The next day, exactly a fortnight from when she had come to the manor, she left it, wearing the same blue and green dress. One difference was that Aunt Eldira let her get up later than she had for her first journey. Their goodbye was not exactly affectionate, but it was not as cold as their greeting two weeks ago. "Recent circumstances," as Lady Eldira had put it, allowed for some empathy between the two. Eldira was mourning the loss of a friend, and, in a different way, so was Annica. She'd cried herself to sleep the night before over Alton's shocking behavior. She'd cared about him, though she hadn't loved him. Or had she? She tortured herself with the notion that maybe she'd loved him without fully realizing it. Having never loved a man before she didn't know how it felt, could she have done it without knowing? No, stop it, stop it! She was being irrational, making great somethings out of one nothing.
She cried because someone she'd trusted had betrayed her; someone she'd cared for, even if only as a friend, had shown he didn't care; someone she'd thought good had proved not to be so. In addition, she'd never seen anyone act that way towards a woman, much less herself. She wasn't used to being treated so roughly, either; her neck was bruised where he'd grabbed it. The security of her safe world seemed to have been pulled out from under her like a rug, and she'd lost her balance when it had been suddenly ripped from beneath her feet.
Her eyes were red and tired when her journey began, and as the carriage bumped along, she went over and over the things that had kept her awake the night before in her mind. She resolved never to trust any member of the male population again. Recalling her many brothers and father, that made little sense. She amended her mental statement: Men not related to her were not to be trusted. Wait...what about Johnathan? And her brothers' friends, whom she knew to all be perfectly amiable, upright fellows? Fine, then. She moved on to some other object of contemplation, leaving herself with a vague resolution of some sort not to be friendly with any more handsome young men that she didn't already know...or something like that.
Aside from a couple more short bouts of quiet tears, she was able to turn her mind to happier things and observe the lovely day that surrounded her. Unlike her trip two weeks ago, she was being conveyed in an open carriage, made to seat two passengers, plus the driver and a footman. An occasional breeze ruffled her hair and brought with it the faint scent of spring. Having gotten little sleep the night before, she was tired, and drifted into a comfortable doze.
She was awakened by the smell of smoke. Looking about for the source, Annica saw an enormous grey cloud of it rising up over the horizon, about ten miles ahead; right where her home city should be. Her heart stopped.
"What's happening?!" she asked the driver.
"I don't know, miss, but it can't be good," he replied. Hardly a helpful answer, thought Annica.
The minutes dragged by, and she was hard put to it to keep from believing what, deep inside her, she was sure must be true. There could only be so many reasons why there were such pillars of smoke coming from that exact spot...
Eventually they came over one last hill and suddenly, they saw it. The driver and footman gasped; one of them cursed under his breath. Annica couldn't speak. In later years she could recall the scene before her with perfect clarity.
The whole city, only a few miles away...burning. Her eyes hurt from looking at it, it was so terribly bright, but she couldn't look at anything else.
"No, no, no," she cried, "no, this isn't happening, it can't be!" Transfixed, unable even to cry, she half stood, half sat in the carriage as it drew to a full stop. Only moments after they'd sighted it, they had come to a guarded barricade built across the road. Two soldiers of the King's Army pointed crossbows at them from atop it, while one other, armed with a javelin, shouted at them, "Turn back now!"
"What happened here?" inquired Annica's driver, angrily.
"Orders of the king," replied the soldier cooly. "This place was infected with the plague, and he's trying to wipe it out, he is, and I guess this seemed to him the best way to do it. I'm not one as to question the king's decisions, I just take orders, and right now my orders are to keep everyone away from here. So, I suggest you get on back the way you came."
All this time Annica had still been frozen. She snapped out of it as the guard finished his speech, and the only emotion she knew now was raging anger; against the plague, against the king and against the guard.
"What about the citizens?" she yelled, getting out of the carriage to face him. "What about the people of the city?! Was anybody evacuated? They can't all have had the sickness! Tell me!"
"There may have been some folks as were warned beforehand, but I count it unlikely that many got out before it started. All the gates were blocked 'afore the burning started, you see. If you had friends in there, miss, you might as well find some new ones."
"No!" she cried, "That's not true! I don't believe you!" She began pounding her fists on the guard's chest and then crumpled into a pathetic lump around his feet, sobbing so hard she couldn't catch her breath. He kicked her off contempuously. "I hope ye run fast, miss, 'cause your escort seems to have forgotten you." He pointed down the road where her carriage was already fast disappearing.
She stood, stumbled, spun wildly around....nobody here would help her...she was on her own now... one last wide-eyed look at the cruel guard, one heart-wrenching glance towards her home and family, soon to be ashes....and without thinking, she turned and began to run.
She stumbled over stones, nearly twisted both ankles in holes and burrows, ran, ran, ran, across and over the hills. She didn't know where she was going; in fact, she didn't know anything then. Her whole mind was just one desperate need to get away from the sight of that titanic bonfire that had been her home. She kept going, never heeding what was in her way. She came to a thickly wooded area and her face and dress were torn by branches and thorns as she went. Time sped by her faster than the landscape, and at last, as the sun was going down, she fell on her face after tumbling over a blackened stump. As she sobbed into the earth she knew she could go no further....the world grew black around her and black inside of her, until finally she passed into blessed unconsciousness.