Nausea rose from Dale’s stomach as his son stepped back from the practice dummy. His old sword, pitted and chipped from too many years of neglect, embedded into the straw figure the boy had built for practice. Memories surged of dead men and broken banners, of blood and screams that still woke him in the dark night. Swords were no skill for a farmer, he thought as his boy bent over, hands on knees and panting from his exertion.
“That’s enough, Jason,” Dale said as he stalked across the stable yard. “Riders.”
Jason looked where his father pointed. Plumes of dust rose into the air like a comet tail behind men on horseback. Light glinted off burnished armor while banners flapping in the breeze screamed loudly that these men were soldiers, men of arms and war. The equal pace of their mounts, the exactness of formation, and their implacable momentum all said that there would be no mercy from these men, no quarter for the enemy, nor forgiveness for the foe.
“Da’?” Jason asked.
“Shut the barn door. And make sure the trough is filled for the horses,” Dale ordered. He hoped all the soldiers needed was rest and water, maybe some food before they went on their way, though from the rumors he doubted it.
Jason pushed the heavy doors of the barn closed. It wasn’t a big barn, but it was one of the few solidly built ones in the area. During the storm seasons, the closer neighbors would bring livestock over to keep them safe. As the doors closed, the wind died, and the soldiers arrived.
Pawing, and snorting, black steeds ferried the soldiers into the barnyard, circling the farmer and his son like sharks in bloody water. The black and purple banners attached to upraised pikes of the rear-guard proclaimed that these soldiers were of Lord Towne. One man, more decorated than the others, broke from the pack of cohorts, squinting at Jason through his left eye. Where his right eye should have been was nothing but a ragged scar that carried over the bridge of his hooked nose.
“Dismount!” the leader of the armored men shouted. The grinding of metal and the creak of saddle leather were loud as men swung down from their steeds.
Jason watched as their leader approached his father, his black and purple cloak swaying idly behind him. The soldier smiled, an expression that seemed foreign and cold on the scarred face, and began to speak. Dale’s back stiffened at the soldier’s words, though Jason couldn’t hear what was said. As he spoke, the soldier hand made a fist over the pommel of his sword, fingers flexing and grasping.
“Dad,” Jason called to his father. He'd seen guards before. They were at almost all the festival days and celebrations, and they were always with the Lord’s bursar when farmers paid their taxes at the end of the year, but these men were not guards. Where the bursar guards were stern, these men were cold and dispassionate. The kind of men that looked forward to war, to stabbing an enemy then step over their body to do it again.
“Dad,” Jason called again, fear rising like bile to choke him.
The scar-faced soldier turned his head toward Jason and smiled. This time, the smile was neither cold nor foreign. This time the smile was predatory. The soldier raised one gloved hand into the air, fingers straight, and brought his arm down with all the graced of a woodcutter’s axe.
Like an ant mound kicked by a willful child, men fanned out toward the house and barn, intent on their duty. The loud crack of the front door of Jason’s home matched only by the shriek of his younger sister inside.
“No!” Dale yelled. Turning to sprint toward his home and child.
Three steps was as far as Dale got before a red flower bloomed from his chest, the steel from the soldier’s sword as its stamen.
“Dad!” The roar burst from Jason as he broke into a run for his father caused the scar- faced soldier to look up, still holding the handle of the sword that extended from his father’s back. Without pausing, the soldier pulled the sword free and turned to face the son.
Jason continued to roar as he barreled into the soldier, sending them both tumbling to the ground. Jason’s first punch landed on the man’s armor, sending a tremor up the boy’s arm that reached all the way to his spine. His second was more accurate, catching the scar-faced man on the chin. As his third was about to land, the soldier slammed the handle of his sword into Jason’s temple, knocking him back and leaving him dazed. Using the sword, the soldier levered himself up.
“You’re dead, boy,” the soldier growled with no mercy in his voice. A metal shod foot lashed out at Jason, taking him in the side and knocking the breath from his lungs. Wheezing, trying to catch his breath, Jason rolling to his side and crashing into his practice dummy, avoided the soldier's second strike and watched him slip in the dirt. The sounds of his sister’s screams and laughter of soldiers came in at a distant second to the deafening thump of his heartbeat.
With the soldier down, Jason saw his chance. Pulling his father's sword from the practice dummy, he started pounding away at the soldier, trying to get through his armor. There was no grace in his sword fight, no measured cadence. Each swing rang hollow as it crashed into armor, pushing the soldier back and sending ringing jolts up Jason's arms until the blade slid between the armor's shoulder plates and bit into flesh. The soldier bellowed and spun, taking the sword with him. Unarmed and stunned that he'd hurt his father's murderer, Jason watched as the soldier staggered back, falling over a pile of logs stacked for the coming winter.
Looking around, Jason saw the carnage the soldiers brought. The first thing that caught his attention was the smoke beginning to trickle out from the front door of his home. Jason sprinted for the opening, barely taking notice of either the solders that were mounting their horses or of what they were taking with them.
"Emily!" Jason called out as he shot through the front door. "Emily!"
The table and chairs had been overturned. The meager collection of books that his father had collected were strewn across the main room, mixing with the contents of shelves and cabinets. Jason's father had taught him and his sister to read from those books and had treated them with as much love as he had his own children.
"Emily! Emily!" Jason shouted, listening for any response and only hearing the crackle of the fire as it continued its climb up the far wall. She has to be here.
Not seeing her in the main room, Jason ran for the back, past the broken kitchen furniture overturned bookcase with its crooked shelf. The fire had reached the thatch and was spreading faster, creating a black cloud of smoke that was beginning to make Jason's lungs burn and eyes water. The door to his room was wide open, showing nothing but a mess like the one in the main room. His father's door was still shut. Jason didn't slow down and plowed into it with his shoulder, stumbling into the room.
The bed had been turned on its side, the chest at the foot of it open and its contents thrown around the room. The wardrobe had been ransacked as well, pushed over and hacked at with an axe. Nothing had been left untouched by the soldiers.
The smoke was getting thicker and traveling throughout the house as the fire grew. Some of the overhead timbers were beginning to creak and pop. Jason could see the soldiers through the window, riding away from the burning building, growing smaller as they left the ruin they had created.
"Emily," Jason choked out. The smoke was getting too thick to breathe through as it darkened the room. Embers began cascading down like the beginning of a glowing rain shower threatening to become a storm. Jason fell to his knees, trying to get below the smoke and crawled out of the room. Only one place left to look for his sister, the spare room his father had built so she could have the privacy a young girl needed.
On his hands and knees, Jason made his way through the curling smoke to her door. Pushing it open, Jason could just make out the bed as a beam, engulfed in flame and blazing brightly, dropped from the ceiling, barring his way further into the room. The sheets on the bed were dancing with flame and the blue dress Emily had been wearing that morning lay crumpled on the floor, caught by the fire that was taking the rest of the room. Before Jason could to take one step into the room, flames surged creating a wall of fire that made searching impossible.
Jason turned and ran for the front door, ignoring the flames that were taking his home. He made it half way into the yard before falling to his knees. He could hear the house behind him caving in, giving way to the inferno and sending smoke roiling into the air. In front of him lay his father, blood pooled around him and soaking into the parched ground.
Jason stood, his world spinning faster and faster as he looked around his home, once familiar in its consistency, now alien in its destruction. He turned and stopped. On the hill above his farm Jason could make out a figure, sunlight glinting off armor and sitting atop a black stallion, watching the farm. A scream exploded from Jason, tearing from his lungs and heart, aimed at the figure like an arrow from the bow of an archer. The horse pranced from sound and the rider turned him and disappeared over the rise of the hill.