Kitsune Nights

Chapter 8: Evacuation

The rapping on the window thundered into April’s silent world. After an interminable afternoon, Mother had finally drifted into a midday nap and April was finally free to have a few cogitative moments. She had been pondering an apology for Benson, but too oft allowed her mind to drift. She felt a twinge of guilt as she recognized his visage behind the glass. “What are you doing Benson?” she half hissed, half whispered.

Though a gentleman caller at the window he may have been, Benson had not the time for sweet words. He seized her arm to pull her through the window, issuing a hurried command, “You must come with me now!”

April, who surprised Benson with her strength, fought back against his momentum. “Stop that!” she snapped. “And hush your voice, you’ll wake Mother.”

Benson would not, however, relent, “This is not the time for such concerns; you must leave.”

Now, in all her years knowing him, April had never heard Benson speak in such a demanding tone and it caused her to pause. She observed his flush pallor and felt the cool sweat on his palm, “What is disturbing you?” she finally asked.

Alas, Benson was too frantic to offer an articulate reply. “You need to come – they are coming, I know they’re coming!”

April placed a hand on his lips to stop their moving. “Who’s coming?”

Benson seized her fingers and pushed them from his mouth. But, as soon as he’d done the action he regretted it and snatched her hand back, intertwining his fingers with hers. Their eyes met and he squeezed her fingers in gesture of concern. He took a deep breath before explaining the source of his sudden violence, “Last night,” he began, “the raiders attacked Everwood.” He paused and waited for comprehension to eke its way across April’s face. “It’s been completely wiped out. Some of the kids managed to flee but most of the men were slaughtered. And they took all the women, April. All of them.”

“I don’t understand. I though the raiders were near the coast.”

“We all thought that. But Everwood is gone now.”

Benson pointed to the thick column of black smoke rising from Everwood. April leaned out the window, following his gesture. She withdrew into the safety of her room almost immediately. Her lip quivered and her eyes flashed back and forth as though searching and not finding something. Her free hand moved to hide her trembling. Benson didn’t stop though, he continued saying, “They say nothing can stop the raiders and our village could be next. And you can’t– I won’t let you–“

He didn’t get to finish though; April knew what he was to say and stopped it before she had even the time to consider her words. “I can’t go anywhere, you know that. Mother–“

But Benson was prepared for such a defense. “I’ll look after her,” he countered, “I’ll come every day. No, I’ll stay here. I’ll do everything she asks even if she’s a brute. But please, you need to escape with the soldiers. They’re taking the women and children to safety in the mountains and you have to go with them.”

“It’s not possible…”

“Dammit! You need to understand – these raiders show up and ransack a town in a mere night. They take the women and leave the men dead. And no one knows where they disappear to. They’re just gone. Hundreds of women and they just vanish in a night. The raiders have no mercy; they don’t plunder livestock or riches or anything, just the women. And the stories… Oh, April, you can’t. I can’t bear to think of you… they say it’s like a sport to them – mowing down any who resist and burning everything to the ground.”

“Mother would never survive a journey; I can’t leave her to die alone.”

For the first time, Benson felt himself wishing, just once, that there was someone else in April’s life. Someone who would join him in convincing April that her life mattered – not just her mother’s. Or, better yet, that April lived nearer to town where she could feel the contagion of fear which had come to the neighbourhood. He refused to relent though, “Talk to your mother. Surely even she will see sense.” The skeptical look in April’s eyes told him otherwise, “I’ll fetch the mayor or the soldiers, someone will be able to convince her.”

April shook her head with the futility of such an idea. Mother wouldn’t listen to anyone except her daughter – and then only if Mother wanted to hear what April had to say. She placed a hand on Benson’s cheek, giving him a silent appreciation for his efforts.

He closed his eyes at the tenderness of her touch, hating and loving that gentleness within her. His words wouldn’t be able to strip her of it and so she would linger. He would stay too, if she let him; he would stay right there with the warmth of her caress even with hell coming down on them. Her hand was stolen away, however, with her mother’s clarion call – “April, hurry!” her voice bled throughout the house. “It’s happening again!”

Benson could not say anything as he watched April’s eyes widen. “Another episode?” she shouted into the dark of her house. He waited for her to flee within, but, to his surprise, she turned a final time. “I have to go,” she apologized.

He tried one more time. “No,” he called as he attempted to snatch her arms, but she was too quick. “Dammit,” he cursed and pounded his fist into the wall.

It wasn’t enough – he crumpled to the ground. Once more he let his fist fly forth; it’s firm impact scrapped the skin on his knuckles. He glared at the beads of red on his torn flesh. He could storm into that house, he knew. Neither April nor her mother could stop him. He could make her leave. It would be a mercy, rather than leaving her to the whims of those monsters. He should do it too. She had no one else to make her understand; he must do it.

And yet, he never would.

And knowing he never would, he rose to his feet and mechanically made his way back to town. His mind was blank as he began his peregrination, but his feet were taking him home. He did not, however, reach his destination. The noise of a crowd redirected his path. Word had gone around in his absence and the town was beginning to gather in the square. An elderly gentleman caught Bensons eye; the man struggled with the weight of a parcel he was packing onto his niece’s horse. Benson trotted over and lent a youthful hand in the efforts. Town was filled with families promptly stowed essentials onto animals and into baggage. Even the soldiers had taken to lending a hand, milling about where they were needed. Children were wailing, wives were clinging to their husbands, and daughters were sharing frightened farewells. Never before had his hometown attempted such a feat as this. But what else could they do? Only the heartiest of men would remain to defend hearth and home.

It was altogether unnatural that the course of one night could transform a community from everyday rustics to martial retreat. Yet, here was Benson amidst a crowd of everyone he’d ever known. His sister’s voice brought him out of the reverie he had slipped into. “Benson, over here, we’re over here,” Lydia called out and gestured to him to join the rest of the family. His eyes softened as he observed her forced smile. As glad as he was that she was escaping, he would miss her company. She may have been only seventeen and the baby of the family, but she was his only confidant. Lydia had chosen to remember April as the friendly girl she was before her and Sylvia had been branded by the town as self-righteous prudes.

“You’re all packed?” he asked as he drew nearer to the tall ginger lass who so resembled their father.

Lydia smiled as though she were unworried about the days to come. “Since this morning,” she replied, tucking her hair behind her ears.

He gathered her into a half embrace, “Take care of mom, okay? And don’t do anything dangerous. Stay with the others.”

His sister didn’t bother to reply to his instructions. She tugged her brother closer to whisper in his ear, “She’s not coming, is she?” Lydia guessed at her brother’s earlier disappearance.

He shook his head.

“You’ll just have to watch over her,” Lydia encouraged. “And don’t worry about us; big brother’ll protect us, but April only has you.”

“I know, I know.”

“Don’t give up.”

“I know.”

Lydia gave him a quick peck on the cheek and then rustled his hair. “You’ll protect her; I know you will. When I get back, you can introduce me to my future sister-in-law.”

Benson frowned at her optimism, as a trumpet blast filled the air.

“It is time to be going,” Benson’s father, who stood nearby, concluded. He kissed his wife on her cheek and then grabbed both of Lydia’s hands. “Be good,” he instructed her.

Lydia formed her lower lip into a pout, “Must I?”

“At least try,” Mark, the second eldest son chided.

“It is impossible,” Will, the eldest remarked.

Benson frowned at the familiar gag. Lydia took it with good humour, but it irritated Benson, the third-son, that the elder children perpetuated such illusions concerning their younger siblings. 

“Come, come,” Lydia held out her hand to their mother. And Will, who had been elected to travel with the women, shrugged an overloaded satchel onto his back. He placed his hand on the small of his pregnant wife’s back and guided her towards the pavilion where the soldiers were gathering the travellers.

Benson watched their departure with a detachment – as though her were observing the scene from aloft rather than dwelling within it. But his mental absence ceased as he discerned Lydia’s voice; “Don’t worry about us!” she cried out confidently.

Her words plunged into him both sharply and softly: softly, for he knew Lydia and the others would be safe under Will’s watch, and sharply knowing that April bore no such protection. He should have stolen her away and he couldn’t shake the notion that his failure to do so would mean her death.

* * * * *

The piece of paper that had been fluttering between Kaze’s fingers slipped into his pocket as he entered the king’s den. The motion was as silent as his entrance; he managed to slide in along the back wall without the notice of the room’s two occupants. It was a feat none other could perform, not considering who occupied the room. But regardless of the proficiency of the two others, they could not surpass their teacher. Not, at least, in the disciplines which he had endured educating them in.

They were debating taxes or some other nonsense that Kaze cared not for. Unlike the other members of the inner counsel, the crimson tailed kitsune had little interest in politics. He was better suited to the front lines than the cloak and dagger required of government officials. 

He propped the sole of his left leg onto the wall and leaned his back on the flat surface affecting a posture that depicted his indifference. Such, however, was not the response of Kasai when he at last noticed the intruder. “Kaze,” the king gasped and it caused his nine golden tails to appear. While kitsune could usually conceal their tails, a break in concentration (or the use of magic) would reveal them. The king clutched at his pounding chest as he spoke, “Eight hundred years and you still manage to startle me.”

Kaze didn’t respond.

One did not normally ignore the words of a monarch, but the three gathered in the king’s den had long passed formalities. They were the San – the three determiners of the nation’s fate. At the head of the table sat Kasai, the golden haired and golden tailed kitsune who reigned over the peoples of the land. Alongside him sat the elusive Mizu whose sharp tongue and shaper wit had been Kasai’s guide since before he’d become king. Like the others in the room, he was also a kitsune – though, of course, the San kept their heritage a secret. Yet, Kaze, Kasai, and Mizu were not just kitsune, they were nine-tailed kitsune. A distinction that made them not only some of the most fearsome beings in the world, but also defined them as ancient and powerful. For centuries, these three had pulled the strings of an empire they had created.

“I see you felt no sense of haste in returning after having disobeyed your orders,” Mizu glared at him. “One might wonder what you were up to.”

Kaze contemplated arguing, but determined it was wiser to just turn his gaze away. His eyes shifted to an imperfection on the wall and he studied it with unblinking eyes.

Kasai was quick to remedy the silence; he rose to his feet to commence his habitual pacing and issued an instruction, “Kaze, cease this insubordination,” he scolded. “There can be no discord amongst us; war is coming and we need to be prepared. I seek your counsel for what may yet prove to be our greatest challenge.”

“I’ve told you before: you are fretting too much,” Mizu chastened in a patronizing tone. Unlike his pacing compatriot, Mizu sat perfectly still. Antipodes they were, Mizu and Kasai.

“There is reason to fret,” Kasai countered. “You haven’t received the reports that recently came into my possession. This battle is to come from three sides – it’s a tengu, ningen, and kitsune union. It’s unprecedented; such a thing has not been attempted since, well, since the ancients. We’ll be weakened in all respects and these raids affecting the coast are hardly helping strengthen our position!”

“The quantity of foes who rally against us only serves to aid our position,”’ Mizu retorted flatly. “As desirous as they may find it to diminish us, an alliance will never hold between them. They’ve been enemies since before we wrested the power of this nation.”

“Must you be so calm,” Kasai frowned as he finally seated himself. He rocked his chair onto its back legs and put his feet on the table.  

“Do not dwell on these rumours of war,” Mizu continued. “but, rather, concern yourself with Kaze’s attitude.”

Kaze was hardly pleased with the turn of the conversation, “My attitude is hardly worth dwelling on,” he grunted.

Mizu flashed him a look of disagreement.

“You’ve been disappearing too often,” Kasai agreed. “I don’t suppose you have an excuse for it, either.”

“My presence is hardly required for these petty assignments. There are plenty of single-tails who wish to prove themselves; let them handle this nonsense.”

“The raids are not nonsense,” Mizu replied curtly. “They must be handled properly.”

“You are more than capable of performing such a deed yourself,” Kaze retorted. “Or do you still need aid, o student of mine?”

Mizu’s eyes narrowed as he glared at Kaze through the frame of his hair.

“This interrogation shall cease if you answer what it is that you’ve been doing while evading your instructions,” Kasai agreed.

Kaze answered instinctively, but regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, “Evading your instructions, nothing more” he spat. It was a foolish thing to say and would cause him nothing but trouble. He’d never been a proponent, not even at the beginning. But nor had he been defiant. He’d always just sort of gone alone with whatever he’d been told to do. After all, what else was there to do?

Yet, somehow he’d grown weary of it all. And as time had worn on, it had just grown worse; at moments like this, he ended up saying foolish words.

As he predicted, his response was enough to cause a reaction in Mizu.  But, before Mizu could speak, the king leapt to Kaze’s aid. “Give Kaze a week. After a week’s break, he can lead the next expedition.” The flaxen kitsune turned to his disgruntled companion, “Are we in agreement Kaze?”

Kaze snorted and turned his face back to study the wall.

“Hrmph,” Mizu vociferated his disgust at the concession. But he also conceded, “We’ll not tolerate this attitude for much longer Kaze, so take your week to consider the course of your future.”

The threat in Mizu’s words was hardly veiled and Kaze silenced a chuckle at the futility of it. Not that he doubted the result of further disobedience, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter.

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© Mara Jule