room as he climbed over. He sat down on the bench seat next to his mother nestling his head into her shoulder, Hannah put her arm around him then placed a kiss on his forehead. There the children sat at either side of their mother, huddled up against her, each feeling the comfort of her tender touch as she brought her hands up and stroked their hair back from foreheads.
“Abby, Denholm. Listen to mumma.” Hannah said, looking to each of them. She glanced up at Editha who nodded to her encouragingly.
“We are all going to get through this. All of us. As long as we all stick together as a family and support each other, then we will all have something to hold on to, something to give us the courage to face whatever may come our way. I know you’re both frightened – what with all these scary things happening around us – it’s not surprising. But dadda might be out there somewhere trying to find his way back to us. He might be all alone feeling scared and unsure just like we all are, and he won’t have anyone to turn to for comfort as we are all lucky enough to be able to do. But if he knew where we all were, it would give him hope to know that we are all still together and keeping each other safe. He would want us all to carry on doing what we are doing, so that when he does return home he will find his entire family safe and well, waiting for him. We must all stay strong children; stay strong for dadda’s sake.”
The children both calmed down, soothed by their mother’s voice but continued to cling to her tightly.
“Things are always darkest before the dawn, children.” Hannah said, dreamily, while staring straight ahead of her as if focussing on something very far away.
Editha gave Hannah a sideward’s glance, a smile spreading on her face.
They rode slowly on in silence. The miles tumbled by, the rain came again and again, sometimes heavy, and at other times not so. Hannah got a blanket from the back of the cart and threw it around her and the snuggling children to keep them warm and dry, and it was a mixture of motherly love and the gentle swaying of the horse cart that eventually sent the two children into a peaceful sleep. Editha did likewise and threw her heavy cloak around her, she was more weather hardened than either her daughter or grandchildren, but the damp, it seemed, was beginning to penetrate through to her bones.
By late afternoon the huge hill overlooking the capital city was in sight. Editha gave Hannah a gentle nudge; she had lowered her head in semi-slumber. She lifted her head and looked at Editha who pointed ahead of her with a finger. Hannah followed the line of her pointing finger and her eyes fell upon the hill. She sat upright taking in the vista before her. The long line of people in front began to quicken their pace, spurred on by the fact that their destination was now within reach. Editha kept the cart steady and held the relaxed pace as when they had set out, there was no need to place any unnecessary strain on their ageing horse, he had done them proud to get them as far as he had.
As they got closer to the foot of the hill they could make out the forms of soldiers standing along the crest. They spanned out at either side and there was a small gap in the middle to allow all the refugees’ access to the city below. They began their climb up the hill – which had a shallow gradient rather than a steep one, and gradually neared the crest. Hannah studied the faces of the nearby soldiers as they came up to them, they all stared grimly ahead giving the occasional glance at a passer-by before resuming their icy stares forward. They all looked to be ready and prepared for battle with the resignation and acceptance of death evident in their solemn eyes. Hannah’s body involuntarily shuddered at the sight; it did nothing to inspire any confidence inside her.
The cart finally reached the crest of the grassy hill, and then the splendour of the white stoned, high walled city came into view below. There was much activity going on in-between the distance of the hill and the city itself, soldiers were everywhere to be seen, all busy with their preparations for battle. Trebuchets stood at various strategic points outside the city walls, while others were still being wheeled into position by ground troops. Spiked wooden stakes were being driven into the ground forming defensive barriers at various points on the field, while others were being placed in dug out trenches. Fires were being set in small stone kilns for some unspeakable reason that Hannah could only wonder at. Orders were being barked aloud by unit leaders to the men under their charge, then the soldiers would either run, or quickly walk off to carry out their given duties. In the main, the soldiers ignored the steady procession of refugees heading to, and through the open gates of the city, all were far too preoccupied with their own pre-battle tasks.
They had now come to level ground, and the huge reinforced gates of the city loomed directly ahead. Hannah had been to city many times before in her life, but each time she paid a visit there, she would always stare in awe at the height of the white walls and the massive iron and wooden plug forming the gates in the centre. The line of people ahead began to slow, eventually coming to a stop as each person or party was looked over and inspected by the guards standing at the gates. Slowly but surely the line passed through until Hannah and Editha came up alongside the guards and brought the horse to graceful stop. One of the guards walked around the cart lifting bags or sheet coverings up to see what lay under them. The other guard came up to Editha and nodded respectfully to her.
“Are there anymore to your party, madam,” he asked with an officious air, looking the cart up and down. He looked at Hannah, then at the two children who were now waking up, brought out of their slumber by all the commotion and noise going on around them.
“No soldier,” replied Editha. “It is just my daughter, my two grandchildren, and myself.”
The guard gave her a tight smile, then looked over at his colleague who gave him the all clear.
“Through the gates, turn left and continue on down the street until you reach a fork. Take the left-hand road and on to the paddock at the end. That is where all horses and carts are being assembled.”
“Thank you soldier,” said Editha. She spurred the horse forward and wended her way through the gates and into the city.
“Are there anymore to y……”
The guards enquiring voice trailed off to nothing as they drove forward. The streets of the city were awash with the hustle and bustle of people all going about their business. Soldiers were everywhere, some standing, some walking, some chatting, and all looking nervous in their faces for the events to come. There were traders packing away their stalls and closing down for the day, shops with signs hanging above them denoting what was sold within its doors, men, and women pushing wheel barrows, some with live stock in them such as chickens or pigs, and some carrying odd assortments of things, and others merchandise, all seemed to be moving with purposeful intent as if they all knew something that onlookers such as Hannah and her family were not aware of.
The cart made its progress deeper down the busy streets, and much the same thing happened there, a strange controlled, mild panic could be felt on the streets. Hannah looked at Editha with a frown, not understanding what was going on. A large party of marching soldiers then appeared from around a corner and headed toward the back of the city, and away from the main gates. This very thing repeated itself twice more before they reached the fork in the road, the passing soldiers would all head to the rear of the city. They took the left-hand path like the guard at the gate had instructed and soon came upon an open paddock. The paddock was filled with a multitude of other horses and carts, their owners either sitting on them, or standing around with their families and friends, all were gathered there for a common purpose, to escape the war.
Editha drove the cart through the paddock gates and into the field. They passed row after row of carts, Hannah gave the odd smile here and there at mothers tending to their children, some smiled back, while others looked far too worried to be able to smile at anyone. Editha drove the cart to the end of the paddock, she found a space near the fencing and stopped the cart just in front of it.
“Well, we’re here,” she said, with a sigh of relief. “At least the rain has held off.”
Hannah helped the children down, they were glad to be able to stretch their legs after such a long journey. Hannah then jumped down and began sorting something out in the cart. Editha climbed down slowly, her bones giving slight complaint at being in the same position for so long a period. She grabbed the horse’s nosebag making sure enough feed was in it, then placed it over the horse’s head, giving it a friendly pat on the neck. The horse began to happily munch away at the contents within, its tail gently wagging from side to side contentedly.
Hannah was sorting out some food for them all to eat, she just happened to be facing in the direction of the paddock gates when she saw a unit of mounted soldiers enter the field. She stopped what she was doing to watch them for a moment, a throng of people began gathering around the soldiers, all gesticulating with their arms and hands. The sounds of loud voices could be heard coming from the crowd. Hannah looked over at Editha who was also watching them.
“Mama, what do you think is happening over there?” Hannah asked her.
“Wait here with the children, I’ll go and find out.”
Editha made her way over to the mass of people surrounding the soldiers. Hannah watched as her mother began talking to one of them. The soldier pointed in the direction towards the back of the city, then his arms started making gestures that Hannah couldn’t quite make out. Editha had her hand to her mouth as she turned round and began walking very quickly back to where Hannah waited. As Editha got nearer, Hannah, seeing the expression on her mother’s face, immediately knew that there was something wrong. She quickly finished sorting out some food for the children, then sat them up on the cart giving them each a share. Having done that she went away from the cart – far enough to be out of earshot from the children.
“What is it Mama?” Hannah asked as Editha reached her.
“Hannah,” she said, her voice sounding unsteady. “The soldiers say that the city will be attacked from two fronts at the same time. They say that another division has used the river. A fleet of boats have travelled unchallenged up stream and are massing a few miles behind the city. They will be here sometime tomorrow, as will the larger unit we have fled from.”
Hannah’s face went white as the blood was drained from it.
“What are we to do then, Mama? We can’t stay here.”
“There’s nothing we can do, Hannah. We’re trapped between two approaching armies, which ever direction we go in, we can’t be certain we will avoid the enemy forces. We can’t take the risk. . .Hannah. . .the children!”
Hannah turned her head to look at the children, they seemed quite content for the moment, each enjoying eating the food she had just given them. Her head spun back round to face her mother, panic and desperation now showing on her face.
Editha folded her arms around her daughter holding her tightly. She looked up to the grey expanse of sky, it threatened more rain to come. But amid the murky depths of the grey blanket of cloud, another cloud could be seen lower than the main body and now nearly directly over the city itself.
“Shhh my child. It is not over yet. . .and things are always darkest before the dawn. He will come, Hannah. . . . . .he will come.”
There they both stood in silence, wrapped in each other’s arms. And a few miles out, from both easterly and westerly directions, the armies of death were marching toward the city.
Disclaimer: any similarities in names to persons living or dead is purely coincidental and are fictitious characters invented by the author.