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Fire & Ash

What the Shepherd Saw

By Kenny PennPublished 8 months ago Updated 8 months ago 6 min read
5
Midjourney + Kenny Penn

I remember the scent of burnt flesh most clearly. It’s nearly impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced the smell for themselves. Ask anyone who has though, and they’ll tell you; No matter how often you bathe, or what pretty little perfumes you might spray yourself with, no matter how many years pass, you can’t ever completely rid yourself of it.

Sweet, yet putrid, that much I can tell you. Thick, gods above, yes, thick. So thick you can taste it in the air. It sticks to your throat while your eyes burn and your stomach twists in knots.

I was just a scout in King Laman’s army back then, going on near thirty years ago. This was just before the whole lot of us were massacred in the war with Queen Aerin. Powerful fools fighting for more power, and us fools for agreeing to fight for them. What can you do though, when nobles threaten to take the very land your families have worked for generations if you don’t?

Anyway, I was a scout in Lord Gerald’s regiment. Gerald was a good man, for a noble, but then again, he was a peasant like us in all but name. From what I heard, his father pissed away their riches investing in those gem mines down south, poor buggers. Lost it all when those terrible quakes happened.

We were just doing the normal stuff, you know? Guarding the king’s road mostly, keeping the bandits away from hard working folks. Most of it was boring work, nothing to do most of the time except sharpen your sword and have a drink or two when the sergeants allowed it. One day this boy, a shepherd by the looks of him, clothes ripped up and covered in dirt, comes running up to our encampment and begs to speak with someone in charge.

Normally we’d all scoff at such a request, maybe send the boy on his way with a swift kick in the ass if he didn’t leave off soon enough, but this boy was terrified. Had to give him credit just for remaining on his feet. He looked like he’d seen something that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

“What happened to you?” I asked him, genuinely curious. Not out of concern, you see, just bored. None of us had seen anything remotely exciting in weeks.

The boy turned to look at me, and that’s when I noticed his face. Red, and I don’t mean the rose color you get from over excursion. I’m talking dry red, the kind that’s almost pink, the one you get from playing around with fire. Only the whole side of his face is patched with it, like he’d fallen asleep next to a fire.

“Dragon.” The boy said shakily.

We all looked at each other with the same doubtful expression, but I chose to keep judgement to myself. Dragons had been all but gone from that part of the world for over two centuries. I’d heard tales of a dozen or so still living around the Hillbour mountains, but that was at least four weeks ride north of where we stood, and that was only if you about rode your poor horse to death.

I decided maybe the boy had misspoken. “Say what?” I asked, cupping my ear. “Speak up boy.”

“D . . . dragon, sir.” He turned and pointed east. There was a town there we’d passed a week ago. Tamsworth? Tansword? I can’t remember anymore. “Set everything aflame.”

Of course, I didn’t believe him, poor boy. Clearly, something had happened to him though, so I decided to take him to see Captain Arter. I wasn’t about to drag the boy up to Lord Gerald’s tent. Let Arter lose his head if he decided to take the boy’s word for it.

Well, Captain Arter was more receptive to the boy’s tale than I had imagined. The boy told a tale that no one other than a crazy person would tell, unless they believed it was true. I saw the town afterward, and I still almost didn’t believe it.

The boy said a fully grown dragon had flown over his town some time around noon three days ago. Just out of the blue, flew over without warning and began torching the place. He said it torched everything. Homes, inns, shops, even the slums where half the buildings weren’t fit to live in anyway. He said after it finished there, it went for the farms and torched those, including the fields that grew wheat and vegetables. It slaughtered the livestock, horses, everything that lived.

The way he told it gives me chills to this day. Flat, you know? No emotion at all, like he was telling us he’d herded sheep all day. Captain Arter asked him how he knew it was a dragon, and the boy just shrugged like the question didn’t matter. He said he’d never seen one before, but this thing made a barn look small by comparison, and it flew.

That was good enough for the captain. He looked at me and I could tell he was frightened. Gods, I didn’t blame him, I was too.

“Rayner!” He said, and though he looked scared, none of it touched his voice. “Take this brave lad to Lieutenant Merek and tell him I said to get him something to eat and see his wounds are tended to. Then I want your ass in a saddle and headed to back to that town as quick as you can. If there’s a dragon around here, Lord Gerald will want to know.”

###

I saw the smoke long before I arrived. I’d seen towns set afire before, usually by enemy soldiers or sometimes bandits, but it was nothing like this. The smoke spread out for miles. The only reason we hadn’t smelled it at the encampment was because the wind had been blowing from the west. That was a blessing, because as I’ve already told you, the smell was worse than awful.

Once I came within a few miles, the scent of burnt flesh hit me. I’m not embarrassed to say I threw up everything I’d eaten the past couple of days and had to stop to dry heave several times before I reached the town proper.

If you can imagine a hellscape worse than what I saw in that town, then I don’t want to know. Only the embers of buildings remained, black and red coals smoking amongst pale white ashes. The earth itself had been scorched, the ground black in places the ash didn’t cover. Bits of broken pottery lay scattered about, but strangely nothing else. At least, nothing that had once lived.

People, though, yeah, I saw plenty of them, all dead. Their bodies nothing more than charred husks laying amid the smoking embers. I saw one corpse curled protectively around what must have been either a small child or a baby. I cried then, great, terrible wails of anguish. I think a part of me died there. As I looked at the bodies of my countrymen, I remember thinking the gods were cruel in passing judgement in such a way as this.

But it wasn’t the gods who’d done such a horrible thing. No, I’ve read old accounts from historians about the destruction dragon’s fire can cause, almost as bad as a volcano. There’s no doubt in my mind the boy was telling the truth. The lone survivor of an unprovoked attack made by a wild beast. I often wonder what became of him.

I reported back what I’d seen to Captain Arter. Our regiment spent the next few months searching for the beast, but never found it. Who knows where it went. Maybe it had its fill of carnage and went to sleep somewhere under the hills. Personally, I hope it died, but I don’t believe that.

I think it’s lying in wait somewhere, watching. Someday, it’s going to come out of hiding, only this time it’s going to have friends with it. When that day comes, we’d best be prepared, or gods help us all. As for me, I hope I’m long dead before that day comes.

FictionFantasy
5

About the Creator

Kenny Penn

Thanks for reading! I enjoy writing in various genres, my favorites being horror/thriller and dark/epic fantasies. I'll also occasionally drop a poem or two.

For a list of all my work, and to connect with me, go to www.kennypenn.com

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  2. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (3)

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  • Test6 months ago

    The storyteller's ability to convey the horrors of that dragon attack is truly commendable.

  • Barbara Gilley8 months ago

    Great writing, made me visualize the horrors the people and animals suffered!

  • SC Wells8 months ago

    Woah! The imagery in this is so strong. What a harrowing read!

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