There were seven riders at most, and they slowed at they approached. One of them broke from the rest and led his horse right up in front of them, his companions following at a slower pace. He had dark hair contrasted by splashes of grey, and eyes that searched over their group with a hungry intensity. He barely spared Enoch a glance.
“Good sir!” the man cried and swung from his horse with a face-splitting grin. “Thank all that is good on this earth, but you’ve found our children!”
She stepped backwards, until she was right beside Enoch. For once, his presence was comforting, as her stomach twisted and wrung.
Enoch’s expression had hardened, but he stood unwavering. Alanna deliberately hid behind him, and Cassius stood on his other side. Rowan watched quietly nearby Ember.
“Is that so.” Enoch glanced down to meet her gaze.
As subtly as she could, she shook her head. I haven’t a clue who they are.
But what would it matter to him? Her heart pounded. He said he wouldn’t protect them, not if someone tried to get them. He could turn them over in a heartbeat.
“Yes!” The man beamed at Enoch, but his gaze quickly darted over all of them. He glanced back towards the others, and she saw one of his companions nod. He turned back and clapped his hands together. “We were separated several days past. We’ve been looking for them for days!”
Enoch folded his arms over his chest. He looked terribly imposing. The strange man’s smile even faltered a moment.
“How strange that is,” Enoch said. “Because these are my charges from Chromium. You must have them mistaken, good sir.” His lip twitched into a sneer. “I’m on orders from Queen Inga herself.” He placed his hand atop his sword, which he turned just enough so that the hilt, and the insignia, glinted in the dimmed light. Or at least, she was pretty sure it glinted.
She stared up at Enoch and his unmoving figure. Her heart halted, and then fluttered. He was protecting them. But he said—
The man took a step back, smile wavering, accompanied by what she swore was the sound of a puttering engine. “How strange indeed,” the man said. “Then I suppose the children accompanying you are not, in fact, Rowan, Cassius, Eugenia, and Alanna?”
She blinked, and then glanced towards the others as if someone would have an explanation for her.
Cassius was staring at one of the figures in the back, his face drained of colour. He was too far away for her to try to signal, and he wouldn’t look her way.
Enoch glanced down at them, and then back up at the man. “You would be correct. The two beside me are my children, Hyacinth and Ruby. The other two are orphans.” He scowled mightily then, and it reminded her of a lion. “You would accuse me of not knowing my own children?”
The stranger’s smile finally fell away and twisted into a snarl. “This is ridiculous. These are the children we are looking for.” He reached for the sheath at his side, which she only just noticed. “You have no idea the power they wield. It would be in your best interest to give them up.”
She stepped closer to Enoch, so close now that she was touching him. Now it would be easy for him to simply agree with this strange man and release them. And how did this man know their names? Who the hell was he?
Behind him, smoke rose on the horizon. An engine puttered again. She had heard it, it wasn’t her imagination.
Her heart did not cease to crawl into her throat.
Enoch’s hand did not leave his sword, and in fact, he drew it an inch from its scabbard. “Do I hear that you would so contentedly question a knight? Do you challenge me?”
The man glanced down at his sword this time and, unlike before, paled upon sight of the insignia. He met Enoch’s gaze for a moment, his face twisted in unbridled fury, before he too heard the puttering of the engine and turned around. His companions, all still mounted and all with hands twitching towards weapons, turned as well.
An old and crippled, nearly dysfunctional from the designs she’d seen in book before, steam-powered cart was puttering up the road. More noticeable than that however was the driver.
Even from the distance, the dark metal of armour was shining even despite the hidden sun. As they neared, Ember could make out the figure. A woman with skin dark as ebony wood and hair pulled back in a bun that rose over her hair rode at the front of the cart. She was tall and imposing.
She looked more like a knight than Enoch did.
But as she pulled the cart to a stop with a lever beside the bustle of activity, Ember squinted to see her sword. She was carrying a greatsword strapped to her back, and there was no special ornamental sigils to be seen.
The woman observed the scene, brow bent into a slight frown. “Is there a problem here?”
There was a moment’s silence, upon which the door into the cart pushed open, and a girl’s head popped out. “Everything—” she stopped abruptly upon seeing everyone. She had fair skin and her face was littered, just as Ember’s was, with freckles. Black hair fell into a stubby braid over her shoulder, and her eyes were vividly blue that Ember could see even from where she stood.
Ember glanced back towards where the group of people now stood uneasily, their horses shifting or chomping at their bits.
And then she noticed one who had a grey cloth hanging off their neck. No, not a cloth. A mask.
The stranger who had dismounted pointed towards Enoch. “This man has—”
She stepped forward in front of Enoch, her veins alight with a hot anger. They had attacked her home and threatened her parents and her friends, and they had escaped. “You,” she snarled.
Enoch’s hand left his blade and thunked! back into its sheathe. He grabbed her shoulder, and hissed. “What—”
She uncurled her hands that had been clenched in fists and, before she could even spit out the hate building in her chest into words, twin flames burst on her palms. They twisted and danced with an eerie and intense golden light.
“Ember, no—” Rowan tried to scramble forward to stop her.
“Adolebitque ea,” she growled. And the fires leapt from her hands and onto the ground, expanding towards the grey masks.
Enoch’s grip tightened on her shoulder and he yanked her back as the fire began to catch and rise, growing rapidly. All the mounted grey masks tugged their horses around and spurred them hard, taking off in a line. The one who had dismounted was turning to mount his own, but the horse reared and turned, taking off after its companions, and the fire leapt at him.
She watched the flames and a deep, unlit satisfaction flickered in her. Nobody attacked her or her family and escaped the fire. She felt like she could fly.
“Gods dammit, you little sprite!” Enoch howled, still gripping her shoulder hard enough to leave an imprint. “We have to go!”
“Get in the cart!” the woman shouted, gesturing towards the opened door.
The girl had stepped out, and a boy of similar stature and appearance beside her. The fire was rapidly spreading towards them.
She blinked and shook her head. A fog lifted from her mind she hadn’t realised was there, and she stared now in sharp fear as the golden flames began to rise towards the sky in great columns.
“Wait,” she said, as Enoch dragged her towards the cart. “No, I didn’t mean— I don’t know how to—”
She heard both Rowan and Cassius shout something, but her ears were filled with the crackling of the fire.
Let it consume them.
“No—” She was thrust into the cart and the door was shut.
The fire wasn’t gone, even as the cart puttered and jerked forward. The boy who had stepped out of the cart was, in panic, trying to put out a rapidly growing flame consuming his sleeve.
Cassius, who was squashed into the cart beside her, lunged forward and grabbed the boy’s arm. “Vos demitto,” he yelled. His breath curled out in prismatic, glistening smoke, and suddenly the flame was gone, doused.
Her heart stuttered, and the fire roaring in her ears dissipated. She couldn’t feel it anymore, and it left her cold. She shivered.
“I didn’t mean to,” she said quietly, after a moment had passed. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
The boy smiled at her, partially holding up a now recovering Cassius. “No harm done.” Then he glanced down at his sleeve. “Well.”
Alanna leaned forward, squished on the other side of Enoch at the end. This cart was not made for so many people to occupy it at once. “Cassius can fix that for you!” she chirped. “He likes making clothes.”
The boy glanced down at Cassius, who finally seemed to realise the threat had passed and looked up at the boy. He jerked away then, returning to his own seat, and hugged his arms around himself. His cheeks were flushed. “Mmhmm,” he agreed, but looked far too severely embarrassed to say anything more.
Across him, the boy watched him with a growing, if not reserved smile. “I think I would like that.”
She looked down at her hands. How had she done that? Conjured that fire? She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t meant to—
An arm fell across her shoulders, and she glanced up at Enoch. He opened his mouth, his expression twisted in a glower. But when she met his gaze, he shut his mouth, shook his head, and simply patted her shoulder.
Heart hammering in her chest and shivering like a leaf, she leaned into his side, and buried half her face into his clothes.
He didn’t push her away.
Adolebitque ea = Burn them.
Vos demitto = You're fired.