Daniel was feeling quite satisfied with himself until he crested the next hill. It was then that he saw the flames.
The wind was at his back, driving away smoke and sounds alike, but from the top of the rise there was no mistaking the angry, orange beasts devouring his village, nearly every house and cottage now roasting in the belly of a roaring inferno. For a moment Daniel stood in shock, then bolted down the hill, screaming for his parents. The millhouse was stone, but the thatch was ablaze, and smoke poured from the windows. So frantic was his flight that he almost failed to hear the hoofbeats thundering behind him. At the last moment he dove to the ground and rolled as a horse pounded by, the rider's outstretched arm just inches from his head. I guess the nobles got wise faster than I expected, he thought as he rolled back onto his feet, the shining sword still in his hand. As the horseman wheeled his mount, Daniel dodged in the other direction, hoping against hope to stay free until he reached the bridge that led across the stream into the village.
He had scarcely any notion what he might do when he got there, but the sword's chorus still sang through his head, though now the melody had changed from soothing, encouraging tones to a riot of war drums and trumpets urging him down the hill. He hazarded a glance over his shoulder and saw that the horseman had slowed, whether just now noticing the flames or simply waiting for Daniel to tire, the youth couldn't be sure. Farther back, on the crest of the hill, he saw the silhouettes of the rest of the noble party, the sun at their backs, following at a trot.
Daniel continued in his sprint, guessing he had a quarter mile to cover before reaching the bridge. Closer now, he began to make out the flurry of activity seething through the village: women and young children scrambling out of burning houses, men charging back from the fields, others who worked crafts in the village already forming a bucket brigade from the stream to the granary. Daniel's lungs ached as he ran, but still the sword felt feather-light. He looked right, to the north, where Lord Hector's manor sat, but the gates were shut; no shining column of knights and men-at-arms sallied forth to their rescue. Then, from the left, he heard shouts and the cries of horses. A dozen men on horseback wheeled about, dropping torches out in the field and drawing swords as they charged back at the village, angling toward the granary where a knot of peasants tried desperately to quench the flames.
Daniel gritted his teeth and put on an extra burst of speed, ignoring his exhaustion and pounding his feet into the hard earth of the hill. Another moment and he was across the bridge, his footfalls thunking hollow on the planks as he went, praying that the nobles behind him would not turn a blind eye to the carnage, would come to their rescue even if it meant he must face the noose for his false claim of nobility. By then he was close enough to see the devices on the attacking horsemen's tunics and almost stumbled for his shock. The royal livery! Was Lord Hector a traitor, then? Even if he was, surely no one in Daniel's village would back him against the king!
He was still trying to get it all straight in his mind when the first sword tore through a peasant chest. Jacob, a friend of his father's, didn't even scream. His eyes just went wide, and he fell; his legs thrashed for a moment as if he was trying to stand, and then he was gone. The war drums pounded like a waterfall in Daniel's head, drowning every other sound as he realized he was still running at the horsemen. The trumpets blasted so loud he thought his skull would burst as he leapt to the deck of a cart to gain some height. Everything went strangely silent as he launched himself into the air, sailing on a collision course toward the right side of the lead rider with the bloodied sword.
There was a thunderclap as he struck, and the sword flashed bright. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground on the other side of the horse, though still on his feet. The armored man was on his side, his helmeted head at a sickening angle. The horse reared and turned, crashing into the beast behind it, which turned and fled despite its riders urgings. Suddenly the smoke and flames swirled as the wind shifted, and the sky began to boil over with dark, heavy clouds. Lightning flashed all around Daniel; men quailed and horses panicked, their eyes wide and terrified as they fought to get away. Then the clouds unleashed their burden, dampening flames more quickly than man could hope to do.
Daniel looked at Jacob's gutted form, lying twisted in a growing pool of blood, and at the broken body of the man at his feet, the man he had killed, somehow, though everything since the clearing now seemed hazy and unreal. In that moment, he felt no scrap of nobility. Perhaps, he thought as the drenching rain beat down on him, the thunder rolling off the hills finally intruding on his senses as the sword's song receded to a haunting dirge, perhaps there is a reason no miller's son ever owned such a sword.