It took Rodrick a while to turn his caravan around on the narrow road and face the way he had come from, going back and forth, always just turning a little bit, and Rena couldn’t stop herself from thinking that it would have been so much easier with horses. She also couldn’t help herself from thinking that the ride in itself was much smoother in a horse-drawn carriage. She sat on the bench in the front next to Rodrick, Vincent lying on the ground between their feet, and her butt started hurting after only ten minutes as the entire wagon trembled and shook her around. And then there was the noise. Not just the noise of whatever machinery Rodrick had added to his caravan to get it to move on its own, but the clanking and banging of whatever he was keeping inside of the wagon, which she could still hear even through the walls separating them. She really didn’t know why Rodrick had created this monstrosity. He had somehow made it more uncomfortable, slower and louder than a regular horse-drawn carriage. She supposed it was smaller than a regular carriage if you didn’t have to account for the horses but she was also certain that it was much more expensive if he had to pay for coal to keep it going, or whatever else he was using. He might very well be using something that she had never heard about, you never knew with these city folks. They liked creating stuff just for the sake of it, no matter how useful or helpful it really was, and she was kind of sure this caravan was just one of those things.
They arrived in Halvint when the sun had set and the moon was lighting their way. Halvint was slightly bigger than her hometown, which just meant that it had an actual inn and visitors had somewhere comfortable to stay and didn’t freeze their asses off in a refurbished church tower. Rodrick drove the wagon through the streets as if he knew exactly where they had to go, as if he had been here before, but Rena supposed he had to have come from somewhere before she met him. The town was quiet, the streets empty, which probably meant that no one had noticed what had happened to her hometown, that there really wasn’t anyone coming to help them, that she could have stood there on the road before her village, waiting, for hours, with no hope for rescue.
“What are we going to do?” Rena whispered, unsure if Rodrick could hear her above the sound of his machine. Her blood was running cold again, the effect of the warm soup having suddenly disappeared when they crossed the threshold of the village. She clutched the ends of the blanket that was still draped around her shoulder tightly in her hands, her knuckles turning white.
“First of all, we are getting you a place to rest and a warm bed,” Rodrick told her, one hand leaving the wheel in front of him and coming to pat her on the knee. “Don’t worry about anything else, I will take care of it.”
He drove them right to the inn, parking his caravan next to the other two that were standing next to the building. It looked so out of place next to the ordinary wagon’s folks used around here, as if it came from a far off country that you only heard about in legends and not just a province that was a handful of day-ride’s away from here. Rodrick climbed down and came to the other side of the wagon, holding a hand up to help Rena down, which she gladly accepted.
The inn was warm and lively when they pushed through the door, confirming Rena’s suspicion that no one had noticed or heard about the fire. Rodrick strode right up to the counter at the opposite side to the entrance where the innkeeper stood. Rena looked over the jovial faces sitting at tables around her and a weird feeling came over her, as if she wasn’t really there at the moment, as if she could see them, but they couldn’t see her. Slowly, she advanced to where Rodrick stood, looking from one face to the next.
“Good evening, sir,” Rodrick bellowed with a wide smile at the innkeeper over the noise of the crowd. “I would like to request your finest room for my companion here.” With this, he gestured at Rena who finally looked up at the innkeeper, their eyes meeting.
He frowned at her, putting the mug he had been cleaning down on the counter.
“You alright?” he asked her, keeping his eyes fixed on her.
She didn’t react at first, the words not wanting to register correctly in her mind. When she had finally processed what he had asked she nodded once, weakly, and the innkeeper’s eyes darted back and forth between Rodrick and her, his eyebrows knitting together tighter.
“There has been an incident,” Rodrick murmured, leaning closer so the innkeeper could hear him.
The man stared at him with apprehension and only leaned forward when Rodrick waved him closer.
“I don’t want to alarm everyone and cause panic,” Rodrick continued, Rena having to step closer to understand what he was saying. “My young friend here is from Oceansthrow and she has informed me that there was a fire which destroyed everything. I want to discuss how to proceed with the correct authorities here but I thought the first priority was to get my friend to a place where she could rest.”
The innkeeper’s eyes darted back to Rena, wide in shock now, and he looked her up and down quickly.
“Everything?” he asked in disbelief.
Rena pressed her lips together and nodded, not trusting herself to be able to get any words out.
“What happened?” the innkeeper asked, looking at them both.
“I don’t know,” Rena croaked out.
“As far as I understand the situation,” Rodrick said. “My friend came home from gathering herbs to find the village in flames. This is why I wanted to discuss with your guard what should be done, because I myself have not seen the damage yet and I think my friend is too shocked to deliver us a full report on the situation.”
The innkeeper leaned back before shouting, “Devon!”
Half the heads in the room turned around to look at them and Rena immediately tensed up, a cold shudder running down her spine. The other half of the room seemed to be used to this kind of behaviour and didn’t deem it compelling enough to give it any of their attention.
“What?” a man shouted back from a round table to their left where a game of cards was being played.
“Come here,” the innkeeper shouted, waving the man over.
The man looked down at his cards then back up again.
“Why?” he shouted again.
“Just come over here you lazy bastard.”
The man huffed and pushed his chair back with force before carefully putting his cards down face-down on the table.
“Nobody touch these!” he told his companions while pointing at the cards, before walking over to where Rodrick and Rena were standing.
He nodded to the both of them as a greeting before addressing the innkeeper.
“What do you want?”
The innkeeper leaned forward.
“Oceansthrow burned down,” he whispered.
“What?” Devon replied, apparently not having understood that this situation required hushed voices.
“Shut it,” the innkeeper hissed at him and leaned even closer. “You need to send someone over to check it out before the whole village falls into panic.”
Devon frowned at him before shifting his gaze over to Rodrick and Rena and looking them over, stopping to inspect Rena’s muddy clothes.
“Did you come from there?” he asked with a nod in Rena’s direction.
Rena nodded in response, wrapping her arms tighter around herself. She suddenly felt very exposed, as if the world had shifted to stare her down, and she disliked this feeling even more than the one she had felt before.
“What happened?” Devon asked the both of them.
“They don’t know,” the innkeeper replied for them. “Go fetch your nephew and ride out to the town, I’ll gather up some people here and then we can see what can be done.”
Devon nodded reluctantly before answering.
He knocked on the wood of the counter twice before turning away from them and striding out of the inn.
The innkeeper leaned down to grab something from under the counter before placing a long key with a wooden pendant attached to it in front of Rena.
“I’m putting the both of you in room 4,” he said and slid the key over to Rena. “It’s the best room we have. You’ll have your own washing room to clean yourself up. I’ll tell my wife to draw you a bath and bring you some new clothes. Just go down that corridor and you’ll find it, the number’s written on the door.”
He pointed to a swinging door to their left which led to a corridor behind the counter. Rena picked up the key with ice cold fingers and mouthed a quick thank you.
“Luck be kind to you, my friend,” Rodrick told him with a wide smile and bowed his head. “I will accompany my companion to our room and then come back to discuss what can be done about these tragic events, if you would have me.”
“We could probably use the help,” the innkeeper replied, his hands propped up on the counter.
Rodrick turned around to walk towards the corridor but quickly turned back to the innkeeper.
“Oh, also, would you allow me to bring my dog into our room?”
“Sure,” the innkeeper replied, frowning slightly at his request. “Just don’t let it on the beds.”
“Wonderful,” Rodrick replied and turned around again, placing a hand lightly on Rena’s lower back to lead her towards the room.
A few minutes later Rena had been set up in the room, a bath had been drawn for her and the innkeeper’s wife had brought her some new clothes to wear, a dress that resembled hers but which had a crimson vest instead of her green. Rodrick had brought Vincent in from the caravan and then left again to go join the discussion about how to proceed. The dog was now lying curled up in front of the lit fireplace, because when the innkeeper had said they were getting the best room, he had really meant it. Two large beds occupied the room, with enough empty space around them to fit at least two other beds, three if they really tried. And the beds were big enough for two people, so they could have easily fit up to ten people into this room, but somehow the innkeeper had elected to only have the two of them in here. Rena wasn’t used to this much empty space. She sat on the right-most bed and looked around at the sparse decor, the silence of the room hanging heavy above her. She could only hear the noise of the inn if she really concentrated on it, like she was lying underneath a pile of blankets. Suddenly she regretted having resented her siblings for being loud and raucous all the time, for having been playful and happy and alive. Tears welled up in her eyes again, wishing that she could hear their screams just once more. That she could hear them laughing and arguing and prattle on about the most meaningless things. She would give her own life if only she could hear their light snores once more next to her.
Her hands clutched onto her dress in her lap, and she shut her eyes and lips tight, desperately trying not to cry again, but it didn’t work. Tears started rolling down her face and she gasped before she succumbed to her sobs again. She wanted to go home and sleep in her own bed and wake up in the morning to the smell of freshly baked bread and go to the kitchen to make breakfast for everyone and she wanted to meet her friend Talla again and listen to her ramble on about all the rumours she’d heard about the royal court and then fantasize about what the citadel in Mak-Hemma looked like and she wanted to sit down with her youngest siblings and teach them how to read and she wanted to go over to her uncle’s house to taste her aunt’s honey cake again and she wanted to stay up late at night with her family to sing the old songs her grandparents had taught her and none of it would ever happen again.
She struggled to breath, heavy tears falling down to her lap and staining her dress. She tried to force herself to take deep breaths so she wouldn’t succumb to her hiccups but it barely worked. She leaned down and pressed her forehead against her knees, bunching the fabric of her dress around her face and screamed into it, releasing all of her frustration.
As she sat back up her hand bumped into something in her lap and the confusion momentarily dragged her out of her grief. She patted around on the folds to see what it could be and then instantly remembered the figurine she had found near the church and stowed away in her front pocket. She fished it out and held it in both hands, running her thumbs over its surface. It didn’t look like much, it vaguely resembled the shape of a bird with outstretched wings, and it had strange carvings across its chest, but Rena really didn’t remember ever having seen something like it before.
She shot up, stunned, when the door to the room opened and Rodrick came in with two small rolls of dark bread in one hand and a bone in the other.
“You didn’t change yet,” he remarked when his eyes landed on Rena. His eyebrows knit together a second later. “Is everything alright?”
Rena nodded, pressing her lips together tightly and wiping the tears away from her cheeks.
“I’m just not used to being alone like this,” she replied, looking back down at the figurine in her lap where her dress was now covered in wet spots.
“Oh, child,” Rodrick muttered, closing the door with his elbow before coming over to her.
He sat the bread rolls down on the nightstand next to the bed before sitting down next to Rena. He carefully put a hand down on her knee and patted it. Vincent stirred from his sleeping place and looked over at them, or more precisely, looked over at the bone Rodrick was still holding in his other hand.
“You know,” Rena started again, turning the figurine around in her hands. “Before I went home, when I was gathering the herbs and the woods were so quiet and calm around me, I was happy to be alone for once, because the house was always so loud, and now I’ll never get to hear any of them again and it almost feels like it’s my fault for wishing the noise away.”
Rena’s hand shot up to cover her mouth, as if it was trying to keep the words from stumbling out, from becoming reality.
Rodrick wrapped his arm around her and pulled her closer, his chin leaning on the top of her head.
“I wish I could tell you that everything’s going to be alright but I can’t. This will hurt for a very long time, but it is not your fault. You cannot beat yourself up for what you thought before the fact or for being a survivor, because none of this is your fault. It is just how life is, and we can’t change anything about its course.”
Vincent appeared in front of her, ignoring the alluring smell of the bone and instead placing his head in her lap. Rena took a few shaky breaths, calming herself back down, her trembling hand coming down to gently pet the dog behind the stubble of his right ear.
“I wish it wasn’t this way,” Rena whispered.
“I know,” Rodrick mumbled into her hair and they stayed like this in companionable silence for a while.
“What’s that?” Rodrick finally asked, lifting his head.
“Hmm?” Rena looked up at him and he nodded down to the figurine in her lap. “Oh, I found it on the ground in the village. I’m not sure what it is, don’t think I’ve ever seen something like this before. There were more of them where I found it.”
“May I see it?” Rodrick asked, pulling his arm away from her shoulder.
Rena handed it to him and he picked it up with his free hand, holding it up close to his face.
Vincent, who concluded that his job was now done, snuck over to Rodrick’s other hand and sniffed at the bone before gently prying it out of the hand and walking back to his previous resting place.
“Fascinating,” Rodrick muttered, holding the figurine up to the light, his other hand still in the same position as when it had held the bone.
“What is it?” Rena asked, trying to make out familiar patterns in the inscriptions on the figurine’s front.
“Did you perchance grow up religious?” Rodrick asked her.
“Not particularly. We didn’t dismantle our church like other places did but we didn’t exactly use it for its intended purposes anymore,” she replied, looking over at him. “Why? Does it have something to do with the old faiths?”
“It looks like artifacts that have been found in old monasteries and such. Well, at least like a crude imitation of one. Like someone could only remember the basic shape of it or was really bad at carving,” he chuckled and handed the figurine back to her.
“And the writing?” Rena asked, letting her thumb run over the carvings.
“I’m not sure. I think it resembles some old script used in this part of the world ages ago, but I’m really not an expert in languages. I do know someone who is though, but they live up in the very north. It would take us a few days to reach them.”
Rena was silent for a while, turning the crude figurine around in her hands, feeling the coarse smoothness of the burned wood under her fingers.
“Why was it there?” she asked, frowning down at it.
“Who knows,” Rodrick said and got up, picking the bread rolls up again and handing one to Rena. “It could be as easy as someone having an interest in ancient history or someone trying to carve something from memory they saw a long time ago. We can talk about it more in the morning. For now, It would do you good to eat something and take a bath before going to sleep.”
“I just don’t get why this happened,” Rena muttered, turning the figurine around in her hand before breaking the spell and looking up at Rodrick, finally taking the bread roll he was handing her.
Rena woke up to silence and an empty room. She slowly opened her eyes and then jerked up, not recognising the unfamiliar room until the events of the previous day slowly crept back to her. She pulled her knees closer and crumpled in on herself, burying her face in the bunched up blanket in her lap. It felt like the room was caving in on her, as if the silence was pressing down on her to the point where she couldn’t breathe anymore and she knew she had to get out of this room as quickly as possible.
She threw the blanket off herself and slung her legs off the bed in the same motion. She put on the new dress she had been given because hers was still drying and in a few quick steps she was out of the room and down the hallway. She slowed down before entering the main room of the inn but there were no sounds coming from it so she picked up her pace again, scared that she had been abandoned, that she was all alone again. As she entered the room her heart tightened at the sight of empty tables until her eyes landed on Rodrick who was sitting at a table near the fireplace on the opposite side of the room, hunched over a book or a journal, too concentrated to have noticed her come in. At his feet, underneath the table, Vincent had curled up and was seemingly asleep. As she walked in, she noticed another two people sitting at the counter, one younger guy with a bowl of food in front of him and an older woman who was writing a letter.
“Hi,” she breathed out as she walked up to Rodrick, stopping to stand in front of the table.
Rodrick jerked up, looking at her with wide eyes, before relaxing and smiling at her.
“Good morning. Sit down.”
He gestured towards the chair opposite him, the one Rena was standing next to.
“How are you feeling?” he asked her.
Rena didn’t answer right away, letting herself float down into the chair and brushing her dress down before looking back up at him, forcing at least a small smile onto her lips.
“I’m alright,” she finally said, her voice thin.
“It is perfectly normal to not feel alright right away,” he told her, his smile turning softer and more apologetic. She nodded and looked down, trying desperately not to break this early in the day.
“Do you want anything to eat? Something to drink?” Rodrick asked, not waiting for her answer before getting up. “I’ll go ask Darian what he could make us, he’s in the kitchen, I’ll be back in a second.”
Before Rena even had time to process everything he had said he had already gone. She watched him go around the counter and disappear behind a door, thinking to herself that she wasn’t actually all that hungry.
Her gaze drifted back to the table and landed on Rodrick’s journal. It was still lying open to the pages he had been hunched over earlier. They were filled with tight handwriting and even smaller handwriting in the margins around the initial block of text. The inks that had been used to write didn’t all have the same shade, giving her the impression that the text hadn’t all been written at the same time. She couldn’t make out any words, not with how small the text was and the fact that it was upside down for her, but in the margins of the left page were symbols drawn in green ink that looked different from the rest of the page. She quickly glanced over to the door, making sure Rodrick wasn’t on his way back, and leaned closer to the journal, craning her neck to see the symbols better. On the side of the page there were five circles with simple flower patterns in the middle, like the ones she had already seen carved into the stone of buildings before. Her eyes drifted over the rest of the page, and only now did she notice that the text wasn’t written in a language she knew, although it still used the same script. At the bottom of the page her eyes however fell on a different script, something that looked similar to the carvings on her figurine, but before she could lean closer to have a proper look at it the door opened and she jerked back in her chair, turning her head to look at the inn’s front door as if she had just been admiring the room’s decor and nothing else.
“Here we go,” Rodrick muttered as he put two wooden bowls down on the table between them. The bowls were filled with what people usually had for breakfast around here, a mix made of eggs, flour and milk and whichever herbs grew around the town. Rena pulled the bowl closer to her and took the spoon Rodrick was handing her.
The heat and the smell and the taste of the dish pulled at her heart, reminding her of all the time she had eaten it at home.
“You mentioned yesterday that this wasn’t the first time you heard of a village burning down like this,” Rena asked, her mind filled with a million thoughts at once.
Rodrick sighed as he sat down.
“I’m afraid not. I wasn’t certain yesterday because I didn’t know much about what had happened, but I talked to Devon and the other people who went to Oceansthrow yesterday evening and I think my fear that this might not have been a naturally occurring fire has been confirmed. Another group went to the village early this morning to bury the bodies and gather more information. We might learn more from them. I didn’t want to wake you this morning when they left because I thought you desperately needed sleep, but if your wish is to join them after breakfast I would be happy to accompany you.”
Rena thought about that proposition, about going back to the ruins of her village, about seeing the dead bodies of all her loved ones and her whole body froze, every muscle tensing, as if her body refused to even consider moving closer to that tragedy.
She stiffly managed to shake her head no before quickly spooning another bit of egg into her mouth, distracting her mind with the taste of the food.
Rodrick nodded slowly and started eating his own food.
“I also think that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for you to return this quickly,” Rodrick said.
They remained in silence after that until they had finished their food. Halfway through Darian, who she recognised as the innkeeper from last night, brought them mugs of elderflower tea and Rena welcomed the smell and taste of something that didn’t remind her of home.
“Can you tell me more about the other villages?” Rena asked, finally breaking the silence.
Rodrick placed his spoon down on the table, fiddling with it until it was perfectly straight.
“I sadly don’t know much about it,” he replied after a while. “I heard that a village in Mashod burned down about nine months ago and that another village to the north-west of here burned down about three years ago.”
“Why have I never heard about that?” Rena frowned.
“I suppose because people don’t like to talk about such tragedies and since it was so far away news might have just not traveled all the way down here. And there’s always the possibility that your parents didn’t want to burden you with the knowledge of such events.”
Rena’s frown deepened, unable to believe that the news of entire towns burning down would not have reached them, especially if it happened in their own province. And even if her parents hadn’t wanted to tell their children about it directly, it was impossible to keep such significant events secret throughout an entire town.
“There’s also the fact that local authorities seem to want to keep a tight grip on any information they have gathered about these events. I’m not quite sure why though, maybe they fear mass panic. But they tend to keep a lot of bigger events like this secretive, so this might just be the way they like to operate. It is, after all, easier to govern a kingdom if only a select group of people know about everything that’s happening.”
He said this last part with a light chuckle, as if it was just an oddity of life and not something to be concerned about.
Rena nodded, taking in all the information. It didn’t feel right that she had never heard about the other fires before. The thought of no one outside of their own little part of the kingdom ever hearing about Oceansthrow burning down made her stomach twist in a weird way.
“So how do we find out more?” she asked, looking up at Rodrick.
He glanced down at the table, his eyebrows twitching together as if he was thinking.
“We will either have to interview someone about the events or get access to the official reports,” he replied, still half in thought. “Although I don’t think either of those options will be easy.”
“Can’t we just ask to see the reports?”
“Sadly, no. These kinds of reports are kept in the archives of the provincial guard in the respective province’s capital and you need a special decree to access them, and you can only get such a decree under specific circumstances. I don’t think they count curiosity as a good enough reason.”
“We aren’t just curious about it though,” she answered, feeling anger rise up in her. “My entire family died and I have no idea why and they can’t just keep me from finding out who did this.”
“I know,” Rodrick said calmly, pushing his hands towards her on the table, palms up so she could place her own hands in his. “I know. We could try to plead your case to the guard, I just want you to know that they are very strict and secretive with this kind of information and we might not be able to get access to the records and I don’t want you to get your hopes up for nothing.”
Rena nodded and breathed in deeply, trying to calm down again, feeling the warmth of Rodrick`s skin against hers.
“Ok, so what about asking someone for more information?” Rena asked.
“Well, I suppose that we could drive up to the north of Vellashta and ask around, although I am not sure a lot of people would want to speak to us.”
“Hi,” a voice suddenly emerged from next to them. Rena looked up in shock, having not heard the man walk up to their table. It was the guy who had been sitting at the counter eating breakfast and Rena just realised she had completely forgotten that they were not alone in the room. “I didn’t mean to pry, but I couldn’t help myself from overhearing your conversation, seeing as I was just sitting there and the room isn’t very big.”
He wasn’t much older than Rena, maybe five years, and he was wearing dark pants and a blue, long-sleeved shirt, both covered in patches where someone had hastily tried to cover up some holes. His curly, dark brown hair had been tied up into a bun, although a lot of strands had already abandoned ship. His eyes were of a slightly lighter brown than her own, with a tinge of green mixed into them, and his face was covered in a light stubble.
“Hi, I’m Logan,” he said as he dragged a chair over from another table and sat in it backwards, its back facing the table. He held out a hand towards Rena and she shook it automatically, too stunned to go against her manners. “As I said, I didn’t mean to pry, but if you are looking for information, I’m pretty good at finding the right people for that.” he continued and shook Rodrick’s hand. “Or finding someone who can get you one of those special decrees,” he added and winked at them.