A little story based on a writing prompt: “Write a story where something doesn’t quite seem right.”
It was only the fourth time Lisa bucked beneath him that Danus grew suspicious.
The mount was oak-brown, the colour of woodlands in winter. A horse raised in Port Tarren, like Danus himself. And like Danus, Lisa would have had to have been trained from a young age as befitting a war beast. A war beast? Is that how I think of myself now? Danus had not actually seen war, his perfectly sharpened sword attested that he had barely seen battle, besides a few Corsair skirmishes in the Port. But he was a gifted archer, and could sit a horse better than most of the Tarrenfolk. That was why Lisa had been the perfect match for him. A strong mare, irksome yet calm, except for now.
It was strange, Danus thought, that neither man nor beast had been more than a few days without returning to their birthplace. That was until today, when he had loaded the beast’s saddlebags and joined the rest of Port Tarren’s Forresters on the ride east, as summoned. The rider had come towards the end of the working day, and Danus had been on watch when he arrived. Clad in the teal cloak of a royal Messenger, he was bid to summon all fighting men to Kynstone; but for what he did not say. He had galloped away as hastily as he had arrived, with only a few hoofprints in the dirty road to ever suggest he had been at all. The Forresters had not delayed in preparations, with a haste and careful order that suggested that the summons had been long-awaited.
Port Tarren was unique as a settlement: it was a small naval village, with its most complex structure being the stone quay that had been built in the years before Danus’ birth; but it had a larger standing army than any other town or village in a dozen leagues. Most fishermen simply relied on their pikes if they encountered raiding ships, or some lucky few had (and fewer still could use) a bow. Each of Port Tarren’s Forresters had a bow and blade, and knew how to use them. Often they guarded the fishermen in their light two-man skiffs, but they were mostly gatherers in the tundra surrounding the village. On the rare occasion pirates came reaving along the shores, they would not be ready to face a score of trained men. Danus was proud to be a member of such an elite force, envy of all the surrounding villages.
But now, he was growing wary. The Forresters had arrived at Kynstone, an ancient stone barrow older than anyone who now lived, but there was no sign of any other villages, or even the Messenger who had sent for them all. But, as loyal servants, Holt, captain of the Forresters, had bid them to stay and wait.
“We don’t refuse a lordly summons.” He pointed out. “Lest we want to look like cowards for all the province to see. We wait” Even so, his dark eyes glanced furtively around the surrounding stone pillars that dotted the small clearing. Danus’ own eyes gazed down the muddy path south, as he had been instructed. “If anyone is coming, it’ll be up from Tenpass.” Holt had stated. “You have the best eyes of anyone here. Keep them fixed on that path.” His countenance had been troubled, however. Something else worried him. Danus didn’t know what, but he could smell apprehension in the air, like warm breath and cold sweat.
They had been there for an hour, and night was starting to creep over the horizon. Danus hadn’t left his saddle, and he shifted uncomfortably. It was then that Lisa bucked again, for the fourth time. He did his best to soothe her, but she was afraid of something. It was then that another scent filled his lungs. It was a scent of fear, of dread, of death.
It was the smell of oil.
Black pools, leaking from previously unnoticed gaps in the rock, flooding the tiny indents in the ground which Danus could now see had been shaped to create a cage-like perimeter around and throughout Kynstone.
“It was a damn trap.” Holt growled. “Retreat!”
It was the last thing he said.
A burning twig – no, an arrow – dug into the ground a few feet away from the captain of the strongest fighting force in the province. Instantly, the oil erupted into burning flame, crawling across the ground. Holt tried to clamber back on his horse, but instead slipped in the dark liquid now pooling at his feet. He fell, and moments later was consumed in flame that devoured his simple leather jerkin with ease. He writhed and screamed, until both stopped, and Danus knew he was dead.
As chaos erupted around him, more and more flaming arrows soaring through the trees to pierce the ground or fellow Forresters, Danus was frozen in horror. Lisa bucked and whinnied, desperately trying to avoid the flames springing up around her, but it was to no avail. All around them, the fire closed in, and still the oil kept spreading. Danus thought he could barely make out the shape of a creature in the trees, illuminated for the briefest second by the roaring flames, before he was thrown from Lisa’s back and catapulted into the fires. His mind was alight with fiery thoughts as fierce in burning as those around him. He rolled, screaming all the way, as he felt leather bubble and boil with him inside it. Agony would be a sweet release from this kind of pain. He kept rolling, until he came to a sudden stop. He was pressed against one of the Kynstone pillars, still spilling oil like the source of a river of flaming death. It was no salvation, but it was a chance. Danus gripped one of the handholds in the century-old stone, and hoisted himself up. His leather tunic still burned and pressed against him, so he tore it off with his other hand. He felt skin tear away as he pulled at the straps, but eventually he managed to wriggle out of it. All the while he was clambering, swapping from hand to hand. Hours of practice with sword and bow meant that he had strong arms. It was perhaps some dark irony that this was when that came of use. His boot slipped on one of the leaking oil tubes, coating his leg in the vile substance. He took extra care with that foot, as he kept pulling his body upwards. Eventually, in what could have been hours or minutes, he summited the pillar, as tall as the nearby trees.
All his eyes could see was flame, as though the whole forest were alight. All his ears could hear were the screams of men, his friends, mixing with the cries of horses as they burned. And all his nose could smell was the sickening stench of burning meat. Then, his mouth tasted the bitter teardrops he hadn’t even known were falling from his eyes. His senses simply couldn’t bear all that pressed upon them, and Danus simply sat upon his stony perch and wept.
He didn’t know when the oil ceased flooding out of Kynstone, but eventually the burning ceased. Not just the stone, but the trees themselves, which surely would continue burning, stopped. Even the air grew cold. Not cool, like a summer’s breeze, but as though the wind itself had frozen over. It took Danus in its embrace, and he felt nothing.