The towers were all burning, their thick walls of stone. Burning and crumbling. Strong and proud battlements, subtle and delicate spires, they were all perishing. Below them the city of Maurur was dying as well in smoke and fire. The dwellings of the people those towers had been erected to protect.
I admit there were tears in my eyes as everything I had thought so powerful, so eternal, so beyond the reach of others, was reduced to nothing more than a huge bonfire obscuring the morning sun with its smoke of destruction. My tears fell, and I mouthed words of rage and defiance that were utterly impotent. The great city of Maurur was no more. My parents, my brothers, and sisters were no more. My friends, my lover Monah, all gone.
The Knights of the Wolf were no more. We had all been obliterated as the soldiers of the Iron Hammer had overwhelmed us. All of us, that is, except me. I had been stationed at the Crooked Bridge, which separated the great Keep from the city proper. The Crooked Bridge, with its old wooden, creaky planks, and the finely wrought cast-iron railings. On the city side there had been a park where beautiful girls had used to go walking or they would sit in the grass eat, and we had smiled at them and straightened our backs and put out our chests.
That was all history now. When the fire had begun to rain from the sky, and the mighty Gate had been blown open by sorcery, I had unsheathed my sword. Together we had waited, me and my five Brother Knights. Six tall men, clad in the colors of the Wolf: Black cloaks, gray pants, and white shirts, partly hidden by our leather armor. The guardians of the last Bridge of the last Keep of the last stronghold of the Knights of the Wolf.
After some dreadful minutes of waiting, while we had listened to and watched the slaughter of the city, anxiously praying that the call to arms in the Keep would be heeded in time. Six pairs of hands that, despite years of training, had been shaking with fear as they had tried to hold their long pikes steady. Now and then a hand would go to the hilt of their long sword, as if to check that it was still there. Waiting.
Then they had come howling out of the ruin of the city, the hideous creatures I had only heard of in tales. First and foremost the massive frames of filthy, mindless giants of different shapes and hues, but all huge and all had wielded clubs or enormous war axes. There had been blood-crazed men, there had been the ominous, hateful Gray Champions, there had been small, vicious hellcats, the terror of the deep forests, and many more.
Something had seemed to happen to time as they had rushed at us. First the enemy had seemed to run so slowly as if they were wading through deep water. Then they had moved faster, past normal speed, and then like lightning they had been upon us!
I had barely been able to register what happened. I had seen three giants, more than ten feet tall, thunder onto the Bridge, their dark, hairy feet cracking the wooden planks. Then my pike had been wrenched from my hands. How, I do not know. I had failed to pull my sword from its scabbard, and then a blow had caught me on my right shoulder, a blow with a force beyond that of any mortal man.
And now I was here, fallen into the river. Watching the city and Order of the Wolf die, clinging onto a piece of wood as the stream took me. Out of danger maybe, but into shame and disgrace.
Later, not much later in terms of time, but an age of effort, I reached the river bank. It consisted of mud, was filled with sharp branches, and hid slippery patches, but reaching it meant I was saved. Gasping I crawled out of the water, deduced that I had arrived somewhere where there was thick grass growing, and let my body go limp with relief.
I had all but forgotten about the rapids south of the River Gate, but all the blows to my head, arms, body, and legs made sure I would remember the experience for the rest of my life. My entire body ached more than after the most intense sparring session I had ever taken part in. Correction, it ached worse that it would have after first taking part in the most intense sparring session ever, and then being disciplined for having a dreadful hangover from some drinking binge the night before. Not that that had ever happened to me. Not often, at least.
For what must have been an hour I lay and tried to regain strength while thinking over my situation. I was on the east bank of the river, alone outside a city that had been taken by an enemy sworn to eradicate the Knights of the Wolf. The tales of the trouble they went through to kill every last one of us because of the words of the Prophecy were gruesome and probably true. It was death to remain here. I had to flee, fast and far.
Down the river was the great metropolis of Andomin, also under the rule of the Iron Hammer. The Merron Pass upriver was guarded by the Merron Fort, that too under enemy control. To the West I would reach the desert before I left the domination of the Iron Hammer.
But to the East ... The forest of Ligues. Two weeks hard walking straight east, or a month if I should flag or lose my way, and I would be in Carosia. The Merchant Cities of Carosia. Their people scoffed at and ridiculed in Maurur as weak, mean, dishonest gold-hoarders. But we had still bought their goods and spices. And we had listened, and laughed, when they had informed us that a man skilled with arms could become a citizen, and a rich one at that, if he traveled East. I remembered how we had waited in excitement, counting the coins in our purses when their barges were reported as being unloaded south of the rapids...
I opened my eyes and stumbled to my feet. The harbor! Of course! If I could get on a barge before the conquerors had started searching for any survivors, maybe I could get down to Andomin and get on a ship bound East...
But my hope fell as I looked about me. To the north was the city walls in the distance, smoke still welling up and clouding my heart. But as I turned to face the south I saw smoke there as well, not five hundred yards away behind a bend of the river. It was the smoke of barges and piers and storehouses burning. The Iron Hammer had smitten the harbor as well.
There was forest all around me, the fields of Maurur were to the north. Only huntsmen, trappers, and loggers went into the forest. And now, who knew? Maybe the Iron Hammer would let a warlord of theirs settle in the city? Or a tribe of giants? Or maybe the hellcats could frolic in the ancient streets as they let the forest in?
I looked at the mighty trees: Firs, pines, oaks, birches, and the all the lesser bushes, and I sighed. I had some woodcraft, but a trek through a forest this thick might very well be my first, and last, adventure. As my hand went to my sword I wished I had a bow, for hunting. Then I swore as I realized I did not have a sword either. Somehow, during my struggles in the rapids, I had lost it to the river.
I had a knife, I had wet clothes, and I had sloshing boots. I had no food, no map, no flint, and no arms. With an oath I stepped into the forest.
The next morning I was sure of quite a few things. Walking for ten hours in wet boots rewards you with blisters. Berries, especially in springtime, are not enough to fill your belly. Sleeping outside during spring under a slightly damp cloak is not warm, and neither are tree-roots good pillows. And most importantly: Forests are not parks, they are dark places with thick undergrowth, wide brooks, mires, steep cliffs, and hills upon hills upon hills that all hamper your progress. The only thing I felt unsure of was where I was. I knew I moved eastwards in a fashion, but how far I had come, or whether I was veering north or south I had not idea.
As such I was in no state of being happy about not being eaten by some predator, and not being caught by the pursuer I had to be prepared to meet. I navigated after the sun, chasing it from hill to hill, even climbing trees now and then when I got lost. Thankfully I had not become sick despite my wet clothes, and I was able to walk fast this second day as well.
It was not until in the early afternoon when I reached a hill so tall that I was able to have a proper look out over the forest. I left the dense, dark forest behind, and in ten minutes had reached the open top of the hill, where only a few gnarled, old pines and low shrubs grew. The wind was fresh and fragrant, and I ignored the hunger I felt as I climbed a huge, mossy rock to get the clearest view of my surroundings.
I had to be at least five hundred feet above the level of the Armon River and the city of Maurur, as I could see the smoking towers far away in the distance. There, somewhere, was the room I had lived in for the last two years, and the barracks that had been my home for five more. There were the corpses of the last Knights of the Wolf, the last but for me. There was my family, and I might never know if they lived or died. I turned east.
The forest of Ligues stretched out for leagues upon leagues, and I could see nothing but hills in the far distance. Here and there there were valleys, and even a small lake or two. I noticed that if, when I climbed down, I followed a certain ditch in the terrain, I would end up a valley that slowly wound itself eastwards and a little south until it ran into a larger, elliptical lake. I decided to try that path, as I might save time if I didn't have to check my position so often as I did now.
.... There is more of this story ...