HE IS staggering through the smoke, hardly able to breathe, barely alive.
The smoke is everywhere. Swathes and swathes of it, pressing in on him, crowding him out. Obscuring the sky above, fuzzing out the ground below. Smarting in his eyes.
Catching in his throat. Corroding his nostrils. Looking for ways to snuff him out.
Hot. Pungent. Filled with the smell of burning wood. And the reek of charred flesh.
Something tells him he should never have been here. That he should have made off when he had the chance to. But that doesn’t matter now. He is here, in the smoke. So he pushes on, gagging and choking, blind in the smother of grey-white. Blind, but not deaf.
A woman’s scream, shrill and fraught with fear, rips through the smoke. But it is silenced almost immediately by another sound, softer but more ominous – the ka-chunk of a battle-axe coming in contact with flesh and bone.
The acrid fumes get the better of him and he sinks to his knees, his skin grazing on the flinty gravel underneath. He sways uncertainly for a moment, one part of him wanting to give in to the smoke’s embrace. But there’s another, more defiant part that wants to go on. This is the part that had wanted to know – needed to know – what was happening; that had led him into the fire and smoke and prevented him from fleeing.
Snorting and coughing, he wills himself to crawl forward on all fours.
The screams have been dying down around him slowly. Even the tumult of running feet has receded, though he senses someone issuing commands far away. He presses on, dragging himself over ground that is slick with blood in places. There is an instance where his groping hand grabs something cold and fleshy – a man’s arm, severed from the shoulder down, the blood still glutinous and congealing around the open mangle of tissue and bone. His stomach heaves and pitches, but fighting the nausea back, he pushes on.
He emerges from the smoke onto a broad, muddy pathway. The pathway isn’t entirely free of smoke, but it is a big improvement on the place he has just exited. Rising on wobbly legs, he stands in the middle of the road, bent at the waist, gulping in large mouthfuls of air. Every breath is a struggle, his stomach knotted tight with anxiety. Tears run freely down his cheeks.
Taking slow, shallow breaths, he wipes his watering eyes, rubs the spittle and snot off his mouth and chin, and surveys his surroundings.
The road is deserted, curving away to his left into a wood. To his right, it rises toward an embankment shrouded in shifting wisps of smoke. From beyond the embankment comes a faded murmur of voices.
He pauses, listening. There is a sudden change in the direction of the wind, and he hears more agonized screaming from the direction of the embankment.
Clinging to the shoulder of the pathway, just outside the reach of the pall of smoke, he steals toward the embankment.
Almost at the top, he drops to a crouch, then goes down on his stomach, slithering the rest of the way to peek cautiously over the lip into the crater-like depression beneath.
Through the drifts of smoke, he sees half a dozen buildings in this small, basin-shaped valley. Save for one, all are in flames. Soldiers wielding spears are herding four manacled figures into the one untouched building – a granary. Though he can’t make them out clearly, three of the captives are women, wailing and pleading for mercy. The fourth, a man, appears to have lost the faculty of speech altogether.
Closer to the embankment, a man sits astride a horse, observing the soldiers. The horseman has his back to the embankment, his face concealed from view. But there is something vaguely familiar about his build, the way he sits on his saddle, the slight slouch of his left shoulder…
The soldiers shove their terrified prisoners into the granary, slamming the door shut behind them, locking them in. At a sign from the horseman, one soldier takes a burning torch and sets the granary alight.
Lying atop the embankment, watching the granary catch fire and burn, his throat parched with fear, he no longer needs to know what is happening.
He has seen enough. It is time to make an escape before he is detected.
A sudden shout echoes behind him, followed by more shouts and curses, and the pounding of feet on earth.
It is too late. He has already been found. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Too petrified to move, capture and death now inevitable, he stares wild-eyed into the depression as the heavy thud of approaching feet draws near. He stares at the horseman, a phantom of a figure in the softly swirling smoke.
Drawn by the shouts and cries, the horseman is turning his head, glancing over his shoulder, in the direction of the embankment. And again, something about the man – the fall of his jet-black locks, the shape of the uncovered head, the set of the shoulders, casual and self-assured – stirs a memory, remote and elusive, yet tantalizing in its persistence.
He has to know who the rider is.
With a rising chill of anticipation, he waits for the horseman to turn around and face him…