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Chapter One - A Flame Flickers

Atop Mount Culsir a cold wind began to blow, it started simple and small as all things do. It rolled from the cliffs of Dyier down the snowy slopes of the neighboring Winter Walls. It gathered speed and a biting chill as it soared down into the Valley of Kings below, where it flew open a loosely tied window sash, rattling the boards of an old, broken home and startling a young child no more than twelve out of his fitful slumber.

The child ripped his threadbare sheets off, revealing a glinting object gripped tight in his hand as he brandished it at the moonlight streaming in through the opened window. His small, lean muscles relaxed a fraction. His grip slackened on his makeshift knife, a crude piece of shattered glass fashioned into a pointed blade and wrapped with dirty rags to form a handle. He had been camping in this broken, abandoned home that should have been demolished years ago if the country wasn’t currently embroiled in a conflict on three sides.

He brushed his free hand through his bedraggled and filthy hair, at one point it was a shimmering auburn and in the sun his mother once had told him it was the most gorgeous color of honey-oak. Dirtied and damp as it was it could have easily passed for pitch black. It was unevenly cut, a failed attempt at using his ‘knife’ to cut his shoulder-length hair, it was too short on the front and he still had a healing knick on his left ear from when he tried to cut the side and the blade slipped. He had learned his lesson and decided against further barbering. His eyes were a dark umber, unique among the small villages of the King’s Valley. Were it not for the dirt and rags he was wearing he could pass for highborn with ease, with his handsome features, high cheekbones and lean build. He didn’t have the wide shoulders and thick necks of the farmers and workers that occupied the valley.

It was those very same features that, when his mother died of fever nearly three years past, that forsake him. Nobody wanted to adopt a weak child like him, he was different, an outsider. They decided that they had never liked his mother – despite all the work she had done to help the people – and that the child would be best off going to the cities where people like him belonged.

“The boy isn’t fit to lift a hoe, look at those small shoulders,” they’d cry.

“He couldn’t last more than an hour in the fields, what am I going to do with a runt like that?” others would ask.

And so it went, family after family turning away an orphan. He was different, not of the hardy stock of a farmer but of some highborn. He was simply ‘wrong’ and so the rumors began. Perhaps his mother moved so far away from the cities because she was hunted. Maybe she was a whore of some highborn and had tried to blackmail him for the child and when that failed she ran away. The longer she was dead, the more the people began to realize they had always hated her. Their vitriol, unable to be expressed to the woman turned to the child. But eventually their anger burnt out, the child was stubborn and would stay in the village looking for scraps of food, the beatings and threats did little to deter him. And the very same beauty that he had faded when his hair went without washing or proper maintenance, his lightly bronzed skin grew two shades darker than pale and his lean features turned sunken and skeletal.

So it became easier for them to ignore him; pretend he was already gone, that he wasn’t starving and clinging to life. Much less how badly he missed the only person who ever loved him. At least when they were beating and yelling at him, he felt alive, he knew they recognized him. But for the past year he was like a ghost, his pleas and cries fell upon deaf ears. He could die in the middle of the street and nobody would care, even the children stopped bullying and torturing him. There were days still he missed the harsh words and bruises, he reminded himself every time he woke who he was, afraid he’d forget about himself just as everybody else had.

He swallowed hard, his throat sore and repeated his daily mantra aloud so he could hear his own voice and be assured it was still there, “I am Matren Kurnal, my mother was Selese Kurnal, she died three years ago and I am now twelve years old. I am alive, the rest of the world has forgotten me but I still remember,” he swallowed again, a lump forming in his scratchy, dry throat, “My name is Matren Kurnal, and I exist.” He said with finality.

He turned to the window, and shut it again against the cold winds and the people who would rather believe he was already dead and gone, against the hatred and the pain of the world that had taken everything away from him. He grit his teeth and lashed the sash closed with a bit of string in his baggy pants, that were really just a potato sack he had managed to crudely fashion into pants. They fit and kept away the cold enough that he didn’t get frostbite in the winter, so they were good enough for him. Though the shutters were closed, they let in a line of moonlight, enough that Matren could see the town below and the hills and forests beyond. He had thought of trying to live in the woods, finding food and making a shelter, but he had no survival knowledge or training. He couldn’t imagine how to survive, or know what would be safe to eat or what would kill him. He’d heard stories when he was little about people eating berries that had poisoned their mind and slowly killed them while fierce hallucinations made every second a lie.

He was about to turn away when he caught a glimpse of a shadow at the foot of the hill leading to this rundown old house. Everybody in town knew he lived here and that meant that it no longer existed. So to have somebody looking up at the window, at him – that couldn’t be right – even if there was somebody staring at him, which nobody did, they couldn’t see him through the small slit. He tried to shrug it off but he couldn’t stop staring at this figure through the small slash of light between the shutters. The two seemingly stared at each other for hours until finally, overcome by the fitful sleep that had been interrupted Matren turned away and lumbered back to the moldy old bed. Though that would be a loose term, it was really more like a pile of dirty laundry laid out on the hard, splintered floor.

He curled up and pulled the moth eaten sheets over his small body and held the makeshift knife firmly in his hand, ready to use it if necessary. He slept with his back to the doorway that led out of the topmost room, he could hear best when people snuck up behind him and they wouldn’t be able to tell he had woken before they had gotten within range of his knife.

Eventually sleep took him and he fell into a deep slumber, for once restful and full of a peace that he had nearly forgotten existed. It was another dreamless night. They were preferable over the terrors that visited him in the dark. The emptiness was a comfort to his weary mind, the hollow quiet a shelter from the stark horror of his reality. He woke and looked around the room as warm sunlight split the room in half like a wall of smoky light stretching halfway up from the floor. He sat up and stared at it, he was close enough to reach out to it and swipe a hand idly through it. His eyes went foggy and glazed as he watched the bar of light dance across his fingertips. The thick motes of dust spun and twirled upon the air, moving about the air in an elaborate dance.

“I am Matren Kurnal, my mother was Selese Kurnal. She died three years ago and I am now twelve years old. I am alive. The rest of the world has forgotten me but I still remember. I am Matren Kurnal, and I exist,” he repeated quietly to himself.

The golden light shimmered and danced, it was by far the strangest sunlight he had seen, but he hadn’t seen much in his life and he thought little of it. He could smell a glorious hardwood fire roasting meat; the villagers must be having some sort of festival. He couldn’t remember what they could be celebrating but he knew that when they did, he’d eat well for at least three days. The excess that they threw away was a beautiful feast for him. He licked his lips in anticipation and swallowed against the pain of knives cutting his throat, prompting him to search for the only clean thing he kept. A small waterskin he had salvaged from his home before the villagers swooped in like carrion birds and stripped everything down to ‘pay’ for the funeral. A funeral he remembered all too well, a small plot of ground he was told to dig and they would carry his mother out, and he could then cover her up. It was a memory he tried very hard to forget, she was still warm to the touch when he kissed her forehead goodbye. He had tried in vain to shake her awake, but she was hours gone by then, and while he buried her, everything she had owned was taken and the only home he could remember was seized.

He took the string he had used to lash the shutters closed last night and unwound it, placing it back in his pocket as he opened the shutters to the pane-less window. What he saw was not something he was prepared for. The whole valley was filled with dark shadows and dancing firelight. The smell was sharper now that the shutters were opened, and it hit him hard enough to knock him back to the floor. It was a sickly sweet, cloying stench. No fire he had ever been near smelled so foul or as hideous as what choked the very air he breathed. The realization struck him like a bolt of lightning. Once, when he was a little boy he had been playing with matches, striking them alight and watching them burn down to his fingertips. He had let one match burn too long and it singed his fingertips, out of shock he shook his hand frantically. The match flew and struck his head, catching a small bit of hair on fire. The horrid stench that accompanied him all day wasn’t too dissimilar from the malodorous air that was forcing its way through the window. People, there were no people trying to put out the fires, no people running for help, just flame and shadow. That fetor was coming from the houses, with the villagers still inside.

A terrible fear gripped him like a vise. His heart pounded against his chest and his breathing grew shallow and rapid. He scrambled away from the window too scared to look at what was going on. He stayed where he was, sitting on the dusty floorboards, hands pressed flat against them, absolutely petrified. Every fiber of Matren’s being screamed for him to run, to never look back. But he had long since learned that fear was the fuel of the foolish. He knew he had to know what was going on outside, he needed to plot his escape path. Running out of his house blindly would only add his body to the funeral pyres about the village.

Slowly, Matren made his way back to the window and willed himself to look at the village burning in a bright beautiful blaze. He could just make out a few dark shapes standing stark against the brilliance of the flames that didn’t touch them; they almost appeared to avoid the shadows like an obedient pet. He looked down and saw the same shadow from last night, staring up at him. His own house didn’t appear on fire but he doubted that they would forget to burn the only standing building left, even if it did appear abandoned.

Turning away with a snap of his body he gathered up a few sheets turning them into an improvised knapsack, and gathered every trinket and important object he could find. A battered, broken golden pocket watch that his mother had told him belonged to his father who fought bravely in a war that Matren couldn’t remember any longer. A nondescript silver pendant his mother had always worn that felt heavier than it looked to be, a piece of stale, moldy bread and his waterskin. Quick as his bare feet could carry him he dashed away from the window and out into the upper floor of the house. At one point it was some sort of judge’s house but had been empty ever since he lived in King’s Valley. The boards were broken and rotting in places and the wallpaper was peeling like sunburnt skin. He knew if the fire made its way to the building it would go up in a flash just like kindling would. Matren was going to make damn sure he wasn’t inside when it burned to ash.

He slipped down the stairs, sticking close to the wide bannister where the boards were strongest. He had made the mistake of going up the middle once and paid for it with a thick splinter stabbed through his calf as his leg broke through the step. He went as fast as he dared without making a sound. He twisted and rather than go through the gaps in the boarded up doorway he made for the rear exit. The house was built against a steep cliff, he knew he couldn’t climb it but at least he could leave the house unnoticed. And perhaps, if he was really quick and quiet he could slip by whatever was watching the house, run down the hill and make a break for the forest beyond.

Making his way past the parlor and avoiding the kitchen – something had died in there at some point and it reeked so badly that he dared not enter – he made for the backdoor. Moving a few loose boards out of his way, he slipped through the gap he had made and was free of the house he had called home for the past three years alone. He had equal parts hatred and fondness for the place, it had sheltered him and no doubt kept him alive and was as forgotten and broken as he, but it was barely better than sleeping in the dirt.

He muttered a quick, “Thank you…” under his breath towards the house.

Creeping slowly along the rear of the house he paused at the corner, crouching down he took out his knife and vigorously rubbed the flat side, wiping away grime and dirt. He held it out as low as he could and angled it back and forth until he could scarcely make out what was around the corner. From here he did not see the figure, the fires still raged below but they were not threatening to leave their designated plots, the fires wouldn’t even leap to nearby dry fields and grass, only the homes and structures were burning as if under command.

Relieved by this he poked his head around the corner, confirming the shadowy reflection had been accurate. He kept low and tight against the rough wooden panels of the house that scraped and clawed at his rags and exposed skin.

A small price to pay if I’m to avoid burning alive, or worse. He thought to himself.

At the corner he squeezed himself down into a tight crouch and angled his knife again to look ahead. The shadowy figure stood there only a few paces from the steps up to the front porch, still as a pillar of frozen smoke. Matren risked a small peek, with such a large house to look at a small movement like that shouldn’t be too easy to recognize he hoped. But he was wrong. Though he couldn’t make out a face or eyes, he could feel the shadows gaze slide to him and every muscle in his body seized so tightly and completely, the pain of it nearly made him scream. His body racked with fear turned to stone as he felt the shadow’s gaze pin him like a fly to the wall. He struggled against the influence, but it was only a small part of him that broke free and was fighting the overwhelming dominion. The largest part of him ached for an end to his constant struggling, his unending nightmare of an existence.

It would be easier to give in. After all for once in the past two years he was recognized. Somebody was paying attention to him, even if it was to kill him. At least he would be remembered by somebody. He could finally belong to a community, to the village that spurned and hated him. When the stories about this circulated, he would just be another child burned in the horrible fires of King’s Valley. He wouldn’t be an outcast, in death he would finally belong. He struggled to move his hand to his knapsack, it took every ounce of his being but he reached in and pulled out the familiar, cool chain with its heavy metallic pendant. If he was going to die, he wanted his mother’s pendant. He wanted to be close to her when the end came. His muscles eased a little as he struggled to place the chain over his head and onto his neck. As soon as the cold, hard pendant hit his chest the fear and macabre thoughts ceased. His hands moved freely and he was suddenly spurred to flee.

He slung the knapsack over his shoulder once more and made a break for it, running as fast as he could, bare feet slapping against the dusty stone roadway as he ran down the hill. The shadowy figure started, with sharp blue eyes beneath a black cowl staring in disbelief; the shock was plain on those icy blue eyes. The figure turned towards Matren, but Matren continued to run, staying as far as possible from the shadow. Too overcome by surprise the shadow turned and tried to catch up to Matren but he was too late. The child was already more than halfway down the hill and heading into the village proper, making a beeline to the forest beyond.

It was only down, near the fires that he could hear the screams of the people trapped inside the houses. Whoever, or whatever these people were, they were burning all the villagers alive in their homes. The sickly sweet smell of their demise filled the air with its cloying stink and Matren reflexively wretched as he ran. He wrapped some of his rags up onto his mouth and over his nose to block out the smell as best as he could. The smoke still made it through and filled his lungs with searing pain. The faster he ran the more it hurt as he was forced to gulp down the air in an escalating wheeze.

He kept his eyes trained on the forest’s edge. “Just a little more, that’s all. I am Matren Kurnal, and I will survive,” he said to himself.

Craning his neck to look at the blaze that was killing every person he had ever known, he could not help but feel some degree of justification for all their pain and torment. If he wasn’t so sure that he would be killed too, he might have thanked those men in shadow for what they were doing. But he wouldn’t take the chance. He would run to the forest and come back when they were gone to salvage what he could. From there, he had no idea of what he would do, the forest was the last place he ever wished to go but staying would be certain death.

The fires were receding behind him as he made his way past the tree line. His legs refused to stop despite how tired and pained they were. They felt like lumps of metal stiff and unwieldy. His lungs were ready to either burst or burn to ash but still he couldn’t stop. His legs had a mind of their own and continued to carry him deeper into the forest. As he started to slow, his legs finally came to agreement with the rest of his body. He felt a sharp jolt and was lifted into the air. An arm cloaked in black had come from nowhere and snagged him around the waist, lifting him off his feet into the air. Despite his pain and fatigue, instinct took over and he slashed out with his knife slicing through the ink-black sleeve and biting into flesh with its jagged edge.

Blood sprayed out from beneath the sleeve and a stifled grunt echoed out from behind a cowl as the shadow’s other arm struck out hard against Matren’s jaw, sending him crashing to the ground with a thud. Matren struggled for breath as the wind rushed out of him. With a sharp snap followed by a bloom of bright pain that filled his vision with bubbling light, he faded into unconsciousness.

Matren floated in darkness, just below the surface of a shimmering lake. He could hear voices drifting in an out as his head broke through to the air intermittently. The voices were berating, scolding and even angry, two voices replied in quiet, repenting tones, one more effusive than the other.

“The child was NOT to be harmed, must I send you back to Tirmon until you learn to follow orders Keirmic?” the voice that Matren had begun to associate as the leader. He had the most chastising tone and his words quieted all the others whenever he spoke.

“I-I didn’t mean to!” another voice pleaded meekly, “I grabbed him but he cut me with that knife! Look!” a rustle of fabric and a few mutters echoed through the waters where Matren floated.

“He almost cut you to the bone! Askrin, bandage him up and clean the wound. That knife looks absolutely filthy. I have a hard time believing a little kid cut you that deeply with such a pathetic thing, I wouldn’t even call it a weapon.” Another voice echoed.

“You think I’m making this up? This kid also managed to slip past Menkir, how do you explain that?”

“Yes, Menkir how, pray tell, did a child of twelve escape you? I’ve seen you hold whole squadrons at fifty paces.”

A gruff voice replied, “I’d like to know that my damn self. I had him, I am sure of it. And then I felt my grip slipping. I’ve had people fight me before but nothing like this, he managed to move and struggle but he wasn’t able to go anywhere. Then, out of nowhere he was gone, like he magically oiled himself up! The tighter I gripped the faster he slipped out of my grasp. Never seen anything like it in all my days.”

“Enough excuses. We’ve got him now, and that’s what’s important. He’ll be safer with us,” said the first voice.

“Hopefully a lot cleaner too, this kid reeks!” echoed another.

That was the last Matren heard as he sank deeper below the tumultuous waves of an everlasting ocean of black that stretched to infinity. Above him the waves smashed into one another in stark opposition. Their efforts seemed completely in vain, nothing they did would change the whole of the ocean. They crashed and splashed into each other creating a whorl above him that slowly spun ever downwards, drawing closer and closer to Matren as he watched with curiosity. Not out of desire, but because that was all he could do. Fear had left him far behind and besides, was of no use to him here. He felt safe. At least as safe as one can feel floating in an infinite sea of darkness.

Currents and tides swept him back and forth, drifting him over long stretches of darkness that looked the same as everywhere else. He felt himself pulled up, rising through the water but he had sunken so deeply that the surface never showed itself again. He would have believed he wasn’t ever actually moving if not for the sharp changes in temperature and the sensation of sharp movements. Bells rang in the distance, the clattering of metal on metal ringing out like the old Town Hall did during meetings back in King’s Valley. A howling wind took its place, like the whistling upon a high mountaintop. Then there was nothing except an oppressive silence that encompassed everything and threatened to crush him.

He opened his mouth to speak. Even though he knew he spoke the words, he could not hear them reverberate back to him, “My name is Matren Kurnal, and I don’t know if I’m alive or dead.”

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