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The sound was deafening. It exploded through the town, a crash of thunder that sounded so close it might have come from inside my own home. Leaving the drawers of my desk wide open and dropping an armful of writing supplies that I had been about to stow in my bag, I rushed to the door.
My hand froze on the handle. I could hear shouts and screams outside, and the panicked whinnying of horses; my fingers trembled on the cold brass, refusing to do as they were told. I was suddenly aware of a thick lump of fear in my belly; it had been growing there for some time, I think, but I had been ignoring it, telling myself that we would be gone before an attack ever came.
I waited there with my hand on the door, listening, and after a short time, the cries outside died down. I heard muffled commands being given, but nothing like what I imagined a battle would sound like. I took a deep breath to steady myself and opened the door.
In the darkness outside, it was impossible not to notice the fire before anything else. The town was bathed in angry light and smoke billowed thick and grey around the roof of the Prince’s Rest. The flames were spreading rapidly; a slight breeze had sprung up, and as I watched, the fire rode it across the roof of the Rest and leapt to the cottage that sat beside the inn. The horses still tied at the inn were thrashing about in panic as Bryndine’s women tried to free them and lead them away, though it looked like most had already been rescued.
Bryndine and her soldiers were trying to maintain order: a number of them had formed a line from the well to the inn and were passing buckets of water along it to try to quench the flames; others sought to keep the terrified villagers inside their homes, packing to leave. There were more of them in the village than before—some of those who had been put on guard must have returned to help fight the fire.
“Leave the tavern,” I heard Bryndine call, and I saw her huge form, outlined in smoke, amidst the line of soldiers at the well. As always, Sylla was at her side. “It’s already lost. Form lines to those buildings, there and there.” She pointed at the homes to either side of the tavern. “Douse the roofs, keep them wet. We need to stop it from spreading.” They immediately set to work, following her commands with trained efficiency. Whatever I thought of the woman, she clearly had a firm command of her company.
Iayn Gerynson rushed by my door, and I grabbed his huge, hairy arm to stop him.
“What happened?” I demanded, fear causing my voice to reach an embarrassingly high pitch.
“Lightning, Scriber. Bolt of lightning, right out of the sky. My ears are still ringin’.”
“That’s impossible.” I turned my eyes upwards; the sky was completely clear, not a cloud in sight. “Lightning doesn’t strike out of a cloudless sky.”
“It’s that damn woman, they said she was cursed!” Gerynson freed his arm from my grip easily and moved away, heading in the direction of his home. I knew he had spoken out of superstition and ignorance, but the terrible dread in my gut only intensified.
I stood just outside my door, watching as the Prince’s Rest burned to the ground. Josia’s small form was visible, rushing back and forth between the well and her home, desperately trying to save the inn even though the soldiers had given it up. I could hear her sobs from where I stood. I felt a twinge of pity for her—Josia’s relentless cheerfulness had always bothered me, but of all the people in Waymark, she was probably the only one I didn’t truly dislike. She didn’t deserve this. I took a step towards her, though I don’t know what I intended to do; as Bryndine had declared, the Rest was clearly a lost cause.
It was then that I heard it, a low whisper coming from behind. My hands clenched convulsively and I whirled on my heel, peering into the thin aisle of darkness between my small cottage and the next. But there was nothing there; nothing but long, wavering shadows cast by the flames that were now at my back. Yet the whisper persisted.
“Who’s there?” I asked, my voice barely audible. There was no answer, but I thought I might have seen something moving in the darkness beyond the homes that lined the east side of the road. It was difficult to tell; the smoke from the fire made my eyes water, and the constant shifting of the shadows created the illusion of motion where there was none. And still the sound of whispering drifted past my ears
“We are the Burnt,” the whispers said, one phrase among hundreds of others, whispered by hundreds of voices speaking at once. A wave of anger and pain flowed over me, and I stumbled back in fear. Something caught underneath my foot and I fell heavily to the ground, the impact knocking the breath from my lungs. I knew those whispers. It was impossible; it was nonsense; but I had dreamed of those voices.
There was something there, in the dark. I could see forms moving in the shadows now; I was certain of it. I tried to scramble backwards, but my body was frozen. Most of the guardswomen were fighting the fire, and there was no one to sound the alert—those figures in the darkness would fall upon Waymark without warning.
“They’re coming,” I tried to say, but it came out as a croak, unheard amid the commotion in the village, and the figures in the shadows were getting closer.
“They’re coming.” Not loud enough, but better; a real voice issued from my mouth. The shadowy forms were nearly at the line of homes now; they would be upon the village in moments.
“They’re coming!” I screamed. And that was loud enough. I wrenched my arm up, pointing into the dark. The ringing of some twenty weapons being drawn at once echoed in my ears.
“I see them!” a woman yelled; one of Bryndine’s, a voice I did not recognize.
“With me! Protect the villagers!” I heard Bryndine command. “For the Promise!”
One of the dark forms lurched forward into a sprint, charging directly at me; the others followed closely behind, swarming into Waymark. As the first man entered the light, I almost thought I knew him—he looked like Josia’s husband Hareld, and for a moment I hoped that these were not the rebels at all. But the man brandished a heavy axe in his hand, and he was closing on me swiftly.
I could not move. My mind screamed for my body to stand and run, but all I could do was stare in horror at the man who was moments from ending my life. I squeezed my eyes closed, waiting for the blow to land.
Metal crashed on metal, and my eyes snapped open again. Bryndine Errynson towered before me, the Burner’s axe recoiling from her heavy round shield. She did not flinch, though her shield arm was badly wounded, and I could hardly believe she was not crying out in pain. She had said she might need to use the arm, though I had told her it would be foolish—I thanked the Mother and the Father that she had not listened.
She swung her sword in a vicious riposte that tore almost entirely through the man’s neck. I flinched, expecting to be spattered with hot blood, but none came. Though his neck was yawned open grotesquely, the man barely bled at all as he slumped to the ground.
“Find cover, Scriber!” Bryndine barked over her shoulder, sprinting towards the oncoming attackers. They poured through the gaps between homes now, outnumbering Bryndine’s women three to one or worse. Yet they made almost no sound; no battle cries, no grunts of pain or effort. I could still hear the whispers in my head, but their mouths did not move.
I did not seek cover. My body still refused all commands as I stared at the near-headless man at my feet. The lack of blood from his wound somehow made it worse; it was unnatural, against everything I had ever learned. I remembered where the whispers had come from in my dream: hundreds of men and women, naked and bearing awful wounds that did not bleed. Finally a slow, thick flow of dark red blood—nearly black—oozed from the gaping hole at the end of the man’s neck. A warm, sticky pool began to spread, seeping under my hands and beneath the seat of my pants, and I almost cried with relief.
The man’s head had fallen at an awkward angle, pulling against the thin flap of skin and muscle that held it to the body, and with a sudden motion, it flopped onto its side. Dead, empty eyes seemed to stare directly at me. There was no doubt now—it was the face of Hareld Kellen. A single thought raced through my mind: that explains why he was late coming home. With a hysterical giggle, I vomited the contents of my stomach onto the blood-soaked ground.
I sank into a terrified trance then, watching the fight unfold as though it were a performance acted out with marionettes. None if it felt real. The noises of battle seemed muffled, indistinct; I could see weapons clanging together and people screaming, but in my ears there was only a dull muddle of sound. All I could hear clearly were the whispers from my dream: “All will burn… We will have vengeance…”
The villagers fled into the homes on the other side of the road while Bryndine and her twenty or so women held back the attackers. The women were badly outnumbered, but none of them had fallen, while the Burners had taken heavy losses already—to my untrained eye, it seemed the rebels fought clumsily and without coordination.
I saw a slender redheaded woman of Bryndine’s company darting between foes, distracting one for a companion then lunging at another; a squat, stocky blond woman barrelling into a group of three men like a barbarian warrior and cleaving them down with her axe; Tenille’s sword flashing in the firelight as she expertly disarmed her foe. Bryndine and Sylla fought side by side, and I was unsurprised to see that Sylla wielded her longsword with a terrifying ferocity, striking with blinding speed as she guarded her Captain’s flank. I know little enough about combat, but it was clear to see that these women were extremely skilled.
Bryndine Errynson put the rest of them to shame. She wielded in one hand a sword that most could only have held with two, swinging it in heavy arcs that cleaved through armor and flesh and bone as easily as if she were chopping rotted wood. Her shield was a wonder to watch too, despite her wounded arm—the big steel disc moved with incredible precision and speed, deflecting blows that I scarcely even saw coming. She wasted no effort on useless motion, simply broke an opponent’s attack on her shield, waited for an opening, and then cut her foe down with a single stroke. I had thought Sylla the more dangerous of the two, but where she often needed to land three or four decisive blows to fell her target, Bryndine rarely needed more than one.
Several men of Waymark waded into the fray, refusing to keep to their homes despite Bryndine shouting for them to find safety. Unarmored and armed only with makeshift weapons, they soon paid the price for their mistake. Iayn Gerynson chopped into a man’s side with a heavy shovel, but as he was pulling it free, another of the rebels rammed a sword into his back. Iayn fell to his knees. He tried to stand, but the man he had struck—seemingly unhindered by the deep gouge in his side—caved in the big tanner’s head with a spiked mace. Other men fell as well, but I recognized few of them through the smoke, and then the rest were retreating in terror while Bryndine and her women guarded their retreat.
I could only watch as it happened, as men I had known for years were cut down. The terror growing in my chest locked me in place, a terror more pure than anything I had ever known. The voices in my head grew louder, wilder. They were angry and in pain, and so I was too, and it only added to my fear. But at least I could claim one small grace: I was not the focus of their attention.
And then I felt that change.
It was like the slow turning of a great invisible eye; an unseen force gradually becoming aware of my presence. I had been caught eavesdropping, hearing something I was not meant to hear. The macabre chant focused on me, every word resounding as clearly as ringing crystal. “Pain,” the voices chanted. “Fire. Death.” I realized with dread what was coming.
“BURN,” the voices ordered. And I did.
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