More than anything else in this world or others, it was blood that offered a vivid reminder of his childhood before the Orpheus Society.
The village was almost too small to have a name, and definitely too small for proper, cobbled roads like the ones they laid in cities. It was yet another reason on the growing list in Sotiris’ mind as to why he hated this place.
For no reason he could fathom, or was given, his mother rushed into their comfortable, spacious house one day and packed all their belongings. She insisted they had to leave. Immediately. He had questioned, (and possibly whined), and for the first and only time his mother had struck him across the mouth.
“I have my reasons. Now go and pack your things!”
At first he was in such shock that he moved to obey without further thought on the matter. It didn’t take long for the thirteen year-old Sotiris to turn toward sullen silence, though. His mother was too scared out of her wits to notice. She bundled them up and packed their things in the saddle bags. Then they mounted their horses and fled into the night.
While on the road she apologized for her actions, though still refused to offer any particular logic behind them. Her hair was wavy, and a light brownish-blonde that closely resembled burnished bronze. She usually kept it in a long, tidy braid over her left shoulder, but today it was a mess; as though she had gotten into some sort of fight.
Sotiris scoffed at the thought. His mother may not be one of the High Court ladies, but she was certainly no peasant—she would not be caught doing something as unbecoming a lady as fighting. That made her disheveled state all the more puzzling to him. It wasn’t just her hair—her cloths were also torn in some places and out of sorts.
“What happened to you?” Sotiris asked softly, as he realized gentleness might coax the truth from her more readily than a brazen attitude.
His mother was not fooled, and she slid a perceptive glance his way. Her chocolate brown eyes seeming to take measure of him.
“Took you long enough to notice. You’ll need to be quicker on your feet if—” and she stopped herself.
“If what, Mother?” he asked.
She merely shook her head and kept her gaze on the road ahead. “Nothing. We have a long ride ahead of us to visit…my parents,” she said, uncomfortable.
Sotiris’ spirits and curiosity lifted a touch. He had never met his mother’s parents, and was eager to visit family for the first time—ever. His father was not in their lives, and neither was his family; but he had always wondered why he’d never known his mother’s family. Yes, they lived a distance from them, but not so far away that the trip could not be made a few times a year.
This all led to excitement, before he got a look at the village. It was small, with mud from the winter rains mixed with animal muck to create a soggy mess that sucked at their horses’ hooves. The houses, or rather shacks, were shabby and decrepit, much like the occupants of the village. It was one of those places that, when strangers rode into town, people hid and watched discreetly as they could.
The two of them didn’t stop in the town as Sotiris expected. Instead, they made their way to the outskirts of town to a small, wooden house a few miles from the village, and a quarter mile off the road. It was in a better state than the places in town, barely, but the warm light that shone through the spaces around the door made Sotiris shiver in anticipation at being dry once again. The winter rains were not the torrential downpours of spring storms, but even a steady misting could soak a person after hours riding in it.
The two of them dismounted, and as Sotiris took down the saddle bags, his mother went to the door. She only hesitated for a moment, gloved hand poised uncertain above the wood, before she knocked. Her body language screamed reluctance, and the hollow thud of her knuckled on the wood sounded somewhat pitiful and disheartened.
It confused Sotiris, as his mother was a vibrant woman who spoke to everyone, no matter their station, with confidence. What happened with her parents to make her seem so…timid. Sotiris went on guard, emotionally and mentally, and rolled his shoulders back to help him appear larger and more formidable.
A man of average build and size answered the door, and Sotiris could see where his mother had gotten her hair. The woman who walked up behind the man was slender in body, her face with prominent cheekbones, and just shorter than the man next to her. It was in this woman that he truly saw a resemblance to his mother, though his grandmother’s hair was a darker brown.
“Mirinda!” the woman cried, and moved forward to hug her daughter with a fierceness that mothers reserved for their children.
“Mother,” she said softly, and hugged her back just as hard.
His grandfather stood back for a moment, but finally came over and hugged the two of them together.
“It has been too long, daughter,” his grandmother said, joyful tears in her eyes.
Mirinda could only manage a nod. “After how we parted, I was not sure if you would want to see me,” his mother explained, and looked up hesitantly at her father.
“Everyone said and did things that gave us regrets, Mirinda. Let us put that behind us. I assume you are here because it is almost the Harvest,” his grandfather concluded.
Fresh tears sprang to his mother’s eyes and she nodded. His grandmother bit her lip, and looked to her husband, who merely nodded.
“The Harvest?” Sotiris asked, and walked closer to the doorway. “Something tells me you are not speaking of crops,” he concluded.
His grandfather looked over to him and, it seemed, through him. Sotiris’ heart sped up, and he felt as though his consciousness was falling through the front of his body. Sweat broke out along his skin, despite the cold weather, and he gasped for air. A soft, white light appeared on the edges of his vision, and though he could not be sure, it seemed as though it was coming from his grandfather.
“Father, please,” his mother pleaded, though she sounded as though she was some distance away.
The connection broke, and Sotiris fell to his hands and knees. The heavy saddle bags slid from his shoulders when he reached down to catch himself.
“You said you would put everything behind you, Father. That was not necessary,” his mother scolded, and helped Sotiris back to his feet.
His legs felt like jelly, and he had no idea what had happened.
“I will try, but his mere presence is bothersome,” he replied.
That about summed up all the interactions between Sotiris and his grandfather in the weeks to come. Sotiris avoided him when possible, but it was a small house and a small town.
Elias, his grandfather, (though Sotiris refused to call him that anywhere except his thoughts), became the first reason on the list of why he hated being here.
As time wore on, his mother became increasingly agitated, and forbade him from leaving the area around the house. At one point she said he could not leave the house, but Elias and Sotiris both refused to let it go that far.
The day they came for him was the day he had not listened.
His mother had warned him, for what seemed like the millionth time that day, to not leave the clearing around the house. Sotiris simply nodded, but after his mother went back inside he walked beyond the boundaries she had set, and headed for town. It was his birthday, and it seemed as though his mother had forgotten. As miserable as he had been all this time, he had hoped to escape from that for a short amount of time, and celebrate his fourteenth birthday.
As he slipped through the woods, he could see the smoke from the village up ahead—a lot of smoke. Instead of stopping, he quieted his footsteps, and continued on toward the village. The smoke drifted on the wind through the trees, and Sotiris’ eyes watered. He had to swallow to keep from coughing. As he reached the edge of the woods, he squatted down, and looked around the large tree.
It was a massacre.
In the city where there were plenty of guards, there would have been fighting and noise. As it was, the enemy had overwhelmed the village, and killed everything in sight before any noise could be made. It was both awful and awe-inspiring.
They wore armor that looked as though it was forged from the darkness of the abyss itself, and the soldiers—because what else could they be looking as they did—radiated malice and death.
“He is not here, commander. I have expanded the search to the outlying areas,” a man said, nearby.
I have expanded the search, the words echoed through his mind. Sotiris’ heart stopped in his chest, and panic gripped his throat. He did not care who they were, or who they were looking for, but he had to warn his family. He backed away just as quietly as he had come, and when he thought he was far enough away that no one would hear him, he broke into a dead sprint.
The house was a few miles away, but he ran with everything he had and more. When he broke into the clearing, the front door was broken from its hinges, and smoke curled from the roof where the soldiers had tossed torches. With the wood being wet and the rain gently coming down, the wood smoked, and the fire spat as though annoyed.
Even worse than the house being on fire was the sight just inside the shattered doorway: his mother, grandmother, and grandfather. All dead from numerous cuts and excessive violence. The world froze, and he saw everything with a crystal clarity that would never leave him—there was so much blood.
He ran to his mother, nearly slipping in it, and dropped to his knees at her side. Tears were running down his face, though he scarcely realized he was crying. He pulled her onto his lap and hugged her to him, and with every second he willed her to come back to life. To not be dead.
“Please,” he choked out, but no one answered and she remained still.
A noise off to his left made his head snap up, and his grandfather rolled onto his side to look at him.
“Not much time,” he choked out, and blood spattered his lips with each word, “have to leave—they’ll be back.”
“Who?!” Sotiris demanded, but his grandfather shook his head once. Sotiris growled and gently set his mother’s body on the floor. He moved over to his grandfather, and Sotiris put his face near the old man’s.
“Tell me who is looking for me!” he spat.
“No time. Take presents. Leave. Sorry—for everything,” he sputtered and grasped for Sotiris’ hand.
Sotiris took it, and looked into the old man’s eyes, filled with regret. “Me, too,” Sotiris said, and let go of the anger from the last few weeks.
Elias gave a weak smile and closed his eyes. Sotiris removed his hand from his grandfather’s, and quickly looked around the room. Near the overturned table he saw two small, wrapped packages. Guilt washed through him in a hot flood as he remembered his earlier complaints about his mother forgetting his birthday. A lump formed in his throat, and he swallowed it down as he picked up the packages.
The wood above him cracked from the fire, and it was only because of the wood being wet that he’d had this much time. The smoke became unbearable, and he bent over at the waist to try and get some of the clearer air near the floor as he stumbled from the house. If there had been any other presents they would be lost, but at least he was able to get these two.
He was coughing up a lung, and he fumbled to put the packages in a coat pocket. Sotiris fell to the ground not far from the house for only a moment. That was when they found him.
The Harvest, he learned, was when the Disciples and the Society came to earth to collect the teenaged offspring of the angels and demons. They whisked them away, and the Society usually did so in a more violent manner, to teach them respect through fear.
Despite all the wonderful years he’d spent with his mother, it was a shame the moment Sotiris recalled most vividly was of her death.
Sotiris woke with a start from a nightmare he’d not had in many, many years. He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, and tried to shut out his mother’s death. There were no more tears, as he’d cried them all long ago, but an ache that would never be filled remained in his heart. Sweat rolled down his back, though the air was colder now than it had been that night.
It was silly for one such as him to still miss her—it had been at least a hundred years. Members of the Orpheus Society had their feelings castrated as quickly as possible. A conscience was a liability to those in his position.
“Are you okay?” a soft voice asked from nearby.
Sotiris turned with a start, as everyone was supposed to be asleep except Gregory, who was on watch somewhere.
Charis’ eyes were dark in the dim firelight, as it had died down while they slept, but he could still see her contemplative look easily enough.
“I will be fine,” he said abruptly, then realized how rude he sounded. “Thank you for your concern, but are you not supposed to be asleep as well?” he asked in turn.
She shrugged. “Dawn will be here soon, and I love watching the sun rise above the tress,” she said wistfully, and looked toward the eastern sky.
Though the sun wasn’t visible yet, the sky had lightened a touch. Sotiris rose from his blanket and stretched his sore muscles. Gregory had set a grueling pace, and even the almighty Damien had trouble keeping up. The thought made Sotiris smile, though such pettiness was looked down on.
That was when he caught Charis looking at him. She blushed and looked back at toward the sky.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked, quietly, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he realized what he’d said.
With only the briefest hesitation she nodded, and he sat next to her on the fallen log where she’d been awaiting the dawn. He was close enough to be personable, but not so close that he was crowding her. He didn’t know why, but his heart rate picked up as he watched her face relax into a look of joy as the first ray of sun broke above the tree line.
Sotiris was both relaxed and excited at the same time, and the combination was almost enough to make him dizzy.
“Time ter get up!” Gregory shouted from behind them.
Charis and Sotiris both jumped at his voice, as though they’d been caught doing something more obscene than sitting near each other. They exchanged sheepish looks and then chuckled.
As they ate breakfast and broke down camp, Sotiris couldn’t keep a smile off his face; which made Damien scowl. His scowl only made Sotiris smile even harder, though it didn’t last long as they began their trek once more.
Two more days and they’d be there. The thought sent nervous anticipation through him, and made him wonder: was he ready?