**For added enjoyment, please read the first two blog entries I have posted of this Short Series. They can be found in the archives to the right of this story. Thank you.**
The old woman’s words rang in my ears day and night on the initial stage of our march westward.
The scarlet tents of the King’s Cavalry were warm and comfortable on the hard lands of Neharica. Rugged hills and tight knit forests blocked most of the approaches from horses and cannon. Only the light infantry could weave their way amongst the thickets and undergrowth. The men that dared to venture between those trunks said that the canopy was so thick and impenetrable that even the noon sun couldn’t pierce it. The wood reminded them more of caves than of a forest.
On the fourth day of the march we passed a small wooden sign that marked out an unremarkable village up ahead. Silla, I could just about make out even though the sign had nearly rotted away.
The woman hadn’t even told me the boy’s name, how did she expect me to find him? I gripped my thighs together and spurred my horse; I hadn’t bothered naming it, forward at a quicker pace. I passed the faces of the servants and slaves that heaved the large cannons at the rear of the train. I was fourth in command of artillery and seeing the shining metal and forged weapons of war always sent a chill up my spine. Ever since I had been a boy, on my family’s estate near the coast, I had loved watching things being destroyed.
Once, when I was no more than eight years old, I accompanied my father as he went to tear down a house he owned in the village just beyond our castle walls.
“They haven’t paid their rent in four moons,” he said in his gruff voice through the bronze hair that composed the beard that dominated from his nose down passed his neck. “What have I always told you?”
“Give a man an inch and he will demand you give three more,” I repeated the message that he had told me morning, noon and night every day for as far back as I could remember. “Why have you given this man this long?”
“It’s no man,” he said impatiently, “It’s time I taught you something else. Give a woman an inch and there is no limit to how much more she will claim.” He spat on the ground as he said it.
“Why did you give this woman an inch then, m’lord father?”
“Because her husband died for this village six months ago in a fire in the caves along the cliffs. She has three children and I’m no monster,” his pride bristled through his silver plated armour.
I watched as he sent his men into the house he claimed and they wrenched the woman and her children from within. They didn’t have time to grab anything and came out into the morning sun with only the clothes on their backs. In seconds, the small straw roofed hut – it was ridiculous to claim it as a house – was ablaze before the family my father had just evicted.
“Whatever survives the flames you can salvage,” he spoke to the woman, the fire burned in her eyes, as she no doubt thought of her fallen love. “But I want you out of this village by sun down or I’ll have you locked up in the Castle as a scullery maid.”
His words were harsh but I barely noticed them. I was too consumed with watching the increasingly violent flames ferociously lick and scorch everything they touched.
I was pulled from my memories by the sound of a cannon falling from a wagon.
“Fools,” I shouted at a boy no older than thirteen, as he desperately tried to stop the cannon rolling into a ditch. “Help him,” I commanded three strong lads near by.
“Do you know what that is?” I demanded of them as they huffed and heaved the black steel that was as long as any tree trunk yet twice as thick.
“No, sir,” the youngest boy spoke as the beads of sweat began to peer through his forehead’s pores. “That is a weapon of extreme volatility. It breathes fire better than a dragon and shoots further than any long bowman would dare to dream. Does that sound to you like something that should be treated so carelessly?”
“No, sir,” he squeaked as it was loaded back onto the wagon it had tumbled from.
“No, indeed,” I breathed as I galloped further ahead.
They called me The Knight of Flames to my face, and a sadistic arsonist behind my back. But I had not a care for the thoughts of my peers. For one, I was three times as cunning as any of them and for two; I was ten times as rich.
The barrel was of my own design. Long and thick it could handle even the hottest of hell fire and had a range greater than any other cannon ever had. Its primary use was for the King’s ships, as the flames would only burn and tease the walls of any stronghold worth capturing. But this was to be an open battle, and if they enemy thought we were riding dragons to war, most of them would no doubt scarper.
I could see the outer rim of the tiny village now. A plow sat in a half harvested field as the farmer was running down the length of his farm to his home. Everyone seemed to be running actually, every door was barred and every shop shut tight as we passed through the one main street that was wide enough, only for four men to walk a breast. I took the insult but knew that now was not the time to teach manners – especially not so close to battle.
As we marched through the hamlet of closed shutters I saw a handsome, yet dirty, young man standing by the side of a water well. He would be making sure that none of my men took a piss in it for fun as we passed through. Though what he would be able to do if one of my soldiers tried to fight his way to his own humor I did not know.
“What’s you name, man?” I asked as I pulled up beside him. He eyed the horse warily as he looked up at my face.
“Nothing that would befit a man of your stature, sir,” he said mockingly. His eyes shone with defiance and I very much wanted to belt the cocky bastard.
“Well, no name, would you pass on a message for me?” I feigned politeness.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, his eyes still insolent.
“Would you tell a boy, any boy that is from the City, to return to his mother. She’s a haggard, drunk whore but she asked me to tell her son to come home to her,” I finished.
“You pass on the messages of Streetwalkers?” he raised an eyebrow quizzically. Making fun of me yet again. “In any case, sir, no one in this village has been further away from it than that field you just passed. Her boy’s not here.”
“I go to war with a clean conscience then,” was all I said as I rode off once more.
“I never said I did not have name,” I thought I heard him mutter as I trotted off and he suddenly abandoned the well.