“Deliver this,” the bearded man said. He placed one heavy hand on Ava’s shoulder as he pressed the rolled parchment to her palm. “As fast as you can.”
Her mother was struggling against the bed sheets and the torments of some unseen demon. Purple and red splotched her face, and sweat made her hair stick to her head. Myrna, Ava’s older sister, stood there, dabbing Mother’s forehead with a wet clothe.
“Will this help her?” Ava asked. The parchment crinkled as she squeezed it.
“Just go, Ava,” Myrna said.
So she scurried down the stairs, burst out of the front door and went.
Wagons crowded the cobble stone street. Nervous horses stamped their hooves against the ground as broiled faces screamed at each other. Those who were not fortunate enough to have wagons and horses, or even donkeys and wheelbarrows, plodded down the sidewalks and through the congestion with their belongings strapped to their heads, and shoulders and dragging behind them.
“Move, damn you! They’re coming.”
The whole city surged toward the Western gate in one massive flow.
“Excuse me. Sorry. Please move.” The confusion swallowed Ava’s voice.
A woman grabbed her and bent down to meet her eye to eye. “You are going the wrong way.”
“No, I have to deliver something.” She tried to tug her arm free from the woman’s grip.
“I can’t let you. It’s not safe. You have to come with me.” She started to pull Ava in the opposite direction.
“Let go.” When the woman didn’t, Ava sat down and let out a piercing, sustained scream, just as she had been trained to do.
Faces from the crowd turned toward them. People dropped the reins, dropped their positions, and came for the woman. Just before the first person reached her, she let go. Ava stopped screaming, and the people blinked back to awareness, back to the moment and their plight. Everyone returned to where they had been, and continued onto wherever they were going.
Ava squirmed through the press of bodies until she arrived at a glossy black door of a flat grey building. The door had no knocker, or knob. There was no chain dangling from a hidden bell. She slapped at the door with her hand. She rapped it with her knuckles. After kicking it, yelling at it, and resting her forehead against it, she sat down on the sidewalk again and faced the door.
There was chaos in her mother. Chaos was overrunning the city. A few blocks to the East, red lingered in the air like dust. The people all around her looked crazed, but the cries coming from there sounded lost and defeated.
Her breath shook her. Silence was approaching, and that red dust.
Ava’s reflection in the door stared back at her. Her dark blue dress and black hair were indistinct, but her pale skin and the parchment stood out stark and crisp. She unrolled the thin hide. Black marks scratched over its surface. Unable to read them, she showed the words to the door. Leaning forward, she gathered herself on her knees, and pressed the parchment to the black surface. The hard stone grew fluid and viscous, like oil suspended.
Men were marching down the street. Their armor still glinted, even though much of it was covered in red. Grey gazes snagged on her, but she melted through through the door and into a narrow dry corridor.
The parchment was gone. So was the door and any notion of outside.
An elderly man dressed in white robes stared down at her. “Welcome,” he said. “We will care for you, until the time comes.”
“But I had to deliver the note. To help my mother.”
He smiled a small smile. It was the kind of look adults get when they were about to reveal something disappointing and life altering.