I woke, lost and confused. I was lying in a large bed, the straw mattress well used and comfortable. My whole body ached, but my blistered hands were wrapped in fresh bandages and someone had pulled off my boots and tended to my blistered feet. It was a large, one room, stone cabin with a loft and a cauldron bubbling lightly over the fire. The air reeked of smoke and ash, but outside a rich baritone voice echoed achingly from the hills, singing a slow funeral dirge. The beauty of the song brought tears to my eyes. It seemed like years since I’d heard the voice of another person and I prayed for nothing more than that the song would go on, filling my mind and ringing in my ears.
The song was coming from the front side of the cabin, but out back I could hear the soft steady grating of a grind wheel and the sounds of a man working. I blinked up at the ceiling, finally recognizing the village smithy. I sat up, swinging my legs off the side of the bed and rising painfully to my feet before walking to the door.
Four people stood on the lawn outside. Three of them had their heads bowed and hands clasped, but my attention was drawn to the fourth. He stood slightly apart and in front of the others, his head raised proudly. He wore a rich dark blue vest embroidered with the deep green vines that marked him as a holy acolyte. His hands spread wide, seeming to encompass the smoldering ruins in front of him as the ancient song poured out of his being. I sank to my knees, tears filling my eyes again as they locked on the lean man and the warm embers of my village beyond him.
My tears stopped with the song and I watched the acolyte walk forward, disappearing from view behind the smoking ruins. I closed my eyes, savoring the last view of him for several seconds before opening them again.
The three remaining people turned around, pausing as they saw me. They exchanged a quick glance and a few whispered words before the man and smaller woman turned, walking around the side of the house, leaving me staring at the remaining woman.
She was around my age, tall and lean, wearing buckskin leggings and mid-length boots below a muslin tunic and green half-jacket laced with the soft black embroidered insignia of the King’s Messengers. Rich red hair hung in a braid down her back and a long curved knife sat comfortably at her side. Her eyes swept over me, glimmering strangely as she memorized every feature, storing it in case it became useful.
I watched her eyes, shivering inwardly. What a Messenger experienced they never forgot. Their memories and senses had been enhanced through magic and ritual. Some stories even claimed the capacity to forget had been burned from their minds when they were just children. A King’s Messenger could recall every detail of an event so clearly even a novice painter could reproduce it, and many of them were magically enhanced mimics. Once this woman heard my voice, she would be able to reproduce it at will. Some could even twist their bodies, mimicking people’s faces or reproducing a person’s natural scent with enough accuracy to bait dogs.
Her boots were worn and her outfit well-travelled. The bone handle of her long knife was sweat stained from constant and frequent use and she walked with an easy, land eating stride. She smiled at me softly, sinking to an easy crouch just outside of arm’s reach, watching me for another moment before leaning forward slightly and breathing deep, long and slow through her nose, collecting my scent. She let the breath out easily, watching me with concern. “Are you okay?”
I blinked at her, suddenly at a loss. Most people considered magic to be the province of nature and the New Gods, but this woman had willingly submerged herself in it. She had let herself be changed into something new; something that most people no longer even considered human. She spoke softly, stretching out a hand. “My name is Tara. I’m a Messenger for the King. Is this your town? Can you tell me what happened here?”
I swallowed hard, taking her outstretched hand and nodding as she helped me to my feet. ”The other people with me are Landsmen.” She said. “We’re tracking the people that did this. Can you tell me your name?”
Her presence was warm and welcoming. “My name is Cary. Uhm… Carytas Empyrean and this… this used to be my village. The…The night it was attacked I was out riding… I saw who did it… But that was three or four days ago. When I came back here yesterday…” My voice trailed off.
She looked wearily at the smoldering remains and nodded. “It was burning.”
“No.” I said, dropping my eyes. “I did that. The people were all dead… crucified. I cut them down, took them into their homes and burned it down. It was all I could think to do.”
She stared at me through wide eyes, her gaze falling to my bandaged hands. “Are you hungry?” She asked suddenly. “The food should be about done.”