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Chapter Twelve

Rathland is No More

I turned my face toward the river, and gazed across its rough waters to the forest beyond. Through these darkened byways we would travel, from Painoct through to the borough of Rathland. I could see a low horizon of clouds resting upon the tree line as if it grew tired and heavy from carrying its burdensome load of rain. The clouds drifted slowly ahead of us beckoning us to pursue. And we did.

We crossed the river and pressed forward in our wagon surrounded by a guard of Sajon’s men. Father steered the team, this time with Madeline at his side. I sat in the back with Mother. The canopy of our wagon had been repaired and Mother carefully inspected the craftsmanship.

“They did well, don’t you think?” she commented. I nodded giving her the agreement she sought and smiled back. Sajon’s men rode next to the wagon, remaining silent and only speaking when hearkened by Sajon. For me it was quite unnerving; however, I did find comfort in the fact that Father paid it no mind. Instead, he charily tutored Madeline regarding the reins and harness of the team. Eventually, he gave them over (still keeping her under his watchful eye) and Madeline guided the horses alone.

There was a lot more room in the back of our wagon since most of our supplies had been destroyed. Father had given the bags and boxes for the Vasior to Sajon as payment for his generosity. Sajon refused to accept the materials but Father left them behind anyway, leaving plenty of space for me to sprawl out on the floor of the cart. It wasn’t long before the jostling motion lulled me to sleep. I pulled a portion of the woolen blanket (which I had once again used to wrap the sword and shield) over my shoulder and closed my eyes.

I dreamt while I slept. Though I lay comfortably near to Mother, in the restlessness of my mind I was far away and fitted in chains, being led by a dark figure atop a black horse. On the rider’s head was fixed a blackened crown, dirtied with corrosion.

If sadness were a place, something that could be touched by flesh and breathed with nostrils, a world that orbited a space void of all luminaries, then it was here. The sky above was black and the earth was scorched around me. I strained my eyes against the darkness to see the smoke billowing up from the flames. I could hear what sounded like the leathery undulation of massive wings swooping and swimming through this sea of rolling plumes that hovered just out of reach. In the distance I heard screams as if there were others being subjected to unspeakable agonies.

Flames sputtered up randomly from the charred remains of destruction as I stumbled past. I could see that much of the rubble looked to be buildings and trees, twisted and reduced to nothing from the intense heat. It appeared to be the remains of a great city brought low and made desolate in war. The sadness overwhelmed me and I became encumbered with despair. I looked for light amidst the darkness and saw only brief flashes of fire shooting into the calamitous breeze blowing from a direction I could not trace. I attempted to draw nearer to the dark figure on the horse, but as I clumsily toed toward him in my leg irons, the figure became more obscure by the drifting smoke and blackness. If I would have reached out for the horse’s tail, I’m sure the beast would have disappeared into the blackness completely. I was fearful at his presence but at the same time I found myself in need. I wanted to know the cause of the devastation that smoldered around me. I wanted to know the reason for my bondage. I wanted to meet eyes with this horseman to see if any hope existed in this dark place.

I dropped my head to wipe the sweat from my brow and noticed a bit of light coming from the soil beneath my feet. I kicked the dirt aside to see the same jeweled symbols I discovered on the walls that led me to discover the sword and shield below the Vasior back home. As it was in the tunnel below the woodshed and the great tree (that is, when I drew near to the stones containing these jeweled inscriptions) with each step, the symbols glowed with colors of molten ruby and topaz and emerald, too many colors to recall. I looked ahead to the horseman as he traversed the same path as me, yet he and his horse left no trace of light. As I walked, however, my feet continued to kick away the charcoaled dust revealing a path of glowing symbols with each step. No matter where I placed my foot, a mark appeared and became alive with light.

The dark horseman called out a screech and pulled the long chain connected to the irons around my wrists causing me to stumble forward. I looked up to see that he had noticed my actions. He pulled again and caused me to fall forward to the ground completely. The ground lit up where I landed with blinding intensity. The horseman wailed at the light penetrating the surrounding blackness. Turning his malefic beast, he charged toward me. I tried to rise to my feet and retreat, but fell back in my awkward chains. The ground around me began to wash out in bright, colorful symbols, stopping just a few paces away from the oncoming assault.

The horseman came to a sudden halt. His steed reared up and back giving a terrible scream. The symbols spread further. Row upon row they blazed around me and caused the horseman to retreat backward by step. Again and again the symbols took another row and the horse drew back, each time giving a frustrated shriek.

For a moment, the blazing symbols seemed to stop. The horseman wailed and coughed out growls of ferocious dissonance. He paced back and forth, sometimes encircling me completely but never stepping through the symbols. Suddenly and without warning, my chains began to glow red hot until each link popped and fell to the ground. At this, my shackles fell free to the ground and the symbols exploded out in all directions from where I was standing. The light ignited the horseman and his steed in a phosphorus burst of radiance that immediately reduced them to scattered ash and smoke, leaving only the crown. Above me, I heard the unearthly squall of the massive beast that hovered above as if it had been slain and was falling to the earth below. I was immediately shaken from my sleep. My distress caught Mother’s attention.

“Are you well, dear boy?” she asked and reached over to touch my forehead.

“Yes,” I said. “I was dreaming. It was nothing.” Of course, she could tell from my expression that I wasn’t being completely honest. But it wasn’t the expression alone that revealed my spirit. Mother had a way of knowing the heart of her son, and with this intuition, she moved across the floor of the wagon and lay next to me. She wrapped her arms around me from behind and pulled me close.

“Dearest Joshua,” she said while running her slender fingers through my hair, “you are trembling.” She was right, for the dream had caused me to be uneasy and with it I was indeed shaken. It was, however, that the trembling didn’t remain for long. Mother’s soothing voice and embrace comforted me and I found myself at peace.

“I am well, Mother,” I responded and held her hand. I was being honest. Though the dream had caused me grief, I recalled the remaining scenes of light as it burst out in all directions and I found myself at ease. But my ease came to an abrupt end.

“Come with me!” I heard Sajon command to his men. “The rest of you remain with the Caretaker and his family.” Mother and I both moved to the head of the wagon to see them scattering off ahead of us with great speed.

“What is it, Father?” Mother asked. Before Mother could finish her question, I had already begun to rise to my feet at the incredible sight.

“The sky before us tells a tale of great sorrow,” he said and stretched his arm forth to point. Just above the horizon and beyond the forest line, heavy clouds of smoke were rising, heaving high into the mottled sky and stretching out for what appeared to be miles. Madeline chimed before Father could speak.

“It is Rathland,” she said. “Rathland is no more.” Father turned to her and took her chin in his hand. Though he turned her face toward him, her eyes remained fixed upon the skyline.

“How do you know this, child?”

“I have seen it.”

“What is it that you are saying? Where have you seen it?”

Turning her eyes and meeting with his, she said,“I have seen it in my dreams, Father.”

“What did you see?”

“I saw a great horseman. He was with me in a city that had been destroyed by fire.”

“Did you see the horseman’s face?”

“No, for I awoke in great fear before it was revealed.”

“When did you experience this, Madeline?” Father seemed to pry for specifics.

“It was last night after the feast in Painoct,” she said. “I dreamt of this while I lay sleeping.”

I retreated to the rear of the wagon and hung myself lazily over the edge of the gate in contemplation. Madeline’s words reflected that which I had received only moments ago. I remained still for a moment and then called forward to Father.

“She speaks the truth,” I said and gathered back to the front of the wagon. “Rathland is gone. I’ve seen it as well.”

It wasn’t long before Sajon and his men returned and confirmed our prediction. Emerging slowly from the shadows of the pine trees that lined the path, Sajon and his men held a great look of desperation.

“What is it?!” Father shouted. Sajon looked up giving Father a blank stare. “What did you see?” he called again.

“It’s gone,” Sajon said as if breathless.

“What did you see, Sajon?!” Apparently Father had not heard his soft utterance.

“It’s gone, Caretaker,” Sajon said as if he’d been struck in the stomach. “Rathland is no more.”

“What do you mean it is no more?!” Father asked sharply.

“It is gone!” Sajon yelled. “Burned to the ground!”

“The entire city?”

“It is gone, Caretaker. The city is gone.