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“Whoa! That almost hit me!” he thought to himself. But he had little time to think. He had to concentrate on the more important task. Running.

When you are this close to being hit by a burning rock, you are definitely lucky. He had been lucky for the past few days. Besides skills, you would need luck too, if you want to live these days.

The stone path appeared and the forest around him disappeared eventually. Just a hundred yards along this path and he is safe. He could see it from here now. The castle wall. Safety.

However the view wasn’t entirely pleasant. The unpleasant part- some soldiers fighting off some giant salamanders in front of the castle gate. They were keeping those busy while the wood collectors were entering the gate. Getting burnt by a salamander’s fire-breath is definitely not a pleasant experience.

He was almost there, within ten yards of the gate. But just when he thought he was safe, a salamander jumped onto a wood collector who was right in front of him. He ran past the man and thought “safety or generosity?” He took a split-second to decide. Immediately he threw the wood stock he was carrying inside the gate and reached for his dagger. He aimed at the eye of that salamander.

“Elmar, no!” one of the guards inside the castle yelled at him. But it was too late. Elmar hurled the dagger. But it missed. He did save the other man’s life but now it was he the salamander turned its attention to.

It jumped onto him. “This is the end, isn’t it?” he thought. His whole life flashed before his eyes. He remembered his mother waving at him, his sister telling him, “You’ll return, won’t you bro?” Suddenly he thought dying was not an option. With all the strength he could muster, he threw the salamander to his right and stayed there for a split second before he realized what happened. Then he quickly glanced to his left where the wood collector still was. He ran towards him.

“Go! Run!” said Elmar picking up the man’s wood stock. He was a nineteen year old boy. He thought he could run faster than the middle aged wood collector even with the stock on his back.

But now the salamander was getting back up. But the good thing was, one of the guards inside the castle came to cover them. He screamed “I’ll keep it busy. You two, get inside, now.” They nodded and shot off immediately. The last five paces seemed to take forever. “One more, come on!” Elmar thought. Gladly, the last one was over and he finally caught his breath.

“Alright that’s the last one, boys!” the castle commander said. Then he screamed, “Archers! To the front gate, now!” Immediately, ten-twelve archers took their positions at the gate and started shooting at the salamanders. At this the pikemen fighting the salamanders retreated. As soon as they got inside, the gates were dropped. But, apparently that couldn’t stop the salamanders. They started dashing at the gate so hard, the ground shook like earthquake.

“Archers on the wall! Release the arrows!” The castle commander screamed again. At the fierce arrow shooting of the archers, the salamanders had to fall back. A few of them got killed too. As soon as the salamanders disappeared out of sight, one of the archers reported to the castle commander “monsters have fallen back and are out of sight, sir.”

He said “Great job, men. Victory is ours. Now, let’s count the casualties.” Yes, that’s right. Victory in small skirmishes means nothing. The celebrating thing would be if the losses are zero.

One by one, six bodies were brought inside the castle. Five of them were wood collectors, one was a soldier. Four of the wood collectors and the soldier were burned to death. One of them was still alive. He was rushed to the treatment hall.

“Five gone today,” Elmar sighed. For the last few days they had no dead. But he along with everyone else knew that would not go on for long. “Alright people,” the castle commander said at the top of his voice. “We mourn for the dead but we can’t do that for too long. Those who are gone are out of their misery. But it is we who live, who have to go through pains. Let us get back to work for the sake of the living and to honor the cause of the martyrs.”

Mourn! Most people here forgot to shed tears a long time ago. They’re so used to seeing people die. Even the children don’t cry anymore. Two seasons. That’s how long it has been before the burning skies appeared. Watching people die every day for two seasons, is a really long time.

“Alright! All the wood collectors, this way,” called out a guard. Elmar, along with the other collectors picked up their stocks of wood, berries, hunted animals and other stuffs and headed there to form cues. One by one, they submitted their stocks.

“Quite a show you put there, today!” the guard collecting the woods said to Elmar. “Oh, hello Nick,” he replied. “How’d you do that? Become so brave in an instant?” As if he didn’t know Elmar was always brave! Too brave for comfort. “Didn’t you hear what Commander Logdo said?” Elmar said while putting down his stock. “Live together or perish alone.” He and many other believed in that. Most among them have learned the hard way. “At this rate, you’ll soon be recruited,” said Nick. “Yeah, I hope so. Can’t wait to kill a few monsters,” said Elmar.

That is all his job for today. “All that’s left is to sleep like a baby,” he thought to himself.

The twilight sky gave a red hue to the pond up ahead. Just beyond it was the peasants’ quarters. Elmar and most other peasants lived there. As he reached there, he heard a voice from behind, “Hey! Young sir!” He looked behind. It was the middle-aged wood collector he rescued earlier.

“Are you talking to me, sir?” said Elmar. “Yes, you” he came almost running.

“Thank you, young sir.”

“For what?”

“What do you mean for what? For saving my life of course. Those were some good stunts.”

“You’re welcome”

“Is there anything I can do to repay you?”

“No, it was my duty, really……”

“I know, how about I give you a treat tonight?”

“No, that’s not really necessary……….”

“A treat it is, then. You pick the inn.”

“Well, if you insist, how about the Westway Inn. Their food is really good.”

“Westway Inn it is. Let’s meet there in an hour.”

“But you don’t………………”

“Oh come on. You look just like my nephew. At least, let me do this much as an uncle!”

“Well, okay.”

“See you, then.” He was walking away. Suddenly he stopped and asked again, “Oh, what is it your name was again?”

“Well, it’s Elmar, sir.”

“Hello Elmar, nice to meet you. I am Alan,” he shook Elmar’s hand.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you too, sir.”

Meanwhile, Captain Kain stood in front of the castle commander’s room. “May I come in, Commander?” he asked. Commander Logdo was looking down at a map, putting some marks on it. He said without looking up, “Ah Captain, do come in.” As he entered the room, Logdo said again, “At ease, Captain.”

The captain thanked him and said “Sir, our scouts have returned with news. A Burning Sky is approaching our castle fast. Its current location is almost three hundred miles north of here.” At this the castle commander looked up.

“Burning Sky approaching? That is definitely news, but bad news. We need to abandon the castle immediately and head south towards Rendo Castle. That castle is strong. But our castle does not have the means to fight a burning sky. Trying to defend against that would result in the killing of all people of the castle.”

Captain Kain stood there silently for a while. He didn’t like the idea of abandoning the castle without a fight. He thought maybe the Commander would say something different but he said nothing. Sighing, he said, “Should we prepare an announcement?” Logdo replied, “Yes, prepare an announcement within an hour. The people need to abandon the castle by tomorrow sunset.” “Yes sir.” Kain walked out.

In the Westway Inn, Elmar and Alan enjoyed their dinner. As Alan put a little of the stew in his mouth, he said, “Wow! You really picked the best place for food, Elmar. This mutton stew is delicious!” “Told you,” Elmar replied. “Even in this war they can produce very good food. Wonder how they do that. I mean, private inns like this don’t get any food from the rations the castle collects. They have to collect food on their own, going outside the forest in these dangerous times.” Alan nodded in agreement.

“Nasty piece of thing, this war,” Alan said. “Life was so good for me before the Burning Skies appeared. I was a fisherman back then. In the morning, I would go fishing with a boat, catch fish all day and sell them to a market. You can always get some fish in the lake. The earning was good. But now…….” he sighed.

They both fell silent for a while. It was Elmar to break the silence first, “hey Alan, do you have a family? Do you know where they are?” Alan heaved a sigh and said “yes, I do. You see, when the Burning Skies first appeared in Trebabad, almost all of us decided to send our families to safety first and then the men would take all our belongings and join them after a day or two.”

“I had a wife and two daughters. One of them is six, the other, six months. People of our village decided to send our families to Shailand castle. But just the day after we sent our families, a Burning Sky appeared in our village and we all became scattered at the following monster attack. After that, I tried to go to Shailand but I couldn’t. The path was full with monsters. Instead, I ended up here.”

There was again a moment’s silence. Then Alan said “You know, Elmar. The day my wife and my children were leaving, my daughter wouldn’t let me go. I tried to convince them that I would come the next day but they were very persistent. The elder one held on to my arm and said, ‘no, I won’t go without you, papa.’ The small one also tried to do the same as her sister but you know…………” he laughed.

“Such small hands, hahhahha, she couldn’t grab my hand and instead grabbed my finger! But the grip was so hard, I couldn’t help but wonder where does a small kid like her get all that strength!” His laughter turned into a smile and his eyes began to glitter as a teardrop appeared at the corner of his eye.

He quickly rubbed them off and said “enough about me. What about you, Elmar? What did you do before the war? Whom did you live with?” Elmar asked “Me? Well, I used to be a farmer of Augland. I lived with my mother and my thirteen year old sister. When the Burning Skies showed up in that district, we grabbed hold of whatever we could and moved to Senzonia town. That town was quite well defended, so we thought we would be safe.”

“But after a season passed by, I thought it was useless to just sit like a coward. So, I wanted to join the army, teach those monsters a lesson. I heard that they were collecting recruits out here in Elsavv district. So I came here, Aggard Castle.”

“There was no way my mother was letting me come here, neither was my sister. We used to have a lot of debates about this. Well, definitely in the end, I won. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

“No, you wouldn’t, but you couldn’t get yourself in the army, could you?” said Alan. “No, I still can’t. Commander Logdo keeps promising me a place but still couldn’t get me one. God knows when he’ll give me that,” Elmar answered.

“Oh, I see. What about your father? Didn’t he lived with you?”

“Well, my father died”

“Oh, I am so sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. It happened when I was eleven. He was a soldier. Went to fight the war against Tesharia. Never came back. Later, we heard he died.”

“I see. Tesharia, huh? Wow, what a hostility we had! But look at some of the boons of The Burning Skies! I heard the King was invited by the Tesharian court to sign the treaty to form the Normidian-Tesharian coalition. Worst enemies now turn to good friends!” “Yeah, I heard that too,” said Elmar. Their dinner was finally over. “Okay, now let’s get back to the quarters. I’m tired,” Alan said. Elmar agreed.

As they were getting out of the inn, they heard the castle bell ring. That meant there was an announcement. All the peasants were heading towards the assembly field beside the keep. Elmar and Alan headed there too, wondering what the announcement could be. As they all gathered there, a soldier got on the high platform in front of the field and announced, “Attention everyone. Our scouts have reported that a burning sky is approaching the castle.” As soon as he said this the entire field became filled with gasps, exclamation and fear.

“Alright everyone,” the announcer screamed again to get everyone’s attention. “Let us not panic. Everyone must pack up their belongings by tomorrow evening. The Burning Sky is still a week’s walk away. So, we should get out of here while we can. After packing your belongings all of you should assemble towards the south gate. From there, we will travel to Rendo castle. That’s all, everyone.”

The entire field was filled with humming. Alan said “a Burning Sky? Here? Now what?” Elmar was thinking a bit differently, he became angry. He thought that the garrison would at least try to defend the castle. Instead, they are completely abandoning the castle. “Cowards!” he said in a tone muffled by anger.

He went out of the field and straight to the castle commander’s room. The guard there stopped him. Elmar tried to push through and said “I need to speak to Commander Logdo. What kind of cowardice is this?” A few other peasants sharing similar feelings who also came there echoed his words. But most of them were just raged because they thought that the castle was an iron castle, never to fall. Now, they are going down without a fight.

“Here I am,” Commander Logdo said as he was coming from the opposite side of the verandah. The peasants fell silent. “Yes, what is that you wanted to tell me?” The others remained silent. But Elmar did not. “We wanted to tell you that you are a coward. We are simply running away without trying to defend. What is this?” he demanded. At this the others also started supporting him.

“Calm down, everyone,” it was strange how calm Logdo answered them. “Your name is Elmar fi Nak, isn’t it boy?” “That’s right.” “Now I think I did tell you guys about a few things about war. And I told you this that if your enemy is too strong, you need to retreat, regroup and reattack. This is what we are doing. It’s called fighting wisely. Tell me, is it better to defend and die in vain or retreat and blow them a successful strike?”

“But……………….” Elmar couldn’t actually say anything at all to the Commander’s explanation. Logdo said again “you see, when a warrior dives in a battlefield he has to be prepared for death. But he also has to keep in mind that killing is more important than dying.  And to kill, he has to live.”

“That’s all fine, but I thought this castle was strong. It could defend against the biggest of the biggest attack. That’s why we came to this darn place. You think packing all your belongings in just a night and running away is easy,” a peasant began to complain along with a few others. “I think the army has a bigger package to move out of here than any of yours,” said Commander Logdo. “We have to carry all these weapons out. We could have easily told the peasants taking shelter here to carry a portion of these, but we aren’t. Be grateful for that favor. And if you really are that lazy to move your butt, then you can stay here and let the monsters kill you. Your choice.”

The peasants began quarrelling with Commander Logdo. Elmar however was both ‘satisfied’ and despaired. He thought the army was the strongest body there was. He thought the army could fight off anything. That is why he wanted to join the army. So that he could be strong. So that he could fight off anything. So that he could protect everyone that mattered to him. But now he saw that they weren’t all-powerful. They had their limitations as well. All these thoughts were going on in his mind as he headed back to his quarter.

The next day, everyone was busy packing their stuffs. The soldiers were even busier making plans to reach their destination and being sure of their positions. Elmar didn’t have much to pack. His packing was done by noon. Then he had nothing to do. He sat in his chamber looking outside through the window at all the busy people. He decided to take a stroll around the castle.

He hadn’t been here for long. Only two months. In these two months he made some friends, lost some as well. So much has happened in this short time and so much keeps happening every day. He was just a simple farmer, growing pumpkins and carrots but now he is here, in Aggard castle, looking for strength, for a post in the army. He has even saved a few people.

Before leaving this castle he wanted to see every corner of this place. At one point of strolling he saw Nick approaching him. “Hey Nick, how are you doing?” he greeted. Nick gave a wide grin. “Looks like you finally impressed the commander! Who knows, he may just give you a post in the army, after all,” said Nick. Elmar was astonished “say what?” “Well, Commander Logdo said he wanted to meet you. That’s why he sent me to get you,” said Nick. “If he wants to meet you at such a busy time that definitely means something very important! Now run along! You don’t want to keep the Commander waiting all day now, do you?” Elmar’s face lit up with excitement adding a glow to his already fair complexion. He asked Nick to wish him luck and shot off to the keep.

In the keep, the Commander was very busy discussing and debating with his fellow soldier about the best route to take to Rendo castle. Elmar stood outside his room. He became a bit nervous. What should he say, how should he say, what if the Commander gets angry at him for calling him a coward, what if that’s the reason he called him? After a minute a soldier wanting to enter into the Commander’s room said to him, “you have business here?” Elmar was a bit startled at the soldier’s voice. He straightened up and said “yes, I do.” The soldier replied “then get your butt in there already.”

Elmar took a deep breath and knocked on the Commander’s door. “Come in,” a voice came from inside. Elmar stepped inside the room and said straightening up “did you call me, sir?” The Commander said “yes, I did.” Oh no, here it comes, thought Elmar. His thoughts broke off as the Commander continued “well, there is no time for introductions so I’ll get straight to business. You wanted to enroll yourself in the army, didn’t you?” “Yes sir,” Elmar replied. “Well,” the Commander said “after seeing your stunts yesterday and your spirit, I have decided that you deserved a post. Can you believe it, gentlemen! He actually called me a coward yesterday! I don’t think I have seen a brave peasant like him yet.” The other soldiers in the room started grinning. They were all of ranks just below the Commander. Elmar felt a bit embarrassed.

“Well anyway,” Commander Logdo said “I don’t have enough time for recruiting you so I am giving you a recommendation letter containing your acts of bravery. Show it the castle commander once you are in Rendo castle. They will give you a post in the army. Don’t lose this piece of document, okay?” Elmar nodded. He can’t believe it! He is finally being recruited in the army. His dream was finally coming true.

Before sunset all the people gathered at the south gate. The soldiers got in a formation with all the peasants at the center. It was decided that hundred soldiers and all two hundred peasants would all move together in one big party towards the Rendo castle. Commander Logdo would follow them later.

One could see fear, uncertainty, anger and some other unknown feelings on the faces of the assembled people. All they wanted was to get out of here to some place safe. Everyone feared the Burning Skies, the skies which appeared out of nowhere, skies which can travel as fast as the clouds, sometimes faster, skies which would reach a specific place and would break down raining burning rocks and monsters unseen before and unheard of that would create rampage and in the process, kill some people. It is still uncertain what exactly those Burning Skies were but they were obviously not pieces of sky falling off. They were called Burning Skies because when they appeared in the sky, they literally looked like the sky was on fire.

Suddenly Elmar heard a voice “Hey Elmar!” He was startled as his thoughts broke. He looked to his side and saw Alan. “Ah, Alan!” he said. “I didn’t notice you.” “Are you worried about something?” Alan said. “Well, I am a bit worried. I guess everyone around here is. Aren’t you?” Elmar said. “Well a bit. But I guess it’ll be okay,” Alan replied. After a while he said “Hey Elmar, I have something to show you.” “Yeah? What?”

At this point of conversation, the soldiers shouted at the people to start moving as they started marching as well. Their conversation broke. The long journey had begun. Hopefully to another place of safety. But many ‘safeties’ in the past two seasons turned into rubbles. Yet they hope the next place they’ll go will be safe. Hope, that’s all they hang on to. That is the source of all their strength.

After moving on for a while and a good distance away from the castle Alan said to Elmar again “Elmar, as I was saying there is something I want to show you.” “Yes you did,” Elmar said. “What is it?” He took a ring from his satchel. “A Ruby ring?” Elmar asked. “Apparently so. But I was told that this is a very important artifact.” “By who?” Elmar asked again. “an old man once gave it to me. He said to give it to him who is worthy. But when I asked him how to identify the worthy one, he said the ring would show signs once on his finger. But then again he made a complication. He strictly said to only put the ring on those people who I believe is trustworthy and good at heart. So, I have put the ring on a few people’s finger but it showed no signs at all. And most people took it as a joke.” “I see,” Elmar said. “Elmar, I believe you to be a trustworthy person. I have seen you for a while and you had a good reputation in the castle for helping out people. So, I want you to have this ring. See if you are the worthy one. And if you are not, then find him. Please.”

“Me………?” as he was about to finish the sentence, his eyes went to the northern sky. Some others had also seen what he saw. The sky over the castle was on fire. In a moment or two, the sky started breaking and huge boulders of burning rock started hitting the castle. In a few more moments salamanders, rouges, hajers, agnons and agnon riders started falling onto the castle. The people started panicking. Perhaps, they were finally doomed. They were perhaps too late, they thought.

“The Burning Sky, we need to move quickly,” shouted the party leader. They tried to move as quickly as possible. But the party was going nowhere as quick as he wanted to. Pushing and stumbling started pretty soon. They were normal people. They were not soldiers like them.

But the party leader was not a man to give up. One of the many gifts he was blessed with was the ability of quick thinking. He and the other leading guards got together to resolve something immediately. In a few moments, they came up with a plan.

While they were discussing, Alan did not want to waste any time. He put the ring into Elmar’s hand and said “Elmar, keep this ring safe. Search for the signs. And if you are not the one, then find him.” “But why me? Why don’t you keep it? I’ll just try it on right now and if it doesn’t show any sign then just take it back with you,” Elmar said. Was it that lady luck has shone her light upon him? Well, it could also mean that his life would get much harder now. One way or the other, he really could not believe all this.

“Alright, everyone on this party, move this way,” a soldier was saying. The soldiers finally devised a plan. They would move in two parties following two different paths. “Alan, I’ll come with you,” said Elmar as they went towards the other party.

At this moment, a burning rock came flying towards the two. Alan jumped left while Elmar jumped right. Lucky for them, they jumped at the right time. But now, a screen of fire created from created from the crashing of the burning rock, separated the two.

“Elmar,” Alan shouted. “Go. Keep it safe.” “No,” Elmar shouted back. “I’ll come with you.” He tried to run through the fire, but as he approached near it, he was pushed back by its intense heat. The flames of a burning rock were hotter than the normal flames. “Go Elmar. I’ll be fine. I’m counting on you,” he waved as he ran back to join the left party. The leader of the right party was already screaming at him to come back quickly. The peasants of the other party started shouting at the party leader to get moving. Some of them were even suggesting leaving him behind.

“Oy,” the party leader shouted again. “I am telling you for the last time. You can’t go there. Join this party quickly. No one gets left behind.” Elmar looked to the right. The main body of the right party was a few yards away. He looked left again. He did not have much time. He had to make his decision. The monsters could come this way anytime. With determination, he ran to the right party.

As the party started moving, he looked left again. He could not see Alan anymore. Must have been merged with the rest of his party. Hope he’ll be okay, he thought.

Read Chapter II