he flock of children crowded around the blind storyteller, peppering him with one question after another. Their parents stood behind them, indulgent smiles on their faces as they watched their sons and daughters’ faces light up with joy and wonder as old Sam’uel regaled them with tales of the high and mighty, the low and infamous, and the wicked yet alluring. They had listened to the same tales as youngsters at the feet of Sam’uel, when his hair was as black as coal and he still had most of his teeth.
His mane was now more salt than pepper and he had but five of his teeth left, yet he could still spin a tale that would entrance the hearts of young and old. No one could sit in his presence and not be beguiled by the words that fell from his lips in a soft, deep timbre. That he had returned to the village after six years was a cause for celebration. The villagers had not had many visitors since the war began, being too close to the border, and they had feared that Sam’uel had died. But now that he was here, the headman had called for a celebration and the entire village had set out a feast, with their finest casks of ale cracked open and relished by all.
After the eating, drinking and merry-making, the time had come for a story or two. Sam’uel sat on a log covered in bearskin to make him just a little more comfortable, the fire crackled nearby, casting half his face in shadow, the other in an orange glow. He puffed on his pipe for a few minutes, gathering his thoughts and blessing the village wise woman, who had immediately seen to his aching piles and had provided him with a sweet herb to add to his usual fare. The smoke went in, giving him a most peaceful moment, and then was released into the world, floating up and away.
Sam’uel grunted, cleared his throat, swept out one hand, silencing the little ones and then began:
“Long ago, before the mighty Duke Usifan won the regard of a king and the love of a nation, he was Grand Marshal, serving under his father, the Good Duke. For many years he toiled and sweated under the finest minds in the land, proving himself worthy of being his father’s heir. From an early age, he had studied law, philosophy, art, the sciences and the martial arts that were to give him his acclaim when he ascended to the throne in Dilmunia.
His life, though enchanted, was not without stress or cares, as the kingdom was eternally beset by the priests of the fallen Daemon, who sought to revive their master by means both fair and foul.”
“Who is Daemon?” a breathless voice said in a lisp. A child, not more than three. Its mother let out a gasp and clasped her hands to her mouth, momentarily shocked by her child’s boldness.
Sam’uel laughed and said, “Why, he’s only the Qin of Fire, the first of his kind to die. When he did succumb in the first Godswar, why, the crazed Qin let loose his element over all of Elyria, sending forth his mighty flames, hoping to cover all the land and destroy all life.”
The blind storyteller heard the little gasps and shudders and smiled to himself. No matter how many times he told this story, those listening would always have the same reaction. He took another puff of his pipe and continued.
“Now, the other Qin couldn’t just stand by and watch their beloved Elyria disappear into smoke and ash—could they? Think of poor Terra, watching the soil, trees, mountains and rocks melting. Oceanus would have been enraged, watching the waters boil and the fish, the whales and the octopus cook. So, they did what they had to do.”
“What?” another voice cried.
Sam’uel leaned forward, so his face was wreathed in shadow and let out a mighty breath of smoke, his craggy face giving him the appearance of a dragon. He had the satisfaction of hearing little screams and many gasps as he whispered in a crackly voice, “They tore the land into three parts, seeking to stop the flames. Yes, Elyria was once much, much larger than it is now. Why, it was three times as large as the land we know.”
“What happened to the rest of it?”
“Well, the part that Daemon’s flames had scorched was pulled away from the rest, becoming what we know as Karcion.”
“I don’t want to go there,” a little boy shouted out.
Laughs tinged with relief greeted his fervent pronouncement.
“And so you shan’t, little one. Unless you are very, very wicked and don’t eat your vegetables.”
A snort sounded in the back of the crowd—the little one’s father perhaps. “Alum, is that you?” Sam’uel asked.
“It is,” a gruff voice replied.
“And is this your son?” the storyteller asked, pointing in the direction of the childish voice.
“Ah, I believe I might have said something similar to you thirty years ago?”
“You said the exact same thing,” Alum guffawed.
Sam’uel waited for the laughter to die down before spreading his hands in an expression of helplessness, “Like father, like son, eh?”
“Ay, that’s my boy,” Alum said proudly.
Sam’uel could have sworn he heard the little one say in a half-whisper, “But dada doesn’t eat his vegetables.” Covering his laugh with another inhalation of his pipe, he leaned back and continued.
“Now, the other two parts are the Elyria that we know today and Haven, the old capital of Elyria. It is said that that mighty city is still has magic, though of course we will never know,” Sam’uel said with a sigh. The wise woman heard it and her heart ached for the old storyteller. A realm with magic would have given the man his sight back, which had been taken so cruelly away when he was just a child. She, more than anyone present, knew what the loss of his sight had meant to Sam’uel, what it had cost him. For it was to her that he had revealed his last memory of sight. She appeared to listen as Sam’uel finished the story of the Burning and went on into his favourite story, that of Usifan and the Grand Flock.
Turning her head, she stared into the fire, her thoughts embarking on a much darker path. She saw, in the sticks of wood that fed the fire, a fuel of a very different sort. One that the priests of Daemon preferred to use……..
It had happened sixty-four years ago.
The screams had long since died, leaving only the roaring flames to reach into the sky, seeking, ever seeking, their master. A throng of individuals, cloaked in red robes, their faces covered in masks of beaten gold, stood around the stake, their hands clasped as they chanted in unison:
Said the high priest of the falled Daemon:
Drain the soul and feed the flame
Repeated after him his believers:
Nar- Nuri .. Nar- Nirath
Raise the flame Raise the flame
Nar- Nuri .. Nar- Nirath
There was the sound of a sudden rush, as the priests found themselves encircled by mounted knights, their weapons drawn, the horses stamping their feet in impatience. The high priest spat in fury as he saw it was the Seneschal of the Grand Flock himself, leading his men. With no time to wonder how the priests of Daemon had been compromised, the high priest shrieked to his followers to fight the blasted heathen. “Feed the flames, my brethren,” he cried as he launched himself at the nearest knight, skewering his shoulder in the process.
It took the mounted men at arms less than three minutes to subdue the priests and lash them together, tossing them in their bound state into oxen carts, where they would be brought back to Dilmunia to face judgment for their evil deeds. Yet even those three minutes were not enough. They had, once again, arrived too late to save the victims, this time a farmer’s family, though they had finally captured the high priest and his men in the murderous act.
The young Duke in training, Mahmold the first, came to the Seneschal’s side, both men looking at the stake with expressions of disgust and hatred on their faces.
“The smell—I can never get accustomed to it. It permeates everything. I very much doubt any crops grown here would be palatable for the next fifty years. The animals themselves look to be in terror—do you hear them? I swear, I almost believe it were the souls of those enwreathed in flames who have infested the livestock.”
The Seneschal turned to the young royal, a look of wonderment on his face. “It is not like you to be so fanciful. What is the cause of this?”
“I don’t know—only that it feels as though there is a message here.”
“But there is, though it is not meant for us, but for Daemon. The priests believe that a part of his soul survived here, on Elyria. And if they could feed the flames with enough blood that the soul will regenerate and they would have their Qin returned to them.”
“Yes Seneschal, I am aware of their devilish beliefs. No, the message I refer to comes not from them. How many were in this family?”
The Seneschal looked back at the stake which had been doused in water and at the burnt corpses. There were two, adult in size. One was obviously female, as the shape of her abdomen showed. She would have been heavily pregnant, soon to deliver. The warrior shuddered afresh as the sound of his men retching reached him.
“Could that have been the first child?” he asked, as Mahmold began to shout orders to the men to search the shack and barns.
The men tore into the structures, desperation on their faces. One saw something that made his blood run cold and he ordered the others to be silent. A trail of blood led from the front of the door to a mat on the floor, where it disappeared. Lifting the mat revealed the truth, it led to an underground hole. Most farmers had one in their humble abodes, fleeing to it when there were raiders. This family had not reached it in time, or had been discovered.
A little boy lay at the bottom of the pit, his arms covering his head. He was weeping softly, his body shaking in terror. The warrior called to him and the child shrieked. “Hush now,” the man said softly. “You are safe.”
The child sat up and dropped his arms. The gathered men groaned in horror: his eyes had been torn out. Blood flowed from the pits as the boy turned his head from side to side.
“Who are you?” he asked with a quiver in his voice.
“We are the Order of the Grand Flock and we have come to save you.”
“My mama and dada?” he asked, as a pair of strong arms picked him up and carried him outside to a waiting horse and rider. The smell of burnt barbecue was stronger here than inside.
“I’m sorry my son. We were too late,” the man said with a break in his voice. “But you are with us now and we will take care of you.”
Another voice, this one older and gruffer said, “Who did this to you, young man?”
“Those scary men in the red robes. They tied mama and dada to the pole and then put my eyes out, saying I wouldn’t be able to identify them later.”
“Why didn’t they tie him to the stake as well?” the boy heard one whisper to another.
“They said that the power would be stronger the longer the screams lasted. That the flames shortened the screams. So they left me alive.” The young boy began to shake in terror once more and was violently ill. The rider behind him held him firmly until he had finished and then a cup was passed to him. “Drink,” a soft voice said. He did so, noting the sweetness of the liquid. He began to feel very sleepy and was no longer frightened, even when a cloth was wrapped around his head where his eyes had once been.
“What is your name?” A voice asked just before he reached the dreamworld.
“Sam’uel,” he whispered.
End of part I…