How is this possible?” Theido shook his head in disbelief. His eyes scanned the black plain where the village of Halidom had been.
“There must be something left, though it does not look promising.” Ronsard motioned to his knights, and the party started down the gentle hill above the flat valley of Halidom. Each man’s face wore a look of grim wonder, and each man’s mind echoed Theido’s thought: how was it possible that an entire village could be annihilated so completely?
There was nothing left of Halidom but a blackened spot on the earth. Not a timber stood; not a stone was left standing upon another. The entire area where the town had been was now a razed jumble of destruction.
“Even the birds have finished with it,” observed Ronsard as they approached the perimeter of the scorched circle.
“Not quite. Look over there.” Theido gazed a short distance away. Ronsard followed his look and saw a large, flapping buzzard settle himself on the remnant of a tree trunk. Three scolding ravens flew up from where they had been busily feeding on the ground.
“Let us see what draws their interest.” Ronsard turned to his men. “Spread out and search the ashes for any signs of who this enemy might be.” Then he and Theido reined their horses toward the place where the buzzard was now hopping along the length of burned trunk. The bird was eyeing something on the ground below. What it was could not be determined.
They moved through the midst of the destroyed village. Scattered among the ashes were the charred remains of the everyday life of the simple villagers: an iron tripod with its battered pot nearby, a small stone statue of a household god, the blackened shards of a wine jug. And here and there lay the remains of hapless villagers: a sooty skull staring vacantly skywards; a long, clean length of shinbone; the curved hull of a rib cage rising from the desolation.
The vulture took disgruntled flight at the approach of the horses and lifted itself slowly into the sky to circle high overhead with the ravens.
“By the gods!” cried Theido, drawing near the spot.
“What . . . ?” began Ronsard. Then he, too, saw what Theido had seen. “By Orphe—no!”
Theido had already thrown himself from his mount and was tugging at the lashings of his saddle for his water skin. Ronsard, entranced by the sight before him, dismounted slowly and stepped closer. He placed a hand on the hilt of his sword and was drawing the blade when Theido touched his arm. “No need for that, I think. He is beyond pain, beyond suffering.”
As Theido spoke, the object of their attention—a badly burned torso of a body—jerked convulsively, and a yellow eye rolled toward them. Upon seeing them, the mangled half-corpse uttered a pitiful moan. Theido knelt gently down beside the carcass and offered his water skin.
“Peace, friend. Here is water for your parched tongue.” Theido was on his knees, gently bringing the tip of the skin within reach of the cracked mouth. He allowed a few drops of water to seep out and dampen the man’s lips. The black tongue poked out and moistened itself with the water. The cracked eyelids fluttered, and the dry eyeballs rolled in their sockets. Miraculously, the water seemed to take effect, and the eyes cleared with recognition.
“How is this poor creature still alive?” wondered Ronsard, bending close to Theido’s ear.
“I do not know.” The knight paused to let some more water trickle out. “But perhaps he may tell us something of what happened here before Heoth claims him.”
“Can you speak, friend? We are king’s men, and your answers would do your king service.”
Ronsard turned away from the stench that assailed his nostrils. The man was burned horribly. Great areas of his chest and arms were charred black; the lower part of his body had been crushed by the tree when it fell. He lay in a shallow depression in the ground, half-twisted on his side. His hair had been burned off one side of his head; on the other, a few dark strands still clung to the bare scalp to trail in the breeze.
The birds had fed on the man where he lay and had laid open a fair portion of his shoulder and back. White bone could be seen gleaming from the raw, red wounds.
“Let him die in peace,” said Ronsard, turning back. His voice was tight and choked.
“No-o-o.” The voice was little more than a whisper on the wind. Both men looked down into the eyes and saw a glimmer that held them. The man was trying to speak.
“Easy. We hear you. Let me come close to listen.” Theido leaned forward and placed his ear directly above the man’s lips. He spoke softly and with a serenity Ronsard found hard to believe. “Tell us what happened, if you can.”
The words formed themselves in the air, though Ronsard could not see how; and, however faint, they could be understood. “I have been waiting for someone to come,” the man whispered. His voice was a dry rasp—the sound of a withered leaf blown over the sand. “Waiting . . . waiting . . .”
“We are here now; your vigil is over. Can you tell us anything?”
“All killed . . . All destroyed . . . burned . . . everything.”
“Yes, we see. Who did it? Do you know?”
“Ahh”—a long, raking gasp—“the destroyer god . . . ten feet tall . . . fire spewed from his mouth . . . everything destroyed.”
“Just the god alone?”
The words were growing ever fainter and more tenuous. “N-no . . . many soldiers . . . they say . . .” The man coughed violently, and the torso was racked with another convulsion.
“What did they say?”
“Ahh . . .”
“Tell me, and then it is over. The god will take you to your rest.”
“Beware . . . Nin the Destroyer . . . Ahh-hhh.”
The yellowed eyes grew cloudy and still. There was not enough breath left to make a last gasp, but Ronsard fancied he felt the last remnant of life flee the broken form that had held it so long against its will.
Theido stood slowly. “Let us bury this brave one at once.”
The birds squawked overhead as if they knew that they would be denied their meal.
When the pathetic corpse had been buried with as much kindness as the knights could render, Ronsard and Theido went a little apart to talk. “Have you seen enough, my friend?” asked Ronsard, leaning on his sword.
“Here—yes. But I would like a look at this enemy that strikes helpless villages and kills the defenseless.”
“That we shall have ere long, I believe. But now is not the time for it. We should return at once with word of what we have seen. When next we ride, it will be with a thousand at our backs.”
“I think you may be right . . .” Theido paused; he seemed to regard something on the far horizon.
“What is it, Theido? Does something trouble you yet?”
Theido drew a long breath, and when he turned back to Ronsard, a strange light shone in his eyes. He turned again to the horizon, and his voice sounded far away. A shadow moved across the valley.
“I am afraid, Ronsard.”
“You, afraid? How little you know yourself, sir!”
“Don’t you feel it?” His look was quick and sharp. “No? I wonder . . .”
“Speak your mind, Theido. You have a foreboding, and I would know what it is. Out with it! Let there be nothing between us, my friend.”
“Very well—you are right, of course. But it is not so easily put into words. Just now, as we were talking, I had a feeling that we were riding down a narrow path whose end lay in darkness, and darkness was falling all around. That is all, just that. But it made me fearful.”
Ronsard studied his friend carefully, and at last spoke in a firm but quiet voice. “We were together, you and I? Well, come what may, that is enough for me. It will be a dark path indeed that daunts these two knights.
“But come, this is an evil place. Let us return at once to Askelon for the king’s counsel. I tell you, we have been away too long already.”
“Let us return, then. I have seen enough.” Theido squared his shoulders and clapped Ronsard on the back with his hand. “But I wish we had seen this mysterious enemy and knew somewhat of his strength in numbers. I would feel better if we could see his face.”
“So would I, but perhaps that time is not far hence. We may yet encounter him before reaching Askelon—though we are ill prepared for battle.”
“I have no wish to engage an unknown enemy—only to search him out. All the more since this one seems too fantastic to believe.”
They had been walking back to their horses, and upon reaching them, Ronsard swung himself up and called to his knights, “Be mounted, men! We are away for Askelon!”
The knights took their saddles and began riding back up the hill the way they had come. But this time they gave the charred circle on the plain a wide berth.
Theido stood for a moment beside his horse, gazing far away. Behind him he heard Ronsard call; he shrugged, mounted his big, black palfrey, and hurried to catch the others. As he gained the crest of the hill, the late-afternoon sun caught him full in the face, and he felt his melancholy flow away in the flood of golden warmth that washed over him. He spurred his horse forward and did not look back.