Rena stood only a few feet away from the strange caravan which was rumbling and sputtering out clouds of smoke, its driver staring at her, his eyebrows slowly drawing together in concern.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
He was close enough for her to finally really see him, a lantern at the top of the caravan illuminating him from above. He had a gentle, round face with wrinkles weaving across his skin and a long, bushy white beard with matching eyebrows. His skin was pale like the people from the northern border, but in this day and age that didn’t tell her much about where he was actually from. His hair was another cloud of white, with round, golden goggles above his forehead keeping them in check. His clothes were made of thick leather, like traveler’s clothes, but you could still tell by how clean and undamaged they were that he came from money. Although his strange contraption of a caravan could have told you the same. It looked like he had taken one of the ornate horse-drawn carriages that successful merchants used in the cities and converted it into a machine that didn’t need any horses. Or at least Rena supposed it didn’t need any horses because she hoped he hadn’t trapped them inside the wagon to hide them for some reason. She had never actually seen anything like this. You’d hear about all the marvels people were creating in the big cities, that they now had tools and gadgets that worked completely without muscle power. She hadn’t believed all the rumours she had heard, especially the ones saying these machines were alive and just ran on their own power, but she couldn’t ignore the reality that stood in front of her.
The man pushed a lever down next to him and the caravan rumbled and shook before finally going silent. He got up and stepped down the few steps to his left. He headed towards Rena but stopped when she stepped back, unsure about this stranger that was so different than anyone she had ever met.
She wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t think that this man had anything to do with the fire so she would probably be safe with him, but what if it turned out that he was really here to make sure the village had burned down completely, that no one had survived the inferno. Or maybe he really didn’t have anything to do with the incident but he would harm her in another way. Take advantage of her or try to rob her, even if he didn’t look like someone who would. Her mother had always told her she needed to be more careful with strangers, but she disliked mistrusting anyone from the get-go. It felt like thinking every human being was evil until proven otherwise, and that didn’t sit right with her. But now she was alone and there wasn’t anyone close that could come and help her, anyone that knew her and that she could trust, and she realised that this was the first time in her life where she was completely on her own.
“Are you alright?” the man asked again. “My name is Rodrick. You look cold. Let me go get you a blanket and some hot tea.” He turned around and marched towards the end of the caravan. “Or maybe some soup if you’d prefer.”
From the footrest of the driver’s seat a dog emerged and jumped down onto the road. It was reddish-brown with long, thin, black legs and a bushy tail that ended in white fur. It’s long snout was black at the end and it had big, arching ears, white fur inside of them, although one of its ears seemed to have been bitten off. Rena took another step back when she saw the dog because it looked so different from the ones she had seen in her village, too long and too thin, but its ears pricked up and its tail started wagging when it saw Rena and she recognised those signs. She slowly kneeled down, keeping her eyes on the dog, and held her hand out towards it. The dog lifted its head and she could see its nostrils working furiously. It’s head went down again and it carefully came closer to her.
“Hi there,” Rena said quietly as the dog approached. It stopped in front of her, stretching its long neck to smell her hand before carefully pushing its nose against her fingertips. Rena obliged and stretched herself closer to pet the dog behind its ear, and the dog instantly nuzzled its head into her palm.
“Ah, I’ve seen you’ve met Vincent,” the man said as he came towards them, a thick, dark blanket under one arm and a closed pot and some sort of metal jar in either hand. “He’s lovely, isn’t he? When i left on my little journey I thought to myself, ‘Rodrick, you shouldn’t be out on the road all by yourself, it’s dangerous out there, get yourself a dog that can protect you’, and look what I ended up with,” he chuckled, setting the pot and the jar down on the ground and stepping around her to put the blanket over Rena’s shoulders. Her body went stiff for an instant as she hadn’t expected him to step so close to her, but he quickly stepped away again, not having noticed her change in body language, and her muscles mellowed out again.
“But I am quite happy with him, nonetheless,” he continued, getting back to his pots and driving the jar further into the mud so it would stand firmly. “I think I am much better off with a gentle companion than with a hostile protector after all. He brings me a lot of comfort. It makes missing home a bit more bearable.”
He reached into an inner pocket in his coat and pulled out a metal tin. He popped it open and poured small pieces of coal from its insides into the jar. He put the tin back into his pocket and took a smaller tin box out of another pocket, handing it to Rena.
“Would you be so kind as to start the fire while I go get us some mugs,” he told her and stood back up with an expression of discomfort on his face and one hand on his back.
Without waiting for an answer from Rena he turned around and hurried back to the end of the wagon.
Rena looked quizzically at the small box in her hand, her other hand still occupied with petting the dog. She wasn’t exactly sure what he had just put in her hand considering all of the other strange things he seemed to have. She flicked the lid open and was relieved to see that it was just a regular tinder box. She knew how to operate those. She balanced the box on the top of her knees and took the flint and steel in her hand, striking them together until a spark fell onto the pieces of dry bark in the tinder box.
“Ah, wonderful,” Rodrick said as he came back just as Rena was transferring the small flame from the tinder box to the coals in the metal jar. He placed two dented, metal mugs and a clothed bundle down next to the pot and flicked a switch somewhere on the jar that slid caps away from holes in the middle of the jar. He picked the pot up and gently placed it on top of the fire in the jar.
“We could use some chairs,” he said with a frown and hurried back to his wagon yet again.
Rena put the tinder box down next to the mugs and watched Rodrick hurry away. She wrapped the blanket tighter around her shoulders. The dog came closer to her, sniffing at the blanket and poking her legs with his nose until Rena relented and started petting him again.
A moment later Rodrick came back with two wooden chairs. They looked completely out of place on the open road, with their ornate carvings and mother of pearl details. They looked like someone had stolen them from one of the royal palaces. Their presence on this mud road leading from one small town to an even smaller town in one of the most rural corners of Vellashta which was in its part one of the most rural provinces of the kingdom felt like a transgression in and of itself. Rena looked up at this strange man in front of her, seemingly a million things rattling around in the innumerable pockets of his coat, and wondered who he was and why he had decided to drive all the way down here. If he was a rich merchant he would remain either in the east where the royal palaces were located, to the west where most of the kingdom’s resources were produced, or in the north where the kingdom bordered its two neighbours. If he was a lord or margrave or viscount or whatever else these people called themselves he wouldn’t be out here alone at dusk. If he was some sort of other rich person who just wanted to come and see the ocean, he would have gone to Hollowtooth to their west or Mattak to their east where the beaches were made of soft sand and the ocean didn’t try to drown you any opportunity it got. The only people who came to these parts of the kingdom either had family ties to the land or were running away from one thing or another, but he didn’t look like he belonged to any of these groups and Rena couldn’t decide if it should bother her that she couldn’t place him.
“Here you go,” Rodrick said as he put the chairs down in front of the pot.
Maybe he is one of those people who get paid to think and write stuff down, Rena finally thought, even though she wasn’t certain these people actually existed.
She got up, scratching the dog’s chin one last time before she stepped around the pot and sat down on one of the chairs, delicately, so as not to break it. Before sitting down, Rodrick pulled a metal ladle out of yet another pocket on his coat, blew on it to dust it off, and pulled the pot’s lid up to stir the insides, which looked like a creamy, white liquid, perhaps a potato or celery soup. It was only bubbling slightly but Rena already got a whiff of its rich aroma. Rodrick left the ladle in the pot, putting the lid on top of it, and sat down.
“This is better, right?” he asked Rena, looking over at her with a wide smile.
She shyly smiled back and nodded. If he had wanted to hurt or rob her he would have done it by now, there was no reason not to trust this man.
“Could I ask what your name is?” Rodrick asked, leaning closer to her.
“Rena,” she answered, her voice hoarse and scratchy in her throat.
“Ah, Rena,” he said and nodded widely, leaning back in his chair again. “Related to the word erenat from ancient Bellastrak, which was spoken all over these parts a long time ago. Meaning the flowering one. Lovely name. The first born of Queen Anaya from the twenty-fifth century was named Rena. The child sadly passed away in infancy during the stone plague.”
Rena simply nodded, not knowing what to answer to all of this information.
“Now,” he said, his face turning serious. “What is a child like you doing out here alone in a muddy dress when night has already struck?”
Rena’s breath got caught in her throat. The novelty of Rodrick’s appearance and being had distracted her enough that for an instance she hadn’t thought about what had happened only a few hours ago, but it all came rushing back to her. The smell and the heat and the hand trapped under the beam. The image of her village being in ruins and the church being in flames and the wound on the arm opening because of her, because she wasn’t strong enough to lift the beam. Silent tears started flowing down her cheeks again, her eyes wide as she stared at Rodrick without actually seeing him.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” Rodrick muttered, his hands coming up towards her but stopping before he actually touched her. “Did something happen? Please don’t cry, I can help you. We can fix this. Did you get lost? Did someone hurt you?”
He looked her over, trying to find any injuries.
Rena swallowed and shook her head. She opened her mouth but nothing came out, her breath coming in ragged bursts.
“Take your time,” Rodrick told her, leaning down to pick up a mug from the ground. “Maybe after eating something you’ll feel better. I’m sure you haven’t eaten in a while.”
He picked up the lid from the pot and put it upside-down on the ground pouring the steaming soup into the mug before handing it to Rena. She gripped it in both hands, feeling the stark contrast between the hot metal and her freezing fingers.
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, trying to stop her tears.
“I am from Oceansthrow,” she said in a thin voice, closing her eyes. “I was out gathering herbs and mushrooms for my parents. I came home a few hours ago, but when I did, the town was in flames.”
Her voice was barely audible when she finished. She waited for Rodrick to say something but he remained silent. She opened her eyes again and dared to look at him. He now had the second mug in his hands, filled with soup, and was looking at her with hurt in his eyes and a hint of anger.
“I am so sorry,” he said, his voice matching her volume.
Rena took in another deep breath.
“I have lived there my entire life,” she continued, looking back down at her soup. “I had a mother and father and five siblings, and my uncle and his family lived only a few doors down from us. I went to school there, and I had friends there, and my parents had a mill and bakery, and everything is gone now.”
Her lips trembled so she pressed them together, biting down on them.
“I am so very sorry,” Rodrick repeated. “There is nothing I can say that will make this any easier for you. Life can be cruel to us sometimes and we have to carry that burden alone. But if there is anything you need or want, you can tell me and I will try with all of my power to help you.”
She nodded and brought the soup up to her lips, taking shallow sips from it so she wouldn’t spill it. It tasted rich and creamy and salty, like the soups her grandmother would make for special occasions.
“I couldn’t help them,” she murmured, placing the mug back in her lap. “I wanted to see if I could find anyone who was still alive, or at least bury the people I could find, because I don’t want wild animals to find them first, but I’m not strong enough. Someone was trapped underneath the church and I tried to lift the beam that was trapping them but it was too heavy and it slipped and I made everything worse.”
She started crying again, bringing one hand up to muffle her sobs.
“My love, fear not, they will find peace in their slumber, but you cannot do this by yourself,” Rodrick said, his hand coming to rest gently on Rena’s knee. “Even for just the two of us the task is too big, it would take us all night to bury everyone, and I don’t think it is safe to go back to your village during the night. The buildings might be unstable and whoever did this could come back. Without light we won’t be able to find anyone, and I don’t want to break your heart further but the chance of anyone having survived is almost non-existent. We need to get you to safety first and make sure you can rest. Our best option would be to go to Halvint and ask for help. Gather a group of people and come back in the morning.”
Rena nodded faintly, accepting that he was probably right. They wouldn’t be able to see what they were doing during the night, and it was very likely that the houses were too unstable to look through the ruins when it was dark. Even if it didn’t feel right to Rena to just leave, there really wasn’t much she could do on her own.
“Do you think someone did this?” Rena asked, frowning down at her lap, trying to wrap her mind around what had happened and how something so horrible could have happened in such a short time.
“I cannot be certain,” he replied, leaning back in his chair. “There is always the possibility of accidental fires spreading from one building to the next, but the chance of it taking over an entire village without someone extinguishing the fire or without people at least running outside and saving themselves is very low. But then again, you would need a certain type of evil to commit such a heinous act and I truly do not know who that could be. However, I have heard of other accounts of entire villages burning down these last few years. They could all just be coincidences, accidents, just as the tragedy of Oceansthrow could be an accident, but to be certain about that I would need to investigate all of these incidents, examine what happened here and read through the official reports of the other villages, but the provinces aren’t always… very communicative about these things.”
Rena pressed her lips together and nodded, letting his words run through her head.
“Who would do something like this?” she asked, more to herself than anyone else, unable to even picture anyone who would come to such a tiny village and eradicate it completely, who would willingly murder over a hundred people that were barely important enough for the royal council to acknowledge their existence.
“Who knows,” he sighed. “I could come up with any number of wild speculations, but I don’t think any of that would help you. It will not do you any good to rack your brain for an answer that you might never find.”
Rena looked off into the distance, wondering if he was right, that they would never be able to figure out what exactly had happened and who might be responsible for such an atrocity. But she didn’t even know for certain if someone was responsible. It might all just have been a very, very bad accident, and she wasn’t certain how she could ever find out what the truth was.
She took another sip of her soup, the images of her village in ruins not leaving her mind.
“Do you have family nearby? Someone you can stay with?” Rodrick asked her.
“I have an aunt in Lomen west of here but she’s sick and I don’t want to be a burden. And my mother’s cousin is a notary in the court of Lord Tiber, but I haven’t seen him in a few years,” Rena replied, her gaze drifting back down to her half empty mug, her finger stroking over a notch in the metal.
“I am sure your aunt wouldn’t see you as a burden,” Rodrick answered, patting her knee. “I can accompany you until you have reached her house, and even if you decide that you don’t want to stay there, I wouldn’t mind having another companion on my travels.”
He shot her a gentle smile which Rena timidly reciprocated.