Even a simple plan — say, perhaps, “reach the outpost by nightfall” — is subject to the whims of cruel and capricious deities whose stature is raised when a working man curses.
The captain of the squad of soldiers who were our captors was building those gods a citadel with his angry words with every step we took. Brewer’s Ford was not far, a reasonable goal even though one of the party on foot had recently been beaten badly. Yet, as the day progressed we seemed to draw no closer.
First there were the signs of a poacher’s camp. We stopped, and the men around me prepared to approach the camp. But on this day one rider, a gruff man named Smalls who seemed to be part bear, tumbled from his horse and broke his arm. While some went to his aid the rest found that that camp was long cold. The sun was sinking toward the horizon by the time Smalls was back on his horse, and soon after that another horse threw a shoe and then it was a farmer’s cart broken down blocking a bridge. We could have forded the stream, but the captain was responsible for safe commerce. So we stopped and helped the old man get rolling again.
There may have been other delays I have failed to catalog; it was a slow and frustrating day. Frustrating for the captain because had an important job to do, and for me because I wanted to see little Elena protected from the Soul Thieves. But, despite our best wishes, when night stole over the land there were still many miles to traverse. The captain wanted to push into the night, but heavy clouds rolled in, until I could see no farther than I could spit. We had no choice; we made camp.
Another fireside knife lesson for Elena. She followed my instruction with uncanny focus, eager to move from stick to sharpened blade. At the end of an hour, I relented. I asked Wingles to give her my fish knife, a slender blade sharp only on one side, delicate in the same way Elena was delicate. Deadly delicate. After the lesson Wingles took the knife and we curled up together near the dying fire. We had no tent, but the soldiers had given us a heavy tarp we could pull over ourselves if the clouds turned to rain. She snuggled in next to me to share warmth, and for a moment I felt at peace.
The air was heavy and still, and carried sound well. Around the camp I heard the three sentries move, and breathe, and snuffle. Between the spits and cracks of the dying fire I heard the creatures of the forest as they moved around us in the night, some curious, some wary. The fire’s smoke hugged the ground and I heard some of the company snort and sneeze in their bedrolls. A perfectly ordinary night.
“Do you think I can be as good as you, someday?” Elena whispered.
“Better, I hope.” I think she understood because she didn’t ask any more questions.
The next morning, the clouds were a distant memory as the sun sparkled the morning dew. We ate a swift, unsatisfying breakfast of hard bread and cured meat, the soldiers decided who was to have the honor of carrying Elena for the next hour, and we set out, covering ground much more quickly than we had the day before. It was just before noon when we broke from the forest on a ridge over the flood plain and saw the outpost ahead.
What the captain called “the outpost” turned out to be a rather large military installation. I hadn’t been to Brower’s Ford in several years, and in that time the fortress had been expanded and the garrison greatly increased. It seemed that the King had decided to be more than just the titular lord of the north. The lands of the north were not as empty as they first appeared, and either the king or someone who whispers in his ear had decided that it was time for those folks to start paying taxes.
The fortress itself squatted on the banks of the Artles river, just north of the town, where the lazy water made a gentle turn in its easterly journey, dodging an outcrop of black rock that served as the foundation for the fortress. Some time in the distant past a channel had been dug to divert part of the river around the other side of the rock, giving the fortress a moat. While the outcrop was too small to support a castle of any real significance, the modest structure was impressive in its own way. Three stubby towers anchored a wall that followed the contours of the native stone, broken only by a stout gate wide enough for two horsemen. The bridge across the moat was wooden, and no doubt could be demolished in moments should the need arise.
The plain at the foot of the fortress was busy with human activity. I could recognize the stables even from a mile away, as well as other stone and wood buildings that appeared to be barracks, a smithy, and livestock pens. The fortress had outgrown its perch, it seemed.
Surrounding fortress and town were fields green with grain blowing in waves with the gentle breeze, fed by the rich soil of the river valley. Hedgerows separated the fields, the boundaries following a logic that I could not decipher.
When we came into sight of the fort, Katherine stopped. Bags pulled up his horse as well, and the rest of the party eventually followed suit. The captain turned back on his horse to see what the problem was.
“I’m not going in there,” Katherine said.
“You are my prisoner, your grace,” The captain said.
“I surrendered on the condition that you take me directly to the King. Is the king in there?”
“No, your grace.”
“Then I will not go there, either.”
“I must report to my commander, your grace. It is he who will see to your escort down to Langifer.”
“Langifer? What the hell is the King doing there?” Katherine asked. I was curious as well. Langifer was a capable military fortress, but away from any large city it lacked the amenities the king was rumored to enjoy.
“When last I heard, the king was en route to Langifer to confer with his liege lords in the south.” The captain shrugged. “Of course that news is weeks old now. Commander Harrick will know more, and will see to your escort.”
“Harrick. He’s in charge here?”
“Yes, your grace.”
Katherine considered a moment before speaking. “He hated my husband, and respected my father. I almost trust him.”
The captain looked relieved. “Then —”
“Almost. Once we’re inside those walls, it becomes much easier to forget promises made by underlings out in the woods somewhere.”
“I assure you, you grace, that the commander is a man of honor, as am I.”
They continued to argue, but I stopped listening. Something was happening to the sun. I looked around as it began to feel like twilight, though it was midday. The sun was just… dimmer. Down on the plain, a horse cried out. It was dimmer yet where I stood, but the castle on the rock below was lit so brightly I could barely look at it. As the world got darker, the fortress began to shine so brightly it seemed to be lit from within.
The commander and Katherine stopped their argument. A shout floated up to our position, then another. Suddenly, the air was filled with shouts and screams and smoke began to rise from behind the stone walls. On the plain at the base of the castle walls, buildings, crops, animals, and people all caught fire. Some rushed for the river, few made it.
Nearby an evening bird chirped as the day dimmed into night and the temperature dropped. I had to turn my eyes from the blinding furnace on the plain, and trails streaked across my vision as the image of the burning castle was seared into my eyes. More shouts, more screams, the animals and the humans no longer distinguishable.
A roar, and a blast of hot air on my face forced me to turn my gaze back toward the fortress, to try to peer between my fingers as I hid my eyes behind raised hands. In my distorted vision it was as if the stone itself was burning. I turned away again. In the town, a bell began to toll, calling men to action. But what could anyone possible do?
Elena found me and latched onto my hand. “What’s happening?” she asked. “What the fuck is happening?”
I shook my head, but it took me several moments to find a word. “War,” I said.