Kingdom Burning

Three years after King Roen burned her village to the ground and killed everyone she held dear, Taryn had finally made a new life for herself working in a wayward tavern. She might have almost been happy again, had the nightmares not come back to haunt her. When two strangers come to the inn on one fateful night, Taryn discovers that the nightmares are only the beginning.

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2. Chapter 2

 

The Blue and Gold soldier standing in the doorway narrowed his gaze to Alvar. His arrogant sneer faltered slightly with the word “maggot”. Throughout the room, my fellow ale drinkers worked hard to keep a straight face. It was one thing to call a Blue and Gold a maggot behind his back , but to say it to their face? Well, that was a path they honestly cared not to tread. All I had wanted when I entered the tavern was a nice ale and some good company. Now I found myself closer than I would like to a stare-down between a manifestation of hatred walking and a particularly bitter nobody. 

There was a strained silence during which many heavy pulls of ale were hastily downed. It was the sound of  soldiers’ heavy footfalls in the street that eventually recalled the soldier to his respective duty. 

Finally the soldier found his voice. Removing his gaze from Alvar, the soldier focused on the back wall and began his well practiced recitation. “By order of the good King Roen it has been ordained that the peoples of this settlement will submit to a grounds search of all buildings – housing and merchants alike. All citizens will immediately convene in the town commons.” 

I was almost sure the soldier’s eyes flickered back to Alvar before he spun on his heels and left the tavern. 

The ensuing commotion was more subdued than I expected it to be. There was indeed anger behind the eyes of the men of Ranglas, but an unease lay there as well – an uncertainty of what purpose such proceedings could serve in such a small, unassuming town. I watched the men leave the tavern one by one as I sipped on the rest of my drink, some still with ale in hand, others with fists clenched. No one said much. Myself, I was in no hurry to head the soldier’s instruction. Neither, it seemed, was Alvar. His face had turned pale, noticeable even in the dim light of the room. Half hidden behind a pile of tankards, he gripped the counter with both hands, eyes downcast and muttering under his breath, “Filthy, coward bastards. Maggots.” 

I left the tavern with Alvar a few minutes after everyone else had gone.  Most of the town had gathered in the square already. Only a few stragglers remained – those who did not give in so easily to King Roen’s authority. A series of crashes and angry yelling erupted from one of the houses on the far edge of the square. The gathered crowd hushed as they began to realize who’s house the ruckus came from, all eyes turning warily to watch. Barely a minute later two soldiers emerged from the imploded doorway dragging a man between them by the armpits, head bobbing with each rough step. A woman in the gathered crowd fainted, landing hard with an infant still in her arms. The impact sent the child into hysterics and momentarily the villagers were distracted with the care of the captured man’s wife and son. 

By the time the woman regained consciousness and the child had been consoled to mild wimpering, the Blue and Gold soldiers had convened at the front of the crowd. Behind them a wide tent had been erected, its hung canvas doorway guarded on either side by two armor clad warriors. I stood next to Alvar, who had his arms crossed defiantly and was glaring pointedly at the nearest Blue and Gold Soldier. The people of Ranglas eyed one another in terror, not daring to speak lest they find themselves bound to a stake in front of the tent. The man the soldiers drug from the house was barely conscious, but definitely alive. This consoled his wife very little as she watched them tie him to a stake. 

After a seeming eternity, a soldier pushed aside the tent flap and emerged into the slowly fading sunlight. He wore a silver helmet with a Blue and Gold plume attatched to the ridge that ran from front to back. A captain. Without so much as a glance at the people gathered before him he sauntered over the man on the stake. Unable to support himself in semi-consciousness, the man had slumped over. The captain crouched in front of him and used a white-gloved hand to tip up the man’s chin so he might look him in the eye. Perhaps he was hoping the man would beg. When the captive only stared back at his face, the soldier stepped around behind him and lifted his head once again, this time by his hair. He pulled a jeweled dagger from his belt and slit the man’s throat. Dropping the man’s head unceremoniously, the captain proceeded to peel off his white gloves, finger by finger, which were immediately replaced by a clean pair handed to him by a his young squire. 

The people of Ranglas were so appalled and terror-stricken by the captains performance they could do not but stare. Most wild-haired ideas of rebellion were effectively vanquished. Alvar still stood next to me with fists clenched.

White gloves in place, the captain finally turned to address the crowd. “It has been bestowed upon me, my good people of Ranglas, the unfortunate responsibility of searching your fine town. King Roen has ordered a sweeping of the entire kingdom of Reseda for the purpose of finding one person and an item that may be in their possession which pose a horrible risk to the safekeeping of our great realm.” It was obvious his speech had been well rehearsed. And anybody that had been near any form of civilization three years ago could have recognized what these searches implied. We all remembered.

“The nature of this search is not to impose on these fine people without purpose. It is of necessity for all of our wellbeing. The fate of Reseda rests on it. Your cooperation is required by law under King Roen. You have seen,” he motioned to the slumped, bloody figure that had once been a man, “the consequences of defiance.” A shudder went through the crowd as they involuntarily glanced at the mess to the right of the captain.

“It pleases me not to be forced into making another example,” said the captain, noting the tense silence.  He continued on as if this search were a daily occurrence, as commonplace as the tavern walls. The rehearsed monologue of Reseda’s distress was a true as Roen’s desire for his subjects well being. We all knew it. The problem was that nothing could be done about it. It had been made clear that to fight was suicide, and the wounds of the searches three years ago were still far too fresh to allow it. So, the crowd remained silent. “Now, returning to the matter at hand, the search will commence in three stages. To start, you will all form lines.” The captain nodded and a dozen soldiers flanked either side us, designating where each line should begin. Like herded cattle, we fell into place. “In groups of three, starting here,”  he pointed to the far left of the front row, “you will enter the tent behind me.” On cue the door to the tent moved and a dark form emerged to stand next to the captain. The man was unnaturally large, clad in an ebony robe accented on the edges by blood red. His face was cowled, only his pale chin definable. He held not a sword, but anblackened, twisted wood staff emblazoned with burnt symbols of the earth and a fist sized ruby. The captain was dwarfed by his presence.  

“This is Caven-Rouhe,” said the captain. He seemed suddenly ill at ease in the shadow of cloaked man. He has been recruited to the search effort to guarantee we miss nothing. Therefore, he will be… interviewing each of you individually. I advise pure thoughts.” I could have sworn the stone flickered atop the staff though it could have been a trick of the light. “While the interviews,” (the captain did seem rather uncomfortable with the word choice), “are commencing, you will each be searched on your person. Soldiers will pass down each line with a basket into which you will empty your pockets so as the contents may be evaluated for the item in question. All buildings will be searched as well.” Had anyone been bold enough to speak up, they might have inquired what exactly this unnamed object was or who it was they sought, but no one did. It crossed everyone’s mind that anyone could have been the missing person, unawares even that they were as the captain delivered no means of identification – who was to say that they wouldn’t just pick an unsuspecting nobody when their pockets had been sufficiently filled and the villages effectively purged,  but these thoughts were no more than fleeting in the shadow of  memories past. It did not matter that they would never see our possessions again – that the soldiers would later sit around a table divvying up their treasures from a fruitful extraction of every item we had on our person save the clothes on our backs.  It did not matter that more than one young woman might be stolen away in the night for a lonely soldier’s pleasure. It did not matter because they were helpless, cornered by the horrors and losses of King Roen’s last search and siege expedition that still haunted them. They had fought back once and in turn had lost everything. 

The dark one called Caven-Rouhe bent, said something into the captain’s ear and returned to the tent. The captain issued hasty orders to his soldiers and signaled for the first three people in line to enter the tent. When the villagers hesitated, they were each grabbed by a Blue and Gold and led roughly into the tent. A pair of men started down each row, one brandishing a sword, the other a basket, and began the tedious process of collecting everyone’s possessions. I was in the third row towards the middle. Alvar, still next to me, fidgeted anxiously. They would reach him before me, and I wondered if the man could contain himself, keep from coming to the same fate as the slumped over pile by the tent. 

As the last threads of daylight faded, a group of soldiers lined the square with torches. The flickering light tugged at everyone’s unease. I watched the entrance of the tent as villagers came and went. It had been an hour maybe since the interviews started, and the fourth group had just disappeared through the flap.  Two women and an older man stepped out of the tent, each pale as ghosts and trembling from head to foot. Their eyes were haunted. I wasn’t the only one to notice the change. Uneasy murmurs began to course their way through the crowd. Somewhere behind me a baby cried. 

The soldiers making their way down my row were four people away when it happened.  The flash took us all by surprise, sending a fresh wave of terror through the villagers. It came from the tent, breaching every gap that might allow the light to escape. It was not until only two villagers left the tent instead of three that we realized what the flash had meant. 

When the soldier with a basket reached me he took everything  including the silver I had stashed away in my boot. The soldiers had made their way down the lines without incident thus far. No one had dared resist the personal searches, regardless of how deep they decided to dig. It became the unfortunate figure of the tavern master standing beside me who would be the first. When the soldier asked him to shake out his boots, Alvar refused. Without a second of hesitation, the accosting soldier drew his sword and ran the man through. The crowd became, if possible, even more subdued. A small radius formed around the fallen Alvar expanding with the growing pool of blood beneath him. 

There were six more flashes of light before a Blue and Gold led me into the front chamber of the tent. It reeked of herbs and strong incense, covering, mostly, a more fetid smell that I tried hard not to determine the origin of. My eyes began to burn and water. 

Wordlessly, a guard pointed the man to my left through the curtain that separated us from Caven-Rouhe and our uncertain fates. I could feel the electricity in Caven-Rouhe’s voice almost as much as I could hear it. It was like lightening threatening to strike at that very moment. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. 

“Name?” asked the voice.

Answer.

“Do you live here?” 

Answer.

There was silence for a moment and the air in the tent  became electrified and my ears burned with a high pitched whistling. Then it stopped, as suddenly as it had started, leaving my heart racing uncontrollably. Seconds later we were blinded by another flash of light and the next thing I knew I was being ushered into the other room. 

As I entered the dimly lit room my nostrils were bombarded with the powerful scents of the herbs and incense, much stronger there than in the waiting area. Stronger still was the fetid smell I had tried to ignore. Unable to keep myself from looking for the source of that particular odor, my eyes fell on a smoldering heap pushed to one side of the room next to six others. It dawned on me then that no one had left the room before I came in. I choked back the reflex to throw up. 

Wordlessly, Caven-Rouhe motioned for me to sit down across from him. In the center of the table lay the enormous ruby, glowing dimly. The demon’s eyes blazed suddenly down on my own and my entire body went numb. 

“Name?”

I answered in a voice not my own. 

“Do you live here?”

I told him I did not. 

“What is your business here?”

I was only passing through on a delivery of herbs and spices to a village near Scarron Lake. There had been an outbreak of common sickness.

Caven-Rouhe set his evil on me then. Those cold eyes of steel baring down on me with such ferocity my insides went cold. My lungs compressed and I couldn’t breathe. My shaking hands rattled on the table. Then he blinked. The pressure subsided and I struggled to calm my ragged breathing. Had I been able to find my voice, I might have screamed. 

He told me to place my hand on top of the ruby and I obeyed without hesitation, feeling the unnatural warmth radiating from it. As Caven-Rouhe lowered his hand over mine, the air began spin, whistling around me. His skin was cold and I flinched, nearly pulling my hand away, but he stopped me, pressing down with such force I felt my bones might crumble beneath him. 

Closing his eyes, Caven-Rouhe began to chant in a low, almost inaudible voice. It was a spell – some kind of demon magic. I could feel it coursing through me, prying apart my strongest defenses. My mind was laid bare to his probing, my deepest secrets and darkest thoughts cast out before him in an instant. I wished for death, the agonies of the past long buried burning like salt in an open wound. He probing only touched on the bitter memories and so I was left nothing of hope to grasp to.

It stopped the second he opened his eyes. He lifted his hand from mine and placed it flat on the table. He eyes bore into me again, though not as intense as before. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. 

“Do you have any further business in Ranglas?” the demon man said in his electric voice. 

“No, I do not.” My head began to throb. I could feel the entrails of his intrusion lingering unpleasantly. I tried to look away, but his steely gaze held me fast. 

“Move along then. We have no quarrel with you.” The sinister being stood abruptly, towering over me in all his darkness. “You will be escorted back to the stable where your wagon will be searched. If nothing we find nothing of import, you will depart within the hour.”

I was led from the tent chamber as the next man was led in. I avoided his questioning gaze. I sensed he would not be as fortunate as I. My wagon was searched in great detail, each bag of herbs sifted by the soldiers’ filthy hands. Such care made them worthless. It would be months before I could replenish the stores. When the search of my wagon finished, the soldiers search me again, this time costing me a silver as they made me remove my boots. Dawn had nearly broke by the time I was released. I road from Ranglas in a rush, heedless as my mount tired. It was only as I reached Glynn that I felt I could stop. 

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