Hero
By: Stephanie Bardy

Light filtered through the gaps in the thatch roof playing gently across his wife's face. She looked so peaceful, so content, so worry free. He was loathe to wake her, for when he did, that look would be gone. Merrik rolled on to his back and studied the spaces he had to fix before he left. The rainy season was coming and those cracks were a serious concern. He could hear his children whispering from their loft on the other side of the small cabin. Trying so hard to be quiet in the early morning light. A giggle broke from the whispers, and he could hear his oldest son shushing the littlest one.

"Hush Cailyn, the ogre and his wife are still asleep under the bridge, if you wake them they will gobble us all up!" This brought forth another round of giggles, this time from the remaining three.

"Sounds like the pack is awake." said Shannia, his wife. He turned his head and looked at her sleepy eyes, and smiled.

"Did you know I was an ogre? I think we should do something about that." he whispered. Shannia giggled into her pillow, a twinkle washing a way the sleep from her eyes.

Silently the two slipped from their bed, and crept along the floor towards the ladder to the loft. The four children, two boys and two girls, whispered to each other, unaware of what their parents were planning.

The two crossed the floor avoiding all the creaking boards, and when Merrik stood underneath the loft at the ladder, he let out a loud roar.

"Who dares to disturb the slumber of the Ogre Under the Bridge?" Shrieks and squeals exploded from the loft.

"Not I" said Cortyn, the oldest boy. Merrik winked at Shannia and she thumped the underside of the loft floor with the broom handle. Giggles burst from the girls and they could hear them scrambling around from bed to bed.

"I ask again, who dares to wake the Ogre Under the Bridge?"

"Not us!" twins and second oldest, Malynna and Morren said in unison. Merrik reached out and shook the ladder until it thumped loudly against the wood floor.

"My belly is empty and needs filling! I ask again, who woke the Ogre Under the Bridge!?" he bellowed trying to keep the mirth out of his voice. Shannia had long given up and hid her giggles behind her hand.

Katya, the youngest at five whispered softly "It was me, Mr. Ogre. Are you going to eat me now?"

"Yes I am!" roared Merrik playfully from the bottom of the ladder. He was just about to ascend when a loud knock came from the front door.

Shannia turned to answer it, but something in Merrik's gut pulled her back. "Let me, you go up with the children." He said.

She climbed the ladder as he crossed the floor to the door. Opening the small window in peered out into the faint light of dawn. Bolin's face popped into view. His craggy feature's that were usually so full of laughter and light, were now creased in worry. He had to bend down a bit so Merrik could see his face in the small window in the door. He was a huge man, both in height and breadth. Hard farm work and pounding iron for the local blacksmith had made him a force to reckon with. Not much put that look of worry on his face. Merrik slide the hasp in the door and opened it wide to accommodate his friend.

"What brings you ‘round this early? I thought we were meeting in the square at full light?" said Merrik concern starting to tinge his voice.

Bolin sat heavily at the table, making the legs of the chair creak under him. "We were. Things have changed during the night. Ren Daul has… " he broke off his sentence as Shannia and the kids descended the ladder from the loft. Merrik could see the worry on his wife's face and how she hid it when she turned to her babies. "Boys you go and collect milk from the goat's and girls you get the eggs. I will be along shortly to help." She ushered them out the door and turned towards Merrik and Bolin. "Tell me." she said.

He should have known that he couldn't keep anything from her, she always knew. "We are forming an army of men from the town and outlaying area's to strike at Ren Daul's army that lies on our southern border. I wanted to tell you.." Shannia raised her hand, silencing Merrik. She then turned to Bolin.

"What has changed?" she asked.

Bolin looked at Merrik and he nodded slightly indicating his permission for Bolin to speak freely.

"I will not tell you the exact details, but Sister Mandara and the orphans were attacked last night. All souls lost. Right down to the tiniest babe in arms. It was a slaughter. All found in their beds. None had even the chance to get to safety. Ren Daul took the Monastery and his army have formed a base camp there. Within the borders. Less than an hour's ride from town."

Shannia sat at the table across from Bolin and took the big man's hands in hers. He looked up to see compassion and gentleness in her eyes, and it soothed his aching heart just a little. "If all were still abed, then they did not suffer. Not as they could have. Take some comfort in that." She turned to Merrik. "You must go, fight for what is ours, for the safety of all in this town. For our children."

Merrik looked at the love of his life, his soulmate and knew he may never see her again. Pressing a kiss to the top of her head he too sat at the table. "Tell me old friend, what is the plan now?"

Bolin explained that after taking the monastery the men had raided the wine cellar and lay in a drunken sleep. Now would be their best shot at victory. Strike when the enemy is weak. The two spent the next hour mapping out the best ways to enter, who should lead from what side and so forth. Shannia made coffee, fed the children and set them outside to play with strict instructions to stay close to the house.

After Bolin left, Merrik stood for a long time watching his children play. Shannia wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head against his back. "It is time my husband." Merrik heaved a sigh and turned in Shannia's arms. Holding her tightly he felt her tears through his shirt. Cupping her face he kissed her with all the love he felt for her, drinking her in one last time. He knew he would probably die in battle, but he would die for her, for their children.

Strapping his sword to his waist and slinging his bow across his back he called to his children. "Cortyn, you are man here while I am gone. Do as your Mama says and help her as I would. Watch your siblings and protect them should the need arise." The boy nodded his head solemnly. He scooped his children into a hug, kissing each of them and breathing in the smell of innocence and sun kissed hair. He strode across the courtyard to his horse and mounted him with one swift motion. Taking one last look at his family, his home, he rode for the center of town.

Shannia watched him ride down the road until she couldn't see him any more. Her hero. Her heart. He never was one to back down from a fight if innocents were hurt. He didn't start them, but most often he finished them. He had the heart of a solder but had given up those ideals when he met her. Love was the strongest hardest battle he had ever fought. One he had fought against himself. They had a happy life, but she would catch him, every once in a while, with that far away look in his eyes, and knew he thought about it. Now he could go, fight for something real, something worthwhile. He would always be her hero, but now he could prove it to himself.

Many of the women stayed in the town square, wailing as their men left but Shannia had chosen to remain at home going about her daily routine. Laundry snapped sharply on the line, the girls were churning the goats milk into butter and the boys were chopping wood. It was as normal as it could be when she smelled something. It was faint, almost not there, but it grew stronger as the wind changed course. She turned towards town and saw large plumes of smoke rising from the houses. It was late summer so no fires would be burning large enough to create that amount of smoke. Fear wove its way through her like a serpent and she gathered the children, pointing silently at the town. She scooped up Kayta and they ran for the barn. Inside was a trap door in the floor with a tiny room for them to hide in. She ushered the children in and climbed in after them. Sliding the door into place she made sure not to disturb any of the straw on top so it blended with the rest of the floor.

She could hear the men approaching now. They laughed and cajoled each other. She could hear them stomping around in the house smashing things, then she smelled it again. That faint smell she caught on the wind. It was the smell of wood burning, of thatch burning. They had set the house on fire. Bolin had been unaware that the scout he had trusted was one of Ren Daul's men. As soon as the town had cleared and the menfolk were far enough away, the army had risen and attacked the town. With no one to defend it but women and children it soon fell.

Shannia pulled her children close and they all sat as silent as they could. She heard the sound of boots on the wood boards above their heads and Kayta began to whimper. Holding her close Shannia covered her ears and rocked her gently. As she looked up she saw the glow. Orange and red danced between the gaps of the floor and smoke wafted slowly down into the crawlspace. They had set the barn ablaze. There was no escaping.

Saying a quick spell she had learned from her grandmother she touched all 4 children on the head and they each fell into a deep sleep. Looking at their beautiful faces once more she altered the spell just a bit and soon she was fast asleep. A magical sleep where they would feel no pain, where would not suffer.

Smoke had almost filled the tiny space when the flames finally burst through the floor licking at the clothing of the sleeping. The fire raged well into the night, and by dawns light of the next day, nothing was left.

Not a living soul had survived in the town or the farms that lay on the outskirts. Ren Daul had destroyed them all. Thought the men may return as Hero's, they would return to nothing. Breaking them the only way you could. By breaking their heart and spirit.

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