Han didn’t feel like the man he was supposed to now be. His feet hurt, he was hungry, and it was all he could do to not to burst into tears over missing his Pa. Regardless, he pulled it all in, adjusted his pack (most of everything his entire family owned now), and put one foot in front of the other down the road. At least he assumed it was a road. Smoothed hard and flat by the river of people that surrounded him and his family as they walked toward safety. Han turned around for what must have been the hundredth time today to check on his Ma, make sure she was still behind him. There she was, maybe. She looked just like her under all the dirt and in the tatters of her best dress that she was wearing because of his naming day. There was no life in her eyes though, no smile that always seemed to be tugging at the corner of her mouth. Instead the woman who looked like his mother just walked behind him like some corpse that a necromancer had brought back to make his army and take over the world. At least he assumed that’s what necromancers did, the bard that the town elders had hired for the naming ceremonies had told a story about one. Hans eyes started watering again, so he turned back to the front and picked up his sis since her steps were starting to falter again. as soon as he lift her to his shoulder, she lay her head against him and fell asleep. Either she had gotten lighter or he was getting stronger because her 5 yr old body didn’t seem to drag him to the ground like it had the previous days. Han hoped he was stronger.
Of course he was stronger, he was a man now. Had been for 5 days. Biggest Name Day the village ever had. a full eight boys reached twelve seasons this year, almost twice as many as the previous record. The village had gone all out. Hired a bard all the way from Port City to entertain. There was also rumors of an actual wizard that would be there to fling lightning in the air and levitate heavy stones. Pa had grumbled constantly about the cost.
“We cant afford all of this frippery, especially with whats been going on” he had heard his father arguing with Genn, another council member.
“Oh lay off, the town needs some distraction after last week.” Genn countered.
“The town should be foraging for more stores, instead of wasting 3 full days partying and eating what little we have left after the imperials came through.” Pa grumbled.
“you know as well as I the imperials burned many times more sawdust than grain when they torched the storehouse, and since it was your own son and his friends who gave us enough warning that the Imperials were coming to pull that stunt off, i refuse to skimp a few gold pieces in honoring those young boys becoming men.” Genn was getting fueled up for a speech, you could tell by the way his words started rising and falling. Heading that off at the pass, Hans father made soothing noises, and stopped his complaints.
“IMPERIALS!!!!, IMPERIALS!!! JUST OUTSIDE TOWN!!!. The shout startled Han as he guiltily walked away from the outside window of the village common house where he had been eavesdropping. “Why are they back?” Han asked himself, “they got what they wanted… surely they aren’t gonna force us to evacuate. They said it was voluntary…”
Thats when it happened, more of a blur than anything. Flashes of soldiers, they looked confused and scared. A grizzled soldier with a bunch of scars shouting orders in a voice that made Han want to follow them (if he only knew what the man was saying, flank? enfilade?).
Then it came. Thinking back he knew it was probably no more than a few hundred monsters. At the time, however they were a singular entity. A roaring gnashing mass of fangs, claws, swords reaching out with arms of scampering little green monsters snatching at the soldiers and townspeople.
He couldn’t remember much about how he got to his house, there was a lot of running and hiding to avoid the little monsters (goblins? are those evil ragged looking things goblins?. They don’t look very clumsy or silly like in the stories. They look like little killing machines that are enjoying this) Finally he reached his house. He burst in through the back door to choking smoke and a wall of heat that made his face feel like he had spent an entire summer day swimming in the pond, and would pay for it later with pink skin. The flames were everywhere. A hacking sob came from the pantry beside the kitchen and he yanked open the door to see his sister Emma’s tear streaked face looking up at him. Calming her down and getting her out of the pantry took a patience and will he never would have used on his bratty sister in the past. Han yelled for his parents as he threw a blanket over his sister and carried her out. He paused at the back door, something had caught his eye. There, poking out from the corner was a shoe… his mother’s best. He set Emma down and raced over dreading what he would see. His mother lay on the floor, covered in blood, a bruise covering the side of her face. on the other side of the room, engulfed in flames was a bloody mess that turned his stomach. it looked like what was left after the town slaughtered a bull for midwinter feast. A steaming pile of offal and chunks of bloody meat were spread out, slowly being charred by the fire that was now raging. sitting next to it slowly picking out burnt pieces was a horrifying winged creature that appeared to be part flame. Han turned away, grabbed his Ma’s hand and slowly drug her from the room. the thing sitting in the fire, glanced at him without interest, and went back to his feast. Finally with them outside he tried to wake up his Ma. After a few minutes he was able to get her awake enough to manage a shambling run away from the house. Heading out of town, he saw the grizzled Imperial again. The man shouted and pointed down the road at a dwindling trail of townspeople who were running out of town east. Taking the orders, Han coaxed some more speed out of his mother and set upon the road with the others, listening to the clash of fighting and the screams of those who were too slow behind him.
That was 5 days ago, was it 5? maybe 6… Hard to keep count, Willa Terns gave him the pack he now carried. It was stuffed with a couple blankets, some jerky and a wooden soldier he knew belonged to her son Kelin, a boy a couple years younger than him. When he accepted and started to ask why she was him Kelin’s pack something about her face stilled his tongue, Instead he thanked her profusely and led his family away as she sank to the ground all alone, her body shaking while she buried her face in her hands.
Its been 2 weeks. The soldiers say we will get there today. Port City, its hard for Han to believe. He’d always dreamed about going there to make his fortune, or start a great adventure. Somehow he couldn’t get even a little excited. He was feeling weaker now. The rations weren’t enough and he had been shorting his to make sure sis got her fill, and of course Ma needed more food so she could heal up and get better. She still wasn’t talking.
He’s beginning to wonder if there is gonna be another night on the road when the refugees crest a hill and there it is. Port City shines in front of him, the glittering ocean accenting the splendor and massiveness of the city. After another hour of walking, Han has to reevaluate again. The city is even larger than he thought. What had looked like a thin horseshoe shaped wooden palisade, was actually a thirty foot tall wall of tied together trees, each wider than him. They all looked odd, and then he realized he recognized the swirling tight grain in the wood. Every one of them was ironwood from the north. The innkeeper back in town had an ironwood staff that was one of his prized possessions, said it would turn a sword blow without losing a chip. Surely nothing could ever breach those walls.
The group of refugees reached the gate, where a harried looking Imperial shouted at them. “Every man of fighting age may bring 2 dependents into the city, all others may rest here outside for the day, and then must move on north to Degstras.”
This was followed by screams of despair and outrage by most of the refugees, it didn’t look like many would get in. Grabbing his Ma and Sis’s hands, he hurried to the front. Standing tall, he shouted “Hantin Delroy, I had my Naming Day a couple weeks ago… this is my family.”
The Guard looked at him critically, then sighed. “Yes, these days you are quite old enough… Take these ration scripts and follow the main road., take your first right then left and turn them in for 3 days room and board while you get squared away with the army. Dont lose your rations, and report in as soon as you can, don’t wanna be mistaken for a deserter do you?”
“Nosir, thankyousir” Han stammered as he led his “dependents” into the chaos that was port city. People everywhere. How could so many live so close together? Emma buried her head against him to try to hide from the clamor. He turned to his Ma, hoping to see her reaction, but just got a blank look instead.
“Hey mister! can you help me real quick? i have a hot roll for you and your family if you help me with this cart” A young boy was trying to get Hans attention, standing next to an overturned manure cart. Han’s mouth watered at the thought of anything that wasn’t the trail gruel he had been having. He set Emma down, told her to stay with Ma, and went into the alley to help the boy with the cart.
A shaking finally woke him up, there was Emma crying and shaking him, his Ma next to her looking on. The pain in his head was unbearable, lights kept dancing in his vision. His hand went immediately to his shoulder. His pack was gone. So were the ration coupons. Everything finally caught up with Han. and he just leaned against the wall and held his Sis to his chest.
He didn’t know how long he sat in that alley, but it was starting to get dark.
“Whats this? someone ducking service huh?” a sneering voice called out. Five armed and armored men came into the alley.
“I think you match the description of one of Lord Fartine’s missing indentureds…”
Han started protesting, but the man backhanded him and dropped him back to his knees. “Yep, you are the man all right… think you can run away from service in the Tannery?”
“Tie him up, leave the bitches… this fills my quota for this week, its bonus time!” the men haul Han up and truss him up with coarse rope. and start to lead him away while Emma screams from the alley. “I think Dink and I will catch up with you later” Two of the men say as they eye Han’s Mother and sister in the alley. “Whatever, just remember you owe me a gold piece from that bet last night” the leader laughs, “See you at the bar later”. Han goes wild against his ropes, earning him another whack across the head.
“Exactly what are you gentlemen doing?” A quiet but penetrating voice comes out of the alley.
The men stop and turn back around, Dink and his buddy sidle away from the girls.
Five men ride out of the alley on gigantic horses. Their chainmail gleams in the rising moonlight. Each has a snowy white cloak fastened over their mail, and discs of bright white enameled plate cover parts of the silvery mail. The leader, the one who spoke, is wearing full plate white as the freshest snow, gold and red accents chase the edges, and a painted emblem of a radiant sun, cresting the horizon shines on his chest.
“I asked what you gentlemen are doing…”
The leader of the ruffians seems unsure of himself, but manages to muster his bluster after a moment. “We are authorized bounty hunters collecting deserters from Lord Fartines’ service This young man deserted his post in the tanneries, and you sunshine boys better not interfere in the Lords business. His dealings are vital to the war effort. Set Solaris has no authority here!” The man seems more confident after his little speech, and the rest form up around him a bit, reminding themselves that they are actually doing legitimate work now, well at least legitimate on paper anyways.
“Tanneries huh?” The gleaming rider chuckles “I spent an apprenticeship at a tannery before finding my calling. It takes a couple months to stop carrying around the smell of your job after spending some time over the vats. I think you might be mistaken in this case”
He then turns, facing them fully. the other riders close with him as if they are sharing one mind. Each seems to find something on their scabbards that needs adjusting. “I think I heard a rumor of some gangs waylaying refugees before they have been able to go through processing and a fair chance at what they will be doing for their service. Something about working conditions worse than slavery?” You gentlemen surely wouldn’t want to be mistaken for one of those gangs, Why Joachim told me just yesterday he hoped to catch some of them since the western front desperately needs reinforcement."
Han saw the men turn white after hearing about the western front and whoever Joachim was. His bonds were hastily cut and he was shoved roughly forward. "You wont get away with sticking your nose in a great lord’s business, just you wait!. the gang leader yelled while they all took off at a dead sprint.
After they left the man in plate dismounted and approached the ragged family. “Let me guess, just in today, robbed, and you don’t have your rations?” Han just nodded after running and picking up Emma, who was looking at the huge horses and all their barding with big eyes. One of the other horsemen seemed to be staring at Hans Ma, he mad a small gesture and Han could have swore he saw an aura of light around the mans hands. He then whispered something to the dismounted knight.
“Perhaps you would like to follow us back to our chapterhouse? I can’t promise luxury, but you will get a warm bed, your injuries tended, and a hearty meal. Then you can go to the processing center tomorrow. We have some young women who would be more than happy to take care of your mother and sister while you went.”
Han is overwhelmed, he tries to muster some suspicion but everything is just too much for him to handle, the exhaustion catches up to him finally and he drops to his knees. With a sharp nod from the man in plate, two of the riders dismount. Han is helped onto one horse, barely able to hold his head up. Another gesture from the other and Han’s mother collapses into the arms of the waiting horseman who sets her in front of him on the other horse. The gleaming knight then kneels down in front of Emma. The watery mud quickly staining his white cloak and soiling his perfect greaves. Would you like to ride Butterfly with me and get a hot meal?
“Your horse is a boy horse, did you really name him Butterfly” Emma asks with suspicion
“You are right, that is a bit of a silly name for a stallion, but he bit me the other day so I decided his name was going to be Butterfly untill he learned not to bite me when i am digging a rock out of his foot.”
Emma giggled at that and held her arms out to be picked up. The man remounted with Emma wrapped in his cloak in front of him.
“Now little girls like you are going to have to be brave these next few weeks” the man tells Emma “things might get a little scary for a while”
The little girl nods, she is learning to live with scary.
“But I have a secret for you, a really big one…” Emma turns her face toward the imposing man, seeing a bit of sadness hidden in his eyes. “Soon, all of this will be behind you. and things will get better, much better. The world will be a safer place in the future”