Eres listened intently to the slow, deliberate boot steps that sounded on the floor of her room. It was a man, but it was not her father. It was the Englishman.
"Come out, come out, little mouse," he crooned.
It was hardly persuasive.
"Eres, what do we do?"
Eres hushed her twelve-year-old brother quietly from where she was hiding under her bed. He was in a secret niche in the wall, a much safer hiding place than her own. She still couldn't tell what was going on, but she could tell that it wasn't good. That's why she'd sent the others on and had come back for Kai herself.
This man had been in her room for several minutes now. When would he leave? Why was he here? Papa had said not to trust him. Why? What did he want?
"Eres," the intruder called softly.
A snake- that was what he reminded her of. He was frightening, this Englishman. Where was Papa?!
She could see the boots now, and she could see him go to her wardrobe. She wasn't there, of course, and he slammed the door back, making her jump.
"I'm not angry. Come out and I won't punish you for hiding."
Eres' heart pounded against the floorboards as the boots turned to face her bed.
Eres squeezed her eyes shut as her bed creaked and panic tingled at the edge of her nerves. The bed was lifted away and fell upside down beside her with a crash, coaxing a scream from her. Her eyes flew open as she was yanked up by her hair. She screamed again in pain and grabbed the big hand that had a cruel hold on her corn-silk hair.
"Look what I've found," the man growled triumphantly.
Kai had emerged from his hiding place- to Eres' disappointment- and was pulling fiercely on the big hand that held the sword. "Let my sister go! Let her go, you fat goat!"
The man laughed, slinging the boy against a wall. Kai looked dazed, sliding into a sitting position.
Eres called her younger brother's name worriedly, looking up at the man who had her darkly.
"Bold lad. Too bad I have to kill 'im."
"No!" Eres cried, but the word went unnoticed, and the man started toward her brother, dragging her along with him. Eres struggled to keep the man away from her brother, struggling against him as much as she could. Try as she might, the man was at least three times her size and many more times stronger than she. Hope seemed lost...
And then she heard her father's voice from the hall...
Emery Lewis expected the worst as he dashed up the steps of his home. How could he have been so thoughtless, so foolish? He had left a debt unpaid, had left his wife and his three children alone and defenseless. How could he forgive himself if...
Emery blew through the front door to see his home in utter chaos. Nothing was left standing in the way of furniture, and the hearth's contents were strewn through the den, left to slowly catch fire.
Lewis fled up the stairs and into his wife's and his chamber. He was afraid...
And rightly so, for what he found rent his heart.
The light was dim here; the hearth was in a similar state as the one below, though its contents had been put out somewhat by the washbasin... on the bed was their three-year-old boy Trevor.
Emery approached quickly and lifted the boy's head to feel the quilt beneath his throat was cut and covered with his blood, as was his small mouth. He was not breathing, and Emery's face crumpled in pain. His youngest was dead. Trevor was...
Something stirred from the far side of the bed.
Emery reluctantly left the child's side and slowly rounded the large piece of furniture, his caution flung to the wind as his wife's hand became visible around the corner. He collapsed to his knees beside her, gathering her into his arms and cradling her against his chest.
"Winnie?" He whispered, barely able to get the name out of his mouth. The sting of tears touched the back of his eyes as he gazed down at her fearfully.
Winifred stirred as her husband touched the warm, wet patch of blood on her stomach. "Em-Emery?"
Emery sobbed once, feeling as if he were about to wretch. "Aye, love. Oh God, Winn, what happened?"
"That Englishman," she hissed. Though the words were weak, they were saturated with hate. "Hadrian. He came-"
"Oh, Winnie, I'm so sorry. This is my fault, I-"
"Emery! He's...he's still here," she whispered urgently. "Emery, the children..."
Emery shook his head, unable to stomach the words she spoke. "Still...here? Why? Has he not had his fill of revenge?"
"Em, he wants...everything, he..." Winnie shuddered in pain and closed her eyes again. "Please, Em, go! Eres, she's in so much danger. And Kai. Go," she pleaded, pushing him weakly.
"What about you-"
"Go! I am beyond help; you ken it. Please," she sighed, letting her head loll back weakly.
Emery hesitated not a second more. She was right. He could help the children, but...not her. Though the thought pained him, he knew it to be true.
He kissed her forehead quickly. "I love you, Winnie."
"And I, you. Now, go."
Emery let her carefully back down before running from the room toward his sons'. He found the room empty- to his great relief. Eres had had the foresight to get him. Such a smart girl...
Emery swung the door wide as he came to it in time to see that Hadrian had found Kai and Eres' hiding place and was pulling her with him toward a dazed Kai by a fistful of her hair.
"Hadrian! Let my daughter go."
Eres glanced in her father's direction, relief flooding her big, green eyes. "Papa," she said softly, relief poured into her words.
If only he could live up to her expectations of him.
Hadrian cocked an eyebrow. "Emery. What a pleasant surprise. I was just about to give these wild and disobedient children of yours a beating."
"That's not necessary," Emery said sharply. "It's me you have a quarrel with."
Hadrian chuckled as he tossed Eres to the floor. "You're a fool, Lewis. I told you not to try to cheat me of what's rightfully mine. And yet you decided to try to be sly about it, didn't you?"
Emery glared at Hadrian darkly. "What I've earned is rightfully mine and my family's. You'll not see a penny of it while I'm alive or dead."
"Papa," Eres said, surprised and frightened by the words. She had regained her feet quickly and scurried to Kai, helping him to their father's side.
Eres blinked, not quite understanding what he wanted her to do. Flee? But she never...
Eres cowered from his sharp tone. He never raised his voice to her. Still... "Where's Mama?"
"Eres, do not disobey me! Leave. Run. You know where to go."
Something in the way her father had hesitated and snapped at her told Eres that something had gone horribly awry. "Papa, no-"
Hadrian drew a long sword, finally tiring of his prey's stalling. "Do not run from me, wench. You'll only make it worse for yourself when I find you."
Emery pushed his daughter behind him and glanced her way, trying to give her a comforting smile. "Go, my children. I shall follow soon after Sir Hadrian and I talk this out."
"Papa, no-" Eres said with a dubious glance in the man's direction. He certainly didn't sound English, but...one thing was for sure. He was no 'sir'. He was a blackguard with evil eyes, and he frightened her.
If that wasn't bad enough, she'd had a dream like this three times in the last two months...
"Promise you're come right behind?"
Emery smiled gently as his daughter as Hadrian started his approach. "I promise. Now, go!"
Eres stumbled back hesitantly toward the door. "Bye, Papa," she mumbled.
"I love you, Eres, Kai. Tell the twins that Mama and Daddy loved them."
The words were drowned by the fear Eres felt as she turned and ran down the upstairs hall, Kai in tow. There was something wrong with something he'd said. What was it? Why was she starting to cry? Why...?
Eres didn't hesitate to stop at her parents' chamber. She had to check. That was all. She'd just take a peak and make sure Mama was out.
"Eres, Papa said not to come here," Kai said nervously.
Ignoring him, she opened the door boldly, and when the first thing she saw was her baby brother lying on the bed motionlessly, she whirled around so Kai wouldn't see, though the image was imprinted on her mind.
"What is it, Eres?"
Eres shook her head. "Stay here, Kai, and keep watch for me. Don't turn around, because he might sneak up on you," Eres said sharply.
Kai could only nod.
Eres approached the bed slowly. She tried to call her brother's name, but no sound came from her mouth. She tried again, and the volume of her own voice startled her.
The room was as silent as death, and it was the most frightening thing she'd ever not heard.
She blinked furiously and tried to see him through blurry eyes and only then did she realize that she was crying. His throat was covered in blood, and...
Eres stepped back and jumped as her foot touched something damp on the floor. Looking down, she clutched her hands together as, step by step, she followed what seemed to be a trail of blood around the side of the bed. When she saw her mother's bloody hand...
Eres pressed her hands to her open mouth as she screamed and stared at her mother's bloody body. Her eyes were open. Why were her eyes open? How could they be...?
Eres whirled to leave just as the door opened. Hadrian stood, tall and foreboding, in the doorway.
"Where's-" the words caught in her throat as the realization of what Hadrian's presence here meant. "Papa..."
Eres' head snapped to Kai, who stood against a wall not four feet from the man who had destroyed her world in one night. The man followed her gaze...
"The last boy," Hadrian growled, his lips curling into a vicious smile. He stepped between the lass and her brother just as she crossed the room and reached for him...
"Please, please no," Eres begged, grabbing Hadrian's arm as tears gushed from her silver-green eyes. "He's just a little boy. Don't hurt him, please!"
Hadrian paid her no heed, knocking her to the ground with one shove. As Eres looked on, he swung the blunt base of the hilt down on Kai's head. The sound of impact was sickening. He glanced at Eres and chuckled. "Best be pleading for yourself, lass."
Eres sobbed as her young brother's body crumpled to the floor and shook her head. "No. Just, just kill me, too. Please."
Hadrian chuckled, amused by his sick little game. "Oh, nay, wenchling. I've something else entirely in mind for you."
Eres looked at the man hesitantly, questioningly. "What...?"
"You're going to get me your da's fortune."
Eres ground her teeth together angrily. "You'll never see any of it," she snapped. "It's not mine to give!" She found some grim satisfaction in her words until he took a menacing step forward.
"Oh, nay, wenchling." Hadrian approached her, lifting her by the front of her shift with one hand. "Tell me- be you a woman yet?"
Eres blinked, confused. What was he talking about? "Um...?"
With a grunt of annoyance, Hadrian tossed her on the bed beside her dead brother. "Whether you can bear brats, I suppose I'll soon see."
A bit of realization- though she only vaguely knew of what went on between men and women- touched Eres' eyes. She gasped in indignation as he shoved her brother off the bed and atop her mother and yelped as he pinned her to the bed between his knees and shoved a hand up her shift.
Eres was again blinded by tears as she tried to push the man off of her. Words failed her completely as she struggled to wriggle out from under him. "Ten and two! I'm ten and two!" She finally yelped. She rattled off a string of prayers in Welsh. God forgive her for lying, but this was an emergency. She was ten and four, but she could easily pass as two years younger.
Hadrian hesitated. "That's all? Hmm," he murmured, running his hands up her small thighs.
Eres reached under her mother's pillow. She always had a small dagger. If it was there, she could kill him. She could avenge her family...
Eres whipped the blade out as soon as her fingers found it and slashed at her captor's face.
Hadrian roared angrily, and Eres used all of her strength to wiggle free. He grabbed at her hair, and Eres whirled, swinging her little weapon. It sliced into his arm, and Eres kicked him as hard as she could where her mother said it hurt the most. She hoped it was deathly painful!
He swiped at her again, knocking her again to the floor.
Panic touched her again, and all she wanted to do was get away. She wanted...she wanted Lady Sabine, and Laird Bram and... and Wolfe.
Scrambling to her feet as Hadrian stood, Eres did as her instincts dictated: splattered with blood with dagger in hand, she fled the graveyard she had once called home.
Molly trapped the young lady in an embrace from the darkened woods, sending the girl into hysterics.
"Miss, Miss, oh," she mumbled, trying to dodge the shining weapon in the child's hand. She had blood all over her...
"Eres! Calm yourself, child, it's me! Molly. See? Oh, there, now," she crooned as Eres' wild cries for mercy and rescue quieted to trembling sobs.
"Molly," Eres moaned, "They're all dead!"
Molly blinked, surprised and aghast. "Your Da an' Mum?"
Eres nodded, fresh tears springing to her eyes. "And Trevor. I tried to save Kai. I really did," she stammered apologetically. "But that man..."
Molly shook her head. "Not another word. You hush now, lassie. We must go now."
Eres nodded mechanically, leaning heavily into the woman who had been her nurse. "I'm sorry, Molly."
"Hush, child. It's not your fault. Easy, now."
Eres let the older woman half-carry her to a small wagon, in which sat her two younger sisters, huddled together behind the driver and stable master, Newton.
"Eres!" The twins cried in unison. At ten, Sloan and Rhiannon were sharp as tacks and mischievous to boot, but tonight the fire was clean out of them. Well, mostly.
"Are you all right, Eres?" Rhiannon inquired worriedly.
"Ick, you're covered in blood," Sloan mumbled, frowning.
"Where's Mama and Papa? Are they coming? And Kai?"
"And where's Trevor? He was with you, wasn't he?"
Eres tried to swallow the hard lump in her throat and put on the brave face her mother would use whenever she had to tell them something she knew they wouldn't want to hear. She had to be brave. Not only was she the eldest, but she was all they had now, and she was going to be chased by...
"Mama and Papa can't come," Eres said hoarsely as Molly lifted her into the back of the wagon. Tears were streaming down her face, but she did her best to ignore them and not wipe them away. The tears would just have to fall. That was what Mama had always said. Sometimes you just have to let your tears fall before you can be all right, but once that's done with, you have to move on and grow.
Rhiannon looked at Eres speculatively, trying to hold back tears at the same time. "And Kai and Trevor?"
Eres shook her head as she rested it against the side of the wagon.
Sloan's fair face puckered into fierce grief. "They're all dead, aren't they?"
Eres' eyes snapped to her little sister's in a mirror of fierceness. "They're only dead if you forget them," she said sharply. "We can't see them now, but don't you dare forget them!"
Sloan and Rhiannon stared at their sister and nodded, silent tears gushing from their gray-green eyes, their copper-colored hair framing their moon-pale, freckled faces.
Laying her head back, Eres settled in and kept a close eye on the road behind.
Her parents and brothers were gone, but she still had her sisters. She had forgotten that Molly had shepherded them out...
Aye, she had her sisters. And no one, not that demon Hadrian nor the devil himself, even if he sent her to the inner circles and darkest fires of hell, was going to hurt them now.
She would protect them, and herself.
She had to.