It was decided. The great sacrifice would be made. As the children flocked around Edmund Harrington, the only male above 15 who had not gone to war against the hopeless strength of the Barbarian might, he was stabbed with a silver of uncertainty. So many children, and he the sole carer? But it had to be done. There was no longer a choice. To Quenera they were therefore to go. At least they may be more assured of a welcome from their nearest neighbour, if the wizard who suddenly appeared to him privately is to be believed.
It was all he could do to hold baby James while the mothers looked for the last time at their offspring, before giving a watery half smile at Edmund and nodding towards the portal Quenera's Wizards Guild had built not too long ago. Bowing at their silent signal, he turned and ushered the nine surviving children towards the portal. Naturally, children being children, they did not understand at all. "But why, Edmund? Isn't mama coming too?" Rosa said, with a mutinous face at odds with the usual trust she displayed in him.
"Me want Mammy..." was another response from four-year-old Theresa. Edmund did not know how to answer them, despite his experience with them. Nothing could have prepared him for this day when all the parents of Vanquine would die to save their remaining offspring. Truth, that precious virtue, was now their greatest enemy in the escape. Fortunately, he was saved by little Valerie, the oldest among the children who were now his responsibility. "Mommy wants us to go with Edmund, Theresa. Isn't it going to be fun?" she said in a falsely cheerful voice. "We will even get to try out that new shiny rock and go zap into Quenera!"
"Umm... Okay, Valerie, then mommy will come join us soon, huh?" Phillip questioned, though now with less tears in his eyes at being separated for the first time in his life from his mother.
Edmund smiled sadly when Valerie looked at him. She was the only one he trusted the secret of the great sacrifice to. Having lost her mother at a younger age, Valerie became Edmund's sole responsibility when their fathers perished together at war. Instead of answering, Edmund shepherded them into the small portal room and exclaimed, "There's the magic stone now! Who wants to go first?"
At the sight of the new exotic toy, which they have previously been forbidden absolutely to use without adult supervision, most gave a clap of glee and clamoured around Edmund, heartache momentarily forgotten. However, he knew who he'd choose even before he asked the question. Quickly he organised the children into groups of three, led by some little ones who'd visited Quenera before. Then, over the hubbub, he raised his voice and called, "Valerie, why don't you take your group first and show the rest how it's done? Watch carefully, everyone."
With so many pairs of eyes watching her, Valerie gave a happy nod, pleased to be the first one chosen. Leading young Gavin and Kelly forward, she pressed the green button with a lightning bolt etched onto it, the symbol of Quenera, then quickly dragged the youngsters across the lowered stone door before vanishing into thin air.
Turning back to the six other children, most of whom now wore a look of pure awe, Edmund quickly sent the remaining groups through the portal. One by one the children started vanishing, with Edmund always reminding them to "find Valerie and stick close to her and wait for me". He safely saw them pass through the portal before looking back through the opened portal room door. Somehow, he can already make out the tide of barbarians over the top of the city gate. This was it then. The last throw of the dice.
Closing the portal room door and barricading it, he readjusted baby James in his arms, then activated the portal stone himself, stepped through the enchanted gateway, and let fate take him.
As Edmund cleared the Quenera portal stone, he became suddenly aware of a shrill voice he recognised as Valerie, though he'd rarely heard her in such emotional tones.
"But Edmund said you said we could come! Why are you-"
"Silence, girl! He may be Lord Harrington's boy, but he has no place here!"
Before Valerie, flanked by nearly the entire group of orphans, could continue, Edmund quickly strode forward and interposed himself between Valerie and her foe. "Perhaps, sir, you'd rather deal with me."
The wizard looked down on him with - curiously - irritated eyes, but Edmund stood his ground. "I am Edmund Harrington of Vanquine, and I've come to seek sanctuary for myself and the children. If you would be so kind as to take us to your leader..."
The wizard snorted, rather indelicately. "Unluckily for you, I come bearing a message from my leader regarding this situation. 'The brats from Vanquine are not welcome here.' Do we make ourselves clear, Harrington?"
At those words, the children broke into furious whispers. Edmund could hear tearful snatches of "Why did he call us brats?" and "What is sank-tu-ry, Valyry?" and "I don't understand..." Reining in his own rising ill humour, he tried a conciliatory tone in his reply, "Surely, if Lord Glondorian heard me out he will-"
"No, boy. How many times must I repeat myself before the message penetrates your thick skull? You will get no help from Quenera, and if we ever catch any of you harrassing citizens here we will mete out punishment as we see fit!"
It was a futile argument, and Edmund could feel the children's heightened confusion and homesickness, after the terrible welcome they were given by their nearest neighbours. Some were even debating amongst themselves if they shouldn't just take the "shiny stone" home. Just as the wizard had had enough and teleported away after a final "Be gone, brats!" Edmund suddenly felt a cold wave of evil. Beside him, Valerie hugged his front fearfully, as she stared wide-eyed in a southeastern direction. Even Quenera paused, as if frozen with fright, for a full five minutes. Then Valerie looked up at him, "It's it, isn't it, Edmund?"
Feeling suddenly and completely helpless at facing what it truly meant to having no home, no help in sight, and a shoulderful of responsibility, Edmund tried to hold back the tears he forced himself to hide from the world. He hugged Valerie back as the rest of the children crowded around them, and told her haltingly, "Yes, Valerie. That was the end. Now we must survive by ourselves."
- To Be Continued -