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20: Conflagration

After Elena was safely with me, the trolley was pulled back across the river and Kat climbed aboard. When she arrived I turned to see that Bags was with us as well, soaking wet and smiling.

“You swam?” Elena asked him, wide-eyed.

“Didn’t trust that thing,” he said with a little shrug. Considering how much metal he was wearing and the violence of the river I wondered at his casual confidence.

“I don’t know how to swim,” Elena said. Then her face lit up. “Maybe you could teach me!”

“I almost drowned just now,” he said with a laugh. “Rope would have been a better choice. Maybe Martin should teach you.”

I was saved from answering when Baldwin called us to order and organized his four remaining men and his four guests. The look in the captain’s eye said that there might be murder if there were any more delays. “Only five more miles or so,” Wingles said to Elena. “Then you’ll be safe.”

We moved quickly, Bags and Kat jogging much of the time, and we caught up with the wounded as we topped a ridge and looked down into the wide, fertile valley that held Brewer’s Ford. I hadn’t been around those parts in several years, and in that time the fortress had been expanded and the garrison greatly increased. Perhaps the King had decided to be more than just the titular lord of the north. Either the king or someone who whispers in his ear had decided that it was time for the northern folks to start paying taxes, and tax collectors need armies.

The fortress stood on a steep-sided knob of black stone that rose from the plain, hard rock that the river chose to bend around rather than confront directly as it meandered south and east. From that rocky perch the fort controlled traffic on the river and protected the wharves that transferred freight and brought wealth to the region. Several boats were tied up, but the activity centered around a single barge unloading its goods in the heat of the midday sun.

Some time in the distant past a channel had been dug to divert part of the river around the other side of the rock, giving the fortress a moat. While the outcrop was too small to support a castle of any real significance, the modest structure was impressive in its own way. Three stubby towers anchored a wall that followed the contours of the native stone, broken only by a stout gate wide enough for two horsemen. The bridge across the moat was wooden, and no doubt could be demolished in moments should the need arise.

The plain at the foot of the fortress was busy with human activity. I could recognize the stables even from a mile away, as well as other stone and wood buildings that appeared to be barracks, a smithy, and livestock pens. The little fortress had outgrown its perch.

Surrounding fortress and town were fields green with grain blowing in waves with the gentle breeze, fed by the rich soil of the river valley. Low stone walls separated the fields, the boundaries following a logic that I could not decipher. The town itself seemed quiet from this distance, but I knew that was an illusion. As the fort grew and wealth came down from the mountains commerce would increase. Newly-framed structures on the south end of town, along the road toward more civilized parts, testified to the growth of the city.

“Ride ahead, Morley,” Captain Baldwin said. “Alert the surgeon that we will be needing his services. Don’t mention the Soul Thieves until I can talk to Harrick.” One of the soldiers nodded and started down the road at a brisk trot. “Let’s go,” Baldwin said to the rest of us.

“I’m not going in there,” Katherine said.

Baldwin stopped and turned in his saddle. “You are my prisoner, your grace,” The captain said. He didn’t have to remind her that she had insisted on it.

“I surrendered on the condition that you take me directly to the king. Is the king in there?”

“No, your grace.”

“Then I will not go there, either.”

“I must report to my commander, your grace. It is he who will see to your escort down to Langifer.”

“Langifer? What the hell is the King doing there?” Katherine asked. I was curious as well. Langifer was a capable military fortress, but away from any large city it lacked the amenities the king was rumored to enjoy.

“When last I heard, the king was en route to Langifer to confer with his liege lords in the south.” The captain shrugged. “Of course that news is weeks old now. Commander Harrick will know more, and will see to your escort.”

“Harrick. He’s in charge here?”

“Yes, your grace.”

Katherine considered a moment before speaking. “He hated my husband, and respected my father. I almost trust him.”

The captain looked relieved. “Then—”

“Almost. Once we’re inside those walls, it becomes much easier to forget promises made by underlings out in the woods somewhere.”

“I assure you, you grace, that the commander is a man of honor, as am I.”

They continued to argue, but I stopped listening. Something was happening to the sun. Although it was almost directly overhead it didn’t have the strength it had a few minutes ago. The day around me began to feel like twilight as the sun reddened and dimmed. A breeze kissed the back of my neck with a chill. Down on the plain, a horse cried out, and I turned my eyes away from the sky and back to the plain below. It was dimmer yet where I stood, but the castle on the rock below was lit so brightly I could barely look at it. As the world got darker, the fortress began to shine so brightly it seemed to be lit from within.

Baldwin and Katherine stopped their argument. A shout floated up to our position, then another. Suddenly, the air was filled with shouts and screams and smoke began to rise from behind the stone walls. On the plain at the base of the castle walls, buildings, crops, animals, and people all caught fire. Some rushed for the river, few made it. More shouts, more screams, the cries of the animals and the humans no longer distinguishable.

Suddenly the fort roared like an injured giant and a great column of fire reached high into the sky, sweeping fuel from the plain up into the inferno. Over the rush of the conflagration no human voice reached me.

In the woods behind me an evening bird chirped as the day dimmed into night and the temperature on the ridge dropped. I had to turn my eyes from the blinding furnace on the plain, and trails streaked across my vision as the image of the burning castle was seared into my eyes.

Another roar, and a blast of hot air on my face forced me to turn my gaze back toward the fortress, to try to peer between my fingers as I hid my eyes behind raised hands. In my distorted vision it was as if the stone itself was burning, the flames now greenish and smokeless. I turned away again. In the shaded town a bell began to toll, calling men to action. But what could anyone possibly do?

Baldwin dismounted, the rest of his riders did the same. “The moment this is over,” he said, “be ready to ride. They will need us down there.” I wondered at the calm in his voice.

Elena found me and latched onto my hand. “What’s happening?” she asked. “What the fuck is happening?”

I shook my head, but it took me several moments to find a word. “War,” I said.