Smoke rose thick behind her, billowing far above the small houses it had claimed and lapped, oblivious to the surrounding cries, towards the clouds. It had been a damp few days, but that had not prevented the hot devastation; there were many people with torches. Laughter pealed in deep drawls across the village as Alpha and Sierra ran from their home, hands clasped but with the sense of knowing that, soon, they would have to give each other up and part ways. Though who this would be to save was not as simple as one would think. The heat could still be felt even when the pair breached the copse of surrounding undergrowth that had, thankfully, been left untouched ready for autumn planting. Alpha knew the way. She had had no parent whom to guide her in which areas of the realm were safe for her so she had wandered in her youth, unlike Sierra who had been forbidden to pass into the woods. So Alpha took the lead, weaving them through the skinny trees that marked the forest boundaries but when they reached the thicker, older, more durable trees, Sierra halted them. Panting, she leant against the nearest tree with her hands on her thighs bent over in an attempt to fill her burning lungs with air. Her companion looked over her shoulder and held the stare. There was more smoke than she had expected, surely there were not that many homes for them to burn?
‘Alpha, you have to go.’ Sierra eventually swallowed, wiping her hand across her cheek to leave an imprint of sweat and soot.
Alpha looked upon her friend, the only one she could reasonably claim to have. Alpha belonged to the village as she had no parents but it was with Sierra, who was a few years older than her, that she had stayed with the most. Sierra had the most common hair colour in the village, blonde that was usually brilliantly vibrant in the summer months but then when the leaves began to fall it turned a dirtier shade that she hid well by keeping it in a long plait that reached behind her to the small of her back. Now, her blue eyes were serious and imploring and slightly tinged with red and her cheeks were flushed the colour of ripe apples. Alpha felt her heart given an unexpected start. She had had few people to care about but, now she considered leaving her, Sierra felt like more than her sister. Her lungs heaved at the prospect of leaving her. To give herself time to answer, she wound her black hair back into the bun it had fallen out of in the flight and threw her grey eyes down the front of her dress-now grey and torn in haste.
‘You know you have to, it is you they are after.’ Sierra straightened up, her resolve set.
‘Where?’ Alpha strangled out. Fear clamped its vast jaws across her throat and she placed her hand there to stave off the panic that was clawing its way from her stomach.
‘Away? Does it matter where? Just get away!’ Her friend exasperated.
They stared at each other.
‘I do not know why it is me they want. I have done undue damage to everyone.’ She hung her head, her hair hiding the pale face that had drawn back to keep herself from crying.
‘They looked like Sarinians to me. Their hair was dark.’
Alpha nodded. They had black hair, she had black hair. The evidence had not escaped her either. Never before had her parentage been more at the front of her mind.
‘Well, goodbye then.’ Sierra had mistaken Alpha’s gesture for assent to leave each other and the latter had not the heart to protest any longer. They embraced in the awkward parting of two kinswomen who knew they would never see each other again but thought to say so would be to condemn it to truth.
And with that the women parted ways. Sierra stayed where she was for a few heartbeats after Alpha was gone before running with her graceful step back towards the smoke, the shouting and the fear.
The autumn leaves against the earth were wet and slippery as Alpha sprinted deeper into the forest, heading for where the trees were thickest and she could hide until the men, Sarinian or not, had gone. Damp scents of rotting foliage was all she could smell as she skidded along the old forest paths she was not aware she was taking. It had been foretold she would be the first one to cross this path at its deepest channel, but she did not know that, and so a guard had been placed along suspected bridges to this path by the ones who it had been prophesised to. Of course, Alpha knew neither of these things. There was no fear in her now, just the gentle pressure on her legs that belonged to the well-stretched muscles. She loved to run and it came easily to her. But the urgency to retreat from the village was long gone. After a while, she slowed to a walk and then stopped and leaned against a tree just as Sierra had done. The screams could no longer be heard and the smoke had been hidden by the canopy of leaves yet to fall, bathing the ground in an eerie orange light.
‘Do not stop now, girl.’ Came a voice beside her. She started and, without turning to see who approached her, ran off, this time not restricting the swiftness of her movements.