Eventually the last of the soldiers filed out, leaving Dalya mired in a mess of clothes and upturned chests at the foot of her grandfather's empty bed. The sheets, stained dark with dirt, wrapped her like a sordid cocoon. She cried, knees pulled tight against her, and surveyed the wreckage through a mist of tears. She spent several minutes curled there, more than once turning to check the cot for the old man's frail form. The narrow imprint of his body was still embossed in the bed, along with the dried blood and grime, but the corpse was gone, vanished like smoke in a windstorm.

A stray cat screeched off in the distance.

Dalya wiped away her tears with the filthy sheet and staggered to her feet. Shuffling through the clutter, she moved to the window and drew the curtains. Warm spears of sunlight spilled through the pane, catching faint spirals of dust sailing through the bedroom. Numbly she tottered to the cherry chests in the far corner and began straightening the ruffled clothes within. Her mind was still as she worked, the thoughts in her head knotted in a quiet, deadened stasis. She collected her grandfather's things—old notes, a few tarnished rings she had never seen—and filed them precisely into the chests along the walls.

In the opposite corner of the room, beneath a pair of crumpled trousers, Dalya recovered the old man's worn diary. The cover, dark and wrinkled and coarse with age, hung intact by a few weakening strands; the pages lolled out from the spine like a hundred brittle, yellowed tongues, and Dalya caught glimpse, for the first time, of the crude scrawling under the book's craggy jacket. The lettering seemed familiar, like the cuts on the old man's body, but the language was lost to her—random words and symbols sloppily transcribed on each page, overflowing into the margins, through most of the diary. She found some sketches near the back, doodles of flowers or simple landscapes, but nothing she immediately recognized.

The stray cat shrieked again, from somewhere just beyond the door. The sound of frantic, muffled scratches caught Dalya's ear. She laid the book on the floor beside the chests, cautiously crossed the room, and poked her head into the hallway.

"Hello?" she called.

For a moment, the cottage fell silent. Then the furious mewing started again, from the kitchen at the edge of the hall. She moved warily toward the sound, one careful footstep after the other, until she rounded the corner and stepped onto the cold stone tile of the vacant kitchen. Jagged fragments of decorative plates littered the floor, and the supper table was upturned and shoved against the far wall. The anxious screeching was louder now. Deeper. Human.

Dalya gasped and ran to the larder. Rolling clear the toppled barrels of rice and potatoes, she curled her fingers around the edge of the floorboards and pulled up a square section of paneling. Beneath the floor, in the hole under the larder, sat Istanten; the boy stared up at her with wide, wet eyes, the corpse of her grandfather draped over him.

She grinned. "Are you stuck?" Istanten snarled. He reached up from the bottom of the pit. Dalya grabbed hold of his hand, and together they pried him out from under the weight of the body. He climbed free and, with his sleeve, wiped the remnants of tears from his cheeks. Dalya hovered over the hole for a moment, studying her grandfather's crumpled cadaver.

"Is... is he hurt?" she asked. The boy rolled his eyes and shrugged, raking the hair from his face. Her grandfather was slumped awkwardly, neck crooked and arms twisted in the cramped crater. "I hate to leave him like that, but I think he's safer here than anywhere else."

Istanten grunted his agreement. Dalya slid the paneling back into place and squeezed past Istanten and into the kitchen. "Will you stay and keep watch?"

His eyes darkened and he furiously shook his head.

Dalya nodded. "Fine. But we need to finish the grave. Tonight." She stepped into the hallway and headed for the door.

Istanten grumbled softly and followed her, his footsteps resonant in the empty house.



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