The sun was blazing. Ryden stretched his long legs out in front of him and gazed across the crystal clear water. A westerly breeze ruffled his short dark hair but his fringe stuck stubbornly to his forehead; evidence of his recent dip in the mountain stream.
Warm rays of summer sunshine filtered down between the leaves of the weeping willows behind him, creating a mottled patchwork on the soft grass, but even the lilting birdsong in the branches high above him was not enough to lift the boy’s mood.
He sighed and skimmed another stone across the glistening water, smiling as the smooth pebble glanced across the calm surface. His father had taught him the technique. They used to come to this spot every summer, to hunt and fish and swim in the ice-cold water.
But that was then. It was two years to the day since renegades from the army of Kappland murdered his father. His mother had died three years previously from a cancer in her heart, and he had no siblings so the blacksmith’s responsibilities had fallen to him. The day after the funeral he’d quit school and started working the forge.
He’d learnt a lot from his father but even at the age of fourteen he had not fully understood the craft, so he struggled to emulate that which he’d watched with such interest in the years past. He didn’t mind the work, in truth, but he was not half the smith his father had been. He probably never would be. The looks he got from his customers, disappointment mingled with pity, made that abundantly clear. If his father hadn’t been so well-liked, he was sure he’d have no customers at all.
Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. The villagers’ requirements were so dull. No one ever asked him to make interesting pieces like swords or axes; they just wanted horseshoes and cooking pans. Even when he’d completed a job and earned a coin or two there was no long-term gain; no lasting impact. Like stones cast across a river, his achievements remained in sight only briefly before disappearing from memory.
‘Ry!’ The voice awoke him from his thoughts. ‘I knew I’d find you here!’
Melca came jogging towards him, gasping for breath and sweating profusely. Ryden’s closest friend was short and chubby, with fair hair and a broad smile never far from his lips.
‘You’ve got to stop coming up here,’ he panted, leaning against the closest willow. ‘It’s doing me no good at all.’
‘I have to disagree; I think it’s doing you the world of good. The pounds are simply falling off you.’ Ryden closed his eyes. ‘Anyway, I come here not to be found. It’s not my fault you won’t leave me in peace.’
‘Well, I’m here now. Guess what?’
‘You’ve just discovered that you’re next in line for the throne?’
‘You’ve invented a new type of bread that can make people fly?’
‘I don’t know then, Mel. What could possibly be important enough to interrupt my meditation?’
Melca’s face lit up. ‘I’m getting married! I spoke to Kirk and he gave me his blessing so I went and proposed to Liza and she said yes!’
Ryden’s eyes flew open. ‘That’s brilliant, Mel! I was starting to think you’d never ask her. Congratulations.’
‘Well, I didn’t know how she’d react. I can never tell what’s going on in her mind. I always think she’s bored of my company, or there’s somewhere she’d rather be, but she said yes. She said she’d love to marry me. I can’t believe it!’
‘Neither can I,’ Ryden grinned. ‘I thought she had more sense.’
The sun crept across the cloudless sky as Melca and Ryden discussed wedding plans. The only wedding Melca could recall was in the summer of 204, when Tristan and Amelia got married, and that day had been lively with music and dancing. He had been twelve at the time, so didn’t remember many details. Ryden suggested that he speak to Tristan for advice.
‘…and then you’ll want to think about getting a house,’ Ryden added, ’because you can’t live at the bakery with your parents once you’re married. Tibor can help you build one but it will be expensive, so you’ll need to use any savings you have.
‘I’m so glad you’re here to help, Ry. I’m such a dunce when it comes to this sort of thing. You’re used to looking after yourself but I’ve got no idea!’
‘Think nothing of it. Anyway, Liza will be as involved as you are. You’re lucky her dad’s a merchant; he’ll get whatever you need on the trade-route to Jalapa.’
Melca nodded. ‘Perhaps, although he won’t leave Cadmir at the moment. The Kapp army are on the move again.’
Ryden scratched his jaw. ‘Yes, I heard that Delcia had fallen. Even so, he’d be safer down south than he is here.’ Two families had already left the small village in recent months for the safety of the capital city. ‘We’re too close to the border. If General Lazarus takes Poranthia too...’
‘My father says he won’t attack Poranthia. He’ll make for the capital, because if he defeats King Rogar then the whole of Rejkland will be his.’
Ryden shook his head. ‘He may be heading for Jalapa but he’s not going to march straight past a fighting town. Silas said that when he was in the army, Poranthia had the best barracks in the country.’
Just as Melca was about to respond, the scent of woodsmoke reached his nostrils and he turned to see where it was coming from.
‘Ry, look at that.’ He pointed to a thick cloud rising from the village. ‘What do you suppose it is?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ Ryden replied, a note of concern in his voice, ‘but I think we ought to find out.’
Standing swiftly, he strode past Melca and headed down the hill towards the village. As he emerged from the tree-line he saw that the smoke was coming from the houses, although there was too much of it to be caused by cooking stoves and the plumes were thick and black. It looked as though one of the thatched cottages had caught fire and the blaze was spreading fast.
He broke into a run and Melca followed suit, trying to talk between gulps of air. ‘What is it Ry? It looks like the butcher’s is on fire! I hope Lara and Theo are all right.’
When they drew closer, Ryden saw two people lying in the square. He imagined they could have been pulled unconscious from the blaze, but at second glance they appeared to be wounded.
Melca tried to call out but Ryden clapped a hand over his friend’s mouth and dragged him sideways. As he did so he caught his toe on a tree-root, losing his footing and landing heavily in an outcrop of wild heather with Melca on top of him.
Melca pulled away, surprised and annoyed, but before he could jump to his feet he saw Elaine, the weaver’s daughter, run screaming from her house. As she approached the end of the row of cottages, a soldier in heavy armour appeared behind her and took her legs out from under her with a broad sweep of his sword. As she fell he moved forward and pulled the blade across her throat, silencing her.
Melca froze, mouth agape, unable to believe what his eyes were telling him. What were soldiers doing in Cadmir? They were miles from Poranthia; there was no army to fight here. He scrambled to his feet again before being pulled back by Ryden.
‘What are you doing?’ he snapped. ‘We need to stop them!’
‘Mel, how do you plan to do that? We’ve got no weapons and these are trained warriors – we’d stand no chance.’
‘We’ll talk to them, explain it’s a terrible mistake...’ he realised the futility of the idea as he said it.
They looked on in silence, watching with horror as a soldier ran down the street with a flaming brand, touching it to the thatch of each building that he passed.
‘What are we going to do then?’ Melca asked, looking to his friend for guidance. ‘We can’t just sit here and do nothing!’
‘I don’t see any alternative,’ Ryden replied, a strange calmness in his voice. ‘We can charge in there and be cut down without a second thought, or we can hide and make sure they don’t find us. They won’t come up here and I doubt they’ll stick around for long.’
A shout rang out across the village. He couldn’t hear what was said, but moments later at least twenty soldiers gathered in the centre of the square, waving bags and pouches at each other. Comparing their plunder.
Melca squatted next to Ryden in the scrub as the men made their way to the southern road, laughing and joking in guttural accents. One was guiding a horse but after a heated debate with a man in officer’s garb he dropped the reins and walked on without it.
When they reached the edge of the village, a mere forty yards from where the boys lay hidden, the officer stopped and the others fell silent behind him. The leader was heavily-built and muscular and his angry brows and thick neck gave him the appearance of a bull.
He cast his eyes over the bracken where Ryden and Melca were hiding, scanning the undergrowth until his eyes came to rest on their location. His lips pursed.
Melca’s mouth went dry and his stomach lurched. Just as he was about to panic and run, the officer turned away and the troop returned to their march.
Livid with rage and overcome with grief, the two boys watched helplessly as the soldiers walked out of Cadmir, without so much as a backward glance to the death and devastation left in their wake.
As soon as the men were out of sight Melca made to stand; but before he could run down to the village a clatter came from one of the houses, causing the horse in the square to bolt. Within moments two more soldiers emerged from the cottage, discovered they had been left behind and sprinted away in the direction of their comrades.
The boys waited in the undergrowth for what seemed like forever. When Ryden was sure the soldiers wouldn’t be returning, he beckoned to Melca to follow him down to the village. The two of them had not spoken a word to each other for the last ten minutes. There were no words to be said.
As he reached the blazing buildings, acrid smoke filled his lungs. The sun was setting, bathing the square in harsh orange light. Flames flickered in the corners of his vision and four motionless bodies lay in the street. He shuddered. It was like walking into Hell itself.
He moved to the nearest body, trying not to look at the battered face of his old schoolmaster as he felt for a pulse. The kindly tutor had not just taught Ryden literacy and numeracy, he had given him strength and encouragement and always found time to listen when Ryden needed support. This man, who had dedicated his life to others, had been viciously murdered for no reason other than to satisfy the wrath of a few heartless men.
When Ryden was certain he was dead, he closed Anton’s eyes and turned away. He saw Melca running towards the bakery and hoped against hope that his friend’s family would be alive. Terrible thoughts clogged his imagination but he forced them from his mind and moved to the next figure lying in the dust.
Once he’d seen that all the people in the square were beyond salvation, Ryden searched the homes where the flames were at their worst. He didn’t stop to fight the fires; his priority was to find survivors.
But his hopes sank further with every cottage and shop he entered. One by one he found the corpses of those he had known since childhood, their dead faces contorted with their last expression of life, and yet he felt strangely distant from the whole experience. He’d already dealt with the deaths of both his parents so he was well-accustomed to grief.
As he went over everything in his mind, he came to the thick oak door of the Plough and Harrow tavern. It hadn’t been forced; Silas always left it open in the summer for air to circulate. Of all the people in Cadmir, he was the one to whom Ryden felt most attached.
The landlord was in his sixties, but his broad shoulders and muscular arms gave him the appearance of a much younger man. Dear old Silas wouldn’t harm a fly, but his quick wit and inherent cynicism meant he could cut any man down with one sharp word. He spent an hour every morning chopping wood for the tavern fire, come rain or shine, despite the protestations of the local doctor.
Maybe he’s out in the woods. He might be sitting in the sunshine somewhere, with no knowledge of what’s happened here.
Even as he thought it, Ryden knew it was unlikely. He braced himself and stepped inside, expecting the worst.
The air in here was cool and the distinctive smell of hops was as familiar to Ryden as freshly baked bread or the metallic musk of his forge. He picked his way carefully through the room, avoiding upturned tables and broken chairs as he approached the kitchen. There, slumped in the doorway, was Silas.
A lump formed in Ryden’s throat and he felt tears welling up. As he stared, lost for words, he saw Silas’s eyelids flicker weakly. He scrambled across to him, hurling aside chairs in his eagerness to reach him.
‘Silas! Silas, it’s me, Ryden. What happened?’ He quickly cast his eyes over the man, noting with concern the deep red slash across the front of his white shirt. With a great effort Silas opened his eyes. His face was creased like old leather, showing the weight of his years.
‘Ry, I’m glad you’re here.’ He paused and the silence filled the room until finally he sighed. ‘There were four of them. I was in the kitchen but I heard them enter, so I came out to see what they wanted…’ his voice faded. Ryden unbuttoned his friend’s shirt to see the extent of the injury.
‘They didn’t speak,’ the old man continued. ‘I asked what they required but they just laughed. Then the biggest of them, a brutish man with a thick black beard, drew his sword and pointed it at me.’
‘Did you try to run away? Is that why the place is such a mess?’ Ryden asked as he examined the wound. It was deep. He rolled up Silas’s shirt for padding, then removed his own shirt and tied it tightly around his friend’s midriff to hold the dressing in place.
‘Run away? Did I hell! I told him that no one threatens me in my own house and then I threw a glass at his head. That’s when he sliced open my gut.’
Even through his grief and worry, Ryden could not help but smile. That was Silas all right. Outnumbered four to one and unarmed, he still stood his ground. Silas reached up and put his hand on Ryden’s shoulder, pulling him closer.
‘I know you have a trade, master Smith. But I ain’t got no children and no one to carry on in my stead. The Plough and Harrow is yours. Do with it what you will; manage it, sell it, tear it down if you like. There’s no one else I want to have it.’
Ryden began to say that there was no one else, until it occurred to him that Silas was unaware of the plight of the village. Instead he just placed his hand on top of the old man’s and said, ‘I will look after it as you would wish, my friend; but not yet. This wound may be grievous but you will recover. This is not the end.’
Silas gave him a sad smile, almost apologetic, and replied, ‘I wish that were the case. But I’ve lost too much blood. And regardless…’ he stopped and gave a racking cough, clutching his stomach in agony as he did so, ‘...regardless of what you would have me believe, I’m no spring chicken. Fare you well on every road you walk and may the Author watch over you.’
He closed his eyes and Ryden watched tearfully as his breathing slowed, coming in long sighs. After a short time his breath rattled in his throat and his head sagged, lifeless, onto his chest. Ryden gently laid him down on the floor and then sat back on his heels, unable to tear his eyes from the frail body of the man who had guided him from boyhood to manhood.
Meanwhile, Melca had returned home to find exactly what he hoped he would not. Having stopped in the familiar doorway for half a second to compose himself, he entered the small bakery and came across the body of his father in the centre of the shop. His throat had been slashed and blood had sprayed across the nearest wall.
His father, who had told him only this morning that the Kapps would not strike at Cadmir, now lay dead at his feet from that very eventuality.
Biting back his tears, Melca searched the next room and then the next, until he found his brother Olan and their mother. Olan’s dead hand clutched a twelve-inch bread knife stained with blood. Clearly he had been trying to defend their mother, because the spear that pierced his stomach had passed straight through him and into his mother’s chest. It was still lodged there.
Melca cried out, his voice wavering and breaking, resonant with all the pain and anguish that flowed through him. Tears cascading down his face he collapsed to the floor, shaking, unable to control himself, his body reverberating with raw emotion.
As his sobbing subsided, Melca pushed himself to his feet, forcing himself to leave his family for one reason and one reason only; to find Liza.
He raced through the streets, hurdling bodies, until he came to the merchant’s house. Bursting through the doorway, barely noticing that the door had been ripped off its hinges, he ran from room to room, pausing only to check the still form of Kirk for life.
Finding none, he sprinted upstairs and found Liza. Rushing to her side, Melca reached out his arms to hold her; almost missing the slightly darker patch on her brown woollen jumper. He looked into her eyes, those eyes he had fallen in love with over a year ago, and saw that they were glazed in death.
His throat ached, his eyes stung and all the muscles in his neck and shoulders clenched. It was too much to bear. Less than two hours ago he had been happier than he could ever remember being. He had a promising future, a career, and was due to be married. This woman next to him, still beautiful in death, had agreed to be his wife. The irony would have been laughable were it not so tragic.
He glanced at her ivory-pale hands and noticed that the third finger of her left hand was twisted and broken. The soldiers had not only killed her, they had also wrenched the ring from her hand; the ring so new that she had not even slept one night in it.
As he sat there, trying to make sense of an insane world, he heard a noise downstairs. Fearing the worst he looked around for a weapon, before the familiar voice drifted up from below.
‘Mel? Are you here buddy?’
The wooden stairs creaked and within moments, Ryden appeared in the doorway. His face dropped.
‘She’s dead. They’re all dead, Ry. My family... all murdered. How could anyone do this? What does it benefit them to destroy a peaceful village? What right have they to ruin our lives?’
‘I don’t have the answers, my friend. It’s the same everywhere. No one was spared. Silas was alive when I got to him but he died in my arms.’
‘Have you seen everyone? There must be some survivors.’
‘Only if they were lucky enough to be somewhere else today. Poranthia maybe. Otherwise, Cadmir is no more.’
Melca put his hand in front of Liza’s face and closed her eyes, then kissed her softly on the cheek and dropped his head into his hands. ‘How could they do this to her? She’s only a girl!’
‘I’ve seen what they did to Amelia. It’s horrible. They are evil, evil men.’For the next hour they sat together in silence, lost in their own thoughts in the tiny back room of the merchant’s house. Outside, beneath the moonlit sky, the last of the flames flickered and died.