Unbeknownst to her, ‘Alexis’ means ‘defender of mankind’. She was named as such by her mother, also a former adventurer, who hoped one day Alexis would live up to this title.
“Alexis,” called the woman. “Alexis where are you?”
“I’m here Mama,” a young female voice called back. The woman looked around the edges of the clearing behind their house. The bushes rustled and the voice was followed by a young woodling stumbling out of the brier. “Hi Mama,” the girl, Alexis, said. The woman took a long look at her daughter. The girl was covered head to toe in dirt and forest loam. Her hair, this morning in such a neat plait, was in disarray – locks spouting hither and thither from her head, and twigs tangled in the ends. Alexis’ clothes weren’t much better off. Dirty, stained and covered in rents. Alexis’ mother shook her head.
“What have you been doing child!” she said, aghast at the short time in which Alexis had rendered herself non-presentable.
“I’ve been playing,” the girl replied innocently. She flashed her mother a broad smile. “I was pretending to be an adventurer, like you were Mama.”
“Oh were you now?” The woman held out her hand to the child, and Alexis took it, and the pair walked back to the house. “So why are you covered in forest?”
“Oh I was camping Mama, and some goblins made my position, so I had to hide! And then, when they had passed I gathered up my pack and tracked them to their lair where they were keeping a baby dragon prisoner and making it light their camp fire, so I fought them and saved the dragon.” Alexis’ mother smiled at her daughters vivid imagination and said, “So what happened to your pack?”
“The baby dragon sneezed and set it alight,” Alexis responded cheerfully as they reached the house. Alexis’ mother opened the door and they walked inside.
“Well,” she said, “That sounds quite an adventure indeed. But adventurers need food like anyone else, so I’m going to make us lunch while you go wash up, okay?”
“Okay Mama,” said the girl and hugged her mother tightly. “And you’ll tell me a story while we eat?” Her mother hugged her back.
“Of course,” she said releasing the little girl. “But no lunch or story until you’re clean!”
“Yes Mama,” Alexis said, scampering to the bathroom.
While she changed her clothes and washed, Alexis heard someone knocking on their front door. Quickly she pulled on a clean dress and scampered to the top of the stairs as her mother came from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an apron.
“Who is it?” Alexis heard her mother call.
“Cora! It’s me, Garret,” came a gruff male voice from outside. Alexis saw a surprised expression on her mother’s face before she disappeared from view. Still crouching at the top of the stairs, little Alexis was surprised too. Her Uncle Garret should be at work still. Curious, she crept down the stairs a little, and heard the door open.
“Garret, is everything okay?” she heard her mother say.
“No it’s not. Cora we have to talk,” Garret replied. There was silence for a while, punctuated by the door shutting, and Alexis considered creeping closer, before dismissing the idea and staying where she was. This sounded like a Grown-Up conversation, and if her mother and uncle knew she was listening, she’d be sent away.
“What is this about Garret?” Cora said, her voice lowered so that Alexis had to strain to hear. Taking his cue from her mother, Alexis heard Garret also lower his voice as he replied.
“The watchers have spotted dark movement about half a days ride out. The Elders are summoning anyone with an ounce of combat experience,” A pause – Maybe Cora had frowned, because Uncle Garret then continued, “It’s not the goblins the elders are worried about. It’s the wargs.” Alexis heard her mother take a sharp intake of breath and that sound alone made the little girl’s blood run chill – Cora wasn’t afraid of anything, there was never anything in her stories that she hadn’t killed. Alexis didn’t know what wargs were, but if her mother was frightened of them then they must be really bad. Frightened by her uncle’s words and her mother’s reaction, Alexis ran down the stairs.
“Mama!” she called, reaching the bottom. Cora and Garret both started at her voice, her mother turning. “Mama!” Alexis called again and rushed at her mother headlong and buried her face in the soft folds of Cora’s dress.
Cora and Garrett looked at each other, before Cora placed a hand on Alexis’ head and turned to her daughter.
“Alexis, sweety,” her mother paused and glanced at Garret again. “Honey, Mama has to go help Uncle Garret and Papa and your brother Cade with something.”
“I don’t want you to go!” Alexis cried, gathering her mother’s skirts in fists. “It sounds scary and bad and I don’t want you to go.” Cora sighed, gently removing her dress from Alexis’ desperate grip and knelt in front of her
“You heard what Uncle Garret said, didn’t you?” Alexis nodded, eyes downcast, and her mother continued. “Alexis, I have to go. I have to help stop the bad before it gets here. If it reaches the village then-” Alexis heard a funny catch in her mother’s voice and glanced up to see Cora look away. Alexis could have sworn she saw tears in her mother’s eyes. Cora took a deep breath and looked back again at Alexis.
“Alexis, I love you. I promise I won’t be gone very long, but I really have to go.” So saying, her mother stood and glanced at Garret. “Give me five minutes to get Alexis’ and my packs ready,” she said to him. He nodded, and Cora moved away, leaving Garret and Alexis stood in the hallway.
Alexis twiddled her fingers and glanced at her Uncle. Garret wasn’t her really her uncle, just like Cade wasn’t exactly her brother. It was all rather complicated as far as Alexis was concerned, but the gist was that her mother had settled in this village after many years of adventuring and married a widower, her father, who already had a grown-up son, Cade. Uncle Garret was Papa’s closest friend, having no real siblings of his own. Together the five of them should be one happy family, not running off to fight goblins and wargs and other Bad things. Alexis frowned to herself, still looking at her uncle. Garrett was, in the girl’s limited experience, a good example of woodling-ness. He was a path clearer by trade, meaning he spend his days out in the forest around the village tending to the paths that took the big people around and away from the village. Because he spend all his days out in the sun, Garret’s skin was a beautiful golden tan colour, his hair light brown and his eyes tawny, like a hawk’s. He was strong and lithe, and tall too – most woodlings only grew to be about 3 and a half foot – but Uncle Garret was a full 4 feet. Yes, Alexis decided, he was a good example of a woodling. And just the right example to take care of her mother. Boldly she marched up to him.
“Uncle Garret?” He looked down at her paltry two foot seven inches.
“What is it sweet-pea?” he asked. Alexis took a deep breath.
“You’d better take care of my Mama and bring her back to me ‘cuz if you don’t I’m gonna spank you so hard you won’t be able to sit down ’till Year’s End!” Her uncle stared down at her for a second before letting out a deep laugh. “I mean it!” Alexis said, feeling a little peeved that he didn’t seem to be taking her seriously.
“I know,” Garret said smiling, “I know.” He knelt down to face her. “That, sweet-pea, is what makes you special. You’re gonna go on to do some great things.” He stood again, and mussed her hair, smiling fondly down at her. Just then, before Alexis could wonder at this reaction, her mother came back through the door, packs and cloaks in hand.
“I’m ready,” she told Garret and ushered Alexis out of the door.
Outside, the sun was still bright, the day still warm and the sky still perfect duck-egg blue, but to Alexis there seemed a pall had come over the sun, a pall that made the world seem dimmer and she knew it wouldn’t be gone until she and her family were sat safe at home again. Garret and Cora walked swiftly down the lane with Alexis between them. Many others where coming out of their homes as they passed; men and women with weapons, the elderly with children in hand. Alexis recognized most of the people, even if she wasn’t sure of their names. The weapon bearers glanced at each other, their expressions of grim defiance mirroring one another. Alexis shivered, not liking what she saw in those expressions.
Soon enough the small crowd came to the school room. Children and elders where dropped off, the rest went on to fight.
Cora dropped Alexis’ pack from her spare shoulder and handed it to the girl. Alexis shouldered it. Kneeling, Cora reached into a boot and pulled out a dagger, and held it out to Alexis hilt first. Alexis looked at it in confusion.
“It’s okay honey, I want you to take this. I know you know how to use it, and I’d feel better knowing my baby girl has something to protect herself with.”
“But won’t you need it?” Alexis asked, worried her mother would not be fully armed. Cora laughed, a sweet tinkling sound.
“I have more than enough of these. I’ll be okay with one missing.” Relenting, Alexis took the knife from her mother and placed it carefully in her belt, before glancing to the school house, and then back to her mother.
“It’s all right sugar,” Cora said. “Go on.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Garret, “We’ll be back before you know it.” He smiled, but Alexis could see in his eyes he didn’t really mean it. Alexis reached up and hugged her mother tightly.
“I love you Mama, and you Uncle Garret.” Releasing Cora from the hug, Alexis stood back. “I’ll see you soon. Good luck.”
“And you!” Cora called back, as she and Garret walked away. Alexis watched them depart, her hand held up in farewell, as was her mother’s. Then they rounded a corner, and her strong uncle and beautiful mother vanished from sight.
Alexis turned then and walked into the school house, bundled along with all the other children and elderly. Inside, the rooms had been cleared of tables and bedrolls put in their places. The main assembly hall was filled with children milling around and the elderly sat on makeshift couches. As she entered, Alexis’ sensitive ears where assaulted by laughter and genial shouting. Looking around from the doorway, she soon spotted her group of friends and quickly wove her way through the crowds towards them.
Soon she had reached the group of two girls and three boys; Blossom and Bryony, Hampson, Merrimac and Samuel. Sauntering up behind Hampson, she lightly tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw her.
“For the love of Logan!” he exclaimed. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“It’s not my fault you don’t have sharp enough ears,” Alexis said, grinning at him. It was her favourite trick to pull on people, and she was very good at it. She listened in on some of the conversation. Bryony was talking about how it was a good job the day was warm, because she’d been bathing when Blossom had come to get her and her long blond hair was still wet and some of her clothes stuck to her because she hadn’t had time to dry off properly. Blossom retorted by sticking her tongue out and the two girls set to fighting each other the way that siblings do. Alexis smiled. It was good to be around her friends at a time like this. She didn’t know quite how they stayed so happy in light of what might be happening to their parents, but Alexis felt relaxed around them and some of the pall came from off the sun.
A few hours later, with no news of what was going on, a few of the more able old ladies decided to start preparing dinner, and amassed a large group of helpers. Alexis and her friends, for want of something to do, decided to help out too. Some of the children where designated as cook, others to set out long trestle tables and chairs, and Alexis’s group, consisting of her and her friends where asked to go out and find some extra food because the school’s supply was not that great.
Eagerly, the sextuplet left the school house.
“Where do you think we should look?” asked Bryony. “We can’t just take it from people’s houses.”
“Of course not!” said Merrimac, looking anxious at being outside. “We’ll take stuff from… From…”
“The general store!” said Alexis. “That way no one can get upset because the general store is supposed to give stuff to people.”
“Yeah that’s a good idea,” Hampson said. He gave Alexis a slight shove in that direction. “Lead on, fearless leader!” Alexis gave him a long look, then shrugged.
“Okay,” she said, and the group headed off.
Soon they reached the shop, only to find the front door locked.
“Awww!” wailed Blossom. “Now what are we supposed to do? Some of those old ladies are scary. They might eat us if we don’t come back with anything.” Bryony looked at her sister with contempt.
“Don’t be silly,” the older sister said. “They won’t eat us.” Now it was Bryony’s turn to look a little anxious. “But we really shouldn’t go back empty handed…” The sisters looked at the boys. Samuel shrugged.
“Don’t look at us,” he said. “We don’t know what to do either.” As one the group looked at Alexis, who was stood a little way off, examining something at the side of the building. As she felt their gazes on her, she turned around.
“It’s time, oh great leader,” said Hampson, “for you to lead us. What do we do?”
“How should I know?”
“Your mama always told us loads of stories about how she picked lock and snuck in places she shouldn’t of. Can’t you do that too?” Alexis looked from one to the other.
“Well… I… I Guess I could try,” she said, unsure of her abilities.
With the others egging her on, Alexis walked around the building looking for possible ways of gaining entry. Her mother had never taught her to do any of this sort of thing, but the others were right when they said Cora told a lot of stories. Alexis wasn’t stupid, she’d picked up from those stories certain things that her mother did in order to achieve certain ends. Most of the time, she didn’t know why they were done, only that they seemed to work in the stories. Of course, all the information might be just that – a story to entertain little children on rainy days – but somehow Alexis doubted that. She reached the back of the building. She’d seen the way the other adults treated her mother sometimes, as though Cora was a wild horse, who though now tamed, still possessed a little wildness about her that others didn’t like.
“Did you find anything yet?” The call from Hampson jerked her out of her thoughts and back to the job at hand. She looked at the back of the building. There was a window there, but it was all shuttered up. She turned to go when something caught her eye. She wasn’t sure, but it looked like one of the shutters wasn’t quite shut.
“Yes,” she called back. “Come here, I need some help.” She heard the sounds of running feet as Hampson and Bryony hurried around the building, quickly followed by the others. As they approached young Alexis pointed to the shutters.
“Look there,” she said. “The shutter isn’t closed properly. I bet if you give me a boost I can open it.” She looked at the others, they all seemed unsure, but Hampson seemed to speak for them all when he nodded.
“Okay,” he said, walking over to the wall. “Let’s do this.” Merrimac joined him under the window and together they linked their hands together like they had seen their fathers do. Alexis stepped up on to their hands and the boys lifted her up so she could reach the window. She glanced down at them apprehensive and saw them smiling up in encouragement. She reached towards the shutter and began to pry at it.
Several minuets later and a couple of changes in who was holding her, Alexis finally managed to pry the shutter open. Inside it was dark except for the square of light from the now open window. she let out a small whoop, as did some of the others, before hauling herself into the room beyond. Dropping down onto a sack of potatoes, Alexis looked around.
She was stood in a small store room, that must be at the back of the main shop. It was filled with all sorts of things, from the potatoes she landed on, to churns of milk and a few of what her mother might have called travellers rations, as well as non-food items like spades. On a whim, she put the rations in her pack.
“Hey,” she called. “Can you hear me?” A muffled affirmation came from the other side of the wall, and Alexis climbed back up on the potatoes to look out the window and wave down to her friends. “What did we need again?” she asked.
“General vegetables I think. Potatoes, carrots. That sort of thing,” came back the reply. Once again Alexis slipped of the sack pile and started sorting through vegetables. She managed to pass down a bag of carrots and one of cabbage when there was a shout from an unknown voice outside. Instantly she froze, even thought she was hidden. It wasn’t until Hampson called her name from outside that she came-to.
Quickly she scrambled back up on the potatoes sacks and looked out the window.
“Alexis!” Hampson said again, seeing her looking down. “Alexis, what do we do?” There was another call from the voice. It sounded like a woodling to her.
“It’s okay,” she called back down to the frightened boy, “I think it’s a friend. You and Merri stay there and help me down, the others can go and find out what’s going on and take the food back.” Alexis saw Hampson nod and disappear from sight to talk to the others. It was then she heard the noise.
It was like the howl of a wolf, except it was like no wolf Alexis had ever heard before. Somehow it sounded as though someone where sawing wood with a rusty and blunt saw at the same time as the howl came. The sound penetrated her very bones, making the skin rise on her arms and the hair on her head tingle. There was a brief silence, before the sound came again, swiftly followed this time by a scream. Alexis stood transfixed on the pile of sacks. Tears appeared in her eyes of their own volition, and she shivered. Then there were the sounds of running feet and more screams. Her breathing was very fast now and she trembled. Shakily, she began to climb from the window, back into the store room, when she heard another scream, different from the others. A shrill scream, the scream of a child.
Then the running feet where coming towards the window, and a voice was calling her name in terror. Quickly she scrambled back up to see Bryony and Merrimac stood looking up, screaming her name. Screaming for help. Alexis couldn’t seem to think straight. She didn’t know what to do, but some other took a hold of her body and she found she was lying over the windowsill calling down to them.
“Merri, lift her up!” she said, panic entering her own voice. He dithered. “Merri!” she screamed at him, and he grabbed Bryony by the waist and lifted her up.
“Reach for me, Bryony,” Alexis yelled and the little girl stuck her arms up. Alexis stretched down, leaning out as far as she dared. It wasn’t enough. She leaned over more, yelled out once more. Merrimac lifted higher and Alexis felt her hand connect with Bryony’s and lifted the girl out of Merrimac’s grasp. Part of her exulted in the minor triumph, but it was short lived. Closer to there came another bone chilling howl and a pounding of feet and then a blur of grey and Merrimac was gone. Bryony screamed, Alexis just stared. Then the other who was controlling her body took charge again and lifted. The girl was a dead weight though, and Alexis not that strong. The latter girl heaved, inching herself back over the ledge. There wasn’t even the warning of a howl this time, just a grey blur. Alexis saw the wargs leap, felt the tug. Bryony gave a brief strangled scream as she was torn in two. Alexis dangled from the window, stupidly pulling up the torso of her friend before the situation kicked in. She gave a half sob and let go of the hand. Her body began to tremble again and tears spewed from her eyes. She sobbed, almost choking on it and somehow scrambled back from the window. There was another howl. Alexis almost joined in. Then she was down on the floor, having closed the shutters and locked them tightly, pushed back as far into a corner as she could go, pulling boxes of apples and bag of vegetables around herself. She shivered and shook and sobbed and cried, pulling the vegetables ever closer, hiding herself from scent and view, trying to block out the horrible sounds of wargs feasting on her friends.