Dull pain echoed across his body before Marcus opened his eyes. He lifted his head out of the frigid dirt that caked onto his forehead and face, anchored there by dried blood. His chest caught fire every time he took a breath and his brain pounded against the wall of his skull.
Marcus sat up and tried to get his bearings. The woods spread behind him. There was a light frost on the ground and the sun climbed to high noon behind a veil of grey. The air carried no noises: no chirping of birds, no chopping of wood, nothing. Normally the morning brought forth a symphony of sounds, but now there was an unearthly stillness. The smell of fire filled his nostrils.
Marcus rose on unsteady legs and prepared for a sluggish journey home. It was when he turned that he saw the origin of the fire: his village. As he approached, he saw the ruined remains of his once calm corner of the world. The sea-weathered stone houses had been torn down and their roofs set aflame. Overturned baskets and simple furniture littered the ground. And then there were the bodies. Men and women laid dismembered across the ground with spears and arrows sticking out of them. A hatchet protruded from the town blacksmith’s back. Blood splattered across the ground.
What little air that was in his chest vanished. This couldn’t be real. He had woken up that morning and the lazy sounds of the village morn were present as they always were. Now there was silence and death. This couldn’t be right. This isn’t right. This doesn’t make sense.
Like a dream stepping into dawn, the memory of that morning slowly came back to Marcus. He remembered his papa tasking him to check the traps they had set in the woods the evening before. He was walking up the lone dirt path when something emerged from the woods. It was a man, a burly armored hulk of a man. He’d carried a great round shield and an axe. The last moment Marcus could recall was the crack of his nose breaking as that shield came across his face.
Throughout the village were footprints and tracks. There must have been more of the strange warriors in the woods. His mama had always told him of dangerous men that came from the sea to grab children who misbehaved, but he always thought those were stories for his younger brother and sister.
He limped down the main path to his hut near the storehouse. Despite his exhaustion, the reality of the massacre was starting to set in. Panic was crawling up from his stomach and fueling the burning pain in his lungs. With each body he passed, Marcus braced to see his dead family. When he came to his home, he saw his papa slumped against the stone wall of the hut, his woodcutting axe still clutched in his hands. Dried blood left dark crimson stains in his tunic. Mama was closer to the shore; a spear was standing upright in her back. Marcus felt his heart sinking deeper and deeper into his damaged chest. He wanted to sit down and cry, but he knew he had to find his brother and sister first.
He made his way to the shore where he found a few more dead villagers but no sign of his siblings. He walked down the beach and saw a strange track in the sand. It looked like a trail of a fishing boat but was much larger. It also seemed to come from the land. Next to the track, Marcus saw the necklace that his mama had made for his little sister, Hilda. It was a small, unassuming thing: just a simple woven necklace of a horse. Marcus knew the pretty green and gold threads that his mama favored. A horrifying thought crawled into Marcus’s mind.
Could the men from the forest have taken his sister and brother?
He collapsed in a heap on the beach, looking out to the dark and churning sea. The quiet was more oppressive than the devastation around him. Marcus held his head and let his tears flow. He wept in silence. He had started the morning, annoyed at still having to perform the childish chore of checking traps. As the tears ran down his bruised face, Marcus wished harder than he ever had before to wake up and start that morning over.
The pale sun disappeared behind the clouds and the world grew darker.