She held back her sobs as best she could as she pressed herself against the old wood of the barn. She had crammed herself in the small space between an open stall door and the wall where she hoped the shadows would hide her from the invaders.
The hamlet had been warned of possible raiding during the war, but she never thought it would actually happen. The countryside surrounding them was peaceful, the nearest neighbors being the orc tribe, which was full of artisans and craftsmen. Warriors too, of course, but they had always been civil with each other.
It hadn’t been orcs that attacked, but creatures Evadne had been surrounded by from birth. Humans! Just like her, yet, so guiltless as they cut down mothers and their children. Why?! What were they doing to her village? They were nothing - small and peaceful. They farmed and sold their goods to traders from the capitol. They had nothing of worth to ransack either, unless they were after fresh heads of lettuce.
She stopped breathing when two men stopped before the open barn doors, one of which she was hidden behind. “There ain’t nothing ‘ere, Henry,” one of them grumbled in disdain. Evadne watched from the cracks as the man scrubbed a blooded hand over his stubbly face. “Girls too skinny too. No one’s gunna buy these ones.” Slavers. Of course, of course they were slavers! The lowest of any being - the scum of scum.
The other man, Henry, grunted and rolled his shoulders. “Stop yer whining. It ain’t that bad of a haul. Heard they found some beauties in that bakery.” Eva’s heart sunk. There were two twins that worked there with their father. Tiana and Maybelle. Friends she had known all her life. The other man cackled.
“Let’s go see the merchandise, aye? See if they worth keepin’ for a higher bidder.” The two chuckled and sulked off to the village center where survivors had been gathered by the attackers. Eva felt the bile sit heavy in her throat at the sight. Was her brother still alive? Or did they kill him when he dared to defend their home?
The tears fell silent down her cheeks as the sounds of destruction rang around her. Fires burned down rows of homes, mothers cried out for slain husbands and sons. Children screamed in fear. Footsteps to her left-
She whimpered and whipped her head around at the new intruder. “Hush,” the stranger murmured from where they snuck toward her, hidden in the shadows and by the thick black cloak that obscured them. “You want to live, don’t you?” Their voice was deep and rolled with a growl. Eva couldn’t see a face within the hood, but her mind was too filled with fear to search for features. “Do not make a sound. They think all are captured.” He held out a hand to her from the shadows and she stared at it in disbelief. “Come. Hurry.”
Eva had no choice. It was either trust this stranger, or take her chances and wait out in a barn that was catching fire as they speak. Her fingers felt numb when she slipped them into his grasp, his leather gloves warm to the touch. He curled her palm in his grip and tugged her from her hiding spot, into his side. “We must move fast and without noise. Follow closely.”
“Hush,” his voice was a low snarl as he pulled her around the corner of the barn, careful to keep them far from the sights of the slavers. “Ask me anything you wish once we are far from here.” She swallowed hard and let him lead her behind homes. The ones that were covered in flames brought tears to her eyes, but he tucked her under his cloak and to his side to block the smoke from her vision. She let her hand slip from his to instead grasp tight to the leather brigandine that protected his chest.
He held her still to him when he had to press tight against a still intact home, a small group of slavers dragging two screaming children toward the center. Eva didn’t dare look to see the faces of children she had no doubt taught to read. Once they passed, her mysterious savior moved them swiftly again, but this time, he made haste to disappear into the sparse treeline that fed into the forest behind the village’s small cottages. She didn’t know how long or how far they travelled into the brush, but when he next stopped, the trees around them were thick and dense. She could no longer hear cries for help or the crackle of burning wood. The only noise around them was her shaky breathing and birdsong.
“We are far enough, I believe. I doubt those fools will check for runners this far-”
“Who are you?” Eva cried out, tears fat as they rolled down her cheeks. “What happened?! W-What… Why did this happen?” She sobbed and fell to her knees, hiccuping as she broke down.
His hand was heavy on her shoulder when he kneeled beside her. “Easy… Easy. Take a breath. Deeply, yes, that’s good,” he coached as she shuddered in air. “I am… Atticus. I was at your village’s inn for rest. I saw you go into hiding - I had to wait until they would not see me.”
“Why me?” She gasped, finally able to breathe again. She looked at him, only to find that the face hidden with the hood was masked by a simple iron helm, the only opening slits for his eyes. They were too shadowed for her to see a thing.
“You were the only one who was quick enough to hide. All the others… well, the slavers had already sniffed them out. It was a miracle I was even able to get one out.”
Eva said nothing to that, but she did let her shoulders sag in defeat. She was exhausted, mentally and physically. Atticus slipped an arm around her waist and helped to stand her back up. “Come, let’s make haste. The night can only cover us for so long. By daybreak, we should be able to come across that settlement to the west.” Numb, Eva let Atticus lead her once more, his hand the only thing real to her from where it gently steered her from her back.
He had been right, they mysterious Atticus, that they would make it to the settlement to the west by the time light broke across the horizon. The streets were empty besides the few early birds, so they slipped undetected into the Porkbelly Inn. The inside was warm, but Eva was too tired to acknowledge anything. “Greetings,” Atticus murmured to the lone human woman who was preparing for the day.
“And to you,” she replied smoothly, her skeptical eyes checking them over. “What can I do for you two travellers?”
“A room, if you can spare one. My companion and I have had a long night and want nothing more than to sleep peacefully in a bed.” Atticus’ voice did not waver in it’s half-truth, but the owner seemed to be wary of them.
Eva gained enough strength to lean heavily onto Atticus, who shifted to hold her around the waist. “Please ma’am…” she whimpered. The woman’s eyes softened at Eva’s act. “It’s a small kindness we would greatly appreciate.”
“Of course, dear,” the owner responded. “Just give me a moment, will you? I’ll have my husband prepare a room for you two.”
“Thank you. You are very kind,” Atticus thanked, his hand giving Eva’s waist a gentle squeeze. Once the woman had scurried into a door to the right, he sighed with a short chuckle. “Well done. She seemed awfully suspicious before you spoke up.”
Eva hummed and let her eyes close. “Well, wouldn’t you be? Two strangers - one hidden behind a mask and cloak, the other a girl covered in dirt and ash in nothing but a peasant dress - nothing about that is very not suspicious.” He chuckled again, but it died in his throat when the woman emerged again, but this time, not alone.
A towering minotaur followed from behind her, his face still sluggish with sleep. “Odin will take you to your room,” the woman supplied. “We’ll collect payment when you awake. You both look dead on your feet.” Her eyes were mainly on Eva in her sympathy, and Eva gave her a grateful smile while resting her head on Atticus’ broad chest. “Shoo now! Come down whenever you wish for a meal!”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Atticus bowed his head toward her and urged Eva gently to follow the minotaur Odin as he silently made his way up the staircase. The man took them to the second to last door on the frontside of the inn. He unlocked the door, swung it open, and dropped the key in Atticus’ waiting hand. “If you need anything, go ahead and ask Teresa.” Ah, his wife, no doubt. “Besides that, sleep well.”
Atticus offered another thanks that Odin just waved off as he made his way back down the stairs. Eva entered the room first, and stared blankly at nothing in particular. Atticus shut and locked the door behind them. “You may sleep first,” he offered as he unslung a pack from under his cloak, one she had not noticed before. “I’ll return soon, just to see what this town has to offer-”
“No,” she croaked and turned to grasp at his arms, eyes wide. “Please, no. What if they come for me?” She was being irrational, she knew this. The slavers didn’t even know she had escaped. They weren’t going to hunt her down. Yet, the irrational part of her fed off of that fear. “Don’t go,” she whimpered.
The mask hid his expression from her, but he tilted his head in sympathy. “You mustn’t worry, you are safe here. If it will help though, I will stay until you fall asleep. Is that alright?”