As they rounded the next bend, the thick black smoke was more than visible as it engulfed a large building at the front of the village, or more accurately, the little cluster of houses. Serafina’s eyes were frozen on the site as she identified the building as the storehouse, her heart beating in anticipation and her mind already whirring ahead.
“Serafina,” Zoya called urgently.
Serafina tore her eyes away from the site and looked at Zoya questioningly.
“There’s a child in the building. Second floor, window on the left.” She paused until she saw Serafina’s eyes lock on the window then continued, “If we want to save it, we’ll have to act fast.”
Finn spoke after a moment, “I’ll go in.” It was more of a question than a statement though.
Serafina inhaled deeply in understanding as her eyes flickered back to the fire. They were looking to her for directions and leadership. Sometimes, she thought, being a princess had it’s vices. She’d never seen a raging fire before, never plunged into black smoke and deadly fumes. Only read about it and heard of the chaos it could cause. Yet now her friends were looking to her for an answer, and she wasn't sure she had one. She recalled everything she knew about fires, how they needed air, how the wind spread them and water smothered them. She calmed her racing mind with another deep breath and pulled her horse to such an abrupt stop that Finn and Zoya went a few more metres before they managed to pause.
They looked back to her in unison and saw her focused on the building, eyes scanning rapidly but not panicking yet. Zoya looked over too, and Finn heard her mutter something about foolish idiots. He was glad the comment wasn’t directed towards him for once. Around the base of the building, the villagers ran in panic, trying to throw little buckets of water on the raging fire, will others stood back and watched in horror, calling out vain orders that went unheeded.
“Serafina,” Zoya repeated impatiently, watching in disbelief as the princess swung down from her horse and started rummaging through her bag.
“Wait,” she replied patiently, bringing out the canteen. She took out a bandanna she’d carried and tore it in half, spilling the water onto it.
“What is she doing?” Finn asked Zoya.
“Heavens if I know,” Zoya muttered, “Serafina?”
“I should go before the fire spreads,” Finn said quietly, looking to the open window at the close end of the barn.
Serafina stood up, forcing the cloth into Finn’s hands and holding it there calmly while she spoke. “If you’re going in, keep this over your mouth. Climb up through the open window on this end and get the child. Meet us at the other end, the fire hasn’t spread there yet. Take my cloak. It’ll protect you from the fire.”
Finn hesitated, taking in for the first time the fierce determination and unwavering focus in her eyes, then nodded, “I trust you to know what you're doing.”
And he raced off before she had a chance to reply, scaling the window with athletic ease and sliding in through the window which was clouded by thick smoke.
Seeing him in, Zoya turned to Serafina. “When Finn jumps out of that window, he and the child will land with a lifeless splat. I assume you thought of that and have plans for us?”
Serafina indicated the people running around with her head, “We’ll need them too.”
“The headless flies?” Zoya asked, frowning unhappily.
Serafina was already running over, “Our job is to make sure Finn and the kid come out alive.”
“Sounds about right,” Zoya replied following.
“When I escaped the castle, I kept the silk material I used as the cloth for the glider,” Serafina began.
Understanding dawned in Zoya’s eyes, “We’re going to cushion their fall?”
“Yes,” Serafina replied, pausing before the people, wondering how to next proceed. She didn’t need to bother long, for one man turned and looked her way, his eyes immediately narrowing as suspicion clouded them.
“Hey, who the devil are you?” he yelled, and the other faces slowly ceased their activity to look at the new potential threat.
Zoya smirked as she replied to Serafina, “I’m feeling so welcomed,” then raised her voice to reply to the man, “We’re here to save your lousy, ungraceful-“
“Zoya!” Serafina cried, “We smelt the smoke and saw the fire, we’re here to help.”
“Go away foreigner,” another cried, “We’ve heard that line before.”
Serafina shook her head, indicating the storehouse, “That thing is lost. You can’t stop the fire now, but the child inside can be saved. Let us help you, trust us.”
Immediately, Serafina wanted to take the words back as suspicion flashed on their faces.
“Wrong choice of words,” Zoya muttered, eyeing the villagers as warily as they watched her.
Serafina inclined her head in acknowledgement and tried again. “My friend has scaled the building, and is looking for the child as we speak, in a minute he’ll be at that window,” Serafina paused to indicated the one she was talking about, and then continued, “And if we don’t move, right now, he’s going to burn alive and we’ll be standing here listening to his screams.”
Seraina swallowed briefly as the unpleasant thought occurred to her, then forged ahead, “Is that worth it? We are not pillagers, scavengers, nor do we intend you any harm or suffering. We want only to return your child to you; we too know what it’s like to lose someone.”
The man who’d previously appointed himself as leader took in the calm young lady before him, regarding her carefully. She was watching him unfazed and confident, and he saw no threat in her, despite the sword at her belt. He hesitated, her words too calm and genuine to warrant any suspicion.
A woman shoved him aside as he contemplated. “That’s my son in there,” she cried, ‘My son! If you can save him, speak!”
The man nodded hesitantly and gestured for Serafina to continue.
She nodded to them, hiding a smile as her mind did little flips and shouted out for joy. It wasn’t time for celebration yet. “Quickly then.”
The crowd of a dozen or so followed her hesitantly. She let the cloth she’d been holding billow out.
“Grab an edge,” she told them, “And hold on.”
They did so, slowly and in a bemused fashion, until a trickle of understanding dawned on them. Roughly assembled in the circle they all watched the window with worried eyes.
The leader coughed from the smoke and faced Serafina. “Are you sure this will work?”
“Yes,” Serafina replied with a calmness she didn’t feel, knowing she needed to believe it was, needed the others to believe it too. She refused to take her eyes off the window. A moment later Finn emerged holding the still child in his arms, and she felt herself let go off a silent breath as the people cried out in joy.
“Pull it tight,” Serafina called, and the man echoed her order.
“Jump,” they urged collectively.
Finn looked at the cloth in doubt, “Are you sure that’ll hold?”
“For God’s sake, jump boy,” one of the others shouted out.
Finn wrinkled his nose as he regarded the flimsy looking cloth, before his eyes teared up suddenly from the smoke and he was wracked with heavy coughing.
“Zoya,” Serafina whispered, her eyes creased with growing worry.
Zoya glanced at her, and raised her voice, “Finnikin, if you do not jump off that sill-"
And he jumped without another word, leaping out from the burning building with the child held firmly in his arms. He landed heavily, and the people cried out at the sudden weight, but it held. They lowered it to the ground and the worried mother ran over, taking the coughing child from Finn’s weak arms.
“Water,” he croaked.
Serafina ran over and pulled his head onto her lap, carefully letting the water drip into his parted lips. The townspeople gathered around, wanting to congratulate their hero and praise his courage and bravery, congratulate him and give him a slap on the back. In moments, the two were lost from sight by the surrounding crowd.
Zoya watched as Serafina fussed over Finn as he coughed and spluttered, before turning to the man next to her and muttering, “He’s faking it.”
“Here, take a shot of this,” a man said, passing a glass to Finn. A few people chuckled as they saw what he passed over.
“Brandy, really?” Finn asked, wrinkling his nose.
The man smiled slyly ”You don’t drink?”
“No,” Finn muttered, “I never said that.”
“Brandy?” Serafina asked, amused.
“Oh, to these villagers brandy is the cure for everything,” Finn replied, “Cuts, scrapes, sore throats, spider bites, you name it.”
Nobody denied the statement as they watched Finn curiously for a few more moments, waiting to see his decision. He shook his head lightly and they burst into laughter. Everyone laughed, even the older grandmothers and the little children. Serafina heard whispers of ‘how cute’ and ‘such innocence’ and ‘haha, he’s afraid’ and rolled her eyes lightly.
“Is this how one proves his manhood in the village?” she asked.
“Or lack of one,” Zoya offered dryly, stretching her arms casually and ignoring Finn’s scowl.
He took the glass from the man and gulped it down, his face contorted into what could only be described as utterly hilarious to the villagers and Zoya. Serafina shook her head in amusement and made no comment.
“What do you think?” The man asked grinning.
“It’s wonderful,” Finn managed to mutter darkly, coughing into his fist.
The man turned to Serafina and smiled cheekily, the mocking challenge evident in his eyes as he offered her the bottle.
She met them for a moment, then smiled. “I don’t think so.”
“Ah, another time then,” he replied shrugging, taking a swing himself and passing it around.
Finn attempted to glare at him suspiciously, but the glaring was really better left to Zoya. “Sure, when I don’t drink it’s because I’m not a man. When she doesn’t it’s just ‘another time’”
“I never claimed to be a man,” Serafina chipped in, “Hence I have nothing to prove, to you or to them. Or to myself.”
The man acknowledged her statement with a grin and nod, "Well said." He looked to Finn pointedly who raised his hands in surrender, seeing he was outnumbered.
A woman emerged a moment later carrying a tray laden with food and passed it around, further interrupting their debate.
Serafina saw Zoya shift in her seat, watching her keenly but silently, evidently trying to tell her something. She furrowed her eyes in confusion, and watched as Zoya subtly flicked her head to the side.
She followed the line of sight to the woman with the food tray, and her heart sank in sorrowful understanding.
As the woman came towards them, all three shook their heads unanimously. The man noticed and intervened, “Please, take some, don’t be shy.”
Serafina searched for the words to explain she couldn’t take what little food they had left without offending their courtesy, but Finn spoke first, “We thank you for your generosity, but we can’t possibly take any. I myself, am not going to let the taste of perfectly good food be spoiled by that... wonderful brandy. I’ll stick to my water, thank you very much.”
The last part was directed to the man, who grinned at Finn and sat down again, eating a slice of bread as if it were the finest food the world had to offer.
The woman smiled in amusement and continued on, not noticing as Finn winked to Serafina in understanding. As she finished her circle, an elder woman in the back spoke, softly and more to herself than anyone else. “And that’s that.”
“That’s all the food you have?” Serafina whispered, still not wanting to believe it.
The man nodded sadly. “All we had burnt in the barn. We may have food for another few days if we pile what we had lying around in the houses together...”
Serafina closed her eyes, “But not enough to last the winter.”
He shrugged uneasily, “We’ll find a way. It’s not your concern, Serafina. You’re a guest here tonight, you and your friends. We owe you for saving our young one.”
A few others rumbled their assent.
But it is my concern, Serafina thought fiercely, you all are.
Zoya ignored his comment and asked anyway, “Who was it?”
The man looked at the small girl concealed in the shadows sadly. “The Talins,” he replied softly.
Finn’s eyes hardened. “Did they come through here?”
He nodded slowly, closing his eyes. His wife continued, “They demanded we hand over some grains and cheeses. We tried to explain we didn’t have enough for ourselves even in the tough rations, let alone for half a dozen hungry men.” She paused and shuddered, “They cursed and yelled at us and we feared they might strike, but they just rode off. Lief here was just returning with the sheep when he saw one of them running off from the barn. It was too late though, the flame had already caught.”
A silence fell on the group before one of the elder woman spoke, “Come, let us not talk about such miseries. Let us rejoice tonight for the life of our little boy, for each other’s company and for our guests. Tomorrow, we’ll face whatever challenges lie before us.”
Serafina looked at the lively flames that still swallowed the barn before them as she admired the self sacrifice and generosity the villagers had shown. She nodded. “While Finn may not have much of a stomach for alcohol, he has the sweet voice of a canary. Perhaps he would like to amuse us tonight.”
The man looked at Finn, “Well, well. What shall it be boy?”
And so Finn obliged, playing long into the hours of the night to the requests of the villagers. Some of the elder men joined him with fifes and accompanying lutes, while the woman sang along to the traditional songs. They played until the fierce fire died down to a weak ember and finally only the charred remains of what had once been the storehouse remained. They played until they forgot their troubles and found each other, until their voices grew hoarse and their legs tired. And then they played some more.
Only later did the villagers go off to sleep and the three friends retreated to the barn of the elder man.
As they lay to sleep, Serafina spoke, “Finn?”
“Hmm?” he replied drowsily.
“How long has that been going on? The invading, pillaging, terrorizing?” Serafina asked, troubled.
He turned over to face her, “A few years, I suppose. It’s not full scale invasions or anything, just little groups that come in and do their damage then get out again. Usually it only happens out in the country near the borders where the villages are spaced out and less populated, and there is no defense. As you saw, the people grow suspicious and wary of outsiders, the fields suffer because the people are constantly out and on guard, and even the children lose their innocence because they’re forced into adulthood so soon.”
“I can’t let them die, Finn,” she whispered.
“They won’t die,” he murmured, “They’ll survive.”
“I have to help them.”
But Finn was silent, asleep already. Serafina watched the stars in the sky for many hours before sleep finally took her. When they eventually woke the next morning, she left her priceless brooch on the windowsill where she was sure the farmer would find it, and she hoped would understand it was her compensation for failing in her duty to them for so long.
With that, she knew, he could bargain some money at a market and have enough food to feed his people, and that gave her just the slightest ease.