A large splash sends water onto Meah’s face and she jumps. One of the many white fish swings its tail across the surface of the water and sends another splash at Meah. She looks around and realizes she never moved from the side of the pond after her cloth fell in. She sits back on her heels and searches the disturbed water.
The cloth lies at the bottom of the pond with the white fish swimming around it cautiously. The water is clear. There are no shadows or blood in the water. There is no sign of the two large fish.
“What was that?” she says out loud as she wipes the water from her face.
The fish that splashed water on her is still swimming erratically around the pond. Other fish start swimming frantically and the surface of the pond ripples wildly. The movement of the fish move the cloth at the bottom closer to the edge and Meah reaches into the cool water to grab it. She wrings it and gathers the spilled berries.
The thrashing of the fish splashes water everywhere and Meah watches as fins break the surface. Several of the more terrified fish leap from the water and crash into the edges of the pond. Meah stands and furrows her brows. Something has the fish spooked.
The air becomes unusually warm. And the birds fall silent, filling the clearing with an unnerving silence. Everything seems to have stopped in the forest.
As she listens, strange sounds echo from below the cliff. She carefully walks to the edge and peers down at Oula Village.
Her heart becomes cold and her basket falls to the ground, spilling its contents once more. Her hand covers her mouth as her eyes widen in shock.
Black smoke is filling the valley air as flames tear into the village. Villagers run through the buildings, screaming and clinging to each other. Strange men unblock armor are herding them towards the center of the village. Those men that aren’t gathering the villagers are moving from building to building, ensuring that any hiding cannot escape. They set fire to homes and corner fleeing families.
Two of the armored men drag Mircien to the center. They hold him as a third approaches drawing a long sword. The villagers gathered behind cower in fear and move closer together.
Meah watches in horror from the safety of the high cliff, but knows she must do something. She runs from the clearing into the surrounding forest and nearly falls down the side of the mountain as she moves faster than she ever has before. As she moves lower smoke fills the air causing her to cough and her eyes to burn. The pain on her eyes blurs her vision and forces her to slow her pace.
Something runs across her path, nearly tripping her and she grabs a nearby tree to keep from falling. She looks to the forest floor and sees small animals fleeing the burning forest. Birds fly low overhead making her duck to avoid being hit.
Once the wave of terrified animals and birds passes, she continues her approach. Flames tear into the forest as homes fall to the ground. The usual path into the village is blocked. So Meah crosses to the opposite side of the forest to find a clear way into the village.
She hears screaming in front of her and the rough voices of the men in black armor. She slows and lowers herself to the ground. She hears heavy footsteps to her left and finds a group of bushes between two trees to hide behind. Three men in black armor appear from the smoke pouring out of a nearby home. They move into the forest and fan out in different directions, sweeping the surrounding forest for any stragglers or villagers who may have escaped during the confusion. After they move past her hiding place, she rushes into the village. She leans against the side of the burning home and peers around the corner.
A group of the men run by. Pressing herself against the home, she hopes they didn’t notice her. Once they pass by, she heads behind the home. Two men block the opening of the village, so she crosses to the back of another home. It’s Mircien’s home. She follows the wall around to the side opposite the men and sees a tall pile of freshly cut wood. She moves behind the pile and looks through a gap in the logs.
She can now see the center of the village and those gathered. They are weeping or praying softly. Mircien is still being held between two men in armor and the third man is speaking to another, who seems different somehow.
More men in black armor appear from between homes, blocking any possible escape routes. One moves in front of the pile of wood, where Meah is hiding, but doesn’t quite block her view.
The man with his weapon drawn stops talking with the other man in armor and moves back. The other man, whose armor is more elegant and has seen more action than that of the others, looks at Mircien. His black hair is cut short with longer pieces in the front and his eyes bright blue lanterns within his dark skin. He smiles and leans close to Mircien. Meah almost misses the question the man asks.
“Where is the magic user?”