by Jeffery T. Ford
Pillars of smoke lifted from the smoldering town like angels climbing the final steps to the Abode. Agonized, beastly screams rose amongst the fiery ruins of what was once called Errwen, now and forevermore a massive graveyard, singing a song of death that would fill the air for hours to come until the last dying breath gave way to the first greedy crow.
Wearing a ragged, burnt robe that had once been a beautiful shade of turquoise, a Kerroh knelt where his manor had once stood tall and proud. Above the entrance upon blackened stone had been a banner depicting the sigil used by most bearing the Beast Blood, a crimson mountain lion upon a cream-colored backdrop. It now burned along with what remained of his crumbled home.
“Gods,” he whispered, unbeknownst to the tears that streamed down his whiskered face. Ash blotted his white night robe and the auburn fur of his face. “Gods… Why?”
“The gods answer to no one, I’m afraid.”
Given the day’s circumstances, the Kerroh should have thrown up his hands begging for mercy, a reprieve that certainly hadn’t been given to the rest of Errwen. But instead he slowly turned around. It felt like a nightmare unfolding before his very eyes. Everything. Everything felt like a nightmare come to life.
The man atop his horse wore a full set of silvery plate armor painted red with blood and gore. About his chest plate were green and blue designs resembling fancy scrawling. A mighty half-helm depicting the open mouth of a roaring bear covered what seemed to be an ugly face marred with scars. But the face and scars were difficult to see amongst the soot that lingered like an unwanted visitor overstaying its visit. The man looked down at the Kerroh not with anger, nor with joy, but indifference.
“Rise,” the knight commanded.
The Kerroh were not one to obey orders from men, but with death surrounding him what other choice did he have? The warrior was alone – his brethren no doubt within the deeper sectors of the city finishing what they began – but what would have been the use of running away? He would have either been run down by the horse or decapitated by the enormous steel greatsword that hung at the man’s side. The crossguard above its leathered hilt was inlayed with tiny sparkling jewel shards of blue and green to match the designs upon his chest plate.
Humans and their gems…
“Why?” the Kerroh asked. It was all he could ask. It was all that needed to be asked.
The warrior atop his horse moved not a muscle, said not a word. The Kerroh was just about to turn back around, accept a blade to his neck if that’s what it meant, when the man finally spoke.
“Man-fox, leave this place if you want to live.”
Not fox-man. Man-fox.
Rather than responding, the Kerroh stood gawking at the knight.
“At sun’s fall they’ll be back from cutting down those attempting to escape,” the knight continued. He looked past the Kerroh, down the road as if wondering whether anyone had been able to escape. “When that happens, if you’re still here, you’ll be next. Unless the Gods of Luck turn their cheeks and my brothers and sisters decide to skin you before burning you alive.”
Still the Kerroh would not respond. He merely cocked his head. If he hadn’t already spoken the Nothran tongue he could pretend he hadn’t a clue what the knight was saying.
“Run, you fool!” the knight yelled, his indifference replaced by irritation. “Do you want to die?”
An exasperated sigh left the Kerroh’s lips as he turned toward what used to be his home. The fire itself was nothing more than a simmer now. “You’ve killed my wife,” he said, turning back so that he was facing the knight, so that their eyes met directly. “You’ve destroyed my home, taken away my city and those I once called friends. Tell me now, human… what is the difference between life and death?”
The knight took the helm from his head, letting it dangle by its leather strap in one hand as he wiped away sweat from his face with the other. His face was indeed scarred but behind them was a decent look. Blond hair flowed down to his shoulder and a goatee of light brown dusted his chin and lips. “I took neither of those things, Kerroh,” he said. “You’ll have to trust me.”
The Kerroh laughed even as the tears fell. “Trust? You and your kind did what you did today, and here you sit on your armored horse demanding trust? Look around us! You have shown us fear, human. Fear in a handful of ashes.”
“I did not partake in this bloodshed,” the knight growled, gritting his teeth. Even from where he stood, the Kerroh saw how tightly the knight gripped his horse’s reigns.
“The blood on your armor says otherwise.”
The knight opened his mouth as if to retort before closing it. He turned his horse around, but the knight’s and the Kerroh’s eyes met one last time. “Leave this place, Kerroh. If not for you, then for your wife and friends. You have the option of living. They did not.”
The knight galloped down the center road and out into the plain outside the city’s meager wooden walls. There his army had ridden no more than an hour ago after the initial destruction of the town. Like the knight, the Kerroh too wondered if anyone had been able to escape the lances and blades of their sudden attackers.
Likely not. I no longer hear the screams.
The Kerroh looked away once the speck of a knight had disappeared over the hill. He turned his eyes on the crumbled remains of his home. The fire was all but gone and there was nothing left but ash. No wife, no banner, no home. Ash.
We were to have made a child on the new year’s turning. He brought his hands up to wipe the tears from his face, but he found there were none left.
He could almost hear the heavy, continuous thud of horse hooves as it were happening all over again. Just before the sun could rise over the eastern mountains the humans had come. They came bearing shouts of anger and insults, and the beast folk of Errwen had immediately answered with shouts of fear and pleading of mercy. The Errwen Guard did their best with what they had, but who was to expect that a small, innocent Dákish town of beast folk would be attacked by a human host likely thousands strong? There was no preparing for that, just as there were no fighting steel and armored horses with wooden spears and lightly leathered mules.
It didn’t feel as if he had commanded his legs to move, but move they did. He found himself walking through an open space where a wooden door had once stood, fine oak painted burgundy with a picture of the Beast Blood sigil directly in the middle. There was just a border of stone around where the door once stood, for the stone was one thing fire could not destroy.
This is a dream, he thought. It has to be. His hands clinched at his sides and he closed his eyes. Shador, the Five, if you ever answer my prayers, let it be this one. Let this all be a terrible, terrible dream.
Like a vast blanket too large for one’s body, he felt trapped. It felt as if he would never escape death now that it had taken away everything he’d ever loved. He had called Errwen home since his birthing day, yet now it burned to the ground like a forgotten candle. His wife’s ashes blended in with the ashes of the home they had shared for years.
Oh, but wait! A smile spread across his lips as he knelt in the middle of the unwalled room. At his feet was the necklace he’d given his wife during their eternal vows, gold studded with rubies, enchanted so that it could not be smudged or nicked… or melted by the fires of invasion. The necklace sat amongst a pile of ash and bone. It seemed his wife was not lost after all.
After placing the necklace around his neck to accompany his very own, the Kerroh took a handful of ash and let it slip through his fingers, watching as they fell onto the bones of his dead wife. Watched as the rubies glowed upon his touch, a necromantic touch.
“I have been given death,” he whispered. “And with it, I will make life.”
He smiled, for the day had not been entirely lost.