Chapter 55 - Battle
Catherine stared out over the destruction and for the first time in her life, she really felt the loss of human life. It was only her vampire blood that kept her still, silent and sane.
She saw war before, and she saw the death of many, but this was beyond the measure of war, beyond slaughter, hate, and waste. It was a massacre, a message and an open declaration of war.
Less than a month before, Dillon and Priest came to warn this village. They urged them to prepare to leave their homes. They tried to make them understand that the town was too sprawling and too open to be defensible. They even offered to take those who would come to safety. None listened, and they would not believe.
There was not a single building left standing. Not a sole animal roamed the streets, and no one remained to tell the tale. They spotted the smoke from miles away and despite riding their horses hard, they arrived too late.
The acrid scent of war hung heavily in the air. It was a scent that one would always know and that stuck to the back of your throat. It clung to your clothes and a decade or a hundred years from now, it would still remain in your sensory memory.
It was the acrid odor of burnt flesh, scorched hair, and charred bones, the reek of death. She knew out of experience that it would linger in her mouth like a taste and nothing would erase it for hours.
She envied the humans their dulled senses. Coveted that they could not smell and taste the full spectrum of it, could not see all that she saw.
Her stomach heaved, and she swallowed hard. The touch of Robert’s hand jolted Catherine away from the bad place in her mind. The sympathy in his eyes said more than words.
“There is no one alive,” Andrew spoke the words heavily as he approached on foot, but she already knew that.
“There were four hundred men, women, and children here,” it was more a statement than a question from her. Catherine’s horse kept shifting, eyeing the buildings and snorting. She patted him on the neck.
“From the signs, they killed all the men and the boys too, but they took the women and small children with them. They took all of the animals, even the dogs and what they could not take they killed,” Andrew looked pale.
Those among them that were not of her men, all retched at some point. When the time came, they helped dig the hole to bury what was left of the dead and honor them.
Catherine could read the signs better than them. She knew that these people never had a fighting chance. The horde came upon them from all sides, and they were overrun as if by a wave crashing to shore.
It was a pity that it took the deaths of so many, but now humans and vampires alike could no longer dismiss this war as a flight of fancy.
“Should we not try to save them?” Andrew was one of the newer additions to her men. He was not yet comfortable in her presence, even as she helped dig the hole and carry the dead. She could almost pity him.
There were only twelve bodies intact enough to bury, and they barely resembled anything human. Mutilated, charred beyond recognition and destroyed like their village.
It was one of those tasks where you had to shut down your senses along with your thoughts and soldier through. Where you could not afford to think about it. Dared not ponder.
That would come later, in the dark of night, when you could quietly allow the grief and horror to overtake you. None of them could afford to break down and show weakness, the dead deserved better.
“There are too many enemies, and they are hours ahead of us. No, we will go back and warn the others. The war has started, and there is more at stake now than this village,” Catherine could tell that Andrew hadn’t thought that far.
His eyes widened, and she understood the blatant fear in his gaze. There were many villages like this on the road to the upper kingdoms.
“They will bathe our lands in our blood, Your Highness,” Andrew stuttered. He was pale as wax, but even so, she could see the resolution form behind the thought. She could see it in all of them. The call to fight, to defend and avenge. She nodded.
“Aye,” Catherine would not lie to them and in that moment, the way Andrew looked at her changed. It went from caution to respect.
“Come, Robert, let us ride,” Catherine commanded, and as they took the road that led from town, not a single one of them looked back. That town, that day, the smell, sounds, and sights, were burnt into their memory forever.
There was so much blood on the street, and it was churned by so many feet. So much death, cruelty, and waste. It was more than war.
The enemy did not have to throw every last body in the fire. They did not have to burn them all. It was part of the message, blood, and fire.