Santhor sat upon his horse in silence, petrified at the sight. Great swathes of fire seared the landscape, orange flames rising from houses and fields, dark plumes of smoke staining the pristine snow with soot. Tiny specks fled or fought the flames, buckets in hand. The screams of terror reached the company's ears, even this high in the hills. The prince followed the flames north, the scenes of chaos repeating themselves every other mile, until he set his sights on Eldynvagar. It was little relief to him that the fortress had not yet burned when half the province was. The adrenaline from the battle had receded since leaving the mountains, but as he gazed upon the havoc being wreaked, a surge of anger coursed through him. He had no need to think twice and he knew the vaeringar felt the same.
"We have defeated our enemy once this night!" He wheeled his horse around, unsheathing his blood-stained sword as he turned. "And now we must again! For our people! For your home!"
The warriors who were still mounted bellowed their approval, anger contorting their wild faces. These men had spilled blood, these men had seen their brothers die, these were the first true defenders of Gales. The company broke into a wild gallop, as they had when they had charged into the battalion earlier in the night. Those who were injured or on foot cheered their brothers on and hurried and limped down the road as fast as their legs would take them. Within seconds, the riders had disappeared in a cloud of dust and ice.
Santhor relished the wind beating at his face, the winter sun that made the dark ocean shimmer and the powerful muscles of the horse between his legs. Despite his weariness, his sword felt light in his hand, his vision was clear and his voice rang true. The company careened towards the first habitations and fields of the province, following the road as it ran down the forest borders and onto flatter land. The smell of smoke and the noises of madness were grew in intensity. The road passed between two large estates who had already been burned down to the ground, leaving nothing but charred timber and floating ashes. Dozens of men and women stood around their devastated homes, some sobbing, others glaring at the broken remains. All their heads turned as the prince led his riders forward, a wind of hope coursing through smoldering carcasses and blackened fields.
"The prince has come!"
"The prince and his vaeringar!"
Santhor heard the voices as if they were distant and muffled, his mind intent on finding the men who had ravaged his land. Where were they? Who were they? How had they entered Gales? The questions plagued him and he knew his rage would only be quelled when he caught the heartless criminals and put them to death.
Entire stretches of land lay untouched, as if the enemy had chosen at random which homes to burn and which to spare. At each new burning estate, the prince was met with scenes of horror. Women held lifeless children in their arms, wailing at the skies. Men frantically shoveled snow onto fires that still burned, in vain attempts to salvage what was left. All were naked, or nearly, as if they had been woken in the night by fire. Burnt corpses littered the sides of the road and Santhor's head began to spin. How had this happened? He had defeated the enemy! He had led his men to a great victory! All of it had been for nothing...
He fought back tears, unwilling to show his men that such tragedy could touch him. They needed a strong prince, one that could lead them into battle as he had that night. They needed a man at their head, one that could crush the monsters that burned innocents. And ahead of him, as if in answer to his prayers, he spotted a group of nine men, clad in black with blazing torches in their hands. The men howled with glee, touching their torches to anything that would ignite. When people poured out of flaming huts, they greeted them with swords and axes. Santhor gritted his teeth and urged his horse onwards.
The enemy never saw him coming. Maddened and mesmerized by the sight of flames and the terror they were causing, they heard the hooves too late, and the prince ran them down and cut through them with singing blade and pounding hoof. He gave no shout of warning, no cry of victory, and behind him his vaeringar dealt death in silence. All nine of the men were trampled and their torches were snuffed.
The prince rode on, frightened screams telling him that there more enemies ahead. Before him, the shadow of Eldynvagar appeared as the fortress rose above him at the end of the long road. He glimpsed other fire-wielding shapes and directed his horse in their direction. Another group of men were crushed beneath his hooves and the company pursued its vengeful gallop. Sounds of battle reached his ears, beneath the walls of the fortress, and through the smoke and anger he saw a small band of berserkers clashing swords with the guards. Everywhere else he looked, the people were desperately trying to quench the flames.
Pitiless, the prince, the jarl and the vaeringar crashed into the rear of the last of their foes and cut them to pieces. The battle was short-lived, for three dozen men could not stand against a hundred riders, no matter how fierce they were. Santhor rode up to the gates, wiping flecks of blood from his face, and dismounted. A captain of the fortress rushed to join him, sweaty, terrified and panting.
"My prince," he huffed. "They came in the night. Before we could do anything, the land was ablaze. We shut the gates, but some... some of them were inhuman. Their eyes were fire. They broke through the doors, burning everything. My prince, they are inside the fortress!"
"Warriors! With me!" A new kind of fear gripped Santhor's heart. What did they want inside the fortress? Who had they killed? He thought of Nicolar, Algard, Lysandra and the hundreds of innocents who had thought to be safe behind the walls. "Captain, secure the fortress. Send men out into the province to help the wounded. I want the remaining vaeringar deployed. Every single one of these monsters must be found!"
"Yes, my prince," the captain accepted his orders, but stayed put.
"Captain, now!" The man burst into action, frightened by the blood-drenched prince screaming at him. "Valmyr, head for the dungeons. Make sure the prisoners are still in their cells. If not, capture them. The rest, with me!"
The inner courtyards of Eldynvagar bustled with action as hundreds of warriors suddenly streamed into the fortress, blades drawn. They split into groups, each making for a different target. Santhor charged through the first doors he found, slamming them open. The throne hall! He took a moment to get his bearings and, with a dozen men at his back, sprinted through the dark corridors. There were no signs of fire nor intrusions, but until he was certain that everyone was safe, he would scour every inch of the place.
He and his men stomped up the winding stairs, the exhaustion from the long day and night beginning to catch up to them. Santhor's breath came in difficult rasps, his arms and calves burned, the old pain in his ribs sent new waves of pain through his body. Each door they passed was kicked open and the rooms searched for intruders. Women and children cowered beneath their beds, waiting for the worst, and all were relieved to see their prince and his men returned. Echoes of fighting came in through the windows, but Santhor was forced to trust in his men and hope they would neutralize the enemy quickly. He reached the higher levels of the fortress with a pounding heart and recognized Lysandra's room. He crashed through the door only to find her chambers empty. Down the hall, Nicolar's chambers were empty as well. Where had they gone? A last door stood at the end of corridor before the stairs led to Santhor's floor. Algard's chambers. The prince pushed the door open, his sword outstretched, and stopped in his tracks.
A fierce smell of burning flesh and hair assaulted Santhor's nostrils, but he had grown used to the scent of fire. He sniffed and quickly studied the room. A man stood by the window with his arms around Algard's neck. He was tall, muscular and every inch of his skin was devoid of hair, from his shining bald scalp to his queer pink brow. His clothes, made of a dark, shiny material, did not burn. Flames had caught on the drapes and rugs, and the room was a furnace, but the man hardly flinched. Algard was wriggling in his grasp, sweating, kicking as the man tightened his grip. In one corner, Nicolar lay unmoving in a pool of blood, his robes singed while Lysandra crouched by the door, trying to protect her hair and skin from the flames.
"Let him go," Santhor ordered, struggling not to think about Nicolar.
"I was hoping to see you, my prince," the pyrocrat grinned. His teeth and gums were black, making his mouth look like a bottomless abyss. "We were having a lovely conversation before you arrived."
Santhor glared at the man, his eyes darting down to Algard who was struggling to breathe. "Release him and fight me. Let them go."
"She is free to go," he nodded in Lysandra's direction and then his dark eyes rested on Nicolar. "Him, well, I am not certain dead men can move."
"What do you want?" Santhor's fingers squeezed the hilt of his sword. The heat was becoming unbearable. He would not last much longer if he did not act.
"I already have what I came for," the pyrocrat glanced down at Algard.
The prince looked at the boy who he had replaced. The boy who was the true heir to Gales. The boy who would always be a threat to his rule. In all the books, rulers were meant to eradicate those who were a menace, like the pyrocrats wanted to kill him. He could leave Algard, no one could say that he could have done something to save him. The room was burning, the fire swirling at his feet, around his head. If he did nothing soon, Nicolar and Lysandra would die, if they were not already doomed. He gave Algard a fleeting look, and then hung his head. The flames grew almost gleefully, as if the pyrocrat sensed that the prince was abandoning the boy. And then Algard tore free, elbowed the man and dove away.
Santhor pounced, sword raised, and in three long strides he was upon the pyrocrat. The man parried the blow with a curved dagger that had materialized out of a long sleeve, deflecting it with ease, as if the prince were swatting at him with child's toy. Weariness was clouding Santhor's mind, slowing his movements, and he barely brought his sword back around to protect himself from the pyrocrat's counter-attack. The prince stepped back to win himself some relief, standing crouched and ready just as Valmyr had taught him. Except that this time the man he faced wanted him dead.
The battle fervor that had surged through him all night seemed to seep from his body, leaving him defenseless and weak. He gritted his teeth and feinted low, slashed right and rammed his foe with his shoulder. Smiling, the pyrocrat hardly flinched, blocked Santhor's sword and stepped aside so that the prince crashed into the flaming wall. Santhor hissed and spat and cursed himself. What was happening? He had fought and survived his first battle, hewing down enemies without a second thought. Now, a single opponent with a little knife was toying with him, mocking him, humiliating him. Santhor circled his enemy, squinting through the burning haze and keeping a safe distance. His sword gave him a better reach and a slight advantage that he would definitely need.
The warriors who had followed him had hurried to get Lysandra, Nicolar and Algard safely out of the room, but the fire was growing, catching on to wood and fabric instantly. The chamber was ablaze, flames lashing out at Santhor's face and arms, slowly suffocating him. As the prince's mind wandered and his eyes teared from the smoke, the pyrocrat hurtled forward, knife aimed for his neck. Santhor batted the knife away as the man charged into him and wrestled him to the ground. His sword flew out of his hand as his head struck stone. They grappled furiously, scratching at each other's faces, scrabbling for a weapon. Santhor kneed the pyrocrat in the groin and threw him off to the side. He found his feet and his fingers blindly closed around the hilt of his sword. The prince leapt towards his enemy, howling.
Time seemed to slow as he swung his blade down to kill. He saw the pyrocrat grin and his face suddenly burst into flame, melting almost instantly. The prince's sword sliced through nothing, and then a ball of fire erupted and the world vanished into burning darkness.
"Drink, my prince," a raspy voice heaved, grating like rusted iron over stone. "You... have to drink."
Santhor opened his eyes and sat upright, his head throbbing. He wiped dripping sweat from his brow, and took deep, painful breaths. His chest burned and his throat itched, as if he had inhaled an entire cloud of smoke. The smell of fire lingered in the air, tickling his nostrils. His skin prickled uncomfortably and every slight breeze of cool air made him shiver.
Nicolar's face came into focus and the prince gasped, clutching his throat from the sharp pain. The right side of the orator's face was pink and scarred and hairless. Without his hair and brows, Nicolar looked fearsome. His upper lip was scorched and his right eye, half-closed, gleamed darkly.
"Are you all right?" Santhor managed to croak after draining an entire skin of water.
"It... does not hurt," Nicolar had to take deep, ragged breaths before speaking and each word was difficult to understand. "Only my... throat. You?" He winced and gulped and drank a sip of water as well.
"I feel fine," Santhor said, examining his face with his fingers. His skin was warm to the touch, and sweaty, but he did not make out any scars. Beneath the sheets and his shirt, his chest gleamed pink with raw skin, extremely sensitive to touch. Other than that, the prince had been spared. "Did we get them all?"
Nicolar was about to speak, but his face contorted with agony and tears filled his eyes. He gave Santhor a sad look and shuffled out of the room. Valmyr marched in, his head held down and wearing a determined, but tired, expression.
"It will be difficult for him," the jarl grumbled. "An orator without a voice is no orator at all."
"He was more than that, you know it."
"To us, perhaps. To the people, he was the voice of Gales."
Santhor fought against the rising grief. As Valmyr pointed it out, he realized how affected Nicolar would be at the loss of his voice. "It will come back."
The jarl only shook his head. "Fire consumes. We have seen that this night."
"Tell me everything," Santhor hated changing the subject from the orator's condition, but there were other matters at hand.
"We found two of them down in the dungeons, like you said," Valmyr explained. "We caught them, but only after they had released half the prisoners. It was over quickly. We captured most of them back, the others are dead. Those men, they... exploded. They burned everything. Killed seven vaeringar." The jarl rubbed his eyes, reddened from exhaustion and sorrow. "We spent the rest of the day scouring the fortress. All are dead. Burned."
"What are they? No human could burst into flame and kill himself like that... Madness. Do we know what they wanted?"
"It was quite simple to guess. They wanted Algard, perhaps as a hostage. Nicolar said he saw the pyrocrat whispering into the boy's ear. Algard says he was threatening him, telling him he would burn his home to the ground... Horrors. The others were here to free the royal guards who escorted you, certainly to wreak havoc from inside the fortress. I cannot be sure yet. I am too tired to think about all this."
"Get some rest," Santhor managed to get up from his bed, though his legs trembled beneath his weight and his chest blazed with pain. "Before you go, what of our defenses? Casualties? The battalion?"
"The province is safe for now. Every enemy soldier is either dead or captured. The captains sent word from the mountains: what remains of the battalion has scattered and the walls are repaired. They found traces of passage on the hunting tracks high in the mountains. We think that is how the pyrocrats snuck in. Every passage in or out is closed now. Gales is a fortress."
Santhor nodded, limping to the window to see the deepening dusk fall over the ocean before repeating the more important question. "How many did we lose?"
"Forty-nine vaeringar and nine watchers last night. A... a hundred and twenty-nine civilians from the attacks and fires. Eleven more vaeringar. Six guards. We found fourteen enemy remains. Five of them were nothing more than ash. It was a dark night, my prince, a dark night indeed."
"I was a fool, Valmyr," Santhor placed his forehead agains the cool window pane. "An idiotic child, drawn by battle, tricked by the enemy as a man tricks a pup. I dove headlong into their trap, thinking that their battalion was... real. I thought I won a great victory, I thought you had managed to make a warrior out of me..."
"My prince, you did lead your men to victory! No one could have known what they meant to do. I never thought for one second that we had been played. I would have made the same decision you did," Valmyr assured.
"The pyrocrat humiliated me. He was cornered and alone, with nothing but a butter knife to protect himself and he bested me a thousand times over. He should have killed me. By every right, I should have died."
"Yet you are here and he is a pile of ash," Valmyr said. "Eleven of our finest warriors were killed by these monsters. You, you saved three innocents and survived, with hardly a scratch to show for it."
"It was luck!"
"I think luck is something we choose to have. You are showing me every day that men from the realm are made of tougher material than I ever believed. Grow that beard a little longer and some might think you are a true-born prince of Gales. As for me, you are my prince and have proven it," Valmyr dropped to one knee. Santhor had never thought to see the giant warrior kneeling before him. "I would follow you anywhere."
"Thank you, jarl," Santhor smiled. "Rise, there is a province to repair."
"What can we do? The people are frightened and angry."
"I know exactly what to do," a look of hatred flashed across the prince's face and even the mighty jarl feared that look.
A slow drumroll boomed between the dark high walls of Eldynvagar, a deep rhythm that mimicked the ocean's waves. Santhor marched through a column of stone-faced warriors clad in mail. Dozens of flags were beating feebly in the calm morning wind. The prince walked past Nicolar, trying not to look at the orator's hideously burned face, then a fidgety Algard and a proud Valmyr. Santhor kept his eyes ahead and his head held high, feeling the hundreds and hundreds of men and women glaring at him. There was hatred behind some of those looks, anger in most, although a great deal of vaeringar, especially those he had led, held a strange sort of admiration for him. Whatever his people thought, Santhor knew that this was his duty.
Alone, with the drums pounding, the prince climbed the steps and set foot on the gallows.
The wood creaked beneath his feet and as he strode to the center of the scaffold, he realized just what he was about to do. The gallows had not seen use in over three hundred years, since the days when the old empire kept a firm grasp on the province. Imperial governors hung Galesan rebels and criminals every day, to keep the rest of the people in fear. Their rule had not lasted long before the revolution began. This time, things were different, and Santhor believed that what he was doing was just. He glimpsed the ten ropes dangling from the ten gibbets, new ropes lashed to reinforced beams of wood. An executioner stood on the far side of the scaffold, his hands resting on a lever.
The crowd looked up at him with unblinking eyes, most discovering the face of their prince for the first time. Lords and ladies mingled, although not too closely, with the hundreds of peasants who had shown for the executions. Soldiers ringed the expansive courtyard, and people had massed atop the walls to gain a better view. From his position, the prince could see the crowd stretching out through the archway, where hundreds more were gathered beyond the walls, waiting, listening, standing on the tips of their feet to witness the first hangings Gales had seen in generations. History was being rewritten by Santhor's decree.
When drums died down and the silence grew too heavy and ominous, the prince coughed and stepped forward. His throat still scratched from the fire and it felt as if a layer of ash clung to his lips and tongue and cheeks, yet he could speak. Nicolar's voice would never resonate in the yards of Eldynvagar again.
"People of Gales," he began, and the crowd bristled. "I have summoned you here this morning to mourn the fallen, to remember the victims of last night's horror. Monsters entered our province and sowed flame and ruin upon your homes. Too many Galesans felt the bite of fire, including myself."
The reactions were mixed, although Santhor perceived the anger boiling in the crowd. He knew that many would blame him for declaring a war, blame him for letting the enemy slip through his nets, blame him for their coming deaths. Too few knew who the real enemy was, and he was here to show them.
Santhor fought against the dryness in his throat and let his voice carry throughout the yard. "I know you think that none of this would have happened if I had not come to Gales. You may be right. I am not one of you. I was not born here, nor was my father or his father before him. I am a stranger, a stranger who came to your home and put it in danger." The grumbling grew louder as the people were enticed by their own prince to voice their incomprehension.
"I may not be one of you, but your enemy is my enemy! They killed my father and they tried to kill me as well! Know this, they have had their eyes on Gales for a long time and with or without me, war would have reached your homes. You may not consider me as one of your own, but this province is my home now. I have led its warriors into battle! I have bled for Gales and will again! I have sworn to keep Gales free and punish the enemy for thinking that they could march all over us!" Santhor's blood churned and the words came flowing out of their own accord. The mood of the crowd was shifting, the tension slackening and shouts of approval rose here and there.
"While we fought them honorably on the battlefield and destroyed them, they crawled behind our backs and attacked innocent women and children! They set fire to your homes, to your fields, to your fortress! This, I give you my word, will never happen again so long as I live! Gales will not fall! Your prince will not yield! Let them come, I say! Let them come and let us send them running back to their masters whimpering like the dogs that they are! Gaolers, bring the criminals out!" Santhor screamed and shouted and no longer cared what the crowd thought. His fury spread to his people and they were beginning to clamor their consent, the clamor turning into a unified bellow of hatred as the prisoners were brought forth.
Men threw stones, flinging them over their prince's head to strike the captives. Santhor stepped to the side and let his soldiers march the enemy up to the gallows. He kept a solemn face as the first ten prisoners were wrestled into place and the ropes slipped over their necks. The prince had had them dressed in black, so that the people would think they were captives from the previous night. Few people at all knew that these were in fact the royal guards who had accompanied him to Gales. One of them, at least, had tried to assassinate him, but for all he knew the others were innocent. None of them had participated in the night's slaughter. The prince needed to give his people someone to hate, an enemy they could spit at and strive to put an end to. Their rage would fuel Gales and help him achieve his victory.
And these men were royals, from An Asrai. Any one of them could have been in league with the pyrocrats. Santhor would watch them hang without remorse.
He waited for the first ten to be securely fastened and the executioner to be ready before turning back to his crowd. He waved a hand, showing his people the face of their foe.
"These are men we captured last night, as they burned your homes and butchered your neighbors! This is our enemy! Cowards who fight in the darkness with fire as their weapon and innocents as their victims! These gallows have not been used in centuries, and for good reason, but this morning I ask you, what do they deserve?" Santhor screamed, shaking his fist above his head as he lied to his people.
"Death!" The answer came back as a single, unanimous roar.
The prince stopped and gave the crowd a moment of perfect rage, then dropped his hand and men were once again hung on the gallows of Gales.