He only remembered screaming. He had screamed until his lungs gave out and his throat was dry and cracked.
In the light of the sunrise, Arthen awoke lying on the ground alone. The village of Drywood lay blackened, cindered, and in ruins around him.
It had happened to him before. When Arthen was ten years old he had witnessed a similar scene when he emerged through the bloodstained cupboard door of his old childhood home of Saomur. He remembered the bodies strewn around the halls he used to play in. The servant’s blank face stared up at him as Arthen struggled to make his way out of the abandoned house, tears stinging his eyelids. So many opened eyes, so many ways of being killed. He remembered the scene every time his eyes closed ever since. The boy had emerged from that carnage and wreckage alone. Statues of his grandfathers were torn down. The family lineage and history burnt and the ashes had littered the ground around Saomur. He always remembered his final walk out of that house, having cried out as many tears as a ten-year-old could. The only things he took with him were the clothes on his body and, as always, his mother’s wooden pendant around his neck.
Attack. Loot. Eat. Burn.
But now was different. There was still the wreckage and there were still the charred remains of Drywood. But there was no one left to stare blankly at Arthen. Not a single body was left among the smolder and blackened foundations of the village in the sunlight. Not even any traces of being dragged through the dirt. In the morning sunlight, Arthen was alone in what was once the square of Drywood.
His vision was skewed and blurred. His head felt like a heavy ice block and his neck a spindling tree branch. He tried to lift himself up with his right arm when a white hot sear of pain erupted from his palm to all around his chest just as he moved his shoulder. His toes shivered from the shock of pain. He forced his eyes to open more in the glaring sunlight to look at the ground he lay on: puddled in his own blood. The source he found to be his right arm, if what was attached to him was really his right arm anymore. He felt his breath stolen at what he saw.
What started at his chest and shoulder were two inflamed gashes, three gashes if the stinging wet pain he felt on his back was included. The three cuts ran down his right arm and spiraled together in like a corkscrew all the way to his hand leaving his skin mangled and blood pouring. On his palm the cuts met at the entry point of the entire wound and created a twinkling star shape that spread to the bases of his fingers and thumb. Arthen felt his nerve endings screaming as debris and particles in the breeze kissed the tattered skin and muscle that was his arm. He was too weak to scream. Instead he vomited from the mix of pain and disgust.
He toppled onto his back, his eyes closed, trying to regain stability in his stomach. When he looked toward the smoke-filled sky he caught in his peripheral a stone face looking down upon him. The statue of the Mother with her open arms smiled at his anguish as the reflection of the pool below shined on her face. He rotated his body and lifted himself with his left arm. Then he threw his right arm onto the base of the pool, breathing and crying out whatever pain came with it. He made another look at the Mother, took a deep breath, and plunged his right arm into the water of the pool.
An unexpected deep burn spread over his arm as he watched his blood dilute into the water. He tried to clench his fist to see what dexterity he had in it but it felt as if his muscles were all torn. The pain started to relieve and his arm started to go numb as the water steadily felt colder, the burning subsiding. After about three minutes, he pulled his right arm out with his left and examined the damage again with a clean view. To his amazement, the bleeding had stopped and now the three spiraling cuts and the star gash had cauterized into scars inflamed in red. He gently ran his finger down the spirals on his arm. They were tender, but the wounds were definitely closed and somewhat mended. He slowly clenched his fist feeling a rough soreness in the tendons and muscles of his forearm. Arthen looked back down to the water to find that all he bled into it was not visible anymore. A slight steaming of moisture was slowly rising from the surface and floating into the sky.
A sting of panic hit Arthen at what just happened. This miraculous healing of this horrifying wound felt almost as frightening as how he got it. It ignited the scene in his mind: The barking of wolves in the night. The stinging smell of fire and smoke. The blood dripping down his face. The sweat and heat from the crowd around him watching.
Then a hurricane of chanting and howling “Ruin! Ruin!” as their bodies convulsed and prayed.
And Ketrian’s changed face.
“Ketrian–” Arthen gasped. His stomach tightened and he immediately stood up. His strength suddenly replenished as fast as the healing of his arm. Ketrian had left him behind. “Wait…” His breathing quickened, his eyes darted around the empty square, the rest of the village shrouded in the heavy white smoke. But with the sun fully up Arthen realized that Ketrian was sure to be far from here.
He decided to search through the village for any survivors, looking behind corners and scouting the path ahead for any lingering beasts or wolves. His search proved no corpses of the villagers remained, but he could still smell the stink of burnt flesh in the air.
“Why, Ketrian?” he said to himself. “Why this?”
Ketrian had said that they had come specifically for Arthen, and now the whole town was dead because of him. The whole town was dead just for Arthen to now bear these grotesque scars on his arm. And they had left after their task was accomplished. They left Arthen to wallow in the ruins of his village of Drywood.
Arthen figured the throbbing welt he felt on his head was evidence of him being knocked unconscious before waking up in front of Ketrian. Before that there had been the sounds of screaming in the edge of the village. The night was almost as mysterious as the wound that was left on Arthen’s arm. No warning and no help from anyone. It was all meant for Arthen to survive, but what to do next, he did not know, now with another home burnt to the ground.
He went to the Farmer’s house on the edge of the village. Like everywhere else, it was leveled to the ground and there, like everywhere else, no body was found of the Farmer.
Arthen stared at the blackened remains and soot of the house. He almost wanted to weep for the Farmer. Almost.
But he knew he had to.
He mustered up some of his lingering emotions and stuck his face in some smoke. With his eyes watery, he bent down onto both of his knees and turned his head downwards and sideways. He managed to get two small drops of tears to fall from the corner of his eye and onto the large pile of ashes.
“Holy Mothers, guide him on his journey to live for eternity in the garden of Enoch.”
He got back up on his feet and walked over to the broken wall that was once his own room. Nothing was left of his bed or his clothes besides black ash. Arthen involuntarily grabbed for his chest and clasped onto his mother’s wooden pendant, still intact and still in one place.
The square had not changed when he returned. No one else had awoken. One of the many charred remains of paper that flew in the air caught Arthen’s face. He swiped it off with his left hand and looked at the usual wanted notice that he had seen littering the announcement boards for months. Only a few words remained on the piece:
… the Headhammer, is … for inciting … DEAD by any means.
Arthen gazed upon the statue of the Mother one last time. Water, whether in its own simplicity or in its own uniqueness, was still what helped heal Arthen’s arm from the stinging air and dirt. “Thank you.” He slightly bowed to the Mother.
A giant cloud of smoke rushed in front of Arthen with a gust of sudden wind. When it cleared, he found himself no longer alone.
Standing on her four powerful legs was a massive auburn she-wolf. The size of a horse, she had made her presence inconspicuous to Arthen while he made his way back to the square. Around her were four of her pups Arthen had seen the night before, all dark and black-furred. The children were licking up the puddle of Arthen’s blood near the pool as their mother stared at Arthen intensely with her human-like eyes.
Arthen fell down to the ground in fright. The children seemed to take no notice of him, but the mother was fixated on Arthen’s presence. But then Arthen felt a lurch in his stomach and his thoughts immediately led to Ketrian again.
“You were with him last night, right?” Arthen said to the beast. “Where has he gone?”
The wolf continued to look at him menacingly.
Arthen got back to his feet. “Can you take me to him?”
The wolf took a couple of steps with her massive paws across the ash. A large dragging and pumping sound radiated upon the square. Her nose extended out to Arthen. Arthen lifted his left hand up to receive her but she stopped just before they met. Instead, she directed her nose to Arthen’s right hand that hung pathetically numb at his side. She inhaled two short sniffs, then a relatively long one. She let out a very low and quiet growl when she pulled her nose away. Then she turned her body around from him and started to walk away.
“Wait! Please take me to him!”
Two of the pups went to follow their mother while the other two trotted around Arthen’s flank and they both nudged their heads hard against the back of his knees. They kept at it enough until Arthen began to trot as well with them. Then after a few meters, the wolves began an all out run with Arthen sprinting behind to stay at pace with them.