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I hit the top of Haftan’s pass and ran along the road, turning up the side path toward the clearing on the top of the bluff. My heart pounded and all thoughts of danger and caution fled. I laughed wildly, praying the last few days had been a fever-dream brought on by the restless. I practically threw myself into the clearing, my feet flying over the ground and leapt up the hill to the point overlooking the town. The closer I got to the edge, the slower my feet moved. I finally stopped, staring over the edge. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. It felt like my heart was dying.

My mind refused to process as I stared off the edge. Most of the buildings were still intact: a few burned and collapsed but the rest seemed largely unharmed. Wryly, I noticed Master Owen would need a new roof soon and someone had left the loft door on the smithy open again.

I focused on the details, shutting out the rest. The early grain had been cut and the debris of ransacked houses and barns lay everywhere, strewn over the ground near the torn rags of bloody clothes. I closed my eyes, counting slowly to twenty and praying silently for strength before looking again. Scattered throughout the lawns and roads of my town, anywhere there had been open ground, were tall wooden lodge poles with a crossbar several feet off the ground. And on each pole were two townspeople, crucified back to back.

Tears streamed down my face as I stood there, clutching the heavy saber to my chest. After several minutes I turned away and began walking, my feet automatically picking their way down the pass into town.

Most of the girls and some of the younger boys had been strung up in the nude. Their bodies bore signs of torture and rape. I kept my head up as I walked, forcing myself to see everything. I walked through the entire expanse of town, trying to remember something pleasant about each person I passed.

I stopped in the middle of town, looking around. There were too few bodies. Over half of the town was missing. Grimly, I started searching buildings, thinking the killers had run low on time or motivation. All of the town’s livestock was gone, most of the kitchen stores were empty and every scrap of tack or rope was gone from the barns, but there were no extra bodies. Hundreds of people were missing, men, women, and children. I wanted to hope they’d gotten away, but deep within me I didn’t think so.

I took a ladder and small hatchet from the barn nearest the inn and turned back, working my way slowly through town. I climbed each pole, cutting down the crucified bodies and dragging them into the nearest building. I laid the dead out on the floor or in beds if there was one. Once I had placed several bodies in a building I lit a fire in the hearth and spread it through each room, the light from the burning pyres letting me work through the night.

I finished my gruesome work a little before dawn, the flames filling the sky. The only building remaining in town was the smithy. Its thick stone walls and slate roof were too difficult to burn. As the sun rose that morning the sky was filled with great billowing plumes of black smoke spreading the smell of burning human flesh. I sat on a small hill next to some of the fields and watched the fire dance among the silhouetted skeletal cross beams. My whispered prayers lost against the fire’s endless roar.

 

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