THE RIVER RUNNERS
On that crisp fall day, my twin brother Thomas and I played hide and seek in the forests behind our house. I stood behind a large maple tree as he covered his eyes, counting. My long dark hair tangled in the bark as I hid. I strained to hear the soft echo of my brother’s voice saying “nineteen…twenty…” and the leaves crunching as he searched.
“Got you Daniela!” Thomas yelled as he tapped my arm with his fingers, and I laughed and chased him back into the center of the clearing.
“How did you catch me so quick?” I accused.
“’Cuz you’re a girl and you only hid behind a tree!”
“Where would you have gone, then?” I shouted.
“You find me next! I’m not telling!” he sneered.
I lunged at him and he ran from my outstretched fingers. We wove around the tree trunks, laughing and screeching, “You can’t catch me!” “I already caught you!” “Can’t catch me again!”
Thomas stopped running. Panting, my cheeks rosy, I tapped his shoulder. “Caught you.”
Crunch! Crunch! Snap!
My smile faded at the sound of footsteps. Thomas looked to the forest and we reflexively grabbed each other’s hands for protection. I looked up and finally noticed the dark sky scattered with silver clouds and stars. We weren’t allowed to be out after dark. I looked over at Thomas and we started to hurry home. We didn’t want get into more trouble. A shadow came around the bend of the path to the left of the clearing. I wanted to run, but wouldn’t without Thomas. I looked over at him again, but he kept his eyes on the path. Still clutching his hand, I took a step backward, ready to flee; when I saw that the approaching figure was our father.
Even from this distance, I could tell he was angry. His lips were pursed; his thick furrowed brow looked like a hairy caterpillar above his tawny eyes. His stride sent the dry leaves dancing. He scared me; I’d never seen him look so mad before. We walked over to him with our fingers still intertwined, heads hanging low. Without a word, he pried our fingers apart and crouched so he was at our level.
“I told you two to be back before sunset,” he said.
“Sorry father,” we said in unison. His eyes flashed with a suppressed laugh, and my nerves calmed a little. He always laughed when Thomas and I said things at the same time. He shook his head and remembered he was supposed to be scolding.
“I’m glad you’re safe, but don’t think you’re not in serious trouble,” he added, “in fact, you two can take over stable duties for the rest of the week. I’m sure Kencet would love to show you how.”
We nodded, but I wrinkled my nose. Kencet liked being in the stables, it wasn’t a punishment for him. Let him do it. I knew father would hear none of that, so when he grabbed our hands and started walking back to the house, I didn’t complain.
The distant silhouette of our white house came into view.
The three of us froze, and with one hand I covered my left ear. The alarms were always so loud; I always covered my ears until they were over. Father wouldn’t let go of my other hand, so I leaned against the soft fabric of his trousers. The noise would stop once the Councilwoman’s voice gave the usual announcement: “Fear no spirits. Your Council is safe. This has been a test of the Kalonian Alarm System for your protection…”
I could feel my father waiting for the announcement too. The alarm sounded again. And again.
The Councilwoman never spoke.
It was very dark outside now.
"Garrett!” I heard my mother shriek in the distance. As if pulled from a trance, father began to run with our hands still encased in his. I could not keep up with his long strides, feeling constant pulls in my shoulder as my feet flew from under me, dirt and leaves tearing at my white stockings. Father lifted me onto his hip, and let Thomas run ahead. When we reached the back of the house, our mother looked frantic, standing at the back door. We came inside and she locked the door behind us as quickly as her pregnant body would allow. Thomas and I followed our father into the living room. I wrapped my hands around Thomas’ arm as we backed into the couch. The backs of my legs pressed against the edge. Father looked out the front glass window.
I heard a thundering on the staircase and looked over to see my eldest brother Kencet coming down, holding our one year old brother Jameson in his arms. Father opened the front door and disappeared into the enveloping dark. I let go of Thomas’ arm and he neared the front door, watching to see where father had gone. I crept backwards into the dining room, hiding just around the corner.
“It’ll all be okay, Father has just gone to see Mr. Briscoe,” our mother said. She held the bottom of her stomach as she said this, and I could see her also looking out the front door for father.
Kencet rocked Jameson in his arms, covering his tiny ears against the wailing alarms.
Father appeared in the doorway, “It is happening, Feliciah,” he said to mother.
She let out a tiny gasp, and Kencet and Thomas’ heads whipped around for some clue of what that meant.
“H-how?” was all she could stammer.
“It will all be alright, please get the children into the cellar,” father said, still standing in the doorway.
I didn’t like the cellar and I didn’t want to go down there. I didn’t come out from the dining room. Thomas pushed on the tiny door beneath the staircase, exposing the wooden ladder going down. Kencet and Thomas helped mother get her footing on the top rung.
“Kencet, I need you,” father said.
In the moment that Kencet’s attention went to our father, I turned back at our empty dining room and stared at the forest of wooden chair and table legs. For all the times the alarms rang, it was always only a test. No one ever said what to do if the threat was real.
I looked back and saw Kencet pass baby Jameson into Thomas’ waiting arms. Father clapped a hand on Kencet’s shoulder. “The Triste Vermanah are somewhere in the city. Ride to the Elder Council, tell them that the contract is void.”
“What contract?” Kencet replied.
“They will understand!” Father shouted, exasperated.
“What contract?” Kencet said, louder than the first time. I turned my head back around the corner of the wall and saw Kencet and Father’s heads bowed closely together. Mother and the boys as they reached the bottom of the steps, and I could hear her muffled voice. The white door to the basement swung shut, latching with a resounding click. The noise snapped my father back into the present.
“You are faster than me, hurry now, before –” father began, but what he was warning Kencet about had already begun. With the door wide open, we could hear the distant screams from the center of town, the thundering of horses, the clashing of swords, and the sound of footsteps growing louder.