"They'll kill him, Liam!"

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MORE THAN JUST THE dark looms.
I'm still bound to the earth's floor by the same feeling that drew me there in the first place. A terrible feeling, a hopeless realization that there's nothing I can do except stay where I am. Away from somewhere I long to be. The ground is soft, comforting, like how it felt in my mother's arms. I've never found the smell of soil pleasant, but now, as it wafts around my nose, the corners of my mouth draw into an unusual smile.
What happened before the ground beckoned me? Did I faint? Did I just give up and lay down? I reach back to remember, but all I see is myself falling into my own puddle of tears, slipping out of someone's strong grip.
My senses slowly tune in, the sounds and smells of the forest becoming apparent. A mesmerizing sound of branches swooshes above, singing a lullaby in harmony with late night critters, and the scent of crisp leaves is refreshing.
I fully realize where I am, yet I can't seem to understand why it is that I'm in the company of the hovering forest trees.
Michael . . .
My eyes open at the thought of his name. I shoot upward, ears perking at the sound of leaves scattering under my arms. "Michael?"
Light, but rich, a welcoming voice comes from nearby. "Not quite." My beating heart grows more rapid as a hand slips into mine, rough fingers grazing against my own.
"Liam, oh." I fully rise, noting his looming figure barely visible by the evening's cold light. "Why are we here?"
His hand pulls, lifting me up from the consolation of the ground. "More questions?" He grows more visible as my vision adjusts to the gloomy forest. His hands slip behind his back in a casual manner as his eyes catch mine. "Very well, then. We're here because you decided to plop right down without a warning during our adventure. I'm not even sure you consciously knew you had fell. I carried you as far as I could, then set you down before my arms fell off." I catch his grin and the furrowing of his brows under the dim light as I stifle a smile. He steps forward, his voice now serious yet calm as it lowers. "We're far out enough to be away from danger for awhile. I thought giving you time to rest would be alright."
Oddly enough, I feel myself grow warm in the face at the candor in his voice as a part of me starts warming slowly inside. I stare at the green eyes peering into mine and my head cocks, suddenly remembering what he said.
"Danger? You mean . . ."
The attack.
I regard Liam with slight bewilderment. A breeze lightly soars through the branches, sending my braid's loose strands flying across my forehead and cheeks.
His words draw out slowly. "We need to leave for camp before they search out the area beyond town." His head turns around, scanning the area around us. I remember him doing the same as he rescued me from town.
My clouded thoughts clear, familiar senses of panic and fright coming back to me. My ears begin to ring with the memory of the sound of hoarse cries. The image of Michael's arms held back to two cruel men's sides stays burned in my memory, becoming bigger and scarier with every blink of my widened eyes. "But M—Michael. Liam, we have to get him."
"We will. When the time is right. Michael will be fine—"
"Fine?" I grip my dress, stepping forwards. He winces as my tone spikes. I feel myself growing more angry with every stream of words I let out. "We don't even know who they are. They fired cannons upon an innocent town. I can't imagine what will happen to Michael if they discover he's the colonel's son. I might as well plan his funeral today! They'll kill him, Liam!"
"Miss Holt!" Pain flashes in his hard stare. His eyes lock on mine sharply. "They won't kill him. He's a child. They aren't that barbaric. They know who he is and they're using him."
I feel the tears forming in the corners of my eye. A sniff comes from my nose, and I squint hard. "What do you mean?"
He nods. "It's what they do. They'll keep him as bait, to lure your father in, or a good band of our troops they want dead."
I shiver at the thought of my little brother held captive, kept in a place of darkness or chains. A lump forms in my throat, making it a struggle to form the right words. "I don't, I don't understand. How am I supposed to get him back?"
"You don't." As he steps up to me, he stands at least a full head taller. "Your father will figure that out."
  I almost oppose, starting, "But . . ." Frozen for a moment by the unwavering resolve is in his eyes, I realize that nothing is going to change his mind. I swallow hard, glancing downwards. An urge pushes me to glance back up, but the tears creeping over my cheeks keep my head down. I turn to face the other end of the forest and look up, a shaky puff of air coming from under my breath.
The woods have always been my safe haven, a place to hide where there are no eyes noting my every move, or irritated demands from the coldhearted woman trying to take my mother's place. Yet, the eery darkness to the thick mass of wooden plants sends a shiver down my spine. I want to run back, to somehow rid my town of any threats. But a lingering part of me also wants to leave all of it behind. To only search out Michael, to just run further into the clutter of the branches ahead, immersing myself in the smells and sounds of nature hidden beyond the forests of North Carolina.
A tinge of shame rises at the thought of wanting to leave home.
Papa wouldn't leave.
I sigh aloud, annoyed at my indecisiveness and racking my brain for answers to the countless questions arising in my head. "What's happening, Liam?" I ask it more to myself. "Papa's letter. It was all . . . wrong." My fingers run through the tangled mess in my hair. Whatever information Papa and his force had gathered, it wasn't accurate. Unless it was, and Salisbury is still a target for the Red Coats, but they decided to come to River Springs first.
As I turn back around, Liam studies a branch hanging just over his head, raising a hand to prick a leaf from a stem. "Information from spies is always sketchy. They were right that an attack was coming. Just off on the timing and the first town to be attacked." He glances to me, spinning the leaf. "I suppose there's nothing we can do about it for the moment." Then he releases the leaf, swiping both hands across his shirt. "At least you're safe for now. We need to move."
I nod, tempted to look at the trees behind as the tint of guilt rises again. Liam adjusts the bag still around his waist. He turns, and I reach out to grab his arm with eyes wide. "Wait, Liam." He studies me with a peculiar gaze as I inhale a shaky breath. "I won't be able to bear my guilt if I leave them." My muscles are tense waiting for his response.
His voice is low, almost solemn as he responds. "You have to pick your battles, Miss Holt."
A twig snaps under my shoe as I shift to lean on my other leg. My whisper is almost spacious compared to his, lingering in the air after each breath escapes my mouth. "What if I don't know which one to pick?"
I can practically feel his whisper. "Then follow your heart."
It speaks to more than just my open ears. It's like my own language, singing to the deepest part of my soul. If only I knew what my heart was telling me. I long to help the people, my family, regardless if they have the same blood or not. More than just names, but faces and memories come to mind, an ache taking over my whole body.
Miss Annie and Lydia . . . Uncle Henry . . .
"But also heed counsel from those you trust." Liam's voice comes back. "Your heart and feelings can fool you, but there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors. I've watched both your father and General Washington follow the advice of those around them and it has served them well." Liam sighs, edging closer. "I don't think you exactly understand what a dreadful state you will find that town in."
I quicken—"Which is exactly why I must go back to help."
"No, it is why you wouldn't be able to do anything. There would be too much disaster, too much tragedy. It's more important that we get to your father and begin a plan to get Michael back."
I wince in the moonlight beginning to creep through the branches. I'm not able to bear the thought of the people being held captive or loosing everything they ever loved. But I'm also not able to bear the thought of what will happen to Michael if we don't get him back. A moment passes as I watch the ground, and his voice comes back quieter this time, hardly confident.
"We'll get Michael back. I'll see to it. I promise you."
My head snaps up. "You can't promise anything. Did you see those men?" I walk closer to him, suddenly starting to boil inside. "What will you do? Is there even anything you can do?" My tongue gets ahead of me as I realize full well the unfairness in taking out my frustration on the very person that saved me. "If so, then do it! Send troops! Why can't you? Why—"
"It's not in my authority, Miss Holt!" His eyes widen, silencing all noise from me and the forest. "Do you not understand that I am only a messenger?" He looks around, lifting his shoulders and furrowing his brow distressingly, angrily. "I—I can only send a few scouts, not a band of troops!" I almost turn away, grimacing, when he lets his shoulders fall and breathes in and out heavily. "I'm afraid you put too much confidence in me." His forehead creases, something more sorrowful flashing in his eyes that I haven't seen before.
I hold my breath, feeling my lip give in to a quiver. My hands hang at my side, lifeless. "I guess so." I nod, void of hope. "You're right, you know." I ache, mad at him and mad at the One who could have stopped it all. "I'm sorry I ever put any ounce of trust in you. You're little more than a boy." He only stares, as if having no strength to respond. I blink wearily and find nothing else to say.
I know my words to Liam are completely unreasonable and regret already stings my conscious. But why didn't God stop any of this? Why isn't Michael safe? I want to fight. I want to run. I need my brother back. Sniffing back a despaired cry, I walk slowly up to him, chin tilting up. "I don't care what you do." I steady my voice under his deeply seething glare. "But I'll never forgive myself if we don't find him."
He pauses, and for a moment I think maybe it's sympathy lying in his eyes. "Maddie." It's the first time he's called me by name. He inches closer, almost cautiously, appearing to choose his words carefully. "I know you want your brother back. I know you want to do something, anything." He clenches his jaw, eyes dancing back and forth from both of mine. "But this is out of your hands." I breathe in, folding my arms against my chest. My head turns away frustratingly as he starts again.
"There is nothing we can do right now except get back to camp with a report and get to your father. The hardest part is realizing that these things take time. It may take weeks to get Michael back." I look up thoughtfully, reading his face that seems to settle into weariness from trying to convince me. He shakes his head firmly. "But they won't hurt him. They know that type of cruelty would backfire on the entire British Army. We have to keep our wits about us, take the next step in front of us. Trust that God will make a way for us to get to Michael."
I want to respond, but the fight has left me. Whatever little rest I got when Liam let me sleep has certainly not replenished what this fateful day has taken.
"We're not far from my squad's camp. Let's keep moving."
I nod reluctantly, beginning to follow in silence. Did he really say it could take weeks to get Michael back? Is this what it's like to be in the war . . . rather than just reading about it? This feeling of urgency and crisis, is it a constant for those in the battle? How does Papa stay so calm in the middle of chaos? Have I mistaken Liam's calm for not caring about Michael, when in fact he's learned from Papa how to act wisely while others are lost in distress?
Maybe this is what Papa meant when he always quoted that Scripture. What was it? Something about not having fear, but rather power, love, and a sound mind.
That's what I need right now.
I stare at my shoes, taking short strides, lifting up my heart.
Father . . . I don't understand why You would allow this. But I will cling to You. I will hold on to Your promises. Give me strength. If power, love, and a sound mind is going to help get Michael back, then please take away this spirit of fear. Please guide me. I feel lost. I don't know what to do or where to go.
Yet, You had Papa send this messenger to me just in time. So, for now at least, I will take this sign of direction and follow him. Wherever he goes . . .
I lift my head to the trees as Liam leads. My boots shuffle through dead leaves as I follow like a lost soldier waiting to arrive home.

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