Ghosts’ Prey, Chapter Eight, Part Three

Cole had already run off and fetched Pie in the time it took for the household to assemble in the courtyard of the great house. The increasing fire glow of the crescent was reflected in the great horse’s now wild eyes as much as it did in the grey eyes of the servant city-voln who stood in huddles with packs of their belongings, scarves wrapped about their mouths.  Cole laid a calming hand on her shoulder and Pie quietened for a moment, until the panic of the city ran through her again and she pounded it out through her hooves on the flagstones they all stood on. Metal on stone put all their teeth on edge, and Harl took a position at her other shoulder to charm her into calmness.

“Peace. Peace.” He murmured, wishing that there was someone who could charm his fear from him in the same way.

Cole joined him, nodding as he noted the change in the great mare’s temperament as the wyrd charm took effect. He clapped him hard on the shoulder, but whispered in his low voice, “That was well done, lad. We’ll need her speed before this night is out.”

The city-voln servants’ murmurs of distress calmed suddenly as Lady Tersia emerged from the house and they all turned to look at her. Holding onto Alisaya’s arm she looked frail for a moment, her plain dress and her thick veil making her seem like someone else entirely. But her voice, strong and clear, rang out to command her people into action.

“Gregoris. Is all set?”

“As best as it can be, my lady. Carts of the Ellinostrum finery are heading north already with a portion of your guard.” He frowned, his face already darkened by smears of ash that floated on the breeze and had caught on his sweat slicked brow. “But to send them separately…?”

Tersia nodded. “Our guard shall be our absent of worth.”

Harl nodded, admiring Tersia for abandoning her family’s silvered plates and the like in order that her people be safe. It was a brave plan, and one that would likely leave her destitute when Emphon might eventually be rebuilt. Or perhaps she might find a home in another city. But again, without wealth life would be harder for the house of Ellinostrum. Not being able to make out Tersia’s eyes behind her veil he looked instead to Alisaya who was now moving among the groupings of servants and reassuring them, checking on the children and making sure that they tied scarves about their mouths and noses. The other woman looked determined and fierce.

“We must go!” Cole’s voice rang over the ever growing noise of the hungry flames. A few servants looked to him and Harl and finally noticed the woods-voln among them. They chattered amongst themselves, panic and fear clear in their eyes.

“Scout Cole, you must lead the party onwards. Your knowledge of the world beyond the walls of the crescent is what will keep us safe!” Tersia said loudly, intending all in the courtyard to hear her.

Cole swore under his breath. “She means to place this all on me!”

“She’s trying to reassure them. Fire and a deadly woods-voln might be too much to bear. But a woods-voln escort outside of the city walls might be helpful.” Harl countered.

“Good Scout Cole?” Tersia asked with an edge of steel in her tone.

Cole gave in. “Aye then. Saddle up if you have a horse. Keep close if you don’t. Guards, form up at the front and the back of the column. I’ll ride at the front.”

He nodded to Harl and mounted Pie, reaching down to swing the younger woods-voln up behind him.

“There’s a handbow and darts on the packs. Think you can use it?” He called back to him as they started for the great gates being opened by two of Tersia’s men.

Harl released the strange sideways bow from its straps. He’d seen Cole use one enough times to know where the small arrow like darts fit and how to reload. Aiming from horseback would be difficult, but he hoped his woods-voln heritage might help at least a little with that.

He began to load it. “I can use it.”

Their convoy formed up as they streamed from the courtyard, and turned left, thankfully away from the southern crescents where fiery embers fell from raging fires in the hearts of the wooden buildings. However, to the north there were more people. Most were panicked and running from the city too, but a few were intent on enjoying the death throes of the city, or working to end its suffering even quicker. Harl saw leaping tricksters, makeshift torches in both hands, dancing fire onwards up into the third crescent. They ran into the merchant’s shops and left them in a gust of orange light. They clambered up the highest of stone walls to lob their deadly gifts over the top. Many of them were burnt and charred by their evil work, but they seemed not to care, their eyes full of a fire of madness that made them immune to the pain and the death around them. And on their lips was the name of Lios.

Cole and the guards struck down a few with their long slightly curved swords, taken just recently from the Ellinostrum armoury. But the sight of firebugs with their flame carrying hands or arms chopped off did little to deter the rest of the mob. And more were coming.

Cole stood up in Pie’s stirrups and looked back the convoy over Harl’s shoulder. “We’re too spread out and easily flanked! We need to go faster… Or…” Cole did not finish his thought but Harl understood. The two of them could leave the household behind and make their own way out of the city and away from the flames.

Pie skittered as a house down a street to their right half collapsed, breathing out a whoosh of sparks and embers in all directions. And running with the debris and dust came the firebugs. One was a gleeful prophet, his golden robes charred and falling to pieces. His livid red and hairless face would haunt Harl’s dreams later. But as the man charged towards them with a chair leg aflame in his hand Harl still managed to raise the handbow and shoot him dead in the chest. The other firebugs clambered over him and took up his flame, charging towards the Ellinostrum servants who scattered and screamed.

“Bastard gods damn it!” Cole swore and spat as one of the burnt men grabbed at Pie’s bridle and he had to slice into the man’s chest and spray his dark blood on the piebald mare’s hair. “There’s too many!”

Harl felt him jab his heels into Pie’s side and expected them to charge off up the street away from the chaos. But he yanked on Pie’s bridle and brought her swinging back around to the middle of the convoy, where Tersia and Alisaya were both mounted on a large black horse, the house guards about them trying to push back the mad citizens of Emphon. Gregoris lay dead, pulled from his horse to the street and then his head trampled by horses and men alike.

“Come!” Cole yelled and grabbed at the black horse’s bridle, pulling it into a trot that stamped over another firebug just fallen to a guard’s blade. The men still a-horse grabbed at the servants nearest to them, pulled them to their saddles, and urged their horses after their lady and the woods-voln scout. Those left turned and scattered, disappearing into the smoke and dust.

“The children!” Screamed Alisaya, her throat hoarse from the black and grey cloud about them.

Harl squinted into the maelstrom of people, horse, fire and smoke. Before Cole could stop him he slid from Pie’s back and ran back to where the convoy had halted. Most had taken the hands of the guards still a horse, or run after them. But a dark bundle caught his sharp woods-voln eyes. Two youngsters, covered over in ash and holding each other as they wept. Firebugs leapt over them as though they were just a pile of rags rather than two children clasping onto each other, screaming with fear.

Harl slid down next to them, spearing another firebug in his arm with a dart as he did. The creature screeched and stumbled off into the smoke, punching a hole in it that let through a glimpse of a building above them. Five stories of flame leering over them, it’s wooden eaten through by sprites of fire. A groan from its upper floors, the agony of the building trying to hold itself together, urged Harl onwards to grab the two young children and pull them against him. Muscles straining he retook his feet and was spun about as a party of button men raced past him on horseback, emerging and then disappearing into the smoke within heartbeats.

His lungs screamed at him as he began to walk back in the direction he thought the remains of the convoy lay. The children staggered against him at first, but they soon gave up on walking, dragging him down to his knees with their weight.

Cole saved him.

Pie emerged from the thickening smoke, her black and white piebald coat turned to pitch by the embers and Cole leant down from the saddle, grabbing at him and the children. Pie ‘whoomphed’ at the extra weight as they were all swung up, but still the great mare walked on, turning back to where footprints and hoof prints in the ash showed where the convoy had been. Cole urged her on and soon they were at the back of a mass of refugees trudging northwards; their own people and others who’d not heard the siren call of the fire.

Harl was leant against Cole’s back, still struggling to breathe, as they reached the wall of Emphon, its great gates forming a tunnel through its thickness. Both the fore and aft gate were open, giving the refugees the glimpse of a scrub road leading north to yellowed grasslands and farmlands. But before the end of the fire there were the guards, and they were refusing to let the people out. Harl peered over Cole’s shoulder at the shoving and cursing. Common merchant men, weak of arm and without weapons, were shoving against the city’s guardsmen and their polearms.

“What? Why?” Harl muttered, his voice lost in the riot of anger in front of them.

Before any answer came the growing riot was broken by a blackened torch flying into the melee, going head over end, bringing fire to dash against the head of a raging common man. His screams merged with others’ as more fire rained down on them. The guards, losing their composure, slashed into the crowd to push it back and give them space to dart back through the open gates.

“Now!” Cole yelled, rising up on Pie’s stirrups again and raising his long steel blade. “Now! Run!”

He shouted to the remains of their convoy among the crowds, but the hoard of refugees moved as one great beast and funnelled in after the guards, even as more fire spun out of the smoke and dashed against them. Two missiles smashed against Cole, a new target for his call to action, and fire licked up his fighting arm and the side of his face. Harl fought it with his bare hands, smashing the life out of it as Cole yelled. Pie panicked and pushed forward through the crowd, not caring who she crushed as she burst through the throng to race down the stone strewn road north.

The great mare eventually calmed as the enclosed city gave way to open space. Cole turned her back towards the fire pit that was Emphon and Harl looked about him to try to recognise the dark figures running from the city below them. Emphon was a pit of fire, the natural slope it was built on leading down and down into a greater maelstrom of red and orange flames. In the third crescent a few outlines of houses could be seen beyond the dark line of the city walls. In the second crescent there was nothing but the red glare. And the first crescent was a harbour full of burning ships, the reflecting sea water multiplying them.

“It’s gone.” Said Cole quietly, before nudging Pie forward and to the east, where the sun was just beginning to raise itself. Over there was a grouping of refugees, most on horseback and sharing their saddles with others. Harl recognised Tersia in her thick veil. And there was Alisaya still clenched to her back, her face smeared by ash except where tears had cut a furrow through the black. There were a few guards and servants with their families and as Cole pulled Pie alongside the remains of house Ellinostrum the shell shocked children behind Harl slid from her back and ran to family only they could recognise through the burns and dirt.

Tersia nodded as they drew close. “You have my thanks Scout Cole.” Her voice was hoarse and lower than it had been, sorrow and smoke tightening her throat.

“That’s sticking is it?” Cole said, his own voice crackling with pain. “And you expect me to guide you through the ‘wilds’?” He gestured towards the farm lands around them on the country above the remains of Emphon. As he did his hand took in the running and trudging refugees still making their way north out of the city. Most were lost in their own misery, dragging with them whatever they had saved, heading to wherever they could go.

“My brothers went this way. To skirt the feet of the mountains and then head east towards Bara.”

“Aint nothing in Bara for me and Harl.” Cole said bluntly. “Foot of the mountains means woods-voln lands too. Nothing there wanting us neither.”

“I need to return to Liosinium.” Said Alisaya hoarsely. “My soon to be husband would reward you if you helped me to the heart of the world…”

Cole laughed and the effort spun him into a coughing fit. “There’s no reward for us from Dren Rickarn.”

Alisaya’s shock at hearing her husband to be’s name on the lips of a woods-voln was overcome by an immense roar coming from Emphon below and behind them. Out of the ravaging flames came twisting black shadow shapes. The ghosts of Emphon rising up out of their fiery torment and screaming at the skies, dark shapes twisting above the burning streets. There were more there than Harl had ever suspected.

“Wherever we are going we should be getting there sooner rather than later.” Harl shouted over the cacophony.

The dark figures of refugees streaming past them doubled their pace and Cole whirled Pie around to make in the same direction; Tersia and the remains of her household following after.

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