Fire! Garrett could smell it in the night air. The acrid stench of smoke drifted through the trees. Ash floated in the darkness and the horizon sky blazed orange and fierce. A feeling of dread rose in his heart. He could see it also in the faces of his men, for they could feel the heat on the wind more than a mile away. The village of Bray was burning.
‘Up ahead, Captain,’ Marlowe said. ‘I see someone in the road.’
The men reined in their horses and readied their blades. Eight there were, with trembling hands and anxious eyes. They were not soldiers of the legion but a provincial guard tasked with protecting the peace. Together they rode under the banner of the tower and the tree, and they wore that same emblem as a badge upon their chests, for it was the sigil of those who kept the law.
‘Who goes there?’ Garrett called. The smoke was thickening and his eyes had begun to water. Young Simm had already started to cough. ‘State your business or…,’ ...or what?, Garrett thought. He wasn’t really sure what, if truth be told.
Marlowe narrowed his eyes. ‘Captain, it’s... a child. It’s a girl. It’s just a little girl.’
They watched nervously as she staggered wraithlike out of the shadows. A skinny little thing. Her face and hair were stained black with soot and her dress was torn and singed. Her eyes were sunken and empty.
Marlowe dismounted his horse and hastened towards her. He crouched and uncorked his flask, offering some water. ‘It’s alright, girl,’ he said softly. ‘You’re safe now. What’s your name?’
But the child would not answer.
‘Who is she?’ Garrett asked. ‘What’s her name? What’s happened back there?’
Marlowe placed the flask to her lips, coaxing her to take a sip. But the girl would not drink. The water simply dribbled down her chin. ‘I’ve a daughter around your age, you know. Her name’s Mara. I think you’d like her. I’m sure the two of you would make good friends.’
‘Gideon’s arse, Marlowe! We don’t have time for this.’
Cobb shook his head; ‘Won’t get much out of that one. I’ve seen that look before. My sister’s husband was in the legion. Came back from the Hinterlands with that same look in his eye. He was gone. Nothing left of him. Hung himself a few months later.’
Garrett stared aghast at the man. ‘Are you suggesting that the Khett did this?’
Marlowe stood; ‘The Khett won’t cross the Reach. We’re too far east for them. This is something else.’ He glanced again at the child. ‘Cobb’s right, Captain. She’s not talking anytime soon. The poor girl’s traumatised.’
Garrett cursed. He was out of his depth. He knew it, and so did his men.
‘Perhaps we should send for reinforcements, sir?’ Simm asked.
It was a fine idea, Garrett thought, but for the fact that the nearest patrol – that of Major Vasco and his men – were more than a day’s ride away. ‘No,’ Garrett said. ‘We don’t have that much time. There’s no telling how long it would take the major and his men to get here. This one’s on us, lads.’ The men nodded reluctantly. It was clear that they wanted to turn back. All except Marlowe, who had always had about him a gallantry the others did not possess. ‘Simm,’ Garrett said. ‘Stay with the girl. The rest of you with me. We need to find out what’s going on here.’
And so seven continued northward along the road, travelling only as fast as their courage would allow. Mostly they travelled in silence, unwilling to give voice to the fear in their hearts. Garrett found himself recalling recent rumours of a band of marauders roaming the countryside, but those stories spoke of events in the north, and nothing had been said of it now for a matter of months. Even so, he dreaded what he would find at the end of that road.
It seemed only a moment had passed when they came in sight of the village proper.
Fearing the inferno, their horses would go no further, and so the men were forced to continue on foot. As they made their way into the village of Bray the world they knew descended into a raging nightmare of blood and flame. Ruin was everywhere. Homes stood blazing and the air was thick with cinders. Corpses littered the village-square, executed as they knelt or slain whilst they begged for their lives. Bodies lay sliced open, impaled or gutted. The men had all been butchered like hogs. The women raped and their throats slit. The children had been used for sport, most of them strung up or shot down. Horses and cattle and dogs lay dead too.
‘Gideon preserve us,’ Marlowe muttered.
‘Split up and look for survivors,’ Garrett heard himself say, though it felt like someone else was speaking through him. For a moment nobody moved. The shock on their faces was plain to see. ‘I said look for survivors!’ he yelled, and one by one they all paired off to begin searching amongst the wreckage of the town, calling out for any who yet lived.
Garrett himself moved as if through a dream. None of it seemed real, and yet he knew it was. He could feel the sting of smoke in his lungs. The sweat soaking through his shirt. The squelch of blood-drowned earth beneath his boots. He called out, but his throat was hoarse and dry. More than anything now he wanted to weep, but something inside kept him moving through the village. Some strange impulse beckoned him on until at last he found himself before a heap of corpses that had been set alight.
He stared long into that bonfire of the dead, thinking for a moment that he recognised the charred and blistered faces. It was only when he noticed the glint of metal that he realised what he was seeing – the sigil of the tower and the tree. Horror came upon him then, for he knew the faces of the dead were those of Major Vasco and his men.
Garrett fell to his knees.
‘Captain,’ Marlowe said, approaching quietly from behind. ‘There’s nobody left. They’re all gone.’
‘Vasco… These are all... Major Vasco’s men.’
Marlowe stood dumbfounded. After a moment he spoke quietly; ‘I found a... young man. Hanged from the sign of a ransacked inn. His... belly had been... opened. It was old Lyra Fenwick’s boy. He got married last autumn. Isha and I were at the wedding. He came out here with his wife to... open an inn.’
‘Who could do such... things?’
‘Captain, we should go. I fear It’s not safe to stay here.’
Garrett nodded slowly. He had a vague notion that Marlowe’s words made sense, and when finally he rose to leave he could see that his men had gathered around them. Their faces were pale and their eyes haunted. Matty’s cheeks were streaked with tears.
‘What now, sir?’ Cobb asked.
Garrett hesitated. He could not find the words. It was Marlowe who spoke; ‘We need to send for help,’ he said. ‘We must contact the legion. We have no other choice. This is beyond any of us.’
‘… And the villages,’ Garret added. ‘We must warn the other villages.’
‘Gideon’s mercy,’ Marlowe hissed.
Garrett could see the sudden realisation in their eyes; their families would be next! ‘We have to go back for Simm and the girl,’ he said. ‘Then we ride for Dungrave. It’s the nearest village and they must be warned.’
‘Dungrave’s a two day ride from here,’ Cobb said.
‘Then we cannot spare the horses. The village is defenceless and we must reach them before… whoever did this does. Once we’re there we’ll send for the legion.’
Marlowe gave the order to mount up and they were quickly on their way. There was nothing more that could be done in the ruins of Bray, and as they rode off into the night, leaving the devastation behind them, they knew in their hearts that what they had seen that night would stay with them until their dying day.