Thousands were fleeing the burning city. From where he stood, high up on the crags, Marcus, Duke of Horen, could see them boiling out of the gates like black ants. The raven, perched on his shoulder, cawed once and flew off to watch the seething mass of people. Marcus closed his eyes, and looked again through those of the raven.
Above him the smoke rose in towers to the sky, hiding the sun. It was lit from below by the flames in dark umber and ocher, ominous and searing. The faces of individuals came to him through the raven’s sight; the pale doughy jowls of a baker, the shoulders of his brown tunic still dusted white with flour; the staring, desperate eyes of a young woman cradling her baby, fearing for its life more than for her own. He saw an old woman stumble once, and vanish with a single cry beneath the masses. Two young men struggled with a cart, the hordes moving around them ceaselessly like the flow of a river around a rock. Screams and shrieks, calls and wails all silenced by the crackling, hungry flames. He couldn’t help them, only watch in horror as another stumbled and fell; as a child lost his grip on his father’s hand; as a fat merchant used a whip and spurs to clear a path in front of his bucking horse; as an aristocrat was overcome and robbed by a beggar in flying rags who saw a chance amidst the chaos.
“Your Grace,” the voice brought him back to himself, and the raven wheeled away on its own path. George was beside him, looking sadly down at the city of Horen. “We must go. The army is coming around to meet the refugees and we’re setting up the tents along the river banks.”
“The healers?” Marcus asked.
“On their way from the sanctuary at Kove, and the grain wagons were diverted back to us. Messengers have left for Alswich and Fairdock as you asked. By tomorrow night, the news will reach the King.”
“Good,” Marcus nodded. He sighed, thinking of the tremendous task ahead, and of the sadness and loss that would hang over his city for years to come. First, he would make sure the surviving citizens of Horen were safe and housed, and then the salvage and the rebuilding would begin. “Do we know the cause?” he asked.
“Near the warehouses on Ferge Street is where it started,” George said shortly. “That’s what I’ve heard. As for how...”
“What are you telling me George?”
“That no one seems to know, your Grace. Nor why it got out of control so quickly. There are odd rumours; that the fire burnt brighter and hotter than expected. Unnaturally so,” George frowned disapprovingly.
“Unnaturally so,” Marcus echoed. He stared down at the city. The crowds still poured from the gates. The alarms had been sounded near dawn, but too many had waited to pack their treasures, too many had assumed the fire would pass them by. As he watched, the bell tower of a church collapsed, disintegrating into blackened lumps as it fell.
“Magic.” George said angrily.
“Really,” Marcus replied. He turned to George, but his steward looked away from him, eyes narrowed. “Find out, George; you and Arnold and Matthew. You know what to do. Go on now, I’ll follow shortly.”
“Yes your Grace,” George bowed and left.
Does he know? Marcus thought. Sometimes he seems to know. But it’s a poor talent, not a dangerous one. Why doesn’t he betray me? Is that why? He sighed, and dismissed those thoughts; they would not help. He had much more to occupy him. He turned to follow George’s path, down the hillside to where the horses waited. They had been returning from a visit when the runners had come with news of the fire. Visiting a niece of the Earl of Dollinford; a message from the King, hardly subtle, pointing out it was time he married. Well, all of that would have to wait. A reprieve in a way; a gift could be passed on, so they said.
I can only hope it was not magic. There must be a prosaic explanation. Fires are natural after all, and it doesn’t take much to start one on a dry summer night. Let’s hope it was only that; and if it turns out to be as unnatural as these rumours say then I’ll send it up to the King’s High-Marshall. I expect it’s only silly rumour. People are jumping at shadows these days. The priests can consecrate the ground, and that will hopefully put the fears to rest. It will turn out to be nothing I’m sure; just another false alarm, put about by frightened and excitable people at a time of stress.
NB - Magic is illegal in this world due to religion and also past events. People found using it are tortured and killed as per the Spanish Inquisition or Medieval Witch Hunts. Most people who have a gift for magic have a small specific gift that is usually not dangerous so they are helpless to save themselves if discovered - so it could work.
This is something I wrote ages ago - and I have a ton more of it, but I thought it would be fun to mess around with.