This story is by Eliza June Sapphire and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Her mother’s nimble fingers wove the sacred Rowan blossoms into Aine’s hair. Abruptly, Aine’s sister, Riona, slammed the door open, announcing her presence. Their one-room home rattled with the force. Three years younger, Riona stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips. The three women looked almost identical, each wearing the same white ceremonial dress, flowers woven through their golden hair.
Aine smiled. Orla shook her head, sighing, as she touched the Rowan bark relic she wore around her neck. It was the same relic everyone over the age of thirteen wore after their Coming-of-Age ceremony. Today, Riona would receive hers.
“The others have already started walking!” Riona’s voice pitched. “Hurry! I don’t want to be late for my ceremony.” Riona paced.
“Yes, I suppose the square is full by now.” Orla said, wiping a tear from her eye. “If only your father were here to see his girls. You’re both so lovely.”
Aine gave a soft smile. “Thanks, Mama.”
Orla patted the protection relic, held by a red leather strap.
Echoes of distant screams pierced the air, shattering the peaceful moment.
Orla rushed to the open door, jerking Riona back. Aine glimpsed Northmen rushing the front gate from the riverbank as Orla swiftly shut the door. Anger flashed through Aine’s chest. So many died the last time the raiders came, including her father.
“Were those…” Riona’s voice wavered as tears sprung to her eyes. “I—I don’t have my protection relic yet!”
Orla ran to the wooden chest next to the bed they shared and dropped to her knees. “Quickly girls, move the bed and open the trapdoor.” Clothing littered the floor until the chest was nearly empty.
Aine grabbed her sister’s hand and pulled her to the bed, dropping alongside their mother. Pushing it out of the way, she watched as her mother pulled out the belt that held her father’s sword and the small dagger he kept in his boot. Her throat tightened.
“Northmen will show no mercy. We have to get to the Rowan Tree grove.” Orla pulled the trapdoor up and shoved the dagger into Aine’s hand.
The screams outside became louder as the damp earth wafted up from the opening. Aine had always known about the secret tunnel, but they had only ever used it once- when it was first complete. Orla pulled Aine to her feet and tied the end of her dress just above her knees before Aine could process that she was holding her father’s dagger in her hand. The pain of his loss hitting her deeply as her mother did the same to Riona’s dress.
“Aine!” Her mother shook her arm. “You’ve gotta be strong.” Orla nodded toward Riona, squeezing the hand with the dagger. “Quickly, put that in your boot and jump into the opening. The tunnel isn’t long and it will take you away from the houses. The wagon is in place to shield you when you come out, but we must hurry.” Orla kissed her daughter’s forehead and shoved her toward the trapdoor.
Aine dropped into the hole, urgency overtaking her. She peered into the darkened tunnel and swallowed the lump in her throat. Glancing back over her shoulder toward the others, she watched as her mother tied her relic around Riona’s neck, kissing her forehead.
“Aine, lead your sister to the grove. Use the back gate. I will be there as soon as I can.” Orla pushed Riona into the hole.
“Aren’t you coming with us?” The question invoked a gripping fear, though she knew the answer already.
“I have to conceal the entrance, but I have your father’s sword.” Orla grabbed Aine’s hand. “I need you to lead your sister to the grove. Do you understand?”
The clanging of swords drew closer, and screams continued to pervade the area surrounding their home. The weight of her mother’s words struck her. Aine nodded and crawled into the tunnel. Darkness engulfed them completely, and she could hear her mother pushing the bed back into place. Fear riveted her mind and anger filled her heart as her sister sobbed quietly behind her.
Turning her head slightly, she whispered. “You must be quiet or they will hear.”
Aine moved. The mud and dirt felt suffocating as she edged forward, her breathing shallow in the space. She waited for the tunnel to collapse, or for others to join them, but neither happened as she moved forward. The dirt fell into her hair and the dampness produced bumps along her arms. She closed her eyes against the lack of vision and tried to even her breathing. Tears spilled from her eyes as she counted each movement forward, the war cries from above urging her to move faster.
They made it to the end of the tunnel, the sounds from above distant. Aine coughed as she climbed from the tunnel into the space under the exit. Cringing at how loud it seemed to her own ears, the pounding in her chest intensified.
“We’re here. Give me your hand.” Aine felt for her sister’s hand and pulled her into the space beneath the door. It was deeper and wider here.
Reaching up until she felt the wood door, she pushed against it. The door raised up with some resistance, and she slid the board to the side. The light of the day blinded her. She wished the Elders had placed the exit outside the wall, but at least the space under the horse cart would conceal them.
“Should we stay here until they leave?” Riona asked.
The noise had subsided, the clanking of swords minimal. She thought on Riona’s words, but knew it would be risky. Gazing through the debris left on and around the cart, her heart caught in her throat. The homes were behind them, bodies strewn over the road. The winding of the road led to the town square, from which screams emanated.
Flashbacks haunted her. Her father’s body, left in the street after the last raid they endured. She felt like that small six-year-old girl again, crying into her mother’s skirt, instead of the sixteen-year-old woman she was now. Aine shook the thoughts from her mind. Her mother would likely be dead by now. It was up to her to get Riona to safety.
“Aine?” Riona touched her arm.
“No. We have to move. If they find the tunnels, they’ll trap us.” Aine climbed out of the hole, laying on her belly. She spun around and pulled Riona out. Their hands trembled, caked in mud.
“Can you run to the wall?”
Riona nodded, though her face suggested she was unsure. The gate was open for the ceremony that would never take place. Taking her sister’s hand, they sprinted.
As they passed through the gate, a shout started them.
They ran faster, not daring to glance back. Aine led her sister off the path and into the cover of trees. Branches smacked their faces, they stumbled and fell over the uneven ground. The sound of the Northman raider behind them kept them moving despite the pain.
They broke through into a circular opening. The Rowan Tree grove. Her eyes danced around the trees surrounding the perimeter. Rowan flowers were in full bloom. The sound of the raider getting closer. With no where else to hide, she ran to the portal tree.
“Quickly.” Aine looked back into the forest. “Get inside, hide.”
“But only the Elders—”
Riona clambered inside. “The Portal—”
“Hide. Don’t come out, no matter what.” Aine spun away from the fear in her sister’s eyes.
The Northman broke through the clearing. His braided beard was unlike any she had ever seen. Aine grabbed the dagger from her boot. She had to lead him away from Riona. She had never believed in the silly superstitions about the Rowan Tree being a portal, but perhaps it would help protect Riona.
Aine moved away from the tree, gripping her father’s dagger tightly and gritting her teeth. “Not my sister.”
The Northman smiled, his yellowed teeth on display as he sheathed his sword and drew a dagger. He mock-curtsied in a taunt, crouched down ready to lunge for her. He wanted her to run. She could see it in his eyes.
A thunderous crack reverberated through the air, shaking the ground. Followed by a deafening silence. The Northman dropped his dagger. His eyes flew wide. Aine stumbled as she ran at him, plunging the dagger into his chest. She watched as he fell to his knees. He looked into her eyes as the life left them and then fell to the side. Overcome, she emptied her stomach contents.
Aine ran to the Tree, eyes full of tears. The tree now stood bare. Like the leaves and flowers, Riona had vanished. Stepping into the opening, she put her hands on the bark. Peace filled her. The legends were true. The portal real. Aine sat down and closed her eyes. Riona was safe.