Alfred gingerly squeezed his granddaughter’s shoulder, a hollow assurance, he knew. “The hour is old and yet this wretched siege still bays its horn.”
“When is it going to end, Grandpa?”
“Soon I think.”
“Really?” Elsa perked up with a bright smile, a contrast to the dark hour.
“Do not let joy win your heart yet.”
“We are losing.”
“Should we pray, Grandpa?”
“It’s past the time for prayer.”
“But, isn’t that what you do?”
“Not anymore.” Somehow he knew, an instinct playing a discordant tune against his heart. Tonight the walls would fall. The realization confirmed Alfred’s certainty, his granddaughter would see death. He just hoped death would not see her. Lilly clutched the hem of his woolen jacket, reminding him of how she held her mother’s scarf as if it could replace the parents she lost.
“Grandpa, what will happen if the fighting comes here?”
“Terrible things. It’s war, you need only know that.” What would a man give to save his only blood? Alfred didn’t know what he could do, but he would do all he could bear. His son and daughter-in-law deserved the sacrifice. He owed them.
Down his cobbled street, lantern poles cast shadows in accord with a vivid moon, the light cutting across the mill of frightened people. The spectacle convinced him how futile it would be seek refuge in the city center. He grimaced, disgusted at the foolhardy of his neighbors plying their way to a vane hope, possessions clipping their heels and slowing their steps. “Fools.”
“Nothing. Let’s get inside.” The edge of his oak door pinched between his aged fingers. He pulled the frame open with a scrape of wood on stone eased by the dew.
“I don’t like it here. It isn’t cold, but the air still makes me shiver.” Lilly took a couple small steps backwards into their house, the front of her pink dress bunched in her fists. A warm glow from a single lantern flickered from behind her, casting her shadow in a dark sway at her feet.
“Neither do I.” The door creaked mournfully as he began to close it, pausing at the distant howl of a horn. One blast, then two, and finally three the horn blew. He shivered, old bones and all. “Lilly, run upstairs and…”
“What was that sound?” She cut him off, her usual demanding approach to discovering what she didn’t understand.
“It doesn’t matter. We might be able to exit the southern gate.” Alfred closed the heavy door and dropped the latch with a clang. It wouldn’t do much, but it might give them a few seconds. “Now run upstairs and grab the pack you use for picnics and fill it with clothes and everything you can’t leave behind.”
“Are we not coming back?”
“No we’re not.”
“Where are we going?”
“Remember my friend Mildred?”
“Yes, she makes great soup!”
“She does. Well, we are going to sneak out the castle and head up the eastern road till we get to her village.”
“But, won’t that take awhile?”
“It will. A couple of days probably, but not of concern. Now no more questions, go!”
Her face paled with shock, she spun and ran up the steps to her small room.
Alfred felt bad for yelling at her, but haste or the lack thereof was deadly. A scream came from outside. His neighbors would have to take care of themselves. Ignoring it as best as he could, he shuffled through the house as best as he could, his limbs tender to the rigid movements forced on them.
A banging on the door drew his attention and he grabbed the nearest item he could use as a weapon, procuring a poker from the fireplace across the room. The banging didn’t stop and someone yelled on the other side of the door, but he couldn’t make out what they said. Sweat streaked down his cheek as he moved the distance to the door. “Who is it?”
Lilly came running back down stairs. “What’s going on?”
“Don’t worry yourself. Go back upstairs.”
The banging continued and Lilly hadn’t moved. “Go! Stay upstairs till I call you. Now go!”
She sprinted up the stairs.
He placed his ear to the frame and the voice became discernible.
“Let me in you old fool.”
“I said let me in.”
“No. Who are you?”
“You really are getting senile, I’m your next-door neighbor, Henry. Unlock the door!”
Alfred snorted. “You’re not coming in.” He didn’t trust Henry a wit, and besides, the man smelled of dusty books.
“Have it your way. I just wanted to tell you the southern gate is blocked. There is no way out of the city. Messengers are running down the street, saying the city has surrendered and all citizens are to go to the Central Square.”
Alfred almost spit, but refrained, thinking of Lilly. He stopped a lot of things since his granddaughter moved in. “Of course! They would want us in one big circle. Easier to kill us. Henry, don’t tell me you’re following this foolhardy? You were smarter than most of the lot around here.”
“What choice do I have? It is better than running around like a cat and dog, before I get cut down. I would rather take a little chance of survival than none at all. They say we’re going to become citizens of the Empire. As long as they leave us in a peace I’m fine with that. You must go. You have to think of Lilly. Give her a chance!”
“Foolishness.” Alfred shuffled from the door, effectively muffling Henry’s pleas. He went about his packing, trying to figure out another way out of the city. Within a few minutes the man outside ceased his banter. Lilly inched down the stairs. Alfred lifted his left eyebrow in question.
“The man outside stopped yelling and you didn’t say I could come down so I thought I would check and see if it is alright.”
“Can I come down, grandpa?”
“I don’t see your pack, so the answer is no.”
She darted up the stairs, ebony curls dancing behind her.
“Change into something better for traveling!” Alfred tossed his jacket in the corner, walked to his desk, and pulled back his chair to sit, banging his knee in the process. It knocked him off balance. He teetered, grasping for the chair before he fell. The world spun. He tried to break his fall with his arms, but then he knew he would need his hands more than any part of his body, and he let his hip take the brunt of the fall while his shoulder the rest. Pain erupted in his side and his vision went black.
When he opened his eyes Lilly sat beside him, but he couldn’t hear her. Finally his hearing returned and he noticed tears stretched like long lines down her face. “What has got you all a fluster?”
“You were on the floor, and and I was worried and I don’t know what to do.”
“Hush yourself. Now help me into my chair.”
She tucked her small frame under his shoulder pushed up with her legs, while he grabbed the edge of the desk. With a bit of grunting, Alfred sat upright in his chair, left out of breath. His granddaughter crumbled at his feet, exhausted. A pain walked along his chest. At first he worried it might be his heart giving out, but he quickly realized it brooded deeper, beyond his physical ailments. He gave Lilly his hand, pulling her to her feet. A fresh stab of pain in his side drew his attention. He couldn’t walk and even sitting in place hurt.
“What now, grandpa?”
Alfred had no idea. “Do you have your pack with you?”
“Yes.” She held out a small satchel with a stuffed doll sticking out of a corner.
“You remember the picnics we used to go on?”
“Good, I want you to gather all the food we normally take on a picnic and stuff it into your bag.”
“But grandpa, there’s no more room in my bag.”
Another jolt of pain shot through his side and he suppressed a wince. He didn’t want to frighten Lilly and so waited a moment to regain his bearings. “You’ll have to take some out. Be quick about it and go!”
She ran around the steps into the kitchen without arguing.
Alfred exhaled a sigh of relief. Now to figure out how to save her. He dug into his desk, opening drawers and threw everything about him in such haste it seemed like a waterfall of paper, quills, ink bottles, and more cascaded over his shoulders. He withdrew an old piece of parchment wrapped around a copper tube and almost tossed it aside before an itch of a memory made him stop. He laughed, a deep chuckle escaped unbidden from his chapped lips. He knew the idea was absurd, but it felt right, much like he used to feel after hearing good news he had prayed for coming true. It was an outrageous project he spent a number of years working on, while never quite getting it right. Eventually, he had set it aside for later speculation and must have forgotten it.
Unrolling the parchment revealed scribbled notes along the edge of an intricately sketched tube with the purpose of transforming time into fire. It would transfer the prayers of the wielder into a burning luminance of a desired shape by shortening the time it would take for the prayer to come true and filtering it through the device as a fiery projection. Originally, he hoped it would become a holy relic, a tool of immense power to smite evil, along with blessing him with praise from his fellow clergy.
Alfred set the parchment on the table and held the instrument in his hands, the cold metal chilling his sweaty palms. The chill reminded him of death. He shivered. Could he get it to work? The light could only enter from one point, where it was supposed to exit, a magnifying lens he procured from a rare spyglass. The device would be easy to wield, even Lilly, with her small hands, could use it.
A strategy for escape built in his head, hinging on the device, as a smile creased his lips. Once the bulk of the army passed their house, Lilly could slip out and leave the city, using the device to fend off straggling soldiers. Then she could head north to the country village of Hampsteep, which has skirted most of the fighting. But, how to get the light into the tube?
“Grandpa, I was able to get food in the pack.”
Alfred hadn’t seen her come back in the room. “That’s good. What did you take?” The doll still stuck out of the bag, but with more of it exposed.
“The rest of the loaf of bread we got from the baker yesterday, a small block of cheese, two apples, a small sack of rice, and a couple carrots.”
Some of Alfred’s concern eased due to his surprise at how much she was able to pack. “Well done. Now Lilly, I need you to do one more thing.”
“Run into my bedroom and in the closet you will find my coffer. Can you get it for me?”
“Why do you need it?”
“Because, we’ll need the money for our trip.”
“Alright.” Lilly gave a quick nod of satisfaction and darted across the room slipping into the door to the left.
Returning to his desk, he opened the device, pride swelled his chest, the inner mechanism was more intricate than he remembered. He even designed a miniature grinding stone to create a spark, which created small flashes of light, but not to the effect he hoped. He adjusted the gears to leave room for a final instrument, as to what he didn’t yet know. The rolling thump of countless footsteps echoed up the street towards their house. He hoped the soldiers passed them unnoticed. Where was Lilly? She should have been back with the box. After a quick inspection, he saw a lump in the curtain of the window next to the door. “Lilly get away from there! We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”
She backed away, stumbled, fell, and lost her grip on the box, which spilled its contents on the floor in a wild spray of letters, trinkets, and jewelry. Lilly’s face was ashen and her mouth opened and closed in a slow motion much like a dying fish out of water.
“Lilly! Come here, come here.” Alfred knew if he left the chair he might not be able to get back up. But, his granddaughter laid on the floor, shaking and terrified as if the life already drained out of her. Alfred dumped out the contents of a box and put the device inside it, set it on the floor, and shoved it in Lilly’s direction. He then tried to inch himself towards the floor using his right hand to grab the edge of the desk, but as soon as his full weight pulled on his arm, he collapsed and struck the floor on his injured side. Shock splintered his vision and pain quickened his pulse. He thought he heard a thudding sound, it could have been the sound of him hitting the ground or someone striking the door. He ignored it, forcing his eyes to narrow on Lilly. A whimper release from her lips, the only sound so far and not one to ease his worry.
Alfred dragged his pain-wracked frame towards her, pushing the box in front of him as he scattered trinkets, dashed on the floor earlier. Something wet oozed down his leg, but he dared not look. He must get to Lilly. Pulling himself the last few spaced, he reached her side. He let a hand rest on her small quaking shoulder. “Lilly, it is grandpa. Don’t worry I’m here. I need you to look up at me, please.”
After a moment she lifted her eyes, smeared with the wetness of fear. “You don’t know, grandpa, you don’t know what they did…what they are doing.”
“It’s alright, don’t think about it. I want you to concentrate on something. Clear your mind for now. Think on…think on…” Alfred searched both around him and in his thoughts for a suggestion to help his granddaughter deal with her grief. Then he saw what he needed on the floor. A small trinket, full of meaning and history, a ring, old in its design, passed down to him, then to his son, his son to his daughter-in-law and back to him. He couldn’t explain how it would make the device work. Maybe, because it symbolized an unanswered prayer, which went dark with the death of his child. He just knew it would bring the weapon to life, a gut feeling, which turned his innards like a mortar and pestle, grinding the herbs for an unique and rare elixir. The golden ring glowed from a deep green emerald intricately mounted as its centerpiece. With a bit of biting and bending he was able to get the gem out. “Now Lilly, this was your mother’s. I was going to give it to you on your birthday, but now…just consider it an early present.”
She grabbed at it, but Alfred snatched it behind the closed fist of his wrinkled fingers.
“No, I want you to imagine it. Capture its image in your mind. Close your eyes. Do you see it?”
She nodded her head.
“Good. Now take that terrible memory and place it inside the jewel for safe keeping so you don’t have to think about it till you’re ready. Now open your eyes. Better?”
She hesitated, but finally responded in a pale whisper. “Yes.”
Banging sounded at the door followed by yelling.
Alfred opened up the device, took the system of gears, fixed the gem to one end, and inserted it into the tube. The banging on the door increased.
“Grandpa, they’re coming!”
He closed the tube. Nothing happened. Lilly stared up at him with red-rimmed eyes. It must work. He shook it, but still no light. The door started to crack at the hinges.
“It must work!” Alfred prayed and prayed pouring himself into the device. Then something caught as if an invisible force from inside the weapon latched onto him. He opened his eyes, and to his amazement a flicker of green light appeared inside the lens. He closed his eyes prayed some more and it grabbed on him as if it took a part of his spirit and filtered it into the light. His energy drained and his head spun, but to his amazement and delight the device projected a long green blade of light curved at the tip shinning like the rays of a foreign moon. It reminding him of the sword he had seen at the Grand Temple Hall during his inauguration into the priesthood. “Now Lilly, put on your pack, take this weapon and leave the city. If anyone tries to hurt you point this at them, pray, and it will glow so bright it will scare them away.”
“What if they don’t run?”
“Then swing it at them and they wont be able to hurt you.”
“Don’t be. Run to your aunt’s house in Hampsteep and you’ll be safe.”
“But what about you grandpa? I can’t leave without you.”
The pounding change to splintering thunks as the assailants used sharper tools to breach the door.
Alfred didn’t know how to answer her. He couldn’t move and he was afraid she wouldn’t leave as long as he was here. “I’ll be with you, but…inside in this.” He dreaded the thought, but he saw no other option.
“How?” Tears fell down her face, dark curls matted to her cheeks.
“Just…trust me. Feel inside this device and you will find…”
The door crashed open, splinters of wood flying over their heads as two men stumbled in, swords gleaming in an eerie green light. Alfred prayed. He prayed with such devotion his soul seemed to cringed in pain as the nature of his being fought his very will. He had never been so intent in all his life so driven with purpose. Letting his whole being fall into it, he gave his soul to the device. He felt no pain, only a sense of losing oneself, of melding or becoming something else. He heard a distant voice.
“What do we have here?” The soldiers laughed to each other. Alfred couldn’t discern their actions, but anger built in him cudgeled by the men’s arrogance and his granddaughter’s danger.
Green brilliance, screams of pain, and the soft padding of small feet was all Alfred knew. He could see very little, but he moved. He heard a soft voice calling to him, yet he couldn’t make out the words. It’s as if life became a dream. Fear oozed into him like oil over clear water. He was trapped in a boundless world with only a verdant radiance for companionship. Then a soothing warmth slaked his panic. It was Lilly. Somehow she was able to reach him with her thoughts.
Alfred didn’t understand what was being said, but he did know she was safe. He had become the device, scorching luminance, the weapon to her salvation and death had not seen her nor shall it.