I still see it in my nightmares, but how can one not? The first time death's stench wraps around them, a coil of dark tendrils bent to suffocate even the living with its unrelenting grip. That realization that even the bravest and most stalwart are still human and will perish just like anyone else. The sights and sounds – even the smells – linger to this day as the defining moment of my young, impressionable life.
The Christian Richardson who emerged from the pyre was not the same one going in.
Father never enjoyed staying in one town for too long. For the majority of my formative years, we moved from one place to the next as though he was being chased by something and hopeful it would never catch us. My brother Jeffrey had been born somewhere outside of London. I sprang from my mother's womb en route from Dover to Exeter. A fever took my mother not far from where I was born and Jeffrey left us during one of our trips along the Western coast of England. It was during a longer visit to a town we had stayed in before that whatever pursued Father finally found him.
I still remember the final moments we ever spent together in this world.
Tree branches smacked against the shutters of the windows while the beginnings of a storm blew through the village. The few gusts of wind which managed their way into our room sent flickers of candlelight dancing across the walls. I sighed, curled under a blanket, peeling the skin from an apple I had collected during an afternoon walk while disinterested in it at the same time. The dagger in my hand was my favorite, though, and my hands were even more nervous when left idle.
What little silence remained in the room broke when my father launched into a coughing spell. I glanced up immediately, a frown tugging at the corners of my mouth while I watched Richard Hardi lift a tattered rag to his mouth and wipe away whatever had come up in the effort. It was the reason we had been forced to stay in the village instead of continuing on to our next destination. My father had fallen ill and I, with all the wisdom of a twelve year old, had suggested he finally take the time to rest. His unwillingness to sit still became evident in the way he huffed, shifting the book in his hands as he settled back into place. While the action would have normally spurred me to grin, I continued staring at him with worry.
The years had started taking their toll. His rich and vibrant voice had turned gravelly; his laugh no longer as boisterous as it once had been. His hands had started to gnarl and his knees buckled as he walked. He squinted at the pages in the volume he held, stubbornly refusing to use the eyeglasses he had purchased after we encountered another vendor fresh from London. I cleared my throat louder than normal and raised an eyebrow at him until he sighed.
He lowered the book. His eyes met mine as he slammed it shut and set it aside. My brow relaxed when I saw the look of unease buried in his gaze, my frown deepening until it spurred him to smile. "Christian, at some point, you are going to have to stop concerning yourself with me," he said.
I looked away. The knife's blade cut further into the piece of fruit I held. "I wish you wouldn't say things like that," I muttered.
"I say them because you're too serious for being so young." His smile broadened when I glanced toward him again. "I remember when I was twelve, I was still chasing chickens and hanging from tree branches."
"There are some boys my age who sit on town councils."
"That sort of responsibility is for the nobles and peasants. Not for a troupe of traveling vagabonds."
"You just don't like that you're sick." A faint smirk touched the corners of my mouth. I finally cut a piece out of the apple and tossed it to my father.
He caught it without any effort, popping it into his mouth and pausing to chew while watching me slice a portion for myself. "You and those knives –" He swallowed before continuing. "– We should put you to whittling. I bet you'd make us a small fortune with how often you're cutting or carving at something."
When I failed to respond, he rose to a seated position, folding his hands on his lap while visibly fighting back another coughing fit. "Well, out with it. What're you thinking about?"
"How do you know I'm thinking about anything?"
"Because that's what you do when you're thinking and there's hardly a moment when you're not."
I shrugged. "I can't be worried about you?"
"Oh, I think I know why you're worried." He sighed, sobering with the effort and unable to hold back the hacking any longer. I set the apple aside, rising to my feet and walking over to him while wiping the knife's blade in instinct. Slipping the dagger into a sheath I kept strapped to my thigh, I sat beside him and felt my heart jump when he pulled the rag away to reveal a faint crimson stain on the cloth. He balled it up and buried it inside his blanket, shaking his head as he did. "Don't say it. I know it's bad. But I've been through worse, I promise."
"Worse at a younger age, Father."
"Are you staying here to remind me how old I am?"
My father grinned at me again, but I failed to reciprocate the smile. Whatever troubles my eyes read of, it was enough to prompt my father's facial expression to relax. I sighed. "I don't want to go and live with Jeffrey."
"I know you don't. But you are reaching the age where you should be trying to cut your own path in life."
"What if I want to take up your business?"
He laughed. For the faintest moment, a spark of mirth surfaced in the effort, this one proving to be contagious. "Christian, as dearly and deeply as I love you, I can say with complete confidence that you're not a salesman. A traveler, maybe, and I don't see you tied down to a farm the same way your brother is, but if I didn't know better, I'd say you were training to be a sellsword."
It was my turn to laugh. He chuckled along with me, the light returning to his eyes. "Maybe I'd prefer to be a blacksmith or an apothecary."
"You lie as well as your mother did, which isn't very well at all." My father sighed, dispelling a small amount of his amusement. The invocation of my mother had the same effect as it always had, making the air around us heavier all-of-a-sudden. Not for the first time, I wished I could remember her. "She warned I'd put a weapon in your hands the moment you could hold one and she was right. Your brother hated fencing, but you kept getting into the bows and blades like you had something to prove to the world."
I ignored the statement, still focused on Mother. "Do you think she watches us from Heaven?"
"I think if Heaven's as nice of a place as the clergy paints it, they're too busy with better things." A brief pause lay in the space between us, waiting for one of us to pick up the conversation and continue. My father struggled to get up and finally ambled to a stand. "You're not usually this macabre."
"I'm sorry." The frown resurfaced. I lifted my feet onto my father's cot and wrapped both arms around my knees. "The innkeeper kept carrying on about bad omens when I talked to him last and with you being sick and all…" I trailed off.
Father sighed. "It has you worried that has something to do with me."
I glanced up at him, but failed to respond. He nodded burying his hands beneath the folds of his cloak as another gust of wind kicked the candlelight around again. "What does he think is responsible for the bad omens?" he asked.
"He said something about souls being restless. Didn't know that was even possible."
"He's a superstitious lot, I'll grant him that." I felt his gaze settle on me. Mine remained stubbornly fixed on the floor. "So, souls are restless, the weather's poor, and your father's health isn't as good as it could be. And that has you worried, am I right so far?" My silence was all the assent he needed to continue.
"You know this world has seasons, son. Life is a series of changes and that's the way it always will be, until God decides otherwise."
"If there is a heaven or hell, how can souls be anything?"
Father laughed. "I think Old John subscribes to the idea of ghosts. That's what I'm gathering he means." I finally engaged his eyes with mine while wishing I had not abandoned the apple and my knife so quickly. "When the superstitious ones think souls are restless, they mean the ghosts are rattling their chains a little more noisily than usual. That's what he meant by bad omens. They usually don't get uneasy unless something terrible is going to happen."
I raised an eyebrow. "Do you believe in ghosts?"
"I believe in something. I'm not sure if Old John or Rome has the better offer."
"Why does he think people become ghosts?"
My father sighed, sobering again as his attention strayed to the window. "Unfinished business, I guess. Something more than a fire left lit with a kettle still cooking stew, though."
"Something like love?" I asked, lowering my feet back onto the floor.
"Might be possible, but that's never how I hear it." When he continued staring at the window, I furrowed my brow, especially when I saw the look in his eyes turn distant. His tone of voice lowered as he continued. "It isn't love that stirs a spirit so much that it can't seek peace, son. Love doesn't form ghosts. Vengeance does."
While the words themselves made an impact, the way he motioned toward the window caught my interest more immediately. I opened my mouth to talk, but Father lifted a hand as though knowing I was about to comment on his behavior. "Enough of this for now," he said. When he turned to face me again, I saw a practiced smile where a ready grin should have been. "I think I'm getting some of my appetite back. Maybe you can ask Old John what his wife has cooking. I'm going to lie down and rest until you get back."
Everything within me screamed skepticism, but my father burst into a series of coughs again and knocked me from doubt back into concern. I stood and wrapped an arm around him, leading him back to his cot and helping to drape his blanket over him again. He smiled weakly and asked me to bring the candlelight closer, which I obliged without argument. Somehow, I found myself in the downstairs tavern with a few coins in hand, waiting for the innkeeper's wife to finish preparing the evening's dinner while studying the wood carvings arranged around the main hall.
The first rule of traveling, my father often said, was to avoid staring at the locals and keep to yourself where men are drinking heavily. As a lad who still looked up to most adults, I took his words to heart and focused more on figuring out how one engraved such intricate details into something like wood. The concept had me so lost in thought, I jumped when a man brushed up beside me and raised an eyebrow as I betrayed that cardinal rule in favor of glancing up at him. The first thing I saw was the look on his face.
The emblem, I saw as an afterthought.
His gaze bore a hunger I had never seen before, his eyes scanning for Old John, but seeing something more than the pot-bellied innkeeper when he turned his attention to the stranger. I could not venture to guess what, but the way he fidgeted with his cloak called to attention not merely the symbol stitched into the cloth, but the sword attached to his hip. My focus already attuned to detail, it burned the image of a flame surrounded by some strange circular icon I could not place into my mind in the scant seconds I had to study it. That was when I felt the weight of his stare settle on me.
"Begging your pardon, sir," I said before looking away. He grunted once at me, training his eyes back to Old John and leaving me to shift uncomfortably in the stool poised by the counter. I smelled the stew coupled with the scent of logs burning in the fireplace, trying in vain to dispel the chill in the air.
"… Richard Hardi was his name…"
My eyes shot back up to the man, then to the portly innkeeper. Old John furrowed his brow as I felt my heart leap into my throat. "What business do you have with Richard Hardi?" the innkeeper asked.
He flicked a quick glance at me. The split-second look we exchanged bore the message that I was not to move or talk. I bristled, my back straightening, but remained still otherwise. The stranger, on the other hand, leaned over the counter, producing a gold coin from one of his pockets. "Word says he travels through here often. There isn't any chance he's been through here recently, is there?"
John frowned. He looked at the gold coin derisively. "I'll tell you he travels through here, because any other drunken fool in here could tell you that. It isn't my place to speak another man's business otherwise."
"Fair enough." The man backed away from the counter and I held my breath on instinct. My mind was too preoccupied with racing through contingency plans, wondering how swiftly we could pack our things and slip out the back of the inn given my father's health. When Old John coughed, I thought little of it, but when I noticed the stranger had not budged, I looked up, expecting to see a stalemate between the two men.
What I saw, however, brought the first genuine pang of fear I'd ever known. Both of John's hands hit the counter, clutching onto the lacquered wood while his eyes widened with panic. "John?!" I said, my attention shooting to the armed man and watching with horror as he smirked at the innkeeper, as still as a statue with both palms pointed heavenward. I stood instinctively, not certain if I should focus more on the man or John and powerless to do little more than look from one to the other.
The man kept his sights set on John, but addressed me with his words. "Better run, boy. Or you'll be next."
John collapsed to the ground and I gasped in horror. The armed stranger spun around, ignoring me and motioning with his hands as several men dressed similarly entered the inn. I stepped backward, feeling along the counter for its edge and nearly crashing into an adjacent table in my retreat. The men seated there barked malcontent at me, but I turned and clamored for the stairs, daring to put my back to the invasion in favor of one mission above any other.
I had to get to my father before they did.
Running up the stairs, I rounded a corner and dashed into the room, seeing my father standing by my things and tossing them into a bag. Quickly, I slammed the door shut. "Father, we need to…"
"I know, Christian." He continued cramming as many articles of clothing into the sack as he could and dashed over to a trunk stowed at the foot of my cot. I furrowed my brow, the sense of urgency not lost on me, but my father's methodical movements a curiosity at the same time. He tossed several items aside and lifted one thing up, a cylindrical object encrusted with jewels I had seen a million times before without understanding its importance. He slid it into the sack and tightened the strings to shut it tight. "Take this."
"Take…" I was cut off by my father, who tossed the bag at me and forced me to catch it. Slinging it over my shoulder, I walked over to where he stood and blinked, confused, when he thrust one of his sheathed swords into my hands. "Father, what's happening?"
"Get out of here. Quickly. Slip out the window before any of them see you." The look in my father's eyes turned deadly serious. He clutched me by my shoulders, leaning close to place a kiss on my forehead before pulling away. One hand lifted to cup my chin for a brief moment. "Run all night. Sleep in the barns. Tie yourself to a tree branch if you have to; I packed rope and a blanket. Find your brother, but make sure you're not followed."
"Father?" My voice sounded pitiful and weak as I spoke. Tears stung in my eyes. "What's going on? Please, I don't understand…"
"We all have a past, my son. One day you'll understand this." He looked up, toward the door, when the sound of footfalls hit the top of the stairs. His Adam's apple bobbed when he swallowed, a wheeze accompanying the next breath he exhaled. "Out the window with you right now. I demand it."
My limbs shook as I tried to strap the sword to my side and shamble toward the window. The shutters kicked open once they were loosed, a strong gust of wind entering the room and extinguishing two of the candles before either one could be moved. The night looked pitch black with neither a star, nor the moon visible in the horizon and yet, he expected me to be able to find my way out of the village. I glanced back at him, pleading with my eyes.
His mouth opened, but a loud bang at the door interrupted him. We both jumped, and Father's cough returned with vigor as the wooden barrier splintered open and one of the cloaked men emerged into the room. This man different than the one who killed Old John - without laying a hand on him, I added mentally – he still paused and smiled the unholiest of grins when his eyes and my father's met. "You've been a hard man to find," he said, his voice containing an accent I had never heard before.
"You would've done well not to try," my father said. The light returned to his eyes briefly, his hands inside his cloak emerging with one clutching a blade he immediately thrust forward. It plunged into the man, forcing him to stumble backward. This seemed to be all the reassurance my father needed to turn his back on our attacker. "Now, Christian. Out the window!"
I climbed onto the ledge, following the instruction on instinct until the realization I would be leaving him behind hit me. "Father, what about you?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I can't. You have to. Please, son, it's too important that you…" Another cough assailed him. He struggled to regroup, doubled over, a thin strand of red-tinged spit hanging from his mouth that he wiped with his sleeve as his breaths came in wheezes. I motioned to jump back down, but froze when the man my father had stabbed recovered, the dagger still in his stomach when he drew his sword. The events which followed played in slow motion.
My mind cried out, a scream of warning stuck in my throat I struggled to produce while knowing it was too late. The armed man thrust his weapon forward, running my father through until the blade protruded from his stomach, coated in blood. A gasp escaped my lips and the tears already stinging at my eyes filled to brimming when the man pulled his sword away. Father fell to his knees, looking up at me with his final plea latent in his gaze. Get out of here. Run. Hide. Find your brother swiftly.
His eyes rolled back. My father collapsed onto the floor and failed to move.
Finally, the sound stopped up in my throat sprang past my lips as an agonizing wail.
The armed man grimaced as our eyes met, my vision blurred until I lifted my sleeve to wipe the moisture from my face. I watched his gaze flick to the sack, confused and distraught when he charged forward and swiped at me with his free hand. The precarious position I maintained worked to my advantage when I flailed back at him and lost my balance in the process. He hit me hard enough for me to sail backward, unable to grab hold of anything to stop my hasty decent.
The sensation of flight became the feel of falling too fast for me to regroup. My legs kicked, arms grasping for anything and failing to claim purchase on anything but thin air. I toppled around once and hit the ground below in a painful thud, my knees unable to bear the brunt of impact and sending me flat onto my backside. The first dizzying sight my eyes took hold of was my father's killer, leaning out the window to look down at me.
"Hardi's urchin escaped!" he called out. "Someone get out there and get him."
I scrambled to a stand and limped until my legs could support my weight again. The world around me spun so violently, I couldn't figure out whether to find somewhere to hide or huddle into a corner and throw up until someone or something came to put me out of my misery. "Get to Jeffrey," I managed, more tears falling and my face contorting as I tried to hold back the torrent which wanted to follow. It had not yet registered why I was crying or what in the hell was going on. For all I knew, I would wake to discover the entire thing a bad dream.
The nightmare demanded I run. So, I ran.
I didn't look back. Not even when I heard the pounding of footsteps on the dirt path behind me. Not even when I heard the whinny of horses and cut into the woods by the road, hitting at branches and feeling a few of them cut into me along the way. I emerged by a stream and swam across it, into deeper woods and a night which grew darker with each step I took. I tripped over a tree root and collapsed. My knees stung anew and I bit my lip against more weeping, clamoring to my feet and willing myself past the edge of the woods. I came upon a country road and jumped into the cart of a passing wagon, not even of the mind to thank some higher power for the stroke of serendipity.
Somehow, I made it away. And days later, dirty and bloodied from the excursion, I found my way to my brother Jeffrey's farm. From that day forth, I knew exactly why the superstitious believed in souls which refused to rest. I might have still belonged to the living, but from that point forward the word vengeance had been burned into the fiber of my soul.
As had the emblem emblazoned on a cloak. A circle with a flame in the center.