Sarah, Returned--Chapter 14 (A Steemit Original Novel)
June 27, 1689
“Hannah, please be quiet. Please, please, do it for me, okay? Like I taught you. Close your eyes, bite your lip, put your head on my shoulder, and don’t make a sound. It’s really important. Come on, you can do it. It’s not so scary. I’ll protect you. You just have to be quiet, just for a little while.”
I bounce the whimpering toddler in my arms, keeping her face turned away from the mayhem in front of us, begging her to avoid doing what is baby instinct to do: Cry when faced with danger or an upsetting situation. She leans her head back a little, just enough to look me in the eyes. I immediately narrow them, hardening my gaze so I look as serious as I am, hoping she doesn’t see the tears beginning to glisten there. The last thing she needs is to see that I’m scared, too.
She takes me in for a moment, then nods, silently agreeing to my desperate request. The girl closes her eyes, slowly and deliberately bites her lower lip, and buries her face in my shoulder. The whimpering stops; she goes perfectly silent, and I relax a tiny bit, gathering her more tightly in my arms. I’ve been practicing with her for this moment all her young life, from the time she could look at me and understand my movements.
All those moments spent in secret with her and Grizel, the two of us teaching her to do this when no one else was watching or listening, may just pay off. Please, God, let it pay off. Don’t let it be for nothing. I don’t know how much my being here has changed history so far. My memories of the history books at school and genealogy lessons from Grandma are unchanged; then again, would I know if they were different? I don’t think my presence in the 17th century has changed anything important, nor have I attempted to alter anything thus far. But this, this rescue has been planned from the moment Grizel found out I came here from the future. If I can only change one thing, I want it to be this.
I delivered this child. I’ve cared for her since her birth--her nanny, her second mother, her companion. I won’t lose her now, not when I have a chance to stop it.
“Richard Otis’s two year old daughter Hannah was killed in the raid, her head dashed open against the stones of the garrison’s fireplace.”
The words from the town history I read all those years ago in elementary school echo in my mind, haunting me as the moment I knew was coming arrives. Archaeologists find a small skeleton 300 years later, when the remnants of this house are excavated. Hannah. Not this time. History changes now.
Screams and the violent sounds of destruction rage all around us; I push my back as far as it will go into a little alcove by the hearth, hoping no one will notice us. Even friends and family might give us away now.
I can guess what is going on beyond our little cubbyhole. That’s one of the harder parts of coming to a place in history where you know exactly what happens and when. Those screams in the rest of the house, I know who makes them. I know who is beyond saving, and who will make it. Of all of them, Hannah was always the only one I thought I might be able to save, or should.
The acrid smell of burning wood stings my nose; I know it must be irritating Hannah as well, and I hope she doesn’t sneeze. If the house empties of living people without us being taken, the next challenge will be getting out of the burning garrison unscathed. I’ve got a plan for that, too. I’ve planned for everything since the moment I realized I wasn't going home. The question is, will any of it work? Will I even get a chance to put it into action? There are a lot of things I can control, but what others do that might give us away is not one of them.
People run back and forth in front of us. Some are groups of women and older children being bundled together to be taken into the woods, to Canada; some will return, most will not. A few times, bloodied and mutilated bodies are dragged by us across the floor, and I’m grateful Hannah can’t see them. Richard and Stephen, both gone, as I knew they would be. Always knew.
Once, they were just names on a page, a sad story as a footnote to the history of Dover. Now, they are living, breathing, real people who I’ve known for four years, my direct ancestors, people who took me in and made me family. I find myself biting my lip, trying not to cry, to be as brave as Hannah, knowing these gentle, loving men are now gone in so brutal a fashion. Just because I knew it would happen doesn’t make it any easier.
Eventually, after what seems forever in my delicate quest of keeping a frightened two-year-old quiet and still in the midst of chaos, it seems things are slowing down. Most of the women and children have been removed from the house, and the only living ones left besides Hannah and me are the Penacook raiders, picking through the remnants of anything valuable they might be able to sell to the French. They won’t set the big fire, the one that burns down the whole garrison, until they are all outside. That’s when Hannah and I will have to make our move.
A thin tendril of gray smoke from one of the smaller fires makes its way to our hiding place and tickles my nose. I manage to stifle the sneeze, but Hannah hasn’t learned to control such impulses yet. Her tiny sneeze sounds like an explosion to me. And the world goes still.
The painted face of a Penacook, ready for war, walking past the alcove, stops. Turns. Sees us. Dark brown eyes meet mine squarely, menacing, and dangerous. I tighten my grip on Hannah a little more, not enough to hurt her, but enough to make her difficult to snatch from me. No, not difficult. Impossible. No one is taking this child out of my arms. I promised her mother.
Hannah's mother. Grandma’s mother. The most amazing discovery of my time here. I found her, my great-grandmother, the one who disappeared. Elizabeth Frances Wentworth Otis. Just as I suspected, she traveled through time, like Grandma and like me. What I didn't know until about a year after my arrival here was that she touched down in 1684, a year before I got here; finding no Grizel Warren in town, she took on that identity for herself, and married Richard Otis as his third wife. We both knew she would become Hannah's mother, and Margaret's; I received my midwife training at her insistence, so I could bond with Hannah from birth. Grizel, my long-lost great-grandmother, she knew what was coming from the moment she arrived, just as I did.
I promised her, and I promised myself. No one touches Hannah.
Blood pounding in my ears makes it hard for me to hear anything, and the rush of adrenaline going through my veins makes it seem like the world is suddenly moving in slow motion. Though my muscles feel as if they are frozen, I manage to slowly shake my head, a universal gesture the warrior should understand. I am asking him to keep quiet and go on with his business, to leave us alone. There is no reason for him to give us away; the Penacook raiding party has what it wants.
The bronze-skinned Native frowns for a moment, looking behind him. Is he checking to make sure no one else has noticed us? Or, is he looking for someone to call out to? It’s hard to tell. But when he turns back to me, he is smiling. To my relief, it’s a friendly one. Only then do I recognize the war-painted Penacook as one of my friends from the woods. In his ceremonial war clothing, feathers and paint everywhere, it was impossible to identify him at first. This man is an ally. Or, he used to be. I hope he still is.
When I arrived here four years ago and began seeking out the local Penacook in the forest, he was the first to welcome me to their village, and was one of my main tutors in learning their language. We’ve been friends from the beginning. Will he give us up to his people, or let us go? I feel the hard edge of the knife I have tucked in my stocking pressing against my leg. All bases covered. A backup plan for every backup plan. I’m prepared to fight my way out of here with Hannah if I have to.
Regardless of the reverse aging the time travel did to me, and the many years I’ve been here, muscle memory is a powerful thing, like riding a bicycle. I’m reasonably confident I can still pull off all the moves I learned in the karate and self-defense classes I took in my previous life. Those aren’t things they have here; such moves would certainly take anyone, Native or settler, by surprise, especially if wielded by a woman. Just one defensive move could be enough to offer us window of escape.
I tense every muscle in my body, except the ones holding Hannah, as I don’t want to upset her. My next move will be determined by his.
“Sarah, what are you doing here?” he whispers to me in his own language. Knowing the future, making friends with the local Penacook and learning their tongue was one of my first priorities.
“Hiding,” I whisper back, using his language, as well. It is a sign of respect I hope will promote my cause with him. “What else would you have me do?”
“You could walk out of here unharmed,” he replies, looking bewildered. “Surely you know that. My people all know you. No one will block your way. You are our friend, and the invitation to live with us in our village is still open. Not a single warrior here will hurt you.”
That much is true, and I always knew it. But, of course, that’s not why I’m hiding.
“Hannah,” I say, tilting my head toward the child in my arms. “I was afraid your people would hurt her. I’ve heard stories of how they kill small children in these raids, because they make too much noise and can’t keep up with a march of hundreds of miles through the woods. I need to protect her. I thought if I could keep her quiet and hidden until you were all gone….” I trail off, leaving the implication hanging in the air between us.
My friend regards me and the child, staring at us hard, wondering if she does, in fact, need protecting. I know he won’t harm her, as he adores children, but others in his raiding party may not feel the same way. Finally, he nods. “You are right, Sarah. Even in your care, there are some who would want to take her and kill her. Her cries could bring the attention of the neighbors before we leave the house. You know we plan to burn the garrison to the ground after everyone who is still alive is outside, do you not?”
Even without historical knowledge, it’s an easy plan to figure out. It’s been done to other garrisons before this one.
“Can you get out of here with the child once we’re gone?" he asks, concern for my safety etched into the creases of his war paint. "Are you able to move her safely through the flames and outside as quickly as possible?”
“I am,” I nod.
“You’ve been planning this,” he correctly surmises. “I won’t ask how you knew we were coming. You have proven yourself to be quite a powerful fortune teller in the past. You have the gift, Sarah. I thank you for not giving us away, as it surely would have meant the extermination of my village. It must have been hard for you, knowing you would lose some of your own if you said nothing.”
“It was an extraordinarily difficult decision to make," I confirm.
Tears sting the backs of my eyes at the thought of just how hard it was to remain silent all these years, confiding only to Grizel. But, ultimately, it was the right thing to do. Fewer people would die this way, and I knew it. Grizel knew it, too. It’s why she chose to stay and allow the Penacook to take her and baby Margaret to Canada.
“I will not give away your hiding place, brave one,” he says quietly, honoring me with the praise. “If you can keep the child quiet a few moments longer, we will be gone. I believe you can escape to safety with the girl. You always do what you say you will do, and have been ever good to my people. A woman of honor and ability. Rare, indeed, in any culture. Be well, my friend. I hope we meet again under happier circumstances. Your kindnesses to us will not be forgotten.”
“Thank you. I hope we meet again, too,” I say with honesty. He didn’t ask if I knew why his people felt like they had to do this; he instinctively knows that I know. And, in spite of it all, I do like him. I like almost all of the Penacook, just as I like almost all of the settlers. Sure, there are bad people in every bunch, no matter what culture, but by and large, most humans are innately good. We all want basically the same things for ourselves and our loved ones. He is only doing what he feels is necessary to procure those things for his people. I get it. And, I do hope we meet again. We were friends before this one, tragic moment in history, and we can be again.
With a quick nod toward me, he is gone, back into the rampaging crowd. And, just as he said, a few minutes later there is complete silence. I wait a few moments more, to be sure we’re alone, then slowly stick my head out of the alcove and peek around the corner. The garrison is empty, except for a few bodies, worthless trinkets, and furniture that was too large to carry through the woods. Only, instead of a handful of small fires set to block exits and destroy things that were valuable to the Otises, the walls of the entire building are ablaze, and the house is quickly filling up with thick, black smoke.
I’ve almost changed history, but not quite. I still have to get Hannah out of the quickly crumbling house, and I have to do it now. The smoke is beginning to obscure my path to the door. If we don’t move soon, her tiny skeleton will still be found in the charred remains of this house in 300 years; the only thing that will have changed is what killed her. And, what’s left of me will be there, too.
Catch up with the entire "Sarah, Returned" series here: