Melca awoke with a start. Without thinking he called out, ‘I’m just coming!’ before reality stepped in and reminded him that there was no one on the other side of the door, complaining that he had overslept. Nor was there any work to do today, because there was no village to bake bread for any more.
His room was small, no more than ten feet by six, with a low ceiling divided by a broad wooden beam. A window in one corner looked out onto the street below and through a narrow opening the morning breeze wafted the pale curtains gently.
On the window-sill stood a small wooden calendar showing yesterday’s date; a date that would forever be ingrained in his memory. The second day of the fifth month in the year 208. The day he got engaged. The day the people of Cadmir were massacred.
The memories of the previous twenty-four hours returned to his mind, heedless of his resistance, until loneliness, fury and bitter sadness overwhelmed him.
He had no family, no fiancée, and the only thought that kept resonating in his head was I should have died with them. No matter how many times he went over the events of the previous day, his mind kept returning to the same unanswerable question; why was I spared?
He was still wearing his thin cotton trousers and brown jerkin from the day before, and lay sprawled on his bed in the same position he had fallen asleep. He pulled himself to his feet and ambled to the door. As he opened it, the smell of bacon reached his nose and for a split-second he thought that somehow he had been wrong; that his mother or father had survived the attack and was here to greet him.
Then he remembered that Ryden had stayed with him last night, sleeping in Olan’s bed in the next room. They had been fortunate that the bakery had been largely undamaged by the fire. Melca could hear his friend moving around in the kitchen as he made his way downstairs.
As he entered, Ryden took three rashers of bacon from the frying pan on the broad farmhouse stove and dropped them onto a thickly cut slice of bread, followed by two fried eggs and a second slice of bread.
‘Morning.’ Ryden greeted him in a low voice and placed the sandwich on the table in front of him. ‘Your timing is impeccable.’ Melca sat down and watched passively as his friend made a second sandwich and settled himself in the chair opposite.
They ate in silence, neither knowing quite what to say. When Ryden finished, he looked up and placed his hands flat on the table.
‘We’ll build a pyre. In the centre of the square. We’ll bring them all together and pay our respects. Then we’ll leave.’
‘Leave?’ Melca said in a high voice. He’d only left the village a handful of times in his sixteen years and never for longer than a day or two. ‘I can’t even think about leaving, Ry. I just can’t bear...’ His voice faded away and tears began streaming down his face.
‘I see no other option, Mel. We can’t stay here; we’d starve. I can’t run a farm. We can’t manage a whole village between two of us.’
Melca tried to compose himself. He took a deep breath. ‘Where will we go? Poranthia?’
’Too risky. I say south, to Jalapa. I know there will be fighting there soon as well, but people say the walls are half a mile high and as thick as a house. There’s nowhere safer.
‘Jalapa? That’s miles away! How long would that take?’
‘I don’t know. We’ll take food and I have some money.’
‘That’s not the point. Anything could happen if we leave the village.’ Melca thought about the stories he’d heard as a child, of vicious monsters with slavering jaws that roamed the plains in packs; ferocious creatures that would kill unsuspecting travellers and devour them completely, leaving nothing in their wake but piles of bones. ‘What if we get attacked by dogs, Ry?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mel; there’s no such thing as dogs. That’s just a fairytale that people use to scare kids into obedience. “Don’t wander off or the dogs will get you.” Ha! There’s nothing on the plains but dry earth and windswept trees. Besides, what choice do we have? We need to get back to civilisation.’
Melca fell silent once more. He gazed at his hands and scratched idly at a fingernail. Standing up suddenly, he uttered an affirmation and strode from the room.
Ryden watched his friend leave, then sighed and cleared away the plates. He knew how Melca must be feeling, having experienced first-hand the loss of his own parents. Melca had visited him every day in the weeks following his father’s death, usually bringing him parcels of bread or cakes. At the time, Ryden had been so preoccupied he’d barely noticed his friend’s generosity.
Squinting against the morning sun, he stepped outside to begin the grisly task that lay before him. He gathered the largest timbers he could carry from the damaged houses and hauled them into the main square. All the while, thoughts of Melca churned in his mind.
When he’d become an orphan himself, two years earlier, the most stark of his myriad emotions had been a loss of identity. Only after his father was gone had he realised how little he knew about the man.
Dario had been quiet and introverted, so even the people of Cadmir were unable to tell Ryden much. All he learnt was that his parents had moved from Poranthia ten years previously, after the death of the last blacksmith in Cadmir; a sour man named Carlo.
Before Ryden’s mother had passed away, the three of them would sometimes make the long walk to Poranthia to stay with his uncle for a few days, but in his later years those visits had stopped. He didn’t know what caused the rift between the two brothers but each time he asked, his father would change the subject.
Ryden had written to his uncle Borik once, after his father’s death, but he’d heard nothing back and with no other family to speak of, he’d dealt with his grief alone.
For a time, Ryden had coasted through life like a ship without sails or rudder. Thankfully, Silas had seen the pain behind his expressionless façade. The old barkeep had listened without judgment, mentored him and slowly earned the trust of the young smith.
Tristan had become a friend as well, while his wife Amelia treated Ryden as a younger brother and always set a place for him at their dinner-table. For the first time since his mother passed away, Ryden had felt like he had a family again.
And now they were all gone. He roared and threw down the wooden beam that he’d been carrying. He felt tears welling up and angrily pressed his palms against his eyes, as if trying to push them back in.
He kicked at a stone then collapsed onto a bench, staring at the grotesque tower that now rose from the centre of the square. Having built a large pile of timbers, the young smith had methodically gone from one house to the next, half carrying and half dragging the surprisingly heavy corpses and resting them on the wood as respectfully as possible.
However, it was not the physical effort that he found draining; rather the torrent of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. These were people he had known all his life. He’d grown up with them and done business with them. He knew them all by name, he knew their families, he could even remember most of their birthdays. Although Ryden was not close with most of the villagers, now they were gone he felt like an actor on an empty stage.
There were eight bodies on the pyre so far and he knew there were many more still waiting to be collected. His muscles ached from the task and Melca had still not come to help. Getting to his feet, he headed back to the bakery. He stepped into the cool interior and called out. As he did so, he heard a loud thud from the back room.
‘Mel? Are you ok?’ he called, heading towards the source of the noise. Through the living room doorway he saw the stool that had just clattered to the floor. Above it, Melca swung like a pendulum, red in the face and rasping due to a coarse hemp noose around his neck.
‘Mel! What are you doing?’ Ryden burst into the room and scrabbled to right the stool. Seeing the body of Olan in the corner, he snatched the breadknife from the dead hand and leapt onto the stool, sawing at the thick rope that held his friend suspended.
Melca crashed to the floor, unconscious. Ryden pounced on the noose like a wild animal, wrenching it loose and tossing it aside. He listened for his friend’s breath and not hearing any he panicked. Unsure what else to do he shook Melca, rocking him from side to side and shouting, ‘Breathe! Breathe, damn it!’ When this failed to have any effect he pushed his friend’s stomach and chest, desperately praying that his lungs would take over.
After what seemed like eternity Melca dragged in a mouthful of air, making a dry groaning noise as his chest rose to accommodate it. With tears rolling down his face, Ryden laughed with relief. He placed his head on Melca’s chest and hugged him, repeating ‘You’re alive, you’re alive!’ over and over again.
Once Melca’s breathing had stabilised, Ryden fell silent and sat with his back to the wall, hugging his knees. A grave expression moulded his features and he kept his eyes locked on his friend. Melca propped himself up on his elbows and stared back.
A minute passed in silence. Ryden spoke first. ‘That’s not the answer. It’s not worth it.’
‘There’s nothing left, Ry. What’s the point in going on?’
‘What can I tell you? There’s nothing here, I know that. But we’ve got the rest of our lives yet and there are so many things we could still do.’
‘There’s nothing left that I want to do. Everything’s gone.’ His voice broke. ‘Everything I love has been taken from me.’
‘And if you end your life then those whoresons will get away with it. Is that what you want?’
‘No.’ Melca’s eyes flared. ‘I want them all to suffer like I am.’
Swallowing, Ryden responded in a quiet voice, ‘Then there is something left for you to do.’
By late afternoon, fifty-two bodies rose in a pyramid from the village square. The still forms rested among large timbers taken from the surrounding buildings.
Melca had worked tirelessly all afternoon, a grim expression on his face, although he had barely said two words to Ryden. Now the pyre was built, Ryden watched him circling the grotesque structure, focussing intently on each and every face as if committing them to memory.
It had been an arduous task, made all the more difficult because the practicalities were hard to tackle sensitively. After some consideration they built the wood into a pyramid and placed the bodies in three tiers, meaning there were twenty-five corpses around the base, staring dolefully out at the charred village around them. Ryden found it disconcerting and returned to the pyre to close their eyes.
All in all, the structure was almost twenty feet high and fifteen paces around the base. If it weren’t for their grievous wounds it would have looked as though the people of Cadmir were sleeping peacefully. Instead it was a gruesome wall of death that Ryden could barely stand to look at.
Melca had insisted on placing Olan, Liza and both his parents at the front of the lower tier and had spent a worrying amount of time adjusting their positions, as though he was trying to make them comfortable. Ryden had said nothing. He knew Melca needed to do whatever he saw fit to put them to rest.
While Melca strolled around the funeral pyre, satisfying himself that everything was in order, Ryden went into the charred remains of the Plough and Harrow and carried out a keg of beer and two glasses. He would often take a drink after a hard day’s work, so acquiescing to this old habit felt natural and comforting. Familiarity was something he needed right now.
He sat down on a small pile of timber and gazed forlornly down the street, dotted with blackened buildings like a mouthful of rotting teeth. There was no atmosphere in the village and everywhere was deathly silent. Swarms of black flies buzzed around the bodies, encouraged by the summer heat, and the stench was overpowering.
Melca finished his tour of the pyre and sat down next to Ryden, helping himself to a glass of ale. ‘That’s everyone accounted for. Every man, woman and child in Cadmir and not a soul survived.’
‘Apart from us,’ Ryden corrected him. ‘Small consolation that it may be, you’ve still got me.’
‘That I have.’ Melca took a long swig from his drink then dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a handkerchief.
‘Let’s get this thing over with then, shall we?’ Ryden asked in a level voice. He stood and took two tinderboxes from his pocket, handing one to Melca. Silently they both knelt next to the pyre and lit the straw they’d scattered around the foot of the mound. Fortunately there was little wind and the straw caught quickly. Once the flames were licking at the lower timbers, the boys stepped back and took their seats again.
‘Ry?’ Melca spoke softly, his voice almost lost to the popping and crackling of the flames. ‘Do you think we should say something?’
Ryden cleared his throat. ‘I commend these men and women to the Author of All Things. May He welcome them into His house, where they will know peace.’ He paused, searching for something else to say. Unable to think of anything more profound, he settled for, ‘Goodbye, Cadmir, and fare thee well.’
‘Bye mum,’ Melca added in a whisper.
The fire burned for several hours but Ryden and Melca remained static, staring listlessly into the flames. Once in a while, one of them would get up to fetch more ale or to relieve himself before returning to the gigantic blaze.
As darkness fell, a loud grumble in his stomach reminded Melca that they hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so he fetched a basket of fruit from the grocers and then went home to collect a loaf left over from the day before. Picking up some bread from the rack beside the large bakery oven, he felt another stab of anguish as he recalled the previous morning with his family.
He had woken up without the usual nagging from his mother and was in the dining room before his father had finished eating breakfast. His punctuality, combined with a cheerful whistle, was met with a raised eyebrow from his father and a smirk from Olan.
‘Someone’s in a good mood today!’ Olan said as Melca took a seat at the broad dining table. ‘Wouldn’t be anything to do with the dance last night, would it?’
Melca blushed. He had been at the summer fete the night before, flirting with Liza more openly than he would if he’d been sober. He knew he’d have to face his brother’s mockery but his parents had left the fete early and he didn’t want them to hear about it. He scowled at Olan and ignored the comment, instead reaching for a large slice of bread and coating it in a thick layer of blackberry jam.
‘Yes, how were the celebrations?’ his father asked innocently. ‘I thought you’d have had a few drinks and be glued to your bed this morning; I was just considering how best to remove you!’
‘Oh, I don’t think he drank too much, dad,’ Olan chuckled, ‘I think Liza saw to that. From what I could tell, his lips were too busy to be drinking anything!’
Enraged and humiliated, Melca had refused to speak to his brother for the rest of that morning. Such a trivial quarrel. His last moments with his brother were spent in anger and now he would never have the chance to apologise.
He wiped his eyes and returned to the pyre, offering some bread and fruit to Ryden. After eating in silence for a time, he asked, ‘How are we going to find the men that did this?’
Ryden hesitated. ‘Let’s go to the next town first and find out what’s happening in the rest of the country. There’s no point running straight into the middle of a war.’
‘The nearest town is Poranthia. I thought you didn’t want to go there?’
‘We can go east instead,’ Ryden suggested. ‘We’ll follow the river to the sea and then head south till we get to Sharbury.’ He reached for an apple and sat back on the log. ‘Do you know if Wilbur’s horses are all right? I’ve not been to the stables yet.’
‘I’ve got no idea,’ Melca flushed. ‘I didn’t know we’d need to ride. I hate riding; it’s painful and dirty.’
‘Well, my friend, you’re going to have to get used to it. I’m not intending to walk and besides, we need to get away from here as quickly as possible. If the rest of the Kappish army decides to come marching through then I don’t want to be here to welcome them.’
‘I guess you’re right,’ Melca confessed. ‘Fine, we’ll ride. I don’t suppose things can get any worse.’
Ten minutes later, with no sense of comedy timing, it began to rain.