“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
Jeremiah 17:9, KJV
The doors crash open with a force that threatens the rusted hinges.
“The rebels have lost!” A soldier cries, panic in his gasping voice. A boy gets a closer look at the man; there is a broken arrow in his back; the boiled leather armour offers no protection against its metal tip.
The soldier collapses onto the already aging oak floors, creating an echo that stuns the room into silence. Not even the cold winds of winter whisper as they slowly drift in through thinly covered holes in the wall behind them. There was no sound except for the door’s continuous slamming against cracked walls from the harsh winds. A terrified shriek suddenly reverberates, a sound only a young girl could make. Then the panic begins, and more people awaken from their stupors as reality sets in; babies wail in the arms of their mothers, their own pitiful wails joining the chaos; some people begin to board up the drafty windows; a few people race to the back of the large house looking for another exit, one not blocked by a soon-to-be dead man. Better to take chances in the wilderness, in the forest with its ferocious beasts, rather than the monsters of men. In one corner, a group of young maidens sob into each other’s arms; just moments ago, they were laughing and singing songs of hope and victory. Any remaining rebel soldiers who had stayed behind, tried to gather the attention of those panicking with no success.
With no exits in the back, many men and women scramble over each other and the dying man to reach what they believe is freedom. There are murmurs and hushed whispers, wondering what to do next, what steps to take, but no one responds with a sensible answer. Amidst the chaos is one boy who also feels the waves of panic and fear, but does what no one else will; he stops and breathes. That’s all he can do.
The boy called Nick takes a step past the towering soldiers who are flailing their arms for attention and direction. He’s pushed and almost stepped on too many times to count. He is shoved by one of the larger men, and even gets pushed to the floor by a thin woman who races past him. He gets up, ignoring the sting on his arm, and continues to push through; crushing a doll under his feet.
It’s not his fault he’s so small. A lack of food and wondering if you’ll live to see tomorrow will do that to you. He is well below average for a boy his age; fifteen, with the body of a child of eleven. He goes by many names: ‘boy that is still growing’ from the women, ‘breakable thing’ from the men, and ‘twig’ from his cousin. The most creative, in his opinion, is ‘talking fishbone,’ a title graciously given to him by his father. The talking fishbone pushes through the last group of people and makes his way to the fallen soldier, more battered and out of breath than before. He grabs the soldier by the leather vest, his small hands fighting to get a grip and pulls with all his strength (which isn’t much), and begins moving away from the chaos, leaving a trail of red in his wake. His best and only friend skulking in the corner quickly grabs the medicine woman racing past, taking her to the injured soldier.
“Make sure you can save him.” Nick commands, his voice cracking with nerves.
The woman kisses her teeth, unimpressed by his attempt to be authoritative. “Boy, can’t you see that the man is at death’s door? He just said that the rebel army, your father’s army, has fallen! We need to move!” She gets up and hurries out with the other people, knocking over her medicine bags.
He wants to say something, but the words die on his tongue. He was never good with words. As he turns away and looks at the ground, a deep feeling of helplessness begins to crawl up his throat. He hates it. Kaius, his friend and a gentle giant of sorts, wants to comfort him, but before he has the chance, another powerful voice rings out.
“People!” His cousin Braawen’s voice echoes out to everyone. By some miracle, people begin to stop and listen once more. “I know that we are fearful, but we mustn’t lose our heads. The Emperor’s army has not arrived yet. Pick up your things and let us hurry to the next base.” He points towards the packed supplies at the side of the house, and as usual, takes credit for something that Nick has done. Kaius rolls his eyes and Nick bites his lips hard enough to taste iron. But he doesn’t care about glory right now, he only cares about getting as many people out of here as possible.
Everyone obediently begins to make their way towards the supplies, fear, hope and loss their only motivators. Nick leaves the soldier for a moment to help the others take the supplies that he and Kaius packed the night before. While everyone was talking about the new world order that they would make and how they plan a better life after the war, the night before, Nick and Kaius began packing food and blankets, neatly dividing them up into different piles for the amount of people in their little group. It took them all night, but it was worth it. People thought that it was because of their lack of faith, but his father told him to always prepare for the worst; he did. After all supplies had found homes in the arms of the desperate, Nick returns his attention to the soldier slumped against the wall, bleeding.
“Come on, Kaius, let’s try to bring the man with us.” Nick states, making his way back to the soldier.
He pretends to ignore his friend’s mumbled response. “I—I don’t think… I don’t think he’ll make it.”
“Well, we’re going to try. It’s the least we can do. The man did make his way here to warn all of us, after all.” He picks one of the man’s arms up and slings it over his shoulder, wordlessly directing Kaius to take the other, which he does rather reluctantly. He can’t see why his friend is complaining. Kaius was rather tall and had a little muscle on him. The few muscles he had could barely hold his own bones together, but he would manage to lift the man.
Just as they begin to move forward, an explosion blows apart the door and windows, sending the two boys and the man flying.
In hindsight, it was a good thing they took the dying man with them.
His body took the deadliest blow.