He stood nearly a foot taller, and looked to be a decade older. I’d never seen him before, but from that day forth, I would never forget what he looked like. Chestnut-colored hair and cold, gray eyes. A full beard, which covered his lips, and a distinct facial profile. The stranger walked up beside me and set his sights on the innkeeper, but the name he spoke made my blood run cold.
“Have you heard of a man named Richard Hardi?”
There I sat, all of fourteen years to this man’s twenty-four? Twenty-five? It was hard to gage solely by looking up at him. He still bore the benefit of youth, but the gravity of his gaze suggested someone much older than he appeared. His question had me frozen with shock, forcing me to stare despite the fact that I knew I should run, hide; do something other than sit at the bar gawking at him so conspicuously. Father often had people calling after him, but they were townspeople. Merchants. Customers.
The sigil emblazoned on the man’s cloak suggested he might be anything but.
“Lad?” The innkeeper cleared his throat just as the stranger’s attention shifted to me. My sights jumped to the obese, aged man standing in front of us just in time for me to avoid being caught staring. I swallowed hard and the innkeeper – known to us as Old John – narrowed his eyes, placing a cup filled with ale on the counter. “Don’t you think you should take this on up to your father?” he asked. “Let me conduct my business without staring at the customers?”
“Yes, sir,” I said on automatic, taking the drink and motioning away with it. It hadn’t been what I came for – Father sent me downstairs for food and even that had been an obvious distraction. It suddenly felt like the world was playing a game it’d never bothered teaching me, using practiced steps without sharing the tune. I walked slowly from the bar, clutching onto the mug as though it might slip from my hands.
Fire crackled in the hearth. Other men gathered at tables conducted private conversations, sparing me the occasional glance when I shuffled past. Oil lamps lit around the room added extra illumination and yet, neither the fireplace, nor the sconces, did anything to dispel the chill that had settled in the air. Halfway to the single flight of stairs leading to the upstairs rooms and I chose that moment to turn my head and glance over my shoulder. What I saw defied all understanding.
Old John and the stranger stared at each other, but something was wrong about the expression on the innkeeper’s face. His eyes looked panicked, his face turning red like something had lodged in his throat. The cloaked man’s lips curled in a twisted grin, his gloved palm pointed upward. He lifted it higher and the invisible assault against John intensified, forcing a gasp from his mouth until a sickening crunch preceded him toppling to the ground. The mug fell from my hands, its contents splashing across the floor.
As the stranger turned, I saw that symbol on his cloak again – a semi-circle with a single flame bursting forth from within.
I also noticed his attention had shifted to me.
“Father,” I murmured beneath my breath. My feet scampered for the stairs, hand taking hold of the banister while I started the dash of my life. In my periphery, I noticed the man starting for the stairs and paled when his voice echoed through the dining hall.
“Clarence, he’s here,” he said. “Get in and help.”
A cold burst of air followed the front door swinging ajar. I shut my eyes for the final stairs and opened them only when turning for the long corridor leading to our room. Rounding another corner, I dashed into the room and slammed the door shut, struggling to catch my breath. “Father…” I managed, still facing the door. “We need to…”
“I know, Christian.”
Turning at the evocation of my name, I felt my stomach sink when I finally regarded my father. He had opened one trunk and started tossing some of the contents into a bag. Slowly walking toward him, I felt my limbs start to shake. “Father, what’re you doing?”
“There isn’t the time, son.” He continued cramming as many articles of clothing into the sack as he could and dashed over to the other trunk – stowed at the foot of my cot – and flung it open. 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 case made of bronze I had seen a million times before without understanding its importance. He slid it into the sack and tightened the strings to shut it. “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 my eyes. “What’s going on? Please, I don’t understand…”
“We all have a past, my son. One day you’ll understand this.” Our eyes met and in the two beats which passed, I saw an expression cross my father’s face I’d never seen before. His hand drifted to a medallion he’d worn around his neck for as long as I could remember. Before another thought could be spared, he lifted it over his head and secured it around my neck. “Don’t ever take this off. It’ll keep you safe.”
I shook my head, fighting a losing battle against the urge to cry. “What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me, son.” The sound of footfalls interrupted a sympathetic grin which had started to bloom. His gaze shot to the door, his Adam’s apple bobbing when he swallowed and 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 shambled toward the window. The shutters kicked open once their tether was loosened, a strong gust of wind entering the room and extinguishing two of the candles which had kept the room lit only seconds before. 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 coughed 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 reminded myself – 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 hadn’t ever heard before.
“You would’ve done well not to try,” my father said. The light which his recent illness had stolen returned to his eyes briefly, one hand reaching inside his cloak and emerging with a blade. He plunged the knife 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. “Father, what about you?” I asked, repeating the question.
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 whine 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, however, I knew exactly why the superstitious believed in spirits that refused to rest. I might have still belonged to the living, but 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.