Twenty years ago.
The colours dancing across inside of his eyelids had turned orange. Bright morning sunshine oozed in through his bedroom curtains.
He lay for a moment with his eyes still closed, enjoying the feel of the feather mattress beneath his limbs. His sleep had been dreamless and content.
He drew a deep breath in through his nostrils. From downstairs he could smell wafting up the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread being prepared by his mother.
"Ry-y-yn!" came her singsong voice from below. "Time to get u-u-up! Breakfast's ready! Come on, you don't want to be late for the Fair!"
"Coming Mum!" Ryn called back as he opened his eyes. It was good to be alive. He hopped out of bed, gave a little shiver at the drop in warmth, and dressed quickly in his simple brown overshirt and trousers before pulling on his leather boots.
He glanced at his tousled brown hair in the looking glass hung on his wall and ruffled it a bit so it stuck up less from his slumber, then opened his curtains.
The village was already well awake, men, women and children all hurrying this way and getting things ready for the Spring Fair, carrying boxes of fruit or pulling carts full of wares. He was surprised that they hadn't woken him up earlier.
Just then there was a high pitched noise from somewhere far away. Ryn thought it must be someone squealing with excitement at the fair. Maybe the Spring Totem has just been put up. A few people outside looked up at the noise, then returned to their work.
Downstairs the aroma of the bread was even stronger. Ryn gave his mother a good morning kiss on the cheek and settled down at the kitchen table to eat.
"Where's Dad?" he said to his mother as she joined him at the table for bread and strawberry jam.
His mother, though age had wrinkled the lines around her eyes and mouth, was beautiful, with long golden hair and a kind, heart-shaped face. It was odd to think of your mother like that, but Ryn knew that everyone thought she was beautiful, and he was proud of her. He was a mother's boy, through and through, and he knew that too. But he didn't mind it one bit.
"Your father's out helping set up," said his Mum. "Odrik sent one of his boys; said he needed some help setting up the market stalls as so many have people have come to trade today. I let you sleep in." The corner of his mother's lip crept up. "Sixteen year olds need their sleep, after all."
"Thanks, Mum," the boy grinned cheekily back at her.
From outside, a high pitched cry sounded, this time closer, then suddenly stopped.
"Did you hear that?" said Ryn.
His mother's brow furrowed. She froze in place, one hand still holding a knife in midair, from which jam began to drip slowly downwards.
"Yes," she said. "It sounded like a…"
A crunching sound came from next door, the sound of wood snapping.
More screams filled their ears, very close now.
Ryn and his mother stood up.
Their own front door slammed open-it hadn't been locked, why would it be?-making a tremendous bang as it hit the wooden wall it was built into.
Now Ryn's mother screamed, high and desperate.
Ryn's breath caught in his throat. He wanted to scream too, to shout, to protest, but he found himself utterly dumb.
He just watched it all happening in a state of shock. It couldn't be happening, after all. How could it be happening?
In through the doorway walked a hulking man in a black suit of armour. He carried a long, gleaming, black-hilted sword that shone at the tip. His thick hair was flame-red and there was something animal about the twitch that pulled up the corner of his upper lip.
The man walked up to Ryn's mother and, as the boy looked on paralysed, as she continued screaming, placed the sword in her chest. It slipped past her raised hands and slid in straight through her heart.
An instant of agony.
The man withdrew his blade and a gush of blood flowed out of the wound with it, spattering her clothes and the floor. She fell face forwards onto to the ground immediately, landing with a slap.
Ryn just stood and watched it all happen in the space of a moment, rooted to the floor.
There was his mother, her blonde hair splayed over her head, lying face down on their kitchen floor in a puddle of her own life force.
The image etched itself into his heart.
The man in black turned on Ryn.
At that moment his body suddenly decided to obey him. The man stepped towards Ryn, raising his sword high in the air, but when he brought it down Ryn darted out of the way to one side. He knocked his hip into the kitchen table, lost his footing and tripped, putting out his hands to break his fall.
A shadow appeared from behind him over the floor, tall and round, another slimmer shadow jutting out of it, which grew longer...
Ryn rolled just in time to avoid another swing of the sword, which thunked into the wooden floorboards where he had just been.
He scuttered backwards on his hands and feet and banged his head on the kitchen wall, barely registering the pain.
"Help!" he cried as loud as he could, finding his voice at last. "Help!" he called again in desperation. "Murder! Attack! Someone, help!"
The man in black armour yanked his sword out of the floor, then shoved the kitchen table over to one side. "No one will come for you, boy," he said, snarling. His voice was muffled from the helmet, yet still terribly, horribly close. "They are all dead or dying. Now hold still while I gut you!"
Ryn managed to dive out of the way again as this waking nightmare strode towards him again and took another swing. The man was slower than Ryn was in his heavy armour, but only just, so the boy ran round the kitchen as the man chased and swiped at him, smashing crockery, knocking the baskets of food from their places on the worktop, opening a breach in one of the pipes of the argar, which belched steam into the room.
"Arrggh!" the knight bellowed. "Hold still, damn you!"
He paused from tiredness or exasperation and Ryn saw a chance-a clear path through the kitchen, out of range of the man, to his front door. He bolted, shoot through the opening, out of the door, and into the streets of his hometown.
His hometown was on fire.
He ran at once past his neighbours' wooden houses, red and orange tongues leaping and leaping from their thatches and walls, sending black smoke into the sky, and called out the first thing that came into his mind.
As he ran, he began to cry. He was crying at the trauma that had just befallen him, at the suddden loss of his mother and at his own shame, already constricting around his chest, at having done absolutely nothing to protect or save her.
The screams were all around now, filling the air along with shouts, and gurgles, and the sounds of people pleading for mercy, and the clash of steel, the snapping of timber.
More men in black armour kicked down the doors of houses that were not yet on fire, or walked out of the ones that were. None of them paid any attention to Ryn.
When he reached the town square, the first thing he saw was that the Spring Totem was on fire too.
It stood there in the middle of the square, erect but incandescent with a flickering red and orange aura, the silk streamers that hung from its top flapping in the air as they burned.
At the peak of the totem, the wood carving of his town's frog-god, Imkala, squatted with his contented, thick-lipped, grinning face, completely on fire.
He, neither, had done anything whatsover to save or protect Ryn's mother or his town. The boy thought he looked utterly impotent squatting up there amid the flames.
Ryn looked round the square and found himself rooted to the ground once more as his eyes grew wide with shock.
Beneath the totem were littered hundreds of bodies of men, women and children lying dead, mutilated, burned, dismembered, bleeding, some begging softly to be put out of their misery.
The tents of fair attractions and the tables of market stalls lay strewn throughout the square, interspersed among the bodies, ripped or burning or dashed to pieces. The men had already moved on from the square, having butchered the townspeople who had been setting up for the fair.
"Dad!" Ryn called out as his feet came unstuck at last and he began to run among the corpses, searching for a sign of his father. He was dimly aware at the back of his mind that his calls might attract more soldiers, but he didn't care, such was his desperation, his hysteria.
He couldn't see his father anywhere. He couldn't even recognise the faces of some of the people on the floor, because sword wounds had been gashed across them, or they had lost their heads entirely. Ryn had to turn away from more than one in horror. He felt bile rise in his throat, then choked it back. A woman with once-brown hair who had lost an eye looked up at him pleadingly and said "Please, kill me." Ryn stumbled backwards when he realised who it was-his teacher from the local schoolhouse. Where was his father?
"Dad!" he called out.
"Ryn…" said a weak voice from about ten paces away, "...is that you?"
Ryn sprinted over to where the voice had come from. It had been muffled. He reached down and hefted a corpse off of someone else's body.
Underneath was the weathered, grey-mantled face of his father.
Ryn could not contain his heavy, shuddering sobs. One of his father's legs was entirely missing, taken off at the thigh, where now a stump was staining what was left of his trousers and the grass around him red.
"D-Dad…" Ryn spluttered. "You're hurt...here, let me help you…" Ryn knelt down next to his father but he had no idea what to do. He had no idea what he was saying. He was just speaking for the sake of saying something. His tears continued to leak down his eyes.
Should I tie up the wound? His hands were shaking. Should I try to do something to stop the bleeding? His whole word, all the safety he had ever known, was disappearing from him.
Ryn reached out towards his father's leg.
"No!" his father said, insistent though his voice was still weak. "Leave it, son… I am past help… I will be gone soon…"
Ryn looked into his Dad's eyes. There were hazel-brown, as his own, and ornamented with wrinkles. "I don't want you to die, Dad…" he whispered truthfully through his tears. He didn't know what else to say. He just said what he felt.
"I know, I know son…" his Dad cupped Ryn's cheek with his hard, callused palm, tough and leathery from all his years working in the fields. "But you must...listen..."
"Shhh, Dad," Ryn said, pressing his own hand against the back of his Dad's, treasuring it while it was still warm. It seemed to pain his father to speak. "Don't talk..."
"No...Ryn...listen to me… left inside pocket... my jerkin... now."
"Take it now."
Though it was inhibited, Ryn had only heard that tone a handful of times in his life before-once when he had left the door to the chicken coop open all night, and maybe once when he had broken his mother's favourite vase.
He made his trembling hands obey and reached inside his father's jerkin for its inner pocket. Inside was a hard round object. He drew it out and examined it: a gold band, with a bright, spherical red ruby set into it.
"Do not hold it up!" his father spoke again urgently. "Hide it!"
Ryn immediately slipped the ring into his own shirt's inner pocket. What is happening? This made no sense. None of this made any sense… this senseless killing, the senseless death, and now why had his father asked him to take this ring?
His father spoke more quietly now, still looking into Ryn's eyes, and it seemed that the last of the light was going out of his own hazel-brown gaze. "That...is the reason the Empire came here today…" said his father. What were these words? "I don't know how they...found out about it…" his father went on, "...but they took us by surprise...I didn't get a chance to use it…"
"Use it? What do you mean 'use it', Dad?"
"Just listen!" His father's eyebrows creased up in irritation for a moment, and then he coughed hard and some blood spilled from his lips, trickling in lines down his chin. "My breath... will soon go from me...Ryn...you must protect this ruby now...at all costs...do not let it fall into the hands of the Empire...Run, my son….you must...run…"
"Where? Run where, Dad?" was all that Ryn could ask.
But his father's eyes had lost focus. His mouth stayed part open, the shape of the last 'n' sound it had formed still on it, and a long, chill breath escaped from it…
His father's eyes glazed over, no longer looking at Ryn, or at anything. His father's expression froze in place, all colour draining from it, and his face began to stiffen.
"Dad!" Ryn called out. "No! Don't leave me here!" He buried his head in father's unmoving chest and wept uncontrollably into the sweat-soaked wool.
"There's a straggler here!" someone shouted. "Someone forgot to cut down this whelp!"
The voice was masculine and loud. Shock spasmed through Ryn's chest as he stood and span.
Two Imperial soldiers bearing down on him, about twenty paces away across the square of littered corpses. These ones wore square black helmets, with horizontal slits for their eyes.
Run. His father had told him to run. Run, Ryn, run.
Ryn span again on his heel, making to dash off in the opposite direction, but his foot caught on his father's body and he tripped. He fell on to his dead father, but put his hands out to break his fall and bounced off him, turning and landing on his back on the dust floor.
Ryn pushed himself up on his hands, and froze.
The soldier was just a few steps away from him now, his sword raised high in preparation. This is it. He was about to die.
The world slowed down and took on an unusual clarity. Ryn could pick out every detail of the soldier's jet black armour, the dents and smudges on his breastplate, the mud spattering his greaves, the glint of his gauntlets in the light from the burning buildings, the glint in his irises as they looked out from his helmet.
Accompanying them, images from Ryn's brief life flashed across his mind's eye, bringing a whole range of different emotions with them in a few short moments: joy at playing treasure-maps with his mother and father out in the fields as a small boy, sadness on the day they had buried his grandmother in the ground, longing at the sight of Carlotia, the girl he liked from his lessons, turning and smiling at him, the Summer sun playing through her hair.
And then he saw his mother's pale white face twisting up in horror as a man's sword ran her through, and the shock surged through his body again. He saw his father's hazel-brown eyes dimming and losing focus as he passed away, and grief followed.
The last feeling Ryn was left with as the soldier's bloody sword arced down through the air towards him was despair. What was the point of all it all? he thought. A few short moments of happiness and now I am going to die. I haven't lived very long yet. What was the point?
Only, it wasn't the very last feeling he felt.
Just as the soldier's blade reached his neck, the instant before it made contact, Ryn felt red hot anger explode out of him.
"NO!" he shouted, at the soldier, at the world, at death.
Fire came out from Ryn and consumed the soldier. He felt no heat, except for the heat of the anger that filled his heart, but shimmering orange flames leapt from his body, from his mouth, from his head, from his chest, from his arm and open hand which he instinctively held up and thrust towards the soldier.
The soldier's blade disappeared in the torrent of flame. For a heartbeat Ryn's vision was obscured by the inferno he had unwittingly released, and then…
...as quickly as they had appeared, the flames receded, disappearing entirely, leaving only tendrils of black smoke that twisted up from Ryn's unharmed body and the air around him, hisssing.
Ryn looked down at the soldier who had been about to kill him.
The man lay spread eagled flat on his back. His armour was sooty and scorched. His face was a mess of deep pink burns, the skin singed away eniterly, leaving charred muscle underneath. His eyes had melted. He was dead.
Ryn looked at his hand, his mouth hanging open, dumb with astonishment.
His whole body was trembling.
The other soldier still stood nearby. Ryn couldn't even see his eyes through the visor of his helmet. He stood statued in place, turned towards Ryn, saying nothing. Only the crackling flames filled his ears.
Without thinking about it, Ryn extended his hand at this soldier, palm out, and willed for the fire to reappear and consume him.
Ryn thrust his hand out at the soldier again.
He tried a few more times, then shook his hand, wobbling it up and down, as if that would fix whatever had stopped the fire from appearing.
The soldier began to laugh a cautious, nervous laugh; the laugh of a man whose life had just been spared by accident.
Another soldier appeared at the man's side, walking up to stand alongside him.
This one had flame-red hair and an animal mouth-twitch. The man who had killed Ryn's mother.
"Hm," said the new arrival. "Funny you should have it. I stuck your mother earlier. You didn't use it on me then."
That was his mother's lifeblood still staining the drawn blade of man talking to him.
"Take this one alive," the man said to the other soldier. "Now."
"Yes sir, Captain Vorr!"
The soldier began to walk towards Ryn.
Ryn carried frantically shook his hand up and down, desperately willing for whatever had just happened to happen again.
He felt a pain ring through his head as something bashed into the side of it.