Appendix A: Chapter 4

[Editor's note: Chapter 4 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland awoke to the sounds of muffled shouts somewhere outside. He rubbed his eyes groggily and looked around. The room was bathed in a soft red glow.

“Can’t… knights… exercise… at a reasonable hour?” he grubled to no one in particular.

He lifted himself up and carefully got to his feet. He took a few wobbly steps towards the wash basin on the far wall. Sunrise already, yet it felt like he had only slept for a few hours. Roland couldn’t remember having problems sleeping that night. But if he did, would he have remembered, or would he just feel awful like he was now? Roland’s mind wasn’t nearly awake enough to try to untangle that one just yet.

Roland reached the basin and splashed cold water on his face, shocking his system to attention. Now that he felt a bit more awake, he noticed the shouts weren’t the uniform chants of knights going through morning exercises. These were too varied, too random, and didn’t sound close enough to be coming from around the barracks.

Furthermore, Roland remembered that he arose at sunrise yesterday, but the sunlight didn’t have the redness that illuminated his surroundings now. And come to think of it, didn’t the window of his room face west, anyway?

Roland ran to the window and yanked aside the thin gray curtain.

Fire, coming from somewhere just outside the gate.

Fully awake now, Roland rushed to the pile of his things in the corner. He grabbed his sword belt and fastened it around his waist. He then pulled out a heavy gray cloak, threw it on over his pajamas, pulled on his boots, and ran outside. He ran along the path to the front gate of the encampment.

“Report!” he ordered as he shoved the gate open.

“Area is secure, sir,” the knight on the left replied. “No suspicious activity to report.”

Roland had just woken up, but the guard didn’t have that excuse. “The fire! What about the fire? Over there?” he pointed emphatically, hoping to eliminate any possible ambiguity this time.

“We first saw it about ten minutes ago, sir. It’s a little hard to tell from this angle, but it looks like it’s coming from the Iron Flagon. From the shouts coming from that direction, it sounds like they’re aware of the fire.”

Roland resisted the urge to slap his head in frustration. Or the guard’s. “And…?”

“Sir?”

“Were you planning on doing something about the fire, before it spreads to the rest of the block and comes this way?”

“No, sir,” the knight on the right spoke up.

A corner of Roland’s mind suggested throttling as an alternative to slapping. Roland filed it away as Plan B. “And why not?”

“Three reasons, sir. First, the prevailing winds tonight are blowing the other way, and even if they weren’t, they aren’t strong enough for the flames to cross the fenceline into camp. And second, jurisdiction of the Royal Knights only extends thirty feet past the perimeter, unless under orders of a duly appointed officer or in extenuating circumstances.”

“And fire isn’t an extenuating circumstance?”

“No, sir, because of the first reason.”

Roland, against his better judgement, pressed his luck. “And if I ordered you to do something about the fire?”

“That raises the third reason, sir. The Commander has given us strict orders not to go to the Iron Flagon except under his direct orders, ever since the incident with the oxcart.”

There was a story somewhere in there to be sure, but Roland was pretty sure he was better off not hearing it. “Fine, then. You two, just… stay here and keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Yes sir!” they answered in unison, saluting.

Reflexively, Roland quickly returned the salute as he ran towards the red glow, which seemed be getting brighter.

Roland pushed his way through the crowd of spectators gawking at the spectacle and reached someone whose stern expression suggested he might be in some kind of control over the situation. Or at least, stuck with the responsibility of handling it.

“What’s going on?” Roland asked him.

“The fire started on the bottom floor. It spread quickly, but we’ve almost got it under control. The building’s probably a loss, though.”

Finally, someone competent. “Is everyone out?”

“Kurtzman there thinks there might still be one or two waitstaff in there somewhere, but we’ve got everyone tied up running buckets to keep the fire from spreading to the other buildings. Plus, at this rate, the thing’s bound to start collapsing any minute now. No one’s fool enough to run in there and get himself killed for someone who might not even be there.”

Roland stared at the building. Flames rose up from the door and the windows on the first floor, with dark smoke billowing out from the higher floors. His night-adjusted eyes couldn’t see past the brightness inside the door, and the roar of the flames overpowered any shouts that might be coming from within.

“Well, someone has to do it,” Roland said. He ran towards a peasant lugging a bucket full of water, grabbed it from him before the peasant could react, and dumped it over himself. A frightening thought flickered in the back of his mind. “Will this actually help?”

The man in charge shrugged. “Let us know if it does,” he offered.

Roland nodded, lowered his head, and charged into the Iron Flagon.

The first thing that assaulted Roland was the choking, pungent smoke pouring from every direction. Roland gagged and pulled the collar of his shirt up over his nose and mouth, which seemed to help a little. At the very least, it took his mind off trying to breathe and let him notice the searing heat.

Between the clouds of smoke and the bright flames, Roland’s eyes struggled to resolve anything useful. The tables, chairs, walls, and ceiling seemed to all be made of wood, judging from how they were all on fire. A loud snap and clang sounded to his right, and Roland saw a heavy wooden beam come crashing to the floor, helping the fire spread to the floor, which, as luck would have it, was also made of wood.

Roland wasn’t going to find anything at this rate, and wasn’t going to have long to try. “Hello?” he shouted as he creeped farther in to the building. He briefly pulled his collar back down and shouted again, louder this time without being muffled.

He thought he heard something farther ahead and towards the left, past behind what used to be a bar, but was still on fire. He pressed on in that direction, shouting every few steps but never being sure of a reply, until he reached a doorway. A fallen wooden beam leaned diagonally across it, blocking his way.

“Hello?” he yelled, lungs straining to be heard above the background roar.

This time, Roland definitely heard something other than fire and crashing building materials on the other side of the doorway. It sounded almost like… water splashing?

“Stand back!” Roland warned and drew his sword. It certainly wasn’t the ideal tool for cutting wood, but he didn’t exactly have any alternatives at this point. To Roland’s surprise, however, the beam broke in two after only a few chops. Either the fire had already done much to weaken the beam, or the beam had been cut from a particularly evil tree and his sword was effective at smiting it.

In either case, Roland almost tried kicking the resulting chunks of wood out of the doorway, stopping himself when his brain reminding him of what a bad idea that would be with leather boots. Instead, he leapt over, into what looked like it used to be a kitchen.

There, Roland saw a woman clutching a large bowl standing near a barrel. She plunged the bowl deep into the barrel and dumped it on the floor, towards a flame inching closer to her position. Steam rose from the floor as the flame hissed out, buying the woman a little more time.

“Out! This way! Now!” Roland shouted. The woman looked at him with a start, and relief spread across her face as she ran toward him. Roland heard a crash somewhere, and the entire building seemed to shudder against the load it was increasingly unable to support.

Roland grabbed her by the wrist and led her back the way he came as fast as he dared, shouting out behind him as he relied on memory to retrace his steps through the still-thickening smoke. “Watch the beam in the doorway! This way! Hurry! Keep your head down! Don’t stop!”

After what seemed like an eternity, Roland and the woman ran out through the doorway into what felt like freezing cold air. The crowd cheered their exit, and they collapsed on the ground, gasping for breath.

They sat in silence for several minutes, watching as the building’s first floor burned the rest of the way through. The bucket brigade had stopped, and the men were now standing by, holding buckets of water, waiting for the inevitable collapse and ready to put out any little fires that might get flung out as a result.

“Thanks,” the woman finally said, still breathing deeply.

Roland nodded.

“I… got caught in there… when the fire started…. I thought… if I just tried to… stay alive… something…”

“You’re safe now.”

The corner of the Iron Flagon collapsed, followed by the rest of the building, flinging sparks and embers in every direction. The men with buckets ran forward to douse the edges of the fire and let the rest burn itself out.

“Now what?” the woman asked.

Roland turned to look at her for the first time. The shock of the ordeal was leaving her face, being replaced with concern.

“I was staying in there. I was working to pay for my room. All my things were up there. What…” she trailed off.

Roland didn’t know how to answer. His only experience with this sort of thing was the stories he was told as a child of knights in shining armor rescuing damels in distress, but they always skipped directly from the rescue to the happily ever after. Finally, an idea hit him.

“You know how to get to the Shrine of Yssindria?”

The woman nodded.

“Go there, around to the back. Someone named Sigurd will be there. Tell him Roland sent you, and asked him to let you stay in the guest room there. It’s not a particularly nice room, but…” He thought of something nice to say about it, but could only come up with, “at least it’s not on fire.”

The woman stared at him for a few seconds, smiled, and slowly rose to her feet. “Th… Thanks. I don’t know how to repay you for all this.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Roland stood up, and noticed that the woman had also had the idea to dump water on herself as protection from the fire. “Here,” he said, taking off his cloak and wrapping it around her. “This will at least cover up, your, um, clothes, along the way. Oh! Here, I can escort you to the shrine if you like. Oh, but I’m staying at the knights’ camp, in case you were thinking I was…”

“No, no, that’s all right. I’m fine heading there myself. Really, you’ve done more than enough for me. I’m pretty good at taking care of myself.” She looked at the still-burning wreckage of the Iron Flagon. “Except for, well, that sort of thing.”

And with that, she was off.

Chapter word count: 1,931 (according to wc)
Total word count: 7,597 / 50,000 (15.194% complete)

Comments Off