Kasia's scream went unnoticed to the panicking throng around them. Liuz heard it, though. His sister's voice tore through his heart as he tried to pull her through the street. She was resisting, pulling back against his grip as if she could change what had happened. As if time could be turned back, death averted...
Adult bodies slammed them on either side. He ducked down, making himself small. His sister, instinctively, did the same, pausing in her grief. Liuz took advantage of the pause in her resistance, pulling her along with the panicked crowd. He tried not to look at them. Tried not to attract attention. He had to get her home. Get both of them out of the city.
A high-pitched noise came from above.
The swarming mob filling the avenue stopped as if one creature, voices silent. Liuz looked up, even as he took the opportunity to bring his younger sister closer to him. She, too, looked up, anguish turning to fear. The sound grew. A cry built of a thousand voices rose as they saw a dark object fly over them. The cry became once again panic as the missile hit Nowy Kiev's central Keep, the sound of rock breaking rock rolling over them. The crowd around the two pre-teens again surged.
This was no time for his sister to be resisting him. Liuz yanked her towards the side of the avenue, fighting the wall of adults. Kasia, startled, did not resist. Breaking through into a clear patch, he pulled the eight year old into a doorway. He held her close, arms around her thin body. She was trembling, brown eyes looking up into his. She looked so much like their mother. Father had always said so.
"We have to go back for Daddy!" He could hear in her cry that she knew. Knew, but did not believe. He, himself, knew but did not WANT to believe. Did not want that to have been Father under that rubble. Did not want to have seen that face, staring at him, eyes open.
But, he had seen, and to one such as Liuz what was known could not be ignored. Liuz had to obey that last, unspoken request from the last of their family.
"He's dead, Kasia." He squeezed his sister tight. "You saw it. Father's dead."
"He's dead!" His cheek pressed against hers. "Dead. But he wants us to live. We have to get home."
"Home?" He heard the hope in her voice. Home was safety. Giving her one more squeeze before pulling back to look in her face, he nodded.
"Home. Then, away from here. They're evacuating the city, Kasia. Everyone's leaving before the Elves swarm over the walls." The sound of another boulder smashing into the city came to them. "We have to go with them. Please, do what I say. Father said I'm in charge, right?"
She nodded, face now grave. His sister was strong. Smart. Smarter than him, perhaps. Now that she understood, he knew he could count on her. Liuz kissed her forehead, releasing her even as he once again took her left hand.
As one, they slipped into the throng of humanity. With skills forged through a lifetime of being a child, they squeezed through the cracks, past parents holding crying children, adults carrying hastily gathered burdens.
How could any survive this chaos?
The narrow alley where their apartment stood was almost deserted, leading as it did parallel to the western wall and not eastward towards safety. Liuz didn't like that. With all the confusion, it would be too easy for thieves to decide to just ransack abandoned homes, take all that had been left behind. Ahead, he saw four men enter the street, bulging sacks in their hands. He quickly led his sister towards their door, head deliberately turned away from the strangers. He fumbled with the latch, the simple key resisting as it always did. Taking a breath, he tried to turn it slowly.
With a click, the door opened.
His sister flew past him. Just as quickly, Liuz shut the door, throwing down the wooden locking bar. Relief overcoming him, he fell forward against the door. Home...
"What do we do, Liuz?"
Home, but not for long. Forcing himself to straighten, he turned. Kasia stood in the middle of the room, hands clasped together. Her blue house-dress was dusty, as was her skin. He probably looked no better. He glanced around.
"OK. We need to grab whatever we can carry. We're never coming back here." Her eyes widened, but there was no objection. Yes, she was as strong as he. "Grab a cloth pack, something you can wear on your back, and pack your clothes in it. Winter clothes, too. As much as you can carry!" Nodding, she ran to a wooden chest against the wall, throwing it open. Pulling out a woven bag, she bolted into the small room the two of them shared. Liuz stood still for a moment, taking mental stock.
Food. They'd need food. Grabbing his own sack, he moved to the pantry, yanking it open. There was a ham, bought the day before and not yet cut. A jar of honey. Potatoes, carrots. He carefully placed them in the sack. Looking in, he cringed at the thought of those containers breaking. Running into his father's room, he grabbed blankets. Entering the living area again, he saw his sister there with two backpacks. She held them up.
"I got your clothes, too!"
"Good! Toss them to me!" She did so. He dropped the blankets to the ground. "Roll these up so we can carry them! Tie them up, leaving long loops at both ends so we can carry them on our backs below the packs!" Returning to the pantry, he removed the jars from the sack and wrapped them in shirts from his pack. Seeing the room now available in the pack, he opened every drawer and cupboard, grabbing plates and cups, a pot and pan, knives. Pressing an unseen lever, he opened the silver cupboard. Grabbing what few valuables they had, he tossed them in with the food and his clothing.
"Anything else?" Kasia asked, coming up to him. Her backpack and blanket were already on her back, a fabric doll head sticking up out of the bulging pack. He caught sight of leather bags near the door.
"Canteens! Fill as many as you can carry!" Liuz began to struggle into his pack. It was heavy. So, too, was the bag of supplies. He knew, though, it would soon be too light. With a grunt, he put his arms through the loops of the drawstring, letting it hang down his back as he stood. The rope cut into his shoulders. He knelt down again. "Kasia! Wrap something around this rope! I need padding!"
She was there a moment later, small towels from the trunk in hand, along with twine.
"I have Mom's sewing kit," she said, nimble fingers quickly working. "I also grabbed the tool belt."
Liuz looked at her eyes. She had deliberately not called it "Father's tool belt". He just nodded.
"Done!" She ran back to the canteens, filling them from the cistern she had filled from the well just that morning. Liuz stood. Still heavy as hell, but much better. He could survive with this. The belt was draped over the back of a chair. Slowly, getting used to the distribution of weight, he walked to it.
Their father's tools. The instruments on which he played his woodworking magic. Liuz ran his fingers lightly over the smooth handles. He would be like his father. Liuz would build and carve, supporting his sister and helping his people. He would find a master. Learn his craft.
He would make their father proud.
"Done!" Kasia now had half a dozen waterskins draped over her body, the largest a sausage shaped tube over a foot long. He saw she also had all four blankets he had given her rolled together, rope padded against the weight much as his food pack was. He nodded to her.
"Looks good." She beamed as he looked around their home one final time. "Anything else you can think of we need?"
"I grabbed Mom's patterns," she said, reaching back to pat her pack. "Father's sketchbook." Liuz grimaced that he had forgotten about that. He grabbed the tool belt, buckling it on before it, too, slipped his mind. "I can carry more," Kasia said, showing her empty hands. Liuz shook his head.
"No. Bring empty bags, though. After a few miles you may have to take some of what's in this sack out and carry it for a while." He shifted the weight, already regretting his choices but with no idea what they could sacrifice. She knelt by the chest, digging through.
Her cry was one of surprise, awe. As Liuz watched, her hands slowly brought a ruffled white dress into view. Red lace adorned the edges, flowers embroidered into the fabric. Kasia turned to him, eyes again wet.
"Mom's wedding dress."
It would be another five, six years before Kasia was old enough to think about marriage. Six years before there would be regret about not having Mother's gown. There was so much in the here and now more important than this. Liuz took a deep breath.
There were as many rumors as panicked Poles filling the streets as Liuz and Kasia struggled through back ways no less crowded than the main avenues. Elven armies were gathered outside the walled outskirts on the other side of the Wisla. Kikker warriors were coming up from the south. Gritic ships had been seen coming up the Warta. The whole world was rising against them! Who knew what was true.
More, who cared, so long as your back was to the danger.
Slipping through a small parting of the crowd, Liuz held his sister's hand tight. Overburdened as they were, the two youngsters no longer had the advantage of their size. Those around them now also carried bundles of possessions, crowding the streets even more. Some had handcarts, a luxury Liuz would kill for. Others carried sacks, already sagging shoulders telling many of their possessions would be discarded within an hour of travel. His eyes were drawn to a pregnant woman slumped in a small cart. A man pushed her, the muscles on his thin frame trembling. Behind, two children half Kasia's age pulled a similar cart, this one overflowing with possessions. The two girls grimaced as they struggled to keep pace. Despite his own load, Liuz could not stand by. Motioning to Kasia, he began to move towards the family.
"Father!" A teen girl broke through the crowd, running up to the carts. Tossing another bag onto the cart, with seeming little regard for its stability, she grabbed one of the handles from her siblings.
With no further words, they moved on.
The dark gate loomed before them.
The crowd surged, as if leaving the safety of the inner city would shield them from danger. As if the thick walls themselves were the enemy. Maybe they were. Liuz had heard his Father gossip with the other men. Heard them tell of the Elves wanting the Poles to give up control of the two rivers Nowy Kiev sat astride. As he and his sister passed through that short tunnel, he thought that if the green skinned creatures wanted the ugly city so badly, they could have it.
There was a cry as they broke back out into daylight, stepping out onto the wooden bridge spanning the Warta. From this height, you could see the Eastern Road. See the beginnings of the caravan of refugees marching out from the walled eastern city.
He looked behind, trusting Kasia's eyes to guide them forward as her hand held his. From the heights of the keep above, he saw catapults launch their missiles west. Heard, and saw, rocks from beyond fall into the city, among distant cries and the bellow of horns. A soldier, standing where the center of the bridge could lift to allow ship masts to pass by, looked back at the city with almost no expression. Liuz forced himself to look forward. They had to look forward. For the Polish people.
The street dumped them into a plaza, the crowd flowing left and right with no clear goal. Liuz pulled his sister forward, figuring straight was as good a direction as any. People were stopping, resting. He was tired, too, but now was not the time. Making his way through the thinning crowd, he moved to the center of the plaza.
Wagons were lined up, feeding into the plaza from streets on the left and the right. Some had beasts of burden, many did not. As he watched, a herd of cows were driven into a makeshift coral. Where they going to harness COWS onto wagons? Were they THAT desperate? And where were all these wagons coming from?
That was partly answered by the sound of hammering. Looking right, he saw planks being ripped off a building, an axle being swiftly shaped as a pile of non-iron-shod wheels lay near by.
Yes. They were that desperate.
A horn blew from a mere thirty feet away. A soldier stood on a table.
"FOR THE NEW ONES!" he yelled, as things grew quieter. Kasia pressed herself against Liuz's side. "YOU WILL BE ASSIGNED A WAGON! YOU WILL WALK NEXT TO THAT WAGON! KEEP PACE WITH IT! THE COLUMN WILL NOT STOP UNTIL IT IS TIME TO REST THE ANIMALS!" The soldier jumped down from the table. His eyes seemed to fall on Liuz and Kasia. He approached them, Kasia pressing harder against Liuz.
"Your family here?" he asked, voice more normal. Kasia shook her head violently.
He let out a curse. Giving them the once over, he nodded to Liuz.
"At least you seem prepared." He turned, pointing. "Go to that wagon just getting to the gate. Stay with it."
"We will!" Almost yanking on Kasia's hand, Liuz began trotting towards the wagon. It was going slowly, but it would be through before they got there. Glancing back, he saw the soldier roughly dividing the people into groups, other soldiers doing the same. He didn't know why the man had helped them.
He wondered if he'd ever see him again to thank him.
"Where are you going?" A soldier standing beside an unmoving loaded wagon began moving towards them. Liuz didn't slow down.
"That wagon!" he yelled, pointing at the gate. "We have orders!"
The man paused. Liuz turned his attention back to the vanishing wagon. As if it mattered who went where! Kasia squeezed his hand.
"In a minute," he said. "When we're at the wagon." He felt his own chest hurt. Letting go of her for a moment, he slowed his pace a bit and adjusted his pack. He grabbed her hand again before she could think they were stopping and continued on.
With an exhausted sigh, Liuz slowed as they came up beside the wagon. It was a Tabor, a mobile fort pulled by oxen. Tall, thick walls with arrow slits rose beside him on oversized wheels. The sides, he knew, could fold down into a ramp, allowing soldiers easy access. His father had helped build some in the past. Not many, as his skills tended more towards smaller, more intricate creations. Still, you did what your King needed.
He glanced back again at the Keep. The King was dead. So, too, the Queen and both Princes. How could that be? It had to be true, the story coming as it had from Father, but ... what could kill a King?
Elven treachery. That had to be it. Kill the Royal Family, then attack. Those evil, long eared ... if it wasn't for Kasia, he'd rush to the walls and fight them off himself.
He looked at his sister. No, he'd never leave her.
"Here, let me take that bag." Reaching over, he took the sack she held in her right hand. He jiggled it. "What do you have in here?"
"Mom's wedding dress," she said, quickly. He raised an eyebrow at that, dresses usually not making a sound. Giving up the fight, she let out a sigh. "And the Building Sticks."
Liuz couldn't help it. He laughed. She grinned back. Those around them gave the siblings strange looks, but he didn't care. Shifting the bag to his left hand, he took her hand again.
"Good thinking. We need our Building Sticks."
"Stop for a rest! Stop for a rest!"
A rider tore down the road, those walking beside the wagons cowering against them to give him room. As he passed, Liuz's eyes followed him back the way they had come. He could still see Nowy Kiev in the distance. If they were stopping, then ... didn't that mean those still waiting to leave were stuck where they were? Wasn't every moment they rested another delay in getting the others to safety? Yet, they had to rest. The oxen and horses had to be watered. Kasia's body fell against him.
"Come on," he said, gently pushing her away. "Let's get these packs off."
He brought her carefully down the embankment off the road, moving them away from the other people. Picking a spot, he knelt, gently letting his packs slide onto the ground. His shoulders and lower back felt like fire. Kasia's pack and the blankets just fell to the ground. He moved to her side, lifting the leather canteens off over her head.
"Lay down for a bit," he told her. "You hungry?"
She shook her head.
They both had been frugal with the water, no indication of when, or if, food and drink would be supplied by those on the wagons. Opening the smallest canteen, he took a sip before handing it to her. She, too, took only a swallow or two.
"Mom. They have water."
Liuz looked behind him. A woman sat in the long grass beside two standing children. The boy, a bit older than Kasia, was pointing at the siblings. The other, a brown haired girl close to his age, was just staring, face blank. Their mother grimaced apologetically at Liuz, hands reaching for her children.
"Sit. We'll drink later. The soldiers will give us food and water. Just wait."
Well, there was no guarantee of that. Liuz looked at Kasia, saw the same decision on her face. They would have to be frugal with their supplies, but...
Rising, Liuz grabbed the small canteen. The eyes of the woman doubled in size as he walked over. Kneeling down, he handed the flask of water to her.
"Go easy on it, but you can all have a drink."
"Th-thank you." Opening the canteen, she handed it to her son. "One swallow."
"Not a big one," the sister added, eyes on Liuz. The boy nodded, lifting it to his mouth. A moment later he lowered it. Liuz could see him swish the water in his mouth before slowly swallowing. As if to make it last. He handed it to the girl as she knelt down beside him.
"You're with your sister?" the woman asked. Liuz nodded, looking at her closer. The hair under her bonnet was the same brown as her daughter, the son's a bit lighter. Although now sitting, she looked short, a bit stocky. More a farmer's wife than someone of higher upbringing. Not that his family had ever been anything other than craftsmen. She took the canteen from the girl, taking her own drink. She handed it back to him. "Thank you."
"I'm Urszuli," she said, nodding to him, adding "Widow" after a moment's pause. He nodded back, not sure what to say, nor why she had added that her husband was dead. She reached over and placed her hand on the boy's head. "This is Rafal, and that is Roda."
Liuz nodded to the three, motioning his sister over.
"I'm Liuz, and this is Kasia."
The woman Urszuli seemed to be regarding him intently. Her eyes more than a few times dropped to his Father's belt. After a moment, her body relaxed. Her smile to him was warm.
"Will you walk with us, Liuz? We did not bring much, compared it seems to you two, but we can feed you dinner tonight in payment for the water."
Glancing at his sister, he did not need to hear her answer. Turning back to Urszuli he smiled.