A layer of snow had begun to form, and my heavy footfalls became even louder because of it.
I could smell it now. The wind had shifted. What had been clean, if but cold, air was now… tainted.
That wasn’t just wood being burnt.
Looking up, I grimaced at the black smoke. I could just barely see the forming cloud of ash and smog through the treetops against the morning sky.
“Again?” I picked up my already strained pace as I cursed at myself.
The smell grew stronger as I rushed forward, ignoring the tree branches and limbs that tugged and scraped as I ran by. I ignored the herd of deer that had jumped up from their grazing spot, scattering in all directions as I passed them. I ignored the horrible truth that was deep down in my heart.
Through some trees, I finally made out the small village. The beginning of it. The familiar small storage building which the village used to store wood.
Bursting through the last row of trees, I slowed my pace as I approached what remained of the village.
Although the village was small, and nothing had really been built near one another… it didn’t take long for me to take the whole area in sight. Especially since most of the buildings were already leveled. Already burnt to the ground.
Walking past the storage building, and the crackling fire that was growing large, I noticed the small field of blackness between it and a nearby house. The fire had spread, even with the snow falling.
“Again…” I growled, and tried to smell through the disgusting truth in the air. I tried to not just see if anyone was alive, but smell them too… and…
Tracks of feet and hooves scattered the area around the village. I heard no horses, and knew that the village hadn’t had any. They had no need for them. Which meant…
“Is anyone alive?” I shouted, and did my best to strain my ears. I ignored the sounds of the few fires still burning. I ignored the sounds of the light wind, brushing the scattered snowflakes onto the still hot ashes and embers; causing them to sizzle.
I ignored the silence that hid behind all that.
“It’s Vim!” I shouted, a little louder. Hoping for a response. Even if from one of the assailants. Especially from them.
Heading deeper into what had been the village center; I realized that most of the buildings had been set aflame. A few were still somewhat standing, and only three were still actually on fire… but…
My eyes finally found them, and my feet finally stopped for good.
Taking a deep breath, I studied the pile. Did my best to count them. Although burnt and charred, most looked to be in… one piece… so…
Seventeen, it seemed. Give or take a few.
That was everyone, if so.
I forced my feet forward, closer to the burnt pile, and hated the reality before me.
“Again,” I accepted, staring at one of the sections. It was hard to tell, but I could see it. The forms. The parents, holding a child.
Blinking watery eyes, I glanced around. To see if there were any other bodies. Any human ones.
I couldn’t see any… but humans sometimes buried their dead. Or maybe they had simply thrown them into the pile with the very people they just mercilessly slaughtered.
When I had smelled the pile, on the wind earlier, I had partly hoped it had not been all of them… sometimes the humans took the women and children alive. For one purpose or another. Which meant there was a chance to save them. At least them.
Not this time it seemed.
Which meant the perpetrator was pretty obvious. Any brigands, or mercenaries, would have taken them. For money. For amusement.
There were only one kind of humans who would burn even women and children. Even if they had non-human traits.
“Again,” I said to myself, and enjoyed how much pain it brought me to admit it.
I had let it happen again!
Something cracked nearby, and then I heard a piece of heavy wood fall. For a moment the forest around me echoed with the sound… as if it was trying to tell me, again and again, of my failure.
I didn’t need to be reminded.
Taking a deep breath, I looked away from the pile of burnt corpses and closed my eyes. All it did was make me feel worse, since it made me smell the stink of failure even better.
Stepping around the pile, I did my best to scan the houses and buildings around me. For any hint or hope, of possibly a sign of a survivor… or maybe a hint at which group had done the deed.
It had to have been the church, but which one? There weren’t as many as there used to be in the past, but there were still several. And in this region alone I knew of three.
Of course, even if I knew which one… did it matter? I’d try to get revenge, but it’s not like it’d bring them back.
It’s not like it’d make up for my failure.
But it’d make me feel better, if only for a short time.
Walking around the village, studying the place… I began to notice the footprints. Heavy ones. And not of our kind. Those here had been foxes. Light in weight, and their voices even…
“Again,” I cursed myself, and buried the thoughts down. As deep as I could get them, with all the rest.
Passing a well, which had not been burnt or destroyed, I knew the truth of the heavy footprints.
Knights in armor. Which meant it was likely the church of saints. Although all of the churches had knights, and armies too, only they in this region were powerful enough to field a lot of them at once.
Though… it’d not have taken an army to bring down this village.
Reaching the largest house, or at least what was left of it, I played back a few memories of staying here. The chief of this village hadn’t even been one of us, but a human. A woman who had married into our little society, who even when she had lost her husband had chosen to stick around and support them. To cherish them.
Odds were she was amongst that pile too.
These people had been good. Simple. Gentle. Foxes, although predators, were like the rest who had survived until now. Meek. Feeble. Not the kind to wage war, but to hide. To run.
Why hadn’t they ran?
With a dry mouth I slowly turned around and wondered how it had happened. They were the type to flee at the first sign of danger. Yet they hadn’t. They probably hadn’t even fought back. The main reason why none of the attacker's bodies had been left behind.
The main reason there was no blood anywhere, staining the ground.
They had easily been rounded up and tied together, and set aflame.
Why didn’t humans think about that? Why didn’t they ever notice?
How could they be monsters, when all they do is cry and beg and plead and…
“Again!” I growled at myself, and with it noticed my raspy voice.
Yes. I had ran hard, and far. And…
Remembering the well, I wondered if the bucket was still usable. It hadn’t looked broken, but…
Walking back to the well, I grabbed the rope, and noticed it was unraveled. With a small tug, I felt the weight of something. The bucket was not only still attached, but submerged.
I began pulling the bucket up, and as I did I felt the familiar feel of weight. It was full of water.
As I pulled it up, I did my best to not glance around. To not look at the remnants of chaos all around me. To not remind myself I was surrounded by not just failure, but death and…
With a tug, something snapped. The rope suddenly went taught, then became lighter… and I knew that the rope had broken.
So it hadn’t escaped being damaged… maybe the rope had been caught on fire somewhere along itself, but had fallen into the well… and…
“Kya!” a shrill shriek rang up from the well, as something splashed, and then the bucket hit stone.
Hurriedly looking down the well, my breath caught at the sight of shadows below. The water was splashing, a bucket laid on a lap and…
Grabbing the stone for support, I smiled as I stared down at the frightened eyes. The familiar gleam of their reflection told me it was one of us.
“It’s me. Vim,” I said calmly, trying my best to not sound too excited. I heard my voice echo down to her, and noticed I hadn’t done well at hiding it.
“Vim…?” a tiny voice called back, and I recognized the young tone of it. A child. A young girl.
I remembered there had been three. Who was she? “Are you alright? One moment, I’ll help you out of there,” I said to her.
“I… I!” she started to say something, but her composure hadn’t lasted. Stepping away, to look around for something to help get to her… I realized I was probably going to have to just climb down then back up. Everything around here was burnt.
Once I was sure there was no other rope or anything around, I went to climb into the well. It wasn’t that large, and it was old. I’d have no trouble climbing back up it.
“I’m coming down to get you,” I said loudly, trying my best to be comforting.
“Okay,” came back a sad voice. A single world that had undoubtedly been forced in-between tears and heartbreak.
“Did you fall down here?” I asked her.
“N…no… daddy pushed me in,” she said.
The well was a little too wide for me to just reach out my arms to both sides, so I had to carefully navigate down. Choosing broken stones, which were stuck out a little farther than the rest were. Although I wanted to hurry down there to her, I didn’t want to slip and fall. Last thing I needed was for me to kill her by falling onto her.
I needed to protect her. She was a miracle. To have survived was…
“Are you hurt?” I asked, glancing down. She was close. I could make out her ears. They were drooped, and soaked, but she was undoubtedly a fox.
“I… I don’t think so. The bucket hit my head, and…”
Drawing closer, I watched as she rubbed the back of her head, behind her large fox ears. She looked at her hand afterward, as if expecting blood, but I didn’t see any glistening. But she was also soaked, and looked to have been for some time.
Unable to climb back up. Or even maybe, too afraid to, even if she could…
Once I was near her, she stood up, as to give me room.
Dropping the last bit of distance, I landed in the water and noticed… it wasn’t deep at all. The water only came to my thighs, and I felt the murky mud beneath, though my boots.
This well had almost run dry. How I wish I had come here to find them asking me to dig them a new well, instead of this…
“I’m Vim. Do you remember me?” I asked her. It’s been many years since I’ve been here, and…
She wasn’t that tall. Even accounting her ears, which were nearly half a foot in height, she only came to my waist. Most of her body was submerged.
“I do. You’re the protector,” she said, and I noticed the hope in her voice.
With a small breath, I did my best to smile. “Yes. I am. Are you hurt anywhere? Think you can hold onto my neck so I can climb and get you out of here?” I asked her.
“I… I think so. I think I can,” she said, nodding.
“Good. Alright, come on. You look like you’re freezing,” I said.
She nodded quickly, and I felt the cold splash of droplets as she did so. Sure enough, as she clambered up onto my back, I felt the damp and frozen clothes she wore.
She’s been down here for awhile.
“How… how long ago did the sounds stop, from up there?” I asked her gently.
“A day,” was all she said.
Once she wrapped her arms around my neck, and clasped them, I nodded and found the path I had used to descend. A few of the stones down here were damp, but it wasn’t too difficult to get a foothold and begin climbing.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
“Lomi,” she said in my ear. She squeezed me tighter, as if for warmth. Her closeness made me feel her thick hair, made thicker by the water and mud she had been stuck in.
“I remember you. You were born at the same time as Pronda,” I said. It was why I had visited that year. To help them build a new house to accommodate the new family members.
She nodded and suddenly sobbed. I hesitated for a moment, mid-climb, but knew the reason for it.
She had probably watched her best friend die.
“Do you know who did this?” I asked her, hoping to change her sobbing sorrows to that of burning anger. Such anger kept people alive, sometimes.
“The Bishop,” she said, between a cry.
Bishop? “Which one?”
“I… I don’t know. They just said they were here because the Bishop had a dream.”
A dream. A prophecy. Or at least, what the humans called it.
But by who? From who?
Someone had to have told them. But who? There had only been a few humans in this village… and they had all been like that widow. Gentle, and true.
This village hadn’t even traded with others. It hadn’t been on a map. Hadn’t been…
“Vim… my… my family,” she said softly.
“I know,” I said back.
She squeezed me tighter. Although it didn’t bother me, it surprised me at how strong she were.
A young child. Barely ten years of age. Yet had the strength of a grown man.
If only they’d fight back.
“I’m sorry,” I said, as we reached the top of the well.
With a firm motion, I pulled the two of us out. I made sure not to whack her head on the top of the well’s roof as I did so, but I knew her ears had probably brushed it.
Stepping a few feet from the well, I wondered if I should walk her over to one of the still burning fires. Would another set of clothes be around here? A few of the buildings weren’t burnt that bad… I was going to have to find something for her to wear. Or at least, she was going to have to dry what she had on.
Even though our kind weren’t as weak as humans, they could still succumb to such cold. Especially the children…
Lomi began to shiver, and I knew it wasn’t because of the wind. Although I hadn’t looked at the pile in the distance, I could feel her staring at it.
“They screamed,” she whispered.
“I know,” I whispered back. While she still clung to my back, I headed for the building that was farthest from the pile. Luckily one of the farthest houses was still somewhat on fire. I’d be able to use it to make a small campfire for her to dry off at.
“They screamed!” she cried, burying her face into my neck.
She sobbed, and I hated how familiar I was with the sound. How familiar I was with this whole thing.
“Momma…!” her heart broke, again.