Reina’s mother dragged her by the wrist down streets filled with people setting up stands for the festival later that day. Joyful music spun through the air and made Reina desperately wish to be among those who were dancing. The brick buildings on either side of the stone walkways made the air feel warm as they emitted the sunlight they had absorbed all morning. Reina tried to tug away from her mother’s grip, but her mother held firm and shot a disapproving look over her shoulder.
“There’ll be time for activities later, Reina. If we stop now, we will be late to the ceremony.” Reina stopped struggling and settled for staring in awe at the statues and fountains that littered the kingdom. The sunlight made the world look golden to Reina’s young eyes, and the crowd filled her with an aching excitement. Her mother pulled her past an opening to a small alley where a woman led her plump pig toward where the auction would be held that evening. Reina reached out with her loose hand and lightly tapped the animal’s rump. It jerked its head around and snorted at her. She chuckled gleefully as the pig disappeared from view, and she looked to the dancers who lined the streets.
Reina had always thought the dancers were otherworldly. The acrobatics they could accomplish while clad in colorful dresses that hung to their knees, as well as their graceful spins and dips, made Reina fiercely wish to become a dancer someday. One of the dancers shot her a wink, extended their hand, and gave the young girl a white rose. Reina grabbed it out of the dancer’s hand in passing and twirled it in her fingers as she ran behind her mother.
“Thank the gods,” her mother said, pulling Reina up and into her arms. “We have yet to miss it.” Reina looked out from her new viewpoint and recognized the town square around her.
Carts stocked with food lined the cobblestone square, and the merchants screamed out in search of anyone willing to buy from them. Buildings stood proudly around the edges of the crowd, and the shops inside were all closed down for Albur don Gracos, the Day of Thanks. Stairs at the front of the gathered people ascended to a plateau raised slightly higher than those who stood waiting. On that plateau is where Reina’s father stood proudly. He stared back into the crowd with a soft smile on his face. His blonde hair was pulled back out of his kind blue eyes, and he had on his finest clothes.
Even at eight years old, Reina recognized how significant an honor it was for her father to be up there. He was nothing more than a coal miner by day and a family man by night. The days spent in the mines were grueling, but many men worked in the tunnels to put food on their tables. Reina would meet her father at their door when he arrived home at night, and he would scoop her up in his soot-stained arms and spin her about their foyer. Reina would scream and laugh as her mother scolded them both to clean up and prepare for dinner. Her father had never done anything out of the ordinary, nothing worthy of being honored on Albur don Gracos. Not until the day his mine collapsed earlier that year.
Nobody told the miners the part of the mine they were moving into had been deemed unstable. So when the miners entered the shaft to begin their work, it collapsed. Soldiers were sent out to clear the debris and rescue those trapped inside. After days of digging through the rubble, it was deemed nobody could have survived the wreckage.
Reina’s father had been in that mine, and when the news arrived, she couldn’t understand the severity of it. Her mother sank deep within herself over the days that passed, and Reina sat and stared blankly at the walls in her room. Her father had been her hero, and she refused to believe he was gone. It felt too impossible to wrap her head around.
The following days in the kingdom were dark, and many sympathies arrived at Reina’s doorstep. A vigil was held in the town square five days after the mine had collapsed. People who hadn’t even known the miners cried as candles were lit in their memory. Reina had been angry at the strangers who attended the vigil. It was unfair that they could go home after shedding their tears, and their worlds would ultimately be unchanged. Reina couldn’t escape the loss of her father. Her tears would stay with her as she prepared for bed that night. The sorrow would weigh heavily on her heart forever.
Then one day, a shout echoed across the kingdom and brought people to their doorsteps in search of what news the cry carried. The men had escaped the mine. They had trekked farther back into the dark tunnels until they had found a small opening. For days they dug and had eventually managed to make the opening large enough to escape. The idea had been created, and the journey had been led by one man: Reina’s father. He ensured even the injured were not left behind and helped everyone trapped make their way to safety. He was no longer a hero to only Reina but a hero to the kingdom as a whole. He was up on that stage to receive the highest honor the king could bestow upon a commoner: The Medalle don Herosta, the Medal of a Hero.
The crowd erupted as King Speranta made his way to the top of the steps and faced the crowd. When he signaled for silence, his people quickly complied, and everyone listened for the king’s words. “People of Crieda,” he shouted into the hundreds of onlookers. “I would like to thank you all for having made your way out here today to celebrate Albur don Gracos. Every year we start the festivities by honoring people within this community who have done spectacular things for their kingdom. You likely all know the faces of each man and woman up here with me today, but I would still like to honor them each by name. When they are called upon, they will step forward and claim their Medalle don Herosta. This medal, given to only the bravest Criedans, signifies that these men and women have helped this kingdom in its prosperity and good fortune. Without them, we would not be where we are today. Therefore, it is my honor to be here today, recognizing these brave Criedans as the heroes they are.” The crowd gave another cheer and quieted down as the king began to call each person to his side to place the medal around their necks. When Reina’s father was called, her mother screamed so loudly that Reina’s ears began to ring.
He looked so big up there as he stood with the king, his chest stuck out with pride and his chin held high. He was so sure of himself and looked ready to take on the world. Reina smiled and cheered along with her mother. For a moment, everything was beautiful. Then it wasn’t.
The ground shook beneath the crowd, and everyone froze in confusion. People looked around, unsure of what to do when the earth stopped trembling. Nervous laughter filled the air. Then the ground shook again, and someone shouted, “The wall!”
Immediately everyone’s attention locked on the wall which surrounded the kingdom. Reina squirmed in her mother’s arms and began to cry out in fear. Her mother tried to soothe her when someone screamed, and everyone watched the southern wall collapse. The crowd started to panic and pushed north, away from the fallen wall. Reina was thrown from her mother’s arms in the commotion, and they were separated within seconds. Reina screamed for her mother, trying desperately to dodge the legs that ran by her. She thought she heard her mother call her name, but it was hard to discern what direction it came from as screams echoed through the air around her.
She caught a glimpse of her father, still at the top of the stairs beside the king, and Reina started toward him. She thought if she could get to her father, then they could find her mother together. As she moved forward through the panic, her father’s eyes found her. He looked relieved, and his mouth opened to yell her name. Before a sound could escape him, soldiers crowded the stage. Reina looked on in confusion. The soldiers weren’t Criedan. Blue plates adorned their chests, and golden helmets reflected the sunlight. The colors clashed with the red and silver armor of the Criedan soldiers, who moved toward the king in a panic.
Her father spun as the men came from behind him, and he seemed to yell something Reina couldn’t quite hear. Before Reina could comprehend what was happening at the top of the stairs, a soldier plunged his sword through her father’s chest.
“Daddy!” She screamed, but she couldn’t even hear her own voice over the cacophony of noise that surrounded her. His body fell unceremoniously to the ground, and Reina watched as the soldier who had taken his life simply stepped over him. As if he were little more than a doormat.
A lump rose in Reina’s throat, and she found herself unable to breathe. Her hand was still clenched around the white rose given to her earlier, and a thorn tore into her skin. She looked to the king through his frenzied guards and found him staring at her. Sadness was evident on his face as he looked at the small girl at the base of the stairs. His armed guards vigorously tried to fight off the invading soldiers around him, but the king seemed to know he would not be able to escape the hell that had come to his kingdom.
Their way had never been war. Crieda had no enemies, no quarrels with the outside world. The Criedan soldiers had been given no real training. Never had they needed to raise their swords, which likely hadn’t been sharpened in decades. Crieda never stood a chance.
So as his guards fell around him, he held Reina’s gaze. There was so much said within those few seconds between them, and Reina felt as tears fell freely from her youthful eyes.
When the last guard fell, a soldier stepped forward and slashed his sword through the king’s neck. His head fell from his shoulders and rolled down the stairs to Reina’s feet. She looked in horror to find the king’s eyes stared up at her, but there was no more to be said between them. Her king was dead.
She dropped the rose from her hand and watched as running feet crushed the petals. She took a step back, but someone ran into her side, and she fell to the ground. Reina tried crawling from the scene which had taken place on the plateau, but she was being crushed under the stampeding people. She felt her ankle snap as someone stepped on it, and she cried out into a world that she knew wouldn’t hear her. She realized she would die on the cobblestones beneath her, and nobody was around to care. Her father was dead, and her mother was gone. She was going to die all alone. A sob tore through her body.
Just when she was about to give up and accept her fate, a surge of energy filled her. A warmth started at her left collarbone, then quickly turned into searing pain. She reached up to her shirt and ripped it aside to see a glowing circle on her skin.
She reached for it, unsure of what it was. Her eyes looked to see if anyone saw, but everyone still ran from the soldiers as they descended the stairs. Nobody noticed the small girl on the ground. She felt her ankle mend itself slowly, and she was able to pull herself to her feet. When her ankle was healed, the burning sensation disappeared, and she looked back under her shirt to find that the mark was gone.
Her chest rose and fell with uneven breaths, and she looked around to find that most people had been able to escape the town square. A soldier stood before her and looked down. His golden helmet was alive with sunlight, and Reina swallowed the fear that rose to the surface. She stared back at the man. His green eyes clashed with her blue ones. She knew there was no point in running. She knew he would catch her before she made it anywhere safe. So she stood her ground, a young girl before a conqueror.
His vice-like grip clasped around her arm and dragged her off in the direction of the fallen southern wall. She pulled against him, but it was no use. Reina looked back to her father, the king, and the other heroes from that day, dead upon the plateau. The stairs leaked red and pooled around the king’s head at the bottom.
She realized how many people had been crushed to death under the very feet that almost took her own life. Bodies scattered about, broken and nearly unrecognizable. Reina began to shake uncontrollably as the soldier pulled her out of the square and through the kingdom.
She saw other people being taken by soldiers. Some fought back while others followed with haunted expressions plastered on their faces. Soldiers carried out limp bodies, and Reina couldn’t tell if they were unconscious or dead.
As she was pulled through the collapsed wall, Reina tripped over her own feet at what she saw. There were thousands of soldiers and hundreds of Criedans. The Criedans were chained together, most covered in blood and bruises from whatever they had been through in the city. Reina tried desperately to slip from the man’s grip, but she couldn’t do anything as her hands were forced in front of her and chained to the other Criedans who stood broken and lost in line.