Boris was frozen to the spot as the chain lightning leapt from the Witch's right hand. Time seemed slow as it crackled past him and lit up his men with actinic blue light.
They didn't scream.
They didn't have time.
She walked towards him, slowly. Light arced from the bottom of her dress, grounding and burning the grass around her as she approached him.
"I need a survivor. So, tell all those you meet, plains raider. The yellow caravan is off limits. And, if you EVER threaten a child again you will be found. I CURSE you with this knowledge."
As Boris shouted, Frankie leapt. Henry automatically threw up both his hands to defend himself, dropping the little girl in the process. His screams were shrill as he disappeared beneath blood, feathers, claws and teeth as Frankie tore him open like a thin paper bag.
The archer released his arrow as the monster flashed towards Henry; the sudden speed was shocking. The arrow whistled across the air, only to stop five feet from Minerva and drop to the ground.
Minerva was crackling with power now. She was angry, but she waited until Rhian was safely under the caravan.
"Call it off!" Boris shouted at the woman.
"I can't. It's not mine."
Henry started edging in Boris's direction. The things' ghostly eyes were locked onto him and it very slowly started closing the gap between them.
"Call it off! I mean it!"
Minerva stood there. "And what are you going to do?" By now, the ground beneath Minerva was turning to dust as her fist started to crackle with energy.
"Lads!" The rest of the robber band emerged from the woods. One had a bow; an arrow knocked and aimed at her.
"I mean it! Fucking call it off!"
Henry held even tighter onto the little girl as a terrifying creature came round the side of the caravan. Standing on two feet, it appeared to be the skeleton of something. Surrounding the bones, and filling in some of the missing, or broken, ones, was a ghostly blue musculature and the whole thing was covered in ghostly skin and feathers.
It wasn't a chicken.
The thing's lips curled back and it started hissing through rows of blade-sharp teeth as it lowered itself to the ground. Readying an attack, it's clawed arms thrown wide, vibrating the arm feathers noisily, viciously.
Frankie had done what came naturally when the big human had suddenly appeared and tried to grab him. One hundred million year old instincts took control and Frankie lashed out with the huge claws on his feet, opening the human up even easier than the thick skinned prey of old. He knew he didn't need to eat, but the rage was on him, and so he bit and tore.
Suddenly he felt his owners fear. That wasn't right. She petted him and let him run free when she could. He ran back, to find owner struggling against another big man.
"I got the girl boss!" Said Henry as he rounded the caravan. He held a struggling girl in his arms.
The woman in front of him paled. "Don't you dare hurt her."
If Boris had hair, it would have started standing on end as Minerva started drawing power. The grass at her feet turned grey and ashen.
"Now look, we ain't hurting no-one. Just co-operate and we'll leave you with..." He paused as the 'Chicken' rounded the caravan dripping in Gil's blood. Ghostly feathers shook and bristled as it started hissing like a big boiling kettle of water.
It was at that point everything turned into a bloody mess. Gil had sprinted into the tall grass of the plain, going after the chicken as he'd been told to.
"What the fuck!? That's not a chi..." The sentence was cut short as blood fountained into the sky, followed by a terrific screech.
The woman had turned to face Boris. Standing straight, she smoothed her long dress and then smiled at him. Boris had seen that kind of smile before; and it usually meant that they were out of their comfort zone of robbing from defenceless victims.
She wasn't defenceless...
"Right. You grab the little girl. Keep 'er quiet understand? I'll grab the woman, and Gil can grab the chicken."
"What do we do boss?"
"That it boss?" Said Talbot.
Boris rubbed the bridge of his nose as hard as it would allow. "Yes, just stand there alright? I'm assuming you can do that?"
He stood, and walked from the edge of the wood straight towards Minerva.
"Evening! Any chance of a flagon for a poor, thirsty, traveller?" He smiled as pleasantly as he could. As she turned away from the fire, a panicked squeak came from Rhian.
"Hey... Boris. There's a tinker caravan just stopped nearby. Looks like it's just a woman and her little girl."
Boris snuffled awake from his afternoon nap. I grabbed Henry by his collar. "I swear! I'm going to break your jaw one of these days for waking me up. Me afternoon nap is needed for our nights."
"Sorry, boss. This one looked like easy pickings. The little girl is playing out in the grass with her big chicken."
Boris looked at his compatriot. "It's been a while since we had chicken. Why didn't you say so sooner?"
"Er, I did boss."
Minerva looked over her shoulder, peering into the caravan. "Are you alright back there?"
"Can I let Frankie out?"
She sighed. "Alright. we could do with stopping for the evening anyway."
Rhian whooped with glee, quickly followed by a clattering noise. Minerva, on the other hand, shivered slightly as she felt her daughters strange energies wrap the whole caravan.
The back door opened as they stopped at the edge of the woods bordering the Chalast plain, followed by a loud squawk and the clatter of claws on wood. Frankie was abroad in the world once again.
"We need rabbits!"
The caravan was a bit more colourful that Minerva had been expecting. It had obviously previously belonged to a gypsy, or maybe a travelling tinker. It wasn't... Gaudy. But the main colour was a brilliant sunflower yellow, with plenty of green and red.
Needless to say, Rhian loved it and squeaked with delight when the Quartermaster brought them to it. He'd smiled.
The inside of the caravan was a lot more sensible, with space for both to sleep as well as the tiniest kitchen she'd ever come across. Whatever space was left had been packed with various foods and sundries.
The quartermaster was yelling obscenely at a subordinate, before turning.
"I need a horse and caravan."
"Don't be stupid woman! We're evac..." He finally spotted Minerva's pips and ground to a halt.
"I realise that this is probably the most awkward time to make demands, but I am travelling east across the plain and I need a caravan and a horse. Also provisions for two."
"I am under orders from the Matriarch. Don't make me invoke..." The quartermaster had turned away.
"You!" He screamed. "Caravan and a horse!" He grabbed another. "Provisions for two, now! Move it!"
Minerva looked around. They weren't going to be able to walk, Rhian was far too young for that. So, she was going to need a horse and cart. Time to try and flex her new rank's muscles...
"Soldier." She just grabbed a random one from the soldiers directing the exodus. "Take me to the quartermaster."
"I'm sorry miss, you need to get back into the line. We're trying to keep everyone moving..." He paused as she looked at him sternly.
"Shut up cadet."
"I'm an officer madam!"
"Not for long if you don't take us to the quartermaster right now!"
She hugged her daughter tightly and moved into the crowd, in amongst the rich and poor as they rubbed shoulders leaving the city.
Outside the wall, the people headed North. Whereas Minerva and her little girl headed eastward.
"Why aren't we going with everyone else?"
"We have an important thing to do. We need to go and see someone to get their help."
"His name is Rexinalt, and he lives near the mountains."
"What? Those mountains?" Rhian peered into the distance at the faint hint of snowy topped peaks creeping above the far eastern horizon.
"Yes. Those mountains."
They watched as Grandma Nerys was led away into the crowd, her bodyguard firmly by her side.
"Bye, bye nana." Came the small voice. Minerva swept her up and hugged Rhian. "Nana's going to be safe." Rhian was picking up on the faint smell of fear that was pervading everything now.
"Are we going to be safe mum?"
"Oh, bunny... I won't lie to you. I don't know. But we have Frankie with us, so I know for certain that you are as safe as anyone can possibly be. And I won't let anyone hurt you. Ever!"
She sniffed. "Promise?"
Minerva hugged her mother tightly. "Be safe mum. Be far, far away from what is coming." She stood back. "This is sergeant Hollister. He'll be by your side for the whole Journey." A short, burly, man stood to attention. "Take care of her sergeant."
"Yes general!" He said, snapping together his heels and saluting. Minerva rolled her eyes, and Nerys smirked.
"General? I hope that came with a pay increase?"
"Not that it'll do you any good mum." She leant down. "Nanner can't come with us bunny. So you need to give her a big hug, we'll see her soon."
Minerva pecked her little girl on the cheek. "We have to go somewhere little one." She put her back down. "Are you packed?"
"Yes mum. Just like grandma said to."
"Good. Is Frankie in his bag? We mustn't forget him."
"Just like Ginny is taking Maggie cat in her basket."
"Good. Go get your bag..." Rhian raced away. "And don't forget to put your big walking boots on!" She shouted after her.
Nerys looked at her daughter. "We're not going to the same place are we."
Minerva shook her head. "Sorry mum, she's much safer with me."
"Are you sure?"
The rapid, practiced, thud of small feet came thundering down the stairs.
"Mummy!" Screamed the eight-year-old as she charged across and buried herself in Minerva's dress.
Minerva quickly wiped her eyes and picked up her little girl.
"Hey bunny! How're you doing?"
"I'm alright. Frankie's been naughty though."
Nerys looked at her granddaughter. "Only because you weren't in control of him." She looked up. "Little monster nearly caught the neighbour's cat the other day."
Minerva raised her eyebrows. "What have I told you about keeping Frankie under control?"
"Sorry mum." She looked dour. "Glad you're home though mum."
Her mother was beside herself. "Oh! You're not hurt are you? What happened?"
"I'm..." Minerva's minds eye flashed back to the moment the coven was broken as she delivered the final, massive, blow to the enemy. "I'm not hurt." She lied. "But we were overrun..." She held on tightly as the floodgates finally had a chance to open. "They're all gone mum. All gone." She sobbed.
"Shh... You're here now. You're safe."
"That's it mum. It's not safe here. Not anymore. There's a friend outside, you need to go with them."
"This evacuation is your doing?"
"Yes, mum, it is."
"Rhian! Don't forget to pack your warm clothes!" Came the shout from the kitchen as Minerva entered the house quietly. Outside the noise of neighbours hastily moving into the street to join the crowd, as they filed towards the northern city gate, hid the noise she made as she opened the door.
"Mum?" The noise from the kitchen stopped and her mother's face instantly appeared at the kitchen door. "Minny! Oh my Goddess!! You're home? They never said, you never said..." She ran along the short hall and wrapped her eldest in a massive hug. "I thought..."
"Back early mum."